A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.
With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”
Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”
I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”
These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.
In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.
Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.
The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.
The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.
I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.
Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”
In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.
January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.
Contemplating David Gelernter’s new book, “The Tides of Mind,” for weeks now hasn’t helped me much with my own “struggles of mind,” but it has opened new avenues of thought, which is always a welcome development. In particular, his imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness, although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject. He seems to bend over backwards to frame the question of consciousness as having everything to do with “mind” and not much to do with anything else. His background as a computer scientist and A.I. authority do provide a formidable foundation for dissecting the human mind, but I am often left unsatisfied as I work my way through his elaborate treatments of each layer in the spectrum.
What he does well is lead us through what we experience subjectively in a more comprehensive framework for appreciating and understanding the complexity and subtlety of that experience as a cognitive creature. I enjoyed reading along as he guides us step-by-step through the gradually descending lower end of the spectrum, characterizing each layer in great detail and illustrating his points with passages from literature. It’s a unique approach that serves him well for the most part. Some of his references are not as familiar to the general reader, but this is easily resolved by simply looking up the passages which are well documented with footnotes for the curious reader.
Visually striking metaphors are occasionally employed and he sometimes wanders into unconventional and unscientific territory to good effect. As we drop down into his “spectrum,” where there is far less empirical data regarding what exactly is taking place, he deftly navigates his way through these vagaries and treats us to a no-nonsense description which invariably seems plausible, although less definitive. In the section entitled, “Dreaming is Remembering,” he calls the dream state “the inner field of consciousness,” where imagination and memory combine to “feed” consciousness, and where he concedes that we have only a small degree of “control” to determine which thoughts enter and which are turned away. He straddles the two worlds of conscious thought and dreaming reality with the confidence of a computer scientist, but with less imagination or intuition regarding how it is that our subjective experience of each reality might possibly arise within each layer.
It’s interesting to consider his idea that our memory of our experience of emotion is the catalyst for the spectacle of dreams, in spite of the fact that dream content may or may not relate specifically to the actual memory itself. The emotions we ignore or suppress in our waking life, according to the author, is once again presented to us in an imaginary vision, conjured as best as possible from whatever our memory and imagination can provide, which may seem completely unlike the original experience. Since the mind is “unconstrained” by our normal waking sensibilities, we cannot control how our thoughts manifest as we might while awake, and we must confront them in a way that we might never consider doing while conscious. Even in these scenarios, Gelernter acknowledges that “we never surrender completely” to these thoughts. We “feel” the memories, but still keep them from becoming “conscious” most of the time, only occasionally letting some “slip through.”
His description of dreams as something “we all know are hallucinations,” struck me as dismissive of any other possible explanation, and while we all may recognize that while we are asleep in our beds, our physical bodies are not fully participating in our dream scenario, anyone who has has any vivid dream of any sort can attest to the occasional physiological response that our bodies can produce in response to dream experiences. So little is known definitively about this area of subjective experience, that it seems a bit presumptuous to me to eliminate any other possible interaction by declaring that everyone knows dreams are hallucinations. Whatever dreams might be from a scientific perspective, it may well be that as we evolve as a species, we may yet discover some as-yet-undetected link to capacities which may reveal a transcendent or non-physical aspect to dreaming which does not require our bodies to participate.
In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.
Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams…
—–more to come—–
There are many different versions these days of theories which address what it means to be a human being, and in all fairness to the authors of these many versions, since many other species on our planet share certain characteristics with humans, and since we cannot claim that any of our talents and capacities make us superior to any other species in any comprehensive way, attempting to frame our human nature in a species-specific category that clearly defines us in a unique way seems to be the only approach that offers any hope of explaining how it is that we occupy our current position in the global community of living creatures on Earth. Without knowing what it is exactly that gives us our unique character in the pantheon of earthbound species, how can we feel confident about our prospects for the future? Since we are the only earthbound species with grammatical languages, advanced sciences, abundant and diverse cultures which produce all sorts of positive results and disastrous consequences, there must be something about us that sets us apart from the rest.
