On Mysticism

First, a few words about what mysticism is not. Calling the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange “Master of the Mystic Arts” is inaccurate; he should actually be called “Master of the Magical Arts.” There’s nothing magical or supernatural about mysticism, as I understand it. Since mysticism is about union with God, this may seem counter-intuitive or paradoxical. I suggested in my last post that the potential for mystical experience seems to be hard-wired in our brains, and elicited by certain identifiable stimuli. That means it’s natural, not supernatural. I’m an agnostic and, to me, the  question of whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If you say that God is love, then I believe in God. If you say that God has a gender or a preferred name, I don’t. I believe that if there’s a God, it’s beyond human comprehension.

Mystics are people who seek, or experience, union with the Divine. Some religious people who have a mystical experience might call it a religious experience and, for them, it is. (I don’t have the philosophical authority to label or judge other peoples’ anomalous experiences.) But I’ve read accounts of atheists who remained atheists after having an experience of Divine union. The existence of mystical experience isn’t proof of the existence of any given deity. Not everyone is going to have a mystical  experience in their lifetime. Many people – even atheists – have reported having an experience of the Divine while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. Back in my hippie days, a common question asked of people who had just  come down from a psychedelic trip was, “Did you see God?” It was a popular jest.

Accounts of mystical experiences have been recorded in cultures all around the world,  throughout history. Triggers include physical agony or ecstasy, asceticism/sensory deprivation, continuous prayer and fasting, deep meditation, and the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic substances. Indeed, mystical experiences are so common on psychedelic drugs that some people refer to them as entheogens – “God-inducing” substances. I’ve had mystical experiences, and don’t think of them as proof that there “is” a God that has a name. Like psychedelic consciousness, mystical experiences are ineffable: words can’t do justice to them. My experiences haven’t involved identifiable deities from any religion, but rather a profound feeling of one-ness with the universe, or being in the presence of something holy, that’s impossible to put into words.

One of the great Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar, taught that we can – if we do the requisite preparation – experience God directly, within ourselves. The Roman Catholic establishment of the day considered the teaching heretical. However, Saint Francis of Assisi had written something similar: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” Centuries later, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a darker metaphor for this idea, writing “When you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss gazes back at you.”

The key to union with the Divine, according to Meister Eckhart, was letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions – even one’s conception of God. Paradoxically, in order to know God directly, one must first un-know everything one thinks about God. The Divine is unknowable in the usual sense of knowledge. He wrote, “We should learn not to give God any name, for God is above names and ineffable,” warning that “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” He also  wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” and “the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” Among the things a seeker must abandon is his or her conception of self. Meister Eckhart taught that from this emptiness, this silence, one’s soul could be re-born in the direct experience of the Divine.

This message is echoed in the mystical teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta Hinduism, Jewish Cabalism, Sufism, and other spiritual traditions. Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki called Meister Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.” In modern terms, the direct experience of the Divine requires the annihilation of the ego. One seeker wrote, “At my worst, I see myself being at the center of the universe; at my best, I see myself as one cell in the body of the Divine.”

The poetry of Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz reflects this point of view over and over in its metaphors.  Rumi likens himself to a hollow reed made into a flute by the breath of God. He wrote, “We are like lutes once held by the Beloved. Being away from his divine body fully explains all yearning.” Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God/that I can no longer call myself/ a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew. . . .Love has befriended Hafiz so completely/it has turned to ash and freed me/of every concept and image/my mind has ever known.”

In my last post I wrote about the Vedanta Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God. It is expressed in the Sanskrit affirmation tat twam asi – “thou art That.” (i.e. You are one with the Divine.) I’ll close on a light note, with a short verse I’ve attributed to my alter ego writer and philosopher, Philbo T. Woldercan:

You want the key to the Mystery?                                                                                                       The Holy Grail?                                                                                                                                      The essence of the Buddha?                                                                                                                 You’ve known it all along, Bozo!                                                                                                         (tag) You’re IT.

Epiphanies and peak experiences

In previous posts I’ve written about the mystery of consciousness and non-ordinary states of consciousness. In this post I’ll examine epiphanies – an ordinary, though not everyday, state of mind – and peak experiences.

