The things that one grows tired of—O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.
Wonder and Joy, Robinson Jeffers
During the final days of my travels in Italy, I felt a recurring sadness, which I could not place. It would surface in quieter moments: hot afternoons, and humid evenings, when I was alone. I would perceive it, and attend to it, but it would not speak its discontents to me. It was present – it wanted me to know that it was present – but otherwise mute, indecipherable.
I am still not sure I understand it. Confused, I tried to give it space, on walks, or at night, sipping a glass of wine. It was a shy sadness, one that seemed to communicate indirectly, gesturing at memories, using images of the past as metaphor.
Its vocabulary was the arc of my life. It spoke to me of my childhood. Together we remembered Christmases at my grandmother's house, the doors with inset glass, behind which lay presents waiting for midnight. Summers at Montesanto: the morning light caught in Naples' rough textures, and echoing church bells interrupted by droning scooters. Walking by the sea at night in Procida – the summer of 1998 – the dark waters brimming with life.
Eventually, we made it through the painful years of adolescence and early adulthood, when Naples became a place of mystery and adventure, of undergrounds and tunnels and secret ruins. The chorus of lunches and dinners with family, which restored the spirit as much as the body. Travels with girlfriends, our love amplified by the sensuality of the Neapolitan landscape.
Then, the recent years, suddenly quieter and more serious, more brooding, less carefree. Remarking the visible passage of time on my own face and that of others, while Naples, old but unchanged, remained like a goddess that outlives her mortal children. Clear-eyed, horrified, watching civilization stumble towards downfall and extinction.
I wondered if this was the sadness: returning preoccupied to the place of earliest innocence. But I was rarely a cheerful child, certainly not as an adolescent. As a young adult, the inverse: I have found moments of joy and happiness have tended, at least so far, to increase with the years.
The last played note of an unheard piece presages those following, but it does not speak for the entirety left unplayed. One story of my life is an awakening to the gloom of the world. But another is an ascension to greater states of gratitude. Yet another is the constant grapple with impermanence, and the unpausing, unwavering march of time.
The travels themselves, up to the origin of the sadness, had been mostly stressful. I was tired, burnt-out. Europe was in the midst of a heatwave, and rather than rest and think, I moved around a lot. But I began to recall that there had also been many glimmering moments. Trees swaying in the wind, which wafted the scent of jasmines. Insects – vanishing at unprecedented rates around the world – here flourishing, busy with the work of life. Stars treading the Milky Way, the sound of waves withdrawing from the shore. The voices of family and friends – many which I've known for as long as I've been alive – recounting the recent past.
Beneath the stress and exhaustion, there had been many unappreciated moments of delight. Reflecting on that delight brought me joy, but that joy in turn brought me sorrow: a departure was coming that entailed separation from all these things. A separation that echoed the first one, in 1994.
A filling moon foretells imminent wane. For every return home there's a farewell and a return to another home, a reminder that my heart is forever split across the world. Every choice to be in one place comes at the exclusion of another. All that can be lived is one portion at a time, so every return becomes a joy reborn, a death anticipated.
On Thursday, I received news that a Marine from my former Company was KIA in Afghanistan. He was 25 years old.
Marine Corps warfighing doctrine emphasizes the psychological level of war. The true objective of combat operations is not to kill the enemy, but to break the enemy's willingness to fight. The former is just one of many means to the latter.
The attack on my unit was delivered by means of an SVBIED – a suicide-vehicle-borne improvised-explosive-device. This is one incident, but it seems to underscore this fact: after 18 years on Afghan soil, the United States has failed to undermine the enemy's resolve.
A trillion dollars and the most advanced weaponry in the world and 72,000 enemy KIA have failed to convince an LDC that it can aspire to better.
It's possible that numbers alone could have predicted this outcome. Divide the enemy combatants killed by the cost of OEF and the result is ~14,000,000 USD per head. The Taliban has inflicted only a fraction of its losses on the United States, but probably for orders of magnitude less in costs, too.
If we judged wars the way we judged businesses, perhaps the United States would have gotten out of Afghanistan years ago. Perhaps it would never have committed, or been smarter about its engagement, more precise about the problem it was seeking to address. In a way, the country was cursed, as is often the case, by its wealth. A poorer nation wouldn't have been able to afford a blank check.
But here we are. A family now mourns the loss of a son. In Afghanistan, there are families that have been mourning loss after loss after loss. Some Afghans fear what will happen when American troops finally depart. And I will never forget the footage of the jumpers on 9/11.
All this in a world where the Arctic ice is evaporating, and Antarctic ice shattering, and life, on the whole, vanishing. I wonder how we will judge this history in twenty or thirty years' time. Sooner or later, we are bound to have a moment of clarity.
I have had enough days in nature to know what it is like to long for the simplest comforts of civilization. But the brightest memories are not of those comforts; I have spent enough days in civilization to know the longing for the wilderness.
On every return from nature, I am shocked by the physical and spiritual malaise of city life. The litter and noise, the constant, constant sales pitch, omnipresent reminders of rank and status, and people broken in all manner of ways.
It's strange to return from the world of stone and trees to this one that at times seems even more savage than nature. Here every message is that some thing will give you happiness. But away from the artificial world, the default state seems to be exactly that one. Even when the basic needs are only partially met, the reward seems to be beauty and meaning. Eating simple meals over a cookstove, more joy than at world renowned restaurants.
Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.
Earth supports life because it is exactly the right distance from the Sun at this point in the stellar lifecycle (i.e., within the circumstellar habitable zone). In a universe where the temperatures ranges from about -272°C to 3,000,000°C, the healthy temperature for a human body is ~36.5-37.5°C. The trick to life has always been balance – not too hot, not too cold, not too much, not too little. Success is not first place, not maximums or minimums, but averageness.
There is a point of balance between the state of nature and the technology that we have today. It is possible to build quiet cities that interweave with and respect nature. It is possible to enjoy shelter and agriculture and books while still being able to delight in the hooting of an owl and blinking fields of fireflies. And yes, it is possible to have the best of civilization without wrecking the foundations on which it rests.
But that is not where we are today. What we have instead is a world where millions starve while others drown in the misery of material possessions, where we are safe from the elements but blind to the stars, and where nearly every metric of planetary health is failing. Our planet is sick because our civilization is sick. Our civilization is sick because technology cannot, has not, and will not answer spiritual and psychological dilemmas. In fact, the very things that can, nature and community, are being destroyed by the it.
The task before us is moderation – dialing back excess – finding and choosing the mean.
Whether we change our lives or do nothing, we have responded. To do nothing is to do something.
Johnathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals.
The above is from the Climate Action Tracker, which measures countries' progress on meeting the Paris Agreement's targets of 2°C and 1.5°C of warming.
Morocco and the Gambia are the only countries known to be on track to meet the 1.5°C target. Five countries are on track for 2°C. The rest of the world ranges from insufficient to critically insufficient action – including the country I currently reside in.
At the moment, the conservative estimate is that we are on track for over 3°C of warming by the end of the century. Even at 2°C, the "goal" we are failing to meet, we might trigger feedback loops that make further warming unavoidable. We're not only breaking the planet, but making repair impossible.
In daily life, I struggle to comprehend the make-believe and denial. I feel something like the prisoner returning to Plato's cave. Asked to judge the merit of shadows, after having seen the sun paint color on the world.
Today, I went to the Italian Consulate to get a new passport. Unexpectedly, the visit prompted a moment of reflection and recollection.
Stepping into the Consulate felt almost like traveling to Italy. The Carabiniere at the door, RAI on the TV, the sound of the language floating in the background, the decor and office furniture – the experience was surreal in its consistency.
The interior reminded me of the Guglielmo Marconi school, and memories from my three years there came flooding back. During the interview, the topic of my first years in Naples came up, and those memories followed. The office furniture bubbled up memories of my year abroad in Bologna. I felt a little stunned by it all.
I speak Italian with my mother and grandmother nearly every day, read the language regularly, and visited Italy last fall. So I wondered why it was that this experience triggered such a strong reaction.
With computer memory, there's the concept of direct access and sequential access. The typical metaphor is that the former is like a book, the latter like a scroll. With a book, you can open up any page and immediately view its contents. With a scroll, you must first unwind the sections preceding the one you are interested in reading.
In human terms, perhaps the former is like being able to recall where one was on New Year's Eve, or on September 11, 2001; the latter is more akin to describing a meeting or an accident. One recollection focuses on an instance, the other covers a chronology.
I wonder if in human memory there is another kind of access – a sort of vertical-slicing access, that is the combination of the two. What happens is that durations are accessed directly. It's perhaps akin to remembering Christmastime instead of Christmas, 2000, or remembering springs past instead of March, 1997. In my case, the remembering was of spans of time from across my life – childhood, early adolescence, early adulthood – all in one go.
HEAVEN signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
EARTH comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
I'm sitting in bed watching dusk turn to night. Outside, the wind is gusting hard; inside, stillness. Trees sway while the wind swishes, then thuds. The keyboard clatters quietly as I type.
Earlier, I saw photographs of dead baby owls. The wildlife rescuer that shared them suspected the wind was to blame, though they noted that the parents had not been having much luck bringing food back to the nest. The mother was still roosting, a sign that perhaps another chick remained.
I wonder how responsible we are for this wind, for this new, kinetic climate. I, satiated and warm, recall the brief periods of my life where I have felt unending hunger. And my heart breaks for the world.
Memories of the School of Infantry surface. Nine years have passed, but I feel like I was there yesterday, shivering on a range, machineguns thudding in the background. Apollo occasionally bestowing mercy, Aeolus wiping it away.
My water freezing at night, and clouds of breath under starlit skies.
Snow falling over fire, while crimson tracers pierced the darkness.
Rain splattering into my tray of white rice and green peas.
Lying prone among pine needles, trying not to fall asleep.
Defecating on a hilltop and soaking in the sun, the first warm wind of the year. In the distance, fields of dry grass shimmering golden.
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
Everyone responds to hardship in their own way. Although it has taken time, I have found my days spent living like an animal have become a foundation for compassion and empathy. When I see pigeons huddle in a blizzard, I remember nights spent being cold and exposed, with no alternative. I've come admire their resiliency and respect their patience. It always delights my heart to see their dedication to their chicks, when the warmer months return.
I think about the baby owls, and how they got to the ground.
What road is it we're on, that's marked by all these milestones of death?
He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and the images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written upon it.
Cicero, De oratore. Traslated by E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham.