The only problem with this premise is that it almost doesn’t matter what it is EXACTLY that makes us human, any more than it matters how it is exactly that we were able to evolve into our current version of Homo sapiens. The fact is that we clearly did evolve over millions of years to became the current version of modern humans, that we currently possess an amazing array of talents and capacities, and currently occupy a formidably unique niche on this planet. What’s more important at this point, it seems to me, is not so much figuring out what it is that makes us PHYSICALLY human, but rather, what it is about being a human that gives such a unique meaning to our existence. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only species that is consciously and meaningfully aware of the way it FEELS to be us. The long path of evolution has produced a remarkable capacity within us to not only be awake, alert, and consciously aware of our existence, but also to convert all of the accompanying sensory data, memories, and cognitive capacities in the brain, into a conduit for a keenly personal and subjectively profound awareness that we refer to as human consciousness.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I read a quote from philosopher Roger Scruton, which struck at the very heart of this idea:
“There is a widespread habit of declaring emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them. The human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal…sexual love is ‘nothing but’ the urge to procreation…the ‘Mona Lisa’ is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas…it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the ‘Mona Lisa’ is nothing but a smear of pigments.”
–From English philosopher Roger Scruton’s “The Soul of the World,” (Princeton, 2014)
In a WSJ review of a new book by David Sloan Wilson entitled, “Does Altruism Exist,” evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, David Barash, points out that:
“We (humans) are unique among animals in our consciousness, of our own selves and of the social groups in which we are immersed. (In support of the idea that altruism is beneficial to human beings) There is no other species that not only punishes selfish ‘defectors’ but is also readily convinced of the desirability of acting, often selflessly, for the benefit of the group.” (He then rightly points to the conclusion…) “When it comes to human beings, purely biological insights, although valuable, don’t tell the whole story.”
A recent discovery in South Africa of “bones of a ‘human-like’ species” caused quite a sensation in paleo-anthropology circles, not so much because it revealed any direct link to a human ancestor, but rather, because the fossils indicated that they likely belonged to “an early offshoot of humankind,” and that the arrangement of bones and bodies raised “questions about the origins of ritual burial and self awareness.” Directing a team of 60 scientists, paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger announced the discovery of “Homo naledi.” The WSJ article written by Robert Lee Hotz reported that “Naledi means ‘star’ in Sesotho, a local South African language.”
We seem to have an intense interest in all things that are “human-like” and if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating discovery, I recommend you look for a copy of the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine which has a fascinating look at what was found and the scientists involved in recovering these artifacts. I’ll be talking more about this and other recent scientific investigations in the coming months.
Throughout human history, many great thinkers, writers, philosophers, and scientists have all contributed various ideas to the collective library of thought on the nature of humanity, as well as what distinguishes us from other species, and many have attempted to define what it means to be human using a variety of approaches. Many of the early philosophers focused on our humanity from the point of view that human beings represented the highest form of life, and because of our singular abilities and specialized talents, they seemed to feel that this warranted conferring upon us an elevated stature above all other species. While there are a number of ways humans seem to have the advantage presently, we have come to understand a little better in the 21st century that whatever advantage any species may have over another, that all forms of life are inextricably linked to all other forms, and that we need to use our advantages to make sure we can maintain our own lives and the habitability of our planet, if our future generations of children and grandchildren are to have a chance to prosper and thrive in the centuries to come.
We are uniquely positioned at this point in human history to witness an expansion of our technological and scientific advances which will contribute in important ways to our survival as a species, and in my view, we have an opportunity at this point to use all of our discoveries and advances to ensure that we continue to preserve and protect our own future, by including as many different ideas and avenues of research as we can. What it is that MAKES us human, in a very important way, is our ability to be fully and subjectively conscious and aware of the way it FEELS to be human.
In my next few postings, I’ll be reporting on many of the recent findings in the efforts to develop a “science of consciousness,” as well as the recent offerings in the new ideas presented in books and films that deal directly with our unique subjective human consciousness.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner addressed important elements surrounding the “poet’s, the writer’s duty:”
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
–excerpts from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.
Reviewing the world events of the past few weeks, one might be forgiven, at least at first glance, for being gravely concerned about the future of humanity. The tragic inhumanity perpetrated by rage and radical ideology we’ve witnessed recently, strikes at the very core values of every variety of human society, and we genuinely seem to have only a limited number of choices, when it comes time to choose, of how to respond.
No rational or humanistic society wants to see an escalation of hostilities in any region of the world, but neither can we shrink from the awful duty required to prevent the successful imposition by the forces of rage and radical ideology from their goals of destruction and their murderous intent. It seems that nothing less than a commensurately violent response to the violence being inflicted can hope to deter or eliminate the dangers posed by these forces.
Faulkner’s words were uttered shortly after the conclusion of World War II, but they could easily apply to our current circumstances. If we are to overcome these obstacles and forge a viable alternative to these destructive forces ultimately, we must seek to raise the level of the conversation to include a more universal spiritual perspective.
