Science informed by feeling: Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl”

I ran across an old email from a friend, who is in a scientific field, ranting about the admonition to “trust in science,” as if it were an actual thing with power, rather than a rational method for taking data into consideration and making new discoveries. She references C.S. Lewis, who said that the “scientific habit of mind” is a truncated one that developed “during the same period men of science were coming to be metaphysically and theologically uneducated.”

My friend takes this meaning from Lewis: “Science is a wonderful discipline to describe what we observe, but many treat science as the actual power that caused the phenomenon it merely describes. Science describes ‘how’ but not ‘why’, and unless the ‘why’ is being contemplated, thought is truncated.” We have, she observes, “a wealth of knowledge and a poverty of wisdom.” Continue reading

On conflict, unlearning, evolution, and building new narratives

9.11.15_bears_620wI recently participated in a conversation about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It was civil, although heated at times. Many of us expressed our dismay at being duped for all those decades of the “righteous” war on drugs. We were sold a bill of goods by one politician after another. Journalist Dan Baum’s shocking opening passage in the recent Harper’s article about legalizing drugs provides a fine coda to Alexander’s book. He relates an encounter with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s co-conspirators and inner-circle advisors, who confirmed the cynical intentions behind Nixon’s war on drugs. It’s a sad legacy that haunts us still.

My teenage son asks some challenging questions lately. As I was telling him about the wrangling during the book discussion, he popped this one out: “Why not build a wall between us and Mexico?” He said Mexico built a wall between itself and the country on its southern border. He said he’d looked it up, although he could not in that moment remember the name of the other country. (It’s Guatemala, and a small bit of Belize.) Continue reading

Forced hierarchy pushes everyone down

2001_7.24_Havre-de-Grace_620wI am closing in on that age noted by my parents years ago as one entry point into elderhood: when the U.S. President is younger than me. With Obama, I’ve just squeaked by: he is sixteen months older than me. If Hillary or Bernie win this one, I may be okay at least for another four years. That does seem part of either of their appeal—the wisdom and equanimity they must have accumulated during long, eventful lives.

In general, though, we seem to lack positive archetypes for older people, especially women. NPR’s Ina Jaffe has reported about issues facing older Americans for years, and even she doesn’t have a good word to refer to them. Polls are inconclusive: most older people don’t like any of the usual words. But the problem is more than skin deep: Continue reading

We are all Parisians

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The horrific event on November 13 in Paris has a familiar tone to it, an energetic signature much like a terrible earthquake and tsunami or a hurricane with devastating flooding. Prediction and prevention are just as imprecise and impotent as in the face of a huge “natural” disaster. The victims are struck with random cruelty. We feel helpless in the aftermath.

True, the attacks in Paris were planned and carried out by people, acting out of a story they fervently believe. As such, we may tell ourselves that acts of terror or riots of unrest are preventable—if only we have better intelligence, stronger police response, more proactive targeted drone strikes—in short, we push back. Better. Harder. First. Continue reading

Owning the story: the seduction of illusion and the power of dreams

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I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading

“Gone Girl” has me wondering: can’t the good guys win once in a while?

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Two of summer’s greatest pleasures are travel and reading. Immersion into an unfamiliar place or a well-told story offers glimpses of the cultural mood. I just returned from a trip to Oregon, home of the Cascadia Subduction Zone recently featured in a brilliant New Yorker article. I’m incubating a blog post on the power and guises of denial, but it’s not ready yet. On the lighter side, I also read two thrillers: Second Life and Gone Girl. Both are page-turners that linger after dark endings. They also throw some of the more insane aspects of modern life into stark relief. [Spoiler alert: if you plan to read either of these, you might want to stop now.]

Gone Girl, as you likely already know, is a chilling psychological study of a sociopath and the lengths to which our need for love and belonging will drive us. Especially in the first half of the book, the author Gillian Flynn includes well-observed details of the post-recession, post-NAFTA, post-supply-side-economies of Middle America (short version: it’s all in ruins). She also dramatizes the downhill slide of an entire profession—journalism—wasted by computers, the Internet, and the ubiquitous DIY culture. Continue reading

Daphne and the laurel tree

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As with Ariadne, Daphne is usually depicted as a passive actor in someone else’s story, in this case, a contest between two males—Apollo and Cupid. She is a victim who must be rescued by another man, her father. Well, this story is about much more than that. It is a story of transformation.

Daphne was another of those independent, love-and-marriage hating young huntresses who frequent myths. She is said to have been Apollo’s first love. It is not strange that she fled from him. One unfortunate maiden after another beloved of the gods had had to kill her child secretly or be killed herself. The best she could expect was exile, and many women thought that worse than death. Continue reading

Reimagining the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth

1998_7.19_620wBritish mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says that the stories we most need now arrived right on schedule, 3,000 years ago. This story is a reimagining of the Greek myth of Ariadne that I put together from various sources. (Since this isn’t a scholarly work, I didn’t footnote it, but the references are cited at the end). I told it last weekend at the Restorying the Heroine’s Journey retreat to a circle of women gathered in a clearing in a very special forest in West Virginia. While it is about a woman’s journey to authenticity, it is relevant to men, and to our culture at large.

When Martin Shaw told an old fairy tale to our group seated around a campfire on a rainy summer day at Schumacher College, he prefaced it with a suggestion. Certainly, the effect of a story is heightened in a setting like that, gathered in a circle before a fire, listening to a master storyteller. Reading written words off a computer screen strips out the mysterious process that the collective unconscious works on us, the sensual connection to ancient practices. Since these old stories carry their own power, his advice has a place even here. Continue reading

Working past limits to learn from a wise teacher: my body

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Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.

Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading

Hiding when out of sync is a generous act of love

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When I am unconsciously following the rules and stories installed in me during childhood, I sometimes worry that I am doing my life wrong. For instance, I was never taught that there are times when it’s perfectly justified to follow my instincts, to do or be what my heart urges. In fact, a life well-lived is a life entirely guided by the heart’s urgings. Still, I can feel a bit guilty when I need to withdraw from the world’s demands on me.

For so long, I believed that my retreat from conflict, difficulty, boredom, hostility, shame or blame was a bad thing that I inflicted, selfishly, on my close relationships. In this beautiful essay on hiding, the poet David Whyte sees it as a form of self-preservation, a drawing inward to prepare for transformation, and a necessary storing up of vital energy for growth.

“Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world. . .”

Continue reading