Fenton Johnson (on solitude, and reclaiming reverence)

[3-minute read]


The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, and a basketball feature. A must-have.

The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, AND a basketball feature. A must-have, absolutely killer issue.

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

 — Blaise Pascal

I have never subscribed to Harper’s Magazine, but it’s a wonderful read. I buy it as a gift and a comfort to myself, approximately whenever a cover story leans out from a random magazine rack and says, Buy me now. My love for this smart American publication isn’t timely or disciplined or even remotely organized; for one pathetic example, I’m just now finishing the August 2013 issue, and returning to its cover piece, a writers forum on the lumpily uncomfortable topic “Are You Sleeping?”. This was a Must-Buy because  my nights have been harder work than they should be for a long time. (I’m trying to try easier.)

A year ago last spring, I was forced to kidnap (and to pay the $7.99 ransom for) the April 2015 issue of Harper’s, whose cover story was the long and deeply thoughtful article “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude”, by Fenton Johnson. (You can read the whole article here on the magazine’s archives for free.) The piece begins with the quote from Pascal, the 17th-century French polymath/genius, which Johnson follows with a more homely conundrum. He invites us to consider the average bookstore, or daytime TV lineup, or any number of therapists, clergy or Internet advisors, all counseling us on how to figure out our relationships. He compares that to the scarcity of public comment about being by ourselves:

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Howdy, Are You Goofin’ on Lateness? * (Hey, Baby!)

The Buddha is supposed to have said that we should think of material existence as a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning. Baha’u’llah wrote, The world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. All is illusion. It’s just a show, fairly useless and finally hollow. That being the case, of what importance is time, for heaven’s sake? (Or my own?) Another fantasy, ridiculous, so what could be the importance of phrases like “two weeks late” or “last month’s news” or “so 2015!”?

Listen, some of what I say could have been done in “January” – an invented construct, as is that of a “week” (see Genesis, Chapter 1) – or even in the earlier weeks of “Febyooary” – not only an arbitrary construct, but also tagged with an unpronounceable label – well, what could the matter be? In the view of the time-bound, the next piece I’ll post was started, oh, 13 days ago – whatever a day is! And some will argue that it should have been out within a “day” or two of the start of the arbitrary, named-after-a-pope-nobody-remembers-or-wants-to, Gregorian Year that apparently we’re calling “2016”. Silly, I know, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Lots of people pay attention to time, timeliness, days and hours, time out of mind. Sometimes I even fall into the trap myself. Though not recently.

But there is more to come.

* Extra points to those who read down to here, and ice cream if you actually got the R.E.M. reference. (In states and provinces where the ice cream provision is void by law, click here, but only if you understood my goofy title.)

Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl edition)

Let’s talk about toxic religion!


Ask the people in Peshawar. (Though they might have a different answer than you’d think.) Ask in Paris. Ask anybody qui est Charlie. We could ask those affected by the Boko Haram militias spreading like a cancer from northeastern Nigeria, I suppose, if they were still alive, or if we cared about folks so unlike us and so far away. Even in boring old Canada, 2014 brought us faithful killings and rumours of more. What to do when religion goes murderous? (Spare a thought for doctors killed by Christian fundamentalists at abortion clinics, or women abused on Super Bowl Sunday. Beware the deadly fruit of any sort of fanaticism, any belief gone sour, whether it invokes God or racial superiority or football fever.)

You may have heard of “lone wolf” acts of terror in Canada, men allegedly inspired in the name of their Islamic leanings to kill peace-time soldiers who weren’t looking. (Ah, courage.) In the news recently were reports that Muslim Imams here in Ottawa were concerned at the spike of interest in Islam in the wake of the shootings at the national War Memorial and in Parliament itself. Muslim community leaders wondered aloud about some process of slowing down the new-found ardour they were seeing, and they questioned its source. How depressing! People are so desperate for a thing they can stand up for, I thought, they’ll fall for anything! Any port of committed action, however nutty, in an existential storm.

Commentators invoke loneliness and anomie, and lament that the mentally fragile, vulnerable to the attractions of religious madness, don’t get the help they need. What we rarely hear in the public debate is mention of moral bankruptcy, how entire societies and classes and governments appear to have little on their minds other than consumerism, the almighty GDP and personal comforts. How blind must we be to not see how hungry so many people are for a sense of meaning that rises above well I got mine and we’re the greatest country in the world and what’s wrong with those crazy bastards over there? And, more unsettling, right HERE.

North America – and, no doubt, for Muslims and many other sorts of barely tolerated immigrants in France and over much of Europe – is a hard place to be if you’re not on the winning side. (This is why sports are better than real life: one percent of players, no matter how good they were, could never kick the living snot out of a team ninety-nine times bigger, and keep on doing it and doing it.) No wonder the frustrated, “lookin’ like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up” guys, even if they were Born in the USA or Ottawa or a Paris suburb, want to do something about it. Are we so smug, so insulated in whatever socioeconomic or cultural bubble we call home, that we really find such a search for meaning and usefulness incomprehensible? Yes. I think that most of us are.

Young men want to kill authority figures, or go fight with the “men of faith”. They want their lives to mean something, to stand for something. (Suddenly I think of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere….There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man….Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum,…the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Talk about jihad!) This is all I could think of, hearing of an interest in Islam that was worrisome even to Muslim community leaders. It was days before I was able to consider another way of understanding it. There have to be some people (I thought, as the lights came on) who are just curious about what Islam really is. It’s slower to filter through than reflexive religious bigotry is, but after 9-11, after Charlie Hebdo or any number of atrocities committed by those who claim to honour the Arabian Prophet, there are always the voices, not always or even predominantly Muslim themselves, who say, This is not Islam. This is religion perverted to justify power-seeking and oppression.

