A Sad Anniversary Arrives

This Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I wrote this essay afterward, and reprise it here in edited form. Mass killings are now common here in the U.S. My daughter was a senior in college then, finishing up her degree in elementary education. Now, with a Master’s under her belt, she teaches in a Chamorro school on the island of Guam. I worry less about a school shooting there than about a tragedy inflicted by North Korea. Many terrible events ensued since that horrible day in 2012. With the holiday season here, take another look at what the word “need” means to you.

Sad and negative things often cause a single word to enter my mind, arising effortlessly and almost unconsciously. It then becomes an ear worm, repeating itself over and over again while I try to process that thing—perhaps an event, a statement, a bit of unexpected news. That word is: unnecessary.  

After Newtown, we are confronted once again with a situation in which words are futile, empty, and impotent; they’re useless in the face of such horror and violence. We are “at a loss for words;” we say that “words cannot convey;” we can’t “put our feelings into words.”  At times like this, unnecessary continues its relentless, persistent, and insistent drumbeat in my head. I just want it to go away.

The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is simple: not needed; more than is needed; excessive. Succinctly applicable to all tragedies.  The base of the definition is the word need, which is defined as “a thing that is wanted or required”, or “to require something that is essential or important rather than just desirable.”

We now, as a nation, cannot stop expressing our need for better gun control laws, for more accurate predictors of potential violent acts, for better understanding and care of persons with mental imbalance or disease. No one will argue with that. Need is related to the Dutch nood and the German Not, both of which have various meanings, including: distress, misery, privation, calamity, adversity, and even danger. This underscores the shock I experienced after hearing the first reports on Newtown. Paradoxically, by attending to the needs of a situation, we can often avert the dreaded outcomes conveyed in its etymology. But not this time.

We cannot turn back the clock.  But in reminding ourselves of the hidden meaning of people’s needs, can we possibly prevent unnecessary and painful repercussions that might ensue, even in the smallest of cases?  By fulfilling the human need for kindness—a practice beautifully endorsed by the slain Sandy Hook School principal—we can reduce another’s pain or suffering. We will be performing something essential or important, something that might pre-empt calamity, that can minimize or even eliminate threat or danger.

My daughter is a senior at Niagara University studying to be an elementary school teacher.  We spoke on the phone after the shooting; she was shaken and upset, thinking the obvious:  What if this happened to me?  Without waiting for her to ask, I reassured her that I was absolutely certain that— were she to face this horrific scenario—she would do the right thing.  She would give up her life for a child; of this I am certain.  We both choked up when I told her that, and she said, “Mom, I already decided that I would do that.”  A solemn silence ensued.  She chose teaching because she has an unbounded love for children, as all dedicated educators do, and I know she would always put those little souls first.

Deep, deep inside I believe that she will never have to face this situation, but I could be wrong. The lives of the families and friends of the Newtown victims are forever changed, and we feel helpless in our efforts to console. But I also believe in the power of words, and that I can use a word that consumed me to see the common phrase “filling a need” in a different way.  When a need hits me in the face, perhaps I can try harder to not retreat, to not walk away while telling myself that “somebody else will do it.”

Perhaps I can strengthen my resolve, and stop being intimidated by a deceptive sea of voices that cautions me to be careful, and to remain “politically correct”, to not make waves or ripple the waters, to not take unnecessary risks.  When I express my own pain, or address someone else’s, when I stand firm and fight discrimination, ignorance and aggression, or when I answer with a smile instead of a smirk, I may find that the word unnecessary becomes less a part of my working vocabulary, and more an afterthought, or just a memory.

Maybe a word can do something big this time. Maybe just this once.



On Trajectories, and the Legacies We Leave

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein. . . Big names, for sure. But the next sentence in that Biblical phrase (2 Samuel 1:27) is, “and the weapons of war perished.” I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t see this gender inequality war winding down any time soon. I don’t believe it’s a watershed moment, and that things will be different from now on. The power divide is still too wide, too established.

