The Dukkha of Star Wars: Using the Force to let go of the Past

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A simple translation of dukkha would be anything that makes one feel anxious, restless, or distressed. Anytime someone feels their life is out of sync they are experiencing dukkha. The first noble truth of Buddhism states all of life is suffering which means we all experiencing dukkha in one form or another at various times throughout our lives. The second noble truth informs us that the cause of this suffering is attachment. Thankfully the third noble truth assures us there is a way to free ourselves from suffering; by breaking our attachments. The breaking of attachments is a difficult accomplishment but, as The Last Jedi demonstrates it is possible and, when accomplished, allows for a sense of both peace and purpose.

I will pause here to say there are SPOILERS in the post so please do continue with that knowledge.

In The Last Jedi attachments bring a great deal of suffering to various characters. Kylo Ren, Rey, and Luke Skywalker all have attachments that bring them into painful situations, even when the opposite is sought.  There is, of course, hope (there’s always hope in Star Wars) of breaking these attachments, as Master Yoda proves in his cameo appearance.

The Eastern Ego in The Last Jedi

The ego, as understood in western psychology, is a necessary aspect of our psyche. A part of our constitution that needs to be strengthened to enable us to be psychologically sturdy and capable of navigating the storms of our lives with skill, strength, and compassion. The eastern concept of the ego is a part of the psyche to be transcended, not strengthened. The ego in eastern thought (particularly Buddhism but the concept rings true in Taoism as well) is that part of ourselves that seeks separation and dominion over others. While promising power in usually delivers isolation. In The Last Jedi three characters are symbols of isolation. Either through their own words (Kylo Ren and Rey) or living arrangement (Luke Skywalker) we learn of their sense of isolation. All three are isolated by attachments they hold tightly in their hearts despite the ruin their grasping brings into their lives.

Kylo Ren’s Rage

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Kylo Ren represents a fine misunderstanding of the idea of letting go of the past. He rages on multiple occasions that it is necessary to leave the past behind in order to be free of its weight. Freedom, therefore, is found by letting the past go…even killing it, as Ren puts it on occasion. His words, to be honest, carry a hint of truth. He is correct, being chained to a past that hinders growth is terrible. To be free of such chains is spiritually and psychologically liberating (just ask Ebenezer Scrooge!). 

Unfortunately, we communicate with much more than words. Kylo is a engine of rage, and while some of his words ring true the fuel he utilizes to drive himself is akin to drinking poison in an attempt to assassinate someone. He is a man of rage, therefore his desire to break from the past is communicated as nothing more than a desire to destroy and dominate. His anger is not even satiated by replacing Snoke as Supreme Leader. Of course that was not enough. Dethroning Snoke merely opens the door for his own quest for domination.

His anger does not lead to peace but, rather, it feeds his ego. He seeks power. He seeks dominion over the galaxy. He has not freed himself of the past at all. In fact, his anger feeding his ego only deepens his war with his past. His anger has not freed him, it has bound him. He is walking the path of Vader, which ultimately brings him to isolation and frustration. This is apparent as he kneels in the ashes of his failed attempt to crush the rebellion and the pain he experiences when Rey slams her mind shut. Breaking from the past with naught but anger brings only bitter fruit.

Jedi, thy name is Hubris!

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Luke Skywalker is one unhappy fella in The Last Jedi. He expressed his own frustration by denigrating the hubris of the Jedi. Darth Sidious came to power, began the empire, with a meticulous plan that unfolded right under the Jedi council’s collective noses! The Jedi, even Yoda, were blinded by self-righteousness that grew from their successes. Success, as we are taught in Taoism, can bring about great trouble. 

Anger is referenced quite frequently in Star Wars as a key component of the path to the dark side. The Jedi seem cursed with the burden of hubris. Luke, much Kylo Ren’s thoughts of breaking  with the past, speaks words that ring true. The Jedi were blinded by hubris…and so is Luke. He cannot forgive himself for failing Ben Solo (Kylo Ren). Talk about arrogant! Where is it written a teacher will, without fail, reach all their students? Such immature martyrdom often accompanies noble intention unrestrained by humility.  Much like Qui-Gon Jinn (dismissing the Jedi council to train Anakin) and Obi-Wan (“I though I could train him [Anakin} as well as Yoda. I was wrong”) before him, Luke suffers for his hubris. Adding to Luke’s pain is the fact other students die and he let down his beloved sister and brother-in-law. Luke attempts to atone for his sins by turning his past into a weapon with which to bludgeon himself and the memory of the Jedi. Peace is rarely found in self-flagellation, but it is a great way to bind oneself on a wheel of suffering. In both anger and hubris we see dukkha rising. 

Rey, you are a Jedi!

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Supreme Leader Snoke mocks Rey as a true Jedi because of her “spunk” and spirit. She is also a fine mix of Kylo’s rage and Skywalker’s hubris. Her rage goes without saying to anyone who has seen her in the films. When in a battle she facial features and battle snarls are as ferocious as almost any character known for channeling anger into a fight. Rey’s deep well of anger is expertly communicated by Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character. The hubris is also present.

She is convinced, because Snoke hoodwinked her, that she can turn Kylo Ren away from the dark path. Luke warns her that the path she is choosing “will not end where you think it will.” She dismisses him, because, well…what does he know! I mean he’s Luke Skywalker and she’s been training in the ways of the Force for a solid week. Granted she has profound natural connection and, well, who needs discipline, training, fundamentals, and technique when you’re a natural. With hubris like this Rey is a Jedi or sure! She also, despite saying she is from Jakku, might be from the United States.

Don’t forget Snoke

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Before we move on it is interesting to note that hubris ended the life of Supreme Leader Snoke. Despite (or perhaps due to) his clear mastery of the Force, Snoke does not “see” what Kylo Ren planned. As he mocks Rey for believing she could turn Kylo he praised his pupil for the strong resolve he sensed within his being. How he had cast aside his doubt and was ready to strike his enemy. Smoke was correct about all three: Kylo was full of resolve, had cast aside doubt, and was ready to strike…Snoke just couldn’t see the target. Nothing like a little pride before the fall.

The brilliance of the scene (which cause full audience cheers during my second sitting) was that Kylo was merely paving the way to the throne. He covets power, not peace. The audiences’ cheers turned to boos and my daughter asked, “Wait…but…what side is he on?” I told her, “His own. Keep watching.” Of course he was on his own side, as we have seen, the ego leads to isolation. Be careful where your attachments lie, you only get what you grasp.

Master Yoda and Forgiveness

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When Ray leave Luke on his island he decides to burn a tree that holds the sacred texts of the Jedi. Yoda appears and, despite giving a determined explanation, Luke hesitates. To help his former student Yoda blasts the tree with a lightning bolt, setting it ablaze. Luke is horrified. Yoda is amused.

Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching informs us that a person living from the Tao will seem (depending on your translation) stupid, lost, dimwitted, dull, confused, and ignorant. Or, in Yoda’s case, a fool…laughing as the sacred tree burns. The moment reminds us of Luke’s own words, “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi” even as he struggles with his words brought to life by Yoda’s actions.

This is a lesson in breaking attachment. Despite his words Luke was still attached to the tree and the texts. He was not ready for this sight. Yoda’s destruction was done, not from anger, but love and wisdom. He clearly loves the force and knows Luke was correct, the Force exists without the consent of the galaxy for the continued harmony of all. It can surely outlive the burning of a tree!  

The lesson is not over. Yoda then confronts Luke’s sense of failure by reassuring him that he did in fact fail. No doubts about it. So have other Jedi. So has Yoda. But failing does  not make one a failure…that’s a false attachment. Failure can be a fierce but worthy teacher if one has the requisite strength to allow that process to unfold. Yoda became the humble teacher found in The Empire Strikes Back specifically because he learned the false path of hubris which humbled him in Revenge of the Sith. When hubris fades, struck down by self-forgiveness not rage, peace rises. Acceptance, of self and others, spreads. Such calm brings strength that anger can’t replicate. 