On the 11th I dreamed of a house that was a blend of many former homes. A long hallway connected a series of rooms, as was the case in the last apartment in Naples, and the second one in New York. The last bedroom was a combination of a bedroom in Shanghai and one from the apartment in Naples.
In the dream, my brother woke me. I had overslept, and was confused. Apparently, I'd missed a flight. As I started to waken (in the dream), I realized I'd not actually missed the flight, but was very late in getting ready for it. A driver was waiting, the image was of a black car outside the apartment complex in Shanghai. It was night, and raining hard. I vaguely recall speaking to the driver on the phone – he was an American, from Boston, though like myself also an immigrant.
In the last bedroom, speaking with my parents about the upcoming journey, my mother asked where I would be staying. Would it be at the Roosevelt Hotel – or home? I told her I wanted to stay home. That was the end of the dream.
If we are not content with our ready-made supply of backgrounds, we may in our imagination create a region for ourselves and obtain a most serviceable distribution of appropriate backgrounds.
Rhetorica ad Herrenium. Translated by Harry Caplan.
It was a stereotypical one in many ways – the prominence of architecture, and the compression of architectural features from different places into a single contiguous location. I wonder if these are the mind's attempts to establish continuity, by crafting a consistent signal from many varied ones – a superposition of neural waves.
Then, the ambiguity of home. Traveling to a different place, but having the option of staying home. Roosevelt Island – where I've been living since 1994 – designated hotel, not home.
On the 16th I dreamed of Montesanto. The weather in March is possibly a trigger, a reminder of travels in Italy and Europe while on Spring Break. Even now, watching the darkening dusk, the memories come flooding back.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Good Bones, Maggie Smith.
Over centuries, the domain of philosophy has narrowed. Ancient philosophers articulated theories about the nature of matter, today we accept or reject such theories on the basis of empirical evidence. Aristotle was an ethicist but also a biologist and a psychologist and a political theorist. Today those areas of knowledge on their own are considered general, and are subdivided into various areas of specialization.
A core of questions, however, remains in the domain of philosophy, though the mother can now seek the counsel of her daughters. The question: "what is the meaning of life?" does not belong to either biology, neuroscience, or linguistics. It is a purely philosophical question – one that searches for wisdom more than knowledge. But to answer it in the abstract, discounting the progress made in those other fields, is akin to leaping off the shoulders of giants. We have greater visibility into our condition now, more than any other age, and greater introspection, too.
Two thousand years ago, if you'd asked an everyday Athenian about the meaning of life, they might have replied that it was to "please the Gods." That, is to please Zeus and the pantheon of Mount Olympus. Today we know for a fact that there are no Gods on Mount Olympus, and the vast majority of modern Athenians no longer believe that Poseidon controls the seas. They get their meteorological forecasts from the weather service, not an oracle.
Notwithstanding a more generous interpretation of that response, what can we make of it at face value? Is the meaning of life to please Zeus and Aphrodite? Very few today would find that answer meaningful. To discount knowledge is to distance oneself from wisdom.
As far as we can tell today, we inhabit a universe approximately 13 billion years old. The planet we inhabit is a third of that age. Our first ancestors emerged out of chemistry not too long afterwards. We are born, live for an unknown number of decades (if we are lucky), and then we die. We share this with almost all of our brothers and sisters, that is, all things that are carriers of DNA. It seems billions of years of experience have suggested that mortality is a prudent long-term strategy for the success of that molecule. But so is the desire to live.
Our portrait of the world is clearer not only in what it includes, but also in what it defines as unclear. There is no empirical evidence of a soul, though conscience and subjective experience is not yet understood as a phenomenon. It is still at the boundaries of our knowledge, as is the origin of the universe itself.
Still, we know that the software of the mind runs on much more well-defined set of hardware: neurons and nerves powered by sugars and oxygen. We can group the neurons by functionality, those tasked with processing speech, those which give rise to emotion. Perhaps a subset that handles queries into the meanings of words.
We must account for this context, and more. Our focus has narrowed but the bar has been raised. To answer "what is the meaning of life" we have to, if we want a good answer, a satisfying answer, discuss language and questions and the meaning of meaning. We have to explore the feelings that give rise to the asking of that question, and the feelings that arise from the possible responses. And we have to address those feelings, and weave them into not just into the answers but the inquiry itself. For what is sought is not a number, not a fact, not a plot on a graph – but understanding, comprehension, and peace.
This morning, I dreamed I was in a strange place, a home, and town, built among stairs.
In my mind, I was in Hong Kong, and the location was a mix of the escalators and overpasses there; the overall architecture seemed familiar. What was unusual was that the whole place appeared to be in the sky, a neighborhood of building-pods in the air, connected by crisscrossing stairways. In the dream, I was searching for something, people, and a conference I needed to attend.
At some point, my alarm went off. I awoke in the dream, at my home in this strange place. Some part of my mind was unsure that I'd actually awoken, and looked for details in the room to reassure that I had, in fact, awoken to reality. Indeed, I found some tell-tale signs – a spot of on the wall of missing paint that's in my current room, the bed was plain wood, just like the one I'd actually fallen asleep on.
I got up in the dream, somewhat certain that I'd awoken to reality. The room had floor to ceiling windows, and outside I could see sky and stairs.
In the meantime, though, the alarm kept ringing. Soon enough I realized that I'd not actually woken, and suddenly I came to, out of the dream.
