There has been a lot of talk during the last couple of weeks about how dangerous it is for boys (and men) these days, because if they are accused of being predatory they are guilty until proven innocent, which is next to impossible. Although I agree with the #Me Too movement, I am reminded that this issue is certainly not new. Peter Pan comes to mind.
Peter Pan was domesticated the night of December 27, 1904 when the curtain opened at the Duke of York’s Theater, London on the first night of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” The character of Captain Hook on stage was so commanding that when Peter was victorious he was a hero. This is not what J.M. Barrie had in mind when he wrote the play. To Barrie, Peter was a shadowy character, reflecting Barrie’s own ambiguous relationships with adults and peers. Peter had a vivid fantasy life which blocked his ability to come back home from one of his flights of fancy (that and his mother’s fickle affections which she transferred to a new sibling). From then on Peter was locked out of his home and stranded in Neverland where he was chief of a gang of boys whom he had enraptured, captured, bullied, sometimes killed, and constantly controlled through mind-games.
Neverland, as Barrie conceived it, was no idyllic playground, but was a prison island where the inmates battled for their survival simply because war-games were what they knew. Barrie’s conception was that the boys handled their survival struggles by treating them as childhood play, rather than face the grim reality that it was actually about life and death, as all life is. In Neverland it is the trickster, the conjurer of fantasy, who is in control and who is fulfilled by consigning his prey to perpetual childhood.
That, and only that, is the central fact about Neverland, although a century of gossip mongers have persisted in projecting their comparatively pale, pedophiliac phobias onto the lords of Neverland, the asylum for boys who wouldn’t grow up.
It might be a stretch for us, after decades of indoctrination and consciousness-raising about the latent debilitating effects of sexual child abuse, to agree that there are worse things than can happen to a boy.
The court of public opinion has been swayed by testimony from his boys who wouldn’t grow up and his biographers, that Barrie was probably sexually impotent, that he never made sexual advances, and that his guilt was different than suspected.
It now seems clear that James Matthew Barrie “did a ‘Peter Pan’” and engineered a complex scheme to abscond with a couple’s boys, capturing them for himself, and in the process gestated the story of “Peter Pan and Wendy”, as he entitled his book finally written in 1911. The boys in question were the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies. In 1897 Barrie loved to walk through Kensington Gardens, where nursemaids aired their charges in prams and children cavorted. Barrie loved to play with them, games of imaginary pirates and Indians which he acted out energetically and embellished with magic tricks, accompanied by his shaggy St. Bernard. That is how he became acquainted with the Llewellyn Davies family, at length managing an invitation to a social event with them. Over time Barrie became a close friend and then a virtual relative affectionately called “Uncle Jim”. When the boy’s parents died of cancer Barrie adopted them with the concurrence of the other relatives and on the strength of a handwritten letter in which Sylvia appeared, as Barrie had altered the document, to transfer her sons to Barrie rather than to her sister. Barrie was close to the clan; it was Sylvia’s own brother, Gerald duMaurier, who played Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the performance that launched Peter Pan into mythic status and made J.M. Barrie rich and famous.
What was sinister about that was that Barrie’s love of the boys was possibly predatory. If Piers Dudgeon is right, as his exhaustive study concludes, Barrie had been scripted by the death of his brother, David, his mother’s favorite. Only when David died of a skating accident was the way open for little Jimmy into his mother’s arms. Anthony Lane says this taught Barrie that “…a perfect child who dies on the eve of his fourteenth birthday will be spared the degradation of growing up, and…the boy will seem scarcely to have passed away at all.”
So Sir J.M. Barrie came to power. He had sons he wanted and he was a widely acclaimed playwright on his way to wealth and glory as a baronet and OM.
Dudgeon is convinced and convincing that Barrie filled his own sexual vacuum with these little boys he had stolen from their family. Tony Rennell refines that estimation, “…his thrills came from the power dynamics of relationships and playing mind games with people, at which he proved a master. That was what made Barrie a dangerous man to know, particularly for children.” The strongest evidence that this was pernicious is culled from surviving letters and corroborated by the tragic deaths of the Llewellyn Davies lost boys, one of whom died in World War I, a second in a drowning (double suicide?) wrapped in the arms of his boyfriend, and a third finally succumbing to the relentless pressures of life identified as a “lost boy in Neverland” by committing suicide, throwing himself under the wheels of a subway train when he was 60. Dudgeon configured that as evidence that the Llewelly Davies boys were undermined by Barrie’s own emotional issues by which they were entombed in eternal, inescapable childhood where Barrie needed them to be.
J.M. Barrie is doing better as time goes by. A 2004 bio-pic about Barrie, starring Johnnie Depp, is kind. And now, serious scholars are daring to depart from the curious idea that Barrie caused the suffering and deaths of the Llewelly Davies boys he loved by life-casting them as little lost boys who can never grow up.
It is not politically correct and it is professionally dangerous to come to the defense of an accused pedophile these days. “They should just be ‘put down’ like a mad dog,” one Internet posting suggested. But Justine Picardie re-examined the evidence about Barrie and concluded, “I remain…uncertain about J.M. Barrie who seemed not to be out to corrupt boys with adult desire, but for himself to rejoin them, in the innocence of eternal boyhood, in a Neverland where children fly away from their mothers and no one need grow old.”
Picardie, J. “How Bad Was J.M. Barrie?” The Telegraph 13 July 2008
Lane, A. “Lost Boys” New Yorker Nov. 22, 2004
Rennel, T. a book review of P. Dudgeon, CAPTIVATED: J.M. Barrie, the duMauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland. Chatto & Windus, 2008
Once upon a time there was a prophet named Jonah. God said to him, “Do your duty. Go to Nineveh and prophesy.” But Jonah hated those people, so he got on a boat going the opposite direction as far as it would go.
Not so long ago a preacher was told, “Go to the Capitol and tell them what Jesus said.” But the preacher thought those old boys were doing great. So he went on TV to tell the world how God loved what was going on.
Out in the middle of the sea a great storm blew up. It grew stronger and stronger, threatening to tear the boat apart. The ungodly sailors, however, caught on that this storm was telling them something.
