Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Another Musical Dialogue

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

The genesis for the essay below dates way back to May 2003, when I had a brief email dialogue with a disc jockey in Dallas. At that time, I didn’t have Internet access on my computer at home here in West Texas; I was using one of the computers at Sul Ross State University to write emails and posts for a previous blog. Since I didn’t have my own Internet service available for music appreciation, I was limited to my small collection of LP’s and the local radio station. All that was played on the radio was country & western and golden oldies. I like classical C&W but not the modern stuff, and I also like many of the old pop hits; but I would have preferred for the broadcasts to be dominated by classical music. Fat chance!
The radio station piped in its music (and national/state news) from Dallas. (By the way, the Dallas station has long since replaced its music format with right wing news and talk shows.) After several months of listening, I noticed that there was a lot of repetition; the same songs were played almost every day. I knew more old records were available, particularly at a shop on Garland Road called “Collectors Records”. I decided the Dallas station could use a little coaching from Bob Litton, so I emailed the disc jockey, Bud Buschardt.
In my first email, I mentioned “Collectors Records” to him and suggested he shop a little there. He replied that he knew of the store and in fact had helped the owner establish his inventory.
I also suggested about half a dozen titles to him, emphasizing the Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”, probably my most favorite of all, which I conceded might not be played much because it is a slight “downer”. Bud replied that he could not recall ever hearing Karen’ Carpenter’s song, that all the station’s music has to be tested in “focus groups”, and that “if it’s a “downer’, we wouldn’t play it because we have to keep all our music upbeat.”
I began to mull over the “downer” question and felt I had to write something about it, if for no other reason than my own amusement…and possibly Bud’s. I don’t know if it amused him or not, since he didn’t reply to my final email, repeated below with some slight editing in the interest of clarity and fullness.