There were a few things about this waking that I found peculiar.
First, the sound of my actual alarm made it through the dream. But it was included in it, the mind wove it into the context, rather than taking it as a sign that the context was false. It was used to reinforce an illusion, rather than dissolve it.
Second, some part of the mind was skeptical of waking in the dream, less willing to suspend the disbelief that made a neighborhood with stairs instead of roads plausible. The illusion beginning to crack under something's scrutiny.
Third, some other part of the mind coming to the rescue of the illusion. "See?", it says, "here is the spot in your room without paint; of course this is real!" This is the part that puzzles me the most. It is slightly frightening, in a way, an active, and clever, part of the mind, which seeks to keep the rest deceived.
I wonder how much of these "programs" are active even in wakeful life:
A part of the mind which pre-filters inputs, selecting ones deemed coherent to a narrative, ignoring those which damage it. As if the conscious mind, the supposed manager, was really directed by what the employees decided to report to it.
A part of the mind that chooses what we focus on, that crafts a narrative, that perhaps even commands the pre-filtering. A schemer of the senses, an internal manipulator. I wonder why such a mechanism exists, that seeks to keep things cohesive, that wants to suggest continuity and integrity of perception.
Finally the skeptic, which seems to sense that it is being hoodwinked, which wants to offer a second glance at what the senses seem to provide it. Suspicious of its fellows.
How strange that evolution has favored the emergence of these processes in the mind. I wonder if the actual relationship, or at least the emergent one, is more cooperative than antagonistic. More enmeshed than separated. Overall, the feeling is of being at the mercy of these processes. At the very least, that the conscious self is not so far up the hierarchy as it imagines itself to be.
The first point is about the speed of change. The emphasis was always about how slow climate change was, and how it was hard to deal with because there was no urgency to it. But the animating fact to me is that more than half of all the emissions ever produced from the burning of fossil fuels have been produced in just the last three decades. That transformed my perspective—I realized that this is something that we’re doing very much in real time.
David Wallace-Wells, interviewed in The 3 Big Things That People Misunderstand About Climate Change by Robinson Meyer.
The second thing that we sort of misunderstood was the scope of it. So much of the storytelling is focused on sea-level rise and the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Obviously that’s a huge part of the climate story. But it also gives this false sense that it’s a problem that has local impacts—like if you stay off the shoreline, you’re likely to be safe.
The third problem was the severity. Scientists had often talked about this 2-degree [Celsius of global temperature rise] threshold as a kind of meaningful mark of climate horror, and I think that most readers understood that to mean that that was about as bad as it could get. But we can now see that 2 degrees of warming is functionally a floor for where we’ll be, and not a ceiling.
I tended to think about it more in terms of responsibility and villainy. I think that we have a very hard time processing our own complicity as Westerners reading novels and wondering about climate change. We really prefer to see ourselves as truly innocent, and therefore want our climate storytelling to reassure us about our own culpability, and tell us in fact that it’s someone else’s problem in our culture, outside of narrative.
I think this often takes the form of vilifying oil companies. I don’t want to come off as someone who thinks oil companies are forces for good. But I also realized that when I buy a flight to take a vacation, I’m not doing that as a tool of the oil companies. When I eat a hamburger, I’m not doing that as a tool of the oil companies. Everything about the way that we all live in the modern world [has] a carbon footprint, and therefore we all share in responsibility for this damage.
My short-form answer is that I think that the 21st century will be dominated by climate change in the same way that, say, the end of the 20th century was dominated by financial capitalism, or the 19th century in the West was dominated by modernity or industry—that this will be the meta-narrative of the coming decades, and there won’t be an area of human life that is untouched by it. Often people talk about climate change as a global problem, which it obviously is, but I don’t think we’ve really started to think about what that means all the way down to the level of individual life.
My basic perspective is that everything about human life on this planet will be transformed by this force. Even if we end up at a kind of best-case outcome, I think the world will be dominated by these forces in the coming decades in ways that it’s hard to imagine and we really haven’t started to think hard enough about.
The Buddhist tradition starts with the historical Buddha: he had a beautiful life, but he saw that it was utterly pointless. He was willing to give it all up and endure tremendous hardship to find out what was on the other side. That example of dedication and bravery is what this path is founded on. And so if we approach dharma on the basis of what is comfortable for us—what we like, what we don’t like, what fits into our lives conveniently without having to give anything up—that may be some kind of path, but I’m not sure it reflects the example of the Buddha’s own life. I also wonder if it will bear fruit.
Helen Tworkov, The Great Experiment: Interview with Tim Olmsted.
We need to give up something. We can’t have it all. We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion. The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get. We seem to always want to get something—spiritual insights or experiences—as a kind of commodity. We sign up for a retreat and expect that we’ll have this or that wonderful experience or this or that special teaching. But don’t these wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get? We need to give up what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality—the wisdom and reality that is already here.
Helen Tworkov, The Great Experiment: Interview with Tim Olmsted.
[M]an knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day . . . How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and the darkness he unconsciously carries with him into all his dealings?
Carl Jung, via Jeffrey T. Kiehl, A Jungian Perspective on Global Warming.
I believe that our civilization is, in effect, addicted to the consumption of the earth itself. This addictive relationship distracts us from the pain of what we have lost: a direct experience of our connection to the vividness, vibrancy, and aliveness of the rest of the natural world.
