Category Archives: Non-fiction

“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

Life is very crazy for me right now. Lots of changes happening. For that reason, I am just going to write a very short post about this book.

This was the selection for our book club. The person who selected it works in healthcare, and it is definitely an important work for people who are responsible for delivering care to individuals and families.

The book chronicles the events concerning a Hmong family and their daughter who suffered from seizures, and the challenges they faced trying to navigate the healthcare system in the United States.

Everyone in the US is painfully aware of how difficult it is dealing with hospitals, insurance companies, prescriptions, and government bureaucracy. Try to imagine how much more difficult it would be if there was a language barrier that prevented you from communicating with healthcare providers, or from understanding the instructions for care that the providers gave you. And as this book shows, those challenges are compounded by cultural differences.

“The language barrier was the most obvious problem, but not the most important. The biggest problem was the cultural barrier. There is a tremendous difference between dealing with the Hmong and dealing with anyone else. An infinite difference.” Dan Murphy said. “The Hmong simply didn’t have the same concepts that I did. For instance, you can’t tell them that somebody is diabetic because their pancreas doesn’t work. They don’t have a word for pancreas. They don’t have an idea for pancreas. Most of them had no concept that the organs they saw in animals were the same as in humans, because they didn’t open people up when they died, they buried them intact. They knew there was a heart, because they could feel the heartbeat, but beyond that—well, even lungs were kind of a difficult thing to get into. How would you intuit the existence of lungs if you had never seen them?”

(p. 69)

Overall, I found the book interesting, but it did drag at points for me, mainly because the author digs deep into the cultural history of the Hmong. And while I understand the importance of the cultural and historical context, it just became a little tedious for me at points.

Anyway, it’s a good book and if you are interested in medical history or social sciences, definitely worth reading. Cheers!

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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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“Chronicles of the Late Empire” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It’s an amazing book, and I have been slowly working my way through it, reading the occasional essay between my other literary indulgences.

In this piece, Eco looks at how Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy (who Eco jokingly calls the Great Communicator), created his own media scandal around his wife’s affair with another man. Essentially, Berlusconi disregarded the boundary that separates one’s personal life from the affairs of state, something that was en vogue in ancient Rome at the height of Roman decadence. He contrasts this to how Bill Clinton sought to keep his personal affairs separate from his affairs of state.

But the issue is of historiographic importance. Usually, politicians do their best to keep their domestic problems separate from matters of state. Clinton got caught with his underpants in his hands, but he glossed over the matter and even got his wife to rally around and say on television that it was an insignificant affair. Mussolini was what he was, but he worked out his problems with his wife within the four walls of his home, he didn’t discuss them before the crowds in Piazza Venezia. When he sent off a whole lot of men to die in Russia, it was in pursuit of his own dreams of glory, not to please his mistress Clara Petacci.

Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and personal affairs? In the Roman Empire, where the emperor was the absolute master of the state. No longer controlled by the senate, he needed only the support of his praetorians, and so he could kick his mother, make his horse a senator, and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 196 – 7)

We are still living in a time when we assume that a leader’s personal life should be made public to validate whether that person is moral enough to serve the state. While I agree that crimes should not be ignored because a person is in a position of political power, that person’s spiritual beliefs, family life, sexuality, and so forth, should be their own business and not part of the media spectacle that we call politics these days.

Eco’s wit and brilliance is unique. While I’m sad that he is no longer with us, I’m glad he left such a volume of work for us to think over.

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Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm” by Thich Nhat Hanh

So I finished reading this book about a week ago, and today, the day I am writing my draft post, is the day after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had picked this book for a book club which I started, for which tonight is the first gathering and we will be discussing this book. Anyway, I selected this book because it seemed important and relevant to the current paradigm, which is a fear-focused society. When I read the blurb from the back cover, I knew that this was a timely book to read.

Fear has countless faces: from the fear of failure to worries about everyday life, from financial or environmental uncertainties to the universal despair we all experience when faced by the loss of a friend or loved one. Even when surrounded by all the conditions for happiness, life can feel incomplete when fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future. While we all experience fear, it is possible to learn how to avoid having our lives shaped and driven by it. In these pages, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a timeless path for living fearlessly.

There is such a wealth of wisdom in this short book. I took a lot of notes when I was reading through it. While I can’t cover everything here, I will share some of the passages that stood out for me.

We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.

(p. 4)

This is so true. Fear is essentially the disease of “what if.” We look at our past and see what went wrong, and then we look to the future and worry about whether these things will happen again, or if something worse will occur. Our obsession with the past and future causes us to lose touch with the present, which is truly all we really have. The past is gone, and the future is uncertain. Therefore, being present in the now is the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by fear.

If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our fears, we will suffer, and the seed of fear in us will grow stronger. But when we are mindful, we use the energy of mindfulness to embrace our fear. Every time fear is embraced by mindfulness, the energy of fear decreases before going back down to the depths of our consciousness as a seed.

(p. 38)

As with everything, if you feed it and nurture it, it will grow. This is also true with fear. The more we feed our fears, the more fearful we become. It is really simple, but unfortunately not that easy. When in the grip of fear, it is difficult to step back, take a breath, accept that you are fearful, and then shift focus to the present, recognizing that at this moment, that which we fear is not an actuality. Something else to keep in mind, prolonged fear often leads to anger and/or despair, both of which are very dangerous mental states. For that reason, it is really important to address fear when it arises, and to do so in a healthy and positive way.

Everyone feels very much the same. Our planet is beset by so much danger. There’s so much violence and suffering in the world. If you allow the plague of helplessness to overwhelm you, you’ll go insane. You want to do something—first of all to survive, and then to help reduce the suffering. And we’ve seen, just as the Buddha saw, that is we don’t have a sangha, we can’t do very much. So we come together and we stick to the sangha through thick and thin, because we know that there is no way out of this situation except with a sangha.

(p. 122)

A sangha is, for all intents and purposes, a community. So what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying here is that being involved in community is the best way for us to deal with our collective fear and suffering. Isolation only breeds more fear. When we separate ourselves from our neighbors and our communities, we begin to look at people as “others,” and become suspicious of them. This leads to fear, which only deepens our isolation. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by open communication, acceptance, and community.

This book is a quick read (only 164 pages). I highly recommend reading it. Even if the ideas are already familiar to you, it is good to reinforce them.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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