As a retired psychotherapist, I think that some people are resistant to insight; but anyone who is capable of introspection will sometimes experience epiphanies. These are sudden bursts of new awareness, insight, or intuitive understanding of something in our lives, often in the form of “so that’s why I/you/he/she/it ________!” In an older sense, the word can also mean sudden awareness of the presence of a deity or some other supernatural entity; but there’s nothing supernatural about insight epiphanies. I’ve witnessed many moments of epiphany in therapy sessions, and I’ve had a few, myself. Epiphanies can lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

Peak experiences – a term coined by Abraham Maslow – transcend mere epiphanies. Like epiphanies they are generally spontaneous, unplanned experiences. Some, but not all, fall into the category of mystical experiences. Apparently, not all people have them. They can’t be reliably induced, like hypnotic or psychedelic states of consciousness, but certain conditions may trigger them or cultivate their likelihood. Athletes may experience them when they’re “in the zone” and performing at the peak of their abilities, and I imagine that Alex Honnold had one he free climbed El Capitan, in Yosemite. When peak experiences occur, they can be quite profound and moving. They can be life-changing.

I’ll give some examples from my own life. My longest-lasting peak experience was a day in my youth when I solo hiked 25 miles of wilderness trails at Bandolier National Monument, in New Mexico. It was the most challenging hike of my life, but I’ve never felt more strong, confident, self-reliant and alive. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I belonged in that wilderness, as surely as every rock and tree and rabbit that I saw. I got back to the campsite at twilight, rubber-legged with fatigue, but exhilarated.

Other peak experiences I’ve had involved a profound sense of oneness with the universe, or the sense of being in the presence of something “holy.” One occurred on a winter day when I was living on the second story of a Victorian-era house in Talladega, Alabama. There were deciduous trees in all directions surrounding the house, their branches now bare. I suddenly found myself serenaded by the sound of raucous  bird cries, and looking out a window, I saw all of the tree branches in sight covered with black birds. (I wasn’t a birder back then, so I can’t tell you what species.) I ran from window to window, discovering rows of black birds on every limb of the surrounding trees. I wept for joy, bathing in the sound and awed by the sights I saw, looking out each window – at one with what I was witnessing.

Another “mystical” peak experience occurred while I was working. I was employed as a mental health counselor in rural Alabama. An elementary school teacher of “homebound” disabled students asked me to accompany her to the home of one of her students, to evaluate her learning potential and see if I could make any recommendations. The girl was nine or ten, blind, spastic, and severely developmentally disabled.

The family was poor, and lived in a house in the woods – simply furnished but immaculately clean. The girl’s mother took us to the parlor, where the girl – dressed in pajamas as I recall – was strapped to a wooden armchair to prevent self-injury. Her unseeing eyes darted around in response to sounds; her head and limbs jerked spasmodically; her mouth was slack and her face expressionless. I felt inadequate to the task at hand, but watched intently as the teacher interacted with the child – holding her hands, stroking her cheek with a finger, and talking to her. I saw no signs of comprehension, and the girl’s facial expression remained blank.

Then the teacher produced a portable 45 rpm record player from her accessory bag and plugged it in. She placed a record on the turntable, turned it on, and placed the needle in the rotating groove. The song that played was “I’m a little teapot/short and stout./Here is my handle/here is my spout.” Clearly, the teacher had played this song many times before, because the girl’s face lit up in a smile and she made happy noises. And in that instant, I knew that I was in the presence of God.

I was, and remain, an agnostic. But I have no other words for what I felt – what I knew – at that moment. I can’t identify any changes in my philosophy or in my life that resulted from my epiphany (in the older sense of the word), but I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from that child. The best I can put it in words is, “if there’s a God, it’s EVERYTHING.” This is identical to the Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God.

When people ask me if I believe in God, and I have the time, I respond, “Define God.” To me, whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If there is a God, I don’t believe It has a gender or a preferred name, but is beyond comprehension. If I were any kind of theist, I’d be a pantheist. Pantheists are always in a holy place.

More about mystical experiences in my next post.