Al Gore, via Jeffrey T. Kiehl, A Jungian Perspective on Global Warming.
Jung states that "the Self is the principle archetype of orientation and meaning." The Self provides a transpersonal meaning to our lives. Whereas the ego is the center of consciousness, the Self is the center of the whole psyche. Jung notes that "the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego."
The goal of Jungian analytic work is to develop a fluid communication between the ego and the Self, in which the ego recognizes that it is not the center of the psyche.
Jeffrey T. Kiehl, A Jungian Perspective on Global Warming.
Global warming is a result of an uncontrolled desire for energy and the consumption of Earth’s natural resources to meet this desire. As noted, the complexes . . . most associated with this behavior are never-ending consumption . . . . This unceasing desire to devour can be viewed as a need to fill a felt inner emptiness. An inflated ego believes that accumulating more and more material objects will provide meaning and fulfillment to its existence. As the ego acquires more things, it needs more energy to keep these things functioning, which in turn requires the consumption of more fossil fuels. The outer world manifestation of this vicious cycle is global warming.
Ultimately, this cycle to consume arises from the ego’s disconnection from the Self. It is the disconnection from the Self that creates the sense of inner emptiness. If the ego could establish a healthy, working relationship with the Self, then it would experience a sense of wholeness and meaning from within. In this experience of wholeness there would be no reason for the ego to seek fulfillment by consuming the outer world . . . By finding the Self within, the projection is withdrawn, and the ego recognizes that fulfillment lies within one’s psyche.
Jeffrey T. Kiehl, A Jungian Perspective on Global Warming.
Individuation as a journey toward the Self is often symbolized as the marriage of masculine and feminine. Attempts to deal with global warming predominantly come from linear reasoning, rooted in logical discernment. From a Jungian perspective, this is an approach that is strongly masculine in character. There is nothing wrong with a masculine approach to solving problems. Often it is the most appropriate approach. However, for many problems this approach is insufficient. This is especially true for problems involving feelings, differing value systems, and complex social dynamics. Finding solutions to these problems must include nonlinear imagination, inclusivity, and recognition of interdependence, a perspective that Jungians would call a feminine approach. Naturally, a tension exists between the masculine and feminine views to a problem. However, the Self—as archetype of opposites—holds this tension in a creative way, and out of this tension can arise the solution to the problem, a process called the transcendent function. The Self initiates this creation of a new viewpoint via the transcendent function.
Jeffrey T. Kiehl, A Jungian Perspective on Global Warming.
I dream of seeing the end of the fossil fuel age in my lifetime. I would love to play a role, however small, in helping to bring the era to a close. And to help the next one – the ecological age – off the ground.
But I acknowledge that in that mission at best there's irony, at worst, hypocrisy. It's unlikely someone with my background would exist in a world without petroleum. Ancient sunlight played the matchmaker in my parents' marriage.
Unlike many immigrants, I've been lucky enough to return home throughout my life. I treasure the connection I've been able to maintain with my family. But I also realize it comes at a cost.
It takes 150 trees a year to sequester the carbon from a flight from Newark to Shanghai. It takes a tree about 40 years to sequester a ton of carbon. A flight from NYC to London is about 1 ton. I wonder how much arctic ice has melted, how many polar bear cubs have had to starve, so that I could live this unnatural life, crisscrossing the globe like one my ancestors' deities.
The ethical choice would be not to travel. At the very least to not travel so often. That would be better for the planet and most its inhabitants. The cost in that case would be personal, limited at most to my family. But so far, I have failed to muster the courage.
In a sense, my travels "home" are days spent listening to sirens' song. The return ticket is the lash that binds me to the mast. The truth is that I am never home. Wherever I am, family, rhythms, the earliest memories, are somewhere else.
And yet, there's the irresistible embrace of the song. The feeling of safety and belonging. The joy of returning to land, natural terrain; for even after all these years, New York City still feels a little like being at sea. A familiar ship at best, a fortress in the archipelago of Cyclopses and lotus eaters. But not home. Not Ithaca.
My last stay in Shanghai was in January and February of 2017, also for the Lunar New Year. Before that trip, I was absent for five years – probably the longest span in my life so far. In 2017, I felt like I was reviving long lost memories; this year felt more like return to a natural rhythm.
Winter still feels like an unusual time to be in China. Most of my memories of China are of summer. Besides 2017, my memories of China in winter are mainly from 2006-2007 (December and January), then maybe one or two visits as a child. One of my earliest childhood memories of China is setting of fireworks with my uncle Ju Gong (朱巨公), outside the old home on Li Shan Lu.
Waiting for the tea lying pillowed in the breeze,
Spring is in the voice now that the heart's at ease.
Journey to the West, Chapter 64.
I spent the majority of this stay within a 500 meter radius of the new apartment on Yan Chang Lu. Besides catching up with family, I spent some time on personal projects: getting this website up and running again (using org-mode), learning Emacs Lisp and x86 Assembly, and catching up on some more practical reading (The Millionaire Next Door, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up). Once or twice a day I would take a walk in ZhaBei Park (闸北公园), to enjoy the scenery and think a little bit about life.
Shanghai shuts down the week of the Lunar New Year. Nearly all of the local shops and restaurants were closed, and the streets were relatively empty, until about the last two days of my stay.
