Friday, December 8, 2017

SHAME/SHAMELESS

I remember being much impressed, many years ago, on reading a passage in the late literary critic Leslie Fiedler's book, Freaks. Not so much "impressed", perhaps, as moved. It was one of those moments when what you're reading feels exactly right, like something you have long thought without having ever quite been able to put it into words, something you have profoundly experienced in your life, something that has the absolute ring of truth. He was writing about the feeling of freakishness he suspected to be the experience of all young children, even the very youngest, when we are quite literally freaks, pygmies amongst giants, when we can exercise no control over the functions of our body, shitting and pissing in our diapers, when the bodies we inhabit seem at once the totality of who we are and at the same time totally alien. It's in that experience I see the origins of shame.

For me, as I suspect for many, that sense of shame persisted somewhere deep in the unconscious mind. As a young child, I was acutely aware of the difference between my body and that inhabited by those around me. I remember very distinctly--and I have written about this--the time my father called me into his study and had me drop my pants for the doctor, who was there with him. I was born, he explained, with one testicle undropped, and he had asked the doctor to examine me for reassurance (doctors made house calls in those days!) The doctor probed my testicles, in front of the fireplace in my father's study, and pronounced me whole. I shrank into myself in shame. I was perhaps five years old.

As I grew older, that sense of shame about my body began to focus particularly on my genitals. Around the age of twelve--when it also happened that I was molested by a teacher at my all-boys' school--I could not help but notice the strange and wonderful behavior of my penis. I soon learned to masturbate, in secret. Of course, in secret. The intense pleasure I discovered I could experience in this way was tempered by the fact that I had learned somehow in my good Christian, middle-class upbringing, that it was a shameful, even sinful act, and one that must be conducted under the cover of the sheets, in darkness. None of us boys at my school would have dared to broach the subject unless accompanied by giggles and whispers.

It was at boys' school, too, a little later, that I learned even more acutely about body shame. I was plump (they called me "Fatty"). I felt small and shrunken around the crotch, especially when in the grip of fear, and I was always fearful of being seen naked. After sports, we had to shower together in the locker room--an experience so excruciatingly difficult for me that I learned to avoid all team sports and concentrate, instead, on cross-country running, knowing that I could be back early and out of the shower before the other boys were done with their lengthier cricket match or soccer game. I worried, painfully, about size. I envied all those who seemed better off than I in this regard and, in my shame, judged that to be every other boy.

I recall all this still vividly now, seventy (!) years later, in the context of a far different culture undergoing a sea change in attitudes about sexuality--especially male sexuality--because I know that the body shame I learned as a child affected my subsequent life in profound and sometimes painful ways. I have lived with the fear of being exposed, and not only bodily--though that, too; but also--because I have come to understand in my later years that body and mind are truly inseparable--in my professional and emotional life. I have struggled with the instinctive need to hide myself from view. Emotionally, I have often been seen as distant, aloof, in a way I would not have wanted to be. On the verge of professional "exposure"--i.e. success--in any area, I have often chosen to step back, away, and keep out of sight.

The flip side of shame, of course, is now a great, ugly blot on our cultural environment: that is, shamelessness. It's my belief that it originates in the same physical experience of the body, except that it manifests conversely (perversely?) as the need to show, to expose. I recall another episode from childhood, this one during World War II, when a cousin of mine, Donald (a fateful name, in retrospect!) came to visit us at the Rectory where I was brought up. I was, again, about five or six years old. Our nannies put us in the bath together. Donald was perfectly delighted with his penis, sticking it up out of the water and playing shipwreck against this "lighthouse"--albeit while our nannies had left us alone for a while. He urged me to join in the game, but I demurred. His shamelessness made me aware, even at that age, of my shame.

So now, in this 21st century, we are discovering just how many men are shameless, obsessed with the need to show their penis to unwilling others, or with the need to impress young girls with their erection, or with the compulsion to impose their masculinity on those less powerful than themselves. None of which is new. I know from the stories I have heard from countless other men that my own experience as the twelve-year old target of a pedophile was by no means rare. I know that the sense of shame was by no means restricted to myself. But at least now we are beginning to be able to talk about it--though the men's organization with which I am fortunate to have been long associated has been doing so for many years. It has been inspiring--and pioneering--work.

