Words Create Worlds.6 Doctors Against Fascism

“Words create worlds,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]

“Words create worlds.” These are the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, here is the full quote, remembered by his daughter, Susannah Heschel:

“Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness — or evil — into the world.  He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.  Words create worlds he used to tell me when I was a child.  They must be used very carefully.  Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn.  The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”[2]

I have been writing this series, Words Create Worlds, based on the words and writing of Rebecca Solnit, Rob Riemen, Timothy Snyder, Madeleine Albright, Jason Stanley, and physicians: Bandy Lee, Robert Jay Lifton, and Judith Herman. I was inspired by these authors and particularly by Riemen’s To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism and Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names and their discourse about how words shape our reality. The title for this series of essays comes from Rabbi Heschel who cautions us to be careful with the words we use. I fear that these last four years we have been over-cautious in coming to call the words of the current president of the United States of America fascist. Dr. Bandy Lee’s Twitter profile states, “Uninvolved in politics until politics invaded my area of expertise. I take my professional responsibility to protect society seriously.” Similarly to Dr. Lee, I feel compelled to speak up politically because fascism is a public health crisis. As Foucault wrote, the “first task of the doctor is therefore political: the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government.”[3]

The Responsibility of Spiritual Democracy

As I was working on Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality with Joseph Rael, I began to see that while the spiritual path may lead away from society at first, it eventually leads back – one returns after initiation with a new found sense of responsibility for the land and all the creatures that live on it: four-leggeds, two-leggeds, fin-ed and wing-ed. The spiritual path leads to a sense of Oneness, of non-duality. When you start to feel One with creation, you realize that you are responsible for creation. Words create worlds. The etymology of the word “responsible” goes back to a similar word, “answerable.” To be on a spiritual path, which Joseph would say is the same as the path of being a True Human Being, is to be answerable to the Earth. This led me to feel that we had to write a section of the book on the responsibility of the spiritual seeker.

Joseph Campbell taught that the hero’s or heroine’s journey had three stages: separation from the known world, initiation into the new world, and then return to the old world, but now transformed and carrying a responsibility for healing and transforming the world. For our book, this meant writing about our interrelationship with the land; about moving from “other” to “brother and sister;” about Oneness and non-difference; and about the concept of spiritual democracy – the spiritual responsibility we have for all beings. This responsibility led to us losing our publisher as the book turned out to be 500 pages long.

Joseph Rael, in the early 1980s had a vision of men and women sitting in a circular structure, half above ground, half below, singing and chanting for world peace. He followed this vision across the globe, helping to create over 60 Sound Peace Chambers on four different continents. He was recognized by the United Nations for this work on world peace. It is this spirit of peace that leads to my now needing to speak words of peace to counter the 20,005[4] divisive words of fascism.

Circle of Light Sound Chamber

Being Present with Suffering

Words Create Worlds. To be silent or neutral is to take the side of the bully. There are times that one can lose one’s humanity through inaction. Yes, it is true that one can act without humanity as well, that is a definition of fascism: actions without humanity and against humanity. When I was going through medical school in the early 1990s, struggling with the dehumanizing aspects (Perri Klass described medical school as, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure), I was also reading the Chicago Tribune regularly, trying to understand what was happening in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I had read about World War II extensively when I was younger, I knew about fascism and genocide – but I struggled to make sense of what it meant to be a human being in the late 20th Century as I was immersed in learning the language of pathology and despair as I learned to diagnose and treat illness. I was overwhelmed by with the feeling that I was not being taught how to be human and present with either my suffering, my patients’ suffering, of the suffering of the world.

In The Shadow of the Slaughterhouse, D. Kopacz

In the Shadow of the Slaughterhouse: Silence is the Only Real Crime Against Humanity

I brought my friends together to write and to bear witness to the age. I was reading the Beats in those days, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and I loved how they created their own interpretive community and supported each other. The Beats didn’t shy away from suffering or madness, but bore witness to it, as Ginsberg wrote in Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” Or as William S. Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg, “Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavor. I cannot ally myself with such a purely negative goal as avoidance of suffering. Suffering is a chance you take by the fact of being alive.”[5] My friends and I put together an unpublishable manuscript that included cut-up art, multiple perspectives, and no coherent theme, other than a bunch of twenty-somethings let loose in the big city and reading a lot of books and trying to find their way in the world. I titled this collection, In the Shadow of the Slaughterhouse: Silence is the Only Real Crime Against Humanity. It included essays I wrote on the Native American genocide (from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) and an essay on witnessing and the survivor (from reading Terrence des Pres’ The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps). In a way, these essays on Words Create Worlds are a continuation of In the Shadow of the Slaughterhouse: Silence is the Only Real Crime Against Humanity. I cannot remain silent as the shadow of fascism falls across the country.

This is not the succinct entry into the topic of Doctors Against Fascism that I envisioned – but then, the fight against fascism is not through bullets or bullet points, but through re-humanization. What is more re-humanizing than stories about human beings trying to make sense of suffering and bear witness? It is our humanity, our shared humanity, that protects us against the dehumanization of fascism. All of us, as human beings, are responsible for humanity because we are part of humanity. Similarly, as creatures of the Earth we are all responsible for the Earth, as we are part of Her.

What it Means to be a Professional

I have been thinking about the idea of medical activism and what it means to be a professional.[6] In my work on re-humanizing medicine through the compassion revolution,[7] I have argued that much of what we are taught in contemporary medicine is how to be a technician rather than on how to be a healer. A technician is not a professional, necessarily, but someone who performs a set of route protocols and techniques. A healer, on the other hand, is someone who learns techniques, but who also learns humanity – for it is our human presence that we must bring to suffering. While a technique or protocol might treat a disease, suffering needs humanity and compassion. To this end I have continued to argue that as physicians we should be good technicians, but that we must also be good human beings. To be a good medical technician, we are required to engage in Continuing Medical Education. To be a good human being we have to seek out our own Continuing Human Education – this is what I call the counter-curriculum of re-humanization.[8]

To be a professional means that we answer to a higher calling than just simply doing our jobs or staying in our lanes,[9],[10] it means that we are responsible to humanity. This means that our job does not end at the walls of our exam room – our job as healers is to attend to the public health of humanity.

Witnessing Professionals

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Robert Jay Lifton describes the concept of health care providers as “witnessing professionals” who have a responsibility to confront malignant normality (such as when lies and cruelty become normality). Lifton ends the interview with the following statement:

“I always feel we have to work both outside and inside of our existing institutions, so we have to…examine carefully our institutions and what they’re meant to do and how they’re being violated. I also think we need movements from below that oppose what this administration and administrations like it are doing to ordinary people. And for those of us who contributed to this book [The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump] — well, as I said earlier, we have to be “witnessing professionals” and fulfill our duty to warn.”[11]

As Psychiatrists We Feel Obliged to Express Our Alarm

Robert Jay Lifton is psychiatrist and psychohistorian I greatly admire, he is a living example of a witnessing professional who has worked at both the individual and the societal level for healing. He and Judith Herman (another psychiatrist I respect) wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times March 8, 2017.[12]

“To the Editor:

“Soon after the election, one of us raised concerns about Donald Trump’s fitness for office, based on the alarming symptoms of mental instability he had shown during his campaign. Since then, this concern has grown. Even within the space of a few weeks, the demands of the presidency have magnified his erratic patterns of behavior.

“In particular, we are struck by his repeated failure to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and his outbursts of rage when his fantasies are contradicted. Without any demonstrable evidence, he repeatedly resorts to paranoid claims of conspiracy.

“Most recently, in response to suggestions of contact between his campaign and agents of the Russian government, he has issued tirades against the press as an “enemy of the people” and accusations without proof that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, engaged in partisan surveillance against him.

“We are in no way offering a psychiatric diagnosis, which would be unwise to attempt from a distance. Nevertheless, as psychiatrists we feel obliged to express our alarm. We fear that when faced with a crisis, President Trump will lack the judgment to respond rationally.

“The military powers entrusted to him endanger us all. We urge our elected representatives to take the necessary steps to protect us from this dangerous president.” (Robert Jay Lifton & Judith Herman)

A Duty to Warn

Dr. Bandy Lee organized an April 20, 2017 conference at Yale, entitled, “Does Professional Responsibility Include a Duty to Warn?” From this conference grew the first edition of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, and then the second edition with 37 experts, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. Dr. Lee and colleagues then formed the World Mental Health Coalition and published The World Mental Health Coalition Documents, which collects conference transcripts, media transcripts, letters and statements, a report on the Mueller Report, and a Prescription for Survival. Dr. Lee writes:

“Since society is one of psychiatry’s primary responsibilities, next to that of patients, there is unquestionably a duty not only to warn but to protect and to promote its wellbeing. We are bound by law in most states, as now replicated in multiple countries and even in fields outside of mental health, that we must warn even those who are not our clients in the case of danger. We also have an obligation not only to warn but to take steps to protect potential victims if security personnel will not act; safety is always first priority.”[13]

Agent 488 (aka Dr. Carl Gustav Jung)

There are precedents of psychiatrists using their skills for public health and safety. Robert Jay Lifton’s career as a psychohistorian is an example – understanding dangerous movements such as: Nazi Germany, Chinese thought reform, Aum Shinrikyō, climate deniers, and the current president of the USA. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl G Jung (aka Agent 488)[14] was recruited by the United States during World War II to provide psychological profiles of Hitler. Jung’s descriptions of Hitler’s psychology and behavior are eerily similar to the current president of the United States:

“All these pathological features— complete lack of insight into one’s own character, auto-erotic self-admiration and self-extenuation, denigration and terrorization of one’s fellow men (how contemptuously Hitler spoke of his own people!), projection of the shadow, lying, falsification of reality, determination to impress by fair means or foul, bluffing and double-crossing — all these were united in the man who was diagnosed clinically as an hysteric, and whom a strange fate chose to be the political, moral, and religious spokesman of Germany for twelve years.”[15]

Jung cautioned about Hitler’s systematic lying which he described as pseudologia phantastica. Is our current president’s 20,055 falsehoods (as of 7/9/20) another example of pseudologia phantastica?[16]

“A more accurate diagnosis of Hitler’s condition would be pseudologia phantastica, that form of hysteria which is characterized by a peculiar talent for believing one’s own lies. For a short spell, such people usually meet with astounding success, and for that reason are socially dangerous.”[17]

After World War II, many professionals wondered, “Why would so many apparently rational, even educated people, follow a fascist?”[18] Jung would say that those who do not deal honestly with their own shadow project it on to “others” who are then seen as bad, dangerous, untrustworthy. Jung saw Hitler as an inferior personality who was over-taken by his own shadow, projecting his own darkness on to the world and then trying to destroy his own darkness by destroying others. From that perspective, a fascist movement is a giant psychological experiment and a fight between those who have little self-awareness and do not take responsibility for their own darkness and those who are committed to truth and reality and are willing to introspect. Jung describes the formation of mass psychosis and mob psychology:

“Its leader will soon be found in the individual who has the least resistance, the least sense of responsibility and, because of his inferiority, the greatest will to power. He will let loose everything that is ready to burst forth, and the mob will follow with the irresistible force of an avalanche…[H]e symbolized something in every individual. He was the most prodigious personification of all human inferiorities. He was an utterly incapable, unadapted, irresponsible, psychopathic personality, full of empty, infantile fantasies, but cursed with the keen intuition of a rat or a guttersnipe. He represented the shadow, the inferior part of everybody’s personality, in an overwhelming degree, and this was another reason why they fell for him.”[19]

Untitled, D. Kopacz

The Plague of Fascism

As I have watched this regime unfold over the past four years, my early uneasiness has gradually turned to alarm. I think it is time for the Doctor to make the diagnosis: fascism, prognosis: serious.

In 1947, Albert Camus wrote his allegory on fascism, The Plague. Camus cautioned us, through his indefatigable Dr. Rieux,

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.”[20]

Dr. Rieux’s commitment to defend sick people as best he can reminds us of the professional commitment of Drs. Lee, Lifton, and Herman, as well as Dr. Fauci and all the frontline health care workers doing the best they can during this pandemic. Just as Lifton encourages us to be witnessing professionals, Rieux’s writing bears witness to the peoples’ suffering:

“It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”[21]

Camus’ choice of a plague as an allegory of fascism resonates with our current situation. We are currently in an actual viral pandemic of Covid-19 and this viral plague has further illuminated the plague of fascism. The president’s deplorable and counter-scientific handling of the pandemic has led to the United States of America, the country with the most expensive health care system in the world, and with 4% of the world population, to account for roughly 25% of the cases of Covid-19 worldwide. The president has contradicted and undermined scientists and physicians, he has encouraged the opposite of public health measures (ridiculing masks and those who wear them), he has preached economy over public health, and has spread over one-third of the global misinformation on the virus.[22] And, as of 10/2/20, the president himself is now infected with Covid-19, a carrier of the plague of the pandemic and the plague of fascism. However, we knew all along that we were electing a sick individual who is a plague – a plague of lies, a plague of bullying, a plague of divisiveness, a plague of crookedness, a plague of Covid-19 and, ultimately, a plague of fascism.

Doctors Against Fascism

The way you learn how to diagnose something in medical school is to see case after case after case – until it becomes automatic. At the first signs or symptoms, you see the incipient signs of a more serious illness. This is why we need Doctors Against Fascism – to diagnose and warn us that the fascist bacillus is starting to dehumanize our population and make it vulnerable to fulminant fascism.

The Doctor is in and has bad news for you – the prognosis of our nation’s health is serious. We are infected with fascism – it has taken hold in the brains of many of our citizens and it is spreading through our institutions. Words Create Worlds and we are surrounded by 20,055 and counting words of fascism. Every lie is an assault on reality and every bit of reality that is eroded weakens the immune system of democracy, making us vulnerable to infection with the unreality of fascism.

The Growing Stack of Books I Keep on My Desk as a Reminder

This series, Words Create Worlds, grows out of my work with Joseph Rael on peace. In Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[23]


[1] Life Between the Trees blog, https://lifebetweenthetrees.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/words-create-worlds-monday-morning-parable/. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 38.

[4] “In 1,267 days, President Trump has made 20,055 false or misleading claims,” Updated July 9, 2020. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s ongoing database of the false or misleading claims made by President Trump since assuming office. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.27babcd5e58c&itid=lk_inline_manual_2&itid=lk_inline_manual_2

[5] William S. Burroughs, letter to Allen Ginsberg The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Vol. 1: 1945-1959, p. 227.

[6] David Kopacz, “Medical Activism: A Draft Working Paper,” (8/11/20) in the Being Fully Human Blog, https://beingfullyhuman.com/2020/08/11/medical-activism-a-draft-of-a-working-paper/.

[7] David Kopacz, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine, Washington DC: Ayni Books, 2014.

[8] Ibid. Also see David Kopacz, “A Proposition for a Counter-Curriculum in Healthcare Education and Practice,” (9/10/16), Being Fully Human blog, https://beingfullyhuman.com/2016/09/10/a-proposition-for-a-counter-curriculum-in-healthcare-education-and-practice/

[9] “Doctors Revolt After N.R.A. Tells Them to ‘Stay in Their Lane’ on Gun Policy,” Matthew Haag, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2018. The original criticism was in a Tweet from the NRA, “Someone should tell self-important  anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.” https://twitter.com/NRA/status/1060256567914909702.

[10] “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns: At ‘woke’ medical schools, curricula are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness,” Stanley Goldfarb, Wall Street Journal, 9/12/19.

[11] http://billmoyers.com/story/dangerous-case-donald-trump-robert-jay-lifton-bill-moyers-duty-warn/

[12] Robert Jay Lifton and Judith Herman, “‘Protect Us From This Dangerous President,’ 2 Psychiatrists Say,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/opinion/protect-us-from-this-dangerous-president-2-psychiatrists-say.html

[13] Bandy X Lee, “American Psychiatry’s Complicity with the State,” in Bandy Lee (ed) The World Mental Health Coalition Documents, 299.

[14] Jung was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the organization that eventually grew into the CIA and INR, to provide psychological profiles of political leaders, foremost among them Adolf Hitler. Deirdre Bair, Jung: A Biography. New York: Back Bay Books, 2003, pages 481-495.

[15] CG Jung, “After the Catastrophe” (1945) in CW 10 Civilization in Transition, page 203.

[16] The Washington Post Fact Checker, 7/9/20, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.27babcd5e58c&itid=lk_inline_manual_2&itid=lk_inline_manual_2

[17] Ibid., 203-204.

[18] For a recent analysis of this question, see John Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers.

[19] CG Jung, “The Fight With the Shadow” (1946) in CW 10 Civilization in Transition, 220-223.

[20] Albert Camus, The Plague, New York: Vintage International, 1991, p. 127.

[21] Ibid., 308.

[22] Sarah Evanega, Mark Lynas ,Jordan Adams, Karinne Smolenyak, “Corona virus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’”

[23] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.

Words Create Worlds.4: The Fight for Humanity – or should we say – Working for Humanity

Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]

Are we in a fight for humanity? You bet your life we are. In 1973 Bob Marley & Peter Tosh wrote the lyrics:

 Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!

Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight![2]

Is fight the right word? Maybe there is a time to fight, even if you are a pacifist, but what does it mean to fight?

Maybe fight is not the right word, as it conjures up opposition and separation – and that is the very thing that we are “fighting” against. There is a quote, often attributed to Mother Teresa, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”[3] This captures the danger of fighting against something. Nietzsche warns us, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”[4] And yet, how do we respond to the growing fascism in the world and our history of colonialism and racial oppression and genocide? We have never recovered from racism, we have never fully addressed it. We are in the midst of a pandemic from Coronavirus COVID-19, and yet we are suffering from a re-infection of “the plague bacillus” of fascism.[5] Are not the risks of racism and fascism such that all human beings with a heart must necessarily “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights?”

