The Struggle for Power…and Other Lies

As we stood in a library many years ago, someone said this to me: “Power is the basis of all human relationships.” I was stunned and denied that view of life. I’ve never learned who originated this sentence, and our beloved Google has never helped. The closest I’ve come is that it may be the thesis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Sartre’s philosophy appealed to many in the 1960s, and I probably called myself an existentialist so long ago I can’t tell you. A famous quotation: “Life begins on the other side of despair.” I saw his play No Exit with two students. It’s based on his idea that “Hell is other people.” We were glad when it ended. Not recommended for your Monday morning read, but it has its humor. And I am no longer an existentialist.

I’ve spent many years repeating this sentence or asking students to write on it. I came to believe it is true. People can yield, as I wrote last week, or overcome. When love enters the equation, something beautiful and miraculous happens: the struggle for power morphs into a desire for the other person’s happiness. Until the toilet seat doesn’t get put down or the toothpaste lid doesn’t get screwed back on. Or worse. Then the struggle begins again.

When I taught parenting, one principle was to end the power struggle. Children begin very early to assert their wills to power. That sounds harsh, but once a child learns to say “No!” it’s all over if you don’t know what to do. For example, we taught that asking a child if she is ready for her bath will fail. All she has to say is “No” and you’re sunk. There is no real choice, since the bath must be taken. Instead, say “It’s time for your bath. Would you like Star Wars pajamas or Frozen?” Another slight adjustment involves the addition of “Okay?” at the end of sentences, which turns them into questions which can be answered in the negative: “It’s time for school, okay?” Nope. The child has no real choice—until you inadvertently offer one. The “okay” allows a response. Watch how often people add “okay” blindly.

These days, however, I wonder if we are seeing the end of the struggle for power. If that sounds like a good thing, it shouldn’t. We are seeing infringement of First Amendment-protected speech. Differing voices are shouted down. Yes, hate speech is protected by the Constitution. Name-calling remains rampant, however, which tends to end any semblance of a discussion. Slander and libel exist, but they must hew to strict guidelines; defamation cases rarely succeed. Yet the discussion-ending accusations fly.

Another example is the current trend to call out cultural appropriation. A mother gave her daughter a Japanese-themed birthday party. When the pictures came up years later on Tumblr, commenters called her racist. Others said she had made a careful, respectful effort to recreate the tea ceremony and geisha costumes. Respect is the key apparently. If you’re making fun of a culture (and are not of that culture), then you are wrong. Others say you can’t even wear hoop earrings unless they are part of your culture. Students introduced me to George Lopez’s riff on Latinos at fast-food drive-throughs years ago. Even then I worried about offending, but the Latino students insisted we watch it, so we did. Lopez was, at least then, a master of Charlie Chaplin’s dictum that humor is playful pain. These days, I doubt this exercise would work.

So what are people doing these days instead of engaging in honest, open discourse? Howling at the sky. It’s coming November 8, the anniversary of last year’s election: Primal Scream Day. Am I making fun of the people who are frustrated beyond words at the election results? Not at all. It just seems to make my point that the struggle for power is over. No attempt at reason. Just vent. Judge. Call names. A struggle for power might end badly. Its lack may be even worse.

Selling Eternity for a Toy

One likes to think that one knows one’s field of expertise. So when I read the following bit from Shakespeare, I was perplexed:

“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?”

As you know, Will and I are cousins, and I like to think I know his works pretty well. Not only did I not recognize these lines, I couldn’t imagine where they came from. You can read “The Rape of Lucrece here. It’s a long poem that Shakespeare wrote in 1594 and dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton; the legendary story tells of a soldier’s wife renowned for her beauty and chastity. The soldier talks of her in such glowing terms that his commander wants her for himself.

The lines above, then, are the villain’s attempt to talk himself out of the deed. He fails. Lucrece entertains him for her husband’s sake, and he demands that she sleep with him. If she refuses, he threatens to kill her and a servant, then put them in each other’s arms. When she will not submit, he rapes her and leaves. She calls for her husband and her father, tells them what happened— not naming the rapist until they agree to avenge her—and then kills herself. News of the events inflame riots. The rapist and his family are forced from power and the Republic of Rome comes into being.

The odd thing is that we need to pay attention to the words the villain ignored. The context does not matter as much as the message: Don’t be stupid. Balancing wants and desires with needs is a sign of maturity. Does the desire for a thing or an experience outweigh the consequence of its acquisition? Does the ability to win an argument come at the expense of hurting the feelings of another? Because you can doesn’t mean you should. Guilt is likely to follow; that’s just how we are.

The motivation for this week’s observation should be obvious: For years a powerful man demanded sexual favors from women. Sometimes they acquiesced; sometimes he raped them. He did, predictably, enter sex addiction rehab but left after a week. He’s asked for “a second chance,” which he’s not likely to get. And he’s lost a lot: his wife and family, his company, his standing in the industry.

Of more interest will be what follows. Lucrece’s story led to the founding of a republic. Will Weinstein’s fall lead to anything? Social media lit up last week with plenty of #MeToo posts. Following were a few #IHave posts by men admitting they had sexually harassed someone. What better time for a sea change in the way we interact, at all levels? (That term—sea change—is from Shakespeare too. What a coincidence.)

The Bearable Brightness of Being

The title today alters The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a 1984 novel by Milan Kundera that I will never read and a 1988 movie that I will never see. Their philosophical underpinnings are too esoteric, the sensibilities too seedy. But I do love the title. And I do care about the Russian invasion of Prague, the historical setting; if you are interested, you might listen to Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. We played it at Texas Tech, a decidedly unsophisticated locale compared to the beauties and intellectual society to which the novel refers.

Just yesterday, someone asked if I ever considered to possibility of being forever full of an overflowing sense of love and giving and goodness. I said no. At times, it does come, however, and seeking its return is not a bad thing. When we are in the midst of living, a sudden joy can make bearable what a friend once described as “life getting so daily.”

A famous 19th century art critic named Walter Pater made a statement that has ruined a lot of lives: “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Read the essay here. From that time on, certain people, believing his definition of success, have dedicated themselves to achieving ecstasy all the time. Even when that feeling is love, our persons are just not adjusted for it. Most things are dull, repetitive, apparently meaningless, beneath our capabilities, tiresome. As examples I present dishes and laundry, mowing and mopping.

When that beautiful moment comes, then, when our hearts swell with love for another human or for the potentiality of humankind, with gratitude for a selfless act or the profound beauty of a waterfall or a melody perfectly played, the brightness of being does seem real, our lives bearable.

Is this joy pursuable? Honestly, I don’t know. An openness to its possibility seems the best answer. Billy Collins, a poet I’ve quoted before, wrote a poem titled (coincidentally) “The Great Walter Pater.” In it he thinks he might not mind being a statue in a pond or carp “when the dogs of trouble have me running down a dark winding alley.” The reference to the carp has to do with a remark Pater made when asked to what kind of fish he would be. I expect we all know what he means when he says “dogs of trouble.”

For most of us, wanting to be something other than we are or expecting ecstatic sensations constantly is not the problem. Getting through the dailies, whatever they may be, poses challenges. The nourishment—spiritual or mental—of those more gracious moments helps us through. Perhaps that is what we call joy.

By the Numbers

A brief “by the numbers” begins, of course, with one. Back when I could understand the lyrics of songs (understand in the sense of hear, not comprehend), we had Three Dog Night and “One” and its inexplicable “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Beware: The melody causes an earworm. The One Ring to Rule Them All creates havoc in The Lord of the Rings, what with the constant and evil desires trying to get and keep it. Finally, we have the Unified Field Theory, the one comprehensive explanation of the universe. Another name is ToE, or Theory of Everything. Blessedly, there isn’t such a thing, and its lack gives me hope that more can be done in science, and everything else.

If one is serious and lonely, two seems amusing, if cynical. An old joke goes like this: There are two kinds of people in the world—people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t. This set of illustrations is newer and funnier. My favorite of this subset comes from an old friend who years ago taught us that there are two kinds of skylights, those that leak and those that don’t leak yet. A certain Zen comes with these examples of twoness. Because we know that Zen is a school of Buddhism, we associate it also with calmness; however, the PIE root means “to see, look.” Observation, then, leads to wisdom and peace, if you can avoid sarcasm.

Three is a profound number. A triangle, the most stable shape, forms the basis for much construction. The iconic Sydney Opera House uses spherical triangles in its unique design, the mathematics of which challenged the builders until they were peeling an orange one day. I have two sets of three things that form not a physical but a mental basis: three motivations and three parts of being. A friend who is much more comfortable with her wisdom than most stated that only three things motivate us: fear, duty, and love. This contrasts with many other models, of course, including the famous Maslow’s pyramid which began with five needs that prompt action (physiological, safety, love, esteem, self-actualization) but that was expanded several times. It’s been my experience that fear motivates only briefly. After a disaster, we plan to make changes but often fail to follow through once the adrenaline abates. Duty gets us through most days. We go to work, school, the gym, because we have to even if we often love the results of what we are doing. Zig Ziglar said, “Duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully.” Ideally, we can do most things with love, but that takes more than motivation. On one hand, I believe people only do what they want to do, regardless of what someone else asks them to do (look up passive-aggression); on the other, what relief and joy come when I can do something out of love.

The next set of three has to do with our beings. We are creatures with bodies, minds, and spirits. Religion explains, but these days other means can do so as well. Regardless, all three need nourishment. An apple a day, learning something new each day—each in its way betters our lives. John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet and abolitionist, famously encouraged the selling of our second loaf of bread and using the proceeds “to buy hyacinths for the soul.” Bread is wonderful, perhaps too much so fresh out of the oven with a bit of butter, but the transcendent scent of a hyacinth, its rich color and shape, and the simplicity of its culture on our windowsill do much for our hungry souls. Another sort of nourishment—an act of service to another—likewise feeds our souls and can alleviate even our physical pain. I’ve seen it done.

Yes, there are more numbers, but I see that their inclusion would take too much time and space. Another post perhaps…4 to ∞.

Not in the Cards: An HRC Presidency

As Alexander Pope wrote, “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” In 1709, the word “fool” wasn’t as negative as it is today, but I do know better than doing what I am about to do. Ladies and gentlemen, the death-defying, oracle-bending, final answer to why Hillary Clinton was not going to win the 2016 election! Her new book What Happened and an earlier journalistic review called Shattered: Inside Hillary’s Doomed Campaign look for explanations of her defeat. In my opinion, she never had a chance of winning in the first place.

So sure was I of this impossibility that I made a rather large bet on the matter even before she announced for the race in 2015. So neither the gut-wrenching primaries nor the endless months of campaign mudslinging, not the FBI nor the polls, nothing, in fact, from 2016, had anything to do with my firm belief that her presidency was not to be. Her defeat, stunning in every way, followed weeks of figuring out how to pay my coming debt: $5 a week for years? In a load of pennies? From Mexico? The source of my prescience is not entirely clear, but what follows are my best intellectual guesses of what I sensed long ago.

These days, the word “liar” gets thrown around indiscriminately. Hillary made (and makes) untrue statements. But to say she lies exceeds the scope of either the press or her detractors. Benghazi, the email server, the Bosnian sniper fire, dead broke leaving the White House—these are a few examples of times she has been accused of playing fast and loose with the truth. Attitude reveals more than an unknowable pronouncement of lying, however. In an angry answer to questions about comments she made after Benghazi, her words (“What difference does it make…?) have been taken out of context, but the effect was chilling regardless.  Here her responses to Rep. Jordan regarding the ­­attack include facial expressions that could be described in many ways, none flattering. Integrity in its sense of wholeness, completeness in character, does not deflect or act defensive. It’s not just that Hillary doesn’t accept responsibility when she misspeaks; she seems not to have remorse or humility about the lack.

Husband Bill is another problem. He was impeached in 1998 though subsequently acquitted. Lying and obstruction of justice were the charges, but the soul of the matter was his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, complicated with a sexual harassment accusation from Paula Jones. Bill Clinton lied, and Hillary Clinton publically defended him from the non-existent “vast right-wing conspiracy.” No one knows how many sexual encounters he has had. Two are enough. Cliché of the day: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. One indiscretion, take him back. Second one, done. What happened to the idea of a fish not needing a bicycle? Yes, marriage is important, but self-respect counts for something. Her erstwhile opponent called her an enabler, another layer of attack. But the bottom line is clearer: Had she moved on past the humiliation and separated herself from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton would have become her own person, a better example to all women.

Hillary hasn’t done much. Years as a First Lady, of course. Her Senate terms yielded only 3 passed bills, one naming a highway and another a postal building, the third naming and funding a historic site. Commendable, but not a legacy of the heart. One supporter, after choking when asked the question about accomplishments in the Senate, later came up with a list of co-sponsored bills but admitted she didn’t vote for Hillary in the primary. Her time at State—even thinner and more controversial. She traveled a lot. Her camp says she brought Iran to its knees, an exaggeration at best. She resigned after a head injury, though she had always planned just a single term so the connection isn’t clear. One source takes this lack of accomplishment to a higher level saying she has taken credit for things she didn’t do at all. Lots of talking, really, nothing to call her own.

Angels trod not, but I’m done. Reflecting on this research, one point is missing: There is no reason why this country cannot elect a woman. The list of other countries with female heads of state is actually quite long. The misogyny excuse sounds like a troubled sociological paradigm, impossible to remedy. The truth of the matter? The country just would not elect this woman.