Heads And Tails

I tend not to write addressing specific world events. Instead, I tend to let specific world events, my own personal responses and my observations of the responses of others percolate through my system until something more general, more removed, more objective, breaks through the surface.

But really, nothing humans say or do is purely objective; there is always something of the subject mingled in with it, both personally and collectively influenced. Everything we say and do is a dance among more partners than we can often imagine.
We aren’t always aware of what it is we’re dancing with, or even that we’re dancing at all.

It isn’t often that world events themselves shake me to tears, even when they shock, appall, or even frighten me. I’m certainly emotional, but tend to process even strong feelings, most of the time, with varying degrees of detachment. So when I started seeing the hints of some kind of world event stirring through the minuscule portion of social media I remain in contact with and eventually saw the words “mass shooter” popping up, it didn’t initially move me much. I know to some people that makes me sound like a stone-hearted monster—but I am a sensitive person. And when you’re a sensitive person you can’t exactly afford to be moved by everything and anything around you—to do so can quite literally be like a sort of self-induced shipwreck. And, like plenty of other people, I’ve learned that the hard way.

It isn’t stoicism, either, but more like an awareness that humans as a collective group are what they are; that even if humans were living with each other in utopic peace and harmony, this world and its own moods would still offer us tragedies, even if they were only in the form of natural disaster. Without a broader, more removed perspective, again, many of us could (and do) drown ourselves in reaction to the turmoil which is, most simply, the dynamicism of life.

A broader perspective isn’t completely removed from emotional reality, however. It’s removed from the mental patterns, the well-rehearsed narratives people create around tragic or disconcerting or even commonplace events. It doesn’t preclude anger or grief.
But this removal does allow for different stories to reveal themselves. Which is ultimately what we really want, isn’t it? A better story for humanity than the stories currently playing out all around us.

When I read about a man barricading himself in a classroom with a military-grade weapon and opening fire on the children inside it, I did cry—sobbed, for many reasons. And then I began furiously typing out my thoughts into a Facebook post. And then, after a time, I deleted what I’d been writing. After I’d given myself time to process more, I began writing again. Maybe after more time, more distance, an opportunity for more of a bird’s eye perspective, I’d write something even more different than I’ve written here.

I don’t think our culture realizes how thoroughly it has established a sort of war (call it a Cold War) on children and childhood (or innocence more generally), not exclusive to but including those who claim to be doing otherwise by “protecting” every fertilized embryo’s right to be born while remaining willfully ignorant about the resources and care that child and that child’s family (especially the child’s mother) requires to make it in our world.

We have done this so thoroughly that our society continues to produce individuals who bring the message to very literal fruition.

I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection between our culture’s obsession with war and something like school shootings. I was a junior in high school when the Columbine shooting first caught the nation’s attention. Michael Moore’s op-ed documentary, Bowling for Columbine, draws attention to the links between the war industry and the shooting. That along with its more objective consideration of the socialized, dispassionate ostracization of the children who brought guns into their school and shot at their peers had a profound effect on me—I had already been contemplating that event and others from the perspective of, “what sort of pain, what conditions could cause someone (or whole groups of someones) to do something so soul-wrenchingly awful?”

Wait—back up a sec. Children? You meant teenagers, right? The shooters were teenagers. No, I mean children. Teenagers are in many ways still children—they lack the experiential perspectives and developmental maturation of adults no matter how well they’ve mastered the ability to mimic our adult expectations back at us. In teenagers, their “adult” faculties are literally and naturally inhibited as a necessary stage of development.
To some degree, we recognize this and it’s why, except in rare cases, children under 18 can’t legally do a number of things adults can do.
Humans don’t reach adult maturity (in biological terms) until around 22-25. And even then, adults (potentially, not necessarily) continue developmental maturation through their successive decades.
We do, however, expect children to behave as if they are adults at younger and younger ages, and that has been true of teenagers longer than any other age group.

But what about a grown man?
Even he has the remnants and impressions of his childhood either withering or blossoming inside him.