When the cascade of exposure and firings started, I couldn’t help but think of the men’s reactions. I couldn’t help but compare it to my own state of mind seven years ago, when I, too, lost everything I’d built. For me, the unbearable self-loathing that accompanied a deep-seated belief that I never deserved success in the first place came with the territory of severe depression. These guys were at the top of their game, and anything but depressed. I wondered what their quiet thoughts entailed.

Surely, they were shocked by the sudden change in the trajectory of their lives. Did they feel any remorse? Ironically, remorse derives from the Latin re, back, + mordeo, to bite. Their actions are biting them back, all right, in a huge way. Mordeo’s other meanings include to sting and hurt, as well as to hold firmly in the mind, and to squander or dissipate. The PIE root, *mer-, means to rub away, or harm. It’s easy to see how all this applies to the matter at hand.

They have to be thinking about redirecting their trajectories. Now there’s a deceptively simple word, meaning “the path followed by an object moving under the action of given forces.” These men were lucky enough to have the stars align for their ascendency. Once risen, they used the oldest trick in the book to exert their power. At the top, they applied the force.

But there’s more hidden in trajectory’s past. The proximal root, traicio, means to throw across, from the Latin iaceo and the PIE root *ye-, to throw. But these are used in the transitive sense, that is, an object is required (after all, you have to throw something). In the intransitive sense, iaceo means to be ill, sick, or even dead. Additional definitions include to linger, be low, or to be broken or cast down. Gee, I wonder how that might apply to those guys?

I’m writing this on the night of the December full moon, the only supermoon appearance of the year. An astrologer friend of mine announced it on her Facebook page, writing, “The vibration of ‘oneness’ begins as the doorway of universal consciousness opens.” We shall see. Tonight, too, my 92-year-old father is spending his second night in the hospital, sick with pneumonia, cantankerous and disoriented. My sister told me he heard my mother speaking to him from the hallway (she died in April). Again, we shall see.

If only men in power could adopt principles that guided my father throughout his life: loyalty to virtue; faith; honesty; hard work; and a serious commitment to his obligations. His path didn’t waver much, since the outside forces he encountered were infrequent and not too disruptive. Yes, he lost his job with Bethlehem Steel when still in his fifties, but, thanks to strong union contracts, he retained generous benefits with no expiration date (until his date comes, that is). So to me, his trajectory was fairly straight, non-meteoric, and maybe even boring. But he never wavered from those core tenets, a life lesson that those in power never learned.

Are these fallen giants thinking of the legacies they leave? Legacy’s Latin sources all stem from leges, the law, as well as legere, to gather or collect. The PIE root, *leg-, is said to convey the idea of “a collection of laws.” Laws that were passed to sanction sexual harassment have proven to be woefully inadequate, as are the laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of illness like brain health issues and addiction. The talk now is all about the systemic problems that allow this egregious conduct. And so the question arises: What to do with the laws we’ve already collected? It is simply not possible to wipe the slate clean and start over.

As I drove home from my friend Nancy’s tonight, I looked up into the sky to see the supermoon. The night was overcast, and I could only glimpse it here and there, through random cracks and breaks in the cloud cover. The paucity of sightings seemed an ominous portent of things to come. Like the spaces in the clouds, there seem so few doorways to universal consciousness today. But you never know. I’ve been wrong so many times before.




Getting a Little Sick of Getting?

Another Thanksgiving holiday has gone by here in the States, heralding in the season of acquisitions. This holiday holds mixed memories for me. Recollections of happy gatherings conflict with times when I felt there was nothing whatsoever to be thankful for. But the older I get, the more I remember making cornucopia, turkeys, and pilgrims from construction paper in grade school. My mother hung then up in the windows, or on the fridge. The nuns read us stories about the peaceful coexistence of immigrants and “Indians,” with nary a mention of genocide.

