CHANGING THE WORLD WITH A WHISPER

The Encyclopedia Britannica provides this illuminating definitions:


Phenomenology, a philosophical movement originating in the 20th century, the primary objective of which is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions.


I was a fervent, probably thoroughly obnoxious student of comparative religion in my final two years of university. It was no doubt the culmination of my search for The Whole Truth. I wanted a key that would unlock the meaning of everything. I’ve written about “The Meaning of Everything.”  It is my all-time favorite post, even if it isn’t my best post.

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This, however, isn’t about me. It’s about Mr. Wekerle (pronounced Weh-ker-lee with the emphasis on the first syllable). He was the head of the Philosophy Department at Hofstra University when I was attending. I adored him. Not because he was “hot,” but because he was so incredibly smart. He was also the only professor could tell when I was bullshitting and hadn’t actually read the books. The only teacher to give me D-/A+ as a grade for a 50-page paper.

The A+ was for style, the D- for content.


Mr. Wekerle (he was ABD having not quite finished that doctoral thesis … and I don’t know if he ever did) made me work for my grades. Made me think. Forced me to spell everything out and not assume that my reader already knew the material. Which served me very well in the larger world later in life.

He read every page of every paper submitted in class. He was harder on me than on many other students because he felt I had potential as an academic. I probably did, but life had other plans for me.

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One of his best tricks for getting students to listen attentively in class was to whisper. It was what we call a “stage whisper.” Loud enough to be heard at the back of the room if no one talked or rustled papers.

In fact, in Wekerle’s classes, no one wanted to sit in the back of the room. You never wanted to miss a single work of his lectures. Especially not during his annual “Phenomenology” lecture. Students would show up from all over campus to sit in on it, even if they’d heard it half a dozen times over the years.

We would sit there, breathless as he whispered the meaning of everything into the hushed room.

Never underestimate the power of a quiet voice, words spoken in a whisper. Shouting may get you some attention … but a whisper can change the world.

ORIGINS AND FAMILY

A few years ago, I briefly had access to Ancestry.com. I traced my family back to the census of 1910, at which point, it ended. I could have pursued it further using other Jewish ancestry sites, but I knew where they would take me.

On my father’s side, the trail would end in Minsk around the turn of the 19th century. On my mother’s side, the trail would go cold in Tarnow, Poland at approximately the same time.

Bonnie and friend on the dirt path

We were neither important nor prominent. Not rich, famous, or especially learned. Regular people, trying to stay alive and out of the Czar’s army. Put food on the table. Occasionally have a belly laugh with friends and family.

Even if I could trace back another hundred years, it wouldn’t answer the real questions about where we began.

When Genghis Khan invaded what is now Russia and eastern Europe, how many babies were left in the wake of the Golden Horde? How many were left by Crusaders as they pillaged, raped, and plundered all the way from Britain to Jerusalem?

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So many invasions, ejections, wars, migrations. How can anyone with even a trace of European or Asian ancestry think they are pure anything — other than human? Assuming current thinking on the origins of mankind are at all accurate, we all came from somewhere else in the beginning. Asia or Africa. Both, perhaps.

Or, somewhere else entirely?

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Thinking about this brings me back to the current sad state of geopolitical mass hysteria and stupidity. We are — all of us — family. If we could trace our roots far enough into the mists of time, we would find each other. Cousins, even though many times removed.

We are one people. Despite skin color, eye-shape, and other “race” and “ethnicity” surface markers, we are enormously more the same than different.

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So how come we hate each other so much? Why? What makes us want to hate one another? Why build walls instead of bridges?

DOOMED? PROVE ME WRONG!

My mother was deeply cynical. She considered herself an atheist, but I think it was more that she felt God had done such a crappy job, he didn’t deserve worship.

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I knew a lot of the experiences that had made her the way she was. The Great Depression. Two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. She believe people were mostly stupid, racist, and cruel. That all government was oppressive by its nature.

Although not a conspiracy nut, she was pretty sure someone was out to get us. Probably a hangover from the Hitler era followed by HUAC witch hunts of the 1950s — shameful periods of history we are apparently determined to repeat.

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I’m pretty happy in my personal life, but the body politic is appalling. Sickening. I find myself watching CNN with my jaw hanging open. I would never have believed our electorate could be so stupid, ignorant, mean-spirited, bigoted, and bent on self-destruction as they obviously are. If we used the same amount of energy we use for hating each other into improving society, we could fix everything that’s wrong with the world — fast.