Tree, Lime Kiln State Park, WA, D. Kopacz (2015)

Carl Jung’s 1946 essay, “The Fight Against the Shadow,” actually argues not so much for a fight against something outside in the world, but rather an internal struggle to acknowledge, own, and integrate one’s own shadow. While Jung comments on mass psychology and group psychosis following a fascist leader. He wrote that Hitler had an “unadapted, irresponsible, psychopathic personality, full of empty, infantile fantasies, but cursed with the keen intuition of a rat or a guttersnipe.” He also wrote that the reason that Hitler was so successful was because he “represented the shadow, the inferior part of everybody’s personality…and this was another reason why they fell for him.”[6] Jung seems to assume that the fight had to be done in the outside world, but that the cause and the ultimate cure had to do with each individual’s inner fight against their own shadow, to acknowledge, to accept, and to integrate so that one is conscious of this inner darkness within the heart of humanity rather than unconsciously acting it out in the world. He calls this a “moral evaluation,” and an “ethical responsibility.” He notes that the people who are capable of this are often not the political leaders, but the “moral leaders of mankind.” The “maintenance and further development of civilization depends on such individuals” to act in these roles of moral evaluation and ethical responsibility.[7] Jung’s defense against mass movements and collective psychosis resides in the strength of individuals to face their own darkness, for only one who has stood up to one’s own darkness can stand up to another’s darkness. As Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”[8]

Jung reorients us to the inner fight as well as the outer fight. From this perspective, we are the barbarians, they are not out there. The word barbarian originally meant “all that are not Greek,” and came from the Proto-Indo-European  root “*barbar- echoic of unintelligible speech of foreigners.”[9] A barbarian was originally just someone “other” than you whose speech you were to ignorant to understand. Somewhere along the way, though, we projected our shadow onto the other and imagined they were the ignorant and dangerous one. Look at the murder and pillage that the colonial empires of Europe let forth upon the world. When Jung met Ochwiay Biano (Mountain Lake) of the Taos Pueblo in Southwestern United States, he was told how the non-European sees the European.

“See…how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad.”[10]

Binding Sites of Coronavirus Covid-19, D. Kopacz (2020)

Perhaps Western civilization is not only barbaric and mad, but also sick. We evaluate the health of countries primarily by their economies. Economies are not people. As we have seen with the Coronavirus COVID-19, our health care systems, educational systems, our systems of justice, even our economic systems – were all in ill health and fractured. A few weeks of interruption of the economic machine and everything was revealed to be so very fragile and weak where we thought it was strong. “Civilized” people look with disdain and horror at earlier civilizations that sacrificed animals or people to the gods, however the Economy demands human sacrifices – homelessness, underfunded health care systems, underfunded education systems, the rape of the environment. If another civilization comes after this one, surely they will see us as mad, primitive, barbaric, worshipping false idols of money and profit at all costs, even the cost of our own humanity and our own home, Mother Earth.

Rebecca Solnit writes “Who Will Win the Fight for a Post-Coronavirus America?” in The New York Times, 3/29/20:

Every disaster shakes loose the old order: The sudden catastrophe changes the rules and demands new and different responses, but what those will be are the subject of a battle. These disruptions shift people’s sense of who they and their society are, what matters and what’s possible, and lead, often, to deeper and more lasting change, sometimes to regime change. Many disasters unfold like revolutions; the past gives us many examples of calamities that led to lasting national change.

How can we fight against this inner and outer madness that is the very structure of our economic civilization? As Charles Eisenstein writes, all the problems that we are facing are all part of one root problem: separation; and the only solution is that we need to move from separation to “interbeing.”

This book is a guide from the old story, through the empty space between stories, and into a new story. It addresses the reader as a subject of this transition personally, and as an agent of transition—for other people, for our society, and for our planet. Like the crisis, the transition we face goes all the way to the bottom. Internally, it is nothing less than a transformation in the experience of being alive. Externally, it is nothing less than a transformation of humanity’s role on planet Earth.[11]

Jung and Eisenstein point out that we do not know who we are and this ignorance is killing us – it leads to fascism, racism, plundering the environment, it leads to us seeing human beings and the environment as “other” as we only focus on this littlest, meanest little part of our larger humanity, our ego. We do not know who we are and this ignorance is killing us and turning our lives and world into a living hell.

Rob Riemen picks up this theme that we have forgotten our humanity. His book, To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism takes on the task of a response to the growing rise of fascism and the response being to reinvest in a kind of spiritual humanism. Perhaps, then, our fight is not against fascism so much as it is for every individual to have the right to choose the human, to choose humanism. This is not the kind of humanism that fundamentalists fear – although I am not exactly sure what they have to be afraid of, other than losing control of control.

Our true identity is determined not by nationality, origin, language, belief, income, race, or any way in which people differ from one another, but precisely by what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible: universal spiritual values that shape human dignity and that every man can adopt.[12]

This kind of humanism recognizes our sacred nature – a sacred humanism, a sacralizing of humanity. Riemen writes that some of the ways we can continue to rehumanize ourselves is through the arts, the humanities, and by learning from history. He also writes that we must have qualitative values, valuing the things that can be felt, but cannot be counted. He critiques a purely business or scientific view of humanity reduced to dollars, numbers, and percentages.

The religions tell us about the sacred, but if a religion leaves out the sacredness of humanity, it literally has no place on Earth. In promoting the idea of a sacred humanity, I am not speaking of one people’s religion, I am speaking of the religion of One people, a religion of humanity that recognizes the sacred in all human beings, in all beings, and in all the Earth.

I am working with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) over the last six years. The kind of work I do with him is listening, writing, and reading. The work that is most important to him is world peace and he was recognized by the United Nations for this work. Joseph’s grandfather used to say to him, “work is worship,” and that is the kind of work we do together – worship.

When Joseph had his vision of a Sound Peace Chamber in 1983 (a circular structure, half above ground, half below, with men and women sitting in a circle and chanting for world peace), he took a year looking for the best place to build it. After one year, the Spirit Elders came to him and asked why he hadn’t built it yet. Joseph said he was looking for the perfect place. The response was a beam of light that came from the Heavens to Earth and landed in his backyard. It turns out that the work for peace begins at home – in your own backyard!

Joseph learned, in the Tiwa language of Picuris Pueblo, that the name for God is Wah-Mah-Chi, which translates as Breath-Matter-Movement. This tells us that our breath, inspiration and expiration is sacred and holy. This also tells us that our matter, far from being dead or a neutral resource, is alive as well, and full of vital spirit. Movement, too, all of our movements and the way we touch each other is meant to be inspired and full of divinity. In the Tiwa linguistic world, everything is God – just as in the non-dual philosophies such as tantra and Non-dual Shaivism. God is not out there, God is everywhere. The question then is on what do we place value? What do we invest in?

Earth Child of Spiritual Democracy, J. Rael (1997)

Our contemporary civilization invests in money, economic growth, building capital. While the United States of America is often considered by many to be a “Christian” nation, it is actually a nation of heretics if money is placed before God and before humanity, because humanity is one of the homes of God on Earth. In The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad wrote, “This also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The question is what “this” refers to – is it inner Africa; up river; is it the pagan African people who are physically “dark;” is it King Leopold’s Ghost, the colonial conquest of Africa; or is it simply the darkness in our own hearts when we cease to honor the spiritual humanity of ourselves and others?

Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller describes the motivation behind dehumanization and objectification of others: “we anatomize them … we deprive others of their fullness.”[13] As I wrote in Re-humanizing Medicine,

“Stoller believes that reducing the other to a body part or replacing a relationship with an object is a psychological defense against the anxiety of relationship. The risk is that the process of dehumanization goes both ways. One cannot dehumanize someone and remain human oneself. It is not a human action to treat someone else as an object.”[14]

Stoller writes that the act of dehumanizing another “dehumanizes the dehumanizer.”[15] The colonial project of conquest, plundering resources, slavery, forced conversion to Christianity, the outlaw of indigenous languages and religions, and genocide, both cultural and literal, against indigenous peoples created a vast dead zone on the planet Earth, a vast zone of dehumanization and de-spiritualization, a hell on Earth. What does it matter if one is rich if one lives in hell? The outlaw of indigenous languages and spiritual practices, as in the United States until 1978, was a war against words because it was known on some level that words create worlds. The colonizers took the words right out of the indigenous peoples’ mouths and substituted their own words as they renamed and over-named the landscape in an attempt to make pale copies of the places they came from and from rulers, kings, and queens. Colonizers and colonized were both, thus, dehumanized.  

How do we fight against dehumanization? Is it ever human to fight? Or is the method, rather to get up, stand up, stand up for your rights – your human rights? We must choose the human, not the dehumanized. We must choose to re-invest in humanity by seeing the divinity within Breath-Matter-Movement. Is it possible to get up, stand up, stand up for your rights without turning it into a fight? What does it mean to fight?

fight (v.)