I wonder if Rey, having confronted her hubris at such a young age, will become a peaceful warrior by the end of episode IX. She is on an excellent path, for she has been felled by hubris but, unlike the isolated Kylo Ren, has friends and allies who have her best interests in their hearts. Friendship trumps isolation. Forgiveness transforms failure. The breaking of false attachments brings peace. Perhaps by burning a sacred tree life itself becomes a sacred dance when we find ourselves in sync with the Force. Wouldn’t that be something?

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Seeking Faith among the (Walking) Dead

Faith and The Walking Dead may not seem like a natural fit but wherever people are they bring their faith with them…even in a zombie apocalypse! Join me in an exploration of faith and what it means to be a flawed but, ultimately, a good man.

When season seven of The Walking Dead came to a close fans heard Negan joyfully proclaim, “We are going to war!” We are now ell into season eight begins and the promised conflict, confusion, and casualties have ensued. The casualties have been and will continue to be listed during the “In Memorium” segment of The Talking Dead.

Not all casualties, however, are created equally. Some are more horrific than others, as in the bludgeoning of Glenn. Some, like the Governor, are more satisfying. None, however, were as upsetting as that of Hershel Greene. The moral anchor of “the group” was murdered by the Governor back in season four and his death sent shockwaves through the fan base. It was Hershel’s faith and his faith journey during the zombie apocalypse that made him captivating and beloved.

Defining Faith

Paul Tillich wrote, “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions, and questionable definitions than the word ‘faith’. It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men” (1).  Psychologist James Fowler accepted the challenge of healing the word ‘faith’ in his seminal study released in 1981. Fowler’s derived his understanding of faith by researching the work of scholars including Tillich, H. Richard Niebur, Judith Guest, Ernest Becker, and Wilfred Smith as well as interviews with 359 people. Fowler’s elaborate conclusions can be highlighted by the following points.

  1. Faith is an innate human drive to find meaning and purpose in life.
  2. Faith existed in human beings prior to organized religion. People also possessed intellectual curiosity prior to the existence of schools and artistic impulses prior to museums. Institutions reflect human drives  
  3. Faith is placed in an ultimate concern, i.e. something that the individual expects to give them ultimate fulfillment (2). This ultimate concern need not be religious. Faith can be placed in a political party, a team, money, fame, or a nation. There is an almost endless list of targets for our faith.
  4. The United States is, in essence, a henotheistic culture. This means people ultimately choose one ultimate concern (one god) among many options. A person can be a Christian but that need not be where they put their faith. Their faith is on more authentic display on Sunday afternoon when they paint their face various colors in support of their favorite NFL team. The wins and loses resonate deeply, arguments and conversations about the game continue during the week, and next Sunday’s game is longed for deeply.
  5. Faith “involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our costly loyalties” (3).  One of the great tensions of life is caused by seeking ultimate fulfillment in finite places. Pop culture plays with this time and again. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge wagered on wealth as an ultimate concern. The often brooding Oliver Queen in Arrow seeks meaning in the ultimate concern of saving his city. Gatsby’s purpose never strayed too far from Daisy Buchanan. Scar coveted power in The Lion King.

Hershel’s Farm: The Start of his Journey

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When we meet Hershel, he is an older man who has, for the most part, successfully kept his family safe on his farm during the early stages of the zombie apocalypse. He is introduced as a man of faith. He is a Christian, but remembers one can be a Christian and place their faith (their quest for meaning and purpose) elsewhere. Fowler promulgates a six-stage theory of faith development. Hershel’s faith reached a state of arrest in stage three: Synthetic-Conventional Faith.

Commitment to one’s beliefs is very important at stage three. This commitment is often tacit, and attempts to discuss beliefs or deeply held convictions can feel threatening. As stated, Hershel is presented as a religious man but his faith is placed in his family, both those living and dead. His commitment to protecting his family is noble, but the depth of their importance allows Hershel to live in a state of deep denial. Hershel wholeheartedly believes that walkers are living people infected with a disease not deceased people transformed into flesh-eating creatures. Hershel captures walkers that wander onto his farm and stores them in a barn in the hopes that a cure for their condition can be found. His deceased second wife and stepson also reside in a barn.

The nature of walkers aside, Hershel’s commitment is to his family’s well-being is on full display. To be clear, Hershel is a kind man. When Rick rushes onto his farm carrying his wounded son Carl in his arms, Hershel takes action. Utilizing his medical skills, Hershel removes bullets from Carl’s body and saves his life. He is, however, quite adamant that Rick and his group move on when Carl is healthier. The world is very dangerous and Hershel has no difficulty placing his family (the object of his faith) above the others. He is imbedded in an “us and them” mentality and the  “them’s” don’t belong on the farm. The sooner they leave the better!

Maggie’s Challenge

The transition from stage three to stage four of faith can be quite tumultuous. Encounters with perspectives that challenge the tacitly held belief systems and cause critical reflection often acts as the catalyst for the shift. Hershel’s conviction regarding the nature of the walkers is shattered by Shane’s barnyard massacre. This event, due to its dramatic nature, can be seen as the moment where Hershel’s perspective changes. Emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually shattered by being confronted with the depths of his denial, Hershel abandons any sense of leadership on his farm and willingly concedes control to Rick. There is, however, a powerful voice that challenges Hershel as well: his oldest daughter, Maggie Greene.

Prior to Shane’s actions, Maggie argues with Hershel on behalf of Rick’s group. Hershel attempts to brush her off by accusing her of merely being concerned about “the Asian boy” (Glenn). Maggie, as fans of the show know, is an unrelenting force unto herself. She utilizes Christianity (Hershel’s religion) and familial history (where he places his faith) to make her point. “’A new command I give to you: Love one another as I have loved you.’ That’s what you told me, right? I was mad about mom. Mad about you marrying Annette. I was 14 years old and I was awful, to you more than anybody. All I wanted to do was smoke and shoplift. ‘Love one another.’  That’s what you told me.” Hershel attempts to dismiss her by simply stating, “This isn’t that” (4).  Maggie is unmoved by his response.

To be clear, I am not saying Maggie has a deeper sense of faith or is more religious than Hershel. In fact, certain exchanges on the farm suggest she is unmoved by religion at all. She does know the words of her tradition (Christianity) and when to use them to make an emphatic point. She is quoting a stage six exemplar (Jesus) in an effort to have a specific impact. This brief exchange illuminates two important aspects of faith.

The first quality is the overriding power of faith. Hershel’s faith is placed in his family. Like all people there are many facets to his life. He is, as noted, a Christian. He even used his Christian ethics when counseling 14-year-old Maggie to accept her step-mother. His Christian beliefs were strongly adhered to when they supported the object of his faith, his family. Maggie’s challenge was to extend his Christian ethics to people outside the family. Faith is more fundamental to an individual than religion.

Maggie’s use of Jesus’ words opens the door to universalizing faith, the sixth and final stage of Fowler’s theory. Stage six people, dubbed ‘universalizers,’ confront us at a visceral level as they are dedicated to eradicating all vestiges of us/them thinking in their quest for a united human community. Universalizers are, in a very real way, threats to almost everything we hold dear for much human thinking (be it social, political, academic, or economic) involves, even encourages, us/them thinking. Few are ever as inclusive as they claim as exclusivism is a norm of humanity. The “enlarged visions of universal community” presented by universalizers reveals and threatens our parochial standards (5).  Maggie’s demands that her father embody his religious convictions have long-term ramifications.

Deepening Faith through Doubt

Hershel is dismayed after realizing his conception of reality was merely a form of deep denial. A recovering alcoholic, he seeks refuge in a local bar. He denounces some of his previous thinking to Rick, who has tracked him down and seeks to bring him back to the farm. In particular Hershel speaks with derision of hope and miracles, to concepts he held in high regard for quite some time. He claims that, despite saving Carl’s life, he ultimately fell for a “bait and switch.” The final, mournful conclusion is he is a fool and there is “no hope.” He agrees to return with Rick, but not because Rick has convinced him hope exists. Rather, it is an appeal to familial duty that sways Hershel. He returns to the barn, but he is not the same person he once was.

