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ON THE BRINK OF PUBLICATION…OR, LEAPING INTO THE VOID

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Within a few days—and after I’m embarrassed to say how many years—this attending metaphysician will finally publish [LOVE] RACHEL – A Daughter’s Memoir of Love, Betrayal, and Grace. Hard for me to believe, but the hour will soon come. When it does, a serious chunk of me will be naked to the world.

Getting it published meant facing the odds that anyone of my age and lack of notoriety would ever find a literary agent, let alone a commercial publisher. Were I so lucky as to be “agented,” and if a small brave publishing house took a chance on my book, there would typically be no budget to publicize any work by a relatively unknown writer. I’d most likely be asked to cover those costs myself, or to handle my own publicity. So I called a recommended self-publishing press, signed a contract, and paid what seemed a reasonable price.

Then came the shock of realizing that, no matter how carefully I’d edited my work, the eyes got tired, missing idiotic errors.  Bloopers even got past the fresh gaze of hawk-eyed colleagues. Humility is a virtue worth clinging to–especially when you spot a missing verb in the first line of Chapter One, after your book has been typeset to go to press. Thankfully, the publisher allowed me to resubmit my corrected “final” manuscript. Don’t ask. Help with copy editing was not in my contract, so I had to rely on myself and some skilled, compassionate friends. Beware the unscrutinized contract!

But I digress. Let’s talk about fear. Not sharing intimate details with others is a huge, easily lost protection. We lose that invisible shield when we put vulnerable bits of personal history into writing, and throw red meat to a vast army of anonymous trolls, haters, mockers, and not-yet-dead identifiable skeletons in your own closet. However, not writing about the experiences that haunted my life meant I might not give them enough attention to heal fully. Nor could I offer my story as a possible way to help others.

That’s not specific enough. Help others how? The bush I’m beating around is, for lack of a less loaded term, my experience of personal evil. Or what felt like evil in the relationship I shared with the person who meant the most to me—my otherwise loving, wise, gracious, inspiring mother. Even saying it arouses fear of being branded an ungrateful daughter. For the same mother gave me much that was inspiring and good.

My challenge has been to describe what I felt was an indirect betrayal of my character. Indirect, long-lasting, and never taken back, even on her deathbed. I wrote a whole memoir to understand it, using every drop I had of focused, caring attention. You are welcome to read it in paperback or as an e-book. Any day it will be published, and my life will change in unknowable ways. Wish me well. And thanks for reading The Attending Metaphysician website.   — Rebecca M. Painter

 

COULD WITCHCRAFT (a.k.a. willed attention) BUILD A NEW WORLD?

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Predictions are risky, but sometimes we feel they have to be made.

That’s how I felt after rereading Madeline Miller’s wonderful recent novel, based on her deep knowledge of Greek mythology (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2018). Circe has already been praised as a fascinating page-turner, but an attending metaphysician might see it as a corrective potion for women and all others who fear they are powerless to affect the future.

Miller endows the witch Circe, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, with an intimately candid voice, and observational powers that could resonate with the consciousness of many women today, especially those inspired by the #MeToo movement. Considered ugly by her mother and stupid by her siblings, Circe was mocked and unloved among the minor deities. She craved the approval and attention of her father, the Titan sun-god Helios—whose leadership of the Greek pantheon has been sidelined, but not entirely crushed, by Zeus and the Olympian gods—but she is ignored. Until she schools herself in sorcery.

When their fellow Titan, Prometheus, is brought to Helios’ castle to be tortured for the crime of showing mortals how to use fire, Circe stays behind, offering him a drink of nectar–which he accepts–to comfort him before he is dragged away to suffer eternal torments. Though nearly powerless among the gods, she seizes this chance to show mercy, an act of tremendous courage for which she could have been killed if anyone noticed. Without experiences such as this, Circe confesses, she might never have broken away from thousands of years of “dull miseries” (13).

Her voice is raspy like a human but her eyes glint like gold, so she is named Circe, or hawk. Miller has her narrate this myth-soaked fiction with the authority of one who calls out her own foolishness and ignorance. With a raptor’s hawk eyes she perceives the destructive pride of legendary heroes and immortals. As for the seeming truce between Titans and Olympians, she warns: “Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two” (16).   She describes her life up to the episode with Prometheus as having been “murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it” (24). – Ah, the pull of individual initiative. Any relevance to current mortals?  Do ancient myths of Titans and Olympians have anything to teach us about national leaders?

Circe’s brother openly described himself as a pharmakis, or sorceror/witch, and was not punished but given his own kingdom (Colchis, birthplace of his daughter, the witch Medea, of child-murdering fame), because he’d told his father that his powers had come to him by accident, that he had not worked for them. When Circe asked him to teach her, he refused. “Sorcery cannot be taught,” he told her. “You find it yourself, or you do not” (69). He also noted that “pharmakeia is not bound by the usual limits of gods” (70)—that is, it is accessible to mortals as well. In Miller’s version of Circe’s world, witchcraft consists first in the patient, trial-and-error study of plants and herbs for the properties that can heal or strengthen the abilities of humans. But foremost, the most decisive component is a strong, focused, determined will.