Tumult began to ravage the land, as historic hurricanes beat upon its cities, and illness went untreated because of huge costs. People everywhere began to worry something had to be done quickly.
Jonah confessed, “Throw me into the sea and you’ll be spared.” The godless sailors hesitated to be so cruel just to save themselves but finally they yielded. The last they saw of the prophet, he was being swallowed by a huge fish.
In the back of the preacher’s mind was concern that those old boys in Distant Capitol were trashing all the values the preacher and his crowd had stood for, but they hated the same things and feared all those people of different colors. The preacher said, “What’s a little wind and rain when we’ve got such fine old men making things great again.” But some were watching in amazement, “OMG! The preacher’s been swallowed whole!”
Down in the deadly deeps, Jonah was wrapped in seaweeds as he succumbed to despair that led to confession. Even in the deadly deeps God was paying attention to Jonah, and God ordered the fish to puke the prophet out back onto the beach where he had started.
The preacher grappled desperately trying to figure out how to be both true to Jesus and loyal to the good old boys thumping each other on the back as they piled up their profitable deals. At last the preacher found himself right back where he’d started
Jonah made it to the huge city of Nineveh, home of the horrible people Jonah hated most. He vowed to do the absolute minimum. Getting himself barely inside the vast city he announced, “You’re done for, three days from now.” Then he turned around and left.
“Well, these days of high-tech, one doesn’t have to really GO to Distant Capitol to have one’s voice heard there,” the preacher decided. So he went on TV again, waved his hands comfortingly and crooned, “Remember Jesus.” Well, that wasn’t so hard
Word spread throughout Nineveh. Panic resulted. The king himself tore his royal robes, put on a burlap shirt and wailed repentance sitting in ashes. The whole city fasted and prayed. Nineveh turned to God. God spared them.
The tousle-headed Good Old Guy was congratulated by his wattle-chinned prime mover. PM declared, “It’s a wrap. We got’em now.” The city was in their hands court, capitol, commerce, and all.
Jonah was livid. “I knew you’d do that!” he railed at God. Poor Jonah wanted to see Nineveh in flames, but all that happened was his own shelter was eaten by worms so it was he who suffered from the heat. He heard that dreaded voice again, “Jonah, Jonah! You’re pissed off at me for saving these millions? Get a grip. Think!”
Outside the city, millions were no longer listening to the preacher. They hadn’t heard him say a word from Jesus for so long that they no longer expected to hear any. They had heard from Jesus directly, however, and they were on the move.
Integrity is the integration of a person’s parts into a contiguous whole, particularly the intellectual and ethical aspects. Integrity means that beliefs and actions, values and expressions, are consistent. One comes to a sense of self-identity by the development of this capacity.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a spokesperson for this way of thinking, and the most fascinating expressions of his rigorous and courageous point of view were in his stories, novels and plays, for which he became world famous, a Nobel Prize recipient for literature, and that rarest of phenomena for philosophers, a popular celebrity. In story after story, Sartre describes how, among our range of options, we choose that which we value most to express who we are.
In his story “The Wall” three prisoners are sentenced to death. They are held in a coal cellar to await their execution the next morning. As the night wears on the prisoners begin to lose their sense of being normal human beings and begin to die.
In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm – because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. At times I could still feel it, I felt sinkings, and fallings, as when you’re in a plane taking a nosedive, or I felt my heart beating. But that didn’t reassure me. Everything that came from my body was all cockeyed. Most of the time it was quiet and I felt no more than a sort of weight, a filthy presence against me; I had the impression of being tied to an enormous vermin. Once I felt my pants and I felt they were damp; didn’t know whether it was sweat or urine, but I went to piss on the coal pile as a precaution. [Sartre, p. 182]
What Sartre is describing, with eloquent pathos, is a sense of disintegration, of fragmentation, and of losing touch with physicality (as well as transcendence, of which Sartre is unremittingly contemptuous).
Finally, the narrator, Ibbieta is isolated, with 15 minutes to live. He can tell his captors where the revolutionary leader Ramon Gris is hiding or Ibbieta will be shot. It is the critical moment of the story.
I…knew that I would not reveal his hiding place. …All that was perfectly regulated, definite and in no way interested me. Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct. I would rather die than give up Gris. Why? I didn’t like Ramon Gris any more. My friendship for him had died a little while before dawn at the same time as my love for Concha, at the same time as my desire to live. Undoubtedly I thought highly of him: he was tough. But it was not for this reason that I consented to die in his place, his life had no more value than mine; no life had value. They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference. I knew he was more useful than I to the cause of Spain but I thought to hell with Spain and anarchy; nothing was important. Yet I was there, I could save my skin and give up Gris and I refused to do it. I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy. I thought, “I must be stubborn!” And a droll sort of gaiety spread over me. [Sartre, p. 185]
“I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct,” Ibbieta says, and finally concludes, “I must be stubborn!” It boiled down to that, nothing more noble or patriotic for Ibbieta than simple stubbornness. However, for Sartre, there is a great more about it that can be said. All of philosophical existentialism, in fact, is behind Ibbieta’s stand and, Sartre contends, our stands as well. In his essay “Choice in a World Without God” Sartre says:
“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely on his own shoulders. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” [Sartre, p. 187]
Sartre was certainly aware that the philosophic background for this position is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative that we should “act only according to maxims which you can will also to be universal laws.” In itself, the categorical imperative is not a revolutionary concept, being found virtually everywhere from the so-called Golden Rule attributed to Jesus to Confucian dictums. It was existentialism’s contribution, to insist on this as its “first effect” and to attribute to this ethical principle the role of defining one’s entire destiny.
Of all the actions that a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. [pp. 187-8]
Put in more facile terms, “In a Godless world we have no alternative but to choose, and in that sense create, our own values. Yet in doing so we are laying down the ground rules of our own lives. And in doing that we are determining how our own personalities develop: we are creating ourselves.” [Magee, p. 217]
It is a frightening responsibility to be the creator of one’s self. Some forms of Christianity would relieve us of that by having us be compliant to the benevolent plans of a loving God.