 * * * * * *
Hi Bud,
¶A phrase in our recent email dialogue — “”probably a little bit too much of a downer” — settled in my brain, germinated into a theme, and now demands hatching. Two qualities in my character predetermined such an event: a lifelong tendency to melancholia, and a compulsion to analyze everything to death. I will write it, and you have the choice of reading it or not.
¶Actually, I fib slightly when implying that the subject of the psychology of popular music only recently occurred to me; I have considered the matter almost every time I have heard a popular song, and even some classical pieces, over the past quarter-century. Perhaps I should go back even further, and I might if we eliminate the philosophical plane. For, in my early teens I know I reacted very negatively to songs I considered silly, such as Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” and Frankie Laine’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”. On the other hand, during the high school years, I would put my ear to the radio and turn up the volume to listen to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Doggett’s “Honkytonk”. However, these were all hormonal reactions, not discriminating ones. I never questioned whether any of the songs should have been recorded or aired.
¶Perhaps it was while I was at the university that I was first alerted to individuals’ clashing emotional responses to music. I was sitting in the student center at SMU listening to a song I had played on the jukebox — Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from the TV show “Peter Gunn”) — when a couple of coeds in a booth across the room reacted, one of them complaining, “Why did anybody play that depressing song?” I was surprised but didn’t say anything. I had never considered “Dreamsville” depressing — slow certainly, as most piano bar jazz songs are, but not depressing.
¶Also during my university years, I learned about Plato’s — and the Spartans’ notion that all music other than marches should be forbidden. I never liked marches, excepting the “Entry of the Guests” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and his “Prelude to Act II of Die Meistersinger.  The idea that anyone would want to ban love songs and other non-martial music was worrisome.
¶I am much older now, and my blood has cooled quite a bit, so, when I hear young people driving with their car windows open and their radios blaring incomprehensible songs, I have to remind myself of the days when my sap was running strong and I had my head up against the radio. Also, I listen more attentively to the lyrics now (if I can understand them), and many of them strike me as not only silly but downright harmful.
¶As examples, I will cite the lines “Anyway you want me, that’s how I will be” (Elvis Presley) and “I would sell my very soul and not regret it” (Perry Como). I have met a few people over the years who were willing to submit themselves to their lovers’ designs, and I felt sorry for them. As for the Como bit, I can’t enjoy any of his songs anymore after hearing “It’s Impossible”.  One day, I was sitting at the bar in a small Dallas pub when a woman (one of the regulars) at the other end of the bar happened to mention that she liked “It’s Impossible” very much.
¶“How can you say that, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “This guy’s saying he would sell his soul and not regret it, all for some love interest. Your soul is your personhood.”
¶Another regular (man) sitting near me said, “It’s just a song, Bob.”
¶Since then, I noted the effect a song has on me as I listen to it, and I have come up with some interesting insights in the process. (At least I consider them insights.)
¶The most pertinent insight here is that the words alone do not necessarily make a song depressing. Sometimes, in fact, what on the surface might seem like a “downer” can be belied to a degree by the music. I think such is the case with George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and, to a lesser extent, with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)”, where the tempo is fast in the first instance and lilting in the second. Moreover, parts of each song are rendered amusing — to my temperament even comical — by the lyrics: “My tears are holding back, trying not to fall” and “My god, that’s tough; she stood him up; not point in us remaining”. Another song where the humor of the lyrics counteracts the supposedly melancholy theme of the song is Kris Kristopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down (from a hangover)”: “No way to turn my head that didn’t hurt…looked into my closet and found my cleanest dirty shirt”. (The old C&W songwriters were really good at sensuously humorous lyrics.)
¶Before I depart from C&W, I want to say a little about a couple of my favorites, which in their narratives are “sad” songs yet arouse only admiration in me: ” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”. Both of these are true poems! Being a Texan, I have lived through enough summers, with the heat waves rising off the railroad tracks, to pick up on the sensual evocation of a southern country June in “Ode”. I love its detailed, sensual imagery. Of course, it’s the story of two lovers with a dark secret (presumably an abortion) which leads to the suicide of one and the anticipated suicide of the other, but their secret is perhaps too secret to involve me; and, after all, it is a ballad — a ballad in the tradition of “Edward” and “Barbara Allen”. They’re always tragic but tragic at a safe distance.
¶‟Long Black Veil” is balladic, too, in a different manner: it’s slower, deeper, more masculine, if you will. The words are very simple, almost all of one or two syllables; and the lines follow one another inevitably, rather like the better poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Of course, the story is supposed to be tragic; but I don’t get involved with it in that way because, had I been the defendant, I would have told the judge that “I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”. No hanging for love for me.
¶There are a few songs I would consider as genuinely touching the depressive nerve but which don’t go all the way because the protagonists are aware of a broader picture. One of these is Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles”. The singer acknowledges that he has been through more rough times than he would have liked “…but so have many others”. He recognizes that life is made up of cycles (“first there’s laughter then there’s tears”). He knows he’ll be able to sing a happy song again…sometime…‟just don’t ask me now”. So we know this guy’s in a bad spot, but he’s not knocked unconscious by it. It’s a moody song, a philosophical song, but not a particularly depressing one.
¶A song roughly similar to Sinatra’s is “You Gave Me A Mountain” by Elvis. Man! Everything happens to this poor chap! The whole closet of woes has been dumped on him. But that’s just it. So many bad things happen to him throughout his life — from his mother dying while giving him birth to his wife running away with his only child — that I am too overwhelmed with his long list of troubles to really empathize. It’s just too preposterous.
¶Now we come to my favorite pop song of all time: The Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”. (It was reportedly Karen Carpenter’s favorite, too.) Here again the singer-subject knows her down mood is not an untraversable chasm. She knows that the means of crossing over it lies within herself.

I know I need to be in love;
I know I’ve wasted too much time;
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
a fool enough to think that’s what I’ll find.

Nevertheless, the danger is there and it’s real:

Wide awake at four AM without a friend in sight,
hanging on a hope that I’m all right.

She’s in a dark moment emotionally, and there’s no one available to talk her out of it…except herself. She has sufficient self-knowledge to pull herself together. The tension lies in the question of whether she will do it. I have been in that condition many times myself, so the lyrics ring very true to my ears. It is because they so well articulate my own self-criticisms that, instead of depressing me, they hearten me.
¶Well, Bud, that’s the end of my little essay on “downer” music. I hope you read it and get something out of it. As for me, the little egg that’s been pestering me has finally hatched.
Best regards,
Bob