But unbridled will, especially for revenge, can have terrible consequences.

Unfortunately, as she is developing her craft, Circe falls in love with a mortal, Glaucon, and uses potions to turn him into a god so that she might have an immortal companion. But as soon as he becomes a god his attention turns to another nymph, more beautiful but entirely selfish and uncaring—Scylla. Furious at Glaucon for this betrayal, Circe transforms Scylla into a multi-headed, man-eating sea monster. Thereafter her witch’s conscience is burdened by the weight of knowing that her magic causes the horrific deaths of untold numbers of innocent seafarers. Her brother tells her to choose better after Glaucon, that she has “always trusted too easily” (76).

The shocking transformation of Scylla threatens the rule of Zeus, who insists that Circe be exiled and live alone. Helios obliges by sending her to Aiaia, a magical island in Titan territory.  There she occupies a spacious mansion whose floors, dishes and laundry emerge clean each day by magic, and stores of food and wine are constantly replenished. She realizes that in carrying out this punishment, her father Helios has, despite Zeus’s order, equipped his daughter to rise in exile “higher than before” (80).

How many women find themselves in a much less exalted exile, where they must find their own lodging, clean everything, prepare food, and build not only a life but an identity? Circe’s first night alone is an epiphany in itself, where she realizes how many things she feared. Just being able to survive until the next morning, she is aware that “the worst of [her] cowardice had been sweated out,” and decides not to become like a bird bred in a cage, “too dull to fly even when the door stands open” (81). Similar to many mortals in other circumstances who have to push through their own ignorance, Circe explains:

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands. (83)

Even after she has learned which plant have what properties, nothing goes right unless she pays full attention, and gives her best energy to it. What is it about attention, we ask, that it alone empowers someone who lacks sufficient divine power? Whatever that is, even a lowly, rejected, isolated and basically ignorant woman has it.  By rights, Circe should never have come to witchcraft, because all the gods “hate toil, and are spared all forms of drudgery due to their power,” and witchcraft is “nothing but drudgery.” “Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again” (83)     — So why bother, unless you happen to be human? Circe’s answer:

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who loved me a little did not care to stay. Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt. (84)

Through her many years of solitude and loneliness, her island is visited by various types of desperate men—some honestly shipwrecked, whom she helps; others led by cunning, cruel leaders who eat her food, drink her wine, and, seeing she has no man to protect her, are ready to rape and even kill her if she resists. Ring any #MeToo bells?  So she develops a potion to add to their wine that turns them into pigs. Too bad some of us mortals can’t do the same, except by identifying them as such.

When the famous warrior Odysseus shows up at her door, abandoned by his patron goddess, Athena, he is the first man who really listens to her, and becomes the closest thing Circe has known to a friend and lover. Except that he is married to the loyal Penelope, and intends to return to her and to Ithaca, the island where he is heir to the throne. Odysseus entertains her with stories of the Trojan War, its heroes and losers, and his keen understanding of his men and their weaknesses—knowledge as important as awareness of their strengths. He is honest about his own treachery, lies, and betrayals–promising to spare a captured spy, and killing him after he’d divulged all his valuable secrets–sneaking into a rival army’s camp and slitting the sleeping soldiers’ throats.

Circe’s experience seems comparable to that of so many women who learn from men the complexities of warfare, the brutality of which that destroys all purity of honor and heroism. Odysseus’s tales confirm to Circe that there are no glories in war, especially when men serve the egos of gods and goddesses in competition for glory.

The great god Apollo appears to Circe before Odysseus leaves, forcing her to be silent as he gives her a vision of Odysseus at the entrance to the underworld, where he faces the blind prophet Tiresias and the spirits of Achilles, Ajax, Hector and other warriors he’s seen die on the battlefield. Rather than feel honored by this vision from Apollo, Circe is enraged and humiliated: “I wanted to tear him with my nails. The gods and their incomprehensible rules.  Always there was a reason you must kneel. …How many times would I have to learn? Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. …at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished” (230).

The gods she resents, evidently, are those who interfere with others’ lives, denying powers of choice and personal agency.  We don’t see them as gods these days, but aren’t powerful interests still imposing their own rules on our lives?  What kind of powers can we muster to  break free of them?

Before Odysseus leaves, Circe gives him instructions and potions that will protect and enable him to meet with Tiresias and return to Ithaca. She does not know yet that she is pregnant by him.  When it is time to give birth, she feels the gods are preventing her child from being born, so she cuts herself open and pulls the infant out screaming.  When it is clear the boy will survive, the great goddess Athena appears, commanding Circe to give up the child, without explaining why she intends to kill him.  Although Athena offers to give Circe another man who will give her another son, plus her eternal favor and protection, Circe refuses, thinking to herself (and us): “Athena had no babe, and she never would.  Her only love was reason.  And that has never been the same as wisdom.”

