Archive for March, 2008

Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you a story…” (opening line of a song written by my father)

Stories are powerful. Stories can shape our entire outlook on life, our belief systems, our sense of identity. Storytelling ’round the fire has been an integral form of human communication from time immemorial. Think of all the stories you have cataloged in your brain – the stories your mother or father told you before bed, Aesop’s fables, fairy tales, war stories, nightmare birth stories, I-knew-a-guy-who stories, stories meant to give us some nugget of wisdom and guidance in how to live our lives.

Growing up I always loved fairy tales, but not just any fairy tales. They had to contain an element of darkness, of danger, of the macabre in order to appeal to me. In fact, I would argue that, by definition, an effective fairy tale must contain this element. Beauty has no purpose unless there is also a beast. According to Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid didn’t get her man in the end; she returned to the ocean, alone and defeated, in the form of sea foam, riding atop the crests of waves for eternity. I liked how the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty retained a sense of darkness and gloom (despite still straying wildly from the Grimm version). The wolf actually ate the duck, and likewise gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Disney, while ever in the business of happy endings, seems now to completely omit the macabre from its source stories. I was fascinated when I learned not too long ago that during times of famine in Medieval Europe parents sometimes sacrificed one or more of their children (often depositing them deep into the woods) so that the rest of the family might survive on their meager rations. Wide-eyed German children listening to the story of little Hansel and Gretel likely had reason to be afraid – very afraid.

Stories can be powerful tools to inspire fear; mothers often employ every child’s natural terror of monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night to elicit good behavior from their children lest the bogeyman come and get them. Campfire stories exploit our natural human fear, as diurnal creatures, of the dark shadows and sounds unseen in the night, to delicious, spine-tingling effect.

Using this exact same concept, people have been led to believe some pretty amazing things. Think of all the ways, according to certain religious faiths, that you can get yourself a one way ticket to an afterlife of eternal misery and suffering. Or, conversely, the things you must do in order to experience eternal bliss. Think of the kind of power people can amass when we believe they hold and distribute the tickets.

Stories are the tools we use to pass on our beliefs, our ways of life, to the next generation, even when we aren’t aware that we’re telling them. We can tell our children stories about bad kinds of people and good kinds of people, and they will believe us. When people are dependent and trusting, we have almost limitless power.

Looking at the world stage, from prehistory to the present and beyond, from times of peace and war, ease and suffering, to everyday acts of personal violence and valor, I’m always asking myself these questions: Which stories are being told? Who is telling them? Who is competing with whom in the storytelling contests, and what are the agendas? How do we decide which stories we will believe? Which ones will we tell our children?

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A reader recently left the following comment on my “about” page. (Sorry, Marjana, I’m going to delete it since I’m addressing your question here in a lengthy post and, well, no offense or anything but I kind of like my about page to just be my personal “about” statement). Anyway, here is the question:

Hello. I was wondering whether or not you ever looked into what Islam has to say about the world…its perspective of reality…? Just curious. I take it you are not one to be fooled by the news media and what it has to say about Islam. I take it that you are one to read with an open mind/heart and not with prejudice/bias.

First of all, I’m happy that I come across as open minded. That’s what I strive to be. Second, I’m not going to go into what the question may or may not imply. Well, I will a little bit. I don’t know if Marjana is Muslim or not, and I think the answer would make a difference in how I read the question. At any rate, here goes:

1) It is commonly understood (meaning I am not going to provide sources) that the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago resulted in people organizing themselves into larger groups such as towns and cities. This seemed to first occur in the “fertile crescent,” the area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also the Nile delta. When large groups of people come together, there must be some way of keeping order so that people can go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety.

2) There seems to be a universal human tendency to feel that there must be a force larger than us, a being or intelligence that gave rise to all of the amazing aspects of life on earth. When good things happen to us, we must somehow be in the favor of this being, and when bad things happen, we must have done something to displease this power.

3) Over the course of the next several thousand years, people living in the fertile crescent developed some pretty complex civilizations, with many different religious systems. Often rulers claimed the divine right of kings; that is, they themselves were divine and had the approval of the gods to rule the people. To question the authority of your leader was to question the will of the gods. Religious systems often were nature-based, with animals, agricultural symbols and even insects taking on religious significance in the turning of the agricultural seasons.