Finis

Ingredients for Painful, Wasteful Conversations

©2017 By Bob Litton

Quandary over a visit

¶A former drinkin’ buddy and his wife, from Austin, are planning to be here next Frtday for a brief visit before they continue on to Nevada. We’ll share a supper together.
¶I must confess to a deepening sense of trepidation. You see, my friend is a Republican, while I generally vote for Democratic candidates. I have voted a slightly split ticket — back many years ago — when our two major parties’ offerings more nearly favored “Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee”. In those years, not knowing much about some of the statewide candidates, I relied on what they submitted as positions and qualifications to the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization whose main purpose was to encourage all citizens to participate in the electoral process. On a few occasions, the Republican candidate seemed to me to be more qualified. I don’t know if my friend ever voted for a Democrat.
¶As most North Americans are aware by now, our body politic has become more polarized over the past several decades: I would say since Ronald Reagan was first elected president. The polarization has intensified since Barach Obama’s and then The Creature’s (I can’t endure writing his name) elections. Now many of us cannot even discuss national politics civilly; and we often carelessly refer to those who voted opposite to us as “idiots”, “half-wits” or “numb-skulls”. (That is what is called the ad hominem argument or approach: attacking the person rather than the issue.) I’m not a professional historian; but, from the little I have read about our horrendously bloody Civil War, I believe our current dialectical dilemma parallels what happened back in the 1850s and 1860s, when fathers broke contact with sons and brothers shot at each other.
¶Over the past couple of weeks, I have pondered the options left to me when I meet my friend and his wife at a local Chinese restaurant. I would like to restrict our conversation to reminiscences of the years when we two university students went bar-hopping and of the adventures we had. However, that avenue is barred by the fact that my friends had not even met each other yet, much less become each other’s spouse; the wife would effectively be left out of the conversation, and that wouldn’t do.
¶We could talk about their continuing their journey after leaving Alpine. I wrote above that their destination is Nevada, but I am only assuming that on the basis of an email conversation we had a couple of months ago when he said they intend to go there so he could learn how to handle an AR-15 rifle. My fur bristled when I read that, and we had a brief email debate about whether an AR-15 had any use other than slaughtering people. It was a civil debate: How could it be anything else through emails? If we renew the topic at the restaurant, though, we might lose our control and resort to blows (or he might pull out his AR-15); and neither of us is any longer physically fit enough to engage in fisticuffs.
¶Perhaps I’ll end up just taking along a few poems to read at the supper table. No telling what kind of reaction that will arouse. But, regardless of what I do that night, here I will vent my political rage.

* * * * * *

Why we no longer can civilly argue

¶Valid exceptions can be pointed out regarding what I will say here. Exceptions can be made to virtually every generalization; that is an eternal fact of life. Still, such a case should not inhibit us from generalizing when the move is justifiable within the context of whatever subject we are discussing. And we should be prepared to respond with some specifics whenever our generalizations are challenged. This is one of the problems we encounter when trying to engage in any “civil” discussion about politics or religion.
¶I think that is why religion and politics are tacitly verboten in U.S. bars — in West Texas bars anyway. All you are likely to see on the TV’s in the taverns are athletic events, and all you are likely to hear is country-and-western music, either piped-in from the Internet or on a juke box. Nevertheless, last Friday I had an interesting conversation about politics in a local bar with a woman of about half my age whom I had seen there before but never met. I don’t recall how we managed to get on the topic, but we soon discovered that our attitudes were consonant, so we had no problem continuing our conversation without bristling. However, that, too, was a problem because, as I pointed out to her, we were “preaching to the choir”.
¶‟I should be talking about this with someone who doesn’t agree with me,” I said.
¶‟But they are in such a thick shell that they won’t listen to you,” she replied.
¶‟I know, so I am quiet and the bile builds up.”
¶Several of the national politicians, from Obama on down, have said we must try to regain civil discourse; but I am too affected by our situation to maintain my mental equilibrium; I am prone to fumble my facts or exaggerate my assertions when I get that way. And all of us humans, I believe, are too impatient with calm, deliberative, clearly reasoned argument to tolerate it for even a short period. We resort to “talking over” our interlocutor and wandering off in a huff, muttering epithets.