Athena belittles Circe’s “weeds and little divinity,” and vows to take her son in the end. It is very moving that after Athena leaves Circe alone with her infant son, the witch calls out into the empty air: “You do not know what I can do” (251). It is one of the great messages of Miller’s novel.  What Circe cries out is more for herself than for Athena’s ears.  She has to assure herself–and us–that the powers that try to control us for selfish ends should never underestimate our determination to protect those we love.  The will, driven by love, is stronger than others’ lust for power and fame. …It’s just that we need to overcome self-doubt, and do not ourselves know how much we can do.

When Telegonus is15 Circe tells him about his father, and from then on all he dreams about is sailing alone to Ithaca to find Odysseus. Rightly terrified that he will be killed by Athena, Circe is so determined not to lose her son that she descends into the darkest depths of the sea to challenge Trygon, the ancient creator-god, to lend her the use of his poisonous tail, known to be capable of killing a human with the slightest contact, and of making a god suffer unending pain. No gods had ever succeeded in borrowing Trygon’s tail.  Circe’s brother tried, but had not been up to it.

In a breathtaking encounter with this ancient creator-god, Circe hears that the price for using Trygon’s tail is an eternity for her of physical suffering.  Despite her overwhelming fear, she focuses her mind on the image of her son’s bright, innocent, hopeful face, and extends her hand to accept the penalty.  I urge everyone to read this thrilling scene, but I almost laughed when Circe hesitates, wondering if she is being played a trick, and Trygon has to insist that she cut off his tail, and dismisses her fear that it could lead to war between the Titans and Olympians!  He has to remind her that she’d come all that way to demand this favor!  As Circe reluctantly begins to cut off the deadly tail, she thinks to herself–even realizing that she will survive this ordeal–that she cannot bear this world for another moment.  The primordial god hears her thought, and replies, Then, Child, make another.  (282)

What can we make of this modern twist on ancient Greek mythology?  Miller, not Homer, creates this dialogue between Trygon and Circe.  The ancient world would not have given a female immortal such a vote of confidence to go forth and make a better world.  But today we have a woman author with knowledge of the classics,  who writes about a witch goddess who would rather be a mortal woman.  Most readers of this novel can relate all too easily to the drudgery, loneliness, numberless failures and mistakes–including being raped–that Circe undergoes to acquire her skills. Even today, the term witch bears the burden of disapproval and exile.  Miller’s contemporary personification of Circe has the will, and hears the command of a much more ancient and powerful god, to make a new world. That’s what a new mythology might be able to accomplish, if we only paid attention, and applied our will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#ME TOO, Part Two

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Now that we’ve seen backlashes to the #MeToo movement—quibbling about women who’ve complained about awkward dates while overlooking their right not to proceed with them, princess-and-the-pea types who seem to expect men to read their minds. Such arguments tend to expose our human capacity to blame others for our own failures of choice or communication. They can distract us from the true complexity.

Sexual trauma runs deep, and generates scar tissue that can stay impenetrable for most of a lifetime. Anyone who gets annoyed, asking, Why didn’t these women speak up long ago, when less time had passed since they were assaulted, terrified, abused as children, bullied into accommodating domineering persons in positions of power, threatened with death when they were victims of incest, or other forms of molestation, should ask themselves, Am I really paying attention? Am I considering how people bury memories in order to focus on their own survival?

For the annoyed scoffers out there, I offer an example of how long an experience of sexual abuse can stay buried—in my case, most of my life—and how it emerged from the dark recesses of my memory after 60+ years. For the purposes of this website I’ll describe it from the standpoint of attention.

As children my brother and I lived across the road from a farming family and often played with their two sons, one my brother’s age and the other several years older, entering puberty. I was 18 months younger than my brother, a tomboy who enjoyed jumping into haystacks in their barn and running from bulls in the field like the boys did. One day our neighbors’ older son asked me to go with him behind their barn, and I did so with the trust and openness of a five-year-old. I knew nothing about sex and had no idea what he had in mind. He asked me to show him a part of my body if he showed me the same area of his body. It sounded simple enough, so I agreed. The exchange was brief and involved no touching. It seemed to satisfy his curiosity, and I forgot about it—until a couple years later when our own farm went out of business and we had to leave the area.

When it came time to say goodbye to our neighbors, I remember only one thing. The two brothers stood before us and the older one would not look me in the eye. He stared grimly at the floor with an expression I instinctively recognized as one of shame. Only then did I realize that he felt bad about what he’d asked me to do behind their barn, and it was affecting the way he related to me. I wanted him as well as his younger brother to show they were sad to see us go, for we’d been pals and would most likely never see each other again. It hurt that the older brother would not meet my gaze, and left me with a visual imprint of his remorse. In retrospect, one could say that I was denied the acknowledgement of what I’d believed to have been a real friendship—some sign of sadness on his part that my brother and I would no longer live across the road from them. In other words, it damaged the quality of attention he was able to give me at this poignant time of parting. Any genuine display of sadness to see us go and well-wishing for our future was blocked because he felt guilty for doing something that—until that moment—I had not realized had been wrong.

That was what I remembered, not the reality that this boy had taken advantage of my trust and ignorance to have asked me to participate in what grownups considered a sexual offense. So I buried the memory as one childhood disappointment among many, including being shunned by my brother when he started school two years ahead of me, and bullied when I entered school because I was pudgier than many classmates. Its meaning in my life as an experience of sexual abuse did not register.