 

Unrigging the System

This will be my first post on a political topic, because of its importance. Like many other citizens – Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents – I believe that the political system is rigged, and is no longer “of, by and for the people.” Two weeks ago my wife Maria and I attended the second annual Unrig Summit, in Nashville. Last year we attended the first Unrig Summit, in New Orleans. The movement seems to be gaining momentum, and there have been legislative victories in several states since the first summit. The movement’s primary goals are to get Big Money and the corruption it enables out of politics, and to hold elections that are free and fair. (One presenter said that the country suffers from “electile dysfunction.”) Regardless of political affiliation, the attendees were united in their conviction that allegiance to country supersedes allegiance to political party. All of us who believe in democracy need to unite, to unrig the System.

In successive rulings, the Supreme Court has decided that (1) corporations should have the basic rights granted to actual persons under the Constitution, that (2) money, in the form of political contributions, is a kind of free speech, and that (3) there should be no limit to the amount of “free speech”  rich donors could contribute to political campaigns. The latter ruling is known as Citizens United, and can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment.

To me, the reasons for Citizens United are absurd, because it makes “free speech” quantifiable – a concept that had never occurred to me before. By law, rich people now have more free speech than the rest of us. This isn’t what our Founding Fathers intended in establishing the right of free speech. There are several national organizations dedicated to overturning Citizens United, including Stamp Stampede. I stamp all of my paper money with the message “Corporations aren’t people. Amend the Constitution.” Each bill I stamp will likely pass through dozens of hands, promoting the message that corporate personhood is a legal fiction that should be abolished. Corporations can’t serve time in jails and prisons, let alone be executed, if they break the law. Why should they have all of the constitutional rights that citizens enjoy? Why do giant corporations need to be protected from the rest of us? It makes no sense.

Another continuing threat to our democracy  is gerrymandering – as well as other voter manipulation/suppression schemes. Both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering to allow politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. It’s necessary to  re-apportion voting districts every ten years, after the census, as populations change in many districts. The question is, who decides how districts are re-apportioned? Does the dominant party in each state get to re-draw the lines, in ways that benefit their candidates? Or do the people in each state get to decide, via bi-partisan citizen re-districting commissions?

True democracy depends on free and fair elections, and anyone who seeks to skew elections to benefit their party either doesn’t understand or doesn’t trust the democratic process. My fears that we’re already an oligarchy (ruled by an elite, as in Russia), rather than a true democracy, were stoked by the passage of Citizens United. We haven’t been a true democracy for very long. Women weren’t enfranchised nationally until 1920, and Jim Crow laws disenfranchised millions of African Americans until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plutocracy is a form of oligarchy, and I believe that we’re already being ruled by the rich, and not by the electorate. The rich have an army of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington that far outnumbers our elected representatives.

Re-claiming (or establishing) true democracy in America isn’t a partisan issue. A solid core of citizens on both the Left and Right advocate unrigging a rigged System. So, how do we go about undoing decades of political corruption, financed by the rich? First, we have to overturn Citizens United, and to establish that corporations don’t have all the rights of actual people. Then we need to close the revolving door between serving as a legislator, and then becoming a high-paid lobbyist for special interest groups. These days, too many people enter  politics with the goal of enriching themselves. Private gain is antithetical to public service, and our national legislators need to stop depending on special interests and powerful individual donors to finance their re-elections, if our democracy is to survive.

All it takes for oligarchies to thrive is ignorance and/or indifference on the part of the electorate. Since the rich control the popular  media, the average citizen is influenced by “invisible” propaganda/PR campaigns that exist to promulgate ignorance on a mass scale. Orchestrated ignorance leads to public indifference, or to antipathy toward the targets of the propaganda campaigns. Back in 1920, Walter Lippman coined the term “manufactured consent” to describe how the electorate can be manipulated into political impotence.

We the people can establish/re-claim true democracy if we have the information and the will. We’re facing a daunting opposition from the plutocrats  who are currently calling the shots, but I believe that it’s not too late to unrig  the System. Check out the Unrig Summit website if you want to find out more about the movement. (Jennifer Lawrence moderates one of the panels.) You can watch all of the plenary sessions in their entirety, get inspired, and get an idea of what you can do to help restore democracy in the United States.  I especially recommend the Saturday morning plenary session, which starts with a stirring oration, and introduces some of the movers and shakers in the movement, who are getting things done in their home states.