Sartre recommends that we always choose that which is better, but he does not say that the better is always, in all circumstances, the ideal. Existentialism is far from idealism. Sometimes the operational principles a person uses are mundane, as when Ibbieta decides to do what he does for no lofty reasons, but because he is stubborn. In another script Sartre would have Ibbieta agree that stubbornness in such circumstances would be recommended for all of us.
If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. [p. 188]
That, then, is existentialism’s basic social philosophy. Existentialism’s individualism avoids social chaos by a deft delegation of responsibility, which is based on the premise that human beings are rational.
When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. [p. 188]
Of course, Sartre, of all people, was aware that much of modern history, and contemporary European history, 18th and 19th century French history in particular, bear witness to an irrational, chaotic bent to human social behavior. What of those who are not apparently upset by the greed, sadism, depravity and conceit that their characters and their behaviors exhibit?
There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” [p. 188]
Sartre’s argument is not that all people do act responsibly but that they ought to.
But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. [p. 188]
This anguish and regret is a burden that existentialism puts back onto human shoulders and removes from God’s. Existentialism never asks whether God is cruel to allow sinful behavior and natural calamity, or just unable to do anything about it. Kant, refused to deny the existence of God, and insisted instead, “It is thoroughly necessary to be convinced of God’s existence, it is not quite so necessary that one should demonstrate it.” Sartre avoids the temptation to shed the blame for human moral failures by denying that God has any role in human affairs. Faced with rising anarchy that came to its peak in the socialist and communist revolutionary movements, Dostoevsky argued that it is God and divine moral law that form the only dependable barrier to the collapse of civilization. Sartre argues that this felt need for something like God does not mean that God exists. He put it this way:
Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn [i.e. in despair and anguish at “abandonment”: Heidegger’s favorite term], for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. [p. 190]
As was the ironic hero Ibbieta, Sartre is also stubborn, obstinate in his insistence that human beings are responsible for their actions and the consequences of them. God cannot be blamed. Frightening as this might be, that’s the way it is.
Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. [p. 190]
“Many people find this freedom and this responsibility too terrifying to face, so they run away from it pretending that they are bound by already existing norms and rules,” one interpreter of Sartre explained. Sartre said these people were acting in “bad faith” and lacked “commitment.” Thus he threw the terms back into the face of the French church.
How, without God, does one achieve this type of stability (or stubbornness) and this level of commitment? One of the most ancient prescriptions explains a way:
55 O Partha, when a man relinquishes all the desires of his mind, and when his spirit delights in itself, then is he called a man of steady wisdom.
56 He whose heart is unperturbed in the midst of calamities and free from longing in the midst of pleasures, from whom attachment, fear and rage have departed, is called a sage of steady reason.
57 He who is unattached in all things, who neither exults in nor feels aversion for any good or evil that befalls him, is said to be steady in his wisdom.
58 When a person withdraws his senses from the objects of sense on every side the way a tortoise draws in its limbs, his wisdom is steady.
59 The objects of sense abandon the man who abstains from feeding on them, but the longing for them does not cease. But even this relish ceases when he has experienced the Supreme.
60 O Son of Kunti, these turbulent senses lead away by force the mind of even the wise man who is striving [for control].
61 Having acquired self-control, he should sit in yoga and meditate on Me [Brahman] alone. He whose senses are thus controlled is steady in his wisdom.
62 A man who contemplates the objects of sense develops an attachment to them; attachment gives rise to desire, and desire results in anger.
63 Anger gives rise to confusion, confusion to loss of memory. Loss of memory destroys intelligence and, once a man’s intelligence is destroyed, he perishes.
64 But the man whose mind is disciplined and whose senses are under control is free from attachment and aversion though he moves among the objects of sense, and such a person attains serenity.
65 And in that serenity, all misery is destroyed; because the intelligence of the man of serenity is also steadied immediately. [Bhagavadgita, ch. 2]
Anyone familiar with the Bhagavadgita is aware that the writing is theistic in its orientation and might not fill the bill as a guide for stability free from God. Yet, anyone that familiar with the Bhagavadgita would also know that the advice is shared in common with atheistic and agnostic Hinduism and with Buddhism. It is yoga and meditation that Sri Bhagavan recommends to control attachment and desire, the causes of human suffering. In the Bhagavadgita it is relinquishment of all desires that is the basis of steady wisdom, whereas in the Bible it is fear of (or reverence for) God that is the beginning of wisdom. On the surface the Bhagavadgita has the final word to say about human integrity and responsibility, including the way to achieve it.
In actual practice, that may not always be the case.
Our friend Linda called yesterday morning from her sister’s house in Virginia. She wanted to hear a friendly voice, she said, “to have a little light in the day.” Linda has come home from the hospital, and is recovering from her second operation on her neck, where they have removed a tumor that was attached to her spinal cord.
A month ago she was driving from California to take refuge at her sister’s, after her money ran out, and while she was driving through Texas her left arm went numb and the fingers on her left hand “just went limp.” She got as far as Nashville before she had to pull into a hospital and call friends.
“Last time the radiation didn’t work,” she reported. “They say this in incurable. The terrible thing is knowing that in a few months it will be back. It is the pain that gives me the most fear. They give me such heavy doses of medicine to keep down the pain that I live in a blur.”
She paused and signed, “I have such morbid thoughts.” Her view of her condition has a right to be morbid, I felt, but I just listened as she changed the subject to her former husband, Ben. He left her and the five girls four years ago to go live with another woman and her 17-year-old heroin addict son. Ben took all the good stuff when he left including the piano and the car, and she had to sue him to keep him from canceling her medical insurance and child support.
Now that the girls are grown and the divorce is final, she has nothing. She’s not bitter about being homeless and broke, but bitter that their twenty-year marriage, and even their five daughters, meant nothing more to Ben than they turned out to mean.
Then she thought about what she was saying to me, “But you know what I’ve been remembering?” she asked rhetorically. “All those old songs are coming back, ‘Count your blessings, count them one by one,’ ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus,’ ‘I walked in the garden alone,’ songs like that.”
