Thursday, May 31, 2012

Punishment

The concept of punishment is embedded in cultures poisoned by patriarchal religions. From the ancient Greeks to today's evangelicals of any stripe, life is seen as a state of perpetual childhood, dominated by patriarchal gods and moderating matriarchal goddesses. The good are rewarded by these imaginary judges. The bad are punished. The rich are blessed. The poor are punished. Basic responsibilities of citizens, such as paying taxes, are seen as punishments, equivalent to a child being told to take out the garbage by a parent. Climbing over the backs of laborers for wealth and fame is seen as a divine reward, as opposed to grasping greed and disloyalty to universal human equality.

A secular humanist can be freed from this patriarchal model. Humanism is based in mindful understanding, skeptical inquiry and compassion through self-development. The secular humanist, by accepting the Universe and its observable realities, is an adult being with full responsibility for his/her actions and their results. The humanist steers his/her own craft through life's waters.The humanist understands that the winds that influence that craft are not the puffs from cheeks of an imaginary god. The winds of change and circumstance are simply natural occurrences to be explored, understood and accepted as part of life's journey.

Punishment becomes irrelevant when cause and effect are understood with educated openness. An example can be seen in the variety of prison systems in the developed world. In secular countries, prisons are seen as places of rehabilitation. Sentences are shorter. Conditions are more humane. Recidivism rates are lower. In countries ruled by religious paradigms of reward and punishment, like the United States, prisons are overcrowded repositories, designed to keep bad people off the streets. Recidivism is higher. Violence and criminal behavior flourish within the institutions themselves. Wardens and guards are part of the patriarchal punishment machine, as opposed to custodians of a rehabilitative process.

A humanist society could reject reward and punishment in favor of education and compassion. Rather than carrying out the imagined judgments of a patriarchal god, humanists in authority could realize they are representatives of human society itself, in its full diversity and group intelligence. In this election year in the U.S., patriarchal and humanist visions of authority are in open conflict. The Republican religious base demands fealty to the old gods of patriarchy, racism and homophobia. The Democrat Left struggles to steer that party back to its humanist values of feminism, diversity and human rights. The world is increasingly facing this choice, because the patriarchal model is bringing the human race to the brink of ecological failure. If it occurs, that ecological failure of our species will not be a punishment. It will be a form of conscious suicide.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Silence

The impact of altered hearing can be profound. Increased anxiety and even paranoia are associated with hearing loss in individuals who once had full hearing capability. But what about the impact of fully exercising the ability to hear and focus on what is heard?

Some people live a life in reaction to sound. Constantly blasting televisions. Omnipresent ear buds attached to iPods or iPhones. What is the effect of all this sound on the mind? 

Appreciating unfocused sound is part of the meditation process. Allowing the mind to detach from specific sounds facilitates entering a meditative state. Meditation's health-promoting effects on the brain and the body's systems are being discovered and documented by medical researchers. It is reasonable to think that detachment from environmental sound for intentional periods of meditation has a positive effect on the brain.

Meditation is a form of contrived silence for the mind. From that silence often emerge ideas which can restore or inspire. From that silence emerges awareness of emotions which can motivate or heal. Seeking silence for the mind is a skill which comes with daily practice.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shame

The governments of developed countries have no shame. This has not changed since the days of Roman Empire. The wealthy who control governments obsess on money and their holdings. They are not concerned by the 108 Syrians, men, women and children, recently executed by government militiamen. They are not shamed by their own inaction.

Their diplomacy is a sham. A cease-fire negotiated with a brutal dictator is not realistic. Europe's financial crisis has made it soft on Russia's continued support of totalitarianism inside and outside its borders. Kofi Annan has been called out as a shill for an inept international response to the Syrian situation. He is the Neville Chamberlain of our age.

As long as the Middle East is seen as immune from international standards for human rights and civil engagement with the rest of the world, peace for the rest of the world will be unattainable. This is not really an issue of religion. It is an issue of politics, patriarchy and money.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Confidence

Developing confidence in my own daily practice has taken many years. Optimism comes easily to me. It sustained me through the struggles of my youth. However, true confidence in my daily approach to life was forged by challenges to my optimism. Facing potentially unsolvable problems, especially physical diseases, tests practice definitively. 

Confidence in my daily practice sustains it. Over and over again, getting into the confident rhythm of my daily practices has dispersed clouds and renewed energy. Eating correctly, exercising sufficiently and meditating daily are the foundations of my confidence in daily practice. Focusing confidently on promoting my own health and mental well being allows me to apply my humanist values more naturally in the moments of my life. If I am healthy and joyful, I have no inclination to be selfish or aggressive.

Confidence in my own intention to live my values every day promotes harmony within my being. Harmony within my being promotes harmony with my environment and the beings in it. Peace and joy grow from harmonious living. A harmonious human life is a confident state of being that endures through life's challenges.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorials

The battle against mortality is futile. Unlike creatures who cannot understand the place of death in life, human beings live with the conscious or subconscious certainty of death from an early age. Many of us wage a lifelong struggle against the inevitable in our minds, while living mindlessly as though we are immortal. This can make some of us quite crazy. 

The men who shove the young into battle are the first to weep at dedication ceremonies for "The Fallen". Their tears on the cold slabs of marble they erect to their own victims evaporate quickly. Those tears are meaningless. These memorials are salutes to the perpetuity of violence and slaughter of the young to the gods of politics, greed and megalomania. 