Old English feohtan ”to combat, contend with weapons, strive; attack; gain by fighting, win” … from Proto-Germanic *fe(u)hta … probably from PIE *pek- (2) “to comb, to pluck out” wool or hair (source also of Lithuanian pėšti”to pluck,” Greek pekein ”to comb, shear,” pekos ”fleece, wool;” Persian pashm ”wool, down,” Latin pectere ”to comb,” Sanskrit paksman- ”eyebrows, hair”). Apparently the notion is “pulling roughly,” or “to tear out one another’s hair.”[16]

How do we make sense of the etymology of the word, fight, referring to pulling hair? We can turn to Ayenwathaaa or Aiionwatha, whom we know in English as Hiawatha. While his life and words and legend belong to the Haudenosaunee, the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples, The Great Law of Peace (Kayanerenkó:wa) is said to be one of the inspirations for the Constitution of the United States of America (See the enlightening new book by Glenn Aparicio Parry, Original Politics: Making America Sacred Again).[17]

War & peace, fighting & working are all tangled up. Hiawatha can be translated as “He Who Combs.” He is called this because he was tasked with helping Great Peacemaker bring the New Mind, the Great Law of Peace, to the minds of humanity – however, he must first comb the snakes out of the greatest opponent to the New Mind, Atotarho.[18] Hiawatha was living a life of dehumanization and depravity prior to meeting Great Peacemaker, in some version of the story he was even a cannibal – a thing that feeds on humanity. When Great Peacemaker explained the Great Law of Peace to him, Hiawatha said, “I take hold, I grasp it. . . . Now what work is there for us to do?”[19] The work he takes on is to bring the New Mind of to those who have become dehumanized, who have lost their connection and memory of their own divinity. There are no enemies to the Great Law of Peace, only opponents, because once a human being makes the choice to be a spiritual human, to grasp a hold of the New Mind and the Great Law of Peace, that person becomes a carrier of Peace. Jacob Needleman, in discussing this story, writes that “man must experience himself as the force that resists the good.”[20] The beauty of this story, and by story I do not mean fiction, I mean medicine,[21] is that no one is forever lost, even the most depraved has the hope of redemption. As Joseph Rael says, Wah-Mah-Chi holds back a place of goodness in our hearts, no matter what we have done, no matter what we have seen.[22] Needleman sees in Hiawatha’s struggle to re-find this goodness within his heart the struggle that we, as citizens of the United States of America, must go through as well for our crimes against humanity.

Here…the legend speaks of a human crime for which no ordinary action can atone. Here the story may well be heard as speaking to our own remorse as we see in a clear light what has been done to an entire people. And here the tale echoes the constitutive legend of our own culture—the crime for which no ordinary action can atone, a level of self-remorse which demands of man an action of an entirely new quality. And for this action the man needs now to turn to the greatness he has seen in himself.[23]

In Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey model one of the stages before being able to return home is atonement, or as Campbell sometimes wrote, at-one-ment. We must do the work of the heart to atone for our own sins as well as those of our ancestors and culture. To do this means we must become at-one with them, we must bring together both sides of the wound, as was done in the Truth & Reconciliation work in South Africa after apartheid. Perhaps this is a way to look at our culture and society know, the places where we see separation are really two sides of the whole which the wound has cut apart. To pull further from each other only leads to deeper wounding. Also, continuing with this metaphor, we cannot simply force the edges of the wound together, without cleaning and what surgeons call “approximating” the edges of the wound, full-thickness from the base of the wound to the superficial edges – together. We are all wounded and we are all part of the wound and our healing cannot be done individually, it is only through collective healing that we can bring the division of the wound back together into a whole. Needleman and Hiawatha learn that the wound will be healed through the new idea of peace, an idea that is a power.

The New Mind has come to you . . . and you are miserable because the New Mind does not live at ease with old memories . . . Now you will work with me to bring justice and peace to those places where you have done injury to man. We will work together to bring to the earth the new idea of the peace that is power. Such is the work given to man by the Creator of Life.[24]

Needleman sees that we need a re-spiritualization of ourselves as human beings and or our democracy. Joseph Rael and I talk about the idea of Spiritual Democracy, in our book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. I came across this term in Steven Herrmann, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forwardand Herrmann found it in Walt Whitman’s writing.

Adopting the big idea of Spiritual Democracy, the realization of oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces, can help people feel joy, peace, and interconnectedness on an individual basis. It can also inspire us to undertake sacred activism, the channeling of such forces into callings that are compassionate, just, and of equitable heart and conscience, and give us some tools to start solving some of these grave global problems, while uniting people on the planet.[25]

“The written word, the spoken word,” writes psychiatrist Paul Fleischman, “is like a hand feeling its way into a dark room, looking for a switch.”[26] The switch that we are looking for is the one that turns on and illuminates our shared sacred humanity. We are not alone in this quest, as Fleischman writes in his book, Cultivating Inner Peace: Exploring the Psychology, Wisdom and poetry of Gandhi, Thoreau, the Buddha and Others

Shakers corresponded with Count Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s book was one that transformed Gandhi, and Shaker and Gandhian ideas re-molded Count Tolstoy into a Christian peasant Tolstoy. Whitman and Thoreau met and influenced each other, and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” became the manifesto for Gandhi’s social action. Scott and Helen Nearing read Whitman and Thoreau, as did Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore and Gandhi had a long relationship. John Muir’s favorite author was Thoreau. Thoreau “carried Leaves of Grass around Concord like a red flag.” Seekers of peace read each other, write to each other, influence each other. The quiet life of inner peace isn’t a vacuum.[27]

In Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, Joseph told us that we are all brothers and sisters. He says, “I am my brother’s keeper,” thus contradicting the first documented murder in the Biblical tradition. After Cain has killed his brother, Abel, God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain says “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Joseph would say, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper!” In Becoming Medicine, we move from us being brothers and sisters to us all being One, an identity of non-duality.

Joseph told me, when we were working on Walking the Medicine Wheel for veterans, that every veteran should get their DNA analyzed through National Genographic’s program, so that they would learn that we are all brothers and sisters, we all originally come from Africa. We know this is true through genetic science and the migrations of peoples. We also, literally, all have common human ancestors. We are all the sons and daughters of Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago. We also are all the sons and daughters of Y Chromosome Adam who lived between 150,000 and 300,000 years ago. Mitochondrial Eve’s initials are ME – this reminds us that we are all not just one family, but we are all One. Mother Earth’s initials are also ME, thus we are all relatives of the Earth and are One with the Earth. We are made of the Earth and the Earth moves from place to place through our Breath-Matter-Movement.[28]

Mother Earth Dreaming all of the Two Leggeds into Beauty, J. Rael (2006)

We all come from Africa and Joseph says that when he was growing up the Pueblo people would refer to Black people as “our ancestors,” recognizing that we are all related and honoring the Black people and Africa as our common homeland. And where did Africa come from? Africa and all the continents were once all part of One continent, Pangea, which slowly broke apart and is slowly coming back together to reunite in Pangea Ultima.[29]

We have a choice in this life, do we want to be Lumpers and Splitters? This is a concept Charles Darwin described in determining whether two individuals are part of one species or two different species. He noticed that some biologists tended to focus on small difference and others focused on large similarities. Science works, largely, through separation and differences. When you are doing science, it can be good to be a Splitter. However, when you are doing humanity, it is better to be a Lumper, and to see our common spiritual humanity. Another word for “doing humanity” is mysticism. Mysticism is the spiritual practice of being a Lumper, of attaining a sense of peace and unity – what is sometimes called, non-duality. Joseph Rael and I have chapters devoted to becoming a visionary, becoming a shaman, and becoming a mystic and really all of these are about another thing that Joseph often says, becoming a true human.

We must reinvest in our humanity, in our spiritual humanity. To reinvest means we need to take what we consider “mine” and we need to think of it, instead as “ours.” We are out of balance. We have too much energy going into separation, isolation, and hoarding. Our view of the economy and life as always moving toward some imagined future of better profits and no pain is obsolete. Our economy and civilization is based upon expansion. There never was any “empty” land to expand into, it was only other people’s land that we took, stole, signed treaties for and then broke later when convenient. Western civilization has stolen, pilfered, raped, and mutilated the earth and in doing this we have tortured and distorted our own humanity. Who will stand up for humanity? Who will get up, stand up for humanity. We must re-invest in humanity and that begins with you, that begins with me, that begins with us.

But if you know what life is worth

You will look for yours on earth

And now you see the light

You stand up for your rights. Jah![30]

I have been writing on this topic of how our “words create worlds” in relation to our spiritual and political situation. In working with Joseph Rael, writing Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[31]


[1] Life Between the Trees blog. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[2] Bob Marley & Peter Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up,” from the album, Burnin’ (1973).

[3] This quote is popularly attributed to Mother Teresa. The Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center site says that it is falsely attributed to her and that it is “significantly paraphrased versions or personal interpretations of statements Mother Teresa made; they are not her authentic words.” However the page does not say what the original quote or statement was. https://www.motherteresa.org/08_info/Quotesf.html She did speak out for peace, as in this letter to George Bush and Saddam Hussein in January 1991, “Please choose the way of peace… In the short term there may be winners and losers in this war that we all dread. But that never can, nor never will justify the suffering, pain and loss of life your weapons will cause.” “10 inspiring quotes by Mother Teresa,” curated by Jessica Durando, USA Today, published August 26, 2014, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/08/26/mother-teresa-quotes/14364401/

[4] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 134? What edition? Kaufmann translation?

[5] Camus, The Plague, 308.

[6] Carl G. Jung, “The Fight Against the Shadow,” Civilization in Transition, Second Edition, CW20, page 223.

[7] Ibid., 221.

[8] Carl G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, CW13, pages 265-266.

[9] https://www.etymonline.com/word/barbarian

[10] Ochwiay Biano, quoted in Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 247-248.

[11] Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, 6.

[12] Rob Riemen, To Fight Against This Age, 67.

[13] Robert Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1992), 32.

[14] David R. Kopacz, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transformation of Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine, 2014, 34-35.

[15] Stoller, 32.

[16] https://www.etymonline.com/word/fight

[17] Glenn Aparicio Parry, Original Politics: Making America Sacred Again. New York: Select Books, 2020.

[18] Needleman, Jacob. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003., 225

[19] Needleman, 225.

[20] Needleman, 230.

[21] see Kopacz & Rael, chapter “Story Medicine,” in Becoming Medicine: Pathways of a Living Spirituality, 2020.