Now, the family focus of the holiday has shifted, overshadowed by a decidedly twenty-first century theme of what you can get, how many you can get, and how cheaply you can get it for. Black Friday got hungry, gobbling up a few more days, expanding its waistline with Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. What you have today will never suffice. You’ve simply got to get out and buy more.

The verb “to get” has more than a half-dozen definitions in the modern English dictionary. The PIE root, *ghend-, means to seize or take, but it grew and evolved to encompass much more. We have the Lithuanian gotedis, to be eager, and the Welsh gannu, to hold or contain. Then there’s the Old Swedish gissa, to guess (literally, to “try to get”), and the Albanian gjen, to find.

The power of American advertising has taken the guesswork out of how to achieve your personal nirvana. Just buy something! You may not be able to afford a psychoanalyst, but retail therapy is always at your beck and call. We bought into this myth so deeply that we’re more than eager to line up for sales, max out our credit cards, and find the space needed to contain all the stuff we lug home.

At the pop-up markets where I sell my book, I often encounter women of a certain age who love the product, but don’t make the purchase. “I don’t need any more things in my life right now,” is a frequent, apologetic comment. “I’m trying to get rid of what I have as it is.”

A Swedish woman near my dad’s age (he’s 92) wrote a short book addressing this, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.”  The Swedes even have a word for this practice (döstädning), and also the word fulskåp, meaning “a cupboard full of gifts you can’t stand to look at, and which are impossible to regift.” Although decluttering and minimizing come with the territory at my age, I recommend considering an early start.

Six years ago, when 90% of my household goods disappeared in the back of an auction truck, there was a sense of loss, yes, but almost immediately I felt a stimulating sense of freedom. The sorting had been painful, but the unburdening was more than worth it. Now I’m getting the urge to do it again. The universe decided to cooperate. When I tried to nab a new electric toothbrush online on Black Friday, I failed miserably (they sold out).

A lovely lesson about acquisition arose from the word’s etymology, the Latin quaero, which means to seek or ask, or to think over or plan. The PIE root, *kwo-, is the stem of the interrogative pronouns what, which, who, and whose. Acquiring should rouse in us a deliberate questioning. When the buying bug hits, you might want to hit pause and ask: What exactly am I buying, and do I really need this now? Given the choice to buy or not, which decision will be best in the long run? Who is the true beneficiary here, and if it’s just me, does that justify the transaction? Whose circumstances will change if I decide to acquire, and if it’s only mine, should I reconsider?

At this time of year, we are pressured to buy. It seems programmed into our DNA, with the holiday lights and music prompting the emergence of the behavior. I overdid it myself back in the day, when I was prosperous and had money to blow. I regret it now, regardless of the fleeting joy and delight I knew my kids would experience those Christmas mornings.

Quero also means “to seek to learn from (someone),” and also “to investigate.” Once you start to ask the tough questions about shopping, it’s easy to see the lesson. Too often than not, you are wasting your time. You’ll get all excited by the thrill of the hunt, but when the getting’s done, the emptiness returns.

In cultivating a questioning posture, you might want to consider those who are struggling now. It’s easy to give to your favorite charity, but you can also reach out to someone you know. Trust that feeling you have that things may not be all right with a friend, relative, or co-worker. Then, simply ask: Is there anything you can do, is there anything they need? The generosity of your query could be a game changer.




How Does Fairness Resonate with You?

How often do you say, “That really resonates with me?” And you really mean it—at the time. Someone told you a story, rendered an opinion, shared news or maybe gossip, and you felt a deep emotional connection. Maybe you got chills, or noticed a strong sensation in your body. Maybe something you read struck a deep chord in you. Or maybe not.

I encounter two broad reactions when I share my own story with strangers, or new acquaintances, or people who haven’t seen me for a long time. There are those who “resonate” with the horror of unexpected illness and loss, and then the rest, who listen politely and offer bland pronouncements like “That’s so terrible,” or “Just look how far you’ve come!” Then they pivot to another subject or—even worse—head for the nearest exit.