If all human beings were educated to understand and appreciate the preciousness of life which comes with the acceptance of death, the human world would work its way to inevitable peace. What stands in the way? Politics stand in the way. Some religions stand in the way. Money stands in the way. As long as human beings prioritize their decisions about life under the subjugation of politics, religion and money, life itself will be cheap. 

Make your own life a living memorial with practice. My life is a memorial to all those who are different and have struggled against chronic disease. By being a candid and compassionate person to the best of my abilities in each moment, I am a memorial to the human capacity to live lovingly in peace and joy without aggression, greed or domination of others for power or money. My living memorial, my humanist practice, needs no wreaths or solemn proclamations. It is simply my life and will pass away with me. This is the way of all things.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Confusion

Human beings are a confusing lot. On National Public Radio this week, there were two stunningly contrasting segments in one afternoon. The first segment was an interview with a popular female blogger who writes about her extreme anxiety disorder and her quirky upbringing with a taxidermist father. She went into detail about being on drugs for anxiety and having extensive problems with socialization. 

The second segment was a presentation by a panel of futurists associated with space-travel research. They expressed consternation at the lack of public funding for research necessary, the their minds, for colonization of the whole Universe by the human species. One of their unstated assumptions was that the human species would eventually turn the Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland, unsuitable for occupancy by such brilliant minds as theirs.

The anxiety-ridden blogger apparently claims her greatest contribution to the human species was the reproduction of herself in the form of an infant girl after multiple miscarriages. Really? Well, the scientists who cannot wait to disembark this planet for outer space may well disagree. Or would they? This is the confusing part. 

Taking life as it is with an acceptance of our responsibility and understanding that our planet is what we make it starting right now seems to have escaped the blogger and the futurists. Making a career out of bemoaning my genetics and then consciously passing on those genetics seems to me to be a continuation of what makes this planet less enjoyable for all ... and especially for the child whose genetic burdens are predictable. Assuming that my own species is trashing my planet and then turning my brilliance to escapism also seems rather cowardly and irresponsible.

The Big-Daddy-ism of religion, which has deeply poisoned the human psyche for too long, lies at the root of a lot of this confusion, in my opinion. The responsible and painful ethical decisions are often shoved off by individuals as Big Daddy's (God's) problems. This is not an option for the secular humanist. But is does make being a secular humanist more difficult in the face of massive irresponsibility and narcissism all around. Staying clear about ethics and personal responsibility is hard. It requires practice. And, many times it requires shunning the confusion of popular culture.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Delivering

Part of being an activist of any kind is delivering the goods. Humanists in a materialistic world must be activists. Greed tends to trump compassion in a world based on money and power. In a world of limited resources, greed is inconsistent with compassion and humanism. 

Delivering in a humanist sense means living responsibly in the moment. Decisions to act are based in a conscious understanding that equanimity begins with me. Fairness in actions and transactions begins with me. Promises without delivering what is promised are lies. Saying "I'm sorry" after habitually abusing those around me is hypocrisy. 

Delivering on humanist values unrelentingly takes courage, discipline and practice. There is little social support for it in these times. However, the personal rewards of this practice are tremendous.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Clarity

Clarity in communication is an acquired and practiced skill. Part patience, part self-knowledge, part vocabulary. Political correctness and superficiality cloud clear speech.

Thinking before speaking is essential to conveying ideas and feelings clearly. The constant habitual interjection of words such as "like" or "you know" in speech is a symptom of lack of mental clarity and development. Speech peppered with vulgarity is also unclear, shaded with unprocessed emotion.

Speaking loudly with headphones in the ears is simply rude. It gives one clear message: "I don't really want to hear what you have to say." To be a clear communicator, you must first be a good listener as a student and observer of self and environment. 

A humanist, I believe, must clearly understand his/her own mind before being able to communicate his/her values. This is an essential part of a daily humanist practice. Rushing around in a state of over-stimulation is an impediment to this process. Clarity comes with patience, reflection and meditation when alone. Clarity comes with respectful, intelligent and compassionate listening when communicating.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spybook

I have been amused by the recent news stories about the use of Facebook by divorce lawyers. A dream come true with great savings for them. They can spend less money on private detectives. 

Communication is always a multifaceted proposition. Freedom of speech, for instance, means that you may say what you will, but you may also be hurt by what others say to or about you. Bragging about being a weekend drunk may endear you to your brewski brothers and sisters, but it may well come back to haunt you when you apply for a job. 

These are relatively benign aspects of Facebook transparency. Malicious individuals, gangs or governments can have a field day with Facebook information. A rising dictator could use Facebook as well as those who have used Facebook for promoting democracy. Think of what the Nazis or Stalinists could have done with all the information on Facebook.

This perception colors my reaction to the hyped Facebook stock offering. Isn't this a form of conning willing victims of a conformist (potentially Fascist?) system which can be used against them?

I prefer real privacy to diddling my privacy settings on a computer. Discretion is a developed art. Candor and discretion in balance constitute the behavior of a truly civilized human being. For example, while I strongly encourage all LGBTQ people to be candid about their sexual orientation for the sake of raising public consciousness, I would strongly discourage them to be too enthusiastic about involving government and everyone on Facebook in their domestic relationships. Heterosexual marriage as seen on Facebook is hardly inspirational. 

