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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Broke Down Beat Up Heart



My beat up heart
is a rusty old car
worn out brakes
needs new tires
doors won't open
except from outside
windows rolled down
handles broken inside

My beat up heart
had too many drivers
grinding down gears
crash cart survivors
drove me into a ditch
left me without a hitch

Broken down old beater
the kind you can't trust very far
Only thing good is the heater
and the engine still purrs

Crappy rusted out old wreck
still going and stubborn as heck
Perhaps I should consider
installing a taxi cab meter
onto my old broken down
beat up heart




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Walmart Parking Lot Life and Death Drama

I stopped at Walmart after work yesterday to pick up a few things. For whatever reason, most Walmart parking lots in Oklahoma seem to be a popular gathering spot for Grackles, those shiny black birds with long tails and little red eyes that aggressively stare you down as you walk past. "What'chew lookin' at?" it seems like they are saying.

As I was loading my items into the back of my vehicle, I noticed a movement zipping from underneath my truck to the one right next to it. Then a grackle went hopping along the same path. I turned to see what was going on, and just then a tiny, brown, desperate little mouse came running right toward me, with the grackle in hot pursuit. The bird would grab the mouse by its tail and yank upward, like it was trying to flip the mouse into the air. I could tell the mouse was tired and wounded. It paused between my shoes, looking up at me for an instant, like it was asking for help. I raised my shoe and kicked at the bird. It flitted backward, and looked at me with an indignant glare. The mouse ran back under my truck. The bird gave me a wide circle before going back to the chase.

In that moment, my sympathy was with the mouse. There have been days lately when I swear I feel just like that hapless little rodent. I wanted to help, but couldn't imagine myself running around in dress clothes, chasing a bird and a mouse through a Walmart parking lot. Logically, I knew that I was only watching nature play itself out; there is nothing inherently evil or wrong in the drama between predator and prey. Still, I wondered if God ever feels the way I did in that moment, watching we humans go about the business of shooting, stabbing and otherwise killing each other, often saying we are acting on His behalf?

The mouse ran along the curb, looking for a place to make its escape. The bird kept pestering and pecking, and I knew soon the chase would end. Not knowing what else to do, I got into my truck and started the engine. I swear I saw the bird raise a feather at me as I turned out of the parking lot. I found myself hoping the bird would choke on a mouse bone.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wondrous Spaces

Grand Canyon from Navajo Overlook -- © 2015 Richard R. Barron

Our world is filled
with wondrous spaces,
magical places
that demonstrate
just how small we are
in the scheme of things.

Without hands or eyes
nature paints a beautiful sky,
a breathtaking landscape,
and humanity stands in awe,
feeling at once grand,
yet incredibly small.

Mountain ranges bounded
by oceans endless,
space full rounded
by bright stars limitless,
this world but a speck
floating in infinite time,
a pool of deep dark forever.

The poet teaches
W.B. preaches we can 
hold infinity in our hands;
that our vision is limited 
only by the blinders on our brains.

Open vistas, massive geologic structures,
perspectives from a mountainside,
all expand our presence in the world,
make us yearn for wilder days of yore,
when we lived a harder life,
and loved the land
like a husband loves a bride.

Wondrous spaces are sacred places,
deserving of our devotion and love.
They enrapture and bind us,
beckon and remind us
of a grander presence
that can only be described
as coming from above.


Monday, June 12, 2017

The Illiterati

They revel in their bliss;
happy, they, who hiss
at the educated masses,
eager to burn books into ashes.

The strong arms of stronger men,
they threaten violence just to win,
unwitting tools of the upper classes,
misinformed fools showing their asses.

The illiterati take pride in not knowing
how much they do not know;
noisily amplify the lies flowing
from crazy like a fox TV news shows.

Have never known the American dream,
they invest their truth in alt-right Internet memes,
and while claiming to know the founder's intentions,
vote to reduce their own hard-earned pensions.

They are terrified of the terror they think will unfold,
having swallowed most of the racist lies they were told,
and so rally to drive foreigners out of this land,
believing themselves to be God's helping hand.

There is no reaching the illiterati,
there is no cure for this cancerous rotting
that blinds the minds of those such as these,
who gladly lock themselves in cells with no keys.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Campbell's Monomyth

Joseph Campbell taught us to look beyond the particulars of any given mythology or religious tradition, and to instead consider the universality they might contain. He demonstrated that there is a basic skeletal structure of most mythologies, particularly those that that he designated as "hero myths." In his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949 (!) and still available in print today, he examines the hero's journey, and establishes his theory of the monomyth. The monomyth is the skeleton upon which hangs the flesh of any given hero myth.

Campbell differentiated two types of heroes: the physical hero (e.g., Hercules), and the spiritual hero (e.g., Jesus, Buddha, Abraham, Mohammed). His monomyth model applies more evidently in tales of physical heros, like Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Luke Skywalker. Campbell asserts that regardless of the hero and the details of his or her tale, the basic elements of the story have a universality that stretches across time and culture. There is a sameness to the story line, regardless of the specifics of that story line.