[22] Kopacz & Rael, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, 254.

[23] Needleman, 223-224.

[24] Needleman, 224.

[25] Steven Herrmann, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward, xiii.

[26] Fleischman, Cultivating Inner Peace, 101–02.

[27] Ibid., 101–02.

[28] See Kopacz & Rael, Becoming Medicine, 368, 424-425.

[29] See Kopacz & Rael, Becoming Medicine, 361-379.

[30] Bob Marley & Peter Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up,” from the album, Burnin’ (1973). “‘Get Up, Stand Up’ was also the last song Marley ever performed on stage, on 23 September 1980 at the Stanley Theater, now the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” (Wikipedia, “Get Up, Stand Up,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Up,_Stand_Up, accessed 6/6/20.

[31] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.

Words Create Worlds.2

Words Create Worlds, Part 2: Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names

This is the second essay in the series published in The Badger, Autumn/Winter (10/3/19), Year 5, Volume 2, pages 52-63. Thanks to The Badger for permission to reprint!

“Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]

What we call things creates not just discourse, but reality. The words that we use and the words that we do not use lead us in certain directions and have different effects. Words are not just words, they are tools that shape, and give expression to, reality.

Words are Spiritual & the World is Spiritual

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made, (John 1:1).[2]

Neil Douglas-Klotz renders this from Aramaic as:

            In the very Beginningness

                was, is and will be existing

                the Word-Wisdom of the One,

                the ongoing Word and Sound

                the Message and Conversation

                that has not stopped

                and has never started

                because it is always Now.[3]

Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism also recognizes the importance of the Word, as Nataraja Guru has written in The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru:

There is nothing to know beyond the Word. The known, knowledge, and the knower meet in one presence in the Word…In never-ending beats, it continues in quantum pulsations of energy, to be calculated in split seconds or in millions of light-years, while new and unknown galaxies leap within the ken adding to wonder that is dumbfounding.[4]

Similarly, Southern Ute mystic, Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) sees the connection between sound and reality, as he writes, the “true basis for Universal Intelligence is sound. Out of sound comes everything.” It is through perception that creation comes into being. “We are perceivers, and it is in our act of perceiving that vibrations become sounds, smells, feelings and colors. In our act of perceiving, things take form.”[5]

Sun Through Trees Near Sol Duc River, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Words create our reality and our current reality is in crisis.

Across the world, in many different countries, politicians are rising to power using words of separation rather than words of union. This political crisis is a spiritual crisis because using words to create reality is a spiritual act.

In our book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality,[1] Joseph Rael and I felt that we had to include something about the pathway that the world is heading down, a pathway that can lead to a loss of peace, to the start of war. The world is currently on a pathway that is being paved with words of separation: racist words, belittling words, disrespectful words, manipulative words, fundamentalist words, totalitarian words, and fascist words. Common to all of these words is an underlying attempt to recreate a world of separation, isolation, and hate. Joseph has long been committed to world peace and he has worked toward this through the development of his Sound (Peace) Chambers on four continents. In Becoming Medicine we write about Spiritual Democracy (you can download that chapter here), which is the opposite of fundamentalism―it is about opening our hearts to others and seeking to act in such a way that encourages others to open their hearts. Fundamentalism is idolatry―the worship of a fixed thing. Spiritual Democracy is about allowing ourselves to be shaped and continually reshaped by Breath-Matter-Movement, by Wah-Mah-Chi (the Tiwa word for God). I came across Walt Whitman’s concept of Spiritual Democracy in the work of Stephen Herrmann in his book, Spiritual Democracy.

Adopting the big idea of Spiritual Democracy, the realization of oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces, can help people feel joy, peace, and interconnectedness on an individual basis. It can also inspire us to undertake sacred activism, the channeling of such forces into callings that are compassionate, just, and of equitable heart and conscience, and give us some tools to start solving some of these grave global problems, while uniting people on the planet.[6]

Sun Through Trees, Mt. Muller, Washington State, D. Kopacz (2019)

The Crisis of this Moment is Linguistic

Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names (2018) examines the uses and abuses of language in politics, stating that “one of the crises of this moment is linguistic.” The linguistic crisis confuses us about what is real, what is true, about who we are, and about our relationships with each other and the natural world. “Calling things by their true names,” Solnit writes, “cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” Solnit has long been concerned with the use of language and power in her writings on hope, trauma, community, and environment. She writes artful and thoughtful memoir that weaves in the political and the creative spirit. Her writings are not overtly spiritual, but I imagine she would be comfortable with the concept of spiritual democracy as she writes about human rights, human dignity, environment, and on women’s and indigenous rights. Her writing is a form of activism and she encourages us to make the world a better place. She sees that we are currently going down a pathway of brutality and if we do not start calling this pathway by its true name, we risk being swept into deeper brutality. “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.”[7]

One of the elements of the current pathway the United States (as well as many other countries across the world) is walking down is a pathway of isolation. Isolation and separation are based on dividing people into the “good and the bad,” those who belong and those who do not, those who have rights and those who do not. Anyone with a sense of history can pick out words and phrases that were used in racist, totalitarian, fascist regimes: “enemy of the people,” “those are some very bad people,” and “send them back.”

Glorious Disconnect

Solnit writes about what she calls a “Glorious Disconnect:”

If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected.[8]

Solnit points out how this underlying philosophy of disconnection and separation, which results in concrete policies, is also behind the current proliferation of “fake news.” “Taken to its conclusion,” she writes, “this worldview dictates that even facts are freestanding items that the self-made man can manufacture for use as he sees fit.”[9] This worldview influences our interdependence and interrelatedness with each other and the environment. In the mania to deregulate social and environmental protection, she sees the attempt to “deregulate meaning.”

If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end by denying the reality of facts, which are, after all, part of a network of systematic relationships among language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion; or, rather, you imagine both as products on the free market that one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.

. . .

And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with a confidence born of total destruction.[10]

This pathway of isolation is rooted in and creates loneliness, in fact, Solnit has an essay entitled, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump.” She writes about this loneliness coming out of power and privilege that insulates and isolates, until,

In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence.. . . When you don’t hear others, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it. That surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine that others exist in any true, deep way.[11]

Gerald Arbuckle, a New Zealander living in Australia who is a Catholic priest and anthropologist, also sees the current crisis of global political and religious fundamentalism as being rooted in loneliness and creating loneliness. His follow-up book to Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad (2017) is Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World (2018). Arbuckle points out that the United States is extreme in its individualism and that the “American Dream” includes contradictory values of competitive utilitarian individualism and egalitarianism. This pits the “rights of the individual” against the “common good.” The founding “myth” of the United States includes this tension between individualism (which when extreme creates isolationism and loneliness) and egalitarianism (which can create community and equality).

Arbuckle draws on his training as a cultural anthropologist to understand how groups function and to diagnose the various forces leading to our current epidemic of loneliness and fundamentalist totalitarianism. He points out how and why people use tactics of scapegoating, splitting and separating people into us and them, into “member” and “stranger.” He also draws on his training as a Catholic priest to point out how we can treat the current epidemic through creating love between neighbors. “The universal call to love one’s neighbor commits us to struggle for the common good. Individualism and individual and corporate greed contradict this imperative,” he points out. He quotes Pope Francis calling for a revolution of tenderness. “A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’ . . . When there is an ‘us’ there begins a revolution [of tenderness].”[12]

Rialto Beach, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Doing the Work that Matters

Both Solnit and Arbuckle tells us that our civil society and spiritual values are being degraded and negated. They point out how our current global epidemic of loneliness and totalitarianism is rooted in our use of language and how we use words to create worlds. We have a choice between worldviews of separation and worldviews of union. Making this choice begins with the words we use to describe and create reality. One of our choices is whether we focus on “me” or “we.” ME and WE are actually mirror images of each other, if you place WE over ME, you can see that they both are reflections as in a lake. There is a saying, which I have seen variously attributed, that “When you replace I with We, Illness becomes Wellness.” The words that we use create different stories, and we need to choose whether we want stories of inclusion (we) or stories of exclusion (me). As Rebecca Solnit writes:

The only power adequate to stop tyranny and destruction is civil society, which is the greater majority of us when we remember our power and come together. The job begins with opposition to specific instances of destruction, but it is not ended until we have made deep systemic changes and recommitted ourselves, not just as a revolution, because revolutions don’t last, but as a civil society with values of equality, democracy, inclusion, full participation—a radical e pluribus unum, plus compassion. This work is always, first and last, a storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story.’ . . .  To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter.

. . .

To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future, but we have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles, and resources; stories of heroism, brilliance, and persistence; and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in hand, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities.[13]

Doing the work that matters, this is what we are called to do. Joseph Rael reminds us that work is worship, so this work of activism, this work of story, this work of loving our neighbors, is a sacred work that we are called to do and that we are called to put into words so that we can create (instead of a world of hate, separation, and war) a world of love and peace.

Rialto Beach, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Next:

Worlds Create Worlds.3

Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning.

Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.

Throughout 2019 I was writing these Words Create Worlds essays that appeared in The Badger. In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[14]


[1] David Kopacz & Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. Seattle & Marvel: Condor & Eagle Press, 2020.


[1] Life Between the Trees blog. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[2] John 1:1, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition, Second Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

[3] Neil Douglas-Klotz, Original Meditation: The Aramaic Jesus and the Spirituality of Creation, 42.