Integrity is a product of two fields of energy, so to speak. Concentration, focused attention, or meditation, empowered by energy from the core of our souls in the form of intuition responds to a growing sense of maturity and creativity emanating from our silent center, our unconscious deep within. This maturity comes as freedom from ontological concern, selflessness. Where those two fields of force intersect, there our integrity emerges.
Thirty years ago Elizabeth O’Connor penned it this way in a collection of calligraphy:
To be a liberating community – the New Community –
is to touch not only an individual quiet center,
but a corporate quiet center,
and to drink as a people out of wells of living water.
Out of us
People will begin to marvel at what they see,
but that which is happening flows out of an inner life.
What is seen is visible as a result of this inwardness –
an inwardness that must always be
protected, nurtured, and tended.
Bhagavadgita, The translated by V. Nabar and S. Tumkur, 1997. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Magee, B. 1998. The Story of Philosophy. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
O’Connor, E. 1976. The New Community. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Sartre, J-P. “The Wall” and “Choice in a World Without God” in The World of Short Fiction edited by R. Albrecht, 1969. New York: The Free Press.
Corporate memory often frazzles. Institutional memory is a fragile and devious thing.
Institutions often last much longer than individuals who establish, maintain, and inherit them. Educational institutions can outlast even governments and dynasties. Institutions are sustained by successfully including an influx of new leaders. This is best when it is incremental, allowing new leadership to absorb the accumulated knowledge and unique traditions, as well as the memories of trends, events and people in the past. Meanwhile, institutions need to keep up with the times. An incoming CEO or president has a delicate line to walk between aggressively pursuing change that may have been delayed and alienating significant persons whose commitment has been refined to focus on institutional aspects the new leadership is marginalizing.
In pondering my status in the institutions with which I have been involved over the past 70 years, it is clear that I am now largely irrelevant to most of them now. Whenever I contact them or even show up on their campuses I am initially a stranger. Only the buildings feel like I might belong there, and usually not even them. Since I am outside those institutions, for all intents and purposes, I feel free to offer some advice.
Few events that an institution experiences are dramatic. Institutions are developed one tiny increment and one decision at a time. In fact, spectacular events tend to be destructive ones that threaten the institution. Recovery is then the institutional task, and that means getting back to the tedious tasks of making little decisions. Those rarely restore what used to be.
I remember one day after we re-constructed and re-dedicated the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, IL. The wife of the long-time former pastor was invited to visit as a chapel was dedicated in her husband’s name. She was not appalled at the changes we had brought after the fire had destroyed everything, but she let me know this was no longer the same church of which she had been a key member for a quarter of a century. The building was strange to her eyes, even if many of the people were not. Now most of those people are gone, too, as is she I understand. A couple of years ago I went back to that church after nearly a quarter of a century and the building felt the same, but the people, for the most part, were not. The programs were also different.
Payap University, with which I have been associated in one way or another since 1965, has had 5 fully installed heads with the title president. Each brought a clear vision about what the university might become. Those visions were of Payap being a leading liberal arts institution, then as a new president took over the goal was for the university to develop into a comprehensive university, and more recently the president’s vision was for Payap to be the best international university in the region. None of those visions was fully achieved before perceived realities prompted it to be abandoned in place of a new vision. In the process, of course, a vast amount of institutional knowledge was rendered obsolete. Some of that wisdom stood in the way of progress.
Last month I had lunch with a long-term university insider. His conclusion is that there is an institutional bias against change. Many universities and colleges stay with whatever they have always done even when it is no longer working, and spiral into oblivion (that is, usually, into economic un-viability). In other words, a large institution is too unwieldy and settled to adapt to change.
On the surface, that seems to contradict my contention that institutions have trouble retaining institutional memory. However, I have noticed that resistance to change is not the same as institutional memory. The source of institutional conservatism is usually the collective will of institutional operatives to retain the positions and conditions they have worked to acquire. What is a German language instructor to do if German language courses are dropped from the curriculum? It is only natural that the instructor will try to avoid that. The institutional visionary, on the other hand, is exerting equal energy in proposing some bright alternatives to operations that have become unproductive or obsolete. The institutional historian is neither of these. The historian collects and remembers specifics, dates when decisions were made and reasons for those decisions, the gestalt of key moments in the institution’s history, the names and methods of operation of individuals who got major objectives achieved, and most of all what is the institution’s heart and soul.
It is not unusual for each one of those three functionaries, conservators, innovators, and historians, to see the other two as obstructive. Of course, each of them is valuable if they work together. How to get that happy compatibility is a challenge. Conservators are not simply interested in self-preservation; they are institutional ballast without whom the institution would founder whenever it encounters sufficient turbulence. Innovators are most effective when they can demonstrate that new initiatives have already worked, and can incorporate the aspirations of the institution as well as the wider community and customers (by whatever name). Historians must be narrators who are so skillful that when they speak the institution listens, so they need to be the ones most often in the pulpit or on the platform when the institution gathers to ponder itself.
It is by the cumulative weight of countless decisions that the institution has gotten where it is. It will take countless decisions, each one of them of little apparent consequence, to get the institution to where it is going to be.
Three years ago I watched a local Buddhist monk inscribe numbers onto small copper sheets to be installed under ceramic lions on gate posts. I described this in a blog-essay at the time (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/guardians). I knew the overall purpose of the process was investing the lions with protective power. It is the same as with tattoos.
What fascinated me was the special order in which the monk inscribed the numbers onto the plate. I thought it might be some form of “magic square” such as the Chinese discovered centuries ago. A nine digit magic square in the form of a tic-tac-toe # is like this:
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6
Each of the lines and diagonals equals 15. Legends say that this pattern first appeared on the back of a turtle seen by a Chinese king, who used it to end a deadly threat.
But the monk’s inscription was not a magic square. His figures were like this:
1 4 7
6 9 2
3 8 5
He explained that the chanting as he inscribed the numbers was a Buddhist stanza in honor of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It is, presumably, the same chant as is used in every Buddhist service.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
That is followed by the three refuges, “I take refuge in the Lord Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha:
Put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Still, I was intrigued by the sequence in which the numbers were inscribed. After months of considering this I realized that this was not a square but a circle. The order of inscription was “1, skip two places going clockwise, 2, skip two, 3, skip two, 4, etc.” 9 went into the center. It was Buddhist, after all. It was the pattern for the wheel of the law. (See the wheel, above).
