Saturday, November 27, 2010

Louis Nordstrom

New York Times
April 26, 2009

Enlightenment Therapy


I. The Invisible Man If he hadn’t been so distraught, he might have laughed at the absurdity of it: a Zen master in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst. He was a connoisseur of contradictions, an unsentimental man with a “Zen noir” temperament and an un-self-sparing wit. “Anywhere I hang myself is home,” he liked to say. It amused him that the greatest discovery of his life happened almost by accident — that his decision to renounce a tenured professorship in philosophy and become a Zen Buddhist monk 35 years ago rested not just on the traditional revelations of an enlightenment experience (floods of light, samadhi or oneness, ineffable joy) but also on some farcical hurdles concerning Jewish wedding etiquette and his belated discovery that he had indeed been circumcised as a kid.

But that afternoon in July 2006, driving from his home in Brewster, N.Y., to the shrink’s office in Bedford Hills, he was frantic with anxiety. He found a seat facing the door, consumed with the feeling that no one could see him, that he’d become, in his phrase, “the invisible man.” He feared what the desire to be seen might drive him to do. How could he have spent his life cultivating unity of body and mind, oneness with all beings and the ability to apprehend reality directly, unmediated by thoughts or concepts or what Zen considered the arch delusion of “the self” — only to be haunted by the feeling that he lacked the most basic unity of all?

His self-alienation had divided him in two. Sometimes he was the Zen master Mitsunen (the name meant “Now Mind”), who got up before dawn each morning to sit selflessly for hours in meditation. Mitsunen received dharma transmission, by which teachings are passed from master to disciple, in the Soto school of Zen and was ordained a Zen monk in the Soto and the Rinzai schools. He served as head monk at the International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in upstate New York in the 1970s; for years he has led Zen retreats in Florida and North Carolina.

Other times he was Louis Nordstrom, a 63-year-old professor, poet and essayist with a round face, a shaved gray head and a shaky grip on whatever guise it was that people employed to navigate train stations and grocery stores. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia (his thesis was on Sartre’s theory of evil), and after giving up the monastic life he chose over tenure, he scraped by on teaching gigs at half a dozen schools, including Yale and N.Y.U. But the anxiety he was mired in in the summer of 2006 seemed deeper than what might be expected from financial or professional insecurity, or the infirmities of growing old, or even the aftermath of a busted marriage — his fourth. For two decades he lectured on the emergence of Western lay Zen, arguing against what he saw as the antiemotional bias of monastic Asian Zen in favor of an approach that integrated psychological experience into meditation practice. But as a pioneer of Zen in America, he had little success practicing what he preached. An antidepressant hadn’t helped much. Often in tears, he wondered if he was having a nervous breakdown. In a poem, he wrote:

… Because being alone

Has penetrated the bone,

I have misplaced the meaning

of pleasure; displaced

the measure of its loss.

Because being lost

has become my treasure,

daily I grow more flagrant

in my courtship of vagrant nowhere …

Here he was now, penciled in for 2:30 on the afternoon of July 7, 2006, in a waiting room tastefully littered with back issues of The New Yorker and yoga magazines, hoping for … what? To be seen. To be understood. To be saved in some way.

“Hi,” a man said, emerging from an office with his hand extended. “I’m Jeffrey. Are you Lou?”

Nordstrom nodded. He had gotten the therapist’s name from a friend. For a moment the two men measured each other across clasped hands. Then they went into the office and closed the door.

II. The Marriage of Buddha and Freud Zen and psychoanalysis have been courting for decades, as dizzy with their differences as a couple in a screwball comedy. The two disciplines — one, a much-revised theory of mind and therapy for neurotic illness from fin de siècle Vienna; the other a largely unchanged spiritual technique for realizing enlightenment from fifth-century China — broadly share the goal of relieving mental suffering. But their metaphysical premises and practical methods are night and day.

Psychoanalysis, of course, began as a flashlight safari into the darkness of the human psyche. Bring even a bit of the benighted unconscious to light, and neurotic patients might be relieved of their symptoms, free to enjoy, in Freud’s famous phrase, “common human unhappiness.” With its staple ideas about unconscious conflicts, the hidden freight of feelings, the secret intelligibility of dreams, psychoanalysis is essentially an exploration of how meaning arises in the mind.

What darkness is to psychoanalysis, light is to Zen. In pursuit of mystic illumination, “the vast ocean of dazzling light,” Zen is cheerfully unconcerned with the manufacture and distribution of personal meaning. It tends to discount the authority of the unconscious and to ignore the significance of dreams. Students are discouraged from delving into the content of emotions. Where psychoanalysis is keen to unpack a patient’s past — especially those aspects of the past that distort perception in the present — Zen dwells on awareness in the present. This! Here! Now! Zen masters have been known to whack students with a stick.

