I spent most of my life just accepting everything in the world. I didn’t think I had any other choice. After all, it was created by adults, and I was just a punk kid taking up space. Then it dawned on me one day that much of what we consider to be normal is not, at all.
Part of the problem is human beings adapt to change very well. We can get used to just about anything. If a fleet of flying saucers landed on the White House lawn tomorrow morning and a bunch of slimy aliens with hundreds of eyeballs got out and said hello, we’d all freak out for a day or two, but then we’d go back to talking about the usual crap. We would move on. The same is true of the following stuff that makes us neurotic but we’ve come to accept as “normal” – –
FAMILY PHOTOS AND HOME MOVIES
Up until 100 years or so ago, only the wealthy could afford to hire a photographer to get a personal portrait or family photo taken. Before that, people had to be even more wealthy to afford to hire an artist to paint their rough likeness. Before that, if you wanted to see yourself, you had to look into a puddle of water and risk getting your nose bit off by a snapping turtle. As time passed, photography became cheaper and easier. Now that we don’t have to buy film anymore, even the most mundane moments are chronicled – photos of lunch, for example.
But what really makes us neurotic are two things – seeing hundreds of photos and videos of ourselves in the prime of our youths makes getting older harder than ever before, and seeing photos and videos of friends and family who have passed away makes getting over their loss harder than ever before. How many people are out there right now in dark rooms with curtains drawn, longing for the glory days of their youth and/or watching home movies of deceased loved ones for the thousandth time, trapped in the past?
BIG CITY LIVING
Human spirits are more suited to village life, walking everywhere, knowing the same few hundred people from birth to death, people who will notice if we friggin’ die in our sleep. In the city, nobody notices somebody is missing until they notice an odor while walking by the house. There is also a lack of accountability in being able to be a total bastard and never get called on it because nobody ever sees anybody twice anyway. It’s the best place to be a prick (or criminal) for those who are so inclined.
The division between Republicans and Democrats has never been deeper or more caustic. It seems we’ve lost the ability to talk and maintain some emotional detachment from those who disagree with us. There have always been political differences – some Romans hated Caesar (and kept it to themselves!) and some loved him, and up until recently, people could disagree without hating or wanting to hurt each other. Presidential candidate Ben Carson nailed it when he said, “You can read the public comments under any news story on the internet, and no matter what it’s about, it won’t take long before you see people cursing and threatening each other. Where did this spirit come from? Definitely not from our Judeo-Christian background. Something is wrong in America.” Again, the easiest thing to do (calling people names) is the worst thing to do. If the goal is to truly influence people, we must be respectful.
The Civil Rights Movement was a huge success. Ask any eighty-year old black person how their childhood was compared to the lives of the average black child today. A lot of whites got their heads busted open by police batons and got bitten by police dogs during those marches, too. A lot of whites died to end slavery. Most whites are still basically good, as are most members of every race. In fact, most whites bend over backwards to prove how non-racist they are.
But if you watch the news, which seems hellbent on driving us all into a murderous rage, especially if you’re black, you would think nothing had improved. This is because the news is run by the same corporations that regular TV shows are, and they notice a spike in ratings and viewership when they sensationalize and exaggerate stories, and make us all sick and suspicious of each other. People being nice to each other doesn’t make the news, but when someone punches, stabs or shoots someone, they’re all over it. So 99% of the world is getting along great but the other 1% gets all the attention, which gives us a skewed version of reality every day, especially for those who don’t get out of the house much, or don’t get out of their own group much.
Victor Fankl wrote, “There are two races – the decent and the indecent. The best way to end racism is stop thinking and talking about it, for each of us to stop seeing skin color and look to the heart of each person we meet. Again, that’s harder than just categorizing people into groups – black, white, brown, yellow, red, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, etc.
Morgan Freeman said it best in this interview –
The irony of bloggers spending countless hours alone for the purpose of “communication” is lost on most people. Most people in today’s internet generation actually think Facebook posts are human interaction. They gain confidence when strangers “like” their posts and lose it when followers fall away. Strangers who could be mildly insane for all they know. Strangers they wouldn’t even want to talk to if they met them on the street.
If we insist on pursuing blogging, we should look at losing followers as refining our base, shedding dead weight, separating the grain from the chaff. That is, building a community, albeit digital, of like-minded, like-souled human beings. We should be pleased when someone stops following us the same way we would be happy if someone we didn’t like and who didn’t like us left a party we were attending.