Today, we expect even newborn infants to sleep alone and self-soothe—something most adults in our culture can’t do. We expect preschoolers to sit behind a desk and do paperwork, though their work day is generously shorter. At least, it is until age six or seven when their workload can increase to a full eight hours a day between school and homework—complete with short scheduled breaks and half a lunch hour. Even play and recreation is often anxiously measured and allotted primarily for its “educational” value, rather than the purely unadulterated sensory joys, delights, and naturally soothing self-sought meditations it can offer.

How are we not, as a culture, particularly concerned about this?

How can we possibly imagine that this more rigorously adulterated condition in childhood has no detrimental impact on our adult population, our culture as a whole?

So while I certainly don’t condone or consider justifiable the actions of any person who, for example, walks into a school or anywhere else and shoots at people of any age, the kind of internalized rage and ruthlessness required for such an act isn’t coming from nowhere.

Even people who disapprove of militarized war are content and often eager to make war in all kinds of other, less-obvious ways—we could not have produced the large-scale forms of war that have pock-marked human history if we weren’t already creating it in various small-scale ways as a matter of course. Militarized war is the conglomerated product of the accumulations of our regular, every day cultural interactions. And it’s been handed down to us for at least a couple thousand years.

That’s a somewhat lengthy preface for a Facebook post—a post I decided not to share in its entirety there.

What follows is what I wrote after having had some more time to process my grief about the event and my subsequent outrage—outrage at the society that continues to doggedly perpetuate such tragedies; on one hand the people so filled with fear and hatred that they cling to military-grade weapons, and on the other, those people who remain so numb to that level of desperation and human fragility that they continue to shrug it off or shout back at it as if it were only ignorance and not the real, vital, deeply sobering social data it is.

Much of what I’m going to say is old arguments. I’m not well studied—my education has been piecemeal at best (which is true for many of us, no matter how educated we seem to be)—but even I understand human beings have been grasping onto the wafting currents of the scent of real freedom for a very long time; and trying to capture, translate, and transmit it to other humans by various means. It hasn’t exactly caught on very far, or clarified very much, yet. But I trust that it will—it is. Little by little and sometimes a whole lot at a time.

May 25, 2022

I read a report where an official described the most recent mass school shooter’s “complete evil.”

It’s an understandable reaction, and I don’t want what I’m about to say to be misconstrued. Or misunderstand me if you’d like.

The shooter’s actions, though unspeakably terrible and entirely unjustifiable are not evidence of “evil.” They’re evidence of such excruciating unacknowledged pain, isolation, and mental/spiritual illness, compounded and pressurized by life experience until it exploded outward with this awful expression of destructive violence.

As individuals and as a collective society we are all standing in a sort of room with two doors (to drastically reduce the analogy). It’s like a quantum puzzle: our observation determines the outcome; our rather we utilize observation to “solve” the puzzle.
Let’s simplify it with the idea of two doors.

The first door is open to connection: the freedom of love that both stabilizes healthy boundaries and respects diversity as a sign of social health and wellbeing; it provides us with the inner and outer resources to recognize we are all part of one collective society, and to help one another (preferably before anyone gets so sick that they do something so awful).
The second door is open to fear, hate, isolation, rejection.

In the middle is some discomfort as we grapple with the milder forms of anger, blame, frustration, envy, discontent and boredom that are a natural part of being a human in our particular stage of collective consciousness and navigating the social/emotional world around us. We could call this middle zone “common ground.”
The discomfort and even boredom with the divisive, competitive nature of our common ground leads us eventually to turn to one of these two doors.

We have a lot of practice with and social reinforcement for opening that second door. It’s a well-trodden path; a deeply embedded trench. Our willingness, our instinct, to see ourselves and others as two-dimensionally good or bad is evidence of chronically opening that door.

Whatever side you believe you’re on, it’s all sides of the same coin.

Whether you mean to or not (must of us don’t mean to, we’ve been trained to, and we’re good not bad so we do it), if you have that door open it’s like a void that can never be filled. We do a lot in our society to try and fill it, but there can never be enough good guys nor bad guys, never enough things or people to fill it.
And yet we all try to fill it ourselves or help each other fill it, stuff it down, plug it up, push against the very existence of that door. We don’t recognize that the very reflex to do so is exactly what continues to create people like the man who shot children in Texas.