It’s no surprise that such an unlikely pair got off to a rocky start. For decades the feeling of being “one” with the universe, prized in Zen as an attribute of enlightenment, was belittled by many psychoanalysts as an “infantile regression.” By the same token, the injunction “know thyself,” the ultimate chocolate-cherry in the candy box of Western wisdom, was brushed off by Zen adherents as a delusion. What’s to know about a conceit that has no fixed reality and more often than not is an impediment to experiencing Buddha nature? The self, as one Rinzai teacher put it bluntly, “is a malignant growth which is to be surgically removed.”

But by the middle of the last century, Zen and psychoanalysis were warming up to each other. The views of the relational school of psychoanalysis, which emerged in the 1980s to critique “the myth of the isolated mind,” fit comfortably with the Zen notion that suffering comes from the misperception that we are separate from the world. By 1994, when some 500 Buddhists and psychoanalysts gathered for a conference at the Harvard Club in New York City, a number of analysts had regular meditation practices and were incorporating Buddhist ideas in their work. Among them was Jeffrey B. Rubin. At the time he was 41. He grew up on Long Island, the elder of two boys; his mother was a social worker, his father an executive for Burlington Menswear.

Rubin’s interest in Buddhism and psychoanalysis can be traced to the last five seconds of a high-school basketball game he played for the Woodmere Academy Wolverines on Long Island in February 1971. As the short but sharpshooting point guard, he got the ball at half court, with the Wolverines trailing by a point. As he dribbled up the left side, the din of the crowd dropped away; an uncanny feeling of clarity and peace came over him; time slowed. After he shot from the top of the key, he heard the roar in the gym break in like the sound resuming in a movie. He lingered in the locker room after his teammates dressed, hardly caring that the Wolverines won or that he was the hero. A door had opened onto another world.

After graduating from Princeton, where he was a literature major, he was still confounded by the realm he’d glimpsed. He attended a Buddhist retreat and took up meditation. At night he immersed himself in the literature of Buddhism and yoga, Krishnamurti and Freud. During the day he worked in a halfway house for schizophrenics, more intrigued now by actual characters than by characters in texts. He got a master’s in social work at Columbia, and later a Ph.D. in psychology from Union Institute and University. At Lenox Hill Hospital, he entered a training program in psychoanalysis and in 1980 opened his own practice.

By the 1994 conference at the Harvard Club, Rubin was convinced that “the marriage of Buddha and Freud” would benefit both disciplines. “When you combine the best of Buddhism and psychoanalysis,” he told me one day last winter, “you get a full-spectrum view of human nature focused on both health and spiritual potential as well as on the psychological forces we struggle with and the obstacles we unconsciously put in our way.” But people at the conference still seemed bunkered in their doctrines, and he often found himself tacking between camps. He was scheduled to summarize a dialogue between a Buddhist and a psychoanalyst, but he was suddenly struck by the fallacy that enlightenment meant complete freedom from self-deception. He stayed up till 5 a.m. drafting a new talk, “The Emperor of Enlightenment May Have No Clothes.” Two years later he published his first book, “Psychotherapy and Buddhism.” Ten years after that — a decade in which he refined his pioneering approach to Buddhism and psychoanalysis, published two more books and began his own studies of Zen — the ultimate patient appeared in his office.

III. What Does It Mean to Have a Life of One's Own? With a wraithlike air, the Zen master accepted a seat on a black leather couch below the colored tumult of a de Kooning print and a photograph of a stone path vanishing around a bend in Kyoto. Lou Nordstrom later said he felt better almost the moment he met Jeffrey Rubin’s gaze. He had come as someone would to an emergency room for a therapeutic intervention.

“I left that first session with tears of joy on my face,” he told me one day last October as we sat with cups of coffee in the mica light of Bryant Park in Manhattan. “What Jeffrey did that first session saved my life. He listened empathetically and nonjudgmentally. He encouraged me to see my fears of acting out as symptoms of an unconscious desire to be seen.”

As the months went by, measured out in 50-minute sessions twice a week, the motifs of his history emerged. There was the surreal and horrific childhood of parental neglect, abuse and abandonment. There were those aspects of old trauma he was unwittingly reinflicting on himself, contriving to be abandoned by wives, disillusioned by mentors, seemingly incapable of taking basic care of himself. And there was the paradoxical role of Zen, which had enabled him to cope with the pain and alienation of his purgatorial youth but which he was now beginning to understand was implicated in his difficulties and may even have been making some of them worse.