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The fourth stage of faith, individuative-reflective faith, is time of critical reflection. Symbols and concepts once held tacitly but dearly, become the target of critical reflection. It can be a disorienting time as a person finds themselves questioning, even interrogating, long held cognitive, psychological, and spiritual anchors. Reductionist thinking becomes pervasive as the conscious mind claims dominion of the kingdom and either/or thinking dominates most conclusions.

Hershel’s proclamation that there is “no hope” is a fine example of his doubt. The evidence of hope’s value is in the outcome so he concludes, because the hope he held was dashed that there is, therefore, “no hope.”  Hershel fades into the background of the group at this time. He concedes control of the farm to Rick and is not deeply involved in decision making. If Hershel had died at this point, his death would have been little more than a blip in the show’s history. I wonder sometimes if the character that emerged from this broken moment was even greater than the writers’ imagined.

A Little Shakespeare, Please

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (6). The transition from Fowler’s stage four to stage five is both difficult and rare. A majority of participants in his study (61.2%) were either at stage three, transitioning from stage three to stage four, or stage four of his theory. Only 15.4% of participants had their faith develop beyond stage four. In some regards this makes perfect sense. Most organizations (be they political, religious, schools, athletic teams, etc.) function best when members engage in either/or thinking (stage four) or in a state of tacit approval (stage three). 

There are times, however, when limits of the conscious mind are reached. Sometimes a person reaches a point where they must move beyond their own myopia and cease futile attempts to control reality. Either/or designations gives way to the quest for both/and synthesis. A dialectical relationship with reality replaces desires for dominion. When we realize that, despite his indecisiveness, Hamlet was correct about the limits of our own philosophies. Certainty often makes fools of the learned.  

Don’t mistake stage five (Conjunctive Faith) for some wishy-washy, Pollyannaish position. The use of one line does not mean the stage is Hamlet incarnate. It surely is not! Rather there is a radical openness to truth, even if the truth means one is wrong. We intellectually may agree with this idea (we understand full well there are millions of people who are wrong) but few live it (wait a minute? You mean I might be wrong? The millions of others can be wrong but not those in our group). Stage five people forcefully resist enculturation and seek a patient, wise, truth abiding, and open relationship with reality and others.  

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The transition to stage five is often brought about by encounters with paradox. In stage four an individual has the world contained neatly in numerous boxes, containers, and containers. Paradox rends asunder these organizational patterns. We find ourselves dared to find the truth hidden in apparent contradictions and to replace rigidity of thought with permeable lucidity.  

Back to Hershel

Hershel and the group were forced to flee the farm when a swarm of walkers disrupted their semi-tranquil existence. Life on the road was very difficult. First they found each other, having been dispersed in a chaotic scramble to save their lives. The group then survived on the road for months. Stumbling upon a prison they claimed it for themselves, clearing it of zombies and making it a home. Hershel lost a leg during this process. He counsels Rick through his psychotic break after the loss of his wife and was present when the group achieved victory in their first confrontation with the twisted governor. Hope existed without Hershel’s consent. More importantly he allowed it to permeate his life. As his notion of “family” expanded Hershel is an exemplar of the fifth stage of faith and becomes a sage of stage six.

Someone at stage five “suspects that things organically related to each other; {one} “attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting {our} prior mind set” (7). Hershel, as the show progresses, personifies this concept. He offers quiet wisdom and guidance to the group as they make the prison a home. His impact on those around him, particularly Rick, is evident.

When the first battle with the Governor ends, Rick welcomes a bus load of people who had lived under the Governor’s rule into the prison. Rick sees them as victims of the Governor’s cruelty just as much as his group had been. Carl objects but Rick informs his son, “They’re gonna join us.” Carl walks off but Rick is content with his decision. The way of Hershel is taking root in the prison. The roots will run even deeper, in both figurative and literal applications.

After the battle with the Governor, it is evident that Carl has become calloused to the point of psychopathology. Hershel challenges Rick to find another way, for himself and Carl. The war with the Governor over, the prison secure and food now being produced rather than scavenged, Hershel contends Rick must learn to farm. Rick balks at the suggestion. Hershel persists, combining compassion with power. “He needs his father. He needs his father to show him the way. What way are you going to show him? He can shoot, we know that. What’s his life going to be? What’s yours? All this. I’m just saying everything because I owe you. We all owe you. We can make this better now” (8).

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This idea, that there is another way, does not dismiss the realities of life. Rick does argue that the walkers still exists and, in essence, dominate the world. Rather than argue Hershel acknowledges that fact. This does not weaken his resolve as he maintains they do have the power to dictate what transpires inside the prison walls and, by extension, within their minds. As a Christian, Hershel has moved beyond reciting the serenity prayer, he embodies it. The prison flourishes but peace never lasts long and a new threat emerges as an epidemic of swine flu threatens the residents of the prison.

It is in this period that we witness Hershel forcefully reveals his stage six (universalizing faith) disposition. Universalizers are often driven by a unifying, transformative vision that they feel compelled to bring to an untransformed and dualistic world. They will risk much, including their lives, for this vision.

One section of the prison is used to quarantine infected individuals. Members of the group have rushed off to find medicine. Hershel decides to bring an herbal tea to the sick, both to comfort them and to help them hold on. Maggie intercepts him and insists he does not enter the quarantined area, snapping, “I can’t let you do this.” Hershel, as is his way, calmly explains his position. In some ways his reasoning is simplicity in itself as he states, “Maggie dear, there are people in there suffering.”  Rick arrives and sides with Maggie leading Hershel, patience exhausted, to deliver a stirring soliloquy:

Listen dammit! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for. Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer. I can save lives. That’s reason enough to risk mine. And you know that (9).

Maggie tearfully opens the door to the quarantine for her father. She is heartbroken. I also think she is proud. She is proud of her father and proud to be his daughter. The symmetry with their argument on the barn is beautiful. She challenged him to live his Christian beliefs and be a better man to the group on the farm. He is, in ways she never imagined living those beliefs.

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He is entering a prison to visit the “inmates.” The Christian imagery is hard to dismiss as he helps the sick and the poor. His faith, which always rested in family, has now extended to the point where all around him are members of his family. He has fully embraced her challenge to expand his concept of community and, in doing so, breaks Maggie’s heart. Paradoxically, as he breaks her heart he is simultaneously filling it with love. She is hurt by his convictions even as she admires his unrelenting compassion. And, even though it wasn’t his goal, where he once dismissed the very existence of hope he has become hope itself.

A Final Goodbye

Unfortunately for Hershel the Governor returns. He captures Hershel and uses him in an attempt to strong arm Rick into relinquishing the prison. Rick, channeling his mentor, offers an alternative. The prison is large enough to be shared. The conflicting groups can unite into a new, larger ‘us.’ While Rick offers this vision Hershel, on his knees and with a sword to his throat, smiles. The smile does not last long as the Governor’s blade beheads him. This horrific scene was made all the more horrible because of the rough waters that viewers watched Hershel navigate with grace and dignity.

I do not know if the writers of The Walking Dead intended Hershel to become the embodiment of a faith journey but he was. Universalizers tend to become inspirational because of their commitment to justice and their expansive vision of community. As they are free of cultural restraints so shall we turn to an unexpected source.

In Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai we are told “nothing is felt quite so deeply as giri.” Giri is a word that encapsulates a person’s sense of duty, justice, obligations, and honor. People may cry upon hearing the life of someone who died in the distant past “because of a sense of giri” (10).

Now, as we approach The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale where death is imminent and suffering will abound let us remember the peaceful warrior Hershel Greene. Your comrades sure could use you. Come to think of it, so could the real world.  

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(1) Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York, Harper Torch Books, 1957), p. ix.

(2) Ibid., pp. 2-4.  Hey…does anyone else read “ibid” and think of Good Will Hunting or is it just me?

(3) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York, HarperOne, 1981), p 4.

(4) This drama unfolded was back in The Walking Dead, episode 2.7.

(5) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 200.

(6) Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5).

(7) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 185.

(8) The Walking Dead, episode 4.16. 

(9) The Walking Dead, episode 4.3.

(10) William Scott Wilson (translator), Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (new York, Kodansha International, 1979), p. 95.