But now I have discovered its antecedent in Jain religion, as are many of the esoteric forms of Buddhism. A longer discourse on these yantra diagrams is here: https://www.yoginiashram.com/yantra-harnessing-the-power-of-mystical-geometry/
Yantras can be rendered in flat designs as is the blue and white example and the painted yantra above. They can also be executed as tattoos. (The pictures of tattooing by a famous monk tattooist in Nakhon Pathom province, above, are from a Wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yantra_tattooing ). Yantras can be two or three dimensional geometric patterns, but also represent the spirit of animals. Tigers, elephants and snakes are particularly popular.
Yantras, we are told, are lifeless unless they are inscribed while a mantra is being chanted. The reason for this is, “Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially ‘thought forms’ representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.” I have been told that the holy Om is the most potent. Yantras can also be produced as mandalas. Mandalas tend to be much more colorful and elaborate, and therefore their creation is much more complicated. The most famous mandalas are Tibetan, including sand-mandalas. Above is a picture of the Chenrezig Sand Mandala created and exhibited at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on the occasion of the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama on 21 May 2008.
Synthesis: The relationship of mathematical numbers, especially mysterious patterns, to cosmic and physical reality has been a subject of intense speculation for centuries. Occasionally whole mystical, religious or philosophical schools have arisen around these theories and mysteries. The Pythagorean School was one of the largest and most sophisticated. European alchemists were another, as were Jains in India. In fact, every religion and civilization from Aztecs to Zoroastrians has expressed interest in the relationship of numbers (in the broad sense) to physical and cosmic reality. Usually it is numbers or harmonics that bridge the chasm between the mundane and the transcendental. Perhaps mandalas reside in our collective unconscious as Jung discovered, to be remembered and revised -- such as the street design a week ago in Alton, Illinois at the Mississippi Earthtones conservation festival (picture by my son Andrew Dobson). Meanwhile, some religions, Christianity being one of the main ones of these, go through periods of protest against investing physical symbols with mystical power of any sort. That, however, shall be the topic of another essay.
The Kai Song food shop in Nam Bor Luang Village is our default place for a meal when Pramote has been too busy or tired to fix something. It is run by Kai (pronounced “guy”) and her life-partner Nong. They list ten or fifteen things they are ready to cook, but they can usually cook whatever you suggest if they have the ingredients. It is a “Food to Order” shop, as opposed to a noodle shop. The shop is, not coincidentally, right across the lane from a Thai massage school that has a constant stream of students from Japan. Kai and Nong were hired 10 years ago to be cooks for the school, and then they had a chance to open their own shop across from the front gate which expanded their clientele. They still provide food for the massage students who come for a week or two. It appears that Kai and Nong are well accepted in the village, and they are frequently visited by relatives.
I do not yet know how Kai and Nong found each other. I think they would tell me if I were bold enough to ask. But that is precisely the matter I want to consider.
First, it is not customary for a couple to discuss openly how they met, how their relationship developed, and how they decided to make their relationship public. An invitation to a wedding typically comes as a complete surprise to almost everyone. It is not discussed ahead of time, as if that might jinx the whole thing, or bring shame on the couple if the marriage were called off. Even years later those early days of a relationship are kept private.
Second, one thing Kai and Nong have in common with Pramote and me is an atypical relationship. I doubt that Kai and Nong are as “out” about their lives as are Pramote and me. We have gay parties and fly a rainbow flag (thanks to a gay couple who visited us a month ago), and Pramote is affectionately called “Madame” by half the people in our village. I have declared our house a sanctuary for any gay boys or girls who need a safe house, and I have published a book with the subtitle “Gay Experiences in Thailand”. But, as with Kai and Nong, the community at large has found a “neutral” category for us as a couple. It is ambiguity that matters. Ambiguity is important. Abandoning it is risky and almost always unnecessary. I think that is a very large difference between how society functions in North Thailand from how things work in North America.
Third, all relationships are somewhat atypical. Each couple in Pramote’s family has a relationship that is unlike any other couple. Let me explain it this way: although Pramote and I are the only couple in the extended family who are identified as “same-sex”, our relationship is not as “abnormal” or “flexible” or “unstable” as at least two other couples. In other words, we are in some ways more typical as a couple functioning in this society than many couples who have or could have their marriages recorded at the district office. My point is, there is no point in designating who is typical and who is not. Pointing fingers is disruptive, impolite, and inevitably inaccurate. Kai and Nong are not “those lesbian cooks” but are simply Kai and Nong.
Fourth, with aggravating regularity some asinine writer tries to make a hit by slapping a label on people in a gender genre. Just a week or so ago another ten-day tourist produced a video all about the wonderful “Ladyboys” he had found in Pattaya and Phuket. He imagined he was being complimentary. Those labels always diminish and segregate.
Finally, it seems to me that the present disparity between LGBTIQ people like us and the rest of hetero-normative society will eventually be resolved by dissolving the sharp lines that are being made even more distinct these days in order to designate who needs to be included with rights identical to everyone else. As we who are familiar with Thai attitudes know, skin color in this culture is a matter of extensive attention. Never, however, has skin color been used to designate legal or even social rights. Gender identity will, I believe, fade as a factor determining rights, as well.
This week marks the 17th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, as well as the ramming of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, and a foiled attempt to fly a fourth plane fully loaded with passengers into the White House. The results were unprecedented destruction, live-action horror for two billion viewers on television, and nationwide trauma in the USA. The attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001 shook US national self-confidence but the immediate reaction was an immense outpouring of humanitarian responses, heroic actions, and compassionate solidarity.
9/11 (which ironically is also the emergency hotline phone number throughout the USA) is remembered by everyone who lived through it. Still, the motto “Never Forget” has evolved as the slogan for the day. The imperative to “never forget” raises the question, “Why would anyone think we would need to be reminded?” The slogan evokes poignancy and demands response. Forgetfulness is shameful and unpatriotic.