I am heartened by the early decline in value of Facebook stock. I hope this indicates a trend away from mindless mobbing. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was growing up in a mob of conformist robots, conditioned by massive war machines of government. The film Far from Heaven is a wonderful glimpse into that world. Love and peace are all about communication, not mass communication. Enduring love and peace are about the truthful communication of trusting individuals with one another in committed friendship. This is not sustained by announcing feelings and ideas through a megaphone in a public square.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Success

President Obama stated recently that his job involves seeing to it that every American has a chance to succeed. His remarks were part of a critique of Mitt Romney for offering his experience as a venture capitalist as a credential to be the U.S. President. While I get Mr. Obama's point that a capitalist shark is hardly in a position to claim largess toward all segments of society, I question this popular notion of life as a matter of striving for monetary success.

What is this success? It seems an echo of Reaganist entrepreneurial idealism. That image of every American becoming a small business person was seen as a replacement for a cohesive society which is a functioning ecology of capital and labor. Do all Americans want to be or have the skills to be independent business owners? What would be the social advantage of this model?

Government should focus on its own success at providing for the people. This success is very hard to find. The image of George Bush in a 'mission accomplished' flight suit comes to mind. Winnowing out governmental success at caring for the people from corruption and special interests is difficult.

There is no success at being human. There is no success at being a good person. These are ongoing processes of growth and development. Governments and businesses must operate on budgets with goals. Human beings, while influenced by budgets and chosen goals, are not defined by them. Being a fully formed human being goes beyond making money or attaining a big job. The current materialism at the top of the U.S. socio-economic pyramid is at odds with the nature of the people who comprise the largest part of that pyramid.

Humanist practice, as I see it, clarifies the place of material success in a life motivated by progressive individual and social change. Internalizing the essential equality of all human beings in the experience of living from birth to death opens the eyes of the humanist to the irrelevance of greed in improving the human experience. My only success in humanist practice is practicing daily for the betterment of myself and my environment to the best of my ability.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bombs

The radio blandly delivers the news that a bomb has killed three people somewhere across the world. How do you react? Do you react? Does the news sink in?

It is easy to become desensitized to violence. After all, our roots lie in violence. Century upon century of war and mayhem. The carnivores among us depend upon daily deadly violence against millions of other sensient living beings to sustain themselves.


Al Jazeera English is a good sensitizing medium about violence. It broadcasts the aftermath of bombings with graphic images, unlike the sanitized Disney reporting of American TV.

As a nurse who has tended people with amputations and severe burns, I hear the bombing fatality reports with visual associations of human gore and suffering. I know the smell of charred flesh. I know the horror of a caring person when confronted with a body irreversibly altered by trauma.  These internal experiences daily fuel my belief in universal non-violence as the next potential evolutionary leap for human beings.

We appear to be dithering on the threshold of that great leap. Barack Obama, an educated and intelligent man with great power, endorses violence in the name of freedom. I would wager that he knows there is no real freedom as long as human beings rely on violence to attain it.

Violence is a symptom as well as a habit. Well-fed, healthy and educated people do not resort to violence when they are included in decisions about their own lives. Violence is a symptom of poverty, enslavement and corruption. The bomb in a street is a lethal symbol of choices for power and greed over shared human values. A claim of moral superiority by anyone who murders is a lie. Finding the path between violence and death to attain freedom and peace is the work of humanist practice.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pleasure

There is a vast difference between pleasure and happiness. 

Pleasure can be the realm of the addicted. Pleasure is a momentary experience which depends on a stimulus. The stimulus can be the self, another being, an environment or a substance.

Happiness is a sustainable state of ongoing being. It is a form of consciousness, developed with practice and maturity. While it depends on being in the moment with joy, happiness is not dependent on the stimuli of any given moment. I can be happy while in pain, while also being disappointed, while also embracing sadness. 

Practice is a method for developing sustainable happiness. Humanist practice is a method of developing sustainable happiness while also striving to help others to do the same.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Now

A human being who is fortunate to live to be 80 years old has 25,222,880,000 seconds of living and breathing, not counting leap years. 25 trillion seems like a huge number, but it is still finite. Once that 25 trillion are ticked off, death ends the game. No negotiation. No debt forgiveness or budget override.

The moment is now...is now...is now. Are you using it or losing it?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Asking

The theme of much of our modern digital technology is self-reliance. GPS and Google have replaced asking for directions and consulting librarians. Transit apps have eliminated subway platform conversations which used to begin with, "Have you been waiting for the train long?"

I think this reflects the mentality of many of the technicians who bring us the marvels of the digital age.The result is a general pulling in from one another. This can mean that people are generally less interactive in the flesh due to their reliance on social media and smart phones. 

This change is what it is. However, I believe something is lost to those who do not interact in society with strangers. Asking questions is the easiest way to engage another human being. People enjoy talking about themselves. They also enjoy sharing information. Being inquisitive is the basis of all science and self-education. It is part of my practice to be open about my interest in people and things. It helps to keep me engaged in my daily life, to be present in my present.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Smile

OK. I know. You see "Smile" as a title and you brace yourself for goofy pop psychology. Right? Wrong.

I am a practical humanist. There is no mysticism about the smile, but it does do some amazing things. By accepting that we are simply social animals, like chimps or dogs or elephants, we can realistically use our instinctive and intentional human behaviors for a better life experience. This is the advantage of a developed frontal lobe of the brain.

