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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

where we come from & where we're going.

I am greed. 

I live in your very cells, a genetic response to the monumental struggle to possess and maintain possession over vital resources. Back when you were closer to animal than human, I controlled you.

A social attitude, born of a need to survive as a family, then a tribe, then a nation. Back when you were closer to warriors than diplomats, I controlled you.

I am a feeling you cannot quite shake. You are beholden to me, to the push I represent. I am there, in your conscience, in your gut, in your lungs. I urge you to take, and never to give. Now, in this moment, I control you.


The human body is a response to the choice of two other human individuals to conceive a child. The human personality is a response to the choice of many individuals to create a culture. The human being is mostly a product of social and environmental factors. The human being lives because of others, loves others, hates others. The only constant in our interactions with the world is otherness. We are here, secluded in ourselves, each of us a house undivided. But as a family, a community, a country, or a planet, we are dependent on our relationships with those other houses.

And yet we are beset by a mindset, one that perhaps is not entirely our fault, that breeds in us a terrible fear. We are afraid of not having enough, of dying from starvation, thirst, lack of shelter. We are afraid of social rejection, of poverty, of finding ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical social structure. These fears are born from our needs; we must, first and foremost, as natural creatures, protect and sustain ourselves.

The reality is that the only lasting way to ensure our own survival is through interdependence. Each person is, at the beginning of their lives, a dependent. And most people, at the end of their lives, are dependents. We spring forth from others, and we rely throughout our hundred or so years on others to give us food, water, shelter, respect, love, and community.

And herein lies the difficulty. Animals want to be independent; they want to amass for their own use the things which make their lives possible. We are animals, and the world we have built is an animal one. We take for ourselves, and we give much less often than we take. We cluck our tongues in sympathy over the starvation and oppression in the Third World, and then we go home to our spacious First World houses in our spacious First World cars. We eat large First World meals, and then we eat large First World desserts.  But the next day, when confronted with pictures of children in sub-Saharan Africa, with the staggering numbers of people dying of starvation in North Korea, with the terrible reality of violent regimes and unjust wars throughout the world, we cluck our First World tongues. And nothing more.

Now, I will be the first to freely admit that people in the developed and very wealth nations in North America and Europe do a lot of good for the rest of the world. And I am not up on my soap box reciting the Communist Manifesto. I, myself, lead a comfortable First World life, and I, myself, often fall victim to the desire to grow complacent. And at the core of that desire is greed. Greed whispers in our ears You first, and it brings to mind all the things we want when we go to the "Donate Now" tabs on the websites of UNICEF, Free the Slaves, World Vision, and all the other countless charities that work to make the entire planet a First World.

We are people, and inevitably people need others. We cannot go on living the way we are: destroying the environment, celebrating success above all else, and growing increasingly apathetic to tragedy and death. We are products of the world we come from, and if greed is allowed to run that world, we will eventually be products of greed, and nothing else.

So, I propose a solution. It is small. It may you cost you money; it may cost you time and effort; it may cost you a bit of discomfort. But it is necessary. I call all of us, myself included, to critically assess what we value, and to whom those values useful. If profit comes at the expense of peace, perhaps profit is not valuable. If comfort comes at the expense of life, perhaps comfort is not valuable. If financial security comes a the expense of human dignity, perhaps it is not valuable.

And above all, when you take for yourself, remember to give something to someone else.

We must define the world that defines us.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

mountain climbing with a monkey on your back

The ache in your legs in unbearable; its heat mirrors the cacophony of torches exploding behind your eyes. The monkey, black and snarling, hangs off your shoulders, its overlong nails cutting fiercely through your sinews and tissues; it raps on the bones, making a percussion at once terrible and beautiful,  but beautiful only to you. You know that to others it would be garish. You know that it is garish, and you want it to end.

The mountain before you is perfect, the quintessence of mountains. Its slopes are exact, its point glistens in the milky rays of the moon, also perfect. You have come so far, so close to collapse, or worse, time and time again, but here is the mountain. And here are you, at its base. It is not cold yet, but you know it will be, and your clothes are rags. Your mother once sang you a lullaby about a ragamuffin stealing bread, and now you know what it means; you understand why the ragamuffin steals, why the ruffian bites, why the tycoon sneers. It is the monkeys, the hordes of aping warmongers, seemingly ageless, that ride their backs tirelessly. You understand them now, as -- certainly -- you finally understand yourself.

Go, the trees command you. And you do; step by step, you begin to scale the mountain. Your hands slip, covered over with grime and sweat, but your feet do not falter. And all the while that terrible tapping, that horrendous display of fireworks behind your eyes. The need that you cannot satiate, the need that drives you higher and higher is enigmatic. It does not matter what I seek, you hear yourself think, only that I seek it. And so you climb, and you know the air is thinning. You can feel it sear your chest, feel the lightness in your head; the torches are so bright now!

But they are not torches any longer. No, you realize. They are lanterns. And they seem to stretch forward to the moon atop the mountain peak. If you can reach the moonlight, you know, you will be safe. Your fear seems indomitable, and so, too, that monkey on your back. What a bitter cliche, you think. But this is only a dream, and cliches are allowed in dreams. You know it is meant to teach you something, and yet you know that if you fail here, fail this imaginary feat of mountaineering, you will fail forever.

The wind chills your body to the bones, more ruthless, even, than the nails of the black thing that leers up at the back of your head. You capture lanterns as you walk. One, two, three, four, five -- you count them as the shining motes slip within your grasp. There must be hundreds, hundreds if not thousands of these lights. But the pain in your shoulders insists you continue, despite the answering pain in your chest and in your legs.

It is a herculean effort, but you begin to see snow. It is also lighted by the moon. It looks like granules of silver fire, and you remember the way you used to believe in magic. Perhaps you still do. You hope that you still do. It is only magic that will free you, after all.

Reaching the top of the mountain is not transcendent. You collapse, exhausted upon the stones, and you sleep sound as death. The moon is your final lantern, so close you could reach out and take hold of its powdery luminescence, but you do not have the strength for that. So you fall into oblivion instead, and you do not wake until high noon.

But as you start down the mountain, on its other side now and with the ocean waves in sight, you notice the monkey is gone. That, indeed, you took your baptism by fire--no, not fire: light. And it is the light in your eyes, when you finally see your reflection gazing up from a mountain pool, that convinces you a new time has come.


Thank you to all those who have shown me this year how to face, and overcome, challenges--particularly those terrible challenges that spring from within us.

May you find peace in 2013, and, as always:

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.