…Until I found myself arguing with an old friend who was annoyed at the dredging up of old experiences in the #MeToo movement. “I don’t know anyone,” he complained, “who would hide such an experience for so long.” Incredibly, he’d had a long career as a spiritual counselor. Who did he know well enough to believe, who had not spoken up? Me. He became first person I’d ever told about the above episode in my childhood. And only because it decided to resurface in my memory in response to his annoyance.

#ME TOO TOUCHES A DEEPER NERVE

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By now you must have read many true stories, and perhaps an all-too-real fictional one that went viral, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person, about the #Me Too movement. Maybe this avalanche of long-withheld accounts of trauma mixed with too-easy punditry on the sexual abuse and harassment of women has pricked your suspicion that deeper levels of this crisis are being overlooked. Metaphysical ones.

Some observers did not miss the fact that only abusers in certain lines of work have been identified for their transgressions—with firings and loss of reputation. While many of their victims are finally being taken seriously, we can be sure that there are countless others in different fields who do not dare talk.

An obvious category would be victims of incest who remain dependent on the emotional and/or financial support of their family, who cannot bring themselves to cast shame on their family name. Another would be survivors whose rapists threatened to kill them if they said anything, or convinced them that no one would believe them if they told the truth. These categories would likely overlap.

A less obvious group of victims would be those unwilling to speak out because they’ve suppressed various gender-based traumas in order to get on with their lives, deciding that focusing on those terrible memories would cause them more trouble than it’s worth. Without public credibility and moral support—that only recently the #Me Too movement has brought about—they chose survival over seeking justice.

Problem is, unspoken and suppressed pain tends to surface in other ways, such as physical and psychological afflictions. Healing from trauma requires full attention to the experience itself, so that the victim can reassert her sense of self, wholeness and agency.

There are deep reasons, I think, why people who’ve experienced sexual and gender-based abuse have mixed feelings about exposing their experiences to others. Some, I suggest, are metaphysical—involving how we give attention to ourselves, and how we perceive our personhood in relation to others.

Plenty of us have been persuaded to do things that only later we realized we did not have to go along with. We were too young, immature, frightened, or lacking in awareness of ourselves as beings worthy of respect—especially self-respect—to refuse to participate. Nowadays too many young people are drawn into the “hook-up” culture of super-casual, even anonymous sex, because they fear the alternative may be not having a social life. Too many are obsessed with social media, fabricating self-images of hoped-for likeability for the world’s consumption, while unsure who they really are. Social media “friends” don’t materialize when one is faced with a real-life attacker.

There are so many individual stories and social forces at work that no one can generalize.

Except for this. We all have the human capacity to put ourselves into our own field of attention, to become the object of our mind’s eye—a fly on the wall observing ourselves as actors and agents of influence on life’s stage. Let’s call it self-attention, by which is meant something more focused than routine self-awareness and the calculation of one’s image to others.

In contemporary culture, as various commenters point out, many adults have grown up under the influence of virtual role models in movies and television. While assuming that all we’re getting from screen characters is harmless entertainment, we’ve learned to categorize men as heroes or bad guys, cowards or lotharios, wise or weird old geezers. We’ve accepted that women can be portrayed as either desirable or plain, matronly or spinsterish, servile or conniving, charming or bratty as girls, with little room left over for other kinds of female characters other than those trying to act like men. Until recently these stereotypes have seeped into our consciousness without much critical editing. One writer has claimed that watching movies taught her that a woman of her size was ugly. A gay critic noticed that men in classic movies who insisted they knew better than women what women wanted in love and romance have been perceived as savvy he-men rather than bullies.

The main character in the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is a 20-year-old college girl living in a dorm. She meets a man in his mid-30s at her part-time job selling tickets at a nearby movie theatre. The man keeps his cool, does not directly flirt, but returns to the theatre several times then asks for her phone number. She surprises herself by giving it to him, and a text dialogue ensues.  The story’s narrator lets readers in on most of her thoughts, so we watch this girl hesitate, persuading herself that her classmates will think she’s cool to go out with an older man. When he asks if she’d like to see a movie, she cautiously suggests they not go to the theatre where she works. As he drives her to a movie in another town he is so quiet that she begins to fear him. He breaks the silence by saying drily that he’s not going to murder her.

The story produces a queasy tension as young woman waxes bold—What is she telling herself?—after not enjoying the movie he’d chosen, by suggesting they go to his place when she really wants to be safely back in her dorm.  But she’s also curious to see his place, having never gone out with an older man. Once there she is unimpressed but afraid of hurting his feelings, so she is the first to take off her clothes—aroused not by him but by thoughts of how he’ll respond to the sight of her young perfect body and breasts. Though turned off by his fat belly and body hair, she fears how he’d react—rage? violence? humiliation?—if she suddenly draws back from the process she has herself initiated. During and after sex she feels terrible, but shows no sign of this until safely back in her dorm, where fortunately her roommate is there to listen supportively. Too ashamed and fearful to answer the man’s persistent texts as to whether she’s okay and can he see her again, she lets her roommate take her cell and text a message on her behalf: that she does not want to see or hear from him again. By this point readers have picked up hints in the story that the guy has not gone to college (he says he chose a foreign film with subtitles because he thought it would appeal to a college girl), and there is an awkward class difference. The man responds to the brush-off with a string of texts asking why. Getting no answers, he ends their dialogue, and the story—having previously refrained from using any off-color language with her—with a one-word text: “Whore.”