Of course, it’s easier to deal with the “resonators” than with dismissers who fear being infected with your bad karma. Resonators acknowledge suffering in a deeper way. What’s with that? Resonate derives from the Latin resono, to re-sound, re-echo, or say urgently or continually. Resonators are great at listening, and at feeling and comprehending, but at the end of the day they, too, walk away silent. There is no re-echoing; things come to a dead end that leaves everyone unsatisfied. It’s not their fault.

Could it be that both sufferers and resonators fall prey to what psychologists call the fairness fallacy? One of the cognitive distortions described by pioneers in cognitive science, the fairness fallacy is the practice of judging actions and circumstances in light of nebulous, and often arbitrary, fairness standards. Unanticipated illness and loss aren’t “fair.” Nor is it fair that resonators feel this pain differently, or more deeply, than others. We all know the discomfort that arises when a child exclaims “That’s not fair!” The very concept of fairness becomes an absurdity.

The world of brain imbalance and addiction is riddled with unfairness, and yet those of us who suffer still crave an acceptance and understanding on the basis of our mere humanity. The concept of modern fairness in outcomes is a relatively new one, dating back to the 16th century. The original meaning, from the Old English faeger, has to do with being beautiful, pleasant to the sight, or bright of weather. It may be related to the PIE root *pek-, to make pretty.

A modern meaning of fair that appears after “in accordance with rules or standards” in the dictionary is “considerable though not outstanding in size or amount.” Sufferers are not asking for thousands of free dollars or beautiful mansions; we’re not about robbing you blind or making your life worse. When not in the throes of crisis, we’re simply asking you to imagine yourself in our shoes. I find personal solace in thinking of the “non-resonators” as people who lack a certain imaginative capacity. My apologies if this sound offensive, but this allows me to view them through my own compassionate lens.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US, a national holiday that transcends religious boundaries and projects a sense of secular unity. Nonetheless, it can be marked by discord and conflict. Some attending get-togethers and family meals will fell a forced sense of celebration, ruing the fact that they don’t measure up to their hosts’ apparent achievements, or that they’re not being seen for who they truly are. I understand this, and choose to avoid situations that arouse the disappointment.

Use your imagination now.  Think of what will “resonate” at a crisis point in your own life. Think of how you view fairness, and the legacy you leave behind. As I write this, an announcement appears on TV about the retirement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a “legacy” NASCAR driver. What immediately came to mind was a man I met while waiting for a fuse repair at my local Meineke shop. I couldn’t help but notice the huge scar across his forehead that resulted from a tragic industrial accident in which in the entire top of his skull was sheared off. Surprisingly, he remained conscious through it all, while struggling mightily with the EMTs who transported him to the hospital.

“I was screaming for my baseball cap,” he said, and the doctor in me imagined a frigid feeling, a sense of coldness that arose from having the top of your head sliced off. “Oh no,” he corrected me, “that was my Dale Earnhardt funeral cap”. In the ultimate extremity of a life-threatening situation, his consciousness presented a symbol of a race car driver who wanted to stay ahead of the pack. To me, this represented a primal message to persevere. And he did.

Have you ever thought about what would arise in your mind in a crisis situation? Rest assured, the concept of fairness will not be there. I challenge you to consider how you can add to the world’s beauty by resounding the acknowledgment of the least among us. This can only contribute to the brightness of the legacy you leave.



Do Victims Have a Hierarchy?

One word that appears over and over again in the current reporting epidemic of sexual harassment cases and mass shootings: victim. Using just the definition on my laptop dictionary—a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action—almost the entire human race can be categorized as victims. We can imagine the harm done to tiny babies when they’re not fed on time, or have to lie around with a wet diaper until it’s changed. Micro-harms, if you wish.

