Today, I wrote a poem about something “mysterious and spooky!” (As the prompt challenge defined it.) I mused the denied duality of human nature as set forth in the classic Jekyll and Hyde, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  by Robert Louis Stevenson. My review of the book ishere.
Not evil I but you
Live with a darkness
of truth denied with
not to Hide mind
what must be true.
Wretched are you
to ask me to see
a truth as part of I.
Created by god
no evil must I be.
False belief is
the sinless soul
of self-righteous evil,
within you disguised
as good and pure.
As Lanyon needed
Jekyll’s truth to see
from Hyde’s reveal,
to accept the two,
both part of you.
There is no light without darkness,
no good without evil,
no truth without lies,
no life without death,
no two without one.
Seek out truth in you,
of more than half,
balance reality or die
from the only good truth
is really a lie.
Look both ways to find evil and good in you. It is your one and only truth.
Mind the gaps of fear and self-deceit, they hide your Hyde.
“O God!” I screamed, and “O God!” again and again; for there before my eyes—pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death—there stood Henry Jekyll!” Dr. Lanyon’s words and recollection serve as the climax of the story. The question of Dr. Jekyll’s relationship to Mr. Hyde is resolved.
The day eight poem prompt of the 2018 National Poetry Writing Month challenge was for me to write a poem in which mysterious and magical things occur. Last year, I wrote a long poetic story with a slightly different, yet similar twist. You can read it here.
For years I negotiated my labyrinth of life.
Then one day the path all went dark,
It filled me with alarm and I shook with a fright.
Burning deep within me watchful eyes I felt,
My temptation was rising to the oldest of times,
fear continued to grip me, from within and without.
She was the blackest of darks, that witch of the nights.
Her gaze was upon me when I opened my eyes,
I was blinded by flashes, visions of the enchantress.
I saw in her wonders worlds of exquisite pleasures.
She came from the magic of the eternal hereafter.
Without moving her lips, she spoke directly to me,
“Return with your love, to the darkness and danger,
back to my universe we can travel with ease.
Give over your being to my mystical kisses,
my promise of love will grant all your wishes.”
As she reached out and touched me,
I felt pain and wondrous pleasure,
Yet, drawn to her I nodded my answer.
She took my hand, and with a rapturous laughter,
I saw in the distance her dragons and castles.
She marked our arrival with thunder and lightning.
I saw in her army both imps and her glories
All served at her pleasure.
Now was I there, her newest found treasure.
To me she said, “Through pain and with suffering,
you’ve found a new realm.
Transition, dear man, as best that you can.
Give over your being to the queen of this land.
And she shall make you our king,
if the pleasures don’t kill you.
Together we’ll dance, for our love and our glory.
Let’s begin to write this wonderful story.”
(Bill Reynolds 4/8/2018)
In the labyrinth of life, look both ways for witches of the night.
Mind the gaps.
Reading or writing about events like Bataan, we often focus on man’s inhumanity to man – that dark side of our nature, which we often shun until memoir time. Throughout known history, our capacity for cruelty is well-documented. Genocide (killing to eliminate a group, race, ethnicity, religion, or language) is too common. While respecting victims of atrocities, I want to focus on survival, with one survivor in mind.
When survivors tell their story, they become windows to history, guiding and motivating our chant of never again. From their dark stories, we learn to prevent future atrocities. On the bright side, survival stories are inspirational. What others endure, survive, and subsequently achieve are symbolic of human resilience: that remarkable human physical and spiritual asset.
I discovered Benjamin Charles Steele long before I met him, as I was feeding my curiosity about Bataan by reading books. I only read five. “Only,” because so many books and articles have been written about the Death March, many by survivors or their families.
One of those books, Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, focuses on Ben’s story. While the Normans included much more within the pages of their ten-year project, they trace Ben’s life experiences, particularly during the war years. I recommend it.
Born in 1917, Ben Steele grew up on his parent’s Montana ranch. The family lost the ranch during the Depression Years, when he was about 15. Ben continued to work as a ranch hand, which interrupted his education several times before he finally graduated from high school in 1939. The following year, Ben joined the Army Air Corps. Eighteen months later he was a prisoner of war (POW) in the Philippines.
Ben may have developed a passing interest in art when had delivered art supplies. But, he had little exposure, and no formal training. Ben received his formal art degrees after the war.