* * * * * *

The Creature in the White House

¶What my new acquaintance and I had been discussing, as you have probably discerned by now, was the Creature in the White House, which is what I prefer to call the being who can be found there when it’s time to sign illiterate Executive Orders in a photo op tableau. (Again, I cannot stand to write his name.) I read one newspaper article this morning that said the Creature left for his Mar-a-Lago mansion — which he has dubbed his “Winter White House” — shortly after signing one of those documents Friday or Saturday.
¶Reports from Politico, CNN and the Washington Post indicate that each of the Creature’s weekend jaunts to his southern castle costs U.S. taxpayers about $3 million dollars and he has made three trips there so far this year. The WP cited a tweet from Bruce Bartlett, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said that the Creature is on track to spend $1 billion in four years vacationing at Mar-a-Lago and housing his wife in New York City. The media report that protecting the wife and son in New York City is adding $1 million a day to the national bill. Back when the Creature was only the Republican nominee, the report was that the protection and traffic control in downtown Manhattan was costing the City $500,000. I don’t know if that $500,000 is part of the $1 million now cited by the national media or a separate expense item. I do know that many New Yorkers are not happy about their being held responsible for paying the bill; nor are the citizens of Palm Beach County, Florida, happy about their having to fork up part of the payment for hosting the Creature and his minions.
¶And all of this is being spotlighted at a time when it could not be more topical, for now the Congress and the American public have been flabbergasted by the Creature’s national budget proposal, which decimates many social, scientific, and arts programs in order to build a wall to nowhere and a wasteful military. Again, according to the WP article I read (March 18), the Congress could fund the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness for three years if the Creature had just stayed in the White House these past three months. The Creature’s PR aides and congressional henchmen are shuffling the budget proposal around like a pea shell during TV interviews, claiming we shouldn’t judge it yet because it’s only one leg of a three-legged stool (the other two legs will appear sometime in the future).
¶I wrote three letters to President Obama during his eight years in the White House. He, or perhaps one of his aides, replied to the first two, above his signature. I was not surprised that he did not reply to my third letter, because the election was over, he was about to move out and had a lot of last-minute business to attend to, and had solicited comments on his presidency from voters all around the country. The likelihood of his responding to all those letters was minimal.
¶But one paragraph of that third letter, dated Dec. 23, 2016, is pertinent here:

I know you have urged the citizenry not to despair but to remain hopeful, optimistic, and to give your successor a chance to do his best for the country. But what I have seen in the media the past few weeks indicates that is just not going to happen. The only possibly positive future I can foresee is one of these two scenarios, neither of which is initially positive: (1) your successor will be blocked by Congress or the Supreme Court from remaining in office because he will refuse to dispose of his enterprises, or because investigative reporting will reveal that he is guilty of some felony; (2) our government will collapse from the weight of the structure being eaten away by the worms your successor has nominated to “direct” its various departments. So, I am not optimistic, I am not hopeful, and the only thing I can even faintly wish for is that one of those two scenarios happens as soon as possible.

¶It is because I have begun to realize that only the second of the two scenarios described in my letter is likely to happen — because of the polarization and self-delusion of Congress — that I have returned to my blog posting. I don’t enjoy writing polemics, but I am an American who once loved my country. My country is being disemboweled and in other ways is being destroyed by a maniac in the White House, supported by a depressingly large number of other Americans. How can one love a pile of wreckage? I had to ventilate.

Finis

P.S. I don’t know if or when I will return to this blog. Take my word for what you think it’s worth.

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Confession of a Grouchy Classical Music Lover

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Photo Credit: Patrik Goethe

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶I have written about my classical music preferences and biases previously, but I want to return to the topic now with hammer and tong. So, beware, faint of heart.
¶Firstly, the instruments. On the negative side of the ledger I enter the violin—at least the violin when played as a solo instrument; when the violins are part of a mass involving other instruments, as in some of Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets or in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, they are pleasing enough to my ear. When the piece has been composed specifically for a single violin or a duet, then the often scratchy sound irritates my ear, much as when a chalk is dragged across a blackboard. I used to appreciate Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very much; now they only irritate me, possibly because they summon up in my mind all those phony smiling faces of the Baroque era but more certainly because they sound so much alike.  Unfortunately for me, compositions featuring violin solos seem to dominate the playlists of most classical music stations. But that perception could be due simply to my sensitivity to annoyances.
¶Heading the list of favorite instruments come the classical guitar and the English horn: I can’t break the tie. Both of those instruments have prominent parts in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Most of the other string and wind instruments I can appreciate, too, particularly the cello and the flute; sorry, but I can’t recall any particular compositions, besides Sergei Prokofiev ‘s “Peter and the Wolf”, where those instruments are focal. (But that’s just an index of my musicological ignorance; not a fair picture of our international repertory.)
¶Other instruments which can be pleasing when employed moderately are the coronet and the drums.
¶What it all boils down to, I guess, is that I generally prefer the quieter compositions, such as works the Impressionists Paul Ravel and Claude DeBussy gave us. Richard Wagner’s mystical preludes to “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” also appeal to me. None of the louder compositions — especially Ludwig von Beethoven’s heavy, repetitive symphonies —appeal to me; yeah, I go against the general consensus there. (When I want something louder and faster I’ll tune in to a country-and-western station.)
¶Nearly all the adagios, especially the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjues” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” easily fit into my comfort zone. The majority of classical music fans list those two pieces among their favorites, so I am “with the crowd” there at least. In fact, I can’t think of any composition finer than “Aranjues”.
¶It will probably strike the regular readers of my blog posts that I favor adagios because I am a melancholic, so it is natural that slower and moodier pieces would appeal to me. However, one does not reach seventy-seven years without learning that nothing is black and white. My tastes have changed over the years. For instance, I used to really enjoy George Frideric Handel’s entertainments for King George of England: you know, “Fireworks” and “Water”; now my awakened class-consciousness is repelled by them. Same story with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.
¶Of recent, I have found myself appreciating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than I did back when I was in my twenties and thirties. Poor Mozart got off to a bad start with me because of a radio program to which I used to listen, the theme music for which was “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. For some reason I can’t recall, it irritated me. During the same period, I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, a depressing, romantic story that featured the andante from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”; the concerto’s part in that film was so prominent that it gained the popular sub-title “Theme from Elvira Madigan”. Now, however, I have begun to favor Mozart because so much of his music is melodic and cheerful, especially when compared to Beethoven’s; a person can hum more of it.
¶I suppose I should apologize to any readers who don’t gain much from reading the above. True enough, there is not anything enlightening or entertaining in the content. But this “confession” is really just a “note-to-self”. I seldom attract any comments on my posts and only a few “likes” here and there, so I imagine I am writing mostly to myself anyway. By this point — four years into my blog-posting — I have begun to accept that reality. After all, I seldom read other bloggers’ posts either. And I think writing to one’s self is preferable to talking to one’s self (something I also do too much).
¶So, goodbye, Cyberworld. Have a pleasant 2017.