Unlike 2017, I didn't bring my bicycle. For the most part I didn't miss it, as this was a more sedentary stay. In the long term, I will try to keep one in Shanghai. It's a great way to get around the city.
My alarm clock every morning was birdsong. A pleasant surprise, given the heavily urban setting.
This was my first time seeing snow in Shanghai. ZhaBei Park is visible from the apartment, and vice-versa.
Most of my family doesn't know how to play Mahjong, as it was banned, and stigmatized, during their youth.
Authentic Chinese cuisine paints with a different palette. There are nuances of flavor that are hard to find abroad.
My grandfather and grandmother, with my cousin Zhu Yun.
My brother and I with my grandfather. August of 1999.
With my grandmother and cousin Zhu Wei Yi (Kim). August of 1997.
With my parents. August of 2003.
Free dance class in ZhaBei park. These seemed to be offered multiple times a day, and were very popular with the elderly population.
I was struck by how much of the community seemed to congregate in the park. Besides these classes, people practiced Tai Chi together, played Chinese chess and musical instruments, and sang in choruses. Others, like me, seemed to be happy to roam in the park, chat with friends, or meditate among the scenery.
I struggle to think of a comparable community life in New York City. Someday, I hope I will live among elders that emanate the same health, contentment, and ease I saw in ZhaBei.
Sign placed above urinals in Zhabei Park's mens restroom. There is a lot to the Chinese regime, and its history, that is dark. The lingering spirit of collaboration and social camaraderie still manages to shine through.
This machine, widely used, another example.
Perhaps, if we had more PM 2.5 displays, worldwide, more people would be able to quantify the value of environmental contexts.
At the local market, vendors are now using Alipay. You scan the QR code to place your payment. Two years ago, it was still cash. Perhaps more slowly now, but still the signs are of a nation ascendant.
Also heartening was the strong presence of small businesses in my neighborhood. This made me note the difference in the application of technology. Supporting small businesses instead of a monolithic retailer. The flourishing of the just as convenient as the latter, without the resulting social ills.
With my uncle, Zhu Ju Qi, and my nephew – my cousin Zhu Yun's son.
My niece, HuiHui, my cousin Lin Sen's daughter.
With my aunt's, uncle Zhu Ju Gong, and cousin Zhu Yun, at the Gondelin Vegetarian Restaurant on Nan Jing Lu.
I love Chinese gardens. They are fractal, meandering, varied, harmoniously integrating human needs with natural patterns. The nooks and crannies offering private, intimate space. It's the kind of setting I would love to work in, every day.
In the bamboo grove I delight wise kings;
A hundred acres of me by the Wei brings fame.
My green skin is naturally marked by the tears of the Xiang Goddess;
My scaly shoots pass on the scent of history.
My leaves will never change their color in frost;
The beauty of my misty twigs can never be concealed.
Few have understood me since the death of Wang Huizhi;
Since ancient times I have been known through brush and ink.
Journey to the West, Chapter 64.
There seems to be a healthy, thriving community of community cats in the neighborhood, fed by volunteers. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them do not appear to be spayed.
The Song Yuan teahouse outside ZhaBei Park.
The aparment, seen from ZhaBei Park.
The last dinner before departure, again at the Song Yuan teahouse. The dinner, was 120 RMB, i.e., less than 20 USD. We had leftovers, and a free rice pudding desert was included with the meal.
All packed up. If I close my eyes now, thousands of miles away, I can still feel as if I'm there. In the weeks after a return home, the mind struggles to tell which is real, and which is the dream. The reality on return is familiar, but a sudden shift from something that felt just as real.
On the way to the airport, heartbroken but grateful.
Recollection is the only way the immigrant can ever be at home – in more than one place at the same time.
Pauline Boss and Donna Carnes, The Myth of Closure:
Therapies for grief and loss have traditionally focused on the work of grieving. The goal was to reach an endpoint, now popularly called closure. There are, however, many people who, through no fault of their own, find a loss so unclear that there can be no end to grief. They have not failed in the work of grieving, but rather have suffered ambiguous loss, a type of loss that is inherently open ended. Instead of closure, the therapeutic goal is to help people find meaning despite the lack of definitive information and finality. Hope lies in increasing a family's tolerance for ambiguity, but first, professionals must increase their own comfort with unanswered questions.
Mystery persists with ambiguous loss, sometimes forever – and even across generations. People desperately search for meaning in the unrelenting confusion; the mind tries to make sense of the nonsensical.
Historian Drew Gilpin Faust calls the United States "a republic of suffering" . . . in addition to the ambiguous losses that Faust documents from the Civil War, there were many other bloody occassions when families did not know the fate of loved ones – the genocide of the American Indians, the forced separation for slavery for African American families, and the forces uprooting of refugees seeking asylum . . . . Adding to this traumatic, loss-filled history, we are also a nation of immigrants who are often cut off from the family in home countries[.] For all these reasons, it is no wonder that the phenomenon . . . of unresolved loss was – and still is – at the core of our societal hunger for closure.
Until we as a society acknowledge our psychological roots, temper our need for certainty, and learn to manage our societal anxiety about loss, clear or ambiguous, we will continue to pathologize and isolate people who are necessarily and understandably still grieving. We deny death by denying the need to mourn. Our fear of death my ultimately be the fear of ambiguity. It frightens us. We are left to suffer without a clear ending tothe story, thus we deny death as well as the need to keep the door open. This denial in concern with our historical legacy of ambiguous loss increases the stigmatization and isolation of the very people in need of compassion and human connection.