 

Saving Spaceship Earth

Buckminster Fuller was a great admirer of Leonardo di Vinci, calling him “The outstanding example of the comprehensively anticipatory design scientist.” That’s also a good way of describing Bucky. He was a visionary, who saw things not only as they are, but the way they could be. He wrote Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969, and was one of the first to warn of our current climate crisis. Citing our over-reliance on fossil fuels, he described our current industrial path as “lethally ignorant and utterly irresponsible.”

At the end of my last post, I wrote about how Fuller challenged the whole modern concept of wealth. Such wealth, we wrote, was “a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing, and does not correspond to the accounting process of our real universe’s evolutionary transaction.” In other words, our current conception of wealth is arbitrary, contrived and unnatural. Fuller saw constant competition between economies/nation states as a global problem that has to be solved, if Spaceship Earth is to remain sustainable. He called nation states “blood clots” in the global metabolism.

Although he saw us on a lethal trajectory, Fuller believed that mankind could re-design the way the world is run, and that the lives of our descendants depend on doing just that. He believed “(that)  humanity can afford to do anything it needs and wishes to do, and that it cannot afford to do anything else.” He believed that we’re in an era of over-specialization, and that we have to learn to think comprehensively. “All other living creatures are designed for highly specialized tasks. Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and coordinator of local universe affairs.”

Observing that the Earth didn’t come with an operating manual, Fuller did his best to remedy that. Actually, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is more like a roadmap than a manual. Bucky first provides an explanation of how we got to where we are. He shows how the Great Pirates secretly ruled the world (from the Renaissance  until WWI) and shaped the modern world order. He then proceeds to show us how we  can “make the world for 100% of humanity,” if we have the will to do it.

A world divided into nation states just seems to be the natural order of things; it’s all we know. But Fuller tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Constant economic competition between nation states creates myriad local and national zero-sum games (i.e. in order for someone to win, someone has to lose), all over the world. This is the opposite of synergy. One of Fuller’s long-term goals for our spaceship was “complete world de-sovereignization.” We’re a long way from creating a world without borders and competing sovereign leaders. Will we ever get there? Fuller said that we must, if we want to preserve life on Spaceship Earth.

Even back in 1969, Fuller could see how the use of computers would transform our lives. He characterized the computer as “the evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity.” He was an optimist, and believed that computers had a tremendous potential to unite people. He wrote,”. . . we can make all of humanity successful through science’s world-engulfing industrial evolution. . .” Fuller observed that as societies become more industrialized, birth rates inevitably fall. He concluded that world-wide industrialization would result in a significant slowing of population growth.

A world made up of competing economies isn’t conducive to world economic synergy (i.e. doing more with less). “The synergistic effectiveness of a world-around integrated industrial process is inherently vastly greater than the confined synergistic effect of sovereignly operating separate systems.” As an example of synergy within a society, Fuller writes about the synergistic effect of the GI Bill, after WWII. There were too few jobs for the returning soldiers. Both as a reward for their service and as an economic stimulant. the GI Bill enabled thousands of servicemen and servicewomen to attend college. The consequent explosion of knowledge, as well as the increased availability of professional services, enriched our society economically and culturally. The ripple effect is still being felt.

Fuller concludes, “We can no longer wait to see whose biased political system should prevail over the world.” The task we should be about is “making humanity comprehensively and sustainably successful.” If we don’t come up with comprehensive, synergistic solutions to our most pressing contemporary problems, we face extinction as a species and, possibly, the death of the biosphere. We’re all astronauts on Spaceship Earth.

If you want to find out more about Bucky, the World Game, or the “comprehensive, anticipatory design science” approach to solving world problems, check out the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s website.

Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller was surely one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. He was an architect, author, designer, systems theorist  and futurist,  best known for popularizing the geodesic dome and coining the term Spaceship Earth. He obtained over 28 U.S. patents and published more than 30 books. Some of his writing is nearly incomprehensible in its density of thought, but his best writing is brilliant. Acknowledging his unconventionality, he sometimes referred to himself as Guinea Pig B – an intellectual rebel who thought outside the box and encouraged others to do the same. Along with many others, I consider him a genius, who thought and wrote comprehensively about how mankind could unite and innovate, to prevent “man’s spin-dive toward oblivion.”