And people learn something about the vast majority of Muslims, and they wonder what it is that compels believers to peacefully hold on to their faith in spite of suspicion, outright bigotry, and the humiliation, the resentment, the frustration, of constantly having to apologize for the misguided hatred of the fanatical few. I’m not denying that there are Travis Bickles out there who see in jihadist extremism a convenient container for their disaffection and their revenge fantasies. But listen: religion has been around for a lot longer than the fashionably modern rejection of it. There must be something more to religion than hatred and ignorance and division, or it couldn’t have survived. We shouldn’t judge a Book because of a Bickle who carries it around with his rage.

That’s why I went to (of all things!) my local celebration of World Religion Day.

In Part Two, I wade into the teeth of a multifaith storm, and come out unbloodied, unbowed, and pretty darned hopeful. Refreshed. Coming soon. (Pinky-swear!)

Nelson Mandela (on the prison of hate)

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison…. Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) quotes are flying around in mad electronic flurries, and call me guilty: I haven’t been able to find the source for either of these (possibly connected?) excerpts. I have read them in reputable outlets, but I’d be happy if anyone could inform me about their provenance.

An elder for the world, though he never claimed to be a saint.

For all that, these are worthy, challenging, and even rather witty thoughts. They could have come from many a sainted mouth, though Mandela refused that term “unless by ‘saint’ you mean a sinner who keeps on trying”. The above quotation is deeply Christian, profoundly Buddhist, fundamentally Baha’i.

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Take the Red Pill! Rainn Wilson & The Matrix II

This is the second part of my recollection of actor Rainn Wilson’s talk at the recent Association for Baha’i Studies conference in Irvine, California. Part One is here.

Rainn Wilson related, with wonder and amusement, how excited many people became in  connecting the “man was embryonic in the world of the matrix” quote of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the  mind-blowing Matrix trilogy. He said that there were groups of people who embrace “Matrixism” as religion, and regard ‘Abdu’l-Baha as its early prophetic voice, and as its link to the entire history of revealed religion. This was news to me, but I found them in a most curious and bemusing on-line presence. One of their four basic tenets is the use of hallucinogenics as a sacrament; another is “adherence to the principles of one or more of the world’s religions until such time as the One [Neo doesn’t count] returns”. This tiny group does elaborate a few more funky laws, my favourite of which is that “all forms of professional athletic competition have now been abrogated”. (The revenge of the picked-on against the surly jocks!) That’s funny stuff, I guess, unless it’s pathetic. However, it points out again, if we needed more evidence, how hungry human beings are for a sense of meaning in life.

Wilson showed another clip from Matrix the first. Neo faces off with the baddies who are trying to prevent him from penetrating and exposing the mass hallucination that intelligent machines have created. Their programming illusion is intended to convince the humans that life is as it always was – meanwhile, their actual bodies are imprisoned in pods and used as robot fuel. This is where many of the oh cool! effects of the movie are featured. Neo bends

“Bullets, be still and know that I am Neo!” Who hasn’t done this?

space and time. A hail of bullets slows at his silent command and clatters to the floor. He leans at impossible angles, and leaps with impossible speed. He artfully decomposes a bad dude by flying right into his holographic gut and exploding him from the inside. (Nice!) Neo has wondrous powers in the supercomputer-generated matrix because he understands that it is only a projection, an unreal construction. (Well, and because he is The Chosen One, which obviously helps.) By knowing the reality of life in that world, he becomes the master of it. 

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Albert Schweitzer (on human purpose)

“The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve…The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) was a Christian theologian and medical missionary in Africa (in what is now known as Gabon). He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 because of the above, off-the-beaten-path but eminently Christian philosophy. This may the heart of all true and useful religion. Was he his “brother’s keeper”, a la Jesus Christ, practising the Buddha’s “right action”, and applying Baha’u’llah’s injunction to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”? He tried.

"Poor Poor Pitiful Me"

Is there anything worse than the desire for sympathy on the part of someone with little apparent reason to receive it? Well, actually, there are lots of things worse than that, but I must say that the whining of pretty comfortable people drives me NUTS. The victim mentality, the “look at what I have to put up with!” schtick.

Which makes me shudder, In turn, when I consider the psychological truism that what most irritates us in others tells us a great deal about ourselves. (Oh-oh.) And I definitely don’t like it when others just don’t seem to realize how hard poor li’l me has it. And I hate it when I realize that I’m dipping into self-pity. (And then I really start feeling sorry for myself…)

What is the best possible light in which to regard this? Hmm. It’s quite simple, really. If life is suffering – and a focus on material things always brings, late or soon, some kind of challenge or difficulty, just like the Buddha and His Buddies have always said – then it is somewhat natural to want another person to be aware of our troubles. We want to be known, and the guiltifying fact that “others have it worse” doesn’t help with that at all. Sympathizing with the others, though, is a great start, and all part of acting as if other people (all six point whatever billion of ‘em) are real. The other half, it seems to me, is what loving and being loved are for. (And what prayer is for: Big Friend, Creator of All, You see me, You know me, You are my haven and my refuge…) The greatest consolation is to know that someone (Someone?) else, fallible or Infallible, knows our secrets and cherishes our single little lives anyway.

To all the whiners out there (and in here!), my slippery thesis is saved for the end: Tell the Maker, not me! Prayer is the cure for self-pity. (And probably a few other things, too.)