Many commented how cringe-worthy the story is. That its main character took too great a risk with this man and put her safety in jeopardy, forced herself to go through with sex while revulsed by her date’s body, terrified of the consequences for changing her mind. More than a few men were offended by the girl’s revulsion at her date’s belly fat and hairy body. Given what seems like the character’s close to nonexistent sense of personal dignity and unwillingness to admit that she’d put herself into a situation she did not want to follow through with, I suspect many readers would be understanding but disappointed in her. They may actually feel more sympathy for him, possibly to the extent of not objecting to the harsh term he finally applies to her.

Compare this with the adolescent boldness of the movie “Lady Bird,” whose female lead is a high school senior who fantasizes about, and eventually gives up her virginity to, a young man who turns out not to have been equally virginal and fails to reciprocate her romanticized expectations. Yet she appears not to condemn herself (the audience most likely sharing her feelings of good riddance), moves on with her secret application to a top college far away from her home—against her mother’s hopes and expectations—and holds out for this choice when she is merely waitlisted. We root for her when she is finally accepted at Columbia—though her mother refuses to see her off at the airport—and begins her new life as a freshman in New York City.

Both the short story and the screenplay are composites of their authors’ personal experiences and those of people they knew or read about. Both works dramatize the hit-and-miss quality of self-image construction, deconstruction, and (potentially) perpetual reconstruction. Both are dramas of self-presentation. But underneath all those processes is a human that enables us to construct, and deconstruct and reconstruct the self: attention.

What makes “Lady Bird” an essentially uplifting story is the main character’s visible confidence in herself as a good person who can make her share of mistakes and argue frequently with the mother she knows loves her, but reserves the right to pursue her own dreams. She doesn’t like the name her mother gave her and insists she be called Lady Bird. But when her mother tells her that she was named after a much-loved deceased forebear, she stores this information away and uses her given name when she arrives in New York.

What makes “Cat Person” so cringe-worthy is the subject’s lack of attention to herself as a moral being, someone who would give her body to a man she found repellent, even when it was she who suggested they go to his place out of curiosity.  She is someone who gives  an older man her number because she hopes her classmates will think she is cool to be dating an older guy.  She has to learn the hard way that putting herself at risk with a stranger is not worth the price of appearing cool.  Yet her mixture of pride and self-assertion, taking off her clothes to show this older guy her young perfect body, aroused by the thought of his being aroused by her, is something most of us can relate to.  We are almost all deeply affected by vanity—more than ever in this age of selfie photos and the sharing of digitally edited snapshots of ourselves.

It is so easy to see oneself as the star of our own movie, as it were, strutting and fretting our hour upon life’s stage.  Plus, women especially have an age-old instinct to try not to hurt a man’s vanity, and a fear of his anger and potential violence if he feels rejected. Here is this girl, far from her college dorm, curious to see a working man’s home, dependent on him for a ride home, afraid to tell him that she does not want to go through with sex with him though she has put both of them on that path. She could have spent that time at a café or diner, talking about the movie, getting him to tell her more about his life, his background. Then she could have said she was tired and needed to get back to her dorm. There were other options, and he seemed ready to accommodate her.

But the Cat Person’s attention was at first on what her friends might think of her, then on what an older man would think of her, not on what she would think of herself. The latter, however, is what we all have to live with—the sting of conscience, the pain of selling ourselves short, disrespecting our own dignity. I suspect “Cat Person” went viral to so many people who don’t normally read The New Yorker because it touches a nerve deep within the #Me Too movement, and beyond.

As an attending metaphysician, I call it the nerve that registers pain for not giving ourselves genuine, caring, respectful, and eventually forgiving self-attention.  “Lady Bird,” whose story is based on the screenwriter’s life, did just that, and earned the Academy Award for best movie that, alas, it did not receive.

ATTENDING TO LIES – THE ORIGINAL DARK WEB

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I confess there’s been a gap in my postings as an attending metaphysician, because one of my dearest friends took issue with my previous post, stating that she voted for Trump and did not wish to discuss politics with me in any way, ever. She did not explain why she voted for him, because that would have meant breaking her newly made rule not to discuss politics. All I could do was wonder why she, a deeply religious person and close reader of Scripture, could have made such a decision. Out of respect for her new prohibition, I did not ask. But I gave it much thought.

That said, I believe this admirable friend put aside some of the essential values of her faith to vote for Trump. The following thoughts are not meant to debate her decision, rather to identify some aspects of what might lead to her regret it. Then I will offer a personal experience of a pathological lier less charismatic than Trump but still charming .