With all loss . . . the goal is to live with the grief rather than to close the door. We live with the lack of finality.
The therapeutic challenge then is not closure, but a paradoxical search for meaning in meaninglessness.
Paradoxically, the lack of closure allows people the freedom to both remember the lost person – and move forward with new hope and relationships.
Most people experiencing ambiguous loss are not clinically depressed, but they are indeed sad, chronically sad. While depression requires some medical intervention, sadness requires human connection and social support. With sadness, we intervene to help epople find meaning and hope in the company of others; with depression we intervene individually to alleviate symptoms and heal. Each has a different therapeutic goal.
When people live with such unresolved loss and grief, the goal is resilience for the long haul. There may be no clarification of the loss – ever. To strengthen one's resilience, one needs to be able to manage an irrational situation . . . . To live with even the most horrific ambiguous loss, we help people find meaning in their experience, no matter how baffling it is. They may say that their loss will never have meaning, but that, too, is a meaning. Horror and irrationality exist.
When working with ambiguous loss, we shift from the goal of closure to the search for meaning because there is no other choice. The therapeutic work becomes necessarily more collaborative as we are no longer the only experts in the room. In the absence of facts and certainty about the family's loss, we listen more and do less. We, too, learn to live with ambiguity and doubt – and hopefully find some meaning in their incurability.
To live with the paradox of ambiguous loss, both-and thinking becomes the most authentic way to think. Truth is relative and contradictions abound . . . . To manage the tension of such dialectical thinking, we encourage people to form their own both-and thoughts. But first we provide some examples: "My loved one is both gone – and still here; I am both married – and not married; I am both my mother's child – and now the mother of my mother; I am both married – and a widow(er) waiting to happen." Clients will be eager to add their own sentences. They know that contradictions are now the reality of their life.
Human perceptions matter because they are real in their consequences.
Neither of these rigid polarities – denial or early extrusion – is desirable. Instead, the goal is perceptual malleability. When facts are lacking, the only window for hope and change lies in a person's ability to shift perceptions. When a situation of loss will not change, one's view of it can. Through the shifting of perceptions, we can be empowered to see our ambiguous loss in a new way, one that no longer renders us powerless.
Remembering loved ones who are deceased is normal. It is common in all cultures except perhaps Euro American. It is, however, the Euro American culture that has produced the textbooks and diagnostic manuals that decree extended mourning and grief as illness. Better we learn from others – the Chinese Americans who have altars in their homes to honor their ancestors, the Ojubwa who see life as a circle and their dead as reincarnated, and the Mexican Americans who celebrate death once a year at the grave sites of their loved ones – that we do not need closure to live well.
Keeping deceased loved ones in your heart and mind like a sort of psychological family can be rich in meaning. It should not be branded as pathology.
For all loss, grief requires patience.
[L]ack of information breeds conflict. Be ready for it. Normalize it.
Personally and professionally, ambiguous loss with its lack of closure makes immense demands on the human capacity to cope and grieve. Perhaps our particular ambiguous loss will never make sense to us, but knowing that some losses are incomprehensible, and always will be, helps us to move toward change and some new measure of hope. Understanding that some losses are utterly senseless, and always will be, gives us the permission and freedom to let go of searching for the perfect solution. We bign to accept the paradox, find meaning in even meaninglessness, and hope in what we thought was hopeless. Increasing our tolerance for ambiguity and unanswered questions frees us from the burden of needing to close the door on loss.
And sure, in the wee hours of night . . . I feel deep loss and loneliness. But then I hear my greyhound pup snoring lightly by the fire, or I see the full moon rising, and I realize again how wonderful (and mysterious) being alive is . . . the lingering sadness I now carry is countered by an intense joy in living; they are side by side in me, an I am at peace with the duality.
Derrick Jensen, Endgame:
It would be a mistake to think this culture clearcuts only forests. It clearcuts our psyches as well. It would be a mistake to think it dams only rivers. We ourselves are dammed (and damned) by it as well. It would be a mistake to think it creates dead zones only in the ocean. It creates dead zones in our hearts and minds. It would be a mistake to think it fragments only habitat. We, too, are fragmented, split off, shredded, rent, torn.
Just last night I saw a television commercial put out by BP, the corporation formerly known as British Petroleum. The corporation now claims that BP stands for Beyond Petroleum, and runs public relations campaigns extolling its renewable energy research. For example, BP has made a lot of noise about the fact that in 1999 it paid $45 million to buy Solarex, a corporation specializing in renewable energy. This may seem like a lot of money until we realize that BP paid $26.5 billion to buy Arco in order to expand its petroleum production base, and until we realize further that BP will spend $5 billion over five years to explore for oil just in Alaska,and until we realize even further that BP spent more in 2000 on a new "eco-friendly" logo than on renewable energy. As Cait Murphy wrote in Fortune, "Here's a novel advertising strategy—pitch your least important product and ignore your most important one. . . . If the world's second-largest oil company is beyond petroleum, Fortune is beyond words."
BP's regional president Bob Murphy acknowledges that BP is "decades away" from moving beyond petroleum, which means that the whole Beyond Petroleum name change is meaningless: by that time we'll all be beyond petroleum,since the accessible oil will all be gone. Further exemplifying the meaninglessness of the name change,a resolution calling for BP to do more to slow global warming was opposed by the board and defeated. BP's chair Peter Sutherland told shareholders that "there have been calls for BP to phase out the sale of fossil fuels. We cannot accept this, and there's no point pretending we can." In other words, BP's name change is a "statement of priorities" and not a legally binding commitment. Or more to the point, it's another one of those smokescreens.
This particular type of smokescreen has been most fully developed by a public relations consultant with the appropriately named Peter Sandman. He has been nicknamed the High Priest of Outrage because corporations hire him to dissipate public anger, to put people back to sleep. Sandman has explicitly stated his self-perceived role: "I get hired to help a company to 'explain to these confused people that the refinery isn't going to blow up, so they will leave us alone.'"
He developed a five point program for corporations to disable public rage. First, convince the public that they are participating in the destructive processes themselves, that the risks are not externally imposed. You asked for it by wearing those clothes, says the rapist. You drive a car, too, says the PR guru. Second, convince them that the benefits of the processes outweigh the harm. You could never support yourself without me, says the abuser. How would you survive without fossil fuels?" repeats the PR guru. Third, undercut the fear by making the risk feel familiar. Explain your response and people will relax (whether or not your response is meaningful or effective). Don't you worry about it, I'll take care of everything. Things will change, you'll see, says the abuser. We are moving beyond petroleum and toward sustainability, says the PR guru. Fourth, emphasize again that the public has control over the risk (whether or not they do).You could leave anytime you want, but I know you won't,says the abuser. If we all just pull together, we'll find our way through, says the PR guru. Fifth, acknowledge your mistakes, and say (even if untrue) that you are trying to do better. I promise I will never hit you again, the abuser repeats. It is time to stop living in the past, and move together into the future, drones the PR guru.
Speaking to a group of mining executives, Sandman, who also consults for BP, stated,"There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine." His solution is not actually to change how the industry works,of course, but instead to find an appropriate "persona" for the industry. "Reformed sinner," he says,"works quite well if you can sell it….'Reformed sinner,'by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization. It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar. Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves,'Everyone thinks we are bad guys….We can't just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realised we were bad guys and we are going to be better.'. .. It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory."
In the ad I saw last night, an off-camera interviewer asks a woman,"What would you rather have: a car or a cleaner environment?" The woman pauses, seemingly thoughtfully, before at last saying,"I can't imagine me without my car. Of course I'd rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are." The ad ends with a voiceover saying what BP is doing to make the world a better place.
Look what just happened here. What are the premises of this advertisement? The first is that the advertisement is presented in the form of an interview, and it can be easy to forget that it's a paid advertisement. A BP website devoted to the ads stresses that the ads were culled from hundreds of interviews with "random strangers." I'm sure they did interview hundreds: that gave them a larger sample from which to draw the responses that most closely fit their needs. Consider, had the directors of the advertisement happened to ask me this question, I doubt they would have wasted film on my answer, and certainly they would not have paid to put it on television. Instead the "interviews" the director decided to use were chosen precisely because they brilliantly and succinctly put in place Sandman's five points: we participate willingly, the benefits outweigh the harm, the risk is somehow familiar, we have control over the risk, and BP is working to solve the problems.
But there is more going on here. First, the ad pretends that the "environment" is something "out there" that is separate from ourselves. Consider if the "interviewer" had asked, "Given that our own well-being is inextricably linked to the health of our landbase, would you rather have a healthy landbase or an entire culture based on the 'comforts and elegancies' that come from destroying this landbase?" And then consider if he would have followed up by asking,"If you choose the latter, what does it say about you as a person?" Or what if instead the "interviewer" had commented that just in the United States about 30,000 people die each year from respiratory illnesses caused by auto-related airborne toxins, and that 65 percent of all carbon monoxide emitted into the environment is from road vehicles, then asked, "What would you rather have, car culture or your life?"
Second, what are the implications of the "interviewer" using the adjective cleaner to describe "the environment" this woman would allegedly gain were she to stop driving. This presumes that "the environment" is already clean, and that the current situation is the default. How would the ad run if we change the question to,"What would you rather have: a planet that is not being made filthy and in fact destroyed by automobiles and other effects of civilization, or your car?" A deeper, more invisible unstated premise of this ad is that a non-clean planet is her fault (and by extension ours, insofar as the director of the ad is able to get us to identify with this woman). "What would you rather have: a car or a cleaner environment?" It's her choice. It's her car. If only she would sell her old Honda Civic, the implication goes, everything would be okay. But she can't do that. As she says, "I can't imagine me without my car." She, and once again by extension each of us, is supposed to identify more with the artifacts of civilization, with machines, than with a landbase. This is what we are trained to do.
We are also trained to lack imagination. If our imaginations had not already been clearcut we could not—would not—live the way we do. And further, we are also trained to be narcissistic enough to believe that if we personally cannot imagine something that it must not be possible. This identification with the artifacts of civilization is precisely what each of us must break. If she cannot imagine herself without her car, I wish her luck in imagining herself without her planet. And another premise. She states, "Of course I'd rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are." This "compromise" would only be difficult for those who have already had their sanity effectively destroyed. The world does not need us or our cars. We need the world.