Recently, however, the question has arisen, “Never forget what?” Exactly what are we being challenged to remember? Where we were when we saw the planes strike the towers on TV? How erratic the national leaders were at the beginning of the crisis? How horrible it was for victims trapped in the planes or the buildings? How heroic the first responders were? How dastardly the terrorist perpetrators were? The names of those killed? The involvement of Muslims? How all national divisions were forgotten in our moments of response? How helpless and vulnerable we felt? How our rage was aroused? All of the above?
For the first ten to fifteen years we were expected to pick some of those memories and to hold them fresh before us every September 11.
Now we have a new generation of young adults whose memories do not extend back to 2001. What are they being exhorted to “never forget”? This is not an entirely philosophic question because we are all being groomed to remember a time of collective trauma and response in a certain way. There is, I submit, a great deal more uniformity in our remembrance of the shock and horror that developed into collective trauma than there is to our responses. That is, the responses to 9/11 include some that we have polished and cherish and others that elicit doubt or shame. Our responses were diverse, including the campaign to get Osama bin Laden at any cost and wipe out the forces he recruited wherever they were hiding, and also campaigns to build a fitting memorial for those who died and to provide scholarships for their children.
As we welcome the first post-9/11 generation into the conversation as peers we will need to clarify what we are to never forget. As a student of philosophy who grew up on Wittgenstein, I would like to point out that collective memory evolves and shifts. Icons are shifty and their manipulators are too.
Consider the monuments we erect to preserve memory of collective trauma. The fall of the Roman Empire is memorialized in the ruins of the Roman Forum. The devastation of the Second World War is recalled in the skeletal dome at ground zero in Hiroshima. The Holocaust is poignant at the Auschwitz site. The US Civil War is symbolized by the Gettysburg graves and battlefield. Those memorialize horrendous loss which came to an end. Italy moved into a Renaissance nearly as glittering as Imperial Rome. Japan survived. Jews overcame. The Union re-unified. So it is safe as well as salutary to ponder the ruins. The ruins say, “We are not defined by that past.”
In an ironic way, that is what the glowing hole at the site of the twin towers is supposed to do. It is trying to push our memories forward as well as force us to meditate on what was destroyed … lives (people with names) and spectacular property, the tallest and largest buildings in the world, the very symbols of American economic and military might. The terrorists thought attacks on these would symbolize the fragility of this form of American empire and humiliate us. But, behold, we survived that trauma. The threats against us were once again eradicated. We are essentially invincible.
If that is what we are to never forget, we are going to have trouble keeping the conversation going when these new college age young adults have their 20 year-olds ask, “What are we supposed to never forget?” The fiftieth anniversary of 9/11 in 2051 will need a new lesson rather than American exceptionalism and invincibility. That sort of mega-narrative is unsustainable and it is unworthy.
Up to now it has worked to just chant, “Never forget.” When everybody who is chanting has a vivid personal memory of that day it would never work to fill in the blank for them. We would retort, “Don’t tell me what to remember, I saw it happen.” The day is coming, however, when circumstances will no longer revolve around today’s targets of terror and pride. People of that day will “never forget” 9/11 at the same emotional distance as we “remember the Alamo.” It fits our narrative to remember the Alamo as heroic resistance to tyranny and eventual victory over huge adversity as a step in nation building. Davy Crockett’s agenda in the Alamo was more personal and existential.
A new national narrative about 9/11 is coming, never doubt, and it will fill in the “never forget” frame with content we have not yet contemplated.
Our lives are lived in a milieu of influences which we perceive as distinct and discrete. From time to time we may concentrate on one or another of these areas, but most of the time we glide along paying little attention to these influences. When there is a crisis we are jolted out of our complacency and become concerned about some aspect of our existence we otherwise blithely ignore.
A fellow was sitting in a dental chair gripping the arm rests so tightly that his knuckles were white. The dentist paused and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. Try to relax.”
“I’m not worried,” the patient responded, “just incredibly alert!”
There are times when we pay close attention to our physical well being. There are other times we let that slide and our whole lives may be tied up in religion, or some creative endeavor, or a matter of romance. A religious experience might draw our attention to a new dynamic taking place between us and the transcendental sphere in our life, just as a love affair will pull us out of our relaxed mode into excitement about our social sphere we had just recently been taking for granted.
Our friend is an alcoholic. He is a binge drinker. He can go for a period of time without getting drunk, but one day he will take another drink and he will be helpless. He will drink himself into a stupor and as often as not he will simply pass out wherever he is, at a bus stop, on a sidewalk, in a friend’s house, under the table in a restaurant. If he is with friends they will take care of him. If he is alone, he is alone. At least seven times his cell phones and money have been stolen while he was unconscious in some public place late at night. Why doesn’t he take care of himself? The answer may not be far away. He is gay, his sister is a prostitute, his mother is a widow in an ethnic minority village that specializes in drug traffic. It would be hard to find a person who has had sex with more men in more circumstances in the same span of time as our friend. He is a genius at it, an artist, but not a connoisseur. His tastes are eclectic and varied on many subjects. He has intelligence, wit, compassion and loyalty. But he is tasteless in his choice of self-indulgences and modes of self-destruction.
I have spent time concentrating on our friend and it has helped me clarify a great deal about our physical reality, its vulnerability and survival. My description, however, would probably not be enough for you to be enlightened by him. Someone else, though, might be a victim you come across who calls forth your deepest level of humanity. It is very common for persons to gain their truest insight into the whole world of nature through the agency of some person who becomes its symbol for them. We do not usually find the metaphors that inform us about life’s urgency and reality, those metaphors find us.
In the same way, the transcendental realm of reality will be represented to some of us most vividly by experiences we have had with Mary, or Jesus, or the Buddha, or Rama, or Brahma, or a spirit we encountered in the forest or on a mountaintop. And yet many of us have had no such experience and just have to rely on the testimony of others for the time being.
Most people at more than one point in their lives relate to somebody in such a way that they are transformed by the relationship into beings entirely better than they were before. Lovers tend to do that for us. Being in love with someone is the best way to discover the validity and the power of the whole societal sphere of our spiritual environment.