The Book of Wisdom, strangely, remarks that wisdom never makes its way into a crafty soul (Wis.1:14). Why would being crafty, which requires intelligence, prevent anyone from becoming wise? This attending metaphysician guesses it has to do with deceiving or obstructing those who pay sincere attention to what others says or do, and other matters of importance.

Why do we pay close attention to anything? It is said that curiosity may be our strongest human impulse, more powerful than hunger or sex. That may be a survival mechanism given to us by evolution. One thing seems clear: paying close attention may be the only way we acquire wisdom. For sure it’s how we learn anything that sticks. Close attention includes studying a subject, practicing a skill, observing others who’ve mastered skills or know more about things we want to know. And always, like the proverbial devil in the details, any process of close attention is obstructed or made futile by the insertion of false or unverified information.

In the world of education it is a grave offense to provide unverified or unattributed  information, misleading others in their quest for knowledge. This applies, without being formally stated, to any field taken seriously—be it farming, sewing, nuclear physics, plumbing, medicine, local or national government, beekeeping, whatever. In Scripture there is a commandment against bearing false witness—an ancient rule initially applied to legal testimony—whose implications remain strong for practically all aspects of human interaction.

After the 2016 Presidential election much of our country, and the world at large, got a taste of what can go wrong when distorted attention–by false information, anger, fear, and a sense felt by segments of the population of their innate superiority to others–can lead to dangerous choices in a country’s leadership. Fear, in response to genuine threats, is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger at clear moral wrongs. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance—enemies of clear, focused attention—are factors that can derail whatever is civilized and life-affirming in our shared culture and democracy.

At time people have to lie to survive, to avoid being captured or killed. In personal relationships we sometimes lie to spare others the pain of unpleasant truths. We also lie to be well liked by others, the so-called white lies—compliments on hairdos, clothing, people looking younger than ever when they’ve clearly aged, and the like. Too often we lie (exaggerate, stretch the truth, make unproven claims) to succeed: to make a sale, close a deal, get a job, impress someone we’re attracted to. And nowadays it’s becoming disturbingly obvious that people who crave attention enjoy inventing lies that insult, mock and demean those they dislike.  They intentionally break the bounds of civil discourse to establish their presence as powerful outliers, determined to undermine social norms—a.k.a. political correctness and general civility. Such practices have moved in from the fringes to become dire threats to our system of laws and democratic government.

The power of attention has enabled our species to develop a formidable capacity for wiliness and deception.  It creates a dark web that rivals our use of focused attention to seek truth and wisdom. Now the world must contend with the growing use of artificial intelligence, not only to scan scientific journals for ways to combat disease, but also to create “bots” that pretend to be human, acting as social media trolls and manufacturers of fake news, and the algorithms by which hackers steal our most private and valuable information. All aspects of the play of attention, and what we choose to do with it.

Our sitting President tells falsehoods, according to recent tallies, in 70 to 95 percent of his public statements. Because of this trait, plus his lack of interest in the process of government and his apparent willingness to take this nation into war, many Americans and people in other countries sense impending doom unless he is removed from office. Many feel unspeakable horror when others defend him right or wrong, brush aside his lies, and continue to believe he will make our country somehow “great again”–that ill-defined and ominous goal–when we and most of the world find him untrustworthy, an affront to our national integrity, and a live danger to world peace.

I don’t have a recipe for dealing with President Trump. But I offer this firsthand account of someone like him on a much smaller scale:

When I was in my twenties I was showing my mother around the city when a well dressed, well mannered young man offered to help her up a long flight of stairs and mentioned that he was a doctor trained in Brazil. My mother, a retired nurse, was instantly charmed. After he’d chatted with us further, she smiled approvingly when he asked if he could have my number. After she returned home I began dating him, eventually trusting him with personal information such as where I kept a $20 bill for emergencies. There were no ATMs in those days, and $20 could get you through the weekend when all the banks were closed. One Friday I came home from work having forgotten to get cash, and discovered my spare $20 missing. Only one person knew where I’d kept it, so I called him. No one answered at his home so I tried the work number he’d told me not to call, claiming he’d be too busy to speak to me there. I explained to the person who answered that I was trying to reach Dr. so-and-so, politely using my boyfriend’s last name. After a strange pause, the voice replied that a man with that name worked there but was not a doctor and could not come to the phone. I was stunned, enraged, and felt played for a fool. When we finally spoke he said he’d planned to return the money he’d “borrowed” before I would find it gone. Sensing there was no way I would ever trust him again, he confessed that he’d always found it terribly easy, like a sickness, to make up stories about himself. He’d told me he was a doctor when actually he’d been expelled from medical school in his final year (not saying where that was, but probably not Brazil, given his accent), due to a problem (my guess: pregnancy) with a woman on the staff. He did not say what his real job was, where he’d grown up, or how he’d ended up in the States. But he did have feelings for me, he said, enough to warn me not to be so trusting in the future.

The most memorable part of this breakup was the genuine distress I saw on his face when he described how terribly easy it was for him to lie to people. Like a sickness.

