The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

26 May 2011

Unity is our essence

At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that ... modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.—Vaclav Havel

It is becoming clear to almost anyone who thinks critically about it that science as we have long understood it is no longer equipped to address the challenges of the future. This is not to say that researchers and innovators in laboratories around the world may never come up with a carbon-neutral replacement for gasoline or a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, or that the age of medical breakthroughs is behind us. But the notion of traditional science as the dynamo of something called "progress" feels pretty much used up. Utopian visions of societies operating justly and efficiently on the ball bearings of technology are artifacts of the past, and there isn't a school child alive who doesn't see that the old mechanistic ideas of scientific thought are as responsible for our current crises, human and environmental, as they were useful in eradicating the pestilences of old.

We are in the midst of an unmistakable evolution of consciousness toward higher orders of compassion, cooperation, and love. This statement may seem willfully foolish given the intractable woe that exists everywhere, be it warfare, displacement, human trafficking, state-sanctioned rape, mass poverty, or any of the other countless horrors around the globe. Yet life is governed by laws of polarity, and the more monstrous humanity behaves, the more urgent becomes its need and response. The rise in a collective movement toward compassion is inspired in part by the crises of sustainability we as a race and a planet face. As populations grow and the biosphere depletes, as resources dwindle and distorted power structures appear to exploit them, people in every part of the world are waking up to the failure of the old systems and the imperative for a new way based on different values.

In this regard, the age of science as both ideology and faith must give way to something more humanistic and humane. Science as a model for how to engage and steward life has proven fatally flawed. Instead of empiricism's simplistic cosmology of predictable and controllable cause and effect, we live in a world of chaos, collateral damage, and unintended consequences. There are those who still believe human intellect, with the aid of supercomputers and nuclear microscopes, can think its way out of the labyrinth of life's ever-creative repertoire of complexity. Beside them, however, is an ever-growing movement turning instead to the intelligence of the heart, our remarkable fist-sized blood pump which is also the seat of our courage, kindness, and boundless power of love.

None of what I have written is in any way a repudiation of science per se, nor a turning away from its core value of discovery. Nor are the sentiments of Vaclav Havel, in the address quoted at the top of this post. This extraordinary speech, given in Philadelphia on Independence Day, July 4, 1994, was a prescient early expression of the awareness that has grown in the seventeen years since he spoke. I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended," Havel said that day. "Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out, and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.”

The thing "rising from the rubble" is a greater understanding of the connection between observation and being, scientific law and human integrity, existence and love. "Inspiration for the renewal of [our] lost integrity," Havel said, "can once again be found in science, in a science that is new—let us say postmodern—a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits."

The idea that such a science is at hand forms the foundation for Tom Shadyac's documentary I Am. The film chronicles Shadyac's exploration of the new paradigm, conducted through interviews with leading intellectuals, scientists, and writers. By the end, the director discovers that, indeed, the world's great wisdom traditions had it right—we are all connected, and our connectedness is at the heart of our humanity. He sets his course not by religion or philosophy, however, but by conclusions gained from quantum physics, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, environmental studies, and noetic science, the emerging study of the interface of consciousness and matter.

Shadyac begins by going back to Darwin, whose concepts of natural selection were popularized to assert the influence of competition  over caring, a claim that was quickly extended into the spurious realm of "social Darwinism." Darwin made no such cultural claims himself, and many after him have observed that successful mutual aid among animals and humans is as much a definition of "fitness" as individual dominion. The idea that humans are wired as much to cooperate as compete has been bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons, tiny brain receptors that make empathy possible, and the action of the vagus nerve (actually a pair of nerves) which, when we witness an act of kindness, releases oxytocin, a hormone related to nurturing and orgasm.

Shadyac ups the ante when he visits the Institute of HeartMath, a research organization that has, through controlled experiments, amassed evidence that the heart truly is one of the body's centers of intelligence. One of the film's memorable moments comes when the director's negative emotions apparently cause a dish of yogurt to emit its own negative feedback. It's the humorous illustration of a serious point, that emotions are physiological as well as psychological, and that kind thoughts alone can impact the behavior of others. I Am evokes the notion of quantum entanglement—the fact that atoms at an infinite distance react to certain stimuli simultaneously—to demonstrate the level at which all living stuff is quite literally connected. There is no separation, not of distance or time; in tracking the inert element argon, a part of earth's atmosphere, scientists have even concluded that we all breath the same air, and have since time out of mind. 

The conclusion is inescapable: unity is our essence. This idea is supported by a growing weight of fact, and to believe it is no longer the stance of the dreamer, but of the enlightened thinker. This is Shadyac's conclusion and his film's manifesto. The movie ends by asking how we can change society; the answer: through a change in consciousness. Knowledge is transformational. Shifts in awareness produce changes in attitude. The process is natural and inevitable.

