Everything you want to know about where we are and where we may be going can be found in a study of World War II and the atomic bomb.
In 1945, we witnessed two phenomena.
We learned about the depths to which an “advanced” society could descend. That human beings in substantial numbers, who pretended to embrace civilized ideals, could endorse and follow a path that can be described as demonic.
We learned that as technological developers, we were capable of threatening the physical well-being of the entire planet. We could literally produce an apocalypse.
Each of those is with us now.
The ease, for example, with which leaders and followers of certain ideologies seem willing to throw away principles we thought were inviolable for the sake of their ideology, disguised as the greater good.
The threat of technology to the entire physical world, and to all who live in and on it, so that irreparable damage is increasingly inevitable.
Keep thinking about World War II and the atomic bomb. About what 1945 might teach us about ourselves and our possibilities.
There’s a joke about a guy trapped in his house during a rising flood. A rescue boat comes along, but he refuses. “God will provide,” he says. A second boat comes. Same story. Same with a third boat. The guy drowns. He meets God and he asks “What happened? Why didn’t you rescue me?” God says, “What do you mean? I sent you three boats.”
The 1960s counterculture is dismissed and derided. “Look at the hypocritical hippies who grew up to be materialistic capitalists. Look at all the cultural dead ends they marched us into.” And so on.
The New Age movement that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s is similarly looked down upon in some circles. Movements about peace, love, understanding, soulful transformation, etc., were nothing new. They had centuries of history. It was the 1960s that revived interest, and that interest was grafted onto that longstanding (perennial) philosophy.
There is some acknowledgment that these two birthed or encouraged some good and useful contemporary phenomena. Meditation and yoga are now center stage. The environmental movement has similar backward reaching roots. There are more examples like these.
Both the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were much more than a collection of practices and beliefs. They were about different ways of being and tools to get there and tools to use there. That they got close to the mainstream—incorporated in original, transformed or sometimes abused form—was a good thing.
But it could have been more. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been a mixed bag. The past few years, right up to the moment, count on the lesser side.
History is unknowable and uncontrollable. If the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement had reached deeper into the mainstream, we can’t know what differences it might have promoted. We could be in a version of the same troubles we are in right now, maybe better, maybe worse, maybe sooner of later.
It is pleasing to think that moments and movements come along carrying the force and possibility of personal and institutional transformation. Boats to rescue us, or at least keep us from drowning. The 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were two boats we decided not to take. Maybe there will be third.
America is fortunate compared to many nations. After the Revolution, we never had to live with a foreign occupying force. The last time there was a homeland occupation was after the Civil War, when the victorious North took over the defeated South (an event that still resonates today).
America had the tools to defeat Covid, or at least hold it substantially at bay. Mitigation strategies such as masking, distancing, testing, tracing were available—and ultimately vaccines. But there was insufficient will to use these soon and soundly enough. So now that Covid is endemic and still mutating, the mantra is “learning to live with it.”
It is too darkly smart to say that “living with Covid” doesn’t apply to the 700,000 officially (900,000 unofficially) who have already died from it, or the more than 1,000 a day still dying. That remark aside, we are staring into an unknowable hole of our own digging. Maybe another more pernicious variant. Likely the confluence of Covid and flu. Chronic “long haul” conditions we are just learning about. Along with the certainty that Covid is here to stay, in great part because of what we did or didn’t do.
So the next time you hear or say “learning to live with Covid,” contemplate and discuss exactly what that means. Around the world, people know what it means to live with an evil occupying force intent only on making them suffer and killing them. It is by no means too late to lessen the suffering and death the enemy tries to inflict. But we did have a chance to make things better, and we blew it. Please let us try again.
Around the fourth century, a number of Christian contemplatives left society and went into the desert to be alone, quite alone or in small groups. They didn’t stay forever, but while they did they left behind writings about their experience, known generally as the sayings and wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.
In the 20th century, Thomas Merton left society, of which he had been a brilliant and creative member, joined a Christian order that mostly observed silence, became world famous for, ironically, writing the first of many books about his experience, built a hermitage on the Kentucky monastery grounds to somewhat escape society again, and along the way, not surprisingly, wrote a book about the desert contemplatives.
Academics have probably developed measures of how social we are at any time. The non-expert conclusion is that up until the pandemic we had grown massively social, especially but not only with the predominance of digital media. The pandemic changed that quite a bit, though social media filled in many gaps.
Almost universally, and often not inappropriately, this retreat from society was viewed as a detriment to be remedied as soon as possible. But we shouldn’t be too quick.
Those who are by nature, need, practice or joy social miss the company, and should pursue and embrace it. But give a thought to the desert fathers and mothers, and to Merton.
Merton spent his life struggling with the tension between the unique value of removing from society and the unique value of being in it with your whole body, heart and mind. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to contemplate—to live—that tension. It is easy to ignore, rushing to fill the social void as much and as soon as possible. Still there is still something in the hermitage, in the desert or in Kentucky or in your life, to commend a little alone.
Emptying the mind is not a total solution to problems, yours or the world’s. But it is beneficial enough to mention.
Emptying the mind is exactly what it sounds like. The techniques and practices, such as meditations and concentrations, are many. There are some that are more explicit about that outcome of empty mind. There are others that seem to be about filling your mind with a particular image or thought—visualizations, for example—but they are actually part of a two-step process. Whatever you concentrate on, however concrete, you are first letting go whatever is already there. If we assume that what is already there may be problematic, that first step is helpful.
What after emptying? This is where the particular traditions seem to diverge: what do you try to fill an empty mind with? Is it some high-minded thought about this principle or that, about this master or that?
