Over the past week, I found the song Mother Dear going through my head. I hadn’t listened to it much since college, but there it was. Suddenly I remembered my mom’s 68th birthday was approaching on April 8. How wonderfully precise yet unpredictable the subconscious is!
I started reflecting today on maturation and some of the constructs we have to let go of. Looking at the above picture, it’s almost hard to imagine that little boy was me. But it was, and it seems my childhood, like most people’s, was filled with learning things that have since had to be unlearned. I started listing these off today: the first thing we all learn is that we are little gods and we have free will. We are in command of our bodies, and as fast as newly minted two-year-old legs can carry us, we run around thinking we can do anything, thinking we can decide anything. We find our limits, slowly and reluctantly as our parents and physical laws set the boundaries for us. The next thing we learn is to trust our parents, that they love us, that they will protect us and not let anything bad happen to us. Then we learn that even bigger and more powerful than our all-knowing parents is an all-powerful and all-loving God who will step in even when our parents can’t. By this time, we may be in church or in school, and we start learning a lot about our country, who died for it, and why we need to believe in it and pledge our allegiance to it.
But every one of these early ‘truths’ had to bite the dust. For me, they did so in a slow spiral, one piece at a time, revisiting issues and asking myself questions over and over. As the years went by, various pieces began to fall into place, or out of place as the case may be.
Myth 1: Our parents will protect us and we can trust them
Since my father died of a sudden stroke when I was nine, that kind of shattered the “safety and infallibility of parents” concept for me. What I had left was my mother, who assumed a role that was larger than life, and at one point, literally represented God to me (and thousands of other people). I remember one year I actually wrote that to her in her birthday card: “Mother, I love you so much, you represent God to me, Happy Birthday!” You have to understand, this was no ordinary woman. Mine was a mother who used to write me birthday cards from my dead father (well into my adulthood), complete with personal messages, and sign them “Lanello” (one of his pen names) in flowing script. We had a deep bond, and loved each other very much, too. So my disillusionment with her took a little bit longer. What I’ve realized with a little bit of perspective is that it took place in three parts: The first to go was my personal relationship, then the mother archetype, then the idea that she was the messenger of God.
The personal relationship suffered as I became a teenager. She took all of my explorations as a personal affront because they didn’t fit in with her value system. They deeply embarrassed her. But I just needed to figure out who I was.
by John Curulewski
performed by Styx
The song sure sounds old now! But It’s the perfect metaphor for the confusion and conflict created by holding the tension between our freedom and the safety of “mother,” the safety of the womb. While the words don’t exactly describe my youth, its tone is very evocative of that tremendous void we feel trying to make sense of the risks and accompanying freedoms of life on our own for the first time. We face not only physical risk–but far worse–the risk of making mistakes. It’s the one thing the two-year-old never thinks about. Tooling around, barely 3 feet tall, we never imagine what it would be like having no one there to tell us “no.” Gradually we find out.
The 18 or 20-year-old gets to have that experience, gets to “bleed for their art”–mommy can’t help you face the blank page, either of a notebook, canvas, or of life. For me, I relate to this because at age 16 I left all my friends and family in California and attended college in Evanston, Illinois. I had the freedom and exhilarating sense of being on my own, sort-of, but it was a social catastrophe. I had been very popular in high school and suddenly I had no friends my age and spent most of my free time with much older adults. This is because I was forced to live off-campus in a church communal house called a “teaching-center.” And I listened to a lot of Styx on headphones.
Lonely feelings in the city, One room flat with crumbling walls
Sirens play a distant melody, Neon shadows paint the halls
In the thirteen months I’ve spent here, With my manuscript and rhymes
I’ve paid in cash for foolish pleasures, Mother dear you’d call them crimes
After facing angst, loneliness and danger for a little while, home starts to sound pretty good:
Raise the roof, Light the light, Mother dear I’m returning tonight
Now I see, Your concern, Mother dear how you taught me to learn
Back out in the world, we feel the conflict anew:
I’ve been a Roman for survival, Showing two sides of my face
I need the comfort of your wisdom, I’m coming home to your embrace
In the following verse, we hear the young man, not yet seasoned by time, demanding to be recognized. But there’s a touch of anger: “Mom, you decided to have me for your own reasons. I didn’t ask to be born. So whatever and whoever I am, that came from you. And if I’m having a hard time with this, well that’s your fault, too.”