Smiling is a behavior which can be practiced, like any other physical activity. We have all experienced the infectious smile. It is like the infectious yawn. You encounter a wide smile, and you smile. Someone yawns while they are speaking with you, and you yawn. 

The why of these reflexes is unimportant to practice. In most social situations, the open smile is curative. In a similar way, the sardonic smirk can be off-putting.

When I was twenty-one in 1971, I moved deep into a predominantly poor African-American neighborhood in Boston with my partner. We were just as poor as our neighbors. I experienced reverse racism early on. Threats of violence and questions of my right to be living there were daily events as I walked in the neighborhood. My reaction was to remain silent and smile. It was unintentional at first. I just happened upon it as a instinctual defense. I gradually realized how powerful it was.

Within weeks my neighbors gave me a name, Stretch, due to my height. They still called me "white trash" on occasion, but it was done in a non-threatening way with a laugh. I kept on smiling. My smile wasn't forced, though frequently conscious. My smile became my human passport with those who would potentially dehumanize me based on my skin color. 

Now I smile whenever I am stressed in social situations. It has become a practiced reflex. I have encouraged others to experiment with the smile. They tell me anecdotes about how their smiles have worked for them. The smile is another simple way in which accepting ourselves and our animal natures can improve the quality of our lives. This is a core element of my humanist practice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Buddhism

There are many silly pop notions of Buddhism. There are diletante Buddhists who reside in ivory towers. I no longer call myself "Buddhist" because I understand that Buddhism is a state of being. Yesterday I encountered natural Buddhism on the telephone. 

She works for a large utility company in customer service. I needed to set up new service at my new address and discontinue service at my current address. Speaking to customer service personnel is part of moving. Long waits. Elevator music while on hold. 

Her voice was different. A mild New-York-Hispanic accent. She was very efficient. Unlike others, she listened and did not ask me to repeat every piece of information multiple times. As we were wrapping up, she said, "Congratulations on your new home." After thanking her, I made a passing remark about the expense in time and money in moving. She responded neutrally, "Every action has its consequences." 

This lovely young woman embodied a basic Buddhist practice of being fully present in the moment with me and being conscious of the principle of cause and effect. It was a rare encounter in these times.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Simplicity

Simplicity is increasingly elusive in my urban life. This may be a function of my age. This may be a function of my socioeconomic class. Simplicity certainly is not trendy today. Few people seem capable of simply sitting without being attached to a smart phone, television or computer.

In a materialist society, where everyone is encouraged to be an individualist-entrepreneur, institutions, both commercial and civic, have become challenging obstacle courses. This reveals itself in endless hoops to be jumped through to accomplish anything. "Customer service" now often implies that it is the customer who serves the demands of the vendor or public institution. This complicates every transaction by turning it into a negotiation, rather than a sale or access of a public service.

I am astounded at the placid acceptance of this state of affairs by most consumers and citizens, who utilize public services. Reporting a problem with a public service turns into a complicated process, wherein the plaintiff is put on the defensive. Is there any wonder that government is despised in most polling? 

Simplicity often comes with clarity of identity and purpose. In my own life, I develop simplicity through my daily practice. When I encounter intentional simplicity in another person, I recognize it immediately. It comes with an inner sigh of relief. Interacting is pleasant and uncomplicated with someone who can simply be in the moment with whatever task is at hand.

Monday, May 14, 2012

601

This is my 601st essay here on the Practical Humanist. I am on a small hill looking back for a moment to gauge how far I have come before looking to where I will go. The journey is ongoing but it helps to assess my process in simple numbers from time to time. 

Sitting in front of a computer monitor every morning and writing a few paragraphs is not monumental. It is part of my own daily practice. It stimulates my brain. I use the exercise to remind myself of my place in life's journey. I examine the values I am refining and applying along the way. It is a progressive element of my practice.

Some of you who read this blog are kind enough to let me know you are there. This is a tremendous help to me in my practice. There are times of late when I have little opportunity to be with people who are also engaged in their own progressive personal practices. I will be even more stretched for time this summer as fix up and move to a new place. Perhaps that is why taking inventory comes so readily to me this morning. 

I maintain that the key to personal practice is consistent daily effort on that practice. Practice is a process which ends only when consciousness ends. 600 or 6000 essays do not make a practice. They can simply be utilized as tools. Practice is mindful and compassionate living, an ongoing and changing process, motivated by an intention to becoming the best person possible in each moment.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mothers

One year ago, I spent the weekend of Mother's Day in the hospital with my mother, who was 91. She had been experiencing radical delusions and hallucinations for some weeks. Her nature led her to conceal these from me and my one sibling until I was sitting with her in her house a few days before the weekend.

The day before Mother's Day, I sat at the end of her gurney in the emergency room of a major Boston hospital. I knew she could no longer live alone. It was obvious from her resistance to this notion that it would take elevating these changes in her mental status to a crisis, requiring immediate medical attention. The neurologist had just told me that she had a large and untreatable brain tumor. He had asked me to tell my mother that she had a terminal prognosis. Her record at the hospital may have informed him that she was not the most tranquil or cooperative patient.

"Mom, this is really hard for me to tell you, but you have an inoperable brain tumor." My experience as a hospice nurse, quite used to telling strangers that their bodies were dying, enabled me to get this out calmly while looking her in the eye. Her head was propped up on pillows. She rolled her eyes at me and replied, "You think it's hard for you, what do you think it's like for me to hear that coming from you!" 