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It’s depressing. I don’t see a positive outcome. I think we are doomed. As a species, we probably deserve it, but personally, I resent it because I’ve done my best. There ought to be a payoff for doing the right thing, don’t you think?

Some of my friends are more optimistic, but I think i’s because they don’t want to believe what’s happening. In a world where Donald Trump is the leading candidate in the party of Abraham Lincoln, what light could be at the end of the tunnel? Bets on the headlights of an oncoming train.

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I really don’t care what Democrat you vote for. Just please, vote for one. I’ve never been sure about God, but I look around, I believe in the Devil. His paw prints are all over this world — and I’m pretty sure he’s running the Republican Party.

By the way … I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong.

SEND IN THE CLOWNS

America, land of the brave and the free. Photo by Turtsman.

My father was not a wise man, but a smart one who knew how to make money. He was a lifelong Democrat, small businessman and other things I would prefer not to delve into right now. A big part of his salesman’s repertoire were one liners and jokes. This was a favorite of mine.

It isn’t what you don’t know that will get you. It’s what you DO know that’s wrong.

Albert Friedman
Self-Made American (1917 – 2010)

How true it is, and also, how sad. So many people knowing with complete certainty so much that is so wrong. For them, the motto will forever be thus:

Don’t confuse me with facts! My mind is made up.

If you want to maintain your bona fides as a Real American, you should continue to watch only Fox News. It will help to reinforce your unfounded opinions by presenting pseudo facts and speculation in lieu of real information and you will believe every word. Rupert Murdoch is laughing all the way to his offshore accounts.

Don’t read anything that contains facts unless they comply with your preconceptions. In fact, it might be best to avoid reading entirely. Make a flag of your ignorance. Wave it proudly. Tell the world you know nothing and don’t want to learn nothin’ neither.

Finally, proclaim that you are the prototypical American, unlike the rest of us snobbish book-reading socialist anti-Christian liberals who don’t agree with you. After that, you can wonder why the world is losing respect for the United States. Maybe it has something to do with “true Americans” like you with your passion for ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and stupidity.

You vote against your own best interests because you vote not for people who will help you, but for those who share your hates. Anyone can have you by preying on what you hate. You hate so many things that you are easily had. You are America’s fools and losers, the people about whom H.L Mencken spoke when he said:

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

H. L. Mencken
US editor (1880 – 1956)

RELIGIOUS PRINCIPLES

Unless you count drinking coffee and checking email as a ritual, I don’t really have any. I do, however, have practices. Stuff I do, stuff I believe or at least pretend to believe.

As time has galloped by, I’ve renounced stuff. I didn’t really need it anyhow. I gave up worrying. I gave up working. I gave up the lottery, although I occasionally still buy a ticket — just in case.

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I gave up wanting a new car or expecting old friends to call. Some of them don’t remember me. Some don’t remember themselves I’ve stopped hoping Hollywood will make movies I like, even though they sometimes release a good one.

I’ve stopped trying to like new music and most television shows. I’ve ceased trying to figure out what’s going on with the Red Sox.

Some stuff gave me up.

When anyone asks me how or why I have given up whatever it was, I tell them it was for religious reasons. Almost no one has the temerity to ask what I mean by that. But so you know, I will herein reveal my secret.

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I don’t mean anything. It’s nothing more than a way to end a conversation. No one wants to offend me by asking for the details of my religious beliefs. Who knows? They might turn out to be embarrassing or bizarre. Thus my all-purpose answer to everyone is “religious principles,” or “my spiritual adviser told me to do it.”

Given recent news events, you can but imagine what enormous power these words hold. They will make a conversation vanish without telling someone to shut up. It works on everyone except those who really know me. They will raise one or more eyebrows, and fall over laughing.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

For religious reasons.

THE MYTH OF CLEAN GOVERNMENT

“If only we could get a clean candidate, we could have a government without corruption.”

Please, show me an example of an un-corrupt government. Anywhere, anytime in the history of the world. From the first known government (Egypt? China?) to today. Any form of government, even a town council. Because as far as I know, there is no such thing.

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I finished re-reading “Imperium,” a fictionalized biography of Cicero. It whacked me with a reality check on government corruption and I realized (again) that Americans don’t “get” real corruption.

In Rome, those guys understood corruption. They were serious about their corruption. We are just dilettantes compared to them! More on this later.