 

 

 

Bruce Springsteen – Master Teacher

Hidden amongst the array of jargon polluting education is the phrase “Master Teacher.” I am told one becomes a “master teacher” upon achieving tenure so, I’m one! Yes! Evidently I’ve been one for a long time. I’m sure such designations matter somewhere in the business or politics of education, but that’s not my world. I’m a teacher. I’m in the trenches everyday where jargon lacks power and the chasm between the art of teaching and the business of education sometimes appears unbridgeable. I worry very little about officially sanctioned concepts. Instead, I grope for what works. 

So, because some of my colleagues seem a little too down trodden for October I’m reaching out for guidance from a voice of authenticity rather than complicity! I’m hoping this helps someone somewhere face the rest of the school year. Or, at the very least, face tomorrow. 

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“Well we busted out of class/Had to get away from those fools/We learned more from a three minute record, baby/Than we ever learned in school” (1). Considering I am one of the fools from whom Bruce had his characters flee, I guess I could be a little insulted. The problem is, he’s right. Education, despite what Horace Mann believed, takes place everywhere and all the time (2). That’s why it’s not enough for me to teach history but I also must teach how to discern valuable lessons from the worthless tripe my students encounter in daily life. Now, this being true in, what else can I learn about my profession from the Boss!  

  1. Hit the Ground Running! 

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“‘Cause tramps like us/Baby we were born to run!” (3)

That’s right! We ain’t wasting any time building up to a crescendo here! We are gettin’ started with Bruce’s seminal song, the classic “Born to Run.” You may be asking – what does that have to do with teaching? I would say…everything! Whether it’s Mighty Max Weinberg’s drums at the beginning of “Born to Run”, “Born in the U.S.A.”, and “Badlands” or The Professor Roy Bittan’s piano letting us know “Backstreets” or “Jungleland” is on its way, sometimes it takes only a fraction of a second for the legendary E-Street Band to pump the audience with adrenaline.

I know I will never generate concert like enthusiasm in my students and that’s not the point. But, just like two notes snaps us to attention when a favorite song is played there is no substitute for the first class session of the school year. After years of teaching I have concluded it is the quintessential thirty minutes of the entire year. Their value should not be underestimated.

By the way, it is NOT about the moronic cliche “never let them see you smile until Thanksgiving.” That’s just utter nonsense. However, students should leave my class after day one knowing I love what I teach, that my passion for what I do is authentic and even a little intimidating, that they and I are not the most important entity in the room ( I’m teaching about Dr. King and you want me to treat you like you’re the end of the world…get over yourself), and this is surely not the place for your B.S. and excuses, but if you want to roll up your sleeves, drink from the cup of humility, seek answers to difficult questions, and redefine your personal expectations you may just thrive in my basement dwelling!* 
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2. Who’s in your support group?

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“Two hearts are better than one/Two hearts, girl, get the job done” (4)

I am not sure how someone would endure a teaching career without forming a fellowship with key individuals. I’m not talking about blowing’ off steam in the teachers’ room here! I’m talkin’ those select people who you turn to when things get truly rough. The foul weather friends who you KNOW would go to Helm’s Deep with you. If there is one thread that is omni-present throughout Bruce’s epic career it is the need for companionship. Be it friendship or a romantic relationship we need other people.

In your context we are talking about those colleagues of yours that you know you can turn to when the year gets tough, the students seem beyond your reach, the business of education is chocking the art of teaching to death, days when young ears and minds are closed but their mouths are wide open,  or sometimes you simply need to bounce that idea for a new lesson around. We all have informal support groups that make the school year easier. Your group may be comprised of long time companions like in Bobby Jean (1984), “Me and you, we’ve known each other/ever since we were sixteen” or a valuable, recent addition as proclaimed in Tenth Avenue Freeze Out (1975), “When the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the Band!” Bottom line, you need that support group from time to time.

Sometimes the fact you have them is enough because it’s not always the advice they give but the support they lend that matters most. This can be the toughest part about being part of someone’s support group, the realization there is no easy answer or, maybe worse, no satisfying answer at all. Sometime the seeker doesn’t even know what he or she is looking for.  In “Blood Brothers” Bruce sings, “I don’t know why I made this call/ Or if any of this matters anymore after all” (5).  I would guess that if twenty teachers are reading this that last line (“if any of this matters anymore after all”) resonated strongly with at least eight of them. Don’t lose faith. You’re not alone.

3. Trudging

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“End of the day, factory whistle cries/Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes” (6):

One reason I love Springsteen’s music is that he doesn’t delude himself that everyone wins even as he hopes everyone will. Characters in his songs can be uncertain, brokenhearted, destitute, desperate, and downtrodden. Life can beat you up. It can make you ask tough questions, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” (7) So can teaching.

Bruce repeatedly suggests a course of action to take when the inevitable bumps, pitfalls, and tragedies of life befall us. The character in Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) has essentially lost everything. His solution is to head into the heart of darkness to seek redemption. “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop/I’ll be on that hill with everything I got/ Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/ I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the solution to our fears and doubts are walking into them, “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm” (8).

That class that gives you such a hard time – they are going to be there tomorrow. The apathy that some students cling to like a prize of honor will be shoved in your face, again, tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. For the duration of your career, by the way, these archetypal students will appear. The slate is rarely as blank as motivational speakers make it sound. That doesn’t matter.  What does, however, is how do you plan to face it all again tomorrow? Please note, the question is “how” not “will”. You will. You’re a teacher. Diving once more into the fray is what we do.

4. Renewal

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“Badlands you gotta live it every day/Let the broken hearts stand
As the price youve gotta pay/We’ll keep pushin till it’s understood/
And these badlands start treating us good” (9)

I don’t know if Bruce is a fan of Joseph Campbell but I think he would agree with the following proposition, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for” (10).  Renewal comes not when we avoid our hardships, but when we “live it everyday.” Live it! Not merely survive, but live! It is THE difference Bruce makes so clear when he creates two divergent paths in Racing in the Streets (1978), “Some guys they just give up living / And start dying little by little piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up /Then go racin’ in the street”(11).

I love that image. The idea that two people, in similar circumstances can face life so differently. Bruce, as you likely know, believes there are systems in the United States that need to change. This does not, however, mean people need to wait passively for that miraculous day to happen. What action should you take when what is has not become what ought? Bruce sends his protagonist out into the night. And by heading out, he rises up. A little faith, a little companionship, some passion, an ember of hope and we may just find that “everything dies, maybe that’s a fact/maybe everything that dies someday comes back” (12). When it returns it need not be accompanied by fireworks and explosive energy. It may come as peaceful serenity as we accept “…the miles we have come / And the battles won and lost / Are just so many roads travelled /So many rivers crossed” (13). I dare say from that place of peace comes… 

5. Possibility

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“This Train, Carries saints and sinners/ This Train, Carries losers and winners/
This Train, Carries whores and gamblers/This Train, Carries lost souls/
This Train,Dreams will not be thwarted/This Train, Faith will be rewarded” (14): 

Ah yes. When we look beyond the reasons to quit, the trials of life (and teaching), and the frustration brought by failure we find renewed energy. And with new energy comes new possibilities. We find ourselves endeavoring to help “losers and winners” even when they may not be giving their best. Others, particularly students, don’t get to dictate my efforts. Maybe, just maybe, the ghost of Tom Joad will be found, ruined cities will rise up, and “good will conquer evil/and the Truth will set me free” (15).

Little whimsical? Little naive? Hell, no! While it is true that “childish dreams must end” that does not mean we have to become bitter and cynical, rather we can “grow up to dream again” (16). In these grown up visions the “dream of life comes to me/like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line” (17). As that tapestry unfolds, I strive for the right words, to maintain noble intentions, to welcome new companions and strengthen existing fellowships, and I bet you do the same. Keep those possibilities in sight and maybe, just maybe, we’ll “get to that place that we really want to go/and we’ll walk in the sun/but ’till then/tramps like us, baby we were born to run!” (18) 

Thanks for the music Bruce! It’s helped me more than you’ll ever know.