Finis

Portrait of a Sociopath

NOTE TO READERS:  Happy New Year! (Might as well be optimistic…or pretend that I am.) Today I will step aside and let a couple of other people assume the space at my keyboard: David Porter, MA, LADC; and Christine Hunter, MA, RCC. They authored an article about Antisocial Personality Disorder [DSM-5 301.7 (F60.2)] that was published on the website theravive.com, which is where I have excerpted part of it for reprinting here (the site invites readers to share). The reason I have brought the article to my blog is that it seems to me to describe a prominent national personality. See if you can detect whom I mean.

* * * * * *

APD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) is a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), diagnosis assigned to individuals who habitually violate the rights of others without remorse (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). People with Antisocial Personality Disorder may be habitual criminals, or engage in behavior which would be grounds for criminal arrest and prosecution, or they may engage in behaviors which skirt the edges of the law, or manipulate and hurt others in non-criminal ways which are widely regarded as unethical, immoral, irresponsible, or in violation of social norms and expectations. The terms psychopathy or sociopathy are also used, in some contexts synonymously, in others, sociopath is differentiated from a psychopath, in that a sociopathy is rooted in environmental causes, while psychopathy is genetically based.

The term antisocial may be confusing to the lay public, as the more common definition outside of clinical usage is an individual who is a loner or socially isolated. The literal meaning of the word antisocial can be more descriptive to both the lay public and professionals: to be anti-social, is to be against society; against rules, norms, laws and acceptable behavior. Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder tend to be charismatic, attractive, and very good at obtaining sympathy from others; for example, describing themselves as the victim of injustice. Some studies suggest that the average intelligence of antisocials is higher than the norm. Antisocials possess a superficial charm, they can be thoughtful and cunning, and have an intuitive ability to rapidly observe and analyze others, determine their needs and preferences, and present it in a manner to facilitate manipulation and exploitation. They are able to harm and use other people in this manner, without remorse, guilt, shame or regret.

It is widely stated that antisocials are without empathy, however this can be disputed, as sadistic antisocials will use empathy to experience their victim’s suffering, and derive a fuller pleasure from it (Turvey, 1995). This is depicted in the classic work “A Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, as the main character entombs another man alive “…then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones.” (Poe, 1846 ). Some research also suggests that sociopaths and psychopaths do have degrees of empathy, but with an innate ability to switch it off at will. (Meffer, Gazzola, den Boer, Bartells, 2013). This connection to empathy may give hope to future successful treatment as it suggests individuals with APD may be trained.

Symptoms & Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder

According to the DSM-5, there are four diagnostic criterion, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features.

ADisregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub features:
1. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
2. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement
3. Impulsive behavior
4. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequent assaults on others, or engages in fighting
5. Blatantly disregards safety of self and others
6. A pattern of irresponsibility and
7. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

The other diagnostic Criterion are:
B. The person is at least age 18
CConduct disorder was present by history before age 15
D. T
he antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

When “Principle” Becomes Treason

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” — An adage variously attributed to French Protestant apologist Jacques Abbadie (1684); Encyclpopédie editors Denis Diderot and Rond d’Alembert (1754); and American Prohibitionist William J. Groo (1885). Its attribution to Abraham Lincoln began in some late 19th century newspaper articles and is now considered questionable. But, whatever its original source, I deem its use in this epigram appropriate; and I certainly wish that the “some” of our generation were not so numerous.
—BL

¶A policeman many years ago said to me, “You can’t reason with a drunk any more than you can with a crazy person.” That remark, as well as its corollary—“preaching to the choir is a waste of time”—have largely kept me from engaging in political arguments over the years. Most Americans discuss serious topics, like politics and religion, only with people with values and attitudes like our own: a phenomenon known colloquially as “preaching to the choir”.  So, perhaps it is a sign of maturing in our national psyche that both tendencies have become fodder for sociologists and political columnists nowadays.  Thus, I suppose readers of the following commentary with any comprehension will be “choir members”. Despite the seeming pointlessness of engaging in that echo situation, I am publishing it anyway.
¶We have awakened to the dire reality that our self-governance has been strangled by self-interest and extreme political partisanship, and we are baffled by the absence of any certain way of breaking the chokehold. When, we wonder, did the ability to get things done in Congress begin to ossify? Was it the shameful period of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and Watergate and his resulting resignation? Was it the national fracturing during the extended war in Vietnam? Was it the confusing “rabbit trails” responses to 9-11 and the conflicts in the Middle East? Was it the sudden perception of corruption in our banks, religious institutions, schools, and other former pillars of society? Was it the contrasting perceptions of birth control and climate change? Was it the election of a man of mixed race to the presidency? Was it all of these events combined?
¶Personally, I think it was all of the above, but I would also add the overwhelming and exhausting rapidity of change, not just in the United States but in the world as a whole. And there is the major role—both positive and negative—played by “social media”. It is simply too much for us to cope with at once. Yet there is a sizable minority—approximately 30 to 40 percent—of our voting age population who believe we can return to the “good ol’ days” when the U.S. was the dominant center of manufacturing, when Caucasians constituted the majority of the population, when religious dogma dictated our home and sex lives, and when “people of color” knew their place…and stayed there.
¶I am more liberal than some people, more conservative than others. Although I lean mostly to the left, I think conservatives have had a very positive and necessary role to play in our political system. The problem is that too many modern “conservatives” are not what they claim to be: they instead are “reactionaries”. Let me clarify that remark by revealing my definition of a real conservative, i.e. one who believes nothing should be changed unless and until altered circumstances clearly warrant a change. A conservative capable of reasoning about disputed issues will know when to be adamant, when to compromise, and when to acknowledge his/her error. The goal of a conservative politician—and of a liberal politician as well—should always be the maintenance and improvement of his community’s well-being; it should not be the maintenance of his elected position and his party’s hardline agenda. Some degree of principle is necessary for good governance, but ideology should not be the basis of principle. The Constitution is a living guide, not a halter.
¶And now, since at the latest the surge of the Tea Party, we have had a breakdown in comity in the U.S., as exemplified by the Congress; with the expulsion of many of the moderate Republicans, little to nothing gets accomplished in Washington…unless you want to call forcing a shutdown of government and ignoring judgeship nominations “accomplishing something”. Sen. Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker John Boehner both announced early in President Barack Obama’s first term that they intended to make that term his only term. Near the end of Obama’s second term, McConnell declared that the Senate would not even allow a hearing for Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court seat. And, confronted with the possibility that Hillary Clinton would succeed Obama, McConnell and his henchmen (Richard Burr (R-NC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and John McCain (R-AZ) have vowed they would keep the Supreme Court count at eight seats for the next four years; that contradicts their previous rationale for prohibiting a judgeship hearing until after the election to allow “the people’s voice” in the choice of a judge. And now they and the  House Republicans are determined to block all initiatives President Clinton might propose. In other words, the Republicans are ready and willing, just because of their ideological halters, to prevent any legislation—laws, budgets and regulations—that would benefit the people . The Republicans also accused Obama of being ineffective as a leader and at the same time of being a dictator because he has used “executive actions” to get urgent matters resolved while they absented themselves from Washington. What hypocrites!
¶For the above and other reasons, I have developed a very negative view of Republicans overall. I hate to “paint with a broad brush”, but now I see Republicans as either con artists (if they know what is going on) or as willing gulls (if they don’t know what is going on). Some of their leaders, such as McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr, I think should be tried for treason or at least for dereliction of duty. They are willing to destroy my country just because, for eight years, we had an African-American in the White House and might have a woman in the White House come January. Phooey!