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Never in this world, has there ever been a government free of corruption. It is the nature of government to be subject to … uh … um … what shall I call it? Oh, okay. Got it.

Pressure.

What do you mean by that?

Well, let’s see. Money. That’s a classic. Locally, we favor nepotism, a type of corruption whose popularity never wanes. Otherwise known as doing favors. Hey, they just need jobs, you know? It’s not a big deal, is it?

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Find me a small town where the government isn’t composed of entrenched old families, their friends, friends of family, cousins of the friends of the families, their brothers and sisters in-and-out-of-laws.

What about constituents? You know, when we tell our pols what we want them to do or else we’ll throw them out. The stuff you and I want and demand, the stuff we think our government owes us because we are the people who elected them.

“What?” you say? “Isn’t that what government is all about?”

Right you are! A little question for you.

Does the fact that we want it mean it is moral? Just? Righteous? Legal? Fair? If you believe that, I have a bridge you can buy cheap.

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We want what we want. We don’t really care if it is for “the greater good.” We want what we want. We want it now. We deserve it. We voted for you and you are supposed to make it happen.

Pols who deliver the goods get re-elected. That’s the way it works. That’s the way it has always worked and always will. If you don’t think the electoral process itself is a form of corruption, you are missing the point.

It doesn’t matter who is applying the pressure — or why. The process of gaining and retaining power guarantees corruption.

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Personally, I would like my officials to do something good while they hold office. Preferably without getting caught, killed, impeached, indicted, imprisoned or exposed. Cynical? Moi?

I propose a movement for better corruption to require corrupt politicians to use their power — however ill-gained — to pass laws that make the world better. In my opinion. Because my opinion is the only opinion which counts.

JEALOUSY: GOOD FOR GOD, BAD FOR NEIGHBORS

We were in the car driving home and I was trying to remember all ten of the commandments. No special reason. I just thought I should know them, what with all the fuss about them all over our landscape. In theory at least, they are the basis of law. So how come I don’t know them off the top of my head?

After dredging up seven or eight, depending on how I divided the “How to behave to God” sections which contains a lot of run-on sentences any of which could be interpreted as two or even three commandments but I suppose for convenience have been lumped into one, I was lost. I needed Google.

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I asked Garry if he knew the ten commandments. He replied, with irritation, he had to pay attention to traffic. There wasn’t any traffic, except for one slow driver in front of us but I suppose Garry needed a lot of self-control to not ram him. I don’t think there’s a commandment pertaining to slow drivers, but feel free to add one.

Finally, Garry admitted he didn’t know all of them either, at least not in order.

“A sad state of affairs,” I point out, “When two educated souls such as we cannot recite the ten commandments.”

“There’s a lot of stuff about not making idols and coveting.”

“Yeah, and taking one day off each week.”

When I got home, I looked them up.

It turns out there are quite a few “how to behave to God” commandments. Not all Christians — much less Jews — divide them up the same way. You can count as many as fifteen (à la Mel Brooks in “History of the World, Part I”) or as few as eight. It depends on how you look at them and punctuate the sentences.

Following are the Big Ten according to most Protestant sects, plus a second list containing my streamlined, easy-to-remember set.

Note: This sequence was removed from the film in Israel when I lived there. The Rabbis had no sense of humor.

Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17 NKJV)

  1. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
  5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
  6. “You shall not murder.
  7. “You shall not commit adultery.
  8. “You shall not steal.
  9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Modernization is all the rage, so here’s my take on them. Not etched in stone. For the sake of today’s prompt, jealousy is mentioned once in the second commandment where it is good because it’s the Lord’s prerogative. In the tenth, it’s covetousness which is not good because jealousy is good for God, but not for us.

A Streamlined Top Ten

  1. I’m God, the One and Only. Don’t forget it, or me.
  2. Idols are O-U-T.
  3. Don’t swear using my name. Maybe don’t swear at all.
  4. Take a break on the seventh day of your week. It doesn’t matter what day you choose because when I started making the world, there were no calendars. So take your pick, then stick to it. Everyone gets the same day off, including your family, guests, slaves, servants, and animals. No work. Got that?
  5. Respect your parents. Take care of them.
  6. Don’t murder anyone.
  7. Don’t cheat on your spouse.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t lie.
  10. Don’t envy other people’s stuff. You’ve got your own.

I’m just here to help.