Sincerely,

jim rourke

And to any teachers reading this…keep fightin’ the good fight with all thy might!

Notes

(1) Springsteen, B. (1984). No Surrender. Born in the U.S.A. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(2) This quick comment about Horace Mann is supported by Christopher Lasch in his book Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996). Chapter 8 of the book is entitled “The Common Schools: Horace Mann and the Assault on Imagination.” It’s an interesting read. 

(3) Springsteen, B. (1975). Born to Run. Born to Run. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

* I’m going to double down on the importance of that first class session. I have surveyed students regarding the importance of first impressions made by teachers for ten years. Sixty-five percent of students in this unscientific study declared that they decided, by the end of the first day of school, what teachers they believed had weak classroom management skills or were just “too nice.”   

(4) Springsteen, B. (1980). Two Hearts. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

 

(5) Springsteen, B. (1995). Blood Brothers. Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits. New York, New York: Columbia Records.


(6) Springsteen, B. (1978). Factory. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(7) Springsteen, B. (1980). The River. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(8) Springsteen, B. (1978). The Promised Land. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records. 

(9) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(10) Osbon, D.K. (Ed.). (1995). Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York, New York: Harper Perennial. 

(11) This is the 5th and final song I used from Darkness on the Edge of Town. I must confess, however, that Streets of Fire was fighting to be included.

(12) Springsteen, B. (1982). Atlantic City. Nebraska. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

 

(13) Springsteen, B. (1995). Blood Brothers. Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits. New York, New York: Columbia Records. These lyrics are the laternative ending to “Blood Brothers” as performed in New York City (2001).


(14) Springsteen, B. (2001). Land of Hope and Dreams. Live in New York City. Sony Records.

(15) Cliff, J. (1972). Trapped. (Performed live by Bruce Springsteen). Recorded on We are the World (1985). New York, New York: Columbia. The other obvious references are to The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and My City of Ruins (2002). 

(16) Springsteen, B. (1980). Two Hearts. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(17) Springsteen, B. (2002). The Rising. The Rising. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(18) Springsteen, B. (1975). Born to Run. Born to Run. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

Does Batman Deserve a Statue?

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“Art, however, can heal. Art can speak to the logic of our dreams and touch the emotive core of our souls. It can evoke wonder and soften the calloused heart. Why can’t a commemorative statue carry the power of art?”

 

Beginning with Batman

The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy includes the unveiling of a Batman statue. Batman is assumed dead, killed while saving Gotham City from a nuclear bomb. Clearly such an action deserves to be noted by legions of grateful survivors. Moreover, in Batman Begins, Batman also spearheaded the effort to stop the League of Shadows from infecting Gotham with a nerve toxin that would have decimated the populace and the city. He also ended the Joker’s relentless reign of terror in Dark Knight, freeing Gotham from the horror unleashed from his arch rival’s twisted imagination. Millions in Gotham are alive because of Batman. But there is another side of the man.

Breaking and entering. Assault. Assault and battery. Possession of illegal weapons. Destruction of property. Negligent homicide. Tampering with a crime scene. Reckless endangerment. Intimidation. Extortion. Illegal wiretaps. The use of torture. Vigilantism. These are all crimes that Batman could be charged with. Not to mention lesser infractions like an untold number of speeding and driving violations, vehicle registration violations, and zoning violations. I mean, if my deck gets taxed I’m pretty sure the Batcave ought to be!           

Batman is a violent and hostile character. Most of us would cringe in his presence and others would call his methods into question. Perhaps nowhere is this aspect of the character made clearer than in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In this story the U.S. government clamped down on the activities of superheroes, forcing them to retire or become government agents. When Superman accuses him of criminal behavior Batman notes, with great satisfaction, “Sure we’re criminals…we’ve always been criminals” (1). While this graphic novel is not a part of Nolan’s trilogy it is easy to imagine Nolan’s rendering of Batman articulating the same thought. Should Gotham City have a statue celebrating a reckless, violent criminal who is absolutely certain he is justified to act above (or at least outside) the law?

The Purpose of Statues

We live at a time when the value of certain statues and monuments are hotly debated. As is often the case, both sides are absolutely confident they are correct. While few explicitly claim it a sense of moral superiority permeates the words, slogans, and actions of many debaters. So much intensity poured into statues. I wonder if some narcissistic pigeon, sitting atop a bronzed head, is silently wondering, “What’s all the commotion? Am I not pooping properly?”

Statues, regardless of how the pigeons’ experience them, are not devoid of meaning. Granted, if an apocalyptic event occurred and the human race did not exist the pigeon and the deer would not debate a statue’s meaning. People are needed for such discussion. Because we can reflect, learn, evaluate, think abstractly, and hand-pick our facts, statues – like flags, badges, and neckties – become imbued with symbolic power.

No statue stands in a void. I would be a fool if I stood before the statue of Theodore Geisal (Dr. Seuss) in Springfield, Massachusetts and told my children he was being honored for inventing the light bulb! Statues, while not the keys to understanding history, do have a story to tell. They also reflect aspects of both the community (big and small) and what community values. When evaluating a statue (or memorial and historic site for that matter) I consider it essential to consider the following questions:

 

  1. Who is being honored? – I mean this in the most fundamental way. When walking through Boston with my children we saw a statue of Bill Russell. My son asked, “Who’s that guy?” The answer, Bill Russell.
  2. What did this person do? Without much discussion kids know that in order to have a statue the individual must have done SOMETHING! What was it?
  3. What values did the honored individual possess and promulgate? While this question is closely linked to question two, my experience explaining statues to my children convinces me it stands alone as a different aspect of our discussions.
  4. Where is the statue located? This matters a bit more than may be apparent at first glance. The unveiling of the Batman statue at the end of Dark Knight Rises took place in a municipal building, probably City Hall. I would hope the statue would not remain there. Batman saved Gotham and dedicated himself to protecting the citizens from crime and the corruption of municipalities. Should, however, Batman’s statue remain in City Hall it may well act as a stark reminder of the sacrifice one man had to make because of corrupt and ineffective leadership.
  5. What does the statue say about both the local community (town or state) and about the larger community (the nation) in which it stands? What do we stand for?
  6. What lessons can be learned from this statue?  I am a teacher and always searching for the next lesson. I also teach history, where lessons can be painful, difficult, challenging, controversial, thought-provoking, and (dare I say) exciting. That might sound like too much to ask from our man-made landscape but, it does bring us back to the question, “What do we stand for?”
  7. Who funded the statue and when was it erected? These are research questions but they do shed light on the political nature of many statues on America’s landscape.

From Batman to John Brown

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When I googled “Columbus honoring genocide” hits containing that phrase were instantly reported. When I googled “John Brown honoring brutality” articles instantly appeared that had nothing to do with the controversial abolitionist. Searching “John Brown honoring murder” summoned articles delving into the time-honored debate of hero or villain and murderer or martyr. A New York Times article calling for a posthumous pardon also appeared. Evidently supporting John Brown does not mean you support murder whereas, to some people, if one supports Columbus then he or she must, by extension, be supportive of genocide. I am not convinced supporting a statue reveals support for genocide or murder. I do, however, think certain monuments can be scrutinized using at least some of my evaluative tools. Let us begin with John Brown.

John Brown was, to be sure, a violent abolitionist. He was also an immediatist, meaning he wanted slavery abolished NOW! Not tomorrow and, preferably, yesterday.  Moreover, unlike various abolitionists of the 1840’s and 1850’s, he believed in full civil rights as well. To dedicate oneself to freedom and equality clearly places John Brown in alignment with certain American ideals. To rage for the end of slavery with unrelenting passion and to fight for those trapped in the horrific state of bondage places Brown in the realm of hero. The manifestation of his core values, however, ran from the benign (his move to North Elba, New York) to the homicidal (Pottawatomie Creek Massacre) to the revolutionary (assault on Harpers Ferry).