Finis

Missing the Presence

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶A [person] should shine with the divine Presence without having to work at it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. One must be permeated with divine Presence, informed with the form of beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it….
¶The effect or expression of love often appears like a bright light, as spirituality, devotion, or jubilation and yet, as such, it is by no means best! These things are not always due to love. Sometimes they come of having tasted nature’s sweets. They also can be due to heavenly inspiration or to the senses, and people at their best are not the ones who experience them most. For if such things are really due to God, He gives them to such people to bait and allure them on and also to keep them away from [worse] company. But when such people increase in love, such [ecstatic] experiences will come less facilely, and the love that is in them will be proved by the constancy of their fidelity to God, without such enticements.
—Meister Eckhart, The Talks of Instruction, §§7, 10
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¶The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are the [children] of God. This testimony which grace affords to our conscience is the true joy of the soul….And when the soul is in this state of peace, it is also refined in thought….
¶This manna is heavenly food and the bread of angels, as Holy Scripture says. For angels are fed and filled by the clear sight and burning love of God; and that is manna. For we may ask what it is, but we cannot fully understand. One who loves God is not filled with manna here, but while he remains in the body he receives a small taste of it.”
— Walter Hilton (b. 1340-45, d. 1396), The Ladder of Perfection, Bk. II, Chap. 40

¶Anyone who has regularly read my posts since I began it in January 2013 can probably recall that a few of the writings concerned spiritual events and reflections as I experienced them. Off and on in my youth I pondered the option of becoming a Methodist minister and briefly — when I was virtually inebriated with mysticism — even a monk. The late Clark Calvert, who was my pastor and mentor for a few years when I had announced that I was going into the ministry, told me that “once God calls you He never lets you go”. I think Clark meant for that remark to reassure me, but actually it scared me a little. I had my doubts: I wasn’t totally accepting of the Apostle’s Creed and I didn’t relish the prospect of people changing their tone and addressing me as “Reverend” when I approached them.
¶Eventually I became disillusioned with organized religion and quit going to church. I had become weary of church members forming cliques and quarreling with each other; of ministers criticizing other ministers and even off-handedly noting the aging and decline not only of our congregation but of mainstream Protestantism itself. The only religious groups that seemed to be growing were the tiresomely antique Catholic Church; the “gospel of wealth” mega-churches; and the “hard shell” denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, who appeared to believe that the surest metric of one’s salvation was the number of Bible verses one has memorized.
¶Nonetheless, I retained the memories of the better elements of my church-going days: the summer evenings when the windows of White Rock Methodist would be raised and we would be seated in our pews, fanning ourselves with those illustrated hand fans and singing zestfully songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Amazing Grace”. And I still ponder positively some of the remarks of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”…” “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak….” etc.
¶Then, in midlife, I had my truly major spiritual awakening. I am not speaking here of the assurance of “being saved” about which the more orthodox evangelicals speak, nor of being “called”, although some people might describe it as such. No, while I was out on my morning walk around White Rock Lake one day, I felt a sudden sense of knowing, of a notice within my mind or heart or soul that I was “blessed”. Yes, it was a pleasant insight, it certainly did not harm me, but it did surprise and puzzle me because I did not understand what being spiritually blessed really means.* Of course, I knew that I had been blessed with some artistic gifts (which I had not nurtured to the degree that I should have) but that was history — an established known quantity — and this seemed to relate to a more immediate and singular condition. I did not know for sure what it meant then; nor do I know now; however, I have chosen intellectually to interpret it to mean that the Holy Spirit had extended His grace to me, opened my eyes, and presented itself as my guide to whatever extent I was capable and willing to be guided. If so, then that was indeed a major blessing. But what exactly did it entail?
¶I read many mystical works during that time, a period which has become muddled chronologically after two decades so that I cannot relate the events as coherently as I would like. But that is not necessary anyway. The salient elements are still available: (1) I read all those mystics to find the essence of a few terms: “yearning” [John Ruysbroeck], “the lure” [Meister Eckhart], and “dark night of the soul” [John  of the Cross]; (2) I was practically bombarded, it seemed, by strange experiences, some of which were interpretable as spiritual consolations (mystical encouragements to continue the search) as well as others which were simply weird with no apparent connection to the spiritual life; and (3) I learned that a day would come when the consolations would end, the Presence would leave me in the “dark night of the soul”. And that’s where I have been for a little over two decades.
¶I have posted on this site (March 30, 2015) a much longer account of my spiritual journey. There is not much point in pursuing the discussion any further here. Rather, I want to reveal my plea to the Holy Spirit about the hunger I feel for a return — even if only a brief one — of the Presence. I don’t know for sure why I feel this urgency now; I am aware that my request goes beyond the bounds of the usual spiritual progression and that I should not expect any more special attention. Perhaps my hunger comes out of my getting old, perceiving that the twilight of my life is nigh and hoping that I won’t go to the ashes jar while still in the dark night. Or perhaps it derives from my perception of modern life as a devolution into absurdity and insanity, and my hope that the Holy Spirit will help me make sense of all the craziness. Or perhaps both.