A friend once posted on Facebook that he couldn’t care less if anybody likes his posts, then I saw him check and re-check that post repeatedly to see how many people had liked and commented on it. Oh, the irony!
Like blogging, especially for teenagers, our self-worth depends far too much on how many “friends” (again, 98% of which we haven’t met and will never meet) we have, how many likes or comments our posts get, etc., and we stare at our iPhones when living human beings who we could actually talk and laugh with are sitting right next to us. So many missed opportunities for real conversations with real people, for the sake of typed, brief comments from strangers on the internet. Who hasn’t seen a couple on a date in a restaurant, both of them staring at their phones? I mean, really, what is happening to us? Are we really going to allow ourselves to be led by the nose like this? Apparently, yes.
(Find the person with the most peace of mind in this photograph.)
I’m not saying we should all throw away our phones, but for the love of God, can we ignore them while we’re having dinner with family or on a date? Can we resist peeking at every text that comes in for one hour before we rush back to it like a junkie to a needle as soon as our friend or family member says goodbye?
CHANGING SOCIETAL NORMS ABOUT BEAUTY/MASCULINITY
Until the last thirty years or so, men could be thin and women could be a bit chunky, and both found the other wildly attractive anyway. Consider the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies. The butts on some of the women in those movies would be ridiculed today, and the guys, even the ones who were supposed to be “tough”, were wimps by modern standards.
Nowadays, however, men are supposed to look like Conan the Barbarian and women are supposed to be thin and athletic, but somehow still with large breasts, which consist mainly of fat. Of course, the only people who have absolutely no problem with these impossibly high standards are plastic surgeons and peddlers of fitness programs and equipment.
We can’t live without them, but car crashes take over 300 lives a day in America alone. That’s the equivalent of one commercial plane crashing every day. But we accept it because we love the convenience, privacy and sometimes the prestige of our cars. The fact is, however, the human body is not supposed to sit in a steel contraption traveling at high rates of speed. The human mind is not supposed to sit in traffic for hours a day, either. This is why people are so much nicer outside of their cars than inside them.
PORNOGRAPHY AND VIOLENT IMAGERY
“Oh, God. He’s gonna get all puritanical now. What a sanctimonious pain in the ass.”
Have you ever watched one of those shows from the 1950’s or 60’s like Leave it to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show? If you’re like most people, part of you probably thought it was quaint or cute, a little boring compared to modern shows due to the lack of swearing and violence, and you saw the characters as somewhat simple-minded and dull.
But were they? The people of the 1950’s had survived two world wars, Korea, the Great Depression, and diseases there was no cure for such as polio. In other words, they saw a lot of death and misery. They weren’t naive and simple, they chose to be wholesome because they had seen so much that wasn’t. Yet despite all that, their minds were pure compared to the average person’s mind today, untainted by the thousands of murders the average TV viewer sees in his or her lifetime, or the sordid and depraved acts the unfortunate patrons of pornography subject their minds to. Porn is not about sex, it’s about domination. It’s customers are men who resent and objectify women, and enjoy seeing them degraded.
When I was about twenty-one, I went to a friend’s house on a Saturday night. He was having a get-together because his mother (who was divorced) was out of town for the weekend. When I got there, his younger stepbrother had five of his high school friends over. My friend, who was a little older than me, said “watch this” and put a porno movie in the VCR. A montage of graphic sex scenes started to play. I wasn’t the most mature 21-year old in the world but even I could see the irresponsibility in showing children porno. Most of them were quiet as they watched, probably stunned silent, but one of them kept saying, with wide eyes, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God” the same way he might have if he saw something horribly violent. I knew I was watching a brain being re-wired. I knew he was being damaged. It was all in his voice and on his face. Innocence was being smashed. I got up and turned it off. Somebody had to be the adult in the room. But it was too late for all of them.
This is why pornographers intentionally market their “product” to children. There was even a porn site once (before it got shut down) with the address fisney.com because they knew children would accidentally hit the F key next to the D key while typing disney.com. They would immediately see explicit images. Advertisers hired by pornographers consult psychologists the way any other ad agency does. They exploit the natural curiosity children and teenagers have about sexuality and what adults do behind closed doors. Like the Catholic church, they know if they get them as a child, they’ll own them for life.
Most of us are more careful about what we eat than what we feed our mind, then we expect it to have no lasting effect on us. Personally, when I watch an old movie, I envy how childlike and pure their minds were, and I miss how childlike and pure America (and I) used to be. I sometimes feel that America and I lost our innocence at the same time, starting mainly with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam war. What was left our innocence crashed and burned during the 60’s.
