Race to the Bottom

January 8, 2011

The beginning of the first month of a new year is a traditional time to do some ruminating. In fact it’s always a good time to ruminate.  If we did more ruminating and less agitating we might be getting somewhere. Quiet, reflective, thoughtfulness (even by a nation) might go a long way in making 2011 better than the year many of us just escaped by the skin of our teeth —and many didn’t.

But as with everything that means anything, effective rumination begins on a personal level. To be productively reflective requires being honest with yourself. But this is a tall order. As Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. Paul of the Bible) said, we see through a glass darkly —especially if it’s a mirror. What too many of us don’t know about ourselves would scare the pants off even the biggest fake; the moment the scales drop from our eyes can be a shattering event. This is again something from the life of Saul. The shock of one day suddenly facing himself left him, literally, blind. The story goes that it upset him so much that Saul (the persecutor) changed his name to Paul and became a saint.

The resistance to coming to terms with our dark side (if you’re human chances are you have one) is a common one. If it were not there’d be a lot less argument in the world. Johann Goethe admitted, “If I knew myself I’d run away.” Many of us would, but many unnecessary battles would end with a simple admission: “Yeah, you’re right, I’m wrong.” Done. Working out whatever the problem was then becomes a much simpler matter; though still not easy, it’s much less bloody than bar fights or war. It might even go a long way to preventing future Arizonas.

Many of us truck through our days avoiding basic questions about what makes us tick. High-level crooks who wear suits and sign-off on some pretty evil deals probably don’t think of themselves as scum because they scam even themselves. But every once in a while a thing as banal as a simple question can rock us back on our heels if it catches us off guard. Overcoming the difficulty of honestly answering the simple question “How are you, really?” might lead to a little evaluation of our insistent self-deception as it did with me when a friend I hadn’t seen for years asked it of me. It hit me as if it were a trick question, but . . .

not a trick by the asker
but trick by
my inner magician,
my personal convoluter,
my lithe prevaricator
who first teased Eve
under a tree
with the acid, orange
kumquat of knowledge
which he bounced
upon his forked tongue
and upon which Eve
and her shifty lover
sadly choked
The question,
How are you, really?
is impossible for a fake
to bear
To answer would be
to mock God
who sees through spin
no matter how sincere
Better to say,
Gooder ‘n some
Better to say,
Badder ‘n others
Better to say,
A mixed bag complex.
A hick in a zoot suit
A pansey in a bucket
of muck
I keep up appearances
I do my thing
I balance odds and ends
as best I can
I go not where the four
winds blow
You want the naked truth?
Let me think about it ’cause
I don’t know

. . . and at that moment I honestly wasn’t sure. I’ve been working on an answer ever since.

What may be happening regarding our (now chronic) 50-50 political split is that, as a people forced into an evaluation of who we’ve been, what we are, and what we’ll be, we’re still snagged in trauma like the one Saul experienced when he was knocked off his horse (by God, he said) on the way to Damascus and temporarily blinded. It could be that, blithely tooling along, lost in a fantasy of being really special in God’s eyes, the USA was summarily knocked off its horse on 9/11 and has been (at least) partially blinded ever since. We’ve certainly been bumping into enough doors and tripping over each other lo, these too-many recent years! 

For the religious of the country (which by self-proclamation comes to about 85%) this might be considered a possible explanation of our turmoil.  For the rest of us our problems might simply be seen as a result of failure to admit that we are seriously flawed. Considering that we were a nation that once deplored the idea of torture but which now sees it as ho-hum, or which can’t wrap it’s mind around the idea of its contribution to ecological degradation enough to do anything about it, or one in which the gap between rich and poor widens daily without outrage, or in which political corruption is legalized by Supreme Court decisions that make corporations the equals of living, breathing humans —considering these things it’s no wonder we’re in a national funk.

“Know thyself,” Socrates suggested.

“Knowing yourself is enlightenment,” said Lao Tzu.

As far as putting things in proper order is concerned Socrates and Lao-Tzu knew what they were talking about. A good place to start is (always) to take an honest look at ourselves and our inclinations, both dark and light.  Short of that, and barring a miracle, it’s a race to the bottom.

Jim Culleny, 1/8/11
in The Shelburne Falls Independent
Jan 21, 2011


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