At any rate, once you enter adulthood, you have surely been a victim of something. It appears victim has several roots, the simplest being the Latin victima, a beast for sacrifice adorned with a fillet (vitta). Victima, in turn, is related to vigeo, a verb meaning to be lively or vigorous, or to thrive or flourish, or be honored or esteemed. Other roots are the Old English wig, idol, the Gothic weihs, holy, and the German weihen, consecrate. In other words, old linguistic versions of victim—connected to all things mystical and spiritual—are sacred.

But our culture doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Of course we consecrate the lives of those who die from senseless violence, and even addiction, but those who survive are admonished to “Get over it,” and learn quickly enough to not play the victim card too often. When I first moved to Connecticut six years ago and introduced myself as a recent honors graduate of the school of hard knocks, I was often advised to stifle it. “Let it go,” they’d say, “that’s all in the past.”

None of those people went out of their way to lend a helping hand. Others, lacking this dismissive attitude, did reach out, and made healing possible. We need to find that middle ground where victimhood is honored appropriately, but not exaggerated to such a status that it’s the only identity a person can assume.

And, while we’re at it, what to do about these epidemics of harm that seem to have been hiding in plain sight?  Epidemic’s root is the Greek epidemia, a stay in a place, a prevalence of disease, a word in frequent use during plague outbreaks. It’s a combination of epi, among, and demos, people. The PIE root, *da-mo, means “to divide” (into districts). Now the opposite of demos is the Greek word heirarkhia, the rule of a high priest, or heireus, which means sacred, hallowed, or superhuman.

We’re back to the holy again. The Latin heirarchia is a ranked division of angels, and gave rise to our modern word hierarchy. What’s my point? Simply that what’s happening today, what’s in our culture, what’s in the people, is an unholy state of global victimhood that’s imposed on people by a given hierarchy, defined as “a system of organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.”

Misogynistic hierarchy dictates that men hold sway over women, and have free rein to use means ranging from hourly wages to the casting couch to make sure things stay that way. The NRA hierarchy makes sure that Americans can have as many semi-automatic weapons and bullets as they desire. The Big Pharma hierarchy made certain that the flow of opioid prescriptions remained as unrestricted as bullet sales. The archaic law enforcement hierarchy determined that the best place for addicts and people with serious brain health conditions is jail.

The Greeks and Romans held clear distinctions between the mundane lives of humans and the exalted world of the gods, distinctions no longer extant in a world run by demos, where the power and hierarchy of money is the only god in town. And the suffering of its victims is anything but sacred. After brief periods granted for acknowledgment and mourning, we are urged to move on, to forget about the past and make the best of our tragedies.

Hopeful people are of the opinion that there’s still room for change. They say that—for example— with more and more women coming forward with their stories, the patriarchal misbehaviors will start to disappear. I say, only time will tell. For me, the jury is out until I see true diversity make its way to the very top of all the power structures out there today.

I’m not talking anti-hierarchy here (a quick survey of antonyms brings up words like chaos, anarchy, bedlam, and disruption), but about system change that will take more than decades to achieve. I cannot speculate as to how the change will come about, but many days it feels like even a superhuman effort won’t do.

I’ve learned to moderate my own victim stance. It raged uncontrolled in my early recovery, but settled now to a manageable simmer. It keeps my pot of ideas warm enough to serve to a receptive listener on a cold winter’s day. I still believe that, when we share our sacred sufferings, the archangels just might hear, and we can move on to thriving and flourishing again.

It’s Time to Discuss Frustration

Taking writing classes taught by published writers can be daunting. For most of my life, I wrote patient notes and summaries. Although fascinating and helpful to me, they would likely bore — or perhaps confuse — you. They were linear, factual, telegraphic, and concise. No embellishment! But I was meticulous in my history-taking, an art that seems to have fallen by the wayside these days.