John Brown, quite famously, attacked and, for the briefest of moments, seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The assault at Harpers Ferry was part of a grandeur scheme. He was assaulting slavery itself. He hoped that approximately 1,500 slaves would flee their plantations and meet him at Harpers Ferry. The degrading institution of slavery was sanctioned by the government at every level, local to federal. Laws were consistently passed to ensure its survival and spread. Every minute of its existence allowed the roots of racism to deepen their hold in our national consciousness, creating socio-psychological scars that persist to this day. John Brown strove to strike a death blow to this spiteful institution. There was a revolutionary logic to his actions. Moreover his intent, to end slavery, was noble and shared by millions of others. The Pottawatomie massacre was not part of such a far reaching strategy. It was rage and revenge. But it is also part of the man’s biography.  

As May 24 became May 25, 1856 John Brown and a group of companions killed five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek. The men were politically pro-slavery but did not own slaves themselves. The men were killed on their front lawn, in front of the woman who was mother and wife. A younger boy also witnessed the slaughter. These facts do not give tremendous pause to modern supporters of John Brown. Nor did such activity even give pause to some of his contemporaries.

Henry David Thoreau, whose writing inspired non-violent activists from Gandhi to Dr. King, granted Brown his support. He drew a link between Christ and Brown, calling Brown an “angel of light”(2).  The key, I believe, to understanding this view of Brown rises from the fact he opposed something so wretched (slavery) and stood for  ideals so cherished (freedom and equality) that he is, generally speaking, forgiven his most horrific deeds. Turning again to Thoreau, Brown “offered himself to be the savior of four millions of men” (3).

In the end, the nation’s inability to settle the issue of slavery peacefully led to violence on a scale far greater than John Brown’s activity. Perhaps greater than even he imagined when he proclaimed, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done” (4).

I must confess, I am not always comfortable with the mirror that is John Brown but I know the value of peering into the shadow from time to time. What does he reveal about us? What amount of hostility do we find acceptable? What rage, often justified as righteous, do people seek to unleash? When can we accept doing something horrible for a noble cause? How should I handle and channel my own frustration and anger? How do we balance noble intention with frightening impulses?

Let those statues of ole John Brown stand. Let him remind us that the failure to address human suffering ultimately leads to extreme action. Let us look at him and hope that we can solve the issues of today without the need to become or support midnight executioners or practitioners of violence. We can let his truth (the need for freedom and equality) march on without subscribing to violent actions. Perhaps by showing us the shadows John Brown can help us find the diamonds in the dark.
Reimagining Columbus: What Do We Stand For?

Perhaps no historic figure’s legacy has been as scrutinized over the past decade as that of Christopher Columbus. His actions, particularly those taken from his second through his fourth voyage, are disturbing. An investigation led by Francisco de Bobadilla led to Columbus’ imprisonment for brutality, mutilation, and torture.

Modern anti-Columbus voices often point to this brutality, as well as the genocidal impact Columbus had on the Native population, as key grounds for removal of Columbus from our national landscape and calendar. Others point out Columbus failed to achieve his stated goal (reaching India by sailing west), did not discover America (Natives were here and Vikings had journeyed to North America), and did not prove the Earth was round (which he and most educated people of his times already knew). The facts of history, according to some, make it clear that the Italian explorer deserves no remembrance or holiday.  

There are, however, other facts that need to be admitted. Whatever information the Vikings gained regarding the world’s geography was not part of the knowledge base of 15th century Europe. European nations simply did not have knowledge of North and South America. Europe. I am unaware of any of Columbus’ contemporaries positing the question, “But Chris, how will you get by those land masses the Vikings encountered?” Columbus did reveal the existence of previously unknown land masses. Ironically, he would stubbornly maintain he was off the coast of India throughout his life.

He was also the vanguard of a wave of westward exploration that led to Spain’s Western Hemisphere Empire. Spain’s European competitors followed suit, which ultimately did lead to the founding of the United States. He is clearly not the founder of this (or any) nation. He is, perhaps more than any other individual, the catalyst of the centuries of events that led to the expansion of European powers into North and South America. His journey impacted history deeply. It matters little to me that someone else may have filled this role had Columbus not existed. He is the one who performed the task.  

To be balanced, this also makes him the catalyst of the events that led to the downfall of many Native tribes. The utter ruin of these tribes cannot be laid entirely at Columbus’ feet. Generations of Conquistadors, explorers, and U.S. Presidents and politicians participated. To heap scorn on Columbus for the actions of others is unnecessary. Worse, it is ahistorical. Let others accept their fair share of blame. His personal actions of torture, enslavement, and humiliation are reason enough to dismiss the concept of Columbus as hero. What to do about Columbus? Shall we wipe him completely away from our national landscape? Let’s not be too hasty.

Columbus, warts and all, risked his life and reputation to pursue his goals. He defied expectations and changed the course of world events. Columbus’ greatest contribution was as an explorer, specifically on his first trip in 1492. In 2012 Karl Frank, a resident of St. Louis, worked with Tom Diehl and Rod Wright to launch an audacious plan. They sought to transform Columbus Day to Exploration Day (5). One supporter of the idea wrote Exploration Day “would put an end to the awkward sanctification of the deeply flawed Columbus while continuing to celebrate his exploratory zeal” (6).  A day dedicated to “exploratory zeal.” To have a day dedicated to honoring the determination and fiery spirit that drove William James to study the mind, allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon, James Watson to unravel DNA, and a host of others who pushed boundaries and expand our collective knowledge. It also allows Columbus exploration to remain a part of our landscape because it is, when all is said and done, part of our history. This does, of course, leave us with 1493 when Columbus became conqueror and tyrannical governor.

Some landmarks and statues should remain to remind us of fell deeds and mistakes of our collective past. By maintaining them, in a historically accurate and challenging manner, we are making a bold statement. Acknowledging failures is more than an act of shame. It can rejuvenate the soul as we promise to do better. Maybe that’s a lot to ask of historic sites. Art, however, can heal. Art can speak to the logic of our dreams and touch the emotive core of our souls. It can evoke wonder and soften the calloused heart. Why can’t a commemorative statue carry the power of art?

Could we accept a statue of Columbus that simultaneously reflected both sides of the man, leaving visitors to ponder his place on our national landscape? Perhaps a Jekyll and Hyde rendering of Columbus would be best. A statue with Columbus as explorer with the date 1492 on a placard backed with a statue of Columbus as conqueror with the date 1493 could present us this challenge. Or, instead of the dual interpretation of Columbus, a rendering of a weeping member of the Arakawa tribe could be standing above the date 1493.  

There is also the idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People Day. Supporting the transformation Columbus Day to Exploration Day does not remove the creation of Indigenous People Day. In fact, I think  one enhances the other. The holiday should be founded on a separate date. Indigenous People Day should be more than a rejection of Columbus Day.  It is worthy to stand on its own accord.  The inspirational Shawnee warrior Tecumseh was born in March, as was the dignified Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Perhaps a day in March would be an appropriate time to honor Native Americans, reflect on what was lost, consider the courage and dignity of their struggle, and consider what the wisest course of action going forward is (7).

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The Eternal Struggle and Andrew Jackson

In 2011 my book The Eternal Struggle was released.( Don’t worry if you missed it, so did everybody else! ) In that book, which was inspired by the idea of Lord of the Rings meets Dante’s Inferno, historic figures are assigned roles and locations in the afterlife. Columbus was assigned to Hell for his moral shortcomings, as was Andrew Jackson. If there was one person whom I could remove from our national landscape it would be Andrew Jackson. Not his name, per say, but historic renderings of him on horses and vigorously riding into battle all have to go. He also does not deserve the honor of being on the twenty dollar bill. The rise of Indigenous People Day should be the fall of Andrew Jackson.

The Trail of Tears. Worcester v. Georgia. These linked events are enough to question any necessity to honor Andrew Jackson. Jackson, as President of the United States, advocated passionately for the Indian Removal Act. The act became law in 1830. As a provision of the law unsettled land to the west of the Mississippi was offered to various tribes in exchange for lands in the east. Some tribes took the offer. Others, like the Cherokee, were forcibly removed. The mandated march claimed approximately 4,000 lives.