There was real pain behind his confession, because he knew it was the end of our relationship, during which we’d shared some happy times and enjoyed each other’s company. He was losing the trust and friendship he’d had from me, and on some level he knew that if he hadn’t tried to deceive me he wouldn’t be going through that pain. On the other hand, if he hadn’t lied about being a doctor, would he have charmed my mother and convinced me he was respectable enough to have my telephone number after so brief an acquaintance?

After an experience like that, can you blame me for hoping our President—before he does greater harm to this country—will find himself in a personally painful situation where he admits to the truth about himself—that he has lied about his motives and many other things, falsely maligning his opponent in the election, promising jobs and health benefits he could not deliver—and is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of our nation’s highest office? Or is that too much to hope for in a crafty soul?

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIAT LUX – Impressionist Painting in Light of Trump

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An art historian friend convinced this attending metaphysician to take a boat tour down the Seine to visit some Impressionist painters’ hangouts in northern France, plus a few days in Paris to squeeze through the city’s Impressionist exhibitions. The group consisted mostly of retirees pursuing long-postponed avocations— travel, painting, writing, reading, and, if possible, becoming more active citizens.

For ten days in May we enjoyed the glories of crisp sunny weather in Montmartre, Auvers-sur-Oise, Etretat, Honfleur (where sunshine morphed into dark clouds, flash rain and back in under an hour), Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), Monet’s magnificent pond and garden at Giverny, and back to Paris for a cruise of the city’s magical nightlights. Throughout, we tried to retain scraps of the vast knowledge of art, doused with sly wit by our unforgettable guide, Jennifer Burdon, whose presence was worth the price of the trip.

Footsore and awestruck from tromping through so many sites made historic by the Impressionists’ depictions of them, we sat down to wine-soaked—this was France, after all—and waistline expanding gourmet meals. Alas, lunch and dinner conversations seemed to drag themselves helplessly toward the elephant in the room. Those willing to reveal their views had grave fears that President Trump would undermine or destroy our democracy. This was before he revoked U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord.

How could we apply what we were learning about art to said elephant? Our hearts were touched by reminders of the near-starvation poverty of Vincent Van Gogh, supported whenever possible by his brother Theo, and the sight of the brothers’ graves, side by side, symbolically united by a thick cover of ivy. We heard about Armand Guillaumin, a lesser-known but influential painter who won a lottery, was able to leave his job and devote himself to painting, sharing his breakfast rolls with less fortunate artists out painting with him. Under the roiling coastal skies of Normandy, birthplace of Impressionism, we learned how the emphasis on the play of light and color on myriad subjects—including just clouds—gradually transformed traditional standards of beauty and artistry.

Jennifer informed us that not all Impressionists accepted the term, as it once implied sloppy workmanship. But they might have agreed with commentators who claimed that, because of them, the painting itself became the subject, rather than what was being painted. –With that insight, against our will, we were brought back to Trump.

It was hard not to notice that this President tries to make whatever he paints—in words, at least—more important than the actual subject, which is the reality of facts. He got elected by promising what he is unable to deliver in terms of jobs and health care, playing upon people’s fears and stirring up misogynistic hatred of his opponent in the presidential campaign. Now that a slim lead in the Electoral College has given him the Presidency—when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a decisive margin—his self-portrait is becoming one of a willfully ignorant winner of a campaign based on his own lies, fake news, and widespread tampering with social media by right-wing extremists and a foreign, anti-democratic government. What kind of impression does that make on those paying attention to his abuse of light and color? The lineaments emerge as a very real and dangerous paradox: a legitimately elected, but morally and ethically illegitimate President.

What chance does our country have to not be dragged down into less than reliable—even former—status as the world’s indispensable nation? Those of us who have no handle on political power can only rely on our powers of attention. In particular, the motivation to protest dishonest leadership and to support responsible media and nonprofit organizations willing to expose this administration’s threat to our democracy, our health, environment, economy, and our responsibility to help others here and around the world.

The Impressionists started out in poverty, their works rejected by those in power in the art world, the French Academy. But gradually, after great effort and the undeniable genius of a new form of art, their achievements (if not the artists personally) prevailed. Let’s hope that what made America great will prevail—being a nation of immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice, helping win two world wars, assisting war-torn nations to rebuild after those wars, providing moral leadership during the Cold War and in matters of human rights, and an economy based on freedom to innovate.

Let us also hope that our nation’s mistakes, yet uncorrected—failing to bypass the Electoral College, which enabled a previous loser of the popular vote to preside over major disasters such as the invasion of Iraq, the ruthless speculations of Wall Street investors and banks that caused the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession—will also be overcome, so that the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs does not prevail.

Even it means removing President Trump and his cronies from leadership.

Let there be light. And hope. And attention to activism.

WHAT HAPPENS TO ATTENTION IN THE POST-TRUTH ERA??

