Chaos and Confusion at the Center: A Year Without Wisdom

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Artwork by David E. Roy

By David E. Roy

After living through the madness of 2017, I felt I had to make an effort to achieve some clarity and derive some meaning from the year’s intense and confusing events.

One of my Christmas gifts helped to set the stage for writing. In the Prologue to On Trails, by Robert Moor (correct, no “e”), he says, “In bewildering times— when all the old ways seem to be dissolving into mire—it serves us well to turn our eyes earthward and study the oft-overlooked wisdom beneath our feet.”

For me, this sentence fit what 2017 felt like: a bewildering descent into muck. Moor seems to promise that if we do this— look deeply at the ground—that wisdom will be forthcoming. Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is revered by many for his efforts to transplant mindfulness meditation into Western societies, suggests walking mindfully as one way to achieve a deeper sense of peace and compassion. Paul Tillich, a systematic Christian theologian, referred to God as the Ground of Being (of all being). Carl Jung named what today we might call the Cloud of All Knowledge and Wisdom as the Collective Unconscious. (I realize that ground and cloud appear to double the number of metaphors.)

The Importance of the Followers of Pathfinders

Moor described the contrast between “pathfinders” and their followers. The role of followers includes smoothing out the trail, eliminating unnecessary twists and turns, for example. It was at that point that I realized the similarity with what happens to each one of us over the course of a lifetime and that our experience itself provides us trails, repeated experience smooths out those trails and this is what gives rise to wisdom.

Before I pivot to the contrast between wisdom and the year’s events, I want to say more about the sense of earthiness Moor was expressing. In my professional work (psychotherapy, now retired), there are well-documented findings showing positive results from exposure to nature. This is true with physical health as well as mental-emotional health. It has been shown, for example, that the recovery and health of hospitalized patients is significantly better if these patients can just view nature.

As essential is nature to our well-being, there is no memory except the deepest and most unconscious kind that our species lived as an integral part of nature 24/7 until perhaps 15,000 years ago. By any measure of evolution (biological, planetary or universal), 15,000 years is less than a flicker; today’s humans are biologically the same creatures in nearly all ways.

Going to the ground inevitably broadens and deepens our experience; we sense our connection to everything else that is connected to or touches the ground. The sight, smell and feel of the earth brings us to the now. These are qualities of mindfulness meditation, for which there are a myriad of studies demonstrating its health-giving properties.

Where Has the Wisdom in Our Nation’s Capital Gone?

Most of us have grown up with the idea that wisdom is a prime human value and that achieving the maturity to be wise is a hoped-for outcome of one’s life. It stands in strong contrast to primal immaturity.

At the national level today, it would appear that the ratio of wisdom to primal immaturity on display has to be in the range of somewhere between 1:1,000 and 1:100,000 (or higher). In the foreground, there are two primary and highly interactive sources of primal immaturity. Yes, President Donald J. Trump and virtually the entire body of Congressional Republicans (in both houses of Congress).

First Source of Chaos and Confusion

President Trump has to be one of the most fragile, insecure and immature individuals to occupy this office. Ruth Newton, Ph.D., in her book, The Attachment Connection, informs parents that three-year-olds lack the necessary neurological development (the “wiring”) to control themselves once they get upset. They will be out of control and need their parents’ help to pull out of their emotional meltdowns, typically characterized by screaming, kicking and hitting, throwing things and crying.

We have been given an overabundance of evidence from his tweets and from the numerous accounts shared by those in the White House to indicate that President Trump lacks the necessary neurological development to control himself when he is upset because he feels slighted by someone (significant or not).

Likewise, his capacity to retain his self-esteem in the face of criticism or failure that one would expect from a tempered national leader is close to zero. Instead, he continuously points to himself, and to everything with which he identifies himself, as superior, the best, the most, the biggest—even when the evidence is clear this is not at all true. At the same time, he will demean, sometimes savagely, anyone who directly opposes him as well as those whose positions and ideas indirectly oppose him.

