Monthly Archives: October 2017

Notes For a Toxic World

*I do not speak of the natural world but of the one constructed by human beings, sometimes called civilization. And sometimes you wonder if there is anything worth saying about this dubious venture!!

The whole country is seriously divided on the issue of gun possession–very sad but what else is new! The gun lobby and the “crazy conservatives” present the issue of guns as if it were some divine right. And then again we are violent in so many different ways that the gun issue may actually disguise the deeper disease.

Majority of mass killings in the U.S. in the last 50 years or so have been perpetrated by white males, not Black men, not folks of Islamic faith. When one of the latter perpetrates such a crime it is called “terrorism”; when a white male does that, you very seldom see that word used, in fact a lot of times they will say “it is not terrorism, just a crime.” More people have been killed by white males than by any other group. I say ban all white males from this country. Or perhaps they should be all rounded up and put in internment camps–like we did to our Japanese neighbors during WWII. (I speak here as a member of the white male class; I don’t have much so I can be packed in minutes, but they do have to give me a ride, ok?)

One of our military drones hovers high above some parcel of land in the Middle East. There is a suspected “terrorist” in some building. A missile is sent. Unfortunately there are other houses nearby with families. Dozens of people are killed. This has happened over and over again. Strange that we are shocked when the killings come home.

When the Spanish Conquistador, Cortez, confronted the leader of the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City, he said to the Indian leader, “My men suffer a disease of the heart and only gold can cure it.” Then they went out and killed and pillaged the Aztecs.


It has been written that the Las Vegas massacre was the single worst such incident in our history. If you define such an incident very narrowly, like it being perpetrated by only one agent, well, yes, that might be true. But in terms of just plain awfulness, there have been a lot, lot worse. Consider just the following:

The Colfax Massacre: In Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday over a 100 African-American freedmen were gunned down in a group by a white vigilante group, 1873.

The East St. Louis Massacre. Over 200 African-Americans were gunned down randomly by rampaging white mobs in a “white riot” in 1917.

The Tulsa Massacre. Over 200 African-Americans gunned down during another white riot in 1921.

There are several books that document and narrate our sad history and incredible predicament:

a.) Richard Slotkin’s trilogy of history beginning with Regeneration Through Violence, , then The Fatal Environment, and finally Gunfighter Nation

b.) Howard Zinn’s History of the United States

c.) Kurt Anderson’s very recent, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire


*Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. He is a conservative Catholic (a convert), a graduate of Harvard, and very articulate writer. I disagree with most of his commentary on the Catholic scene, but at times he is very incisive about cultural matters. Recently Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire, died and there were a number of liberal and libertarian-inclined voices that eulogized Hefner. I found that very troubling. The philosophy of Hefner and his lifestyle is in my opinion another manifestation of that disease of the heart which afflicts our culture. Douthat wrote a piece about Hefner in the NY Times and it is absolutely brilliant. He really hits a bullseye in unmasking the Hefner myth which a lot of liberals, hedonistic or not, had fallen for. Here is a link to that piece:



*Now I switch to a more positive topic. We are moving away from the “toxicity” of civilization and using the gentle language of Thoreau:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”

I have always wondered why Thoreau was so sensitive to the “call of the wilderness.” Was it in order to “escape” the “toxicity of civilization”? It was already very evident in his own society of early 19th Century America, but one still wonders. In any case, “escape” is one thing, a first step if you will; but for some this leads to a second step, something deeper and more positive: like the Desert Fathers and the ancient Chinese hermits. For some, “escape” is all they can summon and in a sense that may help survive the madness. The wilderness has always been an attraction for people seeking to survive the insanity of their society. It is a well-established fact that there were real social conditions that were the foundation for people seeking to “leave” their civilized structures. This was true in the 4th Century Middle East and in ancient China. With a few of these people the “escape” turns into a much deeper and more profound journey.”


*Absolute stillness. But before we get to that there is simply silence. To seek to inhabit silence, like in a monastic context or in a wilderness, is a form of escape from the confusions and turbulence of the surface of our everyday life. But then we can go further, go deeper.

There is a Christian woman who is a profound student of Tibetan Buddhism. She is becoming an expert in their very sophisticated meditation techniques, and she is at present doing an intensive retreat in silence that will go on for some time. I saw this quote on her website:

“If there is a dimension of reality that is absolutely still, unmoving, the ground of being from which all existence flows, then what kind of mind would one need to be able to dwell in its presence?”

A very good question. But I think there are quite a few different answers. And I am reminded of something that Merton wrote which points in a direction that I find very attractive. This is from a Preface he wrote to a Japanese translation of his little meditation Thoughts In Solitude:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”