Fuller’s geodesic dome had intrinsic design flaws that kept them from being widely-used as permanent structures, but captured the world’s attention, as did “Bucky’s” conception of our planet as a self-sustaining “spaceship” on which we all depend for survival. He wrote about the comprehensive propensities of whole systems and synergetics within systems. He also wrote about ephemeralization – doing more with less, or as he put it, “maximum gain. . .from minimal energy input.” He envisioned a world with practical, inexpensive housing and transportation for all.

Bucky was big on neologisms, among them “dymaxion,” which was cobbled together from dynamic/maximum/tension. He used it as a descriptor for a number of his inventions, which included a dymaxion car, a dymaxion house, and a dymaxion toilet. He also designed a dymaxion map of the globe, which eliminated the distortions of the commonly-used Mercator projection. He envisioned a single, world-wide electrical power grid. He also came up with the World Game (really a learning tool), in which players attempt to solve world problems by cooperating and thinking comprehensively.

Of himself, he wrote “I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” Fuller was self-employed for most of his life, but amassing wealth was never a goal. He made money from some of his patents and from lecturing, all over the world; but few of his inventions made it past the design or prototype phase. His dymaxion car, house and toilet never went into mass production. It was his ideas that made him an influential designer, systems theorist, and writer.

Of the several books by Fuller that I’ve read, my favorite is Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which is just over 100 pages in length. Although short, it’s very dense with ideas. It’s a briefly-comprehensive analysis of how capitalism and communism came to be the dominant economic systems on the planet, and what need to be done to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable.

Fuller contends that we’re clinging to outdated notions, in trying to solve contemporary problems. “Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” Universities, he points out, have been organized around specialization. But then he gives examples of how over-specialization, in tribes and in animal species, leads to extinction. He argues that we need to think comprehensively, in terms of whole systems, if we are to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable. We are all astronauts, he writes, who rely on Earth’s life support system; but we have been “mis-using, abusing and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”

Our current world political/economic system, Fuller writes, is the legacy of men he calls the Great Pirates. “The Great Pirates came into mortal battle with one another, to see who was going to control the vast sea routes and eventually the world.” The Great Pirates were fabulously wealthy men who developed a comprehensive view of the disparity of wealth around the world, and used their knowledge to further enrich themselves. “Knowledge of the world and its resources was enjoyed exclusively by the Great Pirates, as were the arts of navigation, shipbuilding and handling, and of grand logistical strategies.”

The Great Pirates propped-up monarchs to advance their agendas. (For instance, the British East India Company was chartered by the Crown to trade, to plunder, and to build the British Empire.) They recruited the best and brightest as specialists, to keep them informed and in power. Universities were endowed, to turn out specialists to serve the Great Pirates. They developed a model of wealth – and competition for wealth – that persists to this day, in both capitalistic and communistic societies.

Fuller challenges the whole modern concept of wealth as something to be accrued by the rich at the expense of the poor, and re-imagines it as a commonwealth on which our planetary survival depends. He indicts both capitalism and communism as outdated models for the distribution of wealth, defining wealth as what benefits all of mankind and preserves our spaceship for future generations. Bucky’s life goal was to set the wheels in motion to “make the world for 100% of humanity.”

More about Bucky in my next post.

The Peace Corps experience

Have you ever considered serving in the Peace Corps? Even before we got married in 1990, both Maria and I had, and we’d both lived abroad (Maria in Korea and me in Austria and Germany). Within weeks after our wedding we applied to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). At that time only one-in-three applicants was selected to serve. Would-be PCVs don’t typically choose where they’ll serve, although fluency in the language spoken is a given host country can be a determining factor. The more open you are to serving wherever your skill set is needed, the better your chances of selection. We were approved for service after a lengthy application process, and were selected by Jamaica. We had two weeks to decide if we’d accept Jamaica’s invitation, but it didn’t take us an hour after reading about our assignment to call Peace Corps headquarters in D.C. and accept. We put all of our belongings in storage, and sold our cars around the time we got our plane tickets in the mail.

The Peace Corps is an independent government agency, not a branch of the State Department. It currently has volunteers in over sixty developing countries around the world. PCVs aren’t sent to these countries to advance or influence American foreign policy, but rather to share their skills with host country nationals, in the service of sustainable development. Each volunteer serves within one of six sectors: education, health, agriculture, community economic development, youth in development, or environment. The host country, not the Peace Corps, decides how many volunteers in each sector they need, and where they will serve. Most PCVs serve for two years, after training.