————
*For more commentary on the “blessed” question see my blog post of Oct. 26, 2014.

Finis

A Drama of Self: The Tipping Point

dilemma

PHOTO CREDIT: MS WORD CLIP ART

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I’m curious: Do you see yourself as a character — in particular, the protagonist — in a screenplay? Ever reflect on the plotline, its beginning and all scenes since then, trying to figure out the other characters’ parts and the probable denouement? Or am I the only one so deeply solipsistic as to be constantly gazing on the internal screen? No, that can’t be the case, else the word “solipsistic” would never have been coined; they don’t make up adjectives applicable to only one person. Still, I find it difficult to imagine other people’s dramas, whether they be adventurous epics, tragedies or comedies, except as they tangentially affect my drama.

Many of us bloggers, I believe, use our blogs as candid diaries — electronic volumes open to the cosmic universe instead of little books hidden away in secret drawers. We can use them as depositories of our thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings), pretending that they are locked up in our computers, at first only peripherally aware that they are actually scattered across the planet and beyond. But then another part of us wonders how invisible and generally non-responsive readers perceive our outpourings. Mostly, all we can glimpse are their national flags. We are, then, self-analyzing split personalities.

So, desiring to be more honest than I have been during most of my life, I intend to relate the story of how I believe my solipsism became the major theme of an imaginary biopic; if one cannot repress a congenital tendency, then perhaps he at least can relieve the pressure by allowing it full expression, like steam from a teapot.

Going back to childhood meditations and actions, though I truly believe the habit really began that long ago, is beyond my capacity; the images are too fractured and vague. A clearer scene is more available in my nineteenth year, while I was in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyu Islands. That was when I began to read very serious books for the first time; when, under the influence of the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I developed a longing to resolve all paradoxes; when I began to question my beliefs and especially every action’s motive. As a psychiatrist two years later put it, “You look at both sides of the coin and the edge too.”

An anecdote that quite well illustrates my message here concerns a book discussion group that one of the chaplains on the base initiated. As I recall, there were about a dozen of us airmen and civilians sitting in a circle at the first meeting, when the chaplain reviewed some nonfiction book and invited the rest of us to offer our comments. Then the chaplain explained that his performance was essentially a pattern he wanted us to follow when reviewing our own reading choices in future meetings. I, the eager fool, volunteered to present a review at the next meeting, a week later.

I had already been reading two books alternately: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, a critique of capital punishment; and some book whose title I cannot recall, a collection of historical narratives about various heinous crimes committed in England. While reading them I became aware of the dichotomy in my reactions to the books’ subjects: when reading Koestler my feelings reacted against capital punishment; when reading the other book my revulsion could be so strong in some cases that I believed no type of punishment could be harsh enough for the perpetrators: they were all hanged. That experience got me to musing over how much I was susceptible to weirdly and quickly varying attitudes, how my values could shift radically in just a short time, from the setting of one book down and the opening of another. Was my value system really that fragile and unstable? I wondered if this phenomenon was true of others, so I decided to try an experiment.

I do not recall the details of my mode of presentation, only that I alternated between summarizing various parts of each book and interpolating quotes here and there. I didn’t realize how long it was. I guess the chaplain felt the room was getting stuffy, for while I was reading he got up, went to a window and raised it. Shortly afterwards, one man, only a few years older than I was, interrupted me by asking, “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this? It sounds like a bunch of morbidity to me.” Another fellow murmured something about people who “should have gone to college”. I don’t remember how I responded or even that I did; I felt deflated and defeated; my lack of response was way too predictive of future encounters; I probably just said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The whole episode might have turned out better if I had begun the presentation with an explanation that I was conducting a psychological experiment; but, on the other hand, to have done so would probably have compromised the validity of the result.

When no succeeding review was announced, I went to the chaplain and asked him what was up. He replied that he had discontinued the book review sessions because too few people were participating.

During all my life since then I have from time to time pondered how we can act decisively in murky situations and dilemmas when our ideas and feelings react against each other. Just what is the “tipping point”, as it has come to be nominated?

Finis

For more commentary on this topic, see my Dec. 15, 2013, post “To Be Or…Catastrophe!”

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