Nordstrom was born in Atlanta in 1943, the only child of a Norwegian father who worked at a bank and a Scotch-Irish Cherokee mother. Both parents — now dead — were alcoholics. When Nordstrom was 3, his mother fled; his father, who remarried twice, ceded the child-rearing to Nordstrom’s paternal grandparents in Brooklyn. They had their own problems, his grandmother’s incipient senility among them. Once, when a friend came over for dinner, she triumphantly served up strawberry ice cream on a block of still-frozen French fries. As Nordstrom wrote in an unpublished memoir composed after a year of therapy: “My grandmother spent most of her time lying in bed amongst her large collection of dolls, wearing layers of housedresses, rarely taken off, and her Dodgers baseball cap; my grandfather spent most of his time in his basement workshop where he made hundreds of miniature sailing ships in bottles. They hated each other, and hardly ever spoke.”

From his grandparents Nordstrom learned his mother had stubbed out cigarettes on his skin and had beaten him with a brine-dipped switch; he was told that she was dead and advised to ignore the occasional phone call from a mysterious woman. It was not until he was 16 that he met his mother for the first time, at a hotel lounge in New York, where she downed a row of sloe-gin fizzes. She offered little explanation beyond that he was better off without her.

Growing up in the drawn-curtain gloom of that lonely, airless house, Nordstrom created the illusion of space by painting a wall in his room sky blue. He invented a private language and honed an ironical humor that was as much an existential posture as a rhetorical device. He escaped into sports and books. He learned to read in French and eventually German. He played the wise-before-his-time role common to children of incompetent parents. Once, when he was 14, sitting at the dining-room table working on a paper about the novel “Of Human Bondage,” his father dropped in for a visit and abjectly asked him what to do about a recent episode of impotence. When his grandfather was dying, his last words to Nordstrom were: “Be a man, not like your father.”

“I always felt my life was a Zen koan,” he said, sipping his coffee as an old woman crumbled bread for a flock of Bryant Park pigeons. “The koan is: What does it mean to have a life of one’s own?”

He entered Columbia at 16 on a full scholarship. His junior year he married for the first time, “a pure experiment to see if I could fit in.” He graduated summa cum laude and won a Fulbright scholarship, among numerous other prizes. The marriage ended after three years.

By 1967 he was employed as a philosophy instructor at Columbia and engaged again: it was his fiancée, a Brooklyn-born Vassar graduate, who, he says, came up with the idea of a Zen wedding when Nordstrom, then 24 and somehow unaware that he was circumcised, told her parents he was reluctant to make any amendments to his manhood that might be required were he to convert to Judaism and be married in an Orthodox ceremony. Nordstrom hadn’t a clue what Zen or a Zen wedding entailed, but as long as surgery wasn’t involved, why not? They found a local Zen center in the Yellow Pages.

The marriage, in September 1967, did not allay his self-destructive tendencies. “The agonizing absence of internal unity made me suicidal,” he would write later. His wife, who began a Zen practice after their lark of a wedding (and who would later become one of the first women in the United States to receive dharma transmission), enlisted a friend, who browbeat Nordstrom into a session of zazen, seated meditation. The habit took. He was impressed by the calmness he felt, not the “valium calm” of killing the turbulence inside him but the equanimity that came from becoming the turbulence.

“I felt saved by Zen,” he told me. “The Humpty Dumpty image is corny, but it’s right. Meditation put me back together. It helped me overcome the split between the body and the mind. The question that remained was what to do with emotions and the self.”

A year later in Litchfield, Conn., he attended his first multiday sesshin with a group of Zen meditators. The Rinzai teacher instructed him to “kill the watcher” within. By the third session he experienced kensho, which some meditators spend their lives hoping to attain: “I felt as if something like an earthquake or implosion was about to happen,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Everything around me looked exceedingly odd, as if the glue separating things had started to melt. . . . By the time I got to my room I was weightless; there was no gravity. . . . Then the earthquake or implosion — ‘body and mind dropping off’ — occurred. There was an incredible explosion of light coming from inside and outside simultaneously, and everything disappeared into that light . . . there was no longer a here versus there, a this versus that. . . . I understood nothing except that nothing would ever seem the same to me. . . . And despite the fact that I had no understanding whatever of what had happened (nor do I now), this experience changed my life completely.”

IV. As Though a Fool, Like an Idiot Six months into therapy, the psychoanalyst and the Zen master had mapped the abandonment and neglect in Nordstrom’s past. They had explored how the themes were re-enacted in his professional and personal lives and how the same patterns began to surface even in the dynamics of the therapy itself. Nordstrom missed an appointment after a big snowstorm, then missed another because he wasn’t feeling well. Rubin held three sessions with his patient over the phone.