Chief John Ross of the Cherokee, in a desperate letter to Congress penned in 1836, described his people’s plight. “Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family!” In the end he beseeched the United States for aid. “Before your august assembly we present ourselves, in the attitude of deprecation, and of entreaty. On your kindness, on your humanity, on your compassion, on your benevolence, we rest our hopes. To you we address our reiterated prayers. Spare our people! Spare the wreck of our prosperity! Let not our deserted homes become the monuments of our desolation!” (8)

This series of events alone should alter the manner Jackson is presented on our national landscape if we allow him to be presented at all! His crimes extend beyond the tribes he displaced. Jackson assaulted the Constitution as well. The Cherokee had long maintained they were a sovereign people while the state of Georgia claimed rights to Cherokee territory.  The Supreme Court Case Worcester v. Georgia brought a decision favorable to the Cherokee, declaring, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force” (9)  

Georgia ignored the decision and President Jackson let them. The chief executive did not execute the law. He stated the decision “fell still born” and the court was powerless to force Georgia to “yield to its mandates” (10).  A state disapproved of Supreme Court decision and, therefore, ignores it. The President not only allowed, but encouraged this activity. He placed himself above the law in a nation that proposes to embrace the rule of law. The New York Times called for a posthumous pardon of John Brown. Can we add a posthumous impeachment for Andrew Jackson?  

Back to Gotham

Let us finish where we started, back in Gotham looking up at the statue of Batman. We know what he’s done, the lives saved, and the laws broken. We know the intention of the character and can pick a fitting location for the statue. The question remains, does he deserve it? I suppose the deck is stacked a bit in his fictional world but we can always bring it back to our nation. There are many historic sites left untouched by this essay. Who stays? Who gets reimagined? Who would you remove? Lastly, and most importantly, who do we honor  next?

 

(1) Can’t recommend Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns strongly enough. Here’s a link to it at Amazon. 

https://www.amazon.com/Batman-Dark-Knight-Returns-Anniversary/dp/1401263119/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506908189&sr=1-2&keywords=frank+miller+dark+knigh

(2) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/thoreau_001.asp

(3) ibid.

(4) https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/john-brown

(5) For more information please see http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/bill-mcclellan/columbus-day-or-explorers-day-mcclellan-is-a-traditionalist/article_7ba40895-309c-564e-8dbc-ada1a8336b67.html or  https://www.cnet.com/news/should-columbus-day-be-changed-to-exploration-day/

(6) Quotation found in http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/bill-mcclellan/columbus-day-or-explorers-day-mcclellan-is-a-traditionalist/article_7ba40895-309c-564e-8dbc-ada1a8336b67.html

(7) A final thought on Exploration Day/Indigenous People Day symmetry. If Indigenous People Day replaced Columbus Day the two become forever linked. I contend any day honoring Native Americans, their culture, their past, and future dreams and visions need not spring from Columbus. Let him be absorbed by other explorers and, if he can not withstand the competition, sail from site with not yearly reminder of why Indigenous People Day came to be.

(8) http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6598/

(9) https://www.oyez.org/cases/1789-1850/31us515

(10) http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/worcester-v-georgia-1832

 

Don’t Say the “H-Word”

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The Netflix series The Defenders opens with a brief exchange between a cynical and often petulant Jessica Jones and her much more upbeat and optimistic adoptive-sister Trish Walker (1).

Trish: “You’re not comfortable with what you’ve become, Jessica. You are now a full-fledged su..”

Jessica: “Don’t say the ‘H’ word.”

Jessica was still adjusting to the notoriety  she had earned by ending a reign of terror orchestrated by a psychopathic man with the power to control minds. This man, Kilgrave, was bereft of conscience and would use his mind control powers to punish, often with death, slights to his ego as simple as a waiter misspeaking. Jessica’s reluctance to be called ‘hero’ is quite common, easily found in both pop culture and our lives.

Consider a scene for the movie Gladiator.  Lucilla, sister of the tyrannical Emperor Commodus, visits Maximus Decimus Meridius in his prison cell. Lucilla is organizing a group of conspirators to dispose of Commodus and return Rome to its past glory. Maximus, who had recently vowed, quite publically, to avenge the murder of his family by killing Commodus, is chained to a wall. His aid, however, is essential to Lucilla. As she explains her vision Maximus recoils, eventually snarling, “I am a slave. What possible difference can I make?”

Maximus, bound by actual chains, felt incapable of taking meaningful action. Jessica’s chains, while invisible, kept her from simply accepting the good she had done (2). Trish teases her by noting, “Only you could take that big, personal victory and turn it into a defeat.” People can, like Jessica Jones, insist others not describe them with the  “h-word” while others, like Maximus, resign themselves to the idea they are incapable of making a difference. Either way, Aunt May would not be proud.

Why hide from the ‘H-word’?

It is commonly said that people do not readily accept the idea of being a hero because of humility. I do not doubt this is true. There is rarely a singular reason for the people’s behavior. There is often a pie chart of reasons and motivations for our actions. Beyond humility what might cause one to reject the “H-word”?  Perhaps the idea of being a hero is difficult because it is such a big concept. A responsibility? Perhaps it is a concept that challenges our self-image. I am sure there is someone reading this that had a hero, or at least someone he or she looked, or still looks, up to. Someone admired. Is it difficult to imagine another human being thinking so well of you? Is it hard to fathom, even accept, what they see? Beyond self-image is there a fearful element to being heroic?

Over two-thousand years ago Buddha taught, “The wise man tells you where you have fallen and where you yet may fall – invaluable secrets!” He included in this maxim the assertion, “The world may hate {the wise man}” (3).  One may hate the wise man? Why wouldn’t we be more thankful for this aid? The American psychologist Abraham Maslow can help clarify this phenomenon.  

Maslow noted that animosity towards heroic figures (or Buddha’s “wise man”) was quite “common” as he wrote, “The commonly seen hatred or resentment of or jealousy of goodness, truth, beauty, health, or intelligence is largely determined by threat of loss of self-esteem…Every superior person confronts us with our own shortcoming” (4). We live in culture where we can find constant examples of people decrying others for “judging” or “shaming” them. There are, without a doubt, people who cast insults and aspersions about far too casually. They exemplify Maslow’s “commonly seen hatred…” Such actions ought to be decried. There are also times when constructive criticism is rejected and the person offering such aid is labels everything from cynical to the sophomoric phrase “hater.” Honesty, however, demands a confession. I know I have on occasion rejected the critique of others merely to avoid self-reflection and the pain of confronting shortcomings. Can I be the only one to have done so?  

Returning to the idea of the hero, I do not doubt that some resistance to being called hero is the admirable trait of humility.  However, do some individuals resist the label of hero (Jessica Jones) or the call to the heroic quest (Maximus) precisely because of an awareness of personal shortcomings? Worse, could they possess a tendency to overemphasize a weakness and fail to see their own strengths? The ‘h-word’ does not require perfection. Perhaps if we temper our understanding we can more comfortably embrace the mantle of hero.

Coming to grips with the ‘H-word”

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, believes the word hero needs to be demystified. He contends most heroes are everyday people who perform an extraordinary act. He seeks to exemplify these individual so we become more effective at recognizing everyday heroes. Before heroic action takes place, however, preparation begins. Part of the goal of the HIP is to prepare people to be a “hero in waiting” or a “hero in training.” This means people can be taught or exposed to heroic exemplars and develop the capacity to envision themselves as heroic. In so doing they will be more likely to act heroically when the moment arises. Dr. Zimbardo emphasizes the idea that heroic may just be, in essence, a moment when he says, “it may happen only once in your life” (5).  

Their website also informs us that, “Heroism can be learned, can be taught, can be modeled, and can be a quality of being to which we all should aspire.” The Heroic Imagination project also posits that heroism is an “intentional action in service to others in need or to humanity by defending a moral cause, without personal gain and with awareness of likely personal costs” (6).

It would appear much of what I do falls in line with Dr. Zimbardo. I believe there is indeed a heroic imagination that can be strengthened by exposure to heroes and heroic qualities. Where we may part company slightly is our choice of fuel. He accentuates holding up unknown and hidden heroes among us as models. I tend to hold up historic and fictional exemplars in an effort to inspire heroic visions. The reason I do this is quite personal. My heroic imagination is fueled by big stories and fictional tales. The psychologist James Hillman taught, “Extraordinary people excite; they guide; they warn; standing, as they do, in the corridors of imagination…they help us carry what comes to us as it came to them” (7). Standing in the corridors of imagination. Perhaps by visiting that corridor we become worthy of occupying that sacred space.