This is to say ideally that it doesn’t matter. (Ideally because this is an imperfect world.) The empty mind is there not to make room for other stuff, like a room emptied of clutter only to be filled with even more clutter.
Most basically, whatever traditional particulars you read or are told, is seeing clear down and through yourself and all else. Without judgment, since while judgment has a place in the day to day, judgment has no place in an empty mind. There you find the thing and the person as they are. You find that each thing and each person—including yourself—is a text and a teaching different than the one you read before. With that, the particulars offered by the traditions also take on a new light.
Are the problems solved with an empty mind? Of course not. Are the problems different in the light of an empty mind? Of course.
Following are all nine parts of Richard Brautigan’s work The Galilee Hitch-Hiker. You do not know that you need Richard Brautigan, this and his other works, but you do. Serious, sentimental, silly and sad, he responded to strange times and a strange life (aren’t they all?) in ways that would do any writer proud. Open hearts are the most vulnerable.
More about these poems and Richard Brautigan here.
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker Part 1
Baudelaire was driving a Model A across Galilee. He picked up a hitch-hiker named Jesus who had been standing among a school of fish, feeding them pieces of bread. “Where are you going?” asked Jesus, getting into the front seat. “Anywhere, anywhere out of this world!” shouted Baudelaire. “I’ll go with you as far as Golgotha,” said Jesus. “I have a concession at the carnival there, and I must not be late.”
The American Hotel Part 2
Baudelaire was sitting in a doorway with a wino on San Fransisco’s skid row. The wino was a million years old and could remember dinosaurs. Baudelaire and the wino were drinking Petri Muscatel. “One must always be drunk,” said Baudelaire. “I live in the American Hotel,” said the wino. “And I can remember dinosaurs.” “Be you drunken ceaselessly,” said Baudelaire.
1939 Part 3
Baudelaire used to come to our house and watch me grind coffee. That was in 1939 and we lived in the slums of Tacoma. My mother would put the coffee beans in the grinder. I was a child and would turn the handle, pretending that it was a hurdy-gurdy, and Baudelaire would pretend that he was a monkey, hopping up and down and holding out a tin cup.
The Flowerburgers Part 4
Baudelaire opened up a hamburger stand in San Fransisco, but he put flowers between the buns. People would come in and say, “Give me a hamburger with plenty of onions on it.” Baudelaire would give them a flowerburger instead and the people would say, “What kind of a hamburger stand is this?”
The Hour of Eternity
“The Chinese read the time in the eyes of cats,” said Baudelaire and went into a jewelry store on Market Street. He came out a few moments later carrying a twenty-one jewel Siamese cat that he wore on the end of a golden chain.
Salvador Dali Part 6
“Are you or aren’t you going to eat your soup, you bloody odd cloud merchant?” Jeanne Duval shouted, hitting Baudelaire on the back as he sat daydreaming out the window. Baudelaire was startled. Then he laughed like hell, waving his spoon in the air like a wand changing the room into a painting by Salvador Dali, changing the room into a painting by Van Gogh.
A Baseball Game Part 7
Baudelaire went to a baseball game and bought a hot dog and lit up a pipe of opium. The New York Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers. In the fourth inning an angel committed suicide by jumping off a low cloud. The angel landed on second base, causing the whole infield to crack like a huge mirror. The game was called on account of fear.
Insane Asylum Part 8
Baudelaire went to the insane asylum disguised as a psychiatrist. He stayed there for two months and when he left, the insane asylum loved him so much that it followed him all over California, and Baudelaire laughed when the insane asylum rubbed itself up against his leg like a strange cat.
My Insect Funeral Part 9
When I was a child I had a graveyard where I buried insects and dead birds under a rose tree. I would bury the insects in tin foil and match boxes. I would bury the birds in pieces of red cloth. It was all very sad and I would cry as I scooped the dirt into their small graves with a spoon. Baudelaire would come and join in my insect funerals, saying little prayers the size of dead birds.
The butterflies don’t know that creatures sitting high on the evolution tree have set this day aside counting calendars and years by the thousands. Don’t know exaltation. Light appeared after dark time to flutter to decorate the seen without yesterday or tomorrow. Just another holy day.
If you watch old movies, you notice that nearly everybody smokes—sometimes one cigarette after another, sometimes two at a time—and that nobody wears seat belts in cars.
Around the 1960s, the link between smoking and cancer was being accepted and the movement to add seat belts to cars was ramping up. Smoking was never banned, but social pressure and evidence reduced it substantially. Seat belts became required.
Loud liberty activists then and now are quick to say that they are free to smoke 24/7 and are free to drive without restraint, and while we are at it, without speed limits.
One obvious comment is that if you live totally alone, and nothing that happens to you involves other people, that would be fine. But you don’t live alone and your choices do affect other people. Whether they are the people you care about and who care about you, whether they are the people you share the highway with, and those who rescue you and treat your bleeding body or bury it.
To make it more direct:
People you know, people you love, have been saved by the reduction in smoking and the use of seat belts. You may have been saved by the reduction in smoking and the use of seat belts.
That isn’t hard to understand. Advocates of Covid personal freedom can go ahead and write their erudite essays on the philosophy of liberty, if they can. They might not finish it before they take to their beds or end up in the hospital, or someone they know or love does.
Maybe they can’t write that essay, but I know someone who can. Kris Kristofferson is a great songwriter and performer. He was also an Oxford University scholar. Maybe the lyrics to his famous song aren’t Oxford worthy, but they are true:
Freedom’s just another word For nothing left to lose Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free