The inner center of our minds, where our unconscious minds retain images, information, and identities waiting for us to discover, sometimes urgently imposing on us to fathom them, is a spiritual area that is also separate from our daily consciousness to such an extent that it seems “other” to us, a different spiritual sphere.
The silent center is like a different person, at first. It is the well-spring of creativity, although it is a preserve of silence and the absence of confusion. It is the one place a person can be truly silent, completely vulnerable, and absolutely honest. Everywhere else a person is acting or listening. In the silent center, at the heart of a person, life’s priorities are clearer, integrity is obvious; one’s very identity is revealed.
Spirituality is a topic of widespread interest these days. It has replaced religion as an operative dynamic for some. Spirituality has attained academic status as a valid topic for advanced study. I have been working on this for nearly sixty years. One conclusion I have made is that spirituality ought to be more comprehensive than are most discussions of it. Our perception of reality needs to be inclusive. We learn who we are, how we function and grow, and what the rationale behind our existence and trajectory is by being aware of four spheres of influence. They are the transcendental sphere above us; the sphere of our physicality and of the realm of nature which upholds us as our foundation; the societal sphere whose reality is exposed to us most distinctly through our relationship to significant others whom we love unconditionally; and the inner sphere which we discover to be a creative silent center in the midst of our unconscious.
There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. Niggle was a painter. There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder. “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey,” he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished. There was a knock on the door. “Come in!” he said sharply and climbed down the ladder. It was his neighbour, Parish; his only real neighbour, all other folk living a good way off. “My wife has been ill for some days, and I am getting worried,” said Parish. “And the wind has blown half the tiles off my roof, and water is pouring into the bedroom. I think I ought to get the doctor. I had rather hoped you might have been able to spare the time to go for the doctor, seeing how I’m placed.” “Of course,” said Niggle; “I could go. I’ll go, if you are really worried.” “I am worried, very worried. I wish I was not lame,” said Parish. So Niggle went. It was wet and windy, and daylight was waning. The doctor did not set out as promptly as Niggle had done. He arrived next day, which was quite convenient for him, as by that time there were two patients to deal with, in neighboring houses. At that moment another man came in: tall, dressed in black. “Come along!” he said. “I am the Driver. You start today on your journey, you know.” [Niggle fell asleep and overheard two Voices debating his fate.] “Still, there is this last report,” said the Second Voice, “that wet bicycle-ride. I rather lay stress on that. It seems plain that this was a genuine sacrifice: Niggle guessed that he was throwing away his last chance with his picture.” Niggle thought that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice. “I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,” said the Second Voice. It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and the summons to a King’s feast. They came at last to a place where a great green shadow came between him and the sun. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them. “Of course!” he said. “What I need is Parish. I need help and advice: I ought to have got it sooner.” [Tolkein]
In Tolkein’s little story, cut all the shorter in this version, are all the spiritual dimensions. Niggle’s identity is defined by his own creativity as a painter, a painter of leaves. The inspiration springs from deep within. He is defined as well by his compassion for those in need, and by his relationship with Parish, who is his only friend. Symbolically, Niggle has to come down from his ladder to help Parish, a cripple, and his ailing wife. This eventuates in Niggle himself becoming like them, sick … hastening the day when “the Driver” comes for him. Strangely, it is this selfless act that accomplishes what Niggle was never finishing on his own: the painting, and a true bond of intimacy with Parish. All this was done, as it were off-stage, but Niggle does overhear two supernatural voices evaluating his life. The Second Voice who decreed “Gentle Treatment” for Niggle, was the representative of the Transcendental dimension for Niggle.
From a spiritual point of view we are conscious of being in a condition where four different types of spiritual forces overlap: the transcendental, the physical, the societal, and the unconscious.
What is your spirituality?
Your comprehensive reality
Your potentiality – what you would be if your potential were fully realized
A conception of the dynamics of who you are with aspects of you growing
A description of what happens when aspects of you become so dysfunctional that all aspects of you are caught into dysfunctionality and deterioration
Tolkein, J.R.R. 1964, from “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf. London: Unwin Books.
[Essay 1: SPIRITUALITY. This is the first essay in a series on spirituality.]
I believe there are three phases of retirement.
The FIRST PHASE is usually what one is being chosen to do. For many of us retirement is a formal step when one can begin to collect accumulated funds set aside for this time in life. It does matter that one passes a mandatory date when one’s options begin to be set by rules. However, many of us have extended careers for which we are recruited. It is good advice to not just “retire from” but also to have a plan that includes “retiring to” something meaningful.
Examples: A good friend of mine retired several years ago but has continued in the very same position until this week. She will now be entering phase two. Another good friend would have liked to continue in his position, but did not get a chance to do so. He took a series of short-term positions that were equivalent to his life-long career. A pastor in Illinois retired to do interim pastoral stints. I have heard of a man who retired from a career with the railroad to run a model railroad in the St. Louis Zoo.
Exceptions: Some people begin this sort of consultancy or interim work before getting to the age where compensation is secondary. I know an engineer who took a “golden parachute” into retirement at 45 years of age, and now is a free-lance engineer with his own company. Some would say he has not really retired, but his portfolio says he is independent. My dad skipped this phase and went straight into full retirement.
The SECOND PHASE is what one chooses to do. This is often thought of as “real” or “full” retirement. It may be entirely different from one’s professional career. Hobbies and social relationships can become the focus during this phase of retirement. It takes mental and spiritual dexterity to discover something significantly meaningful in the midst of a plethora of activities that are plainly enjoyable.
Examples: My dad retired to go fishing. Many go fishing in retirement, but Dad retired in order to do it. He made that his main endeavor for several years. A former pastor of my home church retired to do landscape painting and to write articles for church journals. I am now in this phase and I have written everything I planned on writing when I fully retired, and am now writing just for the fun of it. I believe my brother and his wife can be said to have entered full retirement in order to travel around to as many state and national parks and forests as they can. That’s Dan, my brother, in the picture above.