Be it noted that we usually tend to think of shame in negative ways, as though it were itself a shameful thing. And yet it's important to remind ourselves that, properly understood and brought to bear in all consciousness, shame can also be a powerful, necessary force for healthy and appropriate restraint. Those who lack it, the shameless ones, too often bring nothing but pain and grief into the lives of those around them. They may achieve remarkable success, but only at the cost of others. And their shamelessness is likely to spill over from business into personal relationships. We are currently witnessing this phenomenon in political leaders, entertainment giants, and powerful businessmen. Like cousin Donald, they can't resist playing lighthouse--and not only in the bath.

In view of the current flood of public revelations and exposures, perhaps, not only men in power, but all men will be required to hold themselves accountable for their actions in their sexual lives. If they do, I am sure that many of them will find they share with me the influence, for better or worse, of shame.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

CONCEALED CARRY

As an addendum to my yesterday's regretful post about Republicans, I note that their subcommittee on the Judiciary yesterday approved the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act for a full House vote this week. The bill will allow concealed weapons laws from any one state to apply in all others--meaning that a concealed-carry buff from Georgia, where the laws are permissive, would be free to wander the streets of Manhattan with a gun under his belt. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

Nobody in his or her right mind would wish to have more guns around in our streets--and parks, and schools, and churches!--except, it seems, Republicans in the House of Representatives. The bill, of course, is being pushed by the NRA, which in turn reflects the wishes of the gun industry. To increase their profits, they want to sell yet more guns, in a country where the possession of firearms is already unconscionably easy and where lethal weapons abound.

Just yesterday I abandoned the Middle Path to accuse Republicans of bearing the greater part of responsibility for the shameful inaction--or, in many cases, actions--of our government, which no longer heeds the needs or wishes of this country's people. This act is but further evidence of their bad faith. What we are pleased to call our "democracy" has become a sham, when our politicians obey the dictates of profiteers rather than the people they are elected to represent.

With so much harmful malfeasance in our political world, it is finally time to forsake the Middle Path and name its source. I urge my readers to contact their representatives in the US Congress with the demand that they vote NO on this shameful capitulation to the gun industry.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

REPUBLICANS

Sen. Orrin Hatch, speaking of the Children’s Health Insurance Program: “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, who won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, speaking of the estate tax repeal: I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing — as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

It's comments like these that lead me to believe that Republican politicians are not only misguided in their policies, but also--forgive me--pretty awful human beings. I'd prefer to be able to stand back, take the Middle Path, and see past the purely political differences of approach to social issues. I'd like to be able to believe in good intentions on both sides. But statements like those above confirm my less reasonable beliefs, the ones that come from the gut and not the part of me that aspires to rational judgment. I'll confess to having an instinctive distrust of anything that comes from the right side of the political aisle.

I think they have earned this mistrust. I have been watching for several decades now as they have worked--cunningly, and with regrettable success--to disempower the electorate and empower themselves in local, state, and federal government. What with gerrymandering--a strategy that Republicans have used with far greater success than Democrats--and the channeling of money into the political process through campaign donations, lobbying, and the ultimate insult of Citizens United, they would now appear close to having a stranglehold on power. I have been watching as they have crippled the public education system by choking off needed funds; as they have sought to pass over such basic government responsibilities as health care, the prison system, the nation's infrastructure, even the military into private, profit-making hands; as they have continued to enrich the rich and further impoverish the needy and the poor.

The Republican Party, it seems to me, has surrendered its heart and soul to the mean-spirited creed of libertarianism, where any sense of social responsibility and the common good is subordinated to the exercise of every individual's personal grasp for material well-being. Any restraint on my personal pursuit of success--whether by government or, it seems, by moral imperative or humanitarian concern--is viewed as intolerable. Even the planet that is our only home is ripe for egregious abuse and exploitation, so long as someone needs to turn a profit, as scientific evidence is dismissed with cynical denial. 