Conflict is the essence of drama, so there’s no way around violence, physical or psychological. We’ve got to wade through the bad to get to the good. (Seeing the bad guys get punished and the good guys rewarded.) But it’s a matter of sophistication. A good example of this is the movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. A woman is killed in a shower but we never see the knife piercing her skin. We see a shadowy figure, a knife being raised, see and hear her screaming, the curtain hooks being pulled off one by one as she falls, and blood running down the drain. It was horrifying for its time but extremely tame by today’s standards, even for TV.
In ancient Roman theater, if an actor got an arm cut off in the script, he got an arm cut off. If he died, he actually died. Talk about commitment to the craft! As the centuries passed, we became more civilized. By the time “talking pictures” (movies) were invented, murders were sanitized. Censorship extended this custom. When censorship was lifted, movies gradually became what Bob Dole correctly called “nightmares of depravity and violence.”
Do we really need to see the brains or entrails spill out? Isn’t that what imagination is for? The same is true of sex. In old movies, the couple got into bed, smiled at each other, then pulled the chain on the lamp by the bed. We all knew what happened next. Now we see it all in lurid detail. As the poet Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Show me a well-turned ankle in a white sundress and I’m ready to go. Show me everything at once and it’s hamburger on a plate. I’m not interested.” (Paraphrased.)
I love movies. I love seeing bad guys get taken out. It’s in our blood as human beings to tell stories. But what does it do to the mind to see endless representations of the worst of humanity, even if the movie ends with the good guys winning? Does it help us advance as a species to constantly set the bar so low? Some movies inspire and remind us of the power of cinema to transform minds/hearts, but most are just mental junk food. i.e., “They killed his family. Now he’s out for revenge.”
So what’s the answer? I’m not moving to a cave in the Himalayas anytime soon, so all I or any of us can do is be careful about what we put in our minds because we become what we think about, be careful not to confuse who we are online with who we really are, and have just a little respect for the sanctity and purity of our inner world. What else do we really own, after all?
The degree to which one scoffs at this idea or writes it off as naive marks two distances – how far they have traveled from their original childlike (some might say God-like) purity, and how far they need to travel from this polluted world to the time when their mind was clean and their heart was happy, before the poisons were willingly and repeatedly ingested.
There’s no way to say any of the above without sounding preachy. That’s not my intent. In my own life, my intent is to purify my mind/heart/soul because I’ve seen enough of the darkness. I’ve seen people killed up close. A man died in my arms as the blood from a bullet wound in his chest squirted through my fingers. I put my hand on a blood stain on the ground and prayed for the soul of a child who had died there the day before. I’ve walked through murder scenes and scraped coagulated blood off my shoes. I’ve beaten the hell out of two would-be rapists. And I’m not even a soldier or a cop. I’ve just lived in Los Angeles too long.
When I was a teenager, I actually thought I needed to see violent movies and horror movies to prepare myself for this world. As a father now of two girls, I realize, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Violence is not strength, compassion is not weakness.” As James Garner’s character in Murphy’s Romance (the kind of movie that uses conflict wisely) said after walking out of a slasher flick, “I saw that up close in Korea. I’m not going to pay good money to see it again.”
I’ve always had questions and doubts about faith, so it’s difficult for me to be impressed or moved by sermons. But one Sunday something the pastor said rang true for me. He said, “A lot of people think the commandments and other rules Christians strive to live by are meant to take away their fun. But they’re really like street signs and traffic laws. They weren’t created to keep you from driving, they were created to keep you alive and out of trouble.”
Should we give in to lower impulses or live in an old-fashioned way, like the 1950’s when people still expected something from each other? When no man left the house at night without a suit and hat? When every man carried a handkerchief in his breast pocket, not for himself but for a lady who might need one. When it was shameful for anyone to curse, especially women. When a man who cursed around a woman was guaranteed a punch in the mouth.
Lazy thinking and living is easier, of course, but the bad choices always are. It’s hard to do the right thing, to say no to anything we know will hurt our mind/heart/spirit, just as it’s hard to turn down the slop burger and fries everyone else is eating when we’re trying to get our bodies in shape. So I suppose it’s just a matter of discipline. Nobody ever said being a holy man/woman was easy.
I miss the purity of the 1950’s, and of my own childhood. I guess I always will. I’ve learned all I can learn from the night. From here on in, I’ll take the morning, when the day is as innocent as the baby blue sky, and anything is still possible.