“Please don’t abandon me!” Nordstrom said during the third session.

“I’m staring at an empty couch,” the psychoanalyst said, trying to keep some velvet over the steel in his voice. “You are the one doing the abandoning. Are you abandoning yourself the way you have always been abandoned?”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Nordstrom said. “I think there is something profoundly disturbing and true about that.”

By the spring of 2007, nearly a year into the therapy, Nordstrom had a breakthrough — what he called “a tearful reunion with my narrative.” The gist of it had to do with the way he devised what Rubin termed “a self-cure.” He sought to protect himself against the trauma of further abandonment by pre-emptively abandoning himself. If he wasn’t there in the first place, he wasn’t in a position to be cast away. The Zen concept of no-self was like a powerful form of immunity.

“The Zen experience of forgetting the self was very natural to me,” he told me last fall. “I had already been engaged in forgetting and abandoning the self in my childhood, which was filled with the fear of how unreal things seemed. But that forgetting was pathological. I always had some deeper sense that I wasn’t really there, that my life and my marriages didn’t seem real. In therapy with Jeffrey I began to realize this feeling of invisibility wasn’t just a peculiar experience but was maybe the central theme of my life. It was connected to my having ‘ability’ as a Zen student and to my being able to have a precocious enlightenment experience. In a sense it was as if Zen chose me rather than that I chose Zen.”

Impelled by a flood of memories, Nordstrom composed an autobiography in June 2007, pouring out most of the pages in the space of a month. He titled it “As Though a Fool, Like an Idiot,” after a phrase written by the founder of Soto Zen in the ninth century. He viewed the manuscript as an attempt to resurrect the self he had buried — buried in part because he was appalled people might think he felt sorry for himself. He wrote, “I’ve come to a point in my life where survival requires that I reclaim my narrative by refusing any longer to dismiss experience that was profoundly painful just so I’m not accused of self-pity.”

But what was absent in the rush of revelations during his tearful reunion with his narrative was any heartfelt sense of mourning. His new insights were mostly a matter of intellectually understanding the way he used Zen to assuage the pain of the past, hiding the pathological aspects of self-abandonment and neglect in the rapture of Zen vacancy; how he hid from his own neediness, anger and grief in the ecstatic abnegation of enlightenment. Yes, he got it. It wasn’t rocket science. He was thinking his therapy was winding down; he could get on with his life. What he felt he needed more than a therapist was a social worker — someone who could help him find a place to live and help him put in for Social Security.

And then in January 2008, he got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. It was dark; he knew he should put a light on. All at once he was tumbling down a flight of stairs. His left hip, his pelvis, his sacrum and three ribs were fractured. He lay at the bottom thinking he didn’t want to go on anymore, but prodded by some willful, inconvenient impulse, he dragged himself up the stairs and called 911.

On the phone a few days later, his therapist wondered if the fall had been an unconscious suicide attempt. It struck him how quickly he accepted the interpretation.

V. Hellish, Ineradicable Hope When I first met Lou Nordstrom, we sat in a cafe in a Borders bookstore off Columbus Circle. The Zen master had just finished a session at his psychoanalyst’s Manhattan office. It was March 2008, a little more than a month since he’d broken his hip and battered his ribs. He was limping around well enough on a cane, proud of his resilience. He admired people who showed guts and aspired to exhibit them himself. He was modest, disarmingly open, but wreathed in an air of bewildered sadness, as if he were still struggling with the implications of the fall and the un-Zen-like dualism implicit in the idea that some covert insurgency was afoot in his psyche opposing his desire to live.

“I’m not converted to psychoanalysis in toto,” he said, “I’m converted to a very specific point, the relevance of abandonment in my life and the cost of Zen to myself — the damage I did to myself via self-neglect. I didn’t realize what I had renounced. It was a little like duh-uh! One of the most important insights I got from therapy with Jeffrey is that subconsciously I want the depth of my suffering to be witnessed by someone. I want to be seen for what a strange fellow I am. As a young guy I got off on the sense of being different. There was some arrogance and elitism in it. The positive spin of the surreal nature of my childhood was that there must have been some special destiny for me. To give up tenure, to become a monk, I embraced an aggrandized narrative. What Jeffrey has done is indicate that forgetting the self is not a constructive approach. What one needs to do from a psychoanalytic perspective is remember the self.”

It was a far cry from the advice he’d gotten in 1987 from a Zen teacher who said, “What you need to do, Lou, is put aside all human feelings.”