In order to qualify for Peace Corps service, you have to be at least eighteen and in good general health. Most volunteers have at least a bachelor’s degree, but exceptions are made for people with experience in certain areas, including construction, business and forestry. To be accepted, you have to pass a physical (which the Peace Corps pays for) and establish that you’re not fleeing indebtedness or legal charges. People who’ve served in intelligence agencies like the CIA need not apply. You have to have a skill set (and in some cases, appropriate certification or licensure) that people in host countries need to support development projects. The largest sectors are education and health.

Some personal qualities that make for a good PCV are good people skills, self-confidence, autonomy, flexibility, and persistence in the face of obstacles. Peace Corps service is always an adventure, and sometimes an uphill struggle. As I wrote in my book, Two Years in Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, Peace Corps service can be likened to climbing a mountain; you wind up knowing more about yourself than about the mountain.

In most host countries, accepted applicants have to have three months of in-country training, including language lessons, before they’re sworn-in as PCVs and start their assignments. But since English is Jamaica’s official language, Maria and I only had six weeks of in-country training before we were sworn in (the same oath as when I joined the Army) and started working. Two things stand out from our training as development workers in Jamaica. The Peace Corps Country Director said something to the effect of, “If you think of Peace Corps service as ‘giving up’ two years of your life, Jamaica doesn’t need you that badly. You’re here to live in Jamaica for two years, and to learn as well as to teach.” A Swedish guest lecturer with years of experience in international development work said something like this: “For at least the first six months, keep your mouth shut, and your ears and mind open. Nobody needs to hear you telling them the right way to do things. You need to establish trust and credibility before you start offering advice.”

Maria taught psychiatric nursing, but had to get licensed as a Jamaican nurse before she could join the faculty at the School of Nursing. When we applied, having no idea where we’d serve, I thought I’d end up teaching English somewhere, as I have a B.A. in English. I never dreamed that I’d serve as a psychologist. But the University Hospital of the West Indies had just opened a detox/rehab ward for Jamaican addicts, and my skill set was just what they needed. So I served as the ward psychologist, and helped to develop a relapse prevention model for the ward.

As a PCV you don’t get paid a salary, but you get a living allowance that allows you to get by on the local economy. Every month you serve, a modest amount of money ($200 when we served) is set aside for your readjustment allowance, after you complete your service. Not all PCVs fulfill their two-year obligation. Some volunteers leave behind a lasting accomplishment,  however small, in terms of sustainable development in their sector; others don’t. But I still think that the Peace Corps gives more “bang for the buck” in terms of winning friends for the U.S. in developing countries than aid agencies like U.S.A.I.D., because Peace Corps service is all about developing helping relationships within host country agencies and Non-government Organizations (NGOs).

PCVs are citizen “goodwill ambassadors,” because they work at ground level with host country counterparts. After I was robbed on a bus in downtown Kingston, I heard a fellow commuter sympathetically refer to me as “jost a workin’ mahn” because – although white – I rode the bus to work, just like them. It was one of the best compliments I received while working in Jamaica.

Maria and I didn’t serve simply out of altruism or idealism. Peace Corps service was an opportunity for cultural enrichment and personal growth. We got to know the beautiful island of Jamaica, it’s people and culture. Not all PCVs leave behind an identifiable accomplishment in terms of sustainable development in their host countries; but Maria helped Jamaican nursing students to view mentally ill people as human beings first, and not as “mental patients.” I recently learned that the relapse prevention model I introduced on the detox/rehab ward is still being used at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Maria and I still echo what’s been called the “Peace Corps mantra”: we got more than we gave.

 

What is obscene?

My Webster’s Dictionary uses the following adjectives (among others) to characterize the essence of “obscenity”: foul, filthy, repulsive and disgusting. As a philosopher, I have to ask, “offensive/repulsive/disgusting to whom? Walt Kelly – creator of the Pogo comic strip – wrote, “One man’s obscenity might be another man’s lunch.”