For much of his early POW time, Ben was ill (Beriberi, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria). He worried about adding mental illness to the list, as so many others had. So, he began to draw. Risking severe punishment or death to stay sane, Ben started a self-prescribed therapy to fight off life-threatening melancholy. He had seldom drawn anything during his life.
Unknowingly, from his sick-bed in the wretched Bilibid Prison, he was launching a seventy-four-year, successful art and teaching career. This late high school graduate, Army enlistee, and future college professor, was barely hanging on to life. While starving and hardly existing in some of the bleakest living conditions imaginable, Ben used charcoal and sticks to do his first primitive drawings.
“I used to sit there day after day. I thought I’d lose my damn mind. I wanted something to do, so I started drawing with anything I could find to draw with. I’d draw on walls. People around me said, ‘Why don’t you draw the guys? You know, there are no photographs taken of this stuff.’ So, I started drawing stuff around the camp and sketches of people and portraits as close as I could. I wasn’t very skillful.” ~ Ben Steele
Eventually, Ben was moved to mainland Japan where he worked as slave labor in coal mines. The only two of his original drawings to survive the war were done there. The original drawings he did in the Philippines were in the possession of a fellow prisoner, catholic priest, and army chaplain, named Father Duffy. When the ship Duffy was on sank, the drawings ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, as he recovered in a Spokane, Washington, hospital, Ben reproduced his lost drawings from memory (part of his therapy).
When the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Ben worked 75 miles south. He heard the blast. Soon the war ended. Ben and others were on the road home and toward recovery from the three-and-a-half-year ordeal. Ironically, some survivors eventually fell victim to mental and emotional problems resulting in suicide, death from substance abuse, or other such maladies. However, most survived, and I was fortunate enough to meet some of them.
When Ben’s art was displayed in a building on White Sands Missile Range in 2011, I was there for my last Death March. By then I’d read Tears in the Darkness, and other books about Bataan. So, I knew Ben’s story.
When I went to see the art the day before the March, Ben was there. His daughter was escorting him in his wheel chair – he was 93. We shook hands. He signed my book about his art and we talked, mostly about his life as an artist.
I immediately knew I was talking to a Montana cowboy, who happened to have been a POW, college professor, well known artist, an American hero, and a witness to much about life’s realities.
At his core, this happy man who was pleased with life and was the same cowboy who joined the Army Air Corps 71 years earlier.
“Little things that probably bother a lot of people don’t bother me. I figure I’m probably living on a little borrowed time, and I’d better enjoy it!” ~ Ben Steele
Another WWII veteran I knew, Joe P., said virtually the same thing to me last year. Both men died in 2016, in their late 90s after living full and happy lives. Perhaps their life choices were reflected in the last three words I quoted from Ben, “…better enjoy it!”
Life has its ups and downs; reality in art, literature, history, and personal stories enable us to look both ways, to the dark, or to the light. Enjoy life, but mind the gaps.
Since the early 1970s, I’ve held to the opinion that basic human nature is good. I’m not sure why I think so. My conclusion is partly evidence-based for the good, but since so much in human history is to the contrary, many people disagree with me. We seem quite set on damaging ourselves and the world around us in ways that are evil.
I’m also unclear about why it should matter. No one knows the answer to our basic nature. It’s too complicated. But when I consider my personal basic nature, the one I was born with; is it good or evil? Or should I ask, was it? When did it start to change – before or after birth? What do you think your nature is? How do we see the basic nature of others? Good or bad? Are there bad seeds among us?
It is what it is. However, I wonder if our opinion on this matters more than the real answer. It’s like believing in a god – it either exists or it doesn’t. Our believing or doubting anything changes nothing about reality (placeboes or magic notwithstanding). Our opinion on this affects how we see the world, other people – and most importantly, how we see ourselves. Me, is the one thing in the universe that I have some control over—maybe.
To the point, I just finished reading Straw Dogs by John Gray. It’s unrelated to the 1971 Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name, or to the 2011 remake; both of which are, ironically, based on a novel with a different name (The Siege of Trencher’s Farm).
Note to self: book titles and author’s names matter.
The premise of Straw Dogs is that humans are animals like any other animal. Both Christianity and Humanism see humans as capable of controlling things much more than Gray and others seem to think we do. This is a philosophical book that challenges many basic assumptions about what it means to be human. While I don’t agree with some of what Gray presents, I admit that he makes astonishing points that lead me to question which of us is correct. Regarding several of his positions, I think he’s nuts. But I find many of his other arguments compelling. Reading John Gray made me think, wonder, and contemplate – not the meaning of life, but its nature.