We didn't have the warmest of mother-son relationships. She had once confessed to me, by way of explanation, that she had not wanted a second child. In fact, she went on to explain, she had consulted her parish priest about the morality of getting an abortion. This was in 1949. Needless to say, she came away from that conversation chastised and enraged at the priest, who had dashed any hopes of her saving herself, and me, from a lifetime of regretted consequences.

The disappointments I brought her were constant. At my birth, she commented that my head was oddly shaped. If I contracted a common childhood illness, she bemoaned her bad luck at having a sickly kid in the doctor's office, despite the doctor's assurances that I was a healthy child. When I showed an aptitude for drawing the human anatomy at four, she tore up my drawings and took away my pencils because she thought my drawings were obscene. When my inevitable neurosis worsened under her rage and tyranny, she bemoaned my existence publicly at family gatherings, "What did I ever do to deserve a kid like this?" I developed obsessive-compulsive mannerisms and ticks. I was terrified of school, which was presided over by nuns, whose behavior was a continuation of my mother's brutality. My dyslexia and occasional incontinence, caused by sheer terror, led to my spending hours locked in a coat closet at the back of the classroom. 

My parents were a model couple in their community. My father was a popular policeman, who was gregarious and operated more like a social worker than a cop outside the home. My one sibling was more than six years older and had been my mother's one wanted child, pampered and allowed a great deal of autonomy. So, I grew up believing as a child I was indeed a crazy disappointment to everyone I loved. After all, everyone else thought my parents were perfect and my brother destined for great success in life. 

My sharing all this on Mother's Day is an offering to those who may not have received the kind of mothering that is written about in flowery verse on tacky cards. If you are a mother and read this, I would like to say that I am not suggesting that mothers must be perfect. I am suggesting that motherhood is a serious responsibility of the mother to a separate human being, not something to be engaged in for social provenance, the mother's emotional/hormonal needs or the approval of others.

If you are a child of a mother like mine, I am sharing this to make you feel less alone. I want you to know that your mother's inability to love you in responsible and constructive ways was not your fault as a child. My own peace with this came from years of intentional reflection and eventually dealing with my mother responsibly in ways she was incapable of dealing with me. By being there for her as best I could as she became old and in need of care, I was able to appreciate my own ability to heal and progress beyond the injuries of my childhood. That is what I am celebrating today on Mother's Day, nearly a year after her death.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Identity

As pundits, gay and not gay, make sober pronouncements about President Obama's most recent  opinion on gay marriage, my identity remains unchanged. I am thoroughly and happily homosexual . I live in a solidly committed relationship with another gay man.

The LGBTQXYZ political activists of today are quite patient and conservative by the standards of the revolution which got them into their Washington offices. They have become part of the game. The game is politics. Politics have little, perhaps nothing, to do with real people and real lives. 

The legal recognition of marriage between people of the same sex will make the lives of those who are concerned with joint taxes and shared property more complicated. Marriage inevitably raises the question of divorce in modern society. Gay/lesbian partners once relied upon their own contracts to sort out the details of living arrangements and property. This was truly a Libertarian approach to a relationship. No government involved. And, as far as my experience has informed me over forty years of gay life, it has worked out pretty well in most cases. 

The gay political class has sacrificed gay identity for normalization in its quest for marriage and military considerations by government. The overall strategy may well be effective to ensure the safety of LGBTQ people in society. Having recourse under the law probably requires losing some of what has made the gay identity special. 

There are advantages to being an outsider which no law can compensate for. Being an outsider is an identity which fosters an appreciation of other outsiders. It enhances compassion for those whom society typically rejects. What will happen when none of us are outsiders? It is naive to think we will magically all be equal, just because everyone has been normalized on paper. Normalizing on paper is no short-cut to equal justice and opportunity for all. That requires a sea change at the level of each human consciousness.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Progress

No human being has made progress by being held to a lower standard than his/her best capabilities. Progress is always a stretch. It is that extra step when fatigue discourages. It is that act of generosity when feeling put upon.

As I hear haranguing conservatives crying for retrenchment into conservative values, I hear the fear and laziness of the rich and pampered, voiced by their puppets. Thumping a Bible, Torah or Quran is not progressive, even when motivated by a desire to do good in the world. Literalism and fundamentalism are symptoms of fear and voluntary enslavement. 

Nearly every human being has the capability to learn, to love, to give. Progress often entails breaking through the traditional impediments to mobilizing learning, loving and giving. Opening the mind and heart to that which is just beyond its understanding is the first step to living a progressive life through a daily practice of mindfulness and compassion.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Complaining

The socioeconomic state and outlook of the majority in the United States are not glowing. There are complaints of high personal debt due to student loans, over-leveraged mortgages and unemployment. Yet a majority of Americans often vote against their own interests when electing public officials, who determine much of the quality of their lives. 

Complaining without action is a form of masochistic masturbation. It is a symptom of depression or delayed development. Nothing can impede personal or social progress as much as an addiction to help-rejecting complaining.

We hear help-rejecting complaining from Washington daily. It has become a political tactic of conservatives and progressives, confined in the cage-fight of a professional two-party political class. Both parties say, "We have a perfectly adequate solution to Problem X, but they won't...." This form of complaining by way of childish manipulation is appropriate to an elementary-school playground, not to a democratically elected political body. 