Here is where the artist becomes key. Artists, with their ability to express the subtlest and most complex truths, are called now to the forefront of the new consciousness, called to clarify, to illuminate, and to express. What is "art for art's sake" beside this vocation? The Dalai Lama, asked to name the most important meditation of our age, answered, "critical thinking followed by action." More persuasive than propaganda, this is how art will change the world. 

Michelangelo, Phaeton, British Museum
Vaclav Havel, c. 1990, Council of Europe

03 May 2011

"I Will Not Rejoice in the Death of One"

In the aftermath of the US killing of Osama bin Laden, a quote attributed to Martin Luther King has been making the rounds in cyberspace. Here's how it came to me via Facebook:

Shared from a friend: MLK expresses the ideal: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." -Martin Luther King Jr.

Curious to know when and in what context King said something so startlingly congruent with my own feelings today, I went — where else? — to Google. But all I could find were variations of the quote, disembodied from any larger source.

Then I found this, by Megan McArdle of the Atlantic: Out of Osama's Death, a Fake Quotation is Born. "Something about it just strikes me as off," McArdle says about the quote. She goes on to assert she can't find the quote anywhere on the Internet, and concludes it was made up.

But not so fast. Sifting through the rubble we call the World Wide Web, I found evidence that contradicted McArdle, at least to an extent. Someone referenced a passage from King's book Strength to Love, a collection of meditations on nonviolence he published in 1963. In a chapter titled "Loving Your Enemies," King did express at least part of the quote. Here's the section, which follows a discussion of the differing Greek terms for love, erosphila, and the one King is interested in, agape, which he defines as "creative, redemptive goodwill for all men." I took a screenshot of the text from Google Books:

So the quote making the rounds isn't entirely specious. Intrigued now with what else the Internet would yield, I dug a bit deeper and discovered an earlier evocation of the same idea by King, using much the same language. On Martin Luther King Online, I found the text of a sermon the master preacher delivered November 17, 1957, also titled "Loving Your Enemies." The passage in question comes up in the lesson of a modern parable:

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the 
junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have 
some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
So this concept of darkness begetting darkness, hate begetting hate, was an idea MLK had been developing over the years, borrowing from and slightly modifying his phrasing as he went along. Knowing this, I'm not at all sure King did not say the words quoted by my Facebook friend. He may well have spoken them, and if he did, my guess is it would have been near the end of his life, when he had turned his attention to broader issues of peace and justice, and was speaking out against the Vietnam War. Gut feeling.
All this is by way of broaching the larger issue, which is how to feel in the wake of Osama bin Laden's swift and sudden death. And in this I find myself torn. Viscerally, I cannot regret bin Laden's fate. Not long ago, I listened to Homer's Iliad, the whole long poem, while driving back and forth two hours a day to a work project. As Homer graphically demonstrates, bloody vengence is as much a part of our Western tradition as Plato and Pythagoras. Every one of the great Greek heroes took what you could only call sadistic delight in vanquishing the enemy in a stunning array of brutal, violent actions. Something there is in mankind that loves revenge. I'm just — I don't know what, American enough? male enough? human enough? — to thrill a little at the idea of our guys storming Osama's compound and taking him out.
But I get no lasting satisfaction from my own thrill. It comes back on me with a bitter taste. In my heart, I agree with Martin Luther King, however much of that opening sentiment he actually uttered. The reason the quote has gone viral is because there is wisdom in it, wisdom born of compassion, dignity, and respect for human life. The demands of love require us to, at the very least, be sober in the face of what took place in Pakistan on the first of May. In the 1957 sermon, King addresses this concept of love:
You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things 
they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
It is not necessary that we grieve for bin Laden, but I do not see how we can rejoice either. I wish we would have taken him alive, brought him back to this country and put him on trial, proved to the world that we are a country of laws, as we did in Nuremberg. There are conflicting reports from Washington in this point; some high level sources say taking him alive was an option, others say it was not. I hope the former is true, and that this wasn't an assassination mission. In any case, to revel in so violent a death is poisonous to our national soul. On this point, King was powerfully eloquent in 1957. He understood hatred as being most destructive to those who exercise it:
There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. . . . There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

A decade later, in 1967, as riots were tearing US cities apart, King reaffirmed his belief in nonviolence:

I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

As we stand proud in this blow stuck against international terrorism, we might try standing tall too, and denounce hatred in all its forms, in thought, word, action, and reaction. That includes the varieties of hatred we are now seeing around this country wearing the cloak of patriotism.   


Something beyond the void

In his book  Pictures and Tears , James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space ...