But trying to write better is making me a better reader. I not only recognize good writing more easily, but also realize why it stands out. My reading is more discerning. Nevertheless, this knowledge has not transferred seamlessly to writing. I practically hate what I write now; it seems so unenlightened, trite, and contrived. Kicking it up a notch will require a lot of work on my part. Although I love to learn, it gets harder as the years go by.

I’m left with feeling discouraged, but I made up my mind to soldier on. I’m also frustrated. But who isn’t these days? We’re frustrated by electronic devices, and by the fact that our paycheck never keeps up with the bills. Women are frustrated by misogyny and harassment, and the fact that opening our mouths will only sink us deeper. Addicts and anyone with a brain health issue are frustrated by the lack of major research breakthroughs from which better treatments could emerge.

Frustrate arises from the Latin verb frustro, which has different definitions depending on its “voice” (transitive or deponent, which I’m not getting into now, since it taxes my brain too much).  Either way, the myriad meanings include: to baffle, disappoint, evade, falsify, cheat, reject, and pretend. It’s closely related to the English word “fraud.” Follow it back to the PIE root, and you get *dhreugh-, to deceive.

Each time I need to google a topic, or dig for a YouTube video, I feel deceived by the company that told me my cell phone or laptop was “intuitive.” And we can talk for days about the deceit buried in misogyny and sexual harassment, or the practices of Big Pharma, or the health care industry. We feel powerless to do anything about this. So, what can you do but turn the mirror around, and ask, How am I deceiving myself?

In my case, I must remind myself that: yes, I possess an innate intelligence that allows me to continue learning; and yes, I (presumably) have some wind left in my sails; and yes, people read what I write, they engage with it. These reminders counter the deceptive and rejecting beliefs that I lack talent and am too old. So, I’m trying to use my own CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) program, although it doesn’t seem to be very effective right now.

But all the same, the writing guidance I receive is nothing like what I experienced in science class. So much of my old learning arose from rote memorization. A writer has no use for this, other than to lock in the basics of vocabulary and grammar. While self-defeating thoughts come with the territory for me, I’m also baffled and disappointed at conflicting advice I get from mentors. One advises revealing more of my emotional life, while another says I’m putting too much out for view. My melancholic orientation tells me I’m disappointing them both.

I crave an in-depth discussion of my work. But because my classes are online, there’s no face to face interaction, and all I get back are electronic corrections and suggestions. My learning relies on ongoing revision of existing work, which feels near-impossible to do on a computer screen most days. Is there something wrong with me, besides my age? Why do I feel the need for such personal attention?

The root of discuss is the Latin discutio, meaning to break apart, dash to pieces, or shatter. That’s exactly what I want, someone to pick apart every single sentence, like those commentators do with every play in an NFL game. Break it down please, I want the granular approach! But that’s not the way it works.

Sometimes, when things frustrate us, we’re advised to have a conversation. This word’s root is the Latin verto, which simply means to turn, or bend. Okay, it can also mean to change, but it doesn’t pack as powerful a punch as discutio, in my humble opinion. If we look at definitions of the modern words, a conversation is “an informal exchange of ideas by spoken words,” whereas a discussion is “the process of talking about something to reach a decision or exchange ideas,” as well as a “detailed treatment of a particular topic in speech.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a discussion over a conversation any day. The grim issues facing us now — climate change, sexual harassment, the threat of nuclear war, income inequality, need I go on? — call for nothing short of a shattering of old paradigms, rules, and structures. But at the end of the day, perhaps the real question becomes, How will I apply that to myself?


A Little Dirt on Dirty

A recent assignments in my writing course was a discussion of the writer/editor relationship. We were given information on the writer Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, the editor who made him famous. Carver was known for his short stories (none of which I’ve read) but when I dug a little deeper — meaning, checked his Wiki entry — I discovered he was part of the “dirty realism” movement in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.  He wrote about the dispossessed, about people who lived “on the edge.” Now, how the adjective “dirty” applies to this subgroup is beyond me; maybe it simply reflects the difficulty in keeping old stuff looking spanking-clean, or maybe more.