There is, however, one particular phrase used by Dr. Zimbardo that causes me to feel hesitant. The HIP declares heroism can be a “quality of being to which we can all aspire” (8). I do not envision heroism as a quality of being. I am more inclined to see certain qualities of being, certain virtues, as essential to becoming a hero. One becomes a hero via action. Heroic actions don’t arise from heroism, they arise from specific qualities.

Say the ‘H-word!”

Psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have performed extensive research in the realm of positive psychology. Peterson and Seligman’s work frees us from a parochial world view and allows us to glimpse the often elusive unifying factors that the human family does possess. They sought to identify virtues that were valued in every culture.  To accomplish this feat they studied a massive swath of literature from across the globe. Their research included, but was not limited to, religious texts, fictional tales, myths, and philosophic treatises. A list of twenty-four virtues was produced. Since then researchers interested in positive psychology have brought the list to communities as divergent as college students in the United States and tribal villages in Kenya. One such researcher, Robert Biswas-Diener, has found people in these diverse cultures recognize the virtues listed and hope their children will develop them. The list includes the following virtues:

Honesty               Judgment         Creativity         

 Love of Learning                         Prudence        

 Kindness             Perspective      Forgiveness   

Perseverance      Spirituality       Humility             

Love                      Curiosity           Fairness               

Gratitude              Humor             Social IQ              

Hope                      Bravery            Zest              

Self-Regulation                              Leadership                               

Teamwork        

Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence (9)

I look at this list and I see the well-spring from whence heroic action arises as well as the lenses through which we see our heroes. Whether Jessica Jones cares to admit it she confronted a psychopath who, in the past, took control of her mind (bravery). As in all heroic quests she faced stumbling blocks and endured set-backs (perseverance). While surly and cynical, she allowed allies to assist her on her journey (teamwork) and guided them to final victory (leadership). She made some questionable decisions along the way (a lack of judgment and prudence) and, in the end, cannot see herself as heroic because of the damage she caused (a lack of self-forgiveness). Heroes need not be perfect and we can root for the character to evolve, to strengthen areas of weakness, and become more accepting of the mantle of hero.

It is not just fictional characters, but real life people who need to become more comfortable with this shift. Not only does a hero not need to be perfect, their heroic deed need not be terribly dramatic. If a teacher rouses love of learning in a student or approaches their craft in such a way that a student’s perspective is widened and their creativity deepened, has that teacher not performed a heroic deed?

I have colleagues whom I know would balk at being called hero. Yet I also know this; teachers can be terribly nostalgic. Many of them have a shoe box or drawer where thank you notes from past students are stored. Many of these messages are heartfelt letters illuminating the virtues the teacher personifies and expressions of gratitude for some unique service rendered. I am fortunate to have met some of the people with whom I work. The notes of appreciation they receive from students are well deserved. My search for heroes need not take me much farther than a walk down the hall. Perhaps, wherever you roam you just may, if you’re not careful, accidentally bump into a hero or two as well.     

 

  1. Jessica Jones appears in her own show, Jessica Jones, and The Defenders. The exchange between Jessica and Trish occurs in the first episode of The Defenders.
  2. The idea of chains binding people in philosophy is quite common. Two examples would be Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s axiom, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”
  3.  Thomas Byrom (translator), Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston, Shambhala, 1993), p. 23.
  4. Abraham Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd ed.) (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968), p. 196.
  5. The information from Dr. Zimbardo comes from the following websites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsFEV35tWsg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWQq0E8ENSc, and http://heroicimagination.org/
  6. Ibid.
  7. James Hillman, The Souls Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York, Warner Books, 1996), p. 32.
  8. http://heroicimagination.org/
  9. Information regarding this list of virtues and positive psychology please go to https://www.viacharacter.org/www/

 

   

 

  

 

Welcome to Thinking Pop Culture!

“There is a yearning in the human heart that is nourished only by real philosophy.”

-Jacob Needleman

Welcome readers and thank you for visiting! Have you ever asked yourself, “Does morality exist in a zombie apocalypse?” Or perhaps,  “How does one fight the corruption of Gotham without becoming corrupted? What can one learn about the Socratic Method from Dr. Gregory House? Would a jedi knight have more in common with a Taoist sage or a Buddhist monk?”  If you have, you’ve come to the right place!

My name is James Rourke and I have been a history teacher at the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, CT for 23 years and a writer for 12. Regardless if I am writing or teaching I am always seeking ways to make big ideas relevant to both my students and my readers. I believe in the importance of philosophy and that wrestling with philosophic concepts can sharpen our reason and deepen our compassion. Big ideas are the gateway to shared humanity. I also have the conviction that those big ideas, unless rooted in, or at least touching, the small stories of our lives, lose some of their power.

At some point in my teaching career philosophy and psychology became inextricably linked with my approach to history. This convergence reached an apex three years ago when I introduced the course “P3: Philosophy, Psychology, and Pop Culture” to NFA’s curriculum. The impetus for this course can be summed up by the modern philosopher Jacob Needleman. “There is a yearning in the human heart that is nourished only by real philosophy…But this part of the human psyche is not known or honored in our culture…it is not cared for, it is crushed…When this happens man becomes a thing” (1). Professor Needleman wrote those words in 1982. They would likely have been true in 1882 and, unfortunately, will likely resonate in 2082.

I have felt this yearning Needleman references. It can be difficult to follow and even harder to quantify. I am thankful for the rocky path that this yearning demands because I know this: philosophy is not about memorizing quotations or becoming the keeper of arcane knowledge. Philosophy, at times, feels more like poetry for the mind that can both scar and heal the soul. It has helped me navigate rough waters, enjoy quiet times, grow more effectively self-reflective, and become increasingly aware of  everyday moments where appreciation can be expressed. It has made a profound difference for me and I thought it might make a difference for my students.

As stated, three years ago I brought “P3” to NFA. As I planned the course it became clear to me that I wanted the students to feel the power of philosophy in my room. This lead to the decision to use pop culture as the vehicle through which the students could gain a better appreciation and understanding of the philosophy we covered. We are story telling creatures and it is through stories that we can find both diversity of creativity and the unity of common goals and dreams.

In having the ebb and flow of the weeks and months together the students and I face the greatest challenge of all: seeking humanity that, throughout history, has seemed so elusive to people. The seeking of our common humanity has been the undercurrent of the class since the beginning. What does it mean to be an authentically mature person? Is there, as Aunt May teaches, “…a hero in all of us..a hero in all of us?” What makes a person worthy to hoist Mjolnir or to wield Anduril?

The great Stephen Biko once wrote, “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere  on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize” (2). Biko wrote while engaged in the bitter struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I would posit that this idea, of seeking true humanity, is a quest worth universalizing. What if that was a goal people put into their hearts? What if just an hour a day were dedicated to this challenge? That’s a big thought, perhaps even a tad idealistic. But if one is going to be inspired by an idea why not make it a big one!

Alas, I am a teacher. A small person in a limited profession. I am also human and can be moved by true greatness. I can also, on a good day, act as a corridor and bring  great people and fascinating ideas to life for my students. I strive to accomplish this everyday and  I am grateful to all my past “P3ers,” as well as to those in my US History and Psychology classes, for their efforts and I hope to continue to serve my students well.

It is, in many ways, my classroom experiences that have led to this website. Perhaps that which I do for my students will be well received beyond the confines of my classroom. Perhaps it may even be found useful or, at the least, an entertaining lens to gaze through from time to time.  So, once again, thanks for stopping by and I sincerely hope to make every visit worthy of your time!

(1) Needleman, J. (1982) The Heart of Philosophy. New York, New York: Penguin.

(2) Biko, S. (2002). I Write What I Like. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. This is the University of Chicago Press edition. The book first appeared in 1978.