Here’s a more subtle example of a warlike mindset: Nature vs. Nurture. Which makes people bad or good?

There is no such thing as Nature vs. Nurture. Nurture is nature and vice versa. They are inextricably interdependent. Our very DNA, our nature, is an ever-evolving response to our environment: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. Everything we believe, do, and say is governed by our nervous system which is in a direct dance with our immediate environment. Our nervous system itself is a product of our DNA, its ancient roots, its shifting genetic and epigenetic contents. Our nervous system informs the nature of how we nurture ourselves and others. Our nervous system is directly influenced, often quietly, subtly, by these two doors, both within ourselves and within others we encounter. You could say the doors exist in our DNA—habitual opening of one or the other has a direct influence on epigenetic changes.

Like it or not, believe it or not, we are all creating our society in every moment of our lives. No matter how powerless or disadvantaged any of us may feel, we all have internal, immutable access to both of these quantum doors. They are our birthright.

It can serve any of us, short-term, to draw a line between ourselves and people who do hurtful or even objectively terrible things. Temporarily, we can imagine locking bad people and their bad choices away in that terrible, unfillable void. It’s what we imagine they deserve and where they belong. We certainly don’t belong there or deserve that. But someone must, because how else can we explain bad things in the world? It must be someone‘s fault.

It keeps us content and productive, even happy, for awhile. Out of sight, out of mind. It can be, as I said, temporarily helpful. Understandable.

And it keeps this second door insatiably open. So we must ceaselessly be on the lookout for every minor and major bad guy and good guy: our attention to and imagination of the necessity of filling up this void and shutting the door on those with whom we are abhorred to share common ground keeps it active. We thus require an endless supply of observable horror to justify and validate our vigilant attention and the thoughts and behaviors it motivates.

So if you’ve made up your mind that some people are evil and that us good people need to keep up the good fight against those other bad people (or maybe, just now, I’m not part of your good people. Maybe I’m the weird crazy or scary bad guy you need to defend the good people from), well, who do you think keeps propping open the door to allow that evil into our world?

Well, me too, sometimes. I don’t mean to, neither do most of us. I do it without even realizing I’m doing it at first, because even with awareness comes an ever-craftier story to drag us back into the trenches of subtle warfare—like a hydra with infinitely sprouting heads: you can’t simply lop off the heads. You have to reach into the heart of the matter. And that’s where the first door is found.

The first door—well, if you’ve ever opened it yourself (whether on purpose or on accident) I don’t have to convince you it’s real or explain the abundance, the ever-giving ever-flowing creative resources readily available from it. They too are only limited by our own imagination.
I don’t even have to explain the sometimes confusing, sometimes devastating impulse to shut it again. Opening that door is like learning to flex and relax a muscle. It takes awareness, practice, and exercise. For us culturally, you could say it requires a sort of occupational therapy. And if you’re anything like me, you might have a deeply ingrained reflex—just like the patellar reflex—to shut that door up again as soon as it’s open, because you aren’t accustomed to it. It’s new and different and therefore dangerous—because we’ve paid so much attention to that other actually dangerous door, danger is the lens; the programming that our observations are trained with.

It’s gotten a bit better, for me, at times. Exercising that muscle is uncomfortable in a different way, requires a different sort of endurance than just hanging out in the reassuring familiarity, the limbo, of the uncomfortable middle (I hunker down there too at times). Which eventually gets boring. Or depressing.

I called the first door I wrote about the second door and the second door I wrote about the first door. As we grow, as we are cultured, that second door becomes our first door. But when we are born that first door is wide open. That is until people and events around us start repeatedly slamming it shut. As that action accumulates over time, it gets harder and harder to keep the first door open, and our utter dependence on the protection and interest of the adults around us makes it more and more imperative to participate with the people who are determined to keep it shut and to learn the means by which they do so. We abandon our exercise of that muscle, though we’ve never shut it out completely. If we had, there would be nothing of spirit: nothing of art, literature, music—nothing of love in our society at all. We would have snuffed ourselves out long ago.