If by chance I pass before you, Don’t discount my gratitude
You’re responsible for me here, And of course my attitude
But it’s a gentle rebuke for mom, we realize we don’t have it all under control. And we still need her.
Stayin’ up half the night, Wonderin’ if what I’m doin’ is right
Raise the roof, Light the light, Mother dear I’m returning tonight
In the end most people figure it out, and hopefully maintain a good relationship with their mothers. But mine still had two deaths to die. I had to recognize the danger of trusting in the mother archetype as an adult. It became pretty clear after a while that her interests and mine were diverging. She had hired me and promoted me to management and spiritual authority (as a minister), but what was good for her and the organization was not good for me, my career, or my young family. I kept my trust in her through the age of 29, which as it turned out, had been about six years too long. But hindsight is 20/20 as they say. The final death is the one I discussed a year ago where she acknowledged she had abused power and the trust of her position as the “messenger of god” and the head of her church.
Myth 2: An all-powerful god will protect us
A particularly painful memory of mine has to do with the arrest of Vernon Hamilton along with my stepfather Edward Francis on weapons charges in the summer of 1989. The two had been involved in gun purchases by church members to protect the bomb shelters we were building. Leaving aside for the moment the obvious question of why we needed munitions or bomb-shelters at all (if we had god on our side), what bothered me even more was my mother’s response to the arrest. I asked her how god could let this happen. She just stared at me and changed the subject: “Do your job and let me worry about that,” she said in the sternest voice I’d ever heard.
Whether or not she had known about the weapons in advance, it couldn’t have been a worse blunder for someone with ostensibly divine powers and knowledge. If she didn’t know about it, why didn’t god tell her or warn her about the arrest? Disgusting. But then, worse disillusionment was yet to come as $20 million of church assets continued being spent on her orders preparing a modern day underground Noah’s ark for 750 people–for a disaster which never arrived. But even if it had, why was the fear of death so strong, and why the necessity of physical survival? If eternal life was just around the corner, who cares about a few pesky nuclear weapons? It didn’t add up.
The one disaster which did happen was September 11. Now, it would have been incredibly comforting to hear from Saint Germain, or Archangel Michael on that day, telling us what was going on behind the scenes, telling us that everything would be O.K. No doubt, if my mom had been able, she would have given a dictation doing just that. The ‘masters’ would have echoed the sentiments of Falwell, Robertson, et al, and claimed that “they could not protect America, because the legality of abortion had made it vulnerable,” and we should redouble our efforts to spread the message. By then, I knew the script all too well. But the fact that my mind even went there is a testimony as to how powerful and insidious these myths can be. And strangely enough, Carolyn Shearer gave just such a dictation for the remaining faithful. I only ran across it last year. How predictable the message was. The Shearers have generally had far less ‘fire and brimstone’ than my parents. So instead of ranting about the sins of America, their tack was “it could have been worse” but for the intercession of the masters and that “America has only been strengthened.” Of course.
The terrible emptiness I felt after watching these spectacular human follies and glaring absence of divine intercession for the ‘chosen people’ (and the rest of the world, for that matter) for the first 30 years of my life have led me to where I am today. My experience goes way beyond anything which could be explained away by simple theodicy (one of the weakest of all theological positions). I’ve spent the past 15 years searching for real explanations. I believe I’ve found some pretty good ones from Jung, Dennett, Pinker, Dawkins, Alper, and many others I’ve read.
From The God Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper:
According to Freud, “God is the exalted father, and the longing for the father is the root of all religion.” Aware that death was not only inevitable, but that it could come at any moment, human beings were reduced to a state of infantile helplessness, as vulnerable as the day they were born. And where do infants innately turn for protection? To their parents. However, not even one’s parents can save one from death. As we become adults, we grow to recognize that even our once seemingly omnipotent parents are actually impotent against the forces of death. With this knowledge, where was humankind to find guidance and protection? Desperately longing for eternal comfort and security, to whom was primal man to turn? Perhaps our need for eternal protection had facilitated the selection of a cognitive variation that instilled our species with an inherent belief in some type of trancendental guardian. Perhaps it was at this point in human cognitive evolution that neural connections had emerged that compelled our animal to believe in a “higher” power, in what we refer to as a god or gods. p.128
From Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett:
What if there really were agents who had access to all the strategic information! What an idea! It is easy enough to see that such a being–in Boyer’s terms, a “full access agent”–would be an attention-grabbing concoction, but aside from that, what good would it be? Why would it be any more important to people than any other fantasy? Well, it might help people simplify the thinking that has to be done to figure out what to do next. A survey of the world’s religions shows that almost always the full-access agents turn out to be ancestors, gone but not all forgotten. As the memory of Father is burnished and elaborated in many retellings to children and grandchildren and their grandchildren, his ghost may acquire many exotic properties, but at the heart of his image is his virtuosity in the strategic-information department. pp.126-127
Indeed, what an asset an accessible supernatural agent would have been on September 11, 2001! Such a being could have and should have alerted the authorities to the plot. But what of the Islamic gods of the hijackers? Would their supernatural agents have had their own epic battles with America’s gods to determine whether or not to warn the American military? The stupidity of this is mind-numbing.