Exceptions: Some people have a chance to choose to do what they have done in some form or other so the line is blurred between phase one and phase two for them. Others go from phase one (continuing to work) into phase three, due to a sudden medical crisis. I know of a couple whose carefree plans for retirement were abruptly changed when they had to take over raising two more children.
The THIRD PHASE is what one has no choice about. One always has choices, but when the range becomes limited by what works best to handle health and physical circumstances, one has come to the third phase of retirement. Phase three is when the controlling factor is how to handle one’s health and safety. For some, this means a change of residence, but for others it is more a change of perspective. The greatest challenge is to ascribe meaningful significance to this phase of sustaining one’s self. Only those who have developed a solid spiritual base can do it.
Examples: Mom spent several years as a senior-citizens’ ombudsman, after retiring from teaching kindergarten. The time came when she just took a room in the retirement center so her meals and medications could be handled dependably. The wife of a good friend from long ago is now in advanced dementia and her life is supported and sustained by professionals. A friend here in town has just moved into “assisted living” after falling several times and being unable to get back up, once in the bathroom where he could have drowned. A lot of retirement institutions have 3 or 4 levels of care to accommodate levels of need.
Exceptions: It is quite obvious that some people need assistance and support long before getting to an age that could be called retirement. That is, medical and physical circumstances can begin to compel responses at other times in life. “Normally”, we think, we will get old before we have to rearrange our life plan to handle things like that. Many of us, like my dad, never get to phase three. He took his medicine and didn’t let his health concerns impact his plans to go fishing in the warm south. For others, as is the case with Pramote’s father, extended family provides nearly constant care. But his life is impacted by his health and his daily life is bounded by these issues. Let me insist, however, that it would be very wrong to think of phase three as terminal or lingering. Phase three has just as many thrilling and fulfilling possibilities as other times of life may have.
CONCLUSIONS: It has been helpful to me to think of retirement as having three phases. But as with other discussions of ages and stages in life, there are exceptions. Even more frequently, there are incremental steps from one phase to another. Finally, age is an artificial measure of one’s progress through life. It is conditions and circumstances that matter most.
POSTSCRIPT: What are coming generations going to do if they are prevented from developing the capacity to build toward retirement? The rules are changing. It is already almost impossible in the USA for those in their career prime to accumulate funds to manage the sort of retirement I have described.
“Are you unique? Are you special?” the teacher asked his class. They thought they were. “Yes, yes,” they chorused. “Of course we are!” How absurd to question our individuality. It’s a basic human right isn’t it? It’s a basic assumption, anyway.
We who are LGBTIQs will probably be among the first to insist that each and every human being is unique. It’s the basis for our argument that we are entitled to equal treatment with heterosexuals and celibates. “I don’t need to be like you.” “I am who I am,” or “I am who God made me,” or “I am gay because my karmic destiny led to this.” We need this rationale.
“No,” the professor responded, “you are not unique.”
His argument was that overwhelmingly we are the same. Biologically, physically, psychologically we are far more alike than we are different. Our range of head sizes is hardly more than an inch different. Our number of any physical organs, their size and function is normally the same. Our life expectancy, the environment in which we most easily thrive, or the way we will succumb to viruses, in all these ways we are alike.
Where did the idea come from, then, that we are discrete, diverse and different?
Like many of our most passionately held persuasions the concept is not particularly old. Throughout most of human history individual rights were unheard of. Rights, rules and regulations were not structured until the second half of recorded history and the individual was not singled out until much later. In the West it was the Enlightenment, just 500 years ago, that placed special emphasis on the individual. In the East it was the coming of the West that initiated the idea, still not very widespread, but growing.
The teacher’s point, however, was that the major beneficiaries of the idea of individuality are the manufacturers of products. It is they who profit from our desire for wide choices of hair styles, foodstuffs, and fabrics. How many types of sneakers does the human race need? He was convinced that this was all part of a vast conspiracy with potentially disastrous environmental consequences.
It’s a thought-provoking idea, and we can see how it applies to the gay side of society. Here in Thailand there are now a couple of gay oriented lifestyle magazines and several more aimed at “metrosexuals”. From them we are meant to learn how our trend leaders dress, what they eat and where they go to express their natural desires, so we can be more like them.
But wait a minute!
These guys are not like us…not most of us. They are all physical hunks, under 35, with perfect complexions (not counting tattoos), and extensive expendable funds. They are not us, and they know it. They are disdainful in their expressions, attitudes and actions. They suppose they are who we are supposed to be. And we suppose so, too, if we aren’t careful. They are our trend-setters and role models, and if we are too old, too fat, too dark, too anything – we need products to compensate. We need ointments, clothing, services and activities to make up for our sorry deficiencies.
Obviously, this is a marketing ploy and it is used to manipulate various sectors of the marketplace, not just us. The teacher was right about that.
Still, I am not yet convinced that the thing to do is to protest against the place of the individual and advocate the sovereignty of the group. We’ve been there and suffered from it. The tyranny of the majority is sometimes against US.
So, how do we sort this out?
We need to affirm our membership in the human family. That could be our metaphor. We are all part of this family. But we are not identical, nor clones. Although largely alike we are not entirely alike. Our DNA is different, our fingerprints are unique and our personalities are diverse. We are mostly like everyone and even more like kinfolk, yet we are not like anyone else except in certain apparently random aspects not of our own choosing. On the other hand, if we are to be gay we need to set ourselves apart, express our individuality, dare to be proud, and find our place in the world. It is particularly urgent for us gay men to defend our niche in homogenous humanity.
There are ways in which each of us is more like certain groups of total strangers and distant foreigners than we may be like our next of kin or closest ancestors. That, in fact, affirms our membership in the whole human family, and it is what moderates our identity as individualists.
Keep your wits about you, as my grandmother used to say. Don’t be shoved into behaviors that are wrong or optional, which are not of your own choosing. You can’t buy your way into significance. Being gay has no connection to brands of underwear. And styles of briefs have no impact on happiness. Or most of the time it does not matter.
[This essay was based on an initial idea supplied by Louise Jett and written in 2012 for OUT in Thailand magazine edited and published by James Barnes.] See also: www.kendobson.asia/blog/spectrum
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.