4) One group of people, the Jews, were among those who believed in a single, all-powerful deity, rather than a hierarchy of different gods. This monotheistic group believed that God was intimately involved in human affairs – he could bring his wrath upon humans for their wrongdoing, and could likewise smile upon them with grace and love. Monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East.

5) Religious upheaval and changes mirror human upheaval and change. Jesus, the humble Jewish prophet, arose at a time of great social unrest, at a time of conflict when many changes were afoot. Likewise, 600 years later Mohammad, the Arabian prophet, also arose at a time when things were rapidly changing (mainly due to trade and broader contact with the greater world) on the tribal Arabian peninsula. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, came to prominence during a time of rapid expansion and change in America and gave birth to the first homegrown Christian religion (some would say sect or cult) in this country.

6) For a religion to be successful long term, it has to be flexible in order to reflect the changing needs of the society it serves. For example, the early Christians worked with the Pagans, or nature-based religious adherents, to incorporate their rituals and beliefs into the growing Christian tradition. The winter solstice became Christmas (the birth of the Sun/the birth of the Son). The spring equinox and all of its fertility rituals became the return of the Sun/Son to earth. As people change, so too do religions. Religions that do not adequately reflect or address human needs, desires, fears or joys will eventually be amended or die out in favor of something else.

7) Peoples’ faiths have been used, for many thousands of years, as a means to control and manipulate people. This doesn’t mean that religions are bad. It means that abusers of power are bad. According to Mohammad, the only requirement in order to become a Muslim is to submit to the will of God. Unfortunately, the holders of power were generally the ones who got to decide what the will of God was, depending on their particular agenda. They are still doing this. Those with an agenda are telling young, disenfranchised people with no prospects that the will of God is to martyr themselves (and those within the reach of the explosives they carry on their bodies) in order to further their political goals.

8) Christianity and Judaism, as religious faiths, are flexible in the sense that today they can exist and flourish within secular states. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, tell people that there cannot be a separation between faith and government. Islamic law must also be state law. Again, this is not necessarily an inherent flaw within Islam specifically – it is a flaw of the people who use Islam to further an agenda, in the same way the Spanish Inquisitors used Catholicism to abuse their power, in the way Rome ruled political affairs in Europe.

9) Because of internal problems and external meddling, Middle Eastern societies are in turmoil and appear to be collapsing. One of my favorite sayings is, “there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.” How true this seems to be in regard to acts of terrorism.

10) I studied Islam for a year in college (using the excellent Marshall Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam” as a guide), and have come to no profound conclusions. People are imperfect creatures. People and societies under certain types of stress behave in predictable ways. The Germans under the weight of reparations after WWI were easily seduced by the Nazis, who gave them somebody to blame. Islam itself is not the problem. The political upheaval that has been going on in the Middle East for the last two thousand years is causing pressure cracks, and things are about at the tipping point, especially as world demand for oil increases, while supply decreases. It’s a whole big mess, and if it weren’t nutty terrorists who happen to be Muslim, it would be somebody else. If it weren’t for the Jews and Palestinians, it would be some other toxic combination. The recipe for this particular type of disaster is flexible like that.

Does this answer the question of how I think Islam in particular views the world? No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really possible for a non-Muslim to answer this question comprehensively. But I view Islam as a religious path that contains many truths, yet ultimately gets snagged on the particulars of how people should live their lives. I think all dogmatic faiths have this in common. However, as members of the human species, religious or not, we need to ask ourselves: do our actions help make the world a better place? Or do they cause yet more suffering and misery? After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.

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Lots of people, including me, have fantasies about just ditching it all and moving to some wild, untamed place and living off the land. For me it is the proverbial “cabin in the woods,” but for others it is a cottage by the sea (either on a tropical island or on some pristine northern coast), an Airstream in the desert, or a lodge up in the mountains.

At this point in my life, I’d be happy with a rustic little cottage in the Wisconsin woods, but for a long time I had a mild obsession with Alaska and all points north and acceptably harsh and remote. I read and reread Jack London, Farley Mowat, Gretel Ehrlich, watched Northern Exposure religiously (as if a network comedy-drama would give me a realistic idea of what life in the Alaska wilds might be like), and watched every relevant documentary and nature program I could find.