But ignoring that issue, my mother, like the Shearers and every other religious leader in history, took full advantage of these human longings for protection and certainty. For me, learning that these longings are innate to our psychology has been liberating. But it also adds a tragic element: both my mother and her followers were participating in a grand drama beyond their comprehension or control.
Myth 3: We should believe in our country and pledge allegiance to it
Time magazine concluded their recent cover story about Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School with the following twisted paragraph:
And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.
Wow, where do I start? A faith test? For faith in our country? Requiring patriotism? The founding fathers would be turning in their graves! Patriotism, like love, cannot be forced. It must be genuine and organic–a welling up of feeling based on real pride and admiration. Furthermore, our nation was founded on spectacular dissent. After all, these were people who had recently fled from tyranny, and tyranny thrives on weakness and acceptance of authority.
It’s no coincidence that highly religious folk also tend to be strongly patriotic. There is a transference of their father complex from god to country. “The country will care for us if we only believe in it.” Substitute the word ‘god’ for ‘the country’ in that sentence, and you’ll see what I mean. Put the two together, and you have the ultimate tool for suppression of dissent and cynical manipulation of the masses. Under a regime of patriotism and mandatory respect for religion, we remained a nation of submissive children–blind to our shadow and so caught up in our convictions of rightness that we failed to acknowledge our own capacity for evil.
Like many religious leaders, my mom was caught up in this way of thinking. She was a tireless advocate for her vision of America. She loved this country. She thought the word “government” stood for “god-over-men.” She thought the real founding father of the country was Saint Germain. Every 4th of July she’d stand up in front of a huge flag and give a rousing 90-minute patriotic address, outlining ‘Saint Germain’s plan’ for the nation. Then Saint Germain himself would speak through her. Over the years, she also hosted countless conservative dignitaries (the ones who could stomach that she wasn’t an evangelical Christian, that is) who all were staunchly for higher military spending and tighter social restrictions. (She even sent my sisters and I to John Birch camp one summer). So needless to say, god’s plan for America was ultra-conservative. We cheered when Reagan was elected, and gasped when Clinton was.
If there was a problem with the nation, as far as she was concerned, it was that it was too secular and too “surfeited in the hedonism of the drug-culture and rock-culture.” And she held white-hot fury about the ‘crime’ of abortion, the “first-degree murder of god.” The Supreme Court had legalized this outrage. It had rejected god. And god would pay America back, in spades.
It’s not just the theocrats on the religious right: everyone seems to have a gripe about this country, what it should be doing, or what it could be doing. Since our elections have been so close the last couple of times, at least 50% of us are bound to be unhappy with the political landscape most of the time. [There's a deeper problem, and that is the tyranny of the majority, and the deciding of factual questions by popularity. This is a fatally flawed approach--perhaps better than other systems, but nowhere near what it could be.]
I’ll let Dennis DeYoung take over from here with this song written for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. As a protest song, Suite Madame Blue is more like a Valentine to a lost love. It’s sentimental alright. But it touches me because I, too once believed passionately in this country. It could’ve been great. Can it ever be again? The better question is: Is the concept of a nation even relevant anymore?