1.) There is often an auspicious birth. The child is born of a virgin (Jesus), for example; or immediately takes three steps and proclaims that this is his last incarnation (Buddha); or his mother is impregnated by seeing a falling star (Laozi); or often, a god impregnates a human female (Hercules). The auspicious birth presages that this person is different, and that their life story has weight and meaning.

2.) At some point in their lives, the hero is called out of normal society, and makes a decision to follow a calling, or is otherwise lured into an adventure. Jesus, went into the desert; Bilbo Baggins went on an adventure. 3.) At this point of the journey, the hero often encounters a helper of some kind, a sage or sprite who initiates them into a higher understanding, a broader vision of reality (e.g., Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi; or the little goat guy, Philoctetes, and Hercules). 4.) The hero is then faced with some kind of ordeal that marks their passage into the adventure, a discovery, or a turn from normal reality into an epic purpose. Campbell calls this "crossing the threshold." The important thing is that the hero makes a choice to pursue the adventure.

5.) Afterward, the hero is faced with a variety of tests or trials, against which she must prove her worthiness. Again, the hero is often assisted by other figures or things. They may find, or be given, magical items that help them successfully overcome the tests. For example, Perseus is given winged sandals and a helmet that renders him invisible. So, too, Bilbo Baggins finds a ring that makes him invisible, and gets him out of several scrapes. 6.) As in any good story or movie, there is ultimately a climax, a final battle, struggle or revelation, a moment when the hero's life -- and often the fate of their people or the world -- is at stake. Of course, the hero will prevail.

7.) After killing the dragon, defeating the monster, or tricking the lesser god(s), the hero's adventure comes to a close. It is at this point that he has a crucial decision to make. He can persist in the place of adventure, and find more adventure, or he can decide to return home, bringing with him the magic, knowledge, or insight that he has gathered on his journey. Campbell uses the tale of Jonah in the belly of the whale. After being vomited back onto shore, Jonah immediately returns to human society with his incredible tale of events and understandings. 8.) It is at this point that the knowledge acquired by the hero becomes the province of normal human beings; the magic, the knowledge; the expanded perspective is shared with the rest of human kind.

What fascinated Campbell, and what I too find intriguing, is the manner in which these same elements, this same kind of journey, occurrs repeatedly in human mythologies, regardless of the culture or time from which it arose. Campbell's thought was influenced by a German scholar named Adolf Bastian, who is credited for helping develop the discipline of anthropology. He was also the first proponent of the "psychic unity of mankind," the idea that all humans share the same basic mental structure and framework.

Bastian's own study of mythologies led him to theorize that they contained what he called "elementary" and "folk" components. The "folk" components are comprised of the local, culturally-relevant elements of the story. They are the parts of the myth that its hearers can recognize and understand, and relate to their own social and cultural environment. The "elementary" part of the myth represents the basic underlying structure of mythology, the "monomyth" that Campbell theorizes in his famous work The Hero of the Thousand Faces.

Campbell was also influenced by German scholar Otto Rank, and in particular his book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. In this book Rank compares the birth and early life story of Moses with the birth mythologies of other well-known heroes from different cultures, like Sargon and Oedipus. In this work, Rank equates the hero myths with human dreams, arguing that they represent repressed human desires, and are therefore informative of the human mind and psyche. Rank was an early disciple of Sigmund Freud, although he later split with Freud's method of psychoanalysis. As an early psychologist, Rank was interested in the way mythologies represent, or provide evidence for, larger, basic human psychological needs and desires. It is probably Rank's work that inspired Campbell to famously say, "... a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society's dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn't, you've got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you."

Throughout his life and studies, Campbell remained fascinated by what mythology and literature can teach us about human psychic nature. His work established that, in mythologies, there are common (elementary) traits that cross cultural and time boundaries. He believed that fact was significant, that it indicated areas where further scholarship and exploration was needed. Why, for instance, do the same elemental mythological structures crop up again and again? What does that tell us about human nature? Is there something larger, something deeper, something more universal in this fact that we should be paying attention to in our own considerations and studies?

I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. The basis of many forms of communication is a repeating pattern.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Empty Boxes of Certitude


In the marketplace of ideas, the easy way to success is to feed your audience information that reaffirms their prior biases and beliefs. In essence, this is how Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly achieved their fame. All they do is wrap traditionalism, racism, nationalism and revolutionary populism in shiny and entertaining gift paper. They are not advancing any new (or real) information, with the possible exception of trending conspiracy theories and political scandal. They tell their listeners, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that 1.) they are "smart," and they are "winners" for listening or watching, and 2.) their preconceived notions and prejudices are good, healthy, normal, even virtuous. In the end, their listeners and viewers usually gain nothing more than headlines, and an empty box of certitude.

This happens on the left, too. Liberals and conservatives have competing media megaphones. For people like Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Joy Reid, their aim is also to reaffirm and praise the worldview of their liberal viewers. The path to success is exactly the same. The wrapping paper may be different, but the underlying empty box is surprisingly similar.

