After I finish the book I’m working on, which should occupy a major chunk of the fall and perhaps into the winter, I’m going to undertake another project. I‘d like to squeeze in some serious landscape photography with my Canon and I may do a wee bit next week (see above), but that’s not the project I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is a variant on having a “bucket list”; I think everyone knows what a “bucket list” is. I’m not sure if that term translates well across the many languages and dialects of the world, so a simple explanation is that a bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. Before you die.
I’m pretty close to kicking the bucket, so such a list might be important to me, but it’s not; I’m broke, and not in the best of health, so accomplishing things like jumping out of airplanes, or driving the Nurburging, or touring exotic places, is not going to happen.
So I’m going to go it one better.
When we die, we get re-incarnated, at least according to some belief systems. I think it’s pretty clear: people have been writing about it for millennia. This is not going to be a debate about or an exploration of reincarnation, though that might make a good blog entry. There are countless theories and approaches.
I think the formula E=mcsquared encapsulates it pretty well.
But the problem is that when we get reincarnated, we forget everything we learned on this go-around.
I don’t know about you, but some of my learning has come at a large and/or painful price, so I’d like to retain it.
So I’m going to be working on a system that will enable us to miniaturize a package that we take with us on that journey into the next cycle.
Think of it like a 128 gigabyte thumb drive buried deep in your soul, one that’s filled with learnings but also with yearnings, or things you learned about yourself, your seats of excellence, your passions, what enchants you, those things that complete you, those things you were unable to get to do this time around. Here I’m not talking about mundane things but those things of great meaning and power, ways of serving people, nuances of love, nuggets of understanding, insights which you will further evolve and build on.
When you get to your new destination (after you unpack, figure out who’s in charge, where your meals are coming from, and what the first phase of your development is going to be), you can plug in your thumb drive. You will have to ask for help. Undoubtedly, there’ll be a whole new operating system and programming language and there will be lots of things to learn.
You will have to dust off the cobwebs (someone wiped off the placental fluid), and you will probably have a wide-eyed gaze of awe and incomprehension for some time, and it’s my understanding that there is but a short window of only a few years in which you can recall things you brought with you on your thumb drive.
For me, such things would include the desire to learn to play a musical instrument. I came close this time; if I had had an earlier start… I had a fascination with architecture that never went anywhere. I could have been a restaurateur, or learned more about healing. I’d do a top-flight jazz brunch where people could convene. It’s all about presentation to the senses of your guest and your Beloved.
I’d get someone who was proficient with psychological testing and multiple intelligences to befriend my parents. I’d get them a copy of Summon The Magic (the revamped and updated edition).
I’d make sure I had a lot of opportunity for physical exercise, free play, outdoor exploration, hiking, etc.
I’d make sure my parents arranged for my education in interpersonal communication, long-term enrollment in aikido, and more.
The techniques for accomplishing this feat of metempsychotic legerdemain have yet to be worked out. I’d start with a list, of course, but that’s only the start (and would need to be revised and flexible). The process would almost certainly involve some very intense meditation, repeated visualization, mental telepathy, remote viewing, astral projection and more. There are people in the world who practice and teach such things, and there are people in the world who are working on teleportation and time travel.
Is it possible? Who knows? I’m still agnostic about extra-terrestrials.
Those whose goal is a totalitarian police state insist on pushing these boundaries.
Shouldn’t people who love life do the same?
This isn’t about learning how to talk to the dead.
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
“… We tuck our messy real selves behind polished veneers, orchestrate grand gestures, and perform various psychoemotional acrobatics driven by the illusion that love is something we must earn by what we do, rather than something that comes to us unbidden simply for who we are…..”
Tucked into the nooks and crannies of the last several weeks has been my slow reading and annotation of a remarkable book I discovered when I asked the Great Oracle of the Web to answer a personal conundrum.
Each of us in our own way and at our own pace stop and ask “what’s next?”, “what can I do?” or, more insistently, “what should I do?” when faced with one of life’s puzzles.
In this case, the puzzle seemed to be about the travails of my grown children that seemed beyond my understanding and my ability to impact in some positive way and given (or seen in juxtaposition to) my own progressions and changes in health, life, marriage, etc.
I forget just precisely how I posed the question to the oracle but, as it is wont to do, the search engine surprised me wholly by almost immediately pointing to a book.
“Here, read this. It’s written by that same fellow who wrote that poem you always have to re-find when someone dies and which speaks so eloquently, which acts as its own expression of condolence and faith, when someone loses someone very close to them in death.”
The poem is called Cloud-Hidden; you’ll find it below.
I wasn’t dealing with death, at least in the sense of loss of mortality, but that obvious clue suggested that someone who could express something so profoundly and so well in 98 words might just have some insights.
I ordered the book. And Saturday morning I finished it as the proud little avian gentlemen chirped from the shade their morning “you and me, how ‘bout it?” 12-note ditties outside my window in the cool and crips rising sunlight after a night of rain and dense humdiity.
David Whyte works in the world of corporate development fostering engagement with the world, its denizens and its conversations; the idea that he might have something to say to people struggling to have meaningful conversations with people they loved had merit.
As I worked into the book“The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship”, it occurred to me that it was a graduate seminar in summoningthe magic , an extension of that small collection I’d assembled for myself and my children and that, given my intent to offer something of value to them, perhaps I should first read it myself. (Keep in mind what Whyte has to say about self in “Life at the Frontier”.)
So it was with curiosity that I dove into a text about work, relationship and self at the age of 67, after extensive inquiry into who I was and what I had to offer the world, after 40 years of marriage, after 35 years of employment, after a life-changing encounter with love and mortality.