As bad, if not worse, individual Republican politicians have surrendered their minds to party allegiance. They appear not to be able to think or act for themselves, but must toe the party line on every issue. Individual conscience, like individual thought, is cast aside in favor of group-think and the single-minded pursuit of partisan goals. (Democrats, by contrast, seem all too happy to stand in a circular firing squad in order to assert even the pettiest of disagreements! Their squabbles are legion.) Even that "maverick", John McCain, stepped back quietly into line on passage of the mis-named Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, despite his earlier, seemingly principled stand on a "return to regular order." 

I do not see an equivalence here. I know that many cast blame equally on both political parties for the current deplorable standoff in our government. Try as I might to put myself in Republican shoes and see things from their point of view, I'm unable to find a justification for the harm they have wrought, and continue to wreak, on our democracy.



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

THE PENIS

Today on The Rohrabacher Letters I wrote to my Congressman about his penis. And my own. I thought I might share my thoughts with readers of The Buddha Diaries, who might otherwise have missed them. Here's what I wrote to Dana Rohrabacher:


You have one. I have one. It’s something pretty much every man on the planet has. Some big, some small, most middling. We’re born with it. For most of us, it’s our first and most amusing plaything. I’m sure that you, as I, have watched even the tiniest of male tots discover this most delightful and compelling part of their anatomy and explore its tantalizing possibilities.
It’s our great blessing—and our curse. Sticking out there, in front of us, its presence is unavoidable. It seems to have a mind of its own. Its actions and reactions are involuntary, and it gets up to tricks that are hard, sometimes seemingly impossible to resist. I have worked in intimate circles of men enough to know just how many of us are obsessed with it. Without conscious effort and resistance, it leads us into mischief that our better judgment would deplore. It can create in us a sense of power, and that power can so very easily be misused. 
I write these thoughts in great sadness, after so many of us men—this morning it is Matt Lauer of NBC News—have been exposed for our misuse of this otherwise glorious gift of nature. Its demands for sensual gratification can be overpowering, and, as men, we need and deserve that gratification—as women deserve theirs. But too often we submit to those demands unwittingly, abandoning all sense of reason, respect, and even common courtesy. We allow it to become an instrument of power and domination. 
None of which excuses us, of course. To pretend that we have no control over it is to deny millennia of human progress toward civilized behavior. Yet we continue to behave like cavemen, and not only in our personal lives. We strive for power in business, in politics, in international relations. We wage war, in order to assert our power. 
In our obsession with—and obedience to—the almighty penis, Congressman, we men have much to answer for. I have behaved badly. I imagine you have, too. If we are to learn to use our sexual potential wisely, and with joy, we must first get past the lapse of consciousness that allows it to get the better of us. We must understand its power, we must learn to resist the easy and, yes, ecstatic course of pretending that we can’t control it. It is possible to exercise the best of our masculinity in full consciousness, without harming anyone, not even ourselves.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

THE MIND...

The mind, to coin a phrase, has a mind of its own. After all these years, you'd have thought it would not make things so hard for me, but it persists. I'm old enough now, and experienced enough, to take something like participation in a public panel discussion in stride.

But no. Weeks ahead, my mind starts to plan what I need to say--and how to say it. Weeks ahead, it demands that I know absolutely everything about the topic, much more than I'll ever need. I know this. I watch my mind play its tricks on me, and I succumb. I spend needless hours with the books and on the Internet; well, not needless, no, it's good to be prepared. I hate those panels where no one is prepared and everyone wings it. Not needless, then, but certainly excessive.

And then... even after the event, when things have gone off smoothly and the panel has been largely a success, my mind wakes me up in the middle of the night and demands that I review exactly what I said, what I might have said, what I should have said, what I could have said better... Eventually I chose to shut it down with a sleeping pill! Well, half a sleeping pill. And before too long my mind surrendered and dropped off into a welcome sleep.

I didn't wake until after seven o'clock this morning--a rarity, for me.