Are we animals? For an excellent article on this, click here.
Is our nature much different than it has been for centuries? Have we changed significantly in the thousands of years since our first existence as homo sapiens? Are we any different from other animals in terms of what happens to us?
Humans have been in existence much as we are now for about 200,000 years. For about the last 6,000 years, we have been the social creatures we know ourselves to be. How do we fit into our environment? Do we belong here? How long will we survive as a species? Are we masters of our own destiny any more than any other animal? Are we doomed to destruction by our own actions?
I’ve seldom thought about it, but Professor Gray makes this point right off. His position seems to be that the last time we had it right, we were hunter-gatherers. I tend to agree. Gray begins with this basic assumption regarding evolution and religious culture.
“If Darwin’s discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist, culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day.” ~ John Gray, Straw Dogs
Accordingly, Gray says that Humanist’s believe that through progress, humans can be free of the limits that burden other animals. That by using our knowledge, we can control our environment and flourish as we never have before. Gray also has an interesting take on history; he seems to say it has little or no meaning.
I like this book because it deals with some aspects of the dark side of human nature. Interestingly, most of us know about the Holocaust, the WWII effort by Nazis to commit genocide and eradicate Jews. How many other genocides (or politicides) in human history can you name? Gray proposes, with evidence, that genocide is “as human as art or prayer.” Apparently, we are not very nice to each other, to other living creatures, or to nature in general. Along with others of similar philosophies, John Gray is talking about humans in a general sense.
The question for me is: how does all this square with my position that our basic nature is good? Maybe the answer doesn’t matter because he undermines so many of my humanist leanings, thus shattering my position that humans are special. I’ll retreat to my favorite elusion from Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
There is much we don’t know. But this Zen Proverb meme says it for me.
Whatever our nature is, we share that truth with each other. Let’s live our lives in awe of nature by embracing both sun and rain,
all flora and fauna,
and our fairies — Fenix and Furie.
Life is good and so are we, but mind the gaps and look both ways.
Disclosing as atheist is personal. Each person’s circumstance and disclosure story is different. The real question is: why should anyone publicly acknowledge being atheist? For some, it’s best kept private. There are legitimate reasons to hide not accepting the existence of any god. The reason is always the same: believers.
For many of us, the importance of religion is stressed from a young age–religion must be taught. Logically, we are usually taught that our religion is the correct one and all others are wrong. While atheists have a similar conviction of accuracy, it’s not the same since the basis is no god exists, and consequently no religion is right.
Regardless of the religion or denomination, it seems that most believers don’t understand or accept atheists or atheism without extreme prejudice. Unitarian Universalists are a possible exceptions, as well as a few others such as some pagan groups and Buddhist schools, divisions, or sects.
From my teenage days, I recall my mother telling me that she didn’t care what religion I was, as long as I had one. Mom was raised in a multi-denomination Christian family. I don’t recall Dad saying anything about it. I think he’d approve any religion as long it was “Cat-lick.” I wouldn’t risk telling him anything he might not agree with, certainly not that I didn’t believe in god.
I haven’t had to deal with negative family or friend issues regarding my public atheist disclosure, which was fairly recent. Other than a hint or two about someone praying for me, it’s been quiet.
After reading my spiritual memoir blog, Free from Religion, my wife said, “I could have written that.” Her experience was like mine, but she remains a theist. While supportive of my decision, she wonders what our religious friends think.
I’m old and can be cantankerous, but I’m usually laid back, quiet, and friendly. I’m retired, and have outlived many of my friends and family. While I want to be liked and loved as much as the next guy, I stopped caring so much about what anyone else thought of me long ago. At least I no longer care in the foolish manner that I once did. By remembering that what others think of me is none of my business, I find that I function much better in life.
For me, accepting my atheism involved learning, personal analysis and self evaluation—all done on my own over many years. Deciding to go public required me to think deeply about it. I wondered, why bother? I’m out, but I still think about it.
While my disclosure has been inconsequential, I’m concerned for anyone struggling with it. While the decision is personal, I think atheists should disclose (come out) as soon as they’re ready. But, preparation and timing are important, if not critical.
