To Be Angry at Each Other for Not Being Afraid

People who care about things will sometimes be afraid those things will be destroyed.  After the attacks on the World Trade Center that killed over 3000 people I was afraid that the next attack was going to be a nuclear attack on a U.S. city.  I went to the local Unitarian Universalist church and heard a friend of mine argue “We need to think about the message those attacks were sending.”  I was furious — here people are getting murdered and this guy wants to talk about the message the murderers are sending!

I remember the bitter and sardonic quality to my contempt.  My friend seemed not just wrong, but a self-deluded, pompous fool.  I grimly sought out the darkest things I could on the internet about Islamic terrorists.  I enjoyed scaring and horrifying myself.  That way, I told myself, I am not like my friend the happy fool.  I am facing up to the grim facts.

In the current political environment I see this same dynamic working itself out.

Friend Frank: I am really afraid of the administration attacking civil liberties and creating a country in which open dissent and discussion is impossible and where under cover of patriotism rich people rip the rest of us off.

Friend Fran: I am really afraid of more Islamic terrorist attacks like September 11th.

Friend Frank: You are a reactionary fool for not being more afraid of fascism.  Your fear is being manipulated and you should be afraid of that!

Friend Fran: You are a politically correct fool for not being more afraid of Islamic terror.  Your fear of fascism is going to make you a sitting duck!

Friend Frank: You’re going to do nothing while I’m shipped off to a concentration camp!

Friend Fran: You’re going to do nothing while my family is blown up and my head is chopped off!

These two friends are getting in trouble because they are each afraid of different things and are angry at each other for not being afraid.

This, I submit, is no way to have a discussion, because it raises the level of fear, and raising the level of fear (as I’m sure cognitive psychologists have proven) lowers our ability to imagine new possibilities.  The more afraid we are the more fight-or-flight takes over.  The more we are in a blind panic the more we are blind to the possibilities that could alleviate our panic.


  1. Let’s be honest about what we’re afraid of
  2. Let’s not be angry at our friends for being afraid of different things
  3. Let’s frame our discussions in terms of things we love, desire, and want to have happen, rather than things we hate and fear.  Rather than say “I fear fascism” say “I want to have a society in which people can freely criticize the government”.  Rather than say “I fear being killed by the next Mohammed Atta” say “I want to have a country where people are less likely to be the victims of politically-motivated murder.”  Cognitively, there is no difference, but emotionally putting things in terms of what we want rather than what we fear makes the discussion friendlier and more imaginative.  And we are emotional beings.


A Little More on Irony and Pretense

You might imagine creatures incapable of pretentiousness, but I’m not sure they’d be human.  Such creatures would have sex, and eat, and breathe, and build houses, and fight, and raise children but they would never use language to promise more than they could deliver.  If they were chasing a lion they’d never say “Hey!  I know we can do this!”  They would say “Hey!  I don’t know if I can do this!”.

You might imagine such creatures, but I don’t know if they would be human, at least not like we are humans.  We humans are always aspiring.   “I’m going to get that lion — come on!”  “I’m going to be a good father — marry me!”  “I’m not afraid” “That plan seems good to me!” they all promise more than we can be strictly speaking certain of delivering.

When our friends are aspiring or we are aspiring we call that aspiring, but when our enemies doing it or people we don’t trust we call it pretention or bullshit.  He says he’s going to be a good father, but he’s a bullshitter.  How does he know?  The last lion got away.  How can he say he’s going to catch this one?

When you live in a community of the pretentious sometimes you will employ irony.  The ironist promises more than he can deliver but he’s actually making a coded point. “I’m going to catch ten lions!”.  What does it mean?  It means “Look I can say something just like Mr. Lion Hunter.  It doesn’t mean you should believe me.  So it doesn’t mean you should believe him either.”

Can you lie about being ironic?  Yes.  The so-called “alt-right” –actually Nazis — pretend they are kidding about being genocidal racists.  They aren’t.

Can you be pretentiously unpretentious?  Absolutely.  You can say “Far be it from me to chase a lion successfully — I’m just a humble bark-dye-refiner.  But I would be the best husband you’ve ever met!”   The unpretentiousness on topic A is a mask to cover the pretentiousness on topic B.

People sometimes say there is too much irony, and people almost often say there is too much pretentiousness.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Anybody can decry pretentiousness and a lot of people can decry irony.  But to be pretentious (fine, aspirational) and ironic at the right time, in the right way, to the right degree, about the right thing — that is not so common!


Stuttering, Tics, Forgetting, Fluency

I used to stutter and have always sought to achieve greater fluency in speech, in my connection with other people, and in my connection with It All.  I want to thank teachers and friends who have been patient with my arhythmia because the more I practice talking in a situation in which I feel that my conversation partner actually wants to hear what I want to say the more fluent I become; now — right now — it occurs to me that there are things we do because we want to, like going to the store, and things we do involuntarily, like secreting stomach juice, but that the really interesting things that make us who we are, that provide the seafloor over which the currents of our thoughts and feelings and wishes flow are neither voluntary nor involuntary: they are like stuttering, or not stuttering, like having a Tourette’s tic or not having a Tourette’s tic, like paying attention and ignoring, like forgetting and remembering, because when stutterers sing we forget we are stutters and do not stutter.  May God and life and all of you reading and everyone who chooses to speak with me today or interact in any way grant me the ability to forget the nightmare that burdens me that I am cut-off from the world and other people and let me experience a fluent and rhythmic relationship to it all.


The World Has No Importance: Not So, Says David

The dog was going to the back at night and for a moment I worried that a coyote, which I had heard yipping a few nights ago, would kill it, and I reflected: really it doesn’t matter.  It’s just a dog.  Nothing matters.   We project mattering upon a universe of neutral facts for our own ends, to satisfy our own emotional needs.

I shared this ideas with David.

“You were scared that the dog would get killed by a coyote, so you told yourself “nothing matters” to protect yourself from pain.  You project non-mattering about a universe of alluring and repulsive facts for your own ends, to satisfy your own emotional needs.”

“Isn’t the universe of things I care about an illusion I come up with to feel important?”

“No more or less than the universe of things you don’t care about is an illusion you come up with to keep you safe.”

“But the universe really doesn’t care.”

“You keep saying that.  You are like a baby with a toy.  Everything is on a wire.  You can slide it to one side of the toy — mattering — or to the other side of the toy — not mattering.  Which side of the toy you slide it to depends upon what you want, what you feel, who you are. ”

I thought about David’s claim for a moment and brought the dog back from the yard and shut the door.

I looked at David who had lost some of his corporeality and became just a part of me.

“Don’t call me a baby.”


The Desire to Trust

I’ve been a member of very close-knit emotional groups at various points in my life, and I’ve also been members of considerably cooler, less trusting groups, for example businesses.  I’ve also been in relationships where I have completely trusted the other person — relationships where I could say the most disgusting, embarrassing, personal secrets of my heart and my body — and I’ve been in relationships where the trust has been more measured and modulated, ones where I have shared my opinions about movies but would not share my opinions about God or idiosyncratic sex.

This last election has made me think about the human need for trust.  If you look at the behavior of Trump voters it is paradoxical.  They do not trust the media, they do not trust coastal elites, they do not trust the future, they do not trust immigrants and foreigners.  But they do trust Trump.


I think, based on my own experience, that human beings have a need to trust.  I think it is baked in to us as children.  We can’t take care of ourselves, so we must trust to survive.  And this is a full-on trust — we trust, do not hide anything, and stake our lives on trust. It is a blissful experience to trust, and to be trusted.

But modern institutions are based on a much cooler, thinner sort of trust.  As Adam Smith wrote, it is not because I trust the benevolence of my baker that I expect bread in the morning.  I expect bread in the morning because I trust the baker to act in his own self-interests.  But I do not trust the baker with my heart.

Although the bread provided in this way may feed us, this sort of relationship with the baker does not.  People hunger for relationships in which they can place their trust.

People seek out high-trust communities such as churches or authoritarian families when they don’t trust the outside world. And this in turn makes the outside world more frightening and the future more frightening.  And this is of course exacerbated by betrayal, when for example a factory is moved overnight to China or Mexico.

To fix this mess we need to practice trust.  Not just instrumentally — although in fact if we don’t trust each other we have little chance of succeeding as a country — but as a good itself.

Step by step because trust builds trust.


Bullies and Fear: Shaming and Ubuntu

A friend shared this about UBUNTU and the question: why does the Torah advocate shunning and exile as the punishments for slander?  Would this be better?

It made me think of the reign of bullies we are currently suffering under and the amazing paradox that the most sadistic victimizers view themselves as victims.  I recently finished the new biography of Hitler and the parallels between him and the Columbine killers he inspired were clear.  All viewed themselves as victims of injustice and populated the world with enemies who were just personifications of their own powerlessness.

And yet in order to deal with this sense of powerless victimhood they made a beeline for the most vulnerable and hurt them and killed them.

And yet after doing that they killed themselves. In Hitler’s case he also killed his friends Joseph and Magda and their children, his girlfriend (then wife), Eva,  and his dog, Blondi.

It makes me think that the two most painful things we experience at the hands of another human being are violation and neglect.   Those are the two weapons humans have to hurt each other — either to ignore the other person and let him die, let him go to his own fate (and in this sea the lone an drowns) or to push past his boundaries and make him serve our needs without caring about his.  These two kinds of victimization create two kinds of counter-attack in their victims.  The bully who is afraid of us ignoring him, will hurt us until we pay attention to him.  The bully who is afraid of our violation will build a fortress to demonstrate that he doesn’t need us.

And yet we all need each other.

Rocky seas, my friends, and visibility is, unfortunately, not what it could be. I think we should just remember that bullies are afraid too, and that our own fear can activate our inner bully, and that this inner bully is not real — but just a terrified child.  We don’t want to shame him.  We want him to stop being so afraid.



What Good Is Love?

-You’re doing it again, Carol!  You want him to say that his life is not worth anything if he doesn’t have you.  And what good does it get you?   What it gets you is bored.    Because what good is the life of someone whose life is worth nothing if he doesn’t have you?

-You’re asking me what good is love.

-Maybe I am.

-What good is anything else?

-I’d like to know when I’m gone that I left something better in other people’s lives, that it wasn’t all a joke.  And all you’re leaving them with is bitterness and disappointment.

-I’m leaving them with the realest thing I have — my neediness.

-I guess what I’m trying to say is that’s not the realest thing that you have.

-That almost makes it sound like you love me.

-Of course I do, but you won’t ever know it.