What is the root of this help-rejecting complaining? Well, in the individual, it is usually indicative of delayed development and/or depression. It is childishly narcissistic behavior, the behavior of the helpless and dependent, who feel under-nurtured and incapable of moving forward with their own problems. The complainer rejects the help of others, because he/she is too fearful to trust anyone since he/she cannot trust him/herself.

Zooming out to a whole society which displays this form of help-rejecting complaining in favor of polarized politics and religious zealotry offers a disturbing perspective on the U.S. and other developed democracies, like Greece. Are we all reaping the effects of post-911 fear? Is our surrender to government obsessions with security over human rights leading our societies into a form of mass regression?

On the level of practice, I have had to deal with my own plaintive nature from an early age. I was burdened with intelligence in a religiously and sexually repressive family. Learning to formulate and verbalize complaints against a system which felt oppressive to my nature became a survival mechanism for me in my family system and my working-class environment. My fist was already shaped to hold a protest sign by the time I embraced the peace movement in the 1960s. That personal movement from complaining in a position of frustration and anger to protesting with others for actual social change was my salvation as a gay man and budding secular humanist.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Moving

The upcoming move has been booked. Several weeks of packing and weeding lie ahead. Moving has been a thread through my life. My mother used to say that I inherited her father's nomadic nature. He moved his family from apartment to apartment almost yearly though her childhood. However, in my unfortunate grandfather's case, his moves were less voluntary and more motivated by unpaid rent. 

My moves have been discretionary over the years. Economics played a part, of course. My income has never left much room for luxury, so I have lived in modest apartments or houses. I have sold property to gain a little financial security when the market bumped up. Some of my moves were motivated by unpleasant neighbors or rent increases on apartments which were substandard to begin with. Balancing what I paid for rent with my other needs has always been a trick in an expensive city.

Moving, as I have always seen it, is preferable to suffering financial ruin, unnecessary inconvenience or daily displeasure. Watching friends suffer over the years in places they have disliked just to avoid moving has always puzzled me. My mother lived in a house ill-suited to her age until she was ninety-one. It was too large for her to maintain and situated on a hill which impaired her freedom of movement as her capacity to walk or drive diminished. She became a hermit in her self-imposed prison.

Things and places are not part of my identity. I am not the house I live in, the art I hang on my walls or the car I drive. This challenges the current superficial culture of materialism. Granite counter tops are no indication of goodness or real prosperity. Stainless steel appliances do no more to support a comfortable life than old white appliances. The subway gets you from point A to point B as well as a Lexus. 

This move is special. I am going to live with my partner after nine years of living separately. Living together with a committed friend in my sixties is a great opportunity for me. It is well worth any inconvenience along the way.

As a humanist, I think that moving has stoked my ongoing curiosity about life and people. A new environment requires changes. In turn, I will bring something to my new environment. My mind will be focused. I will be paying attention. The mindless drone of old habits will be disrupted. My daily practice of maintaining health and mindfulness will be challenged. This lays open pathways to new friendships and new information about myself and others. The process of new learning is the road to understanding and compassion.






Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tagging

I walk every day through the city. Millions of dollars of federal, state and city taxes have been spent recently near my neighborhood. A new mini-city is being built with hundreds of units of housing and retail outlets. Brand new roads, wide sidewalks, beautiful trees. I enjoy watching the skilled laborers as they carefully construct this state-of-the-art infrastructure. This is what government should be doing.

Yesterday, as I walked by a newly installed electric box, I noticed that several sociopaths had painted their narcissistic labels on the gleaming stainless steel of one and the shining black enamel paint of another. These taggers, probably considering themselves artists, had pissed on the hard work of the skilled men who had installed the boxes. Their scrawl had taken minutes to undo the public aesthetic of scores of man-hours of design and skilled labor.

This is a malicious form of disrespect. It is not "public art", as some goofy Liberals have dubbed it. This is disrespect of the public space which is paid for and belongs to every citizen. It is disrespectful of the laborers who strive to produce a public space which is orderly, maintainable and cost-effective for the tax-payer.  It is a transgression against a communal sense of civic pride. 

As a practicing humanist, I believe that developing a respectful society depends on the mutual respect we all afford to one another in simple ways. Holding a door, exchanging greetings on sidewalks, voicing appreciation to those who tend to or improve the environment. I once corrected a young woman who was tagging a major bridge across the Charles River. Her orange Mohawk and many tattoos announced her fascination with ink and decoration. Apparently she was not content with decorating herself. Perhaps she had run out of space. 

"Fuck you," she responded with threatening movements. I persisted and explained that the bridge, which had been newly restored, belonged to us all, but to none of us individually. This, I explained, was what social institutions and infrastructure are all about. She scowled as I spoke. Finally, without engaging in a conversation, she gave me the finger and ran away. It was a warm afternoon. None of the other pedestrians on the busy walkway had paid any attention at all, with the exception of one middle-aged jogger, who gave me a sidelong look, as though she suspected me of soliciting the fleeing vandal.

Is this a story of a engaged civilized society? What is the state of a society where the narcissistic needs of the individual to vandalize the public space in broad daylight go unnoticed or even encouraged as "art"? I think of this often as I walk around the public environment. As a humanist, I do what I can to encourage respectful interactions and to model respect for the public spaces I use. Rather than spray-painting that environment, I try to make my mark by picking up litter, keeping up the property where I reside and encouraging others who do the same. This is part of humanist practice, as I see it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Genealogy

Henry Louis Gates markets celebrity genealogy in a PBS show, entitled "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.". Famous people, like ex-convict Martha Stewart and comic Margaret Cho, are showered with the more conversational details of their genetic past, grist for cocktail conversation in Manhattan high-rises. The show's big moments are the teary-eyed close-ups of celebrities acknowledging that their forebears were indeed as fascinating and incredibly special as they are. 