We should not disclose when angry, arguing, or with any motive other than share something about ourselves. Even simply answering a question, as in my case, should be at the right time.
My answers to the question about coming out, posed in the first paragraph are:
Honesty is the best way to deal with some of the challenges. Experiencing guilt from being deceitful is an unnecessary burden.
Support. Depending on where one lives, there are groups of other atheists willing to provide advice and support. Being open allows us to take full advantage of such groups. On line groups are plentiful and helpful. The names and contact information for these groups are available through blogs and books.
Mental health. It feels good. Along with the lifting of a mental burden, many of us feel a new enthusiasm for embracing atheism. My experience is like that.
Social contribution. It is good for the individual, good for society, and good for atheists and believers alike. The stereotypical view of atheism and atheists is unfair, damaging, and wrong. By allowing others to know we are atheist, it helps them to know the truth. While I’ve been incorrectly labeled an exception, my openness is beneficial to every atheist.
To deal with the idea of disclosure, I recommend the following.
A second book that I’ve not read, but looks promising, is Coming Out Atheist by Greta Christina.
Each of us should stand up for our rights. To do that, we need to be out of the closet. Being honest with ourselves and others isn’t easy, but there’s abundant testimony regarding the lifting of a burden that we can only achieve by letting the truth be known.
Making life changing decisions can be difficult. Look both ways.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
“War feels better than peace.”
That’s what it says. Not that war is better. It feels better. To put comments like that into context and perspective, you should read the book.
Tribe put me in touch with a part of myself that wants something which I haven’t had in long time–the feeling of belonging to a tribe. When I had it, it was temporary. I’ve lost my tribe, and I feel the void.
I don’t want to think we have a dystopian or apocalyptic world. But I realize that conflict and evil are pervasive in human nature. Also, all nature holds danger, evil threats, and risks to our survival. It has always been so and there is little sign of relief.
Junger’s book is supposed to be about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and American combat veterans returning to our normal and civilized society. It is about that, but there’s more to it. While vets are the focused subjects of the book, they are examples he uses to make an ultimate point about human nature and American society. I suspect that is why the book is so popular.
Maybe we are not what we think we are. Are we as peace-loving as we claim to be? We’ve certainly done much to create a peaceful society in America and other countries around the world, with varying degrees of success–mostly minor or the opposite of what we intended to do.
My favorite sentence in the book is just two words: “And yet.” (p. 109)
We crave peace, comfort, safety, pleasure, privacy, and independence. And yet, when we look at the history of human behavior under dangerous and stressful situations, something strange often happens to us. We are healthier and apparently (oddly?) happier—less depressed, when under stress. It should be the opposite, right?
I’ll not say more about the phenomenon because I don’t want to play spoiler. I want you to read the book. But, don’t use my library. There are now 184+ waits to read it. The word is out.
This book spoke to me. It’s my inner voice. Maybe I’m in denial. While I’m not overtly competitive and I’m so-so on some sports (I prefer playing to watching); I enjoy tension, drama, and mystery more than I like to admit. I have a love-hate relationship with fear and stress. I want them, and I don’t. WTF?
That voice is saying something. I know what it’s telling me. I know exactly what Junger is talking about—and I agree.
I avoid trouble. I want peace and love in the world. But I am a realist (in my mind, anyway). I enjoy conflict. While I’m unlikely to start trouble, when it’s forced on me, I’m in.
I despise fighting. I don’t enjoy pain or suffering, especially my own. But when I fight, I don’t want to stop. Something is deep inside me crying for more. Where’s my tribe?
When conflict is forced on me, I feel a change (a charge?) in my being–I feel strangely better. Got a tribe to protect and feed? I’m your man.
Consider the tribe concept in dealing with a crisis. We are all fighting for survival. We need each other. Your struggle is my struggle. We can share everything and overcome adversity for the good the tribe.
My personal paradox is that I’m an introvert and I enjoy my alone time. I value my privacy and a good night’s sleep as much as anyone. But I find the concept of a tribe fascinating, intriguing, and alluring—the challenge. The fight! Combat!
Our survival didn’t just happen. When you consider natural human strength, we’re easy prey in the animal kingdom. While we’re most vulnerable alone and we need protection, there’s something comforting and rewarding about the danger out there and what the tribe does for us.
Read the book.
When you find your tribe,
join them and cherish them. But, look both ways.