I was curious about dirty, and its origin — spoiler alert! — isn’t pretty. This word arose from an Old English and Proto-Germanic root, dritan, that means “to void excrement.” Yes, it’s all about poop. Imagine that. All these years, and I never knew. Now you might be closing your browser now, deciding this is something you don’t want to dive into (sorry!), but it really does make sense, doesn’t it?

Think of all the concepts we apply to the word “dirty.” We speak of dirty tricks, dirty money, and people doing someone else’s dirty work. We teach our children about dirty words, tell them not to give out dirty looks, and warn about dirty old men. Dirty has some very horrific connotations.

But in some ways, it’s also gotten an undeserved bad rap. I’m an allergist, and have a lot of respect for the theory that keeping little kids too clean may promote the development of allergic conditions like hay fever, eczema, and asthma. With this in mind — and knowing their father already had two in this trifecta —  I took my children’s cleanliness with a healthy grain of salt. They bathed and had clean clothes, sure, but they also ate food that fell on the floor, ran around barefoot, and never used hand sanitizer. So far, they’ve escaped their father’s curse (at least, in terms of allergies).

Here’s another thing about poop: we exaggerate its ugliness; we apply deleterious properties to it, and then proceed to amplify them. The result? It scares the s&#* out of approaching it rationally. It’s a normal part of being alive. We — regarding ourselves as the most highly developed species on the planet — have succeeded in making dirty a national disgrace. It might serve us to swing the pendulum back again. Let us not forget that animal waste serves us all by performing the thankless task of fertilization. When added to soil, it renders it more productive. It’s more about creation than transformation: poop uses its castoff, useless status to make something entirely new.

Speaking about soil, I’m reminded of the fertile, rich soil in my home state of Pennsylvania and how generous it was in providing food, shade, and beauty for our family. In 1941, Hans Jenny, a pedologist (soil scientist), published his seminal book, “Factors of Soil Formation.” He described five elements responsible for the soils we have today: parent material; organisms; climate; relief (landscape position); and time. Perhaps we could use this framework to address the “dirty” in our lives today.

The importance of good parenting is a no-brainer. But parents today face daunting challenges; things like income inequality, inadequate health care access, gun control, the rapid pace of technology, and climate change can make raising a child more difficult than ever. Next, Jenny defines soil organisms as “a complete biological community.” What kind of communities exist for children today? When teachers are underpaid, and recess is an anachronism, or when there’s a cop in every school despite what seems like a bullying epidemic, how fertile will this soil be?

Regarding climate, he notes its importance on “both large and small scales.” When compassion, respect, generosity, and other human virtues are missing from the largest and most powerful institutions in the land, what can we expect?  Moving on to relief (landscape position), Jenny speaks of profound differences produced by only a few feet of elevation, and the importance of the fact that water runs downhill. Children, by definition, look up to learn from us. What do we teach them when the lowest among us ends up with all the s&#* that flowed down from higher ups in the workplace, or the bureaucracies that govern them? How does it serve our future to treat our daughters like sex object beginning in kindergarten, or to assume they can’t excel in science or math?

His last element, time, is the one we perhaps take least seriously. We make instant decisions, we seek immediate gratification. We forget we need time to properly shape our future and invest in succeeding generations, time to deliberate, and to heal from our wounds, so many of which seem self-inflicted these days. Paradoxically, it feels as if we’re running out of time, which makes our search for solutions all the more frantic.

I abhor harmful, dirty behavior as much as anybody else, but at the same time, I try to visualize the seeds of hope and change that can flourish in its troubling wake should we choose to plant them.