When I saw him again in October in Bryant Park, the aura of melancholy had cleared. He was walking without a limp. He was teaching a class at N.Y.U. The day I sat in, the topic was the Buddhist text known as the Diamond Sutra, which proclaims that an enlightened person does not believe in a self, an ego, a personality. Professor Nordstrom seemed almost buoyant, dressed like a jewel thief in a black turtleneck.

“How many of you believe you have a self?” he asked the class. “Your grade is not dependent on how you answer.”

He savored the silence other professors would rush to fill. This! Here! Now! He made a point of sitting with his students in order to reinforce the idea that they weren’t separate. He seemed almost averse to his own authority, suggesting they might want to forget everything he said (“which shouldn’t be too hard”), because “understanding is the booby prize.”

A month later, in mid-November, after a long meditation at home in his condo in Brewster, he got up too quickly. His right leg buckled, and he fell against the wall, fracturing the femoral neck of his right hip. Again a moment of utter resignation; again the incurable impulse to get to the phone and call for help.

I visited Nordstrom at his home a few weeks later. Unlike his trouble on the stairs in January, the second tumble seemed to weigh lightly on him. It was not his nature to abandon irony as a mode or get all mawkish about a fresh round of suffering. All the same anyone would wonder if you could really know the cost of the choices you’d made unless you’d felt them. He seemed like the weatherman appraising a hurricane from the studio, not outside soaked and hatless in the rain.

In the new year Nordstrom started teaching a course in Zen at Hunter College. He was still seeing Rubin. At times he felt ambivalent about Zen, and Rubin — who for himself discovered in Zen not just a way back into that realm that possessed him for five infinite seconds in high school but also the basis of a new clinical approach he called meditative psychotherapy — sometimes found himself in the paradoxical position of affirming the virtues of Zen to a master who had devoted his life to it. In early February 2009, the psychoanalyst asked, “How does it feel to be out there and connected?”

“Re-entry is difficult,” Nordstrom admitted. “I feel I’m going to be blindsided — that I’m being set up. The record suggests that’s what tends to happen to me.”

“Do you hear your language?”


“That’s what tends to happen to me.”

“What do you hear — that I sound like a victim?”

“There’s no agency in there — to see that is to open to the possibility of feeling less the victim in your life.”

“I know this intellectually. I’ve had this sense of being a victim, a marked man for a long time — marked for bad things and marked for great things.”

“I wonder if that isn’t a compensatory fantasy which hides a deeper pain. It’s not that ‘I was horrifically abandoned, unconscionably neglected,’ it’s ‘I have a special destiny.’ ”

“Yes,” Nordstrom said. “As a boy I consciously constructed this idea that I’m in a situation that makes no sense whatsoever. The only meaning I can glean from it is that there may be some kind of completely different life in store for me. There will be a compensation. I am owed.”

“What comes to mind with ‘owed’?”

“I’m entitled. That feeling got me through high school. It’s why I excelled at sports and studies.”

“It also killed you.”

The thought hung in the air.

“Why do you think I say that?” the psychoanalyst said.

“Because it’s true?”

“No, because it’s led to a passive detached relation to your own life. It’s robbed you of your human birthright. It’s like you are waiting for Godot. It keeps you in a virtual life. Do you get that? Do you feel that emotion?”

“This isn’t the first time you’ve said that this is the source of my suffering.”

“The vessel you took to escape your childhood became your prison cell. If we could move through that, I think it would open things even more.”

“What I got from my life in Zen is not what most people get or want from Zen. Most Zen students are samadhi junkies. They like the buzz. There’s a suppression of anger in Zen which is another kind of alienation. Sometimes it makes me sad. Teachers should point this out — how risky samadhi is from a psychological point of view. I was once asked what did I want from Zen practice. What I wanted was I didn’t want to be like everyone else, running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

“There’s a little bit of that elitism — I don’t want to be one of those suffering clowns.”

Nordstrom nodded.

“Blindsided. Passivity. Entitlement. Marked man. Where does this leave you?”

“I’m aware of having made progress.”

“Will you leave here with all this stuff as intellectual notes?”

“It could soak in.”

“Let it soak in.”

“It makes me sad,” Nordstrom said at last. “It makes me feel sad about what I’ve done to myself. I’ve actually been crying. Reading Beckett helps me cry precisely because he makes such an unsentimental presentation of pathos. I don’t cry convulsively. I think the word is ‘weep.’ It’s what my grandfather said — don’t be weak like your father. I don’t like sentimentality and melodrama. But if you subtract meaning and sentiment from emotional life, what’s left?”

“Could it be your antipathy to sentimentality and melodrama has another meaning in addition to your valid reservations? Could it also be a dismissal of your own emotional experience?”