[4] Nataraja Guru, The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru, 75, 78.

[5] Joseph Rael, Sound: Native Teachings + Visionary Art, 2.

[6] Steven Hermann, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward, xiii.

[7] Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names, 4, 1, 4.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid., 50.

[11] Ibid., 13, 15.

[12] Gerald Arbuckle, Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World, 215-216.

[13] Solnit, 184-185.

[14] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.

New Article in The Badger: Words Create Worlds, Part 2 Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names

My next article in this series on words creating worlds, fascism, and spirituality is out in The Badger online magazine! It can be found on pages 52 – 60.

This article focuses on Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Call Them by Their True Names (2019). Here are a few excerpts from the article and accompanying photos from the Olympic Peninsula.

“Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[i]

What we call things creates not just discourse, but reality. The words that we use and the words that we do not use lead us in certain directions and have different effects. Words are not just words, they are tools that shape, and give expression to, reality.

Words create our reality and our current reality is in crisis.

Across the world, in many different countries, politicians are rising to power using words of separation rather than words of union. This political crisis is a spiritual crisis because using words to create reality is a spiritual act.

One of the Crises of the Moment is Linguistic

Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names (2018) examines the uses and abuses of language in politics, stating that “one of the crises of this moment is linguistic.” The linguistic crisis confuses us about what is real, what is true, about who we are, and about our relationships with each other and the natural world. “Calling things by their true names,” Solnit writes, “cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.”[ii]


Sun through the Rain Forest, near Sol Duc River, Olympic Peninsula (D. Kopacz, 2019)

The Deregulation of Meaning

"If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end by denying the reality of facts, which are, after all, part of a network of systematic relationships among language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion; or, rather, you imagine both as products on the free market that one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning. . . . And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with a confidence born of total destruction."[iii] 

A Storytelling Work that Matters

"This work is always, first and last, a storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story.’ . . .  To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. . . . To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future, but we have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles, and resources; stories of heroism, brilliance, and persistence; and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in hand, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities."[iv]

Doing “the work that matters,” this is what we are called to do. Joseph Rael reminds us that “work is worship,” so this work of activism, this work of story, this work of loving our neighbors, is a sacred work that we are called to do and that we are called to put into words so that we can create, instead of a world of hate, separation, and war, we can create a world of love and peace.

Sun through the Trees, Mt. Muller, Olympic Peninsula

Next issue: Rob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

Throughout 2019, I will continue to write about some of these topics of how our “words create worlds.” In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[v]


[i] Life Between the Trees blog. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[ii] Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names, 4, 1, 4.

[iii] Ibid., 50.

[iv] Solnit, 184-185.

[v] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, (106).

Project from writing group: influential author

I have worked with some other people to start a monthly writing group and this was one of our exercises, to write about an author whose writing you find influential. I’ll include my piece on this below:

Rebecca Solnit is an American author that I only discovered upon moving to New Zealand. The first book of hers that I read was A Field Guide to Getting Lost, it seemed appropriate for me, as I was feeling adrift in my life, having just moved around the world and I was trying to get my bearings. This book examines many different kinds of getting lost, from getting lost in the woods, lost in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, lost in mental illness, losing one’s cultural heritage, getting lost in art, and losing one’s thread in life. Solnit explores these themes in a loose, and rambling manner, sometimes seeming to get lost herself, so that the reader asks, “where is all this leading, if anywhere?”
                She quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” She goes on to say that this seems to her the “basic tactical question in life.” “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else (4-5)?” Through studying the various different ways of getting lost, Solnit is secretly exploring the different ways of growing, changing, and transforming one’s self through the engagement in the painful and darker things in life. She often quotes Henry David Thoreau (another reason I like her books), for instance, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” (15).
                This permission to be lost in order to find oneself, came at a great time for me, as I struggled with my own issues of identity, place, and belonging.  I have long felt an outsider, and yet there are other times that I am very much an insider in certain situations. I have worked to make sense of my life by following a thread that leads sometimes internally, sometimes externally, sometimes through the “inside” of a system, organization, or profession, and sometimes on the “outside.” It was comforting to me to feel that there is a point in getting lost, and that point is growth and transformation.
                Another thing that I like about Solnit’s writing is that she is an idealist, a social activist, a realist, and a naturalist. She has a poetic sense and uses her own subjective experiences along with pursuing and developing ideas that don’t just sit on the shelf, but that engage with the world to create something positive. The next book of hers that I read was Hope In The Dark:  Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. In this book, she outlines a definition of hope, how to keep hope alive, and how to stay positively engaged in life, even when it so often seems like all hope is lost. 
What I like about Solnit’s writing is her embrace of idealism and realism, that when held together comprise paradox. Hope comes from despair, human connection asserts itself in the face of repression and disconnection, and one finds oneself through losing oneself. Other paradoxes that Solnit describes are that the word emergency contains within it the word emerge (12); and that darkness can represent both the creative darkness of the womb and or the terminal darkness of the grave (6). These paradoxes allow for both reality and idealism. Paradox allows for one to act in the world without having to be perfect, it allows for complexity, such as success and defeat both being present in the same action. Solnit argues that the very reasons for despair can also be the justification for engaging in the world.  She defines the word, activist “to mean a particular kind of engagement – and a specific politic:  one that seeks to democratize the world, to share power, to protect difference and complexity, human and otherwise,” (18). 
                Solnit argues 3 points in favour of hope: 1) when looked at historically, many positive changes have occurred already in terms of human rights; 2) change “takes place in more protracted, circuitous, surprising ways than is often acknowledged;” and 3) despair is often a result of misunderstanding change, thinking that only success validates hope, and thinking that activism is the exception rather than the rule of continual engagement in life (pgs. 151-152). 
                I came across Rebecca Solnit’s writing at a very good time for me. Personally, my decisions to move from the US to New Zealand were due to both a pulltowards New Zealand and a push away from the economic and political problems in the US. Moving to another country brought up issues of identity and belonging for me, as well as the familiar question of to what extent am I an insider and to what extent am I an outsider. In addition to the Solnit’s positive messages about the benefits of getting lost and the necessity and reality of hope, she is American in the best sense of the word.  She frequently draws on the best American principles, such as Thoreau’s civil disobedience, love of nature, and opposition to slavery. She also draws on the struggles and victories of many Americans who are unknown to the larger world and history. 
                Solnit also draws on voices of freedom from around the world, such as an unknown person who goes by the name Subcommandante Marcos, a leader of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. Marcos has issued a series of proclamations. An excerpt from the Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle reads, “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery.  In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror…we must raise an International of Hope. Unity beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope,” (39-40). To me, Solnit’s writing stands for these universal human rights:  the International of Hope and the flower of hope; the engagement with a “living humanity;” and also the best of American ideals and pragmatism.  Last of all, Solnit argues that the act of writing, itself is an act of hope. She states that writing “is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no  one is a bigger gambler,” (65).

Considering Identity and Culture

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains,” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 13).

I was recently talking with someone about culture and trying to figure out how to understand different challenging interactions. I was starting to realize that in any cross-cultural interaction, at least 4 different factors need to be considered, my personality, my culture, the host culture, and also the sub-culture I am interacting with (or the personality of a particular person I am interacting with). 
I have driven myself crazy sometimes, trying to analyze how much each of these different factors is contributing. At other times, I have tried to change my personality to try to “fit” into the culture or sub-culture, which doesn’t really seem to work. 
Realizing that there are so many different factors at play in any interaction does give me a better appreciation of how complex interpersonal and cross-cultural interactions really are, and it gives me pause to not feel as much like I need to “figure it all out,” and to try to let myself understand things as I go along. 
I received a card awhile back that has the following quote on it, “We cannot discover new oceans until we have courage to lose sight of the shore.” I suppose this is kind of the dilemma of my feeling that I need to “figure things out,” that I keep trying to chart the map at the same time that I am exploring the “ocean,” and these are two contradictory things, as one really needs to get lost before one can find something new. The challenge is allowing myself to feel lost for awhile to learn, rather than at the first sense of feeling lost trying to immediately find my place on the map.
I was just reading Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” and there is a section where he talks about how when one is in the midst of an experience, and for a variable time after the experience, that one is blind to the true meaning of it, but that it is only at some undetermined later point that suddenly experience becomes clear, understandable, and also a part of one’s life story:
“The new deed is yet part of life, – remains for a time immersed in our unconscious life. In some contemplative hour, it detaches itself from life like a ripe fruit, to become a thought in the mind.  Instantly, it is raised, transfigured; the corruptible has put on incorruption. Always now it is an object of beauty, however base its origins and neighborhood. Observe, too, the impossibility of antedating this act.  In its grub state, it cannot fly, it cannot shine, – it is a dull grub. But suddenly, without observation, the selfsame thing unfurls beautiful wings, and is an angel of wisdom. So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive inert form, and astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean.”
I guess things will always make sense at some point, but this understanding is always a function of the past and not the present experience. What I didn’t expect in moving to New Zealand was that I would spend so much time bumping into myself and finding myself exploring “the mind,” when I really wanted a break from that for awhile and sought to go out and “explore the world.” That is Solnit’s point, and Emerson’s as well, perhaps, that to go out into the world is to explore one’ Self.

Hope

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” (Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace).