It happens in academia, too, I think. Healthy scholarship is supposed to add to the overall extent of human knowledge -- it is expressly charged with creating new knowledge. What often happens instead is that people get tunnel vision within their own discipline, and do not bother to question the guiding knowledge paradigm wherein they exist. They speak only to other scholars in their field, and often in lengthy, dense, pedantic and impenetrable academic jargon. Regular people, like those who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, often can't access the new knowledge, if indeed it is there. It makes one wonder if the various academic disciplines, not unlike various religious traditions, are just brightly colored empty boxes?

In the world of ideas, creating new and accessible knowledge and information that can help a person rethink their prior biases and prejudices, and escape their empty boxes of certitude, is the harder thing to do. As I look around, I see most of us trapped inside respective two-dimensional squares of self-imposed limitation, where we can choose to hear only what we want to hear. But that is becoming harder, as voices on all sides seem to be increasing in volume, intensity, anger and fear. Samuel Huntington, historian and political scientist, wrote about the clash of civilizations. Today, we see a clash of realities, a clash of completely differing explanations for how the world is, and why it is that way. There is no longer an authoritative neutral arbiter of reality and fact. Both science and religion aspire to that position, but so far neither is winning.

This lack of agreed upon truth, combined with the cacophony of clashing realities, is creating a sense of unease and insecurity. Our nation now has a Homeland Security division, ostensibly to protect us from terrorist attack. It also serves as a very real manifestation of our sense of insecurity. We are collectively floundering. We have lost any cohesive identity. We are afraid of what might happen next, at any moment, to our nation, our homes, and our families. These symptoms can all be attributed to the fact that we seem to be missing a central authoritative and secure truth.

Bill Clinton once said, "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right." This seems to be a common theme in human societies throughout history. The cultural norms which seemed to stand for so long suddenly start to falter. The central truths that everyone previously agreed to follow are questioned, and so too are the gods. The Greek tragedy Oedipus the King informs us about a similar time in Athenian history, when the gods were questioned, and there were strange things afoot in the kingdom. It is in these moments when the strong man arises, and a portion of the people may seem suddenly ready to accede to almost anything in an effort to secure a little more security. They are all too ready to crawl into an empty box of certitude that has been garrulously gift wrapped for them. They may then listen only to the strong leader who is wrong, and become all too happy to completely ignore, or even crucify, the weak leader who is right.


Saturday, June 03, 2017

Modern Day Lepers

What fascinates me about the comparative study of religion and religious history are the similarities across time and cultures. Although the content of beliefs may change, again and again we see the same WAYS of believing and thinking. It is the WAY people believe, and how those beliefs work inside an individual's world view, that I find intriguing -- the true universal element of religion. I am less interested, now, in WHAT people believe, and more interested in the WAY they believe. Somehow, I think this way of examining human belief sets is important to defusing the religious and political conflict we are witnessing in our modern world.

As an example, from the days of Jesus all the way to St. Francis of Assisi, people with leprosy were shunned and avoided. The frightening physical manifestations of the disease were horrifying to see -- stumps of arms and fingers, horribly disfigured people, lesions and sores. It is easy to understand why people would be scared to be around, or in close contact, with lepers. As we know, lepers were often ostracized, forced to live outside the community, reviled and avoided by the "good" people of society.

In those days, leprosy was thought to be caused by sin. If a person had leprosy, it was because they deserved it. They were thought of as morally corrupt individuals, and their sins brought the disease upon them as punishment from God.

Neither Jesus nor St. Francis seemed to believe this, as both are known for healing or working among lepers. Of course, we know today that leprosy is a disease caused by a type of bacteria. So in retrospect, we know that people who believed lepers were sinners, and therefore deserving of the disease, were factually and historically wrong.

I see a similar kind of thinking among the so-called conservative and pseudo-religious wing of the modern Republican party. People of this ilk state plainly that poor people are poor because they deserve to be poor. They argue that gay people should not receive civil rights protection because their lifestyle is an "abomination against God." They argue that social support programs like Food Stamps and Welfare should be eliminated or reduced because, in their estimation, the recipients are not really deserving, or worse, are defrauding the government. Although the content of these beliefs is different, the structure of the beliefs are strikingly similar to thinking that lepers were being punished for their sins. It is a way of thinking based upon an assumption of moral superiority and self-righteousness. It is a way of thinking that "God loves me despite my flaws, sins and shortcomings, but God punishes you because you deserve it." This kind of thinking led some people to proclaim AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality. It is thinking on the same spectrum as that which led the Nazis to segregate, persecute and exterminate millions of Jews during World War II.

This way of thinking is making modern day lepers out of economically disadvantaged people in our nation, and around the world. It is creating life threatening circumstances and dangerous social environments for gay people here and across the globe. It underpins a very selfish effort by certain sectors of our populace to blame the victims of economic disparity. It is, perhaps, a psychological projection of their own evil natures and intentions onto people of differing socioeconomic status, or differing sexual and gender orientations. It is very much the kettle calling the pot black.

It demonstrates that WHAT people believe changes with history and social context, but HOW they believe remains surprisingly consistent. If we hope to disrupt this kind of behavior, this hypocritical self-righteousness and self-piety, we need to examine it more closely; we need to understand why this kind of believing is a persistent feature of human thought.