“I don’t know why I constantly deprive or deny myself positive experiences,” Nordstrom said after a while. “There is a perverse self-destructiveness. It’s like the theme from the movie ‘The Pawnbroker’: if my life is in good shape, then my history makes no sense. . . . When I broke my hip the first time, before I fell, I thought, Don’t move, turn on a light, then I thought, Screw it, and I fell.”

“Stay with that ‘screw it’ voice: are you saying nothing that happens to you that’s good is going to make a difference?”

“There is something I know that I really want that I’m never really going to get. It may be mother. It may be mother.”

“Maybe your pessimistic stance is a defense against that shattering realization. Maybe you see your life as a Faustian bargain: I will not have hope demolish the hope that one day what I want will come.”

“My least favorite word in the English language is ‘hope.’ ”

“And in the meantime you’re knee-deep in it!”

“Yeah. It’s why Beckett is bad for me. Hellish hope is bad for me. The more negative the presentation of hope, the more I resonate with it. But I have also realized that hope in me is ineradicable. The two falls really showed me that. I am a real survivor.”

VI. Mother-and-Child Reunion In late February, sitting with his students at Hunter, Nordstrom found himself thinking of a poem he’d written in memory of the Zen master Soen Nakagawa, who often spoke of the endless dimension of universal life. In the poem, Nordstrom claimed it was the universal life that he loved, too. He could avow no love for the life of his mother or his father, and precious little for himself either, but he was Buddha incarnate when it came to the universal life. The pathos of it suddenly struck him. It seemed unspeakably sad that he had deceived himself into believing he loved the universal life for itself alone when in fact he loved it for lack of anything better.

What he wanted now was to love the life he had been given. In an e-mail message he framed it in the most primal terms: “This abandoned life of mine is like the abandoned boy, and I am the mother I never had who returns to claim that life and embrace it. It is a source of great pathos to reflect that without the therapy experience I might have died without having been reunited with my life! And in that sense, without having truly lived.” He was not sad, he said. Nor in any way disenchanted with the way of Zen. What could be more Zen than to restore the relish of the particular life? What he felt was joy. Not the unbordered joy of enlightenment, but the vernal joy that comes after the wintry work of mourning: the joy of a man with a life of his own.

Chip Brown is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most recent article was about the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Courage or Prayer...

I sent this poem to a friend and he wrote back: "It is courage or real prayer. The way we get closest to god without meaning to."


By Louis Nordstrom

All of it
the going-through it,
without vacation
or detour;
the black light
clicking on
inside the skull;
the daunting over-
time the heart accumulates.
There is in us
an unutterable cry for help
so strong it is
from courage.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Assumptions" - A Game To Play After Thanksgiving Dinner.

Divide yourselves into 2 (or more) groups so that groups can work separately and compare results.

Scientists have discovered an uninhabited planet in another galaxy called Futura, whose environment is the same as earth's. The U.S. has just completed a spaceship that can travel to Futura but it can only hold 7 people. The Earth is about to explode and will be destroyed (same as Superman's planet Krypton was once destroyed) and human civilization will end. The space ship to Futura must take off in 15 minutes. There are 13 people at the spaceship launch site and you must decide which 7 will be selected to start the human race again. All you know about the 13 people is the following:

1. Scientist, female, 47 years old.
2. Hispanic peasant, female, four months pregnant.
3. African American male, third year medical student.
4. White female, prostitute, 27 years old, a communist.
5. White male, homosexual, Olympic athlete, 24 years old.
6. White biology professor, 67 years old.
7. Rabbi, 27 years old.
8. White female, on public assistance, 28 years old, has been arrested for several felonies, has never been employed.
9. Female homemaker, 24 years old, white, has cerebral palsy.
10. Korean child, male, 8 years old.
11. White male, moderately retarded due to lack of oxygen at birth, 33 years old.
12. White female, elementary school teacher, 27 years old, has genital herpes.
13. 28 year old white farmer, has had a vasectomy.

Explain and defend your choices (both who you selected and why and who you rejected and why).

Monday, November 15, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is a newly released film starring, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. It tells the true story of George VI (the Current Queen Elizabeth's father) who after his brother abdicated the throne (just as England was about to enter into World War II) became King. The story centers, however, not on the politics of the monarchy but on the personal struggle of King George to overcome his life long affliction - he was a severe stutterer. We come to see this heir to the throne, his royal highness, this very afraid man, as one of us - that his (and our) cure is not in the illusion of regal bearing but in the nobility of facing our ordinary fear(s). That healing comes from the hope, strength and experience that others who have battled their own demons can give us. That his (and our) true voice, the unhesitant, angry and profane scream of who we really are (not what we are expected to be) is our truly regal voice, a voice that cannot be found from on high. Everyman would be King but for his afflictions.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Israel

Below are some creative and well informed arguments in support of the policies of Israel. These comments were made by Gabriel Latner a Cambridge University law student who argued that Israel is a rogue state but that rogue in this case = good.