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This problem is so vast—close to overwhelming—that we’ll try to creep up to it on a personal level. In this non-fake case, half a dozen older adults recently got together for a holiday lunch sponsored by the charity for which they work as volunteers. In this group, a friend of mine we’ll call Lynn found herself seated next to a man we’ll call Ben, known to be active in his church. In their three years serving as volunteers Lynn and Ben had developed a friendly working relationship. What emerged in their lunch conversation, however, was that they’d voted on opposite sides of the 2016 Presidential election. Ben, who earns his living renting and selling apartments in New York, was elated that Donald Trump had won the election. Lynn voted for Hillary Clinton, and thought it was unfair that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, yet was kept from winning the presidency by the unrepresentative tallies of the Electoral College.

“You’re in real estate,” Lynn said to Ben. “How could you vote for a realtor who took out huge loans, declared bankruptcy six times, and stiffed his contractors for the work they’d already done, putting many of them out of business?”

“Yes, I am in real estate,” Ben responded confidently, “and in Trump’s position I’d have done the same thing.”

“But what about all the lies he’s told,” Lynn asked, “all those insults against immigrants, stirring up hatred for Hillary, calling her a criminal and threatening to put her behind bars?”

“Oh, he’d say anything to get elected,” Ben said in an admiring, dismissive tone. “What matters is, he won.”  By that time, the rest of the table was listening, so Ben announced that instead of quibbling over the election everyone should support the new President in their prayers.

Lynn, offended by Ben’s evasive move, said she’d pray for President Trump to stop lying and act like a responsible leader of the free world rather than a demagogue. The group fell silent, gradually finding things to say about the dishes they’d ordered, the relative merits of diet soda, etc.  Afterward, Lynn confided that she no longer trusted Ben as a businessman or a friend, and would have to pretend to be on positive terms with him as a volunteer.

What, I asked, troubled her the most about Ben? “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she replied defensively. “People lie all the time. It’s just that now we’ve had an election where lies carried the day.” She believed that an oddly charismatic but far less capable person had become President by means of hate-mongering, falsehoods, and fake news that maligned the far more qualified candidate. She was frustrated and more than a little frightened.

“What if everyone lied as a means to an end? We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Our whole legal system would crumble if people were not required to tell the truth, and punished for perjury.” It wasn’t that Ben’s guy won the election, Lynn explained, it was how he won it—by deliberate distortions of the truth, he and his supporters brushing aside facts and fact-checkers as irrelevant. The result of this disrespect for truth-telling and facts seemed to be that our country was now led by a poorly informed narcissist who generates fake news as ceaselessly as he complains about it.  Lynn mentioned her deep forebodings that the brains behind Trump’s win was the former head of a white supremacist fake news organization, who might assume the role of shadow president. She did not express those concerns to Ben, though, as she was began to feel it was hopeless trying to communicate with him. “He’s supposed to be religious. Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness? Isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?”

According to voter interviews, many said they’d overlooked Trump’s unethical track record, in business as well as molesting women, and set their hopes on him out of anger and desperation. A large chunk, who probably gave him his margin of victory in the Electoral College, were on the losing end of an economy that favors the rich and leaves middle and working class people behind. For them a vote for Trump was a Hail Mary pass that entailed discounting a multitude of falsehoods, bad behavior, and fear tactics that generated hatred and distrust. Such methods, others feared, could ultimately destroy the democracy—or what was left of it after the gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dark money poured into elections by the superrich.

Of course, I only heard Lynn’s version of this troubling encounter, but I’m sure she relayed the gist of it. I do share her concern for our democracy and legal system, but as an attending metaphysician I am concerned for other reasons. When we are giving our best attention to someone or something, are we not seeking—and/or appreciating—truth in some way? There is something deeply jarring about being conned or misled by someone who is using their intelligence to conceal truths they don’t want us to know. Human beings pay attention (as do other animals) in a fluid interactive relationship with feelings. It’s one thing to pause and admire a beautiful sunset; another to scrutinize an inflated cable TV bill; yet another to notice the dark circles under our eyes and realize how unhealthy and old they make us look.

Metaphysical attention is the calmest and deepest kind, based on the richest substrate of care, honesty, and appreciation for the integrity and importance of others. It is the only kind that produces what Pope Francis calls discernment, especially that of right and wrong, good and evil. Throughout history philosophers have warned that strong emotions distort reason, but recent research indicates that even rational decisions are influenced by emotions. The question then becomes, What kind of emotions underlie the calculations and our rational minds—ones tied to respect and concern for others, or feelings colored by fear, enmity and disrespect? The Pope makes a powerful point: that in times of crisis, when people are taken in by populist leaders who stir up fear, anger, scapegoating and hysteria, “discernment doesn’t work.” Wow. In a nutshell, such emotions prevent people from perceiving good and evil. Francis has referred to the hysteria of Nazism and Hitler, which won the votes of the German nation and ended up destroying it.

Could President Trump’s chaotic scapegoating, false accusations, and animosity toward Muslim immigrants and minorities destroy the U.S.A.? Let’s not forget that pre-Nazi Germany was considered a highly civilized nation, full of scholars, artists, and scientists who, surely, would not be fooled by a demagogue.  Precious few, who were paying serious attention, resisted. But as we know, far too many succumbed to his charismatic rants. Their country, and the world, paid a terrible price. Attention to truth obligates us to defend it, to insist upon truth and justice.  The survival of our democracy and our integrity as a nation is at stake.