Russell Kirk, in his book, “The Conservative Mind,” argued that conservatism as a philosophy is based on six canons, condensed here:
1. A divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society, “forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.”
2. Traditional life, as distinguished from “the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism … of most radical systems,” is filled with variety and mystery.
3. Civilized society requires orders and hierarchy—“if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Bonaparte fills the vacuum.”
4. “Property and freedom are inseparably connected.”
5. “Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite,” knowing that he is governed more by emotion than reason.
6. “Society must alter … but Providence is the proper instrument for change.”
–condensed from Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), p. 61.
While I personally do not agree completely with each of these points, number five struck me as prescient as an indication of how the consideration of our very human nature constitutes a necessary component to include when reflecting on today’s circumstances. Considering that Kirk was writing these words in 1953, at a time when many thinkers of the day possessed a much less secular worldview, if we translate them without imposing a specific religious connotation, we can see a spiritual component that can inform our “personal conscience,” when attempting to determine how to respond to the “eternal chain of right and duty.”
When we witness the tragic results of recent world events–when we see and share the subsequent emotional and spiritual turmoil–it points to an important confluence of our spiritual nature with our physiological and emotional responses. The American philosopher, William James, (1842-1910) wrote about how our consciousness can directly affect our physiology:
“Even Darwin did not exhaustively enumerate all the bodily affections characteristic of any one of the standard emotions. More and more, as physiology advances, we begin to discern how almost infinitely numerous and subtle they must be. Research…has shown that not only the heart, but the entire circulatory system, forms a sort of sounding-board, which every change of our consciousness, however slight, may make reverberate. Hardly a sensation comes to us without sending waves of alternate constriction and dilatation down the arteries of our arms. The blood-vessels of the abdomen act reciprocally with those of the more outward parts.”
–excerpt from “What is an Emotion?, by William James (1884) First published in Mind, 9, 188-205
While he was considered to be a pragmatist who was more concerned about the practical application of his theories than the abstract concepts which he addressed in his writing, here James hits upon the powerful link between our possession of the penetrating subjective awareness provided by our very human form of consciousness, and the visceral experience of our emotional states and their effect on even the most subtle human physiological responses. We cannot separate ourselves easily from our evolutionary inheritance as a member of the genus Homo, who eventually became a cognitive creature, since we are still very much a product of that evolution. Many of our psychological inclinations and biological imperatives conflict with our more rational and cognitive capacities, and in ways that can pose the kinds of challenges we face in the 21st century.
Our current state of affairs as an American society, and indeed the state of affairs in the many diverse societies and nations of the world who share these challenges, present us not only with an opportunity to demonstrate our values, but also to bring together the many nations of the world in a common goal to answer the challenges posed by those who would perpetrate violence in the pursuit of a radical fundamentalist ideology.
The spirit of our American way of life, characterized by the ideals upon which our nation was originally founded, is not always evident in our actions in the world at large, nor in the rhetoric of our political and religious leaders, but in his book, Russell Kirk detailed the ideals which we have continually strived to attain, and which, if realized, could make all the difference in facing the challenges of our day:
“Kirk argued that Americans possessed those things that made a conservative counterrevolution possible: “the best written constitution in the world, the safest division of powers, the widest diffusion of property, the strongest sense of common interest, the most prosperous economy, an elevated intellectual and moral tradition, and a spirit of self-reliance unequalled in modern times.”
–excerpts from his article on the Heritage Foundation website entitled, “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk,” by Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
We need to find a way to answer the difficult questions posed by our circumstances that embraces the spirit of these values, and recognizes that the goal of achieving world peace can only be accomplished if we look within ourselves and reconnect to the human spirit, which Faulkner described as being “…capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
“I can control my destiny, but not my fate. Destiny means there are opportunities to turn right or left, but fate is a one-way street. I believe we all have the choice as to whether we fulfill our destiny, but our fate is sealed.”–Paulo Coelho
“Strange things blow in through my window on the wings of the night wind and I don’t worry about my destiny.”–Carl Sandburg
“Destiny is something not be to desired and not to be avoided…a mystery not contrary to reason, for it implies that the world, and the course of human history, have meaning.”–Dag Hammarskjold
Sometimes, I worry about my destiny, as though I may be sitting on the sidelines and might somehow miss my opportunity to pursue it. Some might say if you just calmly accept your destiny it will come. I’m not entirely certain that I desire it, but sometimes, I can’t seem to push myself to the place where my destiny seems to be waiting. It’s not that I’m avoiding it necessarily, but I’m concerned that some crisis may precipitate it or that a crisis may result from going toward it. I can’t seem to clearly envision a future that will result in some equitable resolution of whatever destiny holds in that future. One of the main stumbling blocks for me is when I examine the lives of others whom I admire–authors, poets, philosophers, scientists–people who embraced their destiny and who suffered greatly as a result.