Following his comments I have listed some arguments in opposition.

Let me be clear. I will not be arguing that Israel is 'bad'. I will not be arguing that it doesn't deserve to exist. I won't be arguing that it behaves worse than every other country. I will only be arguing that Israel is 'rogue'. The word 'rogue' has come to have exceptionally damning connotations. But the word itself is value-neutral. The OED defines rogue as 'Aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time ', while a dictionary from a far greater institution gives this definition 'behaving in ways that are not expected or not normal, often in a destructive way '. These definitions, and others, centre on the idea of anomaly - the unexpected or uncommon. Using this definition, a rogue state is one that acts in an unexpected, uncommon or aberrant manner. A state that behaves exactly like Israel. The first argument is statistical.

The fact that Israel is a Jewish state alone makes it anomalous enough to be dubbed a rogue state: There are 195 countries in the world. Some are Christian, some Muslim, some are secular. Israel is the only country in the world that is Jewish. Or, to speak mathmo for a moment, the chance of any randomly chosen state being Jewish is 0.0051% [Ed.: The math is in error, as Murphy points out]. In comparison the chance of a UK lotto ticket winning at least £10 is 0.017% - more than twice as likely. Israel's jewishness is a statistical abberation.

The second argument concerns Israel's humanitarianism, in particular,Israel's response to a refugee crisis. Not the Palestinian refugee crisis - for I am sure that the other speakers will cover that - but the issue of Darfurian refugees. Everyone knows that what happened - and is still happening in Darfur is genocide , whether or not the UN and the Arab League will call it such. [ I actually hoped that Mr Massih would be able speak about this - he's actually somewhat of an expert on the Crisis in Darfur, in fact it's his expertise that has called him away to represent the former Dictator of Sudan while he is being investigated by the ICC. ]

There has been a mass exodus from Darfur as the oppressed seek safety. They have not had much luck. Many have gone north to Egypt - where they are treated despicably. The brave make a run through the desert in a bid to make it to Israel. Not only do they face the natural threats of the Sinai, they are also used for target practice by the Egyptian soldiers patrolling the border.

Why would they take the risk? Because in Israel they are treated with compassion - they are treated as the refugees that they are - and perhaps Israel's cultural memory of genocide is to blame. The Israeli government has even gone so far as to grant several hundred Darfurian refugees Citizenship. This alone sets Israel apart from the rest of the world. But the real point of distinction is this: The IDF sends out soldiers and medics to patrol the Egyptian border. They are sent looking for refugees attempting to cross into Israel..

Not to send them back into Egypt, but to save them from dehydration, heat exhaustion, and Egyptian bullets. Compare that to the US's reaction to illegal immigration across their border with Mexico. The American government has arrested private individuals for giving water to border crossers who were dying of thirst - and here the Israeli government is sending out its soldiers to save illegal immigrants. To call that sort of behavior anomalous is an understatement.

My Third argument is that the Israeli government engages in an activity which the rest of the world shuns -- it negotiates with terrorists. Forget the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, a man who died with blood all over his hands - they're in the process of negotiating with terrorists as we speak. Yasser Abed Rabbo is one of the lead PLO negotiators that has been sent to the peace talks with Israel. Abed Rabbo also used to be a leader of the PFLP- an organisation of 'freedom fighters' that, under Abed Rabbo's leadership, engaged in such freedom promoting activities as killing 22 Israeli highschool students. And the Israeli government is sending delegates to sit at a table with this man, and talk about peace. And the world applauds.

You would never see the Spanish government in peace talks with the leaders of the ETA - the British government would never negotiate with Thomas Murphy. And if President Obama were to sit down and talk about peace with Osama Bin Laden, the world would view this as insanity. But Israel can do the exact same thing - and earn international praise in the process. That is the dictionary definition of rogue - behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal.

Another part of dictionary definition is behaviour or activity 'occuring at an unexpected place or time'. When you compare Israel to its regional neighbours, it becomes clear just how roguish Israel is. And here is the fourth argument: Israel has a better human rights record than any of its neighbours. At no point in history, has there ever been a liberal democratic state in the Middle east- except for Israel. Of all the countries in the middle east, Israel is the only one where the LGBT community enjoys even a small measure of equality. In Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and Syria, homosexual conduct is punishable by flogging, imprisonment, or both. But homosexuals there get off pretty lightly compared to their counterparts in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, who are put to death. Israeli homosexuals can adopt, openly serve in the army, enter civil unions, and are protected by exceptionally strongly worded ant-discrimination legislation. Beats a death sentence.