I love this quote by Havel. I like how it describes hope as a moral choice that is independent of the external situation. It reminds me a little of faith, but not quite the same. Havel’s description seems like more of a choice than faith does. One thing that this quote does, for me, is it preserves the right of the individual to choose what is right and what deserves to be worked for, regardless of the dimension of how likely it is to succeed.

I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark, in which she cites the above quote by Havel. The quote doesn’t appear until page 148, but it seems to inform a thread of Solnit’s argument from the very beginning. “To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk…Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope,” (Solnit, 4-5).

Another thread in Solnit’s book is of darkness, which is not necessarily the typical way that darkness is thought of. She writes that the “future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave,” (6). This darkness is more of the creative void than the destructive void. It is this embrace of generative uncertainty that also runs through the book. This reminds me of the dark matter of the universe, that unseen substance that physicists can measure that seems to make up all the empty space between things in the universe. I can’t remember for sure, but maybe it is something like 85% of matter in the universe is unseen matter, maybe it is even more than that. But, what is all this dark, unseen matter doing? I like to think that it is somehow invisibly guiding and shaping the tip of the iceberg of matter that we can see. We can bemoan the visible catastrophes, but all is not lost. Just like the iceberg metaphor, Solnit argues for a cognitive restructuring, do we focus on only what is going wrong in the world, or do we focus also on what is going right. Or, even do we focus on how things could have been an even bigger catastrophe than they are?

Solnit introduces the Angel of Alternate History. As compared to the Angel of History, who mostly counts bodies, the Angel of Alternate History focuses on that dark space that surrounds the actual and sees the possible. “The Angel of History says, ‘Terrible,’ but this angel says, ‘Could be worse.’ They are both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act,” (76).

Another way of looking at this cognitive re-structuring is that we have to count victories as well as catastrophes in our analysis of the world. Solnit provides criticism of the tendency toward pessimism and catastrophizing of many activists and the Left in the US. She describes such paradoxical victories as the role of Viagra in saving species that were previously used in for increasing sexual potency in Chinese Medicine and how some military bases have inadvertently become safe havens for endangered species.

Another critique Solnit discusses is that of the end of the need for activism, or the desire to “go home,” after the protest. In a way, this mindset looks at attention, awareness, and activism as only being necessary to re-set things or make it happily ever after, and then to turn off awareness and to let go of engagement. Rather, she sees activism as a mode of being, a moral responsibility, that is ongoing, and that one engages in regardless of the “state of the world,” or the “chance to succeed,” to refer back to Havel, again.  The need for engagement never ends.   “Still, I use the term activist to mean a particular kind of engagement – and a specific politic: one that seeks to democratize the world, to share power, to protect difference and complexity, human and otherwise,” (18). “For a long time, I’ve thought that the purpose of activism and art, or at least of mine, is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, not consumers, and writing this book I now see how this is connected to the politics of hope and to those revolutionary days that are the days of creation of the world,” (115).

Solnit also quotes the Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos throughout the book, who apparently publishes manifestos over the internet. For some reason, I found these to be a kind of eloquent comic relief, not because the content wasn’t serious, maybe even because of the seriousness of the content, but with their ease and fluidity of language and the sense of spontaneity, creativity, and even joy that seems to flow through these declarations. “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror that neoliberalism represents, we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope,” (cited, 39-40).

Overall, it seems that Solnit’s argument for hope lies in looking at things differently, refusing to despair, seeking engagement in art, activism, and life, and accepting uncertainty (the darkness that obscures) rather than demanding a certain outcome. This again reminds me of this central Havel quote, which connects a human being to themselves and refuses to let external events dictate whether or not one can hope to make things better or even hope to have one’s own vision of life.

One last thing I’ll touch on here is a small way thing that I find hopeful. As someone who is concerned about the health of the environment, Solnit engages and relates to the natural world and refuses to disconnect from that. After reading Hope in the Dark, I started reading Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” which I don’t think I ever read before. A few thoughts have been coalescing for me. As I sat reading Emerson, drinking a cup of coffee at a cafe, gazing out the open window at the ocean which is right across the street from where we live, I thought, I should really get out into nature more – and it struck me that living on the ocean is perpetually being on the edge of nature, even though this is a pretty happening place, bustling, full of continuous human activity, it is in constant relationship to that great and restless body of water, constantly moving in and out. “The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation…The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity,” (Emerson, p. 41, in The American Transcendentalists). Emerson argues that “words are signs of natural facts, particular facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts, and nature is the symbol of spirit,” (42). At first, I was taken aback by this, it seems he is arguing that the natural world and the internal, cognitive and spiritual world are reflections of each other. Oh, ok, that old “as above, so below” congruence between things. Maybe even more. I have read in a couple of different sources now about the finding that there is a 10 hertz electromagnetic current that pulses throughout the Earth and that 10 hertz is also the “dominant (alpha) frequency of the EEG in animals,” (Robert O. Becker, The Body Electric, p. 249, in the chapter, “Breathing with the Earth,” which discusses this concept in depth). What this seems to mean is that living beings contain within them an echo or correspondence with a common electromagnetic current of the Earth. It seems like an instance of “as above, so below,” or maybe, rather, as without, so within.

James Oschman, in Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, also writes about this, the Schumann resonance, which “is a unique electromagnetic phenomenon created by the sum of the lightning activity around the world,” (99). The Schumann resonance is 7-10 Hertz in frequency, just like the alpha waves of animal brains. Also, Oschman cites a study of various healers who had their brain activity recorded on EEG and when they went into a “healing state” had activity in the 7.8-8.0 Hertz range (107). Additionally, Oschman cites studies that show that have measured healers whose hands generate electromagnetic fields ranging from 0.3 – 30 Hz, which could be seen to vary around the 10 Hz frequency of alpha brain rhythms and this particular background pulse of the Earth (Oschman, 87). Oschman suggests that a mechanism of various healing modalities is a supportive “therapeutic entrainment,” in which the healer amplifies this electromagnetic rhythm of the Earth and that this is healing by resetting the natural baseline rhythm in the person being worked on. It is easy to imagine that through the daily stresses of life (or even longer term maladaptive patterns of living) that one could lose touch with the natural rhythm of one’s own body, which also corresponds to the natural rhythm of the Earth. Getting back in touch with nature, in this light, could really, truly have a healing effect on one’s biorhythms.

Maybe all this might seem far-fetched to you, but it is what sprang to my mind as I was reading Emerson and his argument that nature is a symbol of the spirit. The transcendentalists refused to buy into the split between mind and body and the individual and the natural or social environment. Another way of stating this could be that nature and spirit both share a common origin, both are in relation and communication with each other, and both enhance each other. Nature and spirit are reflections of one another. Rather than a separation between mind and body, or individual and environment, there is a resonance between all the different things that we divide from each other and with our intellects imagine as separate. Lately, when I feel particularly out of synch in my life, I have been imaging this great, pulsing rhythm of the Earth and looking for the echo of it in my self. I find this comforting, even hope-inducing.

The Benefits of Being Lost

The Benefits of Being Lost
I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide To Getting Lost, and it deals with some themes I have been thinking about lately. Her book is a series of loose meditations on different aspects of becoming lost and of what a person can find out about themselves in the process. Whether it is about getting lost in the wilderness, being an immigrant, losing oneself in a time or place, losing oneself in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, suicide, or about various species of animal going extinct or coming back from the edge of extinction, the book explores the inevitability, costs, and consequences of becoming lost.

What I have been thinking about, and probably why I was drawn to the book, is about choosing to move to a new country for the experience of it and then finding the experience really challenging.

On the one hand I am daily excited and really enthused by the clinical work I am doing. New Zealand, Auckland, at least, is a place of immigrants and immigrants all have stories of leaving, losing, and finding.

This week, I met with a client from Central Africa, and another from North Africa. I had a Maori client who felt that one of his medications, the one that he said worked the best for his psychosis was also associated with a curse that caused him to “stargaze.” I met with a Pacific Island woman and her family and looked at the reasons why she had stopped most of her medication, what the medications were supposed to do, and how we might come up with some compromise of medications that would treat her psychosis, but would have acceptable side effects. I met with a New Zealand European client and her family and discussed her reasons for stopping her medication, that she felt the medications controlled her (and she was on a combination of sedating medications that I never would put someone on) and how she felt she couldn’t travel like her friends were doing, because of the restrictions of being on medication (sedation, need to be on it or become psychotic, the logistics of trying to get prescriptions abroad). With her, we looked at how sometimes when you accept your limitations, they actually limit you in your life less. That is quite a paradox. With the woman from Central Africa, she came from a lifetime of war and lawlessness and it will be quite a challenge to figure out if her paranoia, which has at times crossed over into psychosis, is really a reaction to her past trauma and her recent relocation to a country in which she doesn’t speak the language, or if she is really developing a psychotic mental illness. Another client spoke about how they would be alone here in New Zealand, or they would be alone if they moved to the country where their spouse was working, and they would be alone if they moved back to their country of origin.

On the other the hand, I realized that this is the worst job I have worked in as I look back at the seven jobs I have previously had since graduating residency. The orientation has been terrible. The mismatch between my expectations & the jobs expectations and how the structure of the job seems to do everything it can to frustrate meeting expectations. I feel like I am working hard all day long, but that I am pulled in so many different directions that at the end of the day I am exhausted and feel like I haven’t hardly done anything.