Having raised two children, having had my own difficulties and successes in martial conversation, having left something of my self inside the work forged during a lifelong conversation with the world, I thought perhaps this fellow might teach me something and offer some value to my children. I was not disappointed. 85% of the way through, I ordered three more copies to give to the very people I wished to help, reach, and love. I urge you to find your own copy and read it at a leisurely pace.
“Three Marriages looks at the triumphs and tragedies of human belongings in three crucial areas that most individuals simply can’t avoid: in relationship, in work and in all those strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves.
It seeks to understand the often accident-prone, the sometimes triumphant, the very often comic and the too often tragic and disastrous, human attempts to belong to something or someone other than our very own well-known but very often very, very boring established selves. It looks at what happens along the way when we become more interesting: when we get out the dynamics of self-entrapment and fall in love– with a person, a future, a work, or with a new sense of self.
At the same time, Three Marriages looks at that other equally strange human need, to be completely and utterly alone, trolling the deep riches of an inner peace and quiet
where the self can actually seem lithe, movable, limitless and inviolate, invulnerable to those invisible wounds delivered by partners and spouses, unharassed by commitments, inured to the clamor of children, and untouched by the endless nature of our meetings, all of which come as a result of a deep-seated, not-to-be-suppressed, inherited human need to belong — indeed, that constant basic need we cannot ignore— to be part of a bigger conversation that the one we are having now.” [Pages 11-12]
To be part of ‘a bigger conversation that the one we are having now’ resonated immediately with the central thrust of my search engine inquiry. I’d been in love with people, had been deeply invested in work (of both employment and ‘creative’ nature), had two children, and had certainly spent considerable energy looking into my own self, so this book was going to have something to say to me.
Almost immediately Whyte spoke of commitment, resolve and more when he noted those moments in our lives “when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows for what we had just glimpsed”.
“ [The internal cry might arise] ‘Why would anyone in his right mind logically choose to marry?’ In effect, both partners must suffer a kind of logical self-impairment to make the commitment. A marriage is creatively destructive of both partners’ cherished notions of themselves. Despite the initial hopes of perfection, what one partner wants will not occur; what the other partner wants will not occur. Both are left with the actual marriage: a radically new conversation that is built on the razed foundations of their former identities.”[Page 51]
“What is the thing called the self that drives home from work and walks through the door into a relationship? Who is it who goes out the door in the morning and leaves a loved one, husband, a wife, a daughter, home behind and looks to a new future in the day?”[Page 81]
“… we often find ourselves surrounded by bossy, hectoring voices trying to short-circuit our personal experience by superimposing their own disappointments”[Page 93]
[Julia Cameron does a wonderful job of enumerating and naming these ‘bossy, hectoring voices’ in her seminal book “The Artist’s Way”; many of those voices are present in the flesh in your life and are given such names as “wet blanket” and “crazy-maker”.]
“Falling in love is subversive to societal order, and its pursuit could never follow abstract rules arranged by others with no knowledge of the particularity of the person pursued. Love is individual, as Dante rediscovered, and must be given a larger world than the one that society is prepared to allow it.”[Page 112]
“The pursuit of another with hopes of a marriage of hearts and minds involves a dismantling of our usual daily self-protections. There is a sense of a current larger than one we have generated ourselves, tearing us off to as yet unknown places. There are roads to be taken, tides [or flights] to be caught, and places to go, a sense of drama, urgency and necessity.
The pressing dramatic qualities that accompanied the pursuit are all diagnostic features that the passion is a real one and worth following. For those who can garner at least a little wisdom amid the madness, there’s also sense that the journey itself will provide the test of whether what we are pursuing is good for us, real or lasting.
There is also a sense of abduction, of the pursuit not being a fully voluntary affair. With a sense of being stolen away comes another form of self-protection through sleight-of-hand and secrecy. The enterprise is barely believable to ourselves, so how can we explain what is really happening to others? Under these circumstances, no advice should ever be given to those in love. Blood should issue from our lips before we say a word of warning to friends, relatives or even our children. They will go their own way and cross any oceans in their way. Who, in that state, has ever listen to anything but what they wish to hear? [Page 118 – 119]
“My work is not a walk in the mountains, it is not surveying the undercurrents of a ballroom, it is not leaving troops on the field of battle. It is writing the next word. This task elicits no sympathy from the gnarled steelworkers of this world, but put a brawny, no-nonsense, iron-fisted steelworker in a closed room with a blank page for an hour and you will soon have him donning his mask and very hapily getting back to perspiring in front of hot buckets of molten steel. All of us remember the blank page from childhood, no matter if we never lifted a pen again after graduation.”[Page 121]
“We leave the beckoning blank page of our life completely empty because we don’t have confidence on the particular first sentence that confronts us.[Page 122]
“This invitation to the depths, this challenge to get below the surface, is a dynamic that faces not just the writer but all people who really want to know what is eating at them, what is asking to be addressed, what lies beneath the surface busyness.”[Page 128]
I was struck when reading about this ‘wanting to know what is asking to be addressed’ because it echoed my own personal tribulations and seemed to echo some of those in my children. I keep in mind Kahlil Gibran’s admonition that our children are not our children (they are life’s longing for itself) but sometimes the answers to a conundrum come when you focus on something else.
I was immediately prompted to pull out a pen and jot down, on the blank pages at the back of the book, those times when I had been able to — was challenged to — “drill down” into the depths. This impromptu list went a long way towards describing who I am and, perhaps with some additional mental trench-digging, who I might become.
The first time this occurred was when I was 19. I was a probationary firefighter who’d flunked ladders and been sent to the less physically-demanding activities of ambulance training and duty, and the dispatch desk, an assignment that shaped my ‘vocationally-promiscuous’ career for two decades. When I got to the dispatch desk, I quickly understood that the work space was poorly organized in both procedural and spatial terms. When I pointed this out to the skeptical Chief with a convincing explanation and demonstration, he gave me the freedom and the imprimatur to re-design the space and the function, though he retained the right to veto on matters of policy and procedure. This led to extensive discussions that once almost bordered on a insubordinate argument.
In an emergency response system, the dispatcher has a temporary command role. With a quick assessment based on information that has come to his attention by phone, wired alarm, or radio, he asks for a specific response. When he asks for an engine company to roll out the door, though it be commanded by a lieutenant, the dispatcher (usually a private) outranks the officer until the apparatus arrives on the scene and the ranking officer aboard the apparatus does an assessment, and assumes command of the scene and the department until that itself is superseded by the arrival of a captain, deputy chief or chief. No one can override or overrule the first pronouncements of a dispatcher. So the dispatcher must be able to have at his fingertips access to a vast array of resources, technologies, etc., and these must fall readily to hand. Hence the need for the re-design.
The questioning by the rookie of the chief began to verge on insubordination during the frequent and regular discussions among all personnel about scenarios, tactical responses, etc. The proffered scenario was one in which the incoming phone call spoke of a car fire in the parking lot of a state university facility in the same town, but the reality that needed to be discerned was that the parking lot technically was just on the other side of the border to the next town. What units should the dispatcher roll? The first engine company was an easy and correct answer but, when I suggested that the mythical caller had spoken of someone in the car, I also mythically sent the ambulance, an unacceptable answer because insurance rules inside mutual aid compacts disallowed an ambulance response without prior request by the chief of the fire department tn that adjoining town. The problem: that department was a call department and getting the chief on the phone to ask permission was going to take some time. The theoretical fire scene was blocks away. In the argumentative discussion, it was not even permissible to roll the ambulance with the proviso that it not cross the line until given permission to do so, giving the dispatcher a one-to-two minute window of opportunity to reach out to the chief a few miles away, because it would have been bureaucratically presumptive and no insurance blanket would have covered the ambulance or its personnel. Had they been in an accident on the way, liability would have belonged to the town, and would have landed on my head.
Years later, I sat on the dispatch desk at a large private ambulance company in Springfield, MA with full command of an active fleet of six ambulances and another six on call when I got a call from someone in Boston who said a plane had just crashed at Logan Airport and would I please send everything I had?! I said “no”. I immediately flipped the large desk calendar over so I had a large blank piece of paper on which I began to design an instructive simulation game that would allow dispatch and command staff throughout a large area to play out the kinds of scenarios we’d discussed in the fire department and which presented itself that day. [The final exam on the test for ambulance personnel at the fire department asked for a description of the triage decision-making that would be involved on-scene at a tourist bus crash involving 40 victims.] So I began to “drill down” into the depths of that problem and began to conceive of a system that would use simulation gaming to teach mass casualty incident response and management. It would take me decades to reach the bottom of that trench.
I worked my way through college being employed by this company and had been asked to participate in a regional transportation planning committee that was beginning to look at the challenges of training and development for a sophisticated emergency medical services response system. My experiences thus far allowed me to merge my understanding of a such a system into a public education video that I produced for my senior project in video production. Using a script that I wrote, talent that I recruited, scenes and settings of which I was able to arrange the filming of because of my connections, I produced a half-hour description of how paramedics would work under the direction of physicians at hospitals with radio connections ands bring the emergency department out into the field. Today, this is routine. In the early 1970’s, this was still a vision.
Later, when I was employed as the first staffperson for a new fledgling statewide medical society of emergency physicians, our challenge was to find more income. We ran a successful three-day symposium on emergency medicine but we needed more balance on the calendar and more training and education in trauma. A new member had just joined; he came in as the new chief at a major teaching hospital in the big city in the center of the state and he’d come in from Colorado where he’d chaired the committee that oversaw the most successful ski symposium in the country in the specialty. It was like getting a gift from God. He was reluctant to take on the challenge; nowhere in New England where there any ski venues like they had in Colorado. But he didn’t have staff in Colorado, and I knew how to find and negotiate for meeting venues. We had Stowe, and together this fellow and I (with input from others) put together an educational curriculum in trauma management. The first year was a financial and programmatic success, and we repeated it for two more years at a different location. The final year, we had over 250 physicians, doctors and EMS staffers paying $250-300 per person for the chance to learn in the morning and ski in the afternoon. I told other people about this fellow for years; he’d quickly risen to assume the presidency of the organization. I said “If he asked me to move that mountain over there down the road ten miles, I’d go get my pick and wheelbarrow.” When I left the organization, the plaque they gave me said, simply, “Thanks for putting us on the map.”
Later I was tasked with the administrative leadership of a regional EMS corporation and quickly discovered they had not addressed one of the 15 components of a good EMS system: a functional plan for disaster response. In short order, we were at work and developed the plan, as well as the educational and training component for the plan. It was described by the six-state regional association of EMS systems as the best existent state-of-the-art approach. It was tested during a real event months after I’d been pushed out of the job by a corporate bully of a hospital administrator who had visions of running his own ambulance company; his hospital bought the one with a reputation for dealing in illicit drugs and I’d had the audacity to point that out after I’d been promoting a formally-structured private-public system that involved public input from police, fire, hospital and other private and public entities. One day thereafter, my wife said, as we gazed out our living room window at the red skies some eight miles down the road, “Don’t you want to go?”. I’d preached about dysfunctional mass convergence and knew that I had no command or response role even if I was still in the job, so I said “No. If we planned well and I trained them correctly, it’ll be okay.” It was. I had been able to transmit my best sense of an OODA-like flexible and ongoing assessment of problem-seen-in-the-scope-of-space-and-time, a kind of ma-ai of emergency repsonse, to a leading paramedic and his small transportation/training committee. As luck would have it, he was on duty that night and assumed medical command. He assessed the spatial traffic management aspects of a small closed-access parking lot and quickly organized it and the response so that the critically-wounded burn-and-trauma victims could be loaded into jet helicopters and flown to Boston within “the golden hour”. Between 25 and 30 people were involved in the explosion of flocculent dust in the Malden Mills “fleece” manufacturing facility without loss of life.
In the interim, I had returned briefly to college. I thought that an extension of what I had learned and conceived might make use of the new technologies of “interactive videodisc”. I learned once again that the academics were ill-prepared to teach or lead anyone to anything, though I did get side-tracked writing and circulating a proposal which I forwarded to a wide range of people. I’d read about the development of a simulation-based system to teach battle doctrine (“TraDoc”) and sent off the buffed-up summary of my thoughts and ideas to one of the military people involved; several weeks later, the CIA called and wanted to know how I knew of the effort which was driven by a pair of software experts from Bolt, Beranek and Newman. I’d also talked my way into a job as the Managing Editor of a company loosely affiliated with Children’s Hospital in Boston tasked with use of cable and satellite TV to provide continuing education to pediatricians; it was there where I discovered that my own poor education and experience were heads-and-shoulders above what the venture capitalists had gleaned out of the ranks of the unemployed. We put 15 shows “in the can” and I started up a similar effort in orthopedics affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital, but these died on the vine for lack of advertising support. They didn’t charge me with that task nor ask me, but many of the symposia I’d run for the society of emergency physicians attracted significant financial support from equipment providers, pharmaceutical companies, and the like.
Years after that, having been serially unemployed or under-employed for years, I sat in the basement office in my home reading that day’s Boston Globe when I turned to the business section and was smacked in the face by a large computer-generated image of a wounded civilian lying on the ground next to a Hummer from which had emerged a GI who was tending to the person. Overhead, circling for a landing, was a MedEvac chopper.
“That’s my game!”, I shouted to no one there, as it depicted precisely the kind of thing I’d envisioned. Previously, I’d dusted off the proposal a second time and sent it off to a number of people; one copy was hand-carried by the son of a local EMT I’d trained to the neo-cons in the Office of Emergency Preparedness inside the US Department of Justice where it was then given to the people at BreakAway Games who turned it into the online game Incident Commander. I’d also written an article for a trade magazine in 1990. The graphics were much better in this Globe photo, though, and so I soon found myself employed as a subject matter consultant to MAK Technologies. (The M and the K in the name stand for the very same two software engineers who built that Army TraDoc system that trained the armor component of Desert Storm and which resulted in the now-famous battle of 73 Easting.)
Emergency management requires high-end spatial intelligence. [Hell, I just discovered that Delorme up in Freeport, Maine was bought out by Garmin and that if I buy one of their expensive hand-held GIS units I can get Garmin BaseCamp software for my iMac and can start plotting some photographic safaris…. If I do that, I’ll be labeled a terrorist for sure.] [See three-reasons-why-schools-neglect-spatial-intelligence ]
Picture that small army of people wearing many hats and having differing intent and loyalties who are involved when it’s been discovered that the chickens over on the south 40 are sneezing and dying. Do a rapid economic assessment of how much money is at stake. Ask the people who work there if they were wearing their rubber boots and if they washed their hands thoroughly. Ask the owner of that facility if authorities can go onto the premises and do some lab tests. Try to ignore the shotgun in the foreman’s hands. Explain to them that the state has 36 hours in which to figure out where the vectors and fomites are. Explain what a vector is, what a fomite is, and what the difference between them is. Tell the state’s national guard contingent to set up roadblocks at the intersections to the north and east. Tell the guy who owns the property that you’re gonna have to kill all those chickens that cost him about $8.95 a piece.
So it was time to drill down into the depths again. I reviewed most everything I could resurrect that I had from the North American Simulation and Gaming Association. I reviewed the lessons I’d learned as a beta-tester in the inaugural edition of his “Game of Games” that involved six players using e-mail and a simple Moodle web site. I wrote e-mails to its developer and re-read a lot to the material I could glean from the work done by Thiagi and drove to Montreal where I could meet and interview a British online and interactive gaming entrepreneur.
Finally, when talking to a physician who felt compelled to rush to the aid of New Orleans after the nation watched Katrina curve into New Orleans more sharply than a Clayton Kershaw offering, I was challenged to put my thoughts down on paper about how America might begin to understand how better to respond to mass emergencies. The result was “Simulations and Virtual Communities of Practice”.
But that was then, and this is now. Since then, the concepts and technologies have been hijacked into the service of the few and their diseased sense of control. There is little room if any for anyone’s sense of anything if it isn’t in alignment with the pronouncements of people who do not live in the community and whose priorities lie elsewhere.
“Lifting the pen above a blank sheet of paper is an iconic moment. That is, it stands not just for the writer … but also for the building contractor about to lay out a foundation or a baker counting out her ingredients. It stands for the importance of first steps, where each of these first steps taken has to be judged finally to prevent all future steps from coming to a very sticky end. In breadmaking the preparation is paramount. The measures are important, the ratios of flour to yeast, of flour and yeast to water. Kneading and the exact strength of that kneading have to be finally gauged. The recipe is tried and tested and must be begun as it is finished, according to how you want the crust to emerge and the bread to taste. In building a house, the building contractor must lay out the lines of the foundation exactly. He must consult the plans, measure and remeasure, check and recheck. The consequences of getting it wrong multiply and become more and more embarrassing as the work proceeds.
But what if we have no recipe to consult? What if we have no grand architectural plans? What if we do not know what we are building or baking? And what if that lack of knowledge of what to do and where to go is debilitating, and therefore, as it is to most human beings, slightly, or for some, deeply depressing? What if we really do have a blank page?
Contractors may have a level and a chalk line to lay out the line of the wall, but they have no fixed mark for building again if their business fails or if they lose their half their company through divorce or, worse, injure themselves so they cannot do the physical work anymore. The tangibles of work are built every day out of the intangibles of intent and commitment. How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a place, because we are actually working with a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?” [Page 153-154]
I remember watching Anthony Bourdain while relatively immobile and flat on my back in a medical rehab hospital bed and discovering the value and meaning ofmise-en-place, a discovery which eventually resulted in the lucky acquisition at an an incredibly low price of a pristine and untouched version of the instruction/reference book given to entrants to the Culinary Institute of America.
“The idea of there being this code of ethics about productivity was, on the one hand, very romantic to me but, on the other hand, it made a hell of a lot of sense, even spiritually. The idea that by cleaning your station, that sets the table for excellence in every part of your life.
I think many people look at the idea of mise en place as just being something where you prep your carrots and celery and have it off to the side—and not something that has wider applications?
Oh my God, it’s so elegant, this system. It’s not just about organizing space, it’s actually about how you relate to space, how you relate to time, how you relate to motions within that space, how you relate to managing resources, how you relate to managing people, how you relate to managing your personal energies, all of that.”
Wright spoke to his disciples at Taliesin and to the world of architecture at large about the process used in designing his acclaimed cantilevered house over the falls called Fallingwater.
“One must be able to walk around and inside the structure, know every detail, before putting pencil to paper. I never sat down to the drawing board – and this has been a lifelong process of mine –- until I have the whole thing in my mind. I may alter it substantially. I may throw it away. I may find I’m up a blind alley; but unless I have the idea of the thing pretty well in shape, you won’t see me at a drawing board with it.”
“Conceive the building in the imagination, not on paper but in the mind, thoroughly – before touching paper. Let it live there – gradually taking more definite form before committing it to the draughting board. When the thing lives for you – start to plan it with tools. Not before… Working on it with triangle and T-square should modify or extend or intensify or test the conception – complete the harmonious adjustment of its parts.”
In Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead, based on Wright and the Fallingwater process, the client says to architect Howard Roark “You’re completely natural only when you’re one inch from bursting into pieces. What in hell are you really made of? After all, it’s only a building. It’s not the combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and some form of ecstasy that you seem to make of it.”
To which the architect replied: “It isn’t?”
From Fallingwater Rising by Franklin Toker, Alred A. Knopf, New York 2003, cited in “The Spirit of the Game”, the tenth chapter of Summon The Magic
Whyte is both a poet and a rock climber, obviously experienced at both, and he says:
“Good poets, like good rock climbers, look not for clinging but for real purchase. People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like. The point of contact is what allows us to take the next step.” [Page 143]
If I understand this (I’ve failed rock-climbing for the same reasons I failed ladders in the fire department: my knees were damaged through sport and I lacked confidence in my leg strength, and my sense of balance has been dysfunctional at a fine level for as long as I can remember it, and I’m precipiphobic too), I can apply the concepts to my newly-rediscovered approach to photography. I have several points of contact: a new camera, a small catalog of how-to- videos on top of a solid earlier amateur education, and a burgeoning opportunity with a growing file of ideas, places to go, etc. My “purchase”, or where my present point of contact currently resides, is the fact that I have, in weak-kneed fashion, yet to try the software to download the first batch of photos I’ve taken. That’s the next ledge in my uphill climb.
Whyte explores these concepts in Chapter 7 (“Searching for the Self: The pursuit that is not a pursuit”) starting on page 154, he recounts an experience he had when he was hiking in Bhutan. I’m not going to begin to try to recount that tale; it’s too important and I would not do it or the author any justice. Buy the book to read this part alone. Find the part on page 167 in which he identifies and talks aboutthe essential human ingredient: anxiety.
How many of us grew up with the relationships of others in front of us for some level of experiential examination? These included our parents, their partners, close neighbors, the parents of long-term friends, and perhaps others. What arises from Whyte’s discussion is the focus on how the participants in a relationship spend a good deal of their time working with anxiety, their own or that of the other participant(s) in the relationship(s).
“Till that moment in my life I always thought this is me and that’s somebody else and something else. But for the first time I did not know which is me and which is not me. Suddenly, what was me was just all over the place. The very rock on which I was sitting, the air that I breathe, the very atmosphere around me, I had just exploded into everything. That sounds like utter insanity. This, I thought it lasted for ten to fifteen minutes but when I came back to my normal consciousness, it was about four-and-a-half-hours I was sitting there, fully conscious, eyes open, but time had just flipped.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaggi_Vasudev
“The voice in the whirlwind asks us to see the world without having an ounce of control over it and to cultivate our faith by paying attention to this creation.” [Page 175]
I had that same experience sitting on the cliffs at Pemaquid on my honeymoon in the late 70’s, here memorialized with photo on return trip two years ago and a stay at The Bradley Inn.
“All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us…. To be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.” [page 34]
“… we have all the five senses through which to create a constant subliminal conversation with the world outside.” [page 41]
[See A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman, Vintage 1991 as well as Deep Play, Diane Ackerman, Random House, New York, 1999.]
The way we face the future actually create your future as much as her individual actions along the way.[Page 244]
On pages 247 and to 48, Whyte describes –through the lens of the experience of Deirdre Bloomfield-Brown–what he calls a “life-changing encounter”,”a breakthrough experience”.
“Finding the key is it very own human motif. Again and again, we have to find a way in through the door, and again and again, stories say that the key is always right under our noses. We are the ones who turn in the door and open it. We have to look for the key by looking at the way we are made to open the great conversation of life. What am I naturally drawn to? How am I made for this world? What is my essential nature?”
I made a list of my own personal life-changing encounters. I came up with six moments. Listed here chronologically, they include that evening at dusk when I sat meditatively on the rocky bank of the brook that ran off the mountain, the moment in which a lynx came to the brook for a drink of water. I watched in awe, trying to be very still, but the lynx realized that I was there, and looked at me for an extended moment. Our eyes met as we assessed each other for intent. In that same moment I transmitted silently the thought “I wish you no harm”, and the animal turned back to slake its thirst. When it had its fill, it turned and vanished.
The second occurrence was an encounter in the halls of my high school with my favorite English teacher on my return from my freshman year in college, all puffed out in my special ops trainee black beret dress uniform with brass and jump boots, only to be rebuffed, shunned. He turned without saying anything and went back to his office. He retired years later and I found his address through the high school and wrote to him about how, with that moment, he likely saved my life, and certainly redirected its focus.
Years later, during a week-long training camp designed to turn me into an EMT instructor, I offered up a hand-written note to another trainee who seemed uncertain about her command of the content and her ability to deliver it, despite the fact that she was a licensed and registered nurse. That led to a 42 year marriage. The two of us ended up as co-teachers for three successive 100-hour EMT courses. What I wrote was that her students would be hard-pressed to pay attention to the content because they would be paying more attention to her beauty.
Sometime later, I encountered my firstborn, and experience I can vaguely remember, most likely because he was probably still in utero. He celebrates his 40th birthday next month. (On page 302, Whyte pays homage to the female gender when he says “It is hard to really comprehend how much physiological capital our bodies put into the necessity of giving birth.”)
The incident at Pemaquid is recounted above and has been described several times.
Lastly, what can be called a theophany occurred in the presence of my two-year-old daughter at a moment of her night terrors and colicky irascibility; a hand — in a room in which only the two of us were present — grasped me at the top of my shoulder/collar bone that I’d wedged in to the dormer ceiling in her nursery and squeezed it firmly so as to announce presence and gravitas; it transmitted viscerally the sentence “Be gentle with this child; I have great things in store for her.”
Later in the book, Whyte talks about moments of “initiation and confrontation”, or “seeing to the root”: “… our sense of lack, our sense of worry and inadequacy, has a root and a cause. This root is our desire to have any other reality than the one we are confronted with in the moment.”
In my case, two come to mind. The first is light in nature, but nonetheless perhaps indicative. I was reading the news in the announcer’s studio at the student radio station, doing a five-minute gig in the midst of the afternoon music show dee-jayed by the program director, when he snuck in behind me — the red “on-the-air” sign was no deterrent to him — and pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit the long taped-sequentially-together roll of news copy on fire.
I’m sure there are other such moments; I’ve either forgotten them or they were inconsequential. The most consequential moment extended for hours and hours, and it was the moment after I woke up from the coma in the hospital having been told and learned kinesthetically that I could not move anything on the left side of my body. That moment extended and progressed through to the time when my son, the fellow I first encountered in utero, lifted me up and placed me in a wheelchair and took me downstairs to be evaluated for placement in a medical rehabilitation wing.
The deeper you go into this book, the better it gets, and by better I mean accurate, compelling, resonant and relevant.
On pages 256-257, Whyte goes on to discuss “accidie”, defined elsewhere as spiritual sloth or apathy, and conversely those moments when we are asked “to be authentic, and to be tenacious in that authenticity”.
“Engagement with the self reaches its climax with a sense of being utterly alone with the struggle. There is a peculiar quality to the distilled essence we imbibe when we come to this sense of complete isolation. Ironically, our sense of communion with others is enhanced when we understand how completely alone people feel when confronted by the forces that surround them.”
Chapter 11 is entitled “The Art of Marriage: The disappearance, reappearance and dissolution of the self,” and in it Whyte describes marriages as “dynamic moving frontiers”[page 265], noting that “each marriage is a mystery to its self”[Page 275]. He says” To go against ourselves in a relationship is to find another form of self that can grow without destroying the growth of the other.”
In Chapter 12 (“A Sweet Prison: Living with the work we’ve chosen”) White talks about families; see in particular page 311. On page 317 he talks about the conjunction of marriage and work:
“As it is difficult to explain the mechanics of a given marriage, so it is difficult to explain the mechanics of a vocation. Perhaps because that is less to do with mechanics then the slowly building, concentrated focus that gets the job done. The subtle joys of the steady application to a work yielding up its secrets and its subtle triumphs are hard to explain. Just as almost no one wants to know how happily married we are, almost no one wants to know the details of how we gain our sense of satisfaction in work, as much as from its rewards and its fruits.”
“… there is indeed no other enemy than the false self we continually present to the world as the real one.” [page 334]
“There is no self we can construct that will survive a real conversation. A real conversation always involves our moving the small context we inhabit to the next-larger context that will transform and enlighten us and that seems to have been waiting for us all along.
“What we withhold from ourselves is the very thing we need to complete ourselves. This active completion is often seen as a form of death and something to be fought against. We quite often do not want to know what we need. We will try to offer false gifts to the self in order to keep the real gift at bay.” [page 339]
“Vulnerability is the door through which we walk into self-understanding and compassion for others. Being enlightened does not mean that we assume supernatural powers or find a perfection that exults us above the daily losses other human beings are subject to; enlightenment means that we’ve accepted thoroughly our transience, our vulnerability and our imperfections and live just as robustly with them as without them.”[Page 340]
“… the best thing to do is to hold a kind of silent vigil besides the part of us that is going through the steps of a difficult transformation.” [Pages 340-341]
“The refusal to participate fully in any of the marriages, to make them overt and speakable, causes endless friction in a relationship. Not speaking about them, a couple can often become afraid of each other’s desires and eventually see each other as unspoken enemies. To speak of these marriages out loud at the very least creates a crossable frontier between the couple. Each couple stands at the turbulent edge between the surface attempt to control these other powerful marriages and the Dionysian [irrational, frenzied, undisciplined] underground energies that carry them along, trying to flow around all outer obstacles. When we attempt to stop the conversation our partner might be having in the other two marriages because of natural jealousies, we become an obstacle to the one we are supposed to “love,” and then wonder why it is so difficult to make this first marriage work in isolation.”[Page 346]
“What we desire in the three marriages is a sense of profound physical participation with creation, the reconfirmation that we are not alone in the world and the reminder that there is a larger context to existence than the one we have established ourselves.”[Page 354]
The idea of achieving work/life balance is a modern-day knockoff of the American Dream, rooted in the minds of ambitious yet overworked professionals who want to “have it all” — work and play, career and family.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as “work/life balance.” You don’t hear people talking about finding a “family/life balance” or an “eating/life balance.” IT’S ALL LIFE.
Work usually takes priority over the rest, however, because work is what we spend the majority of our day doing, it financially supports our dreams, and it’s a core part of our identities (the first “small talk” question people usually ask is what you do for a living). Add mobile technology to our career-driven lives, and work priorities now have the potential to take over our personal lives. When this happens, professionals are putting their relationships, mental and physical health, and overall happiness at risk.
HOW TECHNOLOGY SKEWS OUR PRIORITIES
The reason work seems to be encroaching more and more on our personal time is that every day, we unknowingly hand over precious power to alerts and notifications — distractions ironically set up to ensure we don’t miss a thing.
My notifications come from Google, business blogs, email, productivity apps, airfare alerts, my investment firm, and (what should be at the top of my list) my son’s school. When we’re constantly bombarded with these bits of information, priorities and distractions start to run together, and we have a hard time knowing what to focus on. And that struggle is about to get worse. I’m a marketer and our whole mission in life is to get you to pay attention, to make what we have to say more important than anything else you could be doing at the moment. According to analyst firm Gartner, by 2017 Marketers will spend more on IT than CIOs. Most of that investment is to help us get you to stop, listen, read, watch, click, like, share, tweet, pin and buy.
IT’S NOT ALL TECHNOLOGY’S FAULT
How do you know when your priorities have truly gone awry? I believe it’s when you’ve reached a point where the urgency to react to something is disproportionate to its priority. Although technology enables every notification or alert to seem urgent, technology itself isn’t the true culprit. Rather, it’s our relationship with technology that throws us off-balance.
Do you delay a scheduled workout because you feel compelled to reply to an email first? Do your kids ask you to step away from Facebook? Do unread emails cause you stress even after a 12-hour workday? Do you check your phone at dinner? These are all signs that you have an imbalanced relationship with technology.
4 WAYS TO BALANCE YOUR LIFE
Below are a few simple ways to begin building a more balanced life — one where you have room for hobbies, health, relationships, and personal priorities.
1. TAKE 30 MINUTES EACH MORNING BEFORE CHECKING YOUR EMAIL OR PHONE
I used to wake up every morning and immediately look at my phone to see if there was anything urgent in my inbox or something interesting on Facebook. It always started with me telling myself, “I’m just going to check,” but that quick check turned into 30 minutes of working, mentally prioritizing my to-do list, and looking for a problem to react to.
The most defining moment of your day is when you first wake up. You have a choice about the first information you expose to your brain. By meditating, exercising, journaling, or doing something reflective for those first 30 minutes instead of opening the digital floodgates, you allow yourself to start your day recharged and aware of your priorities. Learning to control which information we pay attention to — and when — is crucial to achieving balance.
2. IDENTIFY YOUR PERSONAL “CRITICAL PATH” PRIORITIES
Every year, my company holds a meeting for our executive team to discuss our “critical path” for the coming year. What are our most important priorities? Our departments then align their goals along that path. Professionals can benefit from going through this same process with their personal lives.
Can you identify your five most important personal goals and values? Do you want to be more connected to your kids, be physically fit, or be on the road to a funded retirement? These priorities are part of your personal “critical path”; if you don’t define them now and give them the necessary attention, something less important (but louder) is bound to take their place.
3. FIND A NON-WORK-RELATED PASSION
Without any interests or hobbies outside work, we run the risk of becoming resentful and isolated. While it sounds dedicated and noble to focus on work 24/7, everyone knows this isn’t a realistic or sustainable lifestyle. Research shows that this lifestyle can stifle creativity, impair judgment, and diminish focus. Many companies show outward signs of rewarding this behavior, but most people secretly have little respect for individuals with no boundaries.
Learn a language, join a gym, or volunteer at your child’s school. Most importantly, do something that makes you step away from your computer and smartphone. Non-work-related, tech-free passions expand your universe and make you a more interesting person.
4. BUILD A COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
Finding a non-work-related passion also involves building supportive, nurturing relationships outside of work. Money and jobs will come and go, but trusted friends who have your personal interests at heart can help you handle difficult professional decisions with less stress and more confidence.
When we take a look at why it’s so hard to achieve balance between work and our personal lives, technology designed to serve us lies very close to the root of the problem. However, the root itself has to do with our tendency to permit outside forces to drive our priorities.
Being dedicated and ambitious is admirable, but allowing work to define your self-worth and identity is dangerous. Don’t let yourself wake up one day and realize your kids are out of the house, you never went on that cruise, or you never ran a marathon.
By reevaluating priorities and taking the necessary steps to unplug from work and technology, you can achieve real balance — improving your health, happiness, and life as a whole.
Borrowing from Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s seminal book “In Search of the Warrior Spirit”, it asks early on
“For what reason do you come?”, the master asked the student.
“I have come to learn the art of self-defense”, said the student.
The master responded: “Which self do you wish to defend?”
O’SENSEI, A WAR VETERAN WITH PTSD…???
“.. the potential that Aikido, the “art of peace” could be a product of Post Traumatic Growth is a compelling point… Aikido is often referred to as “medicine for a sick world.” … the practice of Aikido can be a path towards healing.….”
Tom Osborn’s exploratory and explanatory essay can be read at the link
Later, on pages 36 & 37, the sixth chapter touches upon — with two snippets — a subject addressed in a separate ex parte article below.
The main characteristic of an addiction is that it creates a need for itself that doesn’t provide you with energy to do something more. What you get from cigarettes is a craving for cigarettes, as well as the denial of a lot of other needs.
Some people eat because they’re hungry, others because they are bored, tired, or sick of being fat. A single substance comes to meet the needs of a lot of subtleties without fulfilling real needs. As Eric Hoffer said, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” In that way, it becomes an end in itself. It may seem like the supermarket and the video store give us choices but often we choose the same thing over and over again. When we choose the same thing time and again, it has to become bigger, better or more potent to meet the original need it satisfied. Addictions are substitutes for real community. Any of the states that you reach through a substance you can meet through some form of relationship. In a fully functioning community, you can live on less, or do without.
Addiction is any dependency that self-perpetuates or self-catalyzes at an ever-accelerating rate…. Addiction consumes energy and leads to slavery.
Practice generates energy and leads to freedom…. Habits are addictive, if that mysterious acceleration factor is present, when enough is never enough, and what was enough yesterday is not enough today. Habits are addictive if the reward and the work are inverted. Samuel Butler joked that if the alcoholic’s hangover preceded the intoxication, there would be mystical schools teaching it as a discipline for self-realization.
So practice is the reciprocal of addiction. Practice is an ever-fresh, challenging flow of work and play in which we continually test and demolish our own delusions; therefore, it is sometimes painful.
[Ed.: The fortunes of the founders of Skull and Bones (as well as the family fortunes of one of its more famous members, the current US Secretary of State), the shadows of whose membership have brought us the American security state empire (read this book from cover to cover) and its prolonged intervention in Afghanistan, its hijinks within the Golden Triangle and so much more, were built on the opium trade out of China during the era of the clipper ships.]
The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned — and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true. Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my new book, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong — and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.
If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.
I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels. From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her. From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man. From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs.
I had a quite personal reason to set out for these answers. One of my earliest memories as a kid is trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. Ever since then, I have been turning over the essential mystery of addiction in my mind — what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? How do we help those people to come back to us? As I got older, another of my close relatives developed a cocaine addiction, and I fell into a relationship with a heroin addict. I guess addiction felt like home to me.
If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.
One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.
But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.
After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.)
When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be? This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense — unless you take account of this new approach.
Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.
But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.
If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.
This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me — you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.
But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.
Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.
But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.
Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off even more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.
There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world — and so leave behind their addictions.
This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.
One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.
The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass — and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.
This isn’t only relevant to the addicts I love. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.
The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.
But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.
Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention — tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction — and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.
When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.
The full story of Johann Hari’s journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at www.chasingthescream.com.
The full references and sources for all the information cited in this article can be found in the book’s extensive end-notes.
Much has been written — I think of Laurence Gonzalez’ book “Surviving Survival” — about those circumstances, events or encounters that shake us to our bones.
Many of us have had such events; war brings them to soldiers (as noted); accidents and health care crises brings them to civilians; imprisonment or worse brings them to people who succeed at overcoming that experience and writing about it: Nelson Mandela, Vladimir Bukovsky, Hurricane Carter — the list is long because authority keeps impounding people; that list is getting longer, having added Manning, Kirakou, and thousands of unnamed souls thrown into dank, dark centers of isolation and torture.
I was lucky. I was in a coma in a bed surounded by doctors and nurses and loving and caring family and friends. Surviving has a way of getting you clear on which self.
There is present within the socio-political leadership of our milieu — including people, institutions, media outlets, and our economy — a massive pathological addiction to violence and war.