Although my Alaska ardor has cooled quite a bit in recent years (pun intended – it definitely has something to do with growing less cold tolerant as I get older), I still love a good wilderness read. A few years ago, after it was comfortably in paperback, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. For the three people who haven’t heard of it, it’s a biography of a recent college graduate from an upper middle-class family who, in the early 1990s, after donating his life savings to charity, went on a solo two-year cross-country odyssey, picking up odd jobs as needed, hitchhiking once his car gave out, and basically living the life of a vagabond. His adventure, psychologically and physically, culminated in a trip to Alaska, where he stepped into the wilderness and never returned. He died of starvation, likely exacerbated by eating poisonous foraged seeds that he mistook for edible ones. He tried to return to the main road, but the trickling, snow banked stream he crossed to get to his camp in early spring was a meltwater-fueled torrent by late summer. He was only a couple of miles from a park shelter with food and other emergency supplies.

The story both frustrated and stuck with me. While I could certainly relate to his existential angst and Thoreau-ish disdain for modern society, I just couldn’t help but wonder about his lack of practicality. I’m a preparer, a planner. If I were to decide to abandon my city life and move to the wilderness, I’d make sure I had a few basic things. Plenty of food, for starters (he wandered into the woods with a bag of rice and a local plant identification guide). A map and compass. Fishing gear. Tools. A plan for shelter. Ample cold weather clothing and gear. One of the things that frustrated me most about the story was when, deep into the warm, buggy summer and already suffering from hunger, he happened upon an old moose and shot it. Problem was, he had no real plan for preserving the meat. So a thousand pounds of life-sustaining flesh literally rotted away while he nibbled on berries and toxic seeds. His plan was not to have a plan, that plans were too restrictive, that he could somehow survive on berries and the magical Alaskan ether. See, one of the reasons I’ve never fulfilled my dream of living off the land in Alaska is that I too am a college-educated, middle-class urbanite and, frankly, I probably don’t have what it takes. I realize this about myself. One cannot eat romantic notions and despite its beauty, Alaska is a harsh place that doesn’t put humans above any other creature that is trying to survive. In fact, humans are at a distinct disadvantage being that we are slow, naked and prone to frostbite.

Just last year, as a teacher looking for something interesting for my students, I came upon a quiet little documentary called “Alone in the Wilderness.” It is completely self-filmed by Dick Proenneke who, in 1967 at the age of fifty, built a cabin on the shores of a remote Alaskan lake. He lived there, alone, for the next 30 years. The documentary chronicles the construction of the cabin, and of Dick fashioning everything from door hinges and locks to furniture, counter tops, shelves and utensils, all out of wood, all using hand tools that he brought with him for that purpose. In already snow-covered late fall, the appropriate time to deal with large amounts of meat, he killed a sheep and, using his already constructed, ready and waiting smoke tent, cured the meat so it would last him the winter. He fished regularly, gardened, and had arrangements with a local bush pilot to arrive twice yearly with needed staples. While he certainly had in common a shared urge to leave behind civilization and contemplate the meaning of life, unlike Chris McCandless, or as he called his searching self, Alex Supertramp, Dick had a Midwestern kind of sensibility that I could relate to. Here is a guy who could make a plan, who had a naturalist’s sense of wonder but also an engineer’s practicality and precision.

The other day I saw Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild, which is based on the Krakauer book, and that sense of frustration about Chris and his story resurfaced. It’s a strange tale, about a seemingly brilliant and friendly kid who, troubled by family secrets and betrayals and his tight-lipped suburban D.C. upbringing, decides to intentionally disappear from and divorce his family, only to realize at the bitter end that solitude and loneliness are not the same, that idealism without a plan can be dangerous. Both the film and the book know this ahead of time, both were written by men with a little of the wild in them, enough to relate and feel drawn to Chris’s story, but apparently not enough to share his fate.

Part of me wishes I was like Chris, willing to give up everything save the clothes on my back to have a wild, uncharted adventure. This, I’m sure, is the source of some of my frustration with him. What a less complicated, likely unknown, story it would have been if he had walked out of the woods, a changed and enlightened man. I know though, that of the two I’m more like Dick Proenneke. Practical, simple and rapidly outgrowing whatever little sense of invincibility I ever had. Proenneke’s story will probably never be on the New York Times bestseller list, and mine is even less likely to. Even the most adventurous of us usually have the sense not to squat on our spurs.

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