Professor Gates has an agenda beyond flattering the famous, it seems. He repeatedly normalizes genetic multiculturalism by finding some link of each celebrity to the wider human genetic family. In other words, we are all ultimately genetically related in some way.  Not a bad idea, but the elaborate and effete nature of the production doesn't capture the emotions or imagination of this humble humanist. It is sentimentalized science.

Genealogy throughout history  has done more to separate than unite, in my opinion. As a gay man, I have no genealogical roots. There are no searchable gay men in my family tree. They were closeted or exiled. Pruned from the branches. There will be no branches sprouting from mine. I am fine with that. When I consider what the descendants of Queen Victoria did to the human race, I feel fine about having no descendants of my own.

Those who are obsessed with their roots are often looking for evidence that they are somehow entitled to the luck in their lives. Few people search their genetic source for paranoid schizophrenia or psychopathy, though this would be a more practical application of exploring the human genome to create a better world. Genealogy is used by aristocrats as the justification of their privilege. Belief that their ancestors were ordained by a god to be special usually is a subtext. It never seems to occur to them that their ancestors were murderers, aggressive bullies and/or shrewd manipulators of those more powerful than themselves. After all, an Iago is a more likely progenitor than a Desdemona.

There is a line between appreciating the value of human history and obsessing on an individual's human provenance on a problem-plagued planet with 7 billion humans. While some appreciation of my personal roots has been helpful for me to develop self-understanding, I see no practical relevance in elevating my ancestors to the level of heroic scions. Each lived his/her life to his/her best, more mediocre or lowest potential. That is the simple sum of each human life at its inevitable end. As a humanist, truly becoming a brother to all human beings entails letting go of some of my personal ancestral past to join the shared moment of the here and now. Being the best human being I can be in the moment does not require any provenance.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Rest

In the urban U.S., we live in a bath of constant stimulation. Traffic, construction vehicles, crowded sidewalks. People insulate themselves from external stimulation by wearing earplugs, attached to an iPod or iPhone. In homes, televisions often stay turned on without constant viewers. Radios patter with a selection ranging demagogues to smarmy human interest stories. Phone communication for many is a constant. 

Sleep research has determined that adequate sleep is absolutely necessary for proper brain function. Sleep quality is lessened by external stimuli. So, unless a person is getting a solid chunk of sleep in a quiet setting every twenty-four hours, that person will be somewhat impaired or diminished in his/her mental capacity. 

The point of practice is to maximize mental capacity and functionality. So, any healthy practice entails getting adequate rest. It is easy to overlook this when life becomes complicated. However, overlooking it does not mean the negative effects of poor rest habits are not eroding mental capacity. In fact, the more sleep-deprived a person becomes, the less effective is his/her judgment. 

Making sure I get enough sleep, sometimes supplemented with a late-day rest period, has been a key part of my daily practice for many years. I worked overnight shifts in medical settings for over a decade. This heightened my awareness of the necessity of proper sleep habits. Learning to rest when the body calls for rest is an important piece of self-understanding. Without proper sleep, the mind is ill-equipped to make sustainable personal progress.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Courage

Alexeyev being arrested.
Nikolay Alexeyev (a.k.a. Nikolai Alekseev) was the first person convicted under St. Petersburg's homophobic law which attempts to silence all public LGBTQ protests in that city. Unlike the massive coverage of Chen Guangcheng's ambivalence under duress in China, very little print was spent on Mr. Alexeyev's conviction, based on his non-violent protests which entail holding hand-written posters in public places. The posters declare, "Homosexuality is not a perversion." This Pink News article has more information. It is notable that the coverage of the Chen Guangcheng case often focuses on his heterosexual nuclear family. One man stating that he is not less than human seems to draw less interest.

This is the challenge and pain for the outlier in any society. African-Americans in the South knew what it meant to protest non-violently in a place where their lives were considered less than human by White racists in power. Indigenous American across both North and South America have experienced genocide at the hands of those who have power and a sense of inherent superiority. 

Alexeyev knows what it means to stand alone in an open square of a hostile city in a hostile country. He knows the cold steel of handcuffs on his wrists. He knows the inside of police vans and cells. He is not an academic elitist, like some, including at least one Harvard elitist,who have persecuted him within the international LGBTQ movement. Those same people have persecuted and maligned Peter Tatchell, another fearless gay activist. Self-serving homophobes posing as international experts. Every movement for liberation attracts power brokers. 

The May 4th conviction of Mr. Alexeyev is simply another Russian declaration of its national and cultural homophobia. Russia intervened recently to protect the dictatorship of al-Assad in Syria from intervention by the United Nations. Russia is a country which admitted in 2010 that 500,000 people annually had died annually from diseases, crimes and accidents due to alcohol consumption. Apparently, the human right of Russians to be alcoholics is never in dispute.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Scream

Yes, scream. Indeed. Edvard Munch's (1863-1944) over-reproduced painting, Skrik or Scream, sold for nearly $120 million dollars at auction. As a commentator from the Wall Street Journal stated on the PBS Newshour, it was just a matter of which one of the 1700 billionaires in the world would pay the most for the piece. It is considered a calculated investment in a time of economic turmoil.