He tells lies constantly, and nearly all of them serve to build himself up or to destroy someone else. The Washington Post tabulated more than 2,000 by 10 days shy of his first year in office, or 5.6 per day.

Many people, including his staff and noted or highly ranked mental health clinicians, have expressed deep, serious and escalating concerns about President Trump’s psychological state.

Fifty-seven percent of the population according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll believe he is unfit to serve as president, and an extraordinary 69% believe he is not level-headed.

Second Source of Chaos and Confusion

And yet, how are Congressional Republicans dealing with this obvious problem? By trying to get whatever they can done to further their goals and, for the most part, ignoring or playing Trump. He has mercilessly mocked and attacked Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Yet in the ceremony following the passage of the so-called tax reform bill, they stood with him and lavished praise on him in the Rose Garden. They asserted he was an extraordinary leader and that the legislation could not have been accomplished without him.

The Republicans’ most fundamental motive is to stay in power, to stay in control, regardless of the cost to anyone else in the nation. They aim to please their funding sources, including such anti-democratic and antisocial people as the Koch brothers. This tax bill is viewed by many economists as a deceptive means to provide billions to the uberwealthy at the expense of those with the least and those struggling to avoid financial collapse. To fund the gains given to corporations, and those who own them, eventually our social safety net will have to be torn apart (Medicare and Social Security).

Power is the lure, the basic theme of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring saga. Loss of power is the fear, and the fear provides the drive to win at all costs. The Republicans have become the Gollum, keeping a tight hold on the final ring of power. So far, no Frodos have emerged from the ranks. I am under no illusion that this is simply a Republican issue for the siren song of absolute power is one to which any one of us could succumb. But if we are not captive to that spirit, we must do everything we can to push back.

Pathfinders, Followers and Wisdom

In conclusion, to return to Moor’s insight about pathfinders and followers, our nation’s pathfinders were our Founding Fathers (clearly, Founding Mothers would have made a substantial difference). Their work was to create a pathway that led to the creation of a nation to be governed by its citizens—a democracy—instead of by king or queen—a monarchy. Their collective wisdom to create this form of government emerged from the generations of experience acquired while living under a monarch.

Those of us who have come along following this are the ones who, ideally, discover and create improvements to the original pathway. The original design, to have three separate but equal branches of the government, was one of the essential parts of the design that was put in place to prevent the evolution of power being placed solely in the hands of a single leader, in this case, the President.

The design has been successful if all three branches worked to keep it in place. Now, the design is not working because the Republicans in Congress have refused to fulfill the founding Constitutional duty to stop the Executive Branch from running dangerously out of control. Anything like wisdom has been long-abandoned in exchange for power and money.

As a result, it has fallen to the many of us in the public to do something about this, and there are any number of individuals and groups that have been stepping up to assume the role that Congress should be taking. There will be no fast changes, but we can be effective if we have patience and work hard to push back. The next biggest single opportunity is the 2018 election.

It will take substantial changes to improve the quality of actual democracy so that it moves closer to the ideal. Removing money from elections is probably the most important step in that direction. If we persist, we can make these changes. That is the way of wisdom. Stay in touch with the earth beneath our feet.

*Our brain’s right hemisphere processes reality much differently than the left. Whereas the left is capable of a narrow focus with discrete points taken from the whole of things, the right experiences as full and complete a picture as possible. The right hemisphere also discerns meaning, something the left by itself is incapable of managing. Robert Ornstein’s The Right Mind and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary are helpful resources to expand on this.

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David E. Roy earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, theology and psychotherapy from the Claremont (California) School of Theology (the academic successor to the USC Department of Religion). CST faculty serve dual appointments with the Claremont Graduate School’s Department of Religion. He practiced outpatient psychotherapy for 45 years, retiring and closing his office a year ago. He is now writing in his field and secretly starting to write science fiction.