 

The Benefits of Being Lost

 

I understand, logically, that wanting to do something completely different means that I will not be doing the same old, comfortable thing. But sometimes, this all seems a bit ridiculous and I long for the good old days when I had some control over my professional life and I could feel good about getting some work done in a day.

I haven’t made the case yet for the necessity of becoming lost at times throughout one’s life, the need for that seems pretty obvious, at least to me. I understand the saying, that if nothing is lost, nothing is gained. However, many of the above clinical stories show some of the dangers of becoming lost and staying lost. I suppose psychosis, from a psychological perspective, is another way of becoming lost, losing touch with reality and getting stuck in a self-referential world in which one’s fears become self-fulfilling prophecies.

What Solnit’s book helped me to see is a deeper understanding of the double-edged sword of getting lost. I don’t think she really looks so much at the reasons why getting lost is necessary in life. It just seems like a given in the book. What the book does look at is the hard work and energy that goes into becoming lost in the first place and then in making sense of it in the second place. It is a serious book, but not a hopeless one. The book seems to honor the need and the process and the benefits of being lost without becoming too Pollyannaish or “therapeutic.”

Solnit mentions the early 1980s post-punk band from Manchester, England, Joy Division. There is a page or two devoted to the band, the environment their music grew out of, and the atmosphere that the music created. This last week, I went to see the bass player from Joy Division, Peter Hook, and a new band of young punks, recreate the album Unknown Pleasures, for its 30th anniversary. The other two original band members weren’t there. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the show. On one hand, I didn’t want to have an experience that lessened the original album and band, but on the other hand, I was really curious to hear what it would be like and to experience that music, that I had listened to over and over as a teenager, performed live. The technical sound of the music was incredible, it had the old effect I remember from the past of a dangerous and powerful current and how it has the effect of opening up strange, wonderful, and unsettling places within myself. (Although I think Cries and Whispers, honestly, at least in my memory, did better covers of Interzone and Day of the Lords). Listening to this music born in Manchester, that I had lost myself in while in my basement room in the Midwest of the United States, performed in Auckland, New Zealand, was amazing and unsettling.

Solnit writes in her book about book that she had conceptualized but had never written. It reminded me of the writing I had done on Joy Division, as well as other topics, for a book I had planned. The idea for the book was to look at the lives and work of people who had experienced some form of trauma in their lives and then addressed trauma in some way in their creative work. The chapter on Joy Division was to be called, “Trauma and Transformation in Punk Rock.” As I was recently thinking about this, I realized that I was working with some of the same themes about the dangers and benefits of becoming lost. I realize that the work I had done was not lost, because I am still working on the themes. I remember a Carl Jung quote that said something like, people don’t work on many themes in their lives, rather, they work on one theme from different perspectives.

The ways in which I currently feel lost are that I am having trouble seeing how I fit into the larger system of health care in New Zealand. The clinical work is challenging and rewarding, but how the community mental health centre I am working in will come through its own transition and what role I will play there is a big question. I have never had this much difficulty adjusting to a job. Many days I feel like the structure and system of the job is designed to prevent me from doing the clinical work that I know how to do.

I realize that the place I am working is in chaos and transition, but the overall New Zealand health system also seems lost in a way. Of the 50 spots for psychiatric trainees in the country, only 10 spots were filled last year. This year, the district health board I work for only has one new psychiatric trainee starting for the year, out of 10 positions. 40% of all physicians in New Zealand are from overseas. New Zealand is experiencing a steady brain drain of physicians going to Australia where they easily make 30% more for the same work which is probably not in a setting of continual strain and loss of staff. Even if my specific job sorted out, I would be unsettled by these larger trends. I knew of some of these issues before I arrived here, but I had no idea how dire the situation was. It seemed like this would also be an opportunity for creative ways of working and providing care, but the system seems incredibly apathetic and has incredible inertia that seems difficult to shift.

This reminds me, in a way of the US financial crisis, in which the people who seem least able to solve the crisis are the people in charge, because they are the ones who are the architects of the crisis. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem using the same tools you used to create the problem. You have to lose the old tools and step into the unknown of developing new tools. To an outsider, the situation the New Zealand health care system is in looks critical. While people get upset about little things with the system, no one seems to be revamping the whole system.

One thing that I am frustrated to have lost is the canvas on which to work – in my private practice, I could change things and develop new things as the need or mood would arise. Now, I have to ask permission from a system that is often apathetic and unresponsive. I have had a few experiences of putting a lot of energy into something that either goes nowhere, or the plug is pulled on. I am used to being a creative, hard-working, and conscientious person and sometimes these things seem to be either not culturally appropriate, or at least not supported within the local system. These are things that I know I can’t change or ignore within myself. The current system where I am working seems to require a tremendous amount of energy to function and in its functioning it seems to put energy into trying to make the system not function. I often feel like I am spinning my wheels and putting in a lot of energy with very little to show for it at the end of the day. I am also spending a tremendous amount of energy trying to figure out what is the local culture of the mental health centre (which almost everyone in and out of it admits is not functioning well) and what is the culture of the larger New Zealand health care system.

My observation about a dimensional difference between the United States and New Zealand is that in the United States, work is often very systematized and there are policies, procedures, and protocols. This is something that I have seen the dark side of in that the humanness of the individual physician and patient is often lost to the needs of the functioning of the system. Scientific, “evidence-based” medicine, also plays into this dehumanization and overly technical systematization of the doctor-patient relationship. The good thing in the United States is that things get done effectively and efficiently. The question is whether the things that are getting done are doing any good.

In New Zealand, there seems to be more of an Old World who you know instead of what you know. The “system” seems to function on the basis of individual relationships more than on policy and protocol. I have tried to banish the 4 P’s from my vocabulary: policy, procedure, protocol, and process. Things seem to be done the way they are done or the way they have been done and if there is a deviation from this, there is often a sense of floundering in the abyss, rather than an organized approach to system development and change. There is a manual that I see on a shelf at work entitled, CAOS. I fantasize that it is the English spelling of the word, “chaos,” but I haven’t worked up the nerve to look at the manual to see if it is for creating chaos or managing chaos.

 

The Benefits of Being Lost

 

New Zealanders really seem to despise anything negative being said about their country. There is the phenomenon of the “tall poppy” and “cultural cringe,” here. The “tall poppy” refers to New Zealanders trying to tear down anyone who dares to do something out of the ordinary or to stand above the crowd. Presumably this comes from a culture that is very collectivist and group oriented. The effect is a culture that creates mediocrity rather than fosters individual self-expression and creativity. I was reading an interview with Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords, and he was talking about “cultural cringe,” which is similar phenomenon, in which anyone who becomes popular or does better than others at something evokes a cringe and negative reaction from the culture. For instance, he says his popularity in the United States is dismissed as “Americans are idiots, so he can’t be that good.” I wonder if I am running into some of this attitude here as well. I know that there is a stereotype of Americans being clueless, self-centered know-it-alls, and I try to be sensitive to this, but I also know that it won’t work for me to try to be apathetic and mediocre.

In some ways, New Zealand seems like a culture that has lost its external referents, but hasn’t found itself. There is an official policy of Bi-culturalism here, based on the Treaty of Waitangi, which recognizes the countries responsibility to maintain Maori culture, the people who were the first human beings to colonize New Zealand. However, I have come across some comments that the New Zealand Europeans either don’t have a culture, or that their cultural identity is still with the UK more than with themselves. There have been debates in the newspaper whether or not New Zealand should become a republic after the current Queen of England is gone. Many of the arguments for keeping the monarchy over New Zealand seem to arise from a desire to be defined from someone and someplace else.

A friend of mine was talking about when her ancestors came to New Zealand in the mid-1800s and how her identity and much of New Zealand’s identity is still from the UK. I found it interesting that her relatives had come to New Zealand decades before many of my relatives, and yet I had a more of an identity as an American than she did as a New Zealander.

The Benefits of Being Lost

 

There are many ways that cultures work through being thrown in contact with each other. History shows that cultural interaction tends to enrich a culture more than any drive toward cultural purity or superiority does. The enriching interactions of different peoples and different ideas seem to be far more leavening than a lot of a single ingredient. (In fact genocide or discrimination seems to be how many of the single ingredient recipes work out). People seem to have different attitudes towards difference. Some don’t want one food to touch another on their plate, whereas others find mixing everything up to be more enjoyable.

The mixing of peoples and cultures is one form of change and this change is an inevitability. New Zealand is importing 40% of its physicians and that will change the culture of the medical system here. New Zealand, maybe more than any other place colonized by Europeans, is founded on a contract and treaty, that is still living, between two very different cultures, the Maori and the European colonists. Now New Zealand is opening up to refugees from all over the world and also many immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands. There are now more Pacific Islanders in Auckland than on some of the original islands. The United States went through the typical colonial exploitation of native peoples and is now struggling to make sense of the influx of Latino immigrants and Latino culture.

How this mixing, in New Zealand and the United States, and intermingling is handled will determine what is lost and what is gained. You cannot go to another country without losing something and gaining something. Similarly, a country cannot have an influx of new immigrants without changing in some way, and all change entails loss and gain. Maybe it is each individual’s and culture’s attitudes toward loss that determines the outcome of cultural interactions and the change that inevitably comes from it. On an individual level, maybe one’s attitudes toward loss and being lost determine what will eventually be found.

 

The Benefits of Being Lost