This phenomenon says it all about the state of modern capitalism. As unemployment rates stagnate across large parts of the planet and the rich-poor gap widens, the wealthy play with toys, like this painting, under the guise of making responsible cultural choices. It is another version of Marie Antionette's highly publicized Petit Trianon, built at great expense during the days prior to the French Revolution. 

Meanwhile, the human context of Munch's work is lost in the hub-bub over its auction value. Consider Munch's life span, which encompassed the American Civil, War, The Franco-Prussian War, The Russian Revolution, World War I, The Great Depression, and Word War II. He lived in violent and tumultuous times of rising capitalism joined to rabid nationalism and reactions to it. 

Munch was the son of a Norwegian priest-physician, known for his fundamentalist ideas of propriety. Naturally, Munch took up with bohemians and nihilists, thereby reaping the consternation and disapproval of his father. In the time of Freud and Jung, Munch lived in Paris and Berlin. He belonged to the generation in Europe which developed the ideals behind socialism and the movements for universal human rights. He described his inspiration for Scream as his own experience of existential crisis. 

How far removed is this reality from the auction room where Scream was sold as an equivalent to a stock portfolio for enough money to start a foundation which could change the world for the better?  It is enough to make a practical humanist scream.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Double-Speak

Stephen Marche, a writer for periodicals, is disturbed by a "war on youth". During a recent radio interview, he suggested that issues of class were irrelevant in the current state of the U.S. economy. He does not begrudge people being exorbitantly rich and not paying more taxes. He does seem to begrudge people who have worked all their lives for wages reaping the benefits of retirement. He also seems to begrudge a social security network which allows parents to support their unemployed adult children.

Mr. Marche's views represent the indoctrination of Reaganism. Rather than looking at the basic flaws of contemporary corporate capitalism and the Reaganite fantasy of mass entrepreneurship, Mr. Marche and others have turned their ire inward toward real people who need a social security network. In other words, kick the needy. It's an old ploy of conservative politicians. The people aren't broken. It's the system, stupid.

Equating the needs of a 70-year-old and the needs of a 21-year-old is simply stupid. Denying the progressive nature of retirement systems and medical care for the aging is barbaric. Blaming those who have fought and worked to establish and maintain these systems for their success at advancing medical technology and improving the general quality of human life is contrary to human self-interest. 

Trying to maintain the legitimacy of any unjust system, like Reagan economics, inevitably leads to double-speak. The equating of freedom with unscrupulous economic rape through war and outright algorithmic theft leads to a corruption of ideas and language about social justice. To accept that 1% of the population is entitled to live lives of immune aristocracy while the 99% descend into class or age-ist warfare is to accept capitalist Social Darwinism. You can wrap yourself in born-again religiosity or pretend great compassion for the poor unemployed, but the acceptance of the status quo of the haves and have-nots at the same time is double-speak, also known as hypocrisy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Steps

Part of living with an acceptance of change as the basic state of existence is understanding that large changes as best approached step by step. While going with the flow is one practical way of living, setting goals and maintaining a quest for improvement with change are also practical elements of living intentionally  in a constantly changing Universe.

I am an advocate of the benefits of walking daily for health and reflection. By learning to set out on my daily walk with no particular destination, I have utilized part of my brain which can guide my steps as they wander and eventually gets me back home. This entails maintaining a sense of direction and time, while enjoying my walk. I see new things. I greet new faces. My trips are varied circuits through neighborhoods in the four points of the compass from my home. I 'encompass' my environment with my daily walks. 

On the days when I am tired or when it is pouring rain, my first steps are my focus. "Just get out there." I tell myself. It always works. 

Being overwhelmed by change comes from obsession with some perceived end point on the other side of the process of making that change. For example, receiving a diagnosis of cancer immediately brings the patient to thoughts of death. However, death is always a potential change in a human life. The diagnosis is frightening because it entails seismic changes in self image, capabilities and lifestyle. 

Looking at change as a matter of taking one step and then another can dispel fear. Setting out on a journey of change without a rigid destination or fixed route also helps a great deal. It all comes back to getting involved in the creative process of change. Learning to seek joy and peace in that process is the key to a rewarding daily practice.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Anxiety

Anxiety, a displeasing feeling of worry or concern which is psychological and physiological, is a common part of the learning process. Learning entails approaching the unknown to acquire understanding and competence. Submitting to a practice of learning in daily life entails experiencing some anxiety in reaction to challenges. 

Avoidance of anxiety becomes more appealing with age, in my experience. The aging process brings more and more unavoidable adjustments. Physical and cognitive changes, despite pop culture's attempts to deny them, are inevitable. A certain amount of accompanying anxiety is also inevitable, since there is a constant learning curve imposed on even the most routine activities when disease or disability strike. 

Maintaining a daily practice is an intentional process which assists with adjustments to unintentional processes as they occur in life. A practice, with clear priorities and values, clears the way of the unnecessary and insignificant. This facilitates clearer vision, more concise action and openness to learning important information. 

Recognizing the presence of anxiety in the mind and body is the first step to healthy change. Rather than avoiding anxiety, the mindful person uses it to learn and move on. If overcome by anxiety, the mindful person seeks help. The process of dealing with anxiety constructively is part of living a conscious and intentional life. Denial or avoidance of anxiety is unhealthy and can lead to dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors.