To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Aug 14 2010
Aug 11 2010
Generation after generation of politicians running as Washington outsiders have railed against the established system. Lambasting corruption and inherent evil has been an effective populist message for a long while. We saw it from one party in 2006 and 2008 and now, in 2010, we observe it in another. Every generation appears to have been sold the same basic message. But after each wave of reformers finds the going perilous and true change difficult, we engage in an equally long-running tradition, that of demanding why. Why is this institution so resistant to change and so stubbornly ingrained? Where does one even begin?
Jan 06 2010
I’m going to do something very different today. I’m going to talk about a matter has been on my heart and on my mind for a good long while. Now seems like as good a time as any to address it. To put it bluntly, observing the constant back-biting, smears, below-the-belt attacks, and other supremely childish means of conducting supposedly civil discourse that I find in every avenue I observe has been really getting to me. This criticism is meant towards both no one in particular and everyone in particular. While a gaze towards the past will reveal that these sorts of juvenile tactics have been with us since the beginning of time, this doesn’t mean that they are justified or somehow not counter-productive in the end. We all revel in the thrill of victory, but sometimes our successes prove Pyrrhic and nearly bankrupt us, even though we may be the first to limp across the finish line.
For example, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, writing of the need for coercion in the cause of justice, warned that: “Moral reason must learn how to make a coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph.
The above quote has application to many avenues, politics being only one of them. But I would prefer to broaden the context to as large an audience as possible, singling out no one, but extending the ability for personal reflection to any and all that might be capable of hearing it. To provide a personal example from my own life, I contribute to Feminist discussions and take an active part in the cerebral discourse raging inside them. Yet, interestingly enough what all of this soul-searching and cerebrating produces often is not my still-growing understanding of femininity, some supposedly foreign concept based on my being born and socialized as a man, but rather a calling to question my own conception of masculinity and how it relates back to how I perceive the construct within the framework of my whole identity.
The idea that perhaps the solution to sexism, misogyny, and gender inequality lies within a re-examination of male behavior and restrictive societal definitions of masculinity has been an informal thesis of mine that is beholden to a million related postulates. Moreover, that the true resolution can be reached by a collective effort between men and women working shoulder to shoulder is my ultimate goal and my fervent prayer. When men see that which is feminine within them and do not recoil from it and when women see that which is masculine within them and do not feel shame, then I know we will be finally close to true equality. In the meantime, I have never really had any heart for the fighting and I look forward to the day we lay our burdens down by the riverside.
The poem which follows below has been on the back burner of my mind for a while. It speaks to our bloodthirsty impulses and questions whether the expectations of winning we hold are really worthwhile and tenable. In a darkly humorous manner, the piece reveals what happens when our egos encourage us to rush blindly into one fight after another, recognizing only in hindsight that we are forever damaged and notably impaired by each and every one. Reconciling our primordial impulses with the wisdom of reason is a major challenge within every person and sometimes, as the poem notes, it is a realization only granted circumspectly. But when I see so many people who have made it their personal quest to pick rhetorical fights or who seem to think that their occupation or chosen purpose in life gives them a right to act like a Type A bully, then it compels me to speak out and to push back, but notably not with fists raised in opposition. This includes the thousands of legends in their own mind who possess the cockiness, the arrogance, and the attitude, but have nothing in the way of insight or intellect to back up their lofty claims or poker faces.
“The Winner” by Shel Silverstein
The hulk of a man with a beer in his hand looked like a drunk old fool,
And I knew that if I hit him right, I could knock him off that stool.
But everybody said, “Watch out — that’s Tiger Man McCool.
He’s had a whole lot of fights, and he always come out the winner.
Yeah, he’s a winner.”
But I’d had myself about five too many, and I walked up tall and proud,
I faced his back and I faced the fact that he’d never stooped or bowed.
I said, “Tiger Man, you’re a pussycat,” and a hush fell on the crowd,
I said, “Let’s you and me go outside and see who’s the winner”…
Well, he gripped the bar with one big hairy hand and he braced against the
He slowly looked up from his beer — my God, that man was tall.
He said, “Boy, I see you’re a scrapper, so just before you fall,
I’m gonna tell you just a little what a means to be a winner.”
He said, “You see these bright white smilin’ teeth, you know they ain’t my own.
Mine rolled away like Chiclets down a street in San Antone.
But I left that person cursin’, nursin’ seven broken bones.
And he only broke three of mine, and that make me a winner.”
He said, “Behind this grin, I got a steel pin that holds my jaw in place.
A trophy of my most successful motorcycle race.
And every mornin’ when I wake and touch this scar across my face,
It reminds me of all I got by bein’ a winner.
Now my broken back was the dyin’ act of handsome Harry Clay
That sticky Cincinnati night I stole his wife away.
But that woman, she gets uglier and meaner every day.
But I got her, boy, and that’s what makes me a winner.
You gotta speak loud when you challenge me, son, ’cause it’s hard for me
With this twisted neck and these migraine pains and this cauliflower ear.
‘N’ if it weren’t for this glass eye of mine, I’d shed a happy tear
To think of all you’ll get by bein’ a winner.
I got arthritic elbows, boy, I got dislocated knees,
From pickin’ fights with thunderstorms and chargin’ into trees.
And my nose been broke so often I might lose it if I sneeze.
And, son, you say you still wanna be a winner?
My spine is short three vertebrae and my hip is screwed together.
My ankles warn me every time there’ll be a change in weather.
Guess I kicked too many asses, and when the kicks all get together,
They sure can slow you down when you’re a winner.
My knuckles are so swollen I can hardly make a fist.
Who would have thought old Charlie had a blade taped to his wrist?
And my blind eye’s where he cut me, and my good eye’s where he missed.
Yeah, you lose a couple of things when you’re a winner.
My head is just a bunch of clumps and lumps and bumps and scars
From chargin’ broken bottles and buttin’ crowded bars.
And this hernia — well, it only proves a man can’t lift a car.
But you’re expected to do it all when you’re a winner.
Got a steel plate inside my skull, underneath this store-bought hair.
My pelvis is aluminum from takin’ ladies’ dares.
And if you had a magnet, son, you could lift me off my chair.
I’m a man of steel, but I’m rustin’ — what a winner.
I got a perforated ulcer, I got strictures and incisions.
My prostate’s barely holdin’ up from those all-night collisions.
And I’ll have to fight two of you because of my double vision.
You’re lookin’ sick, son — that ain’t right for a winner.
Winnin’ that last stock-car race cost me my favorite toes.
Winnin’ that factory foreman’s job, it browned and broke my nose.
And these hemorrhoids come from winnin’ all them goddamn rodeos.
Sometimes it’s a pain in the butt to be a winner.
In the war, I got the Purple Heart, that’s why my nerves are gone.
And I ruined my liver in drinkin’ contests, which I always won.
And I should be retired now, rockin’ on my lawn,
But you losers keep comin’ on — makin’ me a winner.
When I walk, you can hear my pelvis rattle, creak and crack
From my great Olympic Hump-Off with that nymphomaniac,
After which I spent the next six weeks in traction on my back,
While she walked off smilin’ — leavin’ me the winner.
Now, as I kick in your family jewels, you’ll notice my left leg drags,
And this jacket’s kinda padded up where my right shoulder sags,
And there’s a special part of me I keep in this paper bag,
And I’ll show it to you — if you want to see all of the winner.
So I never play the violin and I seldom dance or ski.
They say there never was a hero brave and strong as me.
But when you’re this year’s hero, son, you’re next year’s used-to-be.
And that’s the facts of life — when you’re a winner.
Now, you remind me a lot of my younger days with your knuckles clenchin’ white.
But, boy, I’m gonna sit right here and sip this beer all night.
And if there’s somethin’ you gotta prove by winnin’ some silly fight,
Well, OK, I quit, I lose, son, you’re the winner.”
So I stumbled from that barroom not so tall and not so proud,
And behind me I could hear the hoots of laughter from the crowd.
But my eyes still see and my nose still works and my teeth are
still in my mouth.
And y’know…I guess that makes me…a winner.
The poet Catherine Davis wrote a well-known work entitled “After A Time”, upon which I have based the title of this post. “The Winner” reveals to us that taken to excess even our triumphs can prove disastrous if we, for the love of blood, plunder, and material gain institutionalize them rather than use them only when all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted. It challenges the contemporary notion and conduct of unflinchingly tough machismo as advanced by a million cowboy Westerns and John Wayne potboilers. Davis’ poem below addresses the matter from the losing end, reducing self-serving spin and rationalization to mere wind while noting, quite beautifully, that while winning is ultimately transitory, so too is losing and with it the motivating power of defeat. I find it fascinating to observe that both of these poems dovetail neatly and how a uniquely masculine perspective nicely counter-balances a uniquely feminine one.
After a time, all losses are the same.
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Though we shall probe, time and again, our shame,
Who lack the wit to keep or to refuse,
After a time, all losses are the same.
No wit, no luck can beat a losing game;
Good fortune is a reassuring ruse:
And we all go stripped the way we came.
Rage as we will for what we think to claim,
Nothing so much as this bare thought subdues:
After a time, all losses are the same.
The sense of treachery-the want, the blame-
Goes in the end, whether or not we choose, (Emphasis mine)
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
So we, who would go raging, will go tame
When what we have can no longer use:
After a time, all losses are the same;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Jul 25 2008
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring blog!
I know that Emily would forgive me for editing the last word. After all, Emily Dickinson died before the first bloguero, Marcel Proust, was born, and Marcel passed on before he was able to finish À la recherche du temps perdu, although it was 3,200 pages and had more characters in it than there are UID’s here. But that’s another essay, comparing people here to Proust’s characters. This essay is about the joy and peace of being nobody in Left Blogistan.
Some people want Nobody for President. But that’s another essay entirely, one about politics and disillusionment, disenfranchisement and the two party system. That’s not this essay. This one is about the joy of being nobody here at docuDharma.
Nobody is also the name of a police officer who disguises himself in a black outfit to fight crime in New York in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that’s another essay also. When asked who it was who did something particularly daring or courageous, witnesses in TMNT responded, “Nobody.” That nobody I’m not. I’m nobody here, and I’m happy being nobody.
When you’re nobody, you’re anonymous. And no one pays any particular attention to you. Maybe people read what you write, maybe they don’t. You’re clearly not a somebody. You don’t have any elevated status or special belonging or a posse or a gang of followers and disciples. You might have a few fans, maybe not. You don’t have a title. You don’t have responsibility. You come and go as you wish. If you feel like writing something, you do. If you don’t feel like it, you don’t bother. If you express your opinions, others might respond, or not. You’re nobody, so it doesn’t really matter what they say about what you wrote. An example: the other day at Orange a commenter opined that I was “astonishingly ignorant” about the law. If I were somebody, that dismissive slap would have hurt my feelings. Because I’m nobody, I suspected that the hyperbolic snap was a projection of the writer’s discomfort and misunderstanding. It doesn’t matter what’s said about nobody.
It’s far easier to thrive when you’re not being somebody. You’re just nobody. And you have nobody’s opinions, and tastes, and style, and preferences, and judgments, whatever they might be. And you express whatever you feel like however you like. And it’s hard for people to get mad at nobody, though occasionally some people try to. And people hardly ever insult nobody. It’s hard for nobody to be perceived as a threat or a rival or an enemy or someone to disagree with.
Nobodies can live happily by the Four Toltec Agreements:
“Be impeccable with your words”
“Don’t take anything personally”
“Don’t make assumptions”
“Always do your best”.
What most disrupts living beautifully by the Four Agreements imo is ego, which means being somebody or acting like you’re somebody or believing that you’re actually somebody. That uniqueness, that importance, that personality, that essential dualism tends to make people careless with their words when they speak or write. It tends to make people take things personally, in ways that hurt their feelings about who they are or what their life means or what they represent or where they’ve been or what they’ve done. It causes them pain. It creates suffering, between what one is and what one would like to be, between what one believes one is and others’ perceptions of what one actually is. The number of possible kinds of suffering is gigantic Being someone leads to making assumptions, usually about others. And sadly, being somebody convinces one that s/he can get by without trying really hard, because s/he is somebody already, without trying. But I digress.
Being nobody is really joyful and wonderful. And liberating. To participate in Flame Wars you have to be somebody. To threaten to leave a blog you have to be somebody. You have to be right, you have to see that others are wrong or mean or different from you in essential ways that hurt you. Only somebody can do or be that. If you’re nobody, what’s written doesn’t matter in a personal way, because you’re not somebody whose feeling will be hurt. You’re nobody. If you leave, you just go somewhere else. Months later, maybe, someone will ask whatever happened to you. Or not.
I’m concerned that the point of this brief essay might be too cryptic, too opaque, to blurred. I’m also concerned that it might seem strangely inarticulate. If there were a metaphorical knock on my door, I’d go and see who was there. There might be nobody there. Anyway, if there were somebody there, I’d have to say that I was sorry, but there was nobody home.
Maybe a parable will help. Although I suspect, it might make things even more confusing.
Once on Erev Yom Kippur, the rabbi and the cantor were on the Bimah. They prayed hard and knelt and bowed and beat their breasts and intoned, “I’m nobody. I’m nobody.” This public contrition and atonement was appropriate in that congregation. The shamus, a Jewish word for the Shul’s janitor, was moved by their intense prayers, and he too stepped onto the Bimah to kneel and beat his chest. The Cantor saw this, frowned, turned to the Rabbi and said, “So, look who thinks he’s nobody.”
Sep 04 2007
I wrote this for the Guardian site today:
Today the netroots faces a new challenge of avoiding being seen as a top-down driven movement. This month is a pivotal time in the fight to end the Iraq debacle. Yet organizations like MoveOn and netroots “leaders” like Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers are more interested in launching campaigns for the 2008 elections than in organizing to pressure today’s Democrat-controlled congress to do all it can to end the Iraq war now, during the Bush presidency. I think that does not reflect the views of the “people power” the netroots is said to represent.
A real acid test is now before the netroots: will it be what Bai describes – a top-down group who take direction from its self-appointed leaders? Or will it be a people-powered movement, which fights for issues it cares about? September may very well tell the tale.