About ‘Directed Attention Fatigue’

I started blogging over five years ago. My first efforts appeared in an online local paper, and I wrote an early post — about the word unnecessary — after the Newtown school tragedy (republished here later; see December 2014 archives). At that time, I discovered that “need” arose from Dutch and German roots that mean — among other things — calamity, adversity, and danger.

This past week, a clearly psychotic person one-upped Newtown in a big way, reminding me of that old post, where I also wrote about the danger of our complacency, of our habit of assuming that “somebody else will do it.” As a nation, we lack consensus on exactly what “it” is. I have my own thoughts (for example, to do what Australia, UK, and other Western nations did and just get rid of these nasty guns), but people like me are always shouted down by vague, ambiguous arguments about the Second Amendment. We forget that the amendment regards arms-bearing citizens as part of a “well-regulated” militia.

Regulate is a first cousin to another word that surfaced for me when reflecting on gun violence: direction. I think about our lack of direction, and about the absence of any leader powerful enough to bring about change for the good. Regulate and direct have a common PIE root, *reg-, which means to move in a straight line, lead, or rule. We don’t lack for rulers — aka greedy power mongers — but their leadership only stirs the already-overflowing pot of antagonism and strife.

Direction gives us more to think about. The Latin root, dirigo, reprises the straight line theme, but the core verb, rego, is more expansive. The translations include: to keep from going wrong; and, to set right. Also: morally right; correct; just; virtuous; noble; and good. Why is it that so many people like me, who use these principles for our daily compass, can’t seem to gain any traction?

I explored the concept of “thankless exhaustion” a few years ago after my sister-in-law mentioned it in our discussion of women and depression (see February 2016 archives). This week I discovered a piece on moral exhaustion by author/playwright John Biguenet. In the essay, “Questions, Not Answers,” he writes that “depravity has drained morality of all meaning.” He also writes about “directed attention fatigue,” which results from overuse of our attention inhibition mechanisms. In other words, we feel so threatened that our brain can no longer block the vigilance that renders us fearful and frozen.

This happened to my friend Kimberly a few days after the Las Vegas event. She and her husband Larry were at McDonald’s when they noticed a tall dark stranger (yes!) wandering around without food. She made a quiet remark about a “potential terrorist,” when an unmarked white van pulled up alongside the building. She described her urge to run, to escape. I told her that — at times like these — I’m grateful to be someone who’s always been oblivious to the obvious. I wonder how I would have fared in a Nazi-occupied country during WWII.

Biguenet also writes that his fatigue stems in large part from “living in a society in which one cannot take for granted any moral imperatives,” and that his attention is “directed not to unattended packages (or strangers in McDonald’s), but to unintended consequences when individuals seek to amplify their resentments and frustrations through bombs, assault, weapons, or demagogues.”

He describes our current culture as “a period of moral erosion, in which the cult of unrestrained individualism refuses to subordinate itself to shared standards of morality.” He doesn’t give us what we all want: the answers; he concludes simply by stating that the task of the writer (or playwright) is to “hold up a mirror in which audiences can see their own faces and judge themselves in the stark light literature casts upon our lives.”

Despite my disappointment at not finding even a hint of an answer, I appreciated Biguenet’s point that plays and literature provide points for reflection. But how much serious reading goes on these days, and what exactly do people read? As a scientist, I’m trained to question everything, but I’m approaching a point where I don’t believe anything.

The conflict that punctuates our waking days is even found in the origin of “answer,” a combination of the PIE root *ant-, before, and swerian, to swear or affirm. Originally, it was meant to convey a “sworn statement rebutting a charge.” A word we rely on for direction was born from a sense of dissension and untruth. I’m almost sorry I looked.

We are left to forge our own path, to move forward with a sense of direction we assemble from our own sources, using sandbags from knowledge and experience to build a bulwark against moral erosion. We start anew each morning, resigned to doing our best, hoping that, someday, the answers appear.

Here’s a link to Biguinet’s essay: https://view.publitas.com/dramatists-guild/the-september-issue-1/page/118