But as a result of our early education, the first door is on some level terrifying for most of us. We’ve been yoked into that terror like mice trained to fear the scent of cherry blossoms: they continue to harbor that avoidant reflex generations after the actual threat is gone. It’s all the more terrifying for us intellectual, story-spinning humans when the threat is gone: what stirs us genetically to fear becomes unutterable, undefined, unknown: thus it becomes an endlessly morphing, regenerating specter.

So whatever is prompting this fear as we approach the first door must be bad. Evil. We flee back to the other door where we can fight and vanquish a more tangible, sensible, actual evil and so justify and explain the fear we feel and the reactions that follow.

Eventually, though, epigenetic responses to trauma become identifiable, understandable, articulatable, and we run out of excuses to avoid the first door entirely. We relax enough into curiosity enough to crack it open, from time to time. A little bit goes a long way (hey! That’s a song now! It’s been one of my favorite ideas for awhile). We forgive ourselves for the compulsion to return to the second door. And we can get better, all of us, at propping the first door a little more open, a little more often. That second door becomes less appealing more of the time. It takes up far less of our bandwidth for observation. What we observe instead is a fuller picture of who humans are as a whole, what effect our collective choices have had, what power we truly have to effectively change it, and what all of this has been for in the first place.

But that’s about something like faith, right? Kid stuff, isn’t it? Childish? Immature. Fanciful detachment from the obligations, burdens and injustices of the real world. Laziness. Uneducated. The unwoke realm of unrealistic optimism and infuriatingly blissful ignorance.

So a lot of us stand with our back often unbudging against this first door, arms crossed, eyes rolling, skeptical: not only because we learned somewhere between age 5 and 15 that it’s cool to be primarily cynical, callous, sarcastic and shrewd. “Salty” we’re calling it these days; anything, anyone else is literally ridiculous. But also because deep down a more vulnerable part of us recognizes that the people who claim to have figured this puzzle out and handed their certain knowledge down to us quite honestly have no clue what they’re talking about no matter how well they simulate that they do.
We are smart to be cautious.
But how often do we allow ourselves room to question our unwavering participation with the divisionary patterns of society—those of our friends and colleagues? Questioning requires curiosity in the face of doubt. Curiosity is *not* cool. And it’s often not even safe.

Eventually this is all exhausting, debilitating. Disheartening. Soul-crushing. And we know it. So we give up, one way or another and plant ourselves on a couch or behind a desk or a pulpit (real, virtual, or imaginary)—or behind a gun— in front of that second door, diligently doing our social duty to try and fill it with everything we’ve got between our other obligations. Some people handle that better than others. Some people go obviously crazy. Lots of other people go less obviously part-crazy.
Some people can contentedly settle with it for the rest of their lives, and even that can generate opportunities: easier, more light-hearted opportunities to let that first door quietly, gently swing a little open when we’re hardly aware we’d stopped looking the other way just long enough. Just a little. Just enough to let some goodness through, without scaring anyone. I’m not actually saying there’s anything wrong with what we’ve all been doing. It’s part of our natural evolution, even with all the mess.

What I am saying [again] is that it’s all two sides of the same coin.
The “bad” people and their bad deeds are the inevitable other side of the coin our society keeps betting on, flipping into the air, heads or tails. One or the other.

We could stop doing that. At any time we decide to. Even if we hang out in the middle for awhile, allowing ourselves to get uncomfortable—even extremely so—without lingering too long at that second door for the fleeting satisfaction and justification it appears to offer. The longer we linger, the longer we observe, the longer we stare into the drama that attempts to hide the void, the more existential dread and its inevitable rippling influence we let into the world.

We don’t have to keep doing that.

No Good guys, no bad guys?
What then?
Who knows?
That’s terrifying. It must be evil.
Maybe “evil” isn’t your flavor: it’s just wrong; suspect; illogical; against all common sense; irresponsible; dangerous; outrageous.

So round and round we go. Flip. Flip.
Heads and Tails.