Suite Madame Blue.mp3
by Dennis DeYoung
performed by Styx
Time after time I sit and I wait for your call
I know I’m a fool but what can I say
Whatever the price I’ll pay…for you, Madame Blue
Once long ago, a word from your lips and the world turned around
But somehow you’ve changed, you’re so far away
I long for the past and dream of the days with you, Madame Blue
Suite Madame Blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Suite Madame Blue, the future is all but past
Dressed in your jewels, you made your own rules
You conquered the world and more …………..heaven’s door
Red white and blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Red, white, and blue, the future is all but past
So lift up your heart, make a new start
And lead us away from here…
Lead us away from the notion that we can continue to destroy our environment and consume 25% of the world’s resources without giving something back, that the “‘merican way of life is non-negotiable.” That we can champion freedom through botched wars and torture. That we can spy on our own citizens and wage a relentless and cruel “war on drugs” which pays to incarcerate millions of citizens while ‘legitimate’ drug customers simultaneously line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. Lead us away from a federal government which continues to ignore the will of the people in 12 states who’ve legalized medical marijuana.
Yes, lead us away from our superstition, our sense of entitlement, and our failure to see how our actions are seen by others. Help us to see that there are no nations. Only a world, and people. Only families of all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations. Only communities of shared interests. Only personal happiness and reduction of suffering. Only justice and freedom from corruption and hypocrisy.
Myth 4: Free Will
I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose free will. –Neil Peart
The more we understand about human nature, the more we realize that free will is an illusion. As the blurb for the informative site Philosophy of Genetics states: “What you want is who you can become. We are free to choose what we want, but we are not free in our wants themselves (desires and motivations), which are innate and vary across the population.”
This is not to say that we cannot make choices, nor to imply life is deterministic, nor that socialization doesn’t matter. It is simply to say that out of the range of all possible behaviors, our genes constrain us to a much narrower range than we may have once thought. Why is this significant to our understanding of our psychology? Because we need to examine our motivations and morals more directly: If we realize something we feel strongly about is a part of our genetic legacy, we will be far less likely to attribute that behavior to external agents such as ‘gods’ or ‘demons.’ We will focus instead on ourselves, and understanding the mechanisms that operate beneath our conscious mind, that push us to form our wants and opinions, that fire our passions and spark our actions. We can then separate ourselves from erroneous dogma and begin to learn who we are, rather than spending our lives fretting about who we “should be” according to some meaningless external standard or scripture.
The letting go of free will is the ‘last’ myth, and the one people resist the most. But the more we learn about cognition, the more we understand that the sum total of who we are is complex biological machinery. The idea of a ’soul’ is only valid as a metaphor for our feelings, our gestalt of what it means to be human.
Already, fMRI is showing us our thoughts and feelings at work. We can observe our brains change in real-time in response to a loved one’s picture, or–for an addict, the picture of a crack pipe. Governments are hard at work learning to detect intentions in this manner to prevent terrorism. This would be conceptually impossible if it weren’t for the physical nature of consciousness.
In other research, scientists are learning how to control mechanical devices with neural signals. More importantly, they are observing how brains quickly incorporate these external devices into their neural structure, and change the functions of existing neurons to accommodate the new peripherals. In other words, the brain knows how to make a connected machine a part of itself. This would not be possible if it weren’t also a machine. This investigation into consciousness is far deeper and more advanced than most people realize. Soon it will become undeniable.
Already, we routinely modify human behavior with drugs. This could only happen if our natural behavior was controlled by brain chemistry. If someone can change your chemistry, or you do it yourself through medication, you have given up your free will, because your consciousness is now functioning differently than it would have.
What we used to think of as free-will is simply the function of nature’s unaltered brain chemistry. As more and more of the human race is modified by drugs and neural interfaces, we will come to understand that we have become products of our science and our society. Some of the most important debates of the next half-century will concern bioethics, and the need to assure that people remain free (as much as possible) to act as rational agents without increasingly subtle and hard-to-detect nefarious external manipulations of their minds. But that’s a subject for another day.
Though I draw a firm “line in the sand” intellectually, I admit it’s hard to keep stoic all the time about these questions. I miss the idea I used to hold that there’s a giant all-powerful father-mother-god to fall back on, that life itself has any particular meaning other than what I give it. I miss feeling like I live in a country I can believe in–or even that government itself is something to inspire faith and trust. I miss being the young boy who trusted my parents, and felt they loved and cared for me–and I miss the idea of my own humanity and ultimate free will.
But the evidence is in. These things are illusory. Acknowledging this is part of being a conscious adult in this century. My longings for childlike simplicity and trust will die with me anyway. So why not live a life of clarity for the years I have left? Why not face the music and embrace reality? It’s called growing up. With a certain wistful resolve and nostalgia about my childhood illusions, I’m ready to firmly say with John Lennon: “I just had to let it go.”