One example of such a life which brought this idea to the point for me was a recent reading of biographical research regarding author Richard Brautigan, who became internationally famous for his novels, poems, short stories, and nonfictional pieces written in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s. In one account by Claude Hayward, an early printer of Richard’s poems who worked with him in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, he described him in this way:
“Richard was an imposing figure, tall in stature with long, straw-blond hair and a walrus mustache, and always dressed in that heavy range coat, and worn boots that had seen the prairies…Richard was an observer, an acute, bemused one with a keen eye for the absurd and the surreal.”
My recent investigation of his life in San Francisco and elsewhere brought out revelations that were quite surprising. His early success as a writer brought him international fame and, for a time, great fortune. He published his first truly successful novel, “Trout Fishing in America,” in 1967 and it became an instant sensation, selling over four million copies worldwide. He was a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, and along with his other poems and articles, brought him to the forefront of the writers of his day.
Unfortunately, along with his success came a number of difficult struggles in his personal life. He was married several times, and had a fair number of difficulties maintaining relationships with those who knew him well also. In a 1985 tribute to Brautigan by Lawrence Wright in Rolling Stone, Wright describes Brautigan’s harrowing descent into a host of personal problems that made it difficult for anyone to handle being around him:
“He had a difficult habit of testing his friends, but he was even more demanding of his lovers. He pushed them away, he was abominable, he wanted unconditional love and forgiveness. They put up with it, some of them, because he genuinely valued a woman’s intelligence. ‘That appealed to women,’ one of his girlfriends recalled. ‘It was a trade-off.’ It became a liability to be seen with Richard.”
He struggled for years with alcohol which eventually hampered his writing efforts, led to a lessening of his fame as an author, and contributed to his decline into near obscurity toward the end of his life. He continued to write up until his excesses and deeply personal challenges that he created, led him to take his own life in 1984 at age 49.
In a very strange and unusual coincidence, of which I only recently became aware, I happened to be in San Francisco in 1974 when Richard Brautigan actually lived there. Come to think of it, I could have easily passed him on the street without realizing it. I had been walking the streets of that great city many times, spending a fair amount of my spare time on weekends exploring and visiting many different parts of the city by the bay. In one of my earliest visits there, while casually walking along the streets I happened by a photography shop window with a sign that read, “Make a poster of yourself!” Posters were very popular in early seventies and I couldn’t resist the invitation to try it.
At the time, I was attending the Defense Language Institute, a federally funded language school in Monterey, so I had with me one of the current textbooks from the course, as well as a copy of a book by Brautigan called, “On Watermelon Sugar.” I was already well into the reading of it and wanted to continue reading it on my trip, so when I walked into the studio and spoke to the photographer, I expressed to him that I was at a truly pivotal moment in my life, and how I wanted the image to reflect just how important it was to me. I insisted on holding the two books since they were representative of where I was in a broad sense, both psychologically and geographically at that moment. Also at this time, like many of my fellow members of the U.S.military, I was a casual smoker, and as a young man I thought holding a cigarette would make me look “cool,” so I included that also. I sat for about a half dozen photos and then had to go away for about an hour or so while the processing took place. When I returned, I was handed six small prints of the images to look at and I selected the one that appears above.
As an impressionable young man of twenty-one years, Brautigan’s writings seemed to speak directly to my experiences and the chaos of my life as a soldier in training. Looking back at those times now, some forty plus years later, I have to admit that I never once thought of them in any other way than as simply a part of my experience, and only within the context of the actual events themselves. It was quite a surprise to discover, after all this time, that an author for whom I had great admiration, and whose work resonated so well with me in those days, was very likely somewhere nearby as I traveled the path of my own destiny.
Destiny, it seems, may lead us inexorably on a path to fulfillment of some purpose of which we may or may not be fully aware. It also may take all our strength to sustain ourselves along that path, but we all must discover that strength within us if we are to succeed.
Passion drives the winds of fate
To uncertain shores and fatal flaws;
True love brings us forward and home,
Into the gentle comfort of destiny’s flow.
–from my poem, “Uncharted Hearts,” 2014