Category Archives: Serious

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

That is the question. – Shakespeare, HAMLET

On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale – an “open mic” benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative. Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.

The evening also included a skit performed by high-schoolers from the “Wallenpaupack Players,” illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide, and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the United States – the tenth leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.

And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.

But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.

I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era – the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences – re-emerged as a very real possibility.

The thought occurred to me: can a society… or a nation… or an entire sentient species… itself become suicidal?

And if so, who could possibly intervene?

“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets” – “only we are doing ourselves in / much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles – I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once – but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”

After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.

There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t – so let me close this by quoting it…

When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)

Why must we wait

Why must we wait
Until our bloodstreams merge
On sidewalks and pavements
In hallways and classrooms
In the streets of pulverized cities
To see that all thse streams are the same

Why can we only flow together
Into puddles and gutters
Spattered across walls
Soaked into clothing
Filling up bathtubs
Circling the drains of tiled rooms

Why must we be shattered
Before we can be swept up together
Why must we decay
In the unmarked mass grave
Before we can greet the sun
As fields of flowers

America (Updated)

(It occurred to me at one point that the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” could use some kind of revision – an updating, if you will. You may have wondered what happened to that pair of idealistic Midwestern lovers, who took a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh to New York City… and the existential crisis that was just starting to form in the young man’s mind.

That whole story would be a good basis for a novel… but I had something more specific in mind. So, with all due respect and apologies to Mr. Simon…)

So we became lovers, we married our fortunes together
We took that Greyhound to NYC
Bought a house in Connecticut
Raised some kids, baked some pies
And that was our life in America…

“Kathy,” I said – we were at some convention in Pittsburgh –
“Our life has been such a dream so far…
“But inside I’m still just a poor kid from Saginaw
“There must be more to America…”

So we got back on the bus, went all sorts of places
Big cities, small towns, everywhere in between
Slowly we started to notice that something was missing…

“Hey man, got a cigarette, I’m six months laid off from the factory”
“I smoked my last one two decades ago”
But he thanked me anyway – I read Time Magazine
How the Dow rose over some increased yields

“Kathy,” I said – but she said, “Paul, just shut up and listen –
“You know what’s wrong here and so do I
“Count all the limos on the New Jersey Turnpike
“The rich ones are taking America
“Stealing the hopes of America
“Trying to kill the dream of America…”

#IAmSorry

OK guys. Time to “man up,” as they say.

You may have been drunk.  She may been drunk.
You might have gotten her drunk, or stoned, or whatever. Maybe deliberately, for one exact purpose.
You may have thought it was harmless fun, some kind of game.
You may have been trying to prove something to your buddies.
Or to yourself.
You might have had a plan, or it might have happened in a moment when you let your gonads overrule your brain.

You might not even be aware that what you did was hurtful.

Doesn’t matter.

You’re still on the hook.

Look back, and think carefully.

And look at how many of the women in your timelines are saying “#metoo.”

Own it, guys.

My name is Skip Mendler, and I owe some women an apology.

#IAmSorry

(And if you’re man enough to do it, take this text, replace my name with your own, and put it where everyone can see it.)

THE TORCH

(This poem, and its accompanying mime piece, were commissioned sometime in the 1980s, I believe for a discussion about what was happening in Central America at the time… I remember exactly where I was when the metaphor came to me, at the corner of Glenwood and Blue Ridge near Crabtree Mall.)

It came to us suddenly from above
Bright and powerful
And it only burned us
Until we learned how not to touch it directly

And the wise ones considered this thing
And decided that its use should be no secret
But that it should be given to all
That its uses should be taught
That it should be kept alive
For if it should ever be lost
Who knew when it would come again

Through winds of malice
And rains of doom
There have been those who kept it alive
And moving through the world
Whatever the costs

For there were always those who could not understand
This thing that was not darkness
And they would lay in waiting…
They would try to extinguish it
To erase it from the world
But somehow it would always be discovered again
Still smouldering…

Sometime it could be abused
What was intended to illuminate
Could be used to make others blind
What was intended to warm and empower
Could be used to destroy instead

But still the torch lives on
Its light is wisdom
Its warmth is love
Its fuel is your very heart and soul
Today the winds gather,and the rains grow strong
But the torch still burns in each of you
And with such keepers…
It will never fade away