In fact, it beats America. Israel's protection of its citizens civil liberties has earned international recognition. Freedom House is an NGO that releases an annual report on democracy and civil liberties in each of the 195 countries in the world. It ranks each country as 'Free' 'Partly Free' or 'Not Free'. In the Middle East, Israel is the only country that has earned designation as a 'free' country. Not surprising given the level of freedom afforded to citizens in say, Lebanon- a country designated 'partly free', where there are laws against reporters criticizing not only the Lebanese government, but the Syrian regime as well. [ I'm hoping Ms Booth will speak about this, given her experience working as a 'journalist' for Iran,] Iran is a country given the rating of 'not free', putting it alongside China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Myanmar.

In Iran, [as Ms Booth I hoped would have said in her speech], there is a special 'Press Court' which prosecutes journalists for such heinous offences as criticizing the ayatollah, reporting on stories damaging the 'foundations of the Islamic republic' , using 'suspicious (i.e. western) sources', or insulting islam. Iran is the world leader in terms of jailed journalists, with 39 reporters (that we know of) in prison as of 2009. They also kicked out almost every western journalist during the 2009 election. [I don't know if Ms Booth was affected by that] I guess we can't really expect more from a theocracy. Which is what most countries in the middle east are. Theocracies and Autocracies. But Israel is the sole, the only, the rogue, democracy. Out of every country in the middle east, only in Israel do anti-government protests and reporting go unquashed and uncensored.

I have one final argument - the last nail in the opposition's coffin- and its sitting right across the aisle. Mr Ran Gidor's presence here is the all evidence any of us should need to confidently call Israel a rogue state. For those of you who have never heard of him, Mr Gidor is a political counsellor attached to Israel's embassy in London. He's the guy the Israeli government sent to represent them to the UN. He knows what he's doing. And he's here tonight. And it's incredible. Consider, for a moment, what his presence here means. The Israeli government has signed off,to allow one of their senior diplomatic representatives to participate in a debate on their very legitimacy. That's remarkable. Do you think for a minute, that any other country would do the same? If the Yale University Debating Society were to have a debate where the motion was 'This house believes Britain is a racist, totalitarian state that has done irrevocable harm to the peoples of the world', that Britain would allow any of it's officials to participate? No. Would China participate in a debate about the status of Taiwan? Never. And there is no chance in hell that an American government official would ever be permitted to argue in a debate concerning it's treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But Israel has sent Mr Ran Gidor to argue tonight against [a 'journalist' come reality tv star, and myself,] a 19 year old law student who is entirely unqualified to speak on the issue at hand.

Every government in the world should be laughing at Israel right now- because it forgot rule number one. You never add credence to crackpots by engaging with them. It's the same reason you won't see Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins debate David Icke. But Israel is doing precisely that. Once again, behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal. Behaving like a rogue state.

That's five arguments that have been directed at the supporters of Israel. But I have a minute or two left. And here's an argument for all of you - Israel willfully and forcefully disregards international law. In 1981 Israel destroyed OSIRAK - Sadam Hussein's nuclear bomb lab. Every government in the world knew that Hussein was building a bomb. And they did nothing. Except for Israel. Yes, in doing so they broke international law and custom. But they also saved us all from a nuclear Iraq. That rogue action should earn Israel a place of respect in the eyes of all freedom loving peoples. But it hasn't.

But tonight, while you listen to us prattle on, I want you to remember something; while you're here, Khomeini's Iran is working towards the Bomb. And if you're honest with yourself, you know that Israel is the only country that can, and will, do something about it. Israel will, out of necessity act in a way that is the not the norm, and you'd better hope that they do it in a destructive manner. Any sane person would rather a rogue Israel than a Nuclear Iran.

Arguments in Opposition:

What of Israel's many Muslim citizens, whose ancestors had been living in Palestine much longer than most of today's Israelis? Is it fair that only the Jewish religion is enshrined in the constitution?

What about Israel's seizure of the West bank and its progressive eviction of its Muslim inhabitants from many of the best areas? Where is the justification for that in international law?
Might makes right is the only thing that occurs to me.

What about Israel's "separation" barrier, "pass laws," etc., that to the visitor seem much like South Africa's apartheid (separate development) system? If you accept that Israel's seizure of Palestine land was illegal, do these actions accentuate the illegality?

If Israel continues to grab land in the West bank and evict the Palestinians, isn't its long term future doubtful?


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