What is obscene to you depends on your values, and perhaps the cultural norms you were raised under. It depends on what offends you as an individual or, some would say, what excites you in a way that makes you feel guilty. It’s been said that obscenity is whatever gives the judge an erection. Traditionally in our culture, obscenity refers to depictions (or descriptions) of sexual acts, but not to violent acts such as beatings, torture, murder, or explosions. This is due to the sexual repression that is deeply-rooted in our society, as exemplified by our collective fetish with  women’s breasts – as long as the nipples are covered. It isn’t like that in Europe. “Reality TV” shows that feature naked people with their “naughty bits” digitally blurred are especially obscene, to me.

Some Americans consider full frontal nudity (aside, perhaps, from the fine arts) to be obscene in itself, and many more consider any explicit depiction of sexual activity to be obscene, or pornographic. This is often rooted in repressive religious traditions that venerate birth, but characterize sexual pleasure as inherently sinful. And the aftermath of female ovulation, to which we all owe our lives, is regarded as “unclean” and/or shameful in many cultures. Clearly, things that are regarded as obscene are things that elicit visceral responses, whether lust or disgust.

When I was a young man, I introduced my parents to the concept of “obscene wealth.” It had never occurred to them that being extremely wealthy, while those around you are starving, could be regarded as an obscenity; but they eventually understood my reasoning. They had a harder time grasping the notion that violence, not sex, should be regarded as obscene. No consensual sexual act is obscene in the way rape and sexual molestation (a subset of rape, not a different thing) are obscene.

The concept of  a “right to privacy” is a fairly recent social innovation. For most of human history, privacy only existed for the privileged few. Most people who have ever lived grew up witnessing sexual acts as a part of daily life. The concept of sexual acts as intrinsically obscene is a culture-bound convention, rooted in patriarchal religious dogma.

Although I honor the soldier’s profession and served in the Army, I consider war to be an obscenity. I consider torture, rape and sexual exploitation obscene. I consider slavery, extreme economic exploitation, race hatred, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing obscene. And I consider some pornography to be obscene, if it normalizes sexual exploitation or degradation. Depictions of sexual and/or violent activity may arouse or disgust us. We don’t have to apologize to anyone for our reflexive visceral responses, only for bad behavior. (As a therapist, I encountered quite a few people who felt frightened or guilty about having felt aroused by something unexpectedly, or by something their religion told them it was sinful to be aroused by.) It’s been said that ugliness is as compelling as beauty; and ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

It was Lenny Bruce who educated me about obscenity. He took standup comedy in new directions, exposing sexual hypocrisy in ways  that no other comedian had ever done. He once tried to  explain his act to his trial judge, who then found him guilty of the crime of obscenity. When I was home, on furlough from the military academy I attended, my mother and I would have late night discussions on a variety of topics – even sex. (Mom was always more comfortable than Dad, talking to her kids about sex.) During one discussion, I made an observation about our society’s sexual repression. Mom said that she thought our society was obsessed with sex, to which I replied that obsession and repression are opposite sides of the same coin. We’re obsessed with breasts, but a woman can be arrested for “indecent exposure” if she exposes her nipples in public.

Then I made the point that there’s no “respectable” action verb in English for the sex act. We use circumlocutions such as “have sexual intercourse with.” She got my point, and we both knew we were talking around “the f-word.” I had recently read The Essential Lenny Bruce, and I talked about how he’d gotten arrested for using the word “fuck” onstage. Having just made the point that there’s no acceptable  word for the sex act, I thought I could actually use the word, in this context. I was wrong. Mom was shocked. End of conversation.

Although my father could be quite profane, he never cursed in front of Mom, and profanity was forbidden in the house. The next morning, I got a stern lecture from Dad, and he made it perfectly clear that I was never to use the f-word in front of my mother again. And I never did.

Flash forward twenty years. The whole family were avid SCRABBLE players, and after we three siblings were on our own, Mom and Dad played even more frequently. Dad joked that SCRABBLE had replaced sex in their marriage. “We do it every Wednesday, and sometimes twice on Saturday!” On one visit to their home, I was sitting at the table with both of them, and Dad asked me if I remembered the night I’d said the f-word in front of Mom. I told him that I did, and assured him that I’d never done it again. He grinned and said, “She used “fuck” playing SCRABBLE recently.” Mom looked sheepish and said, “It was the only way I could get my “k” on a double-letter score!”

Motivation affects perception, and obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.