Saturday, June 5, 2021

Post-Publication Notes on Blue Bias


Post-Publication Notes on Blue Bias

© Charles D. Hayes

Notes from a couple of Zoom appearances I have made recently, one at a university and another to a private organization.

I am seventy-eight years old. I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and 50s. During those years, children grew up acknowledging that most of the people who lived in nice homes were white, most nurses and schoolteachers were women, and nearly all doctors, lawyers, and politicians were white men. I don’t recall during those years ever hearing the term white supremacy, but white superiority was accepted as common sense. If you had suggested otherwise, you would have been set straight by adults with a tirade that makes today’s notion of cancel culture seem quaint.  

In 1960, on my 17th birthday, I joined the Marines and served a four-year tour of duty. I joined the Dallas Police Department in 1966. I brought my racist indoctrination to the job as did most everyone else I worked with. Having internalized the notions of superiority I grew up with, I still viewed myself as did most others—as not having a racist bone in my body. I began my work as a police officer with over-the-top enthusiasm only to suffer what is commonly called burnout in a little over four years.

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May of 2020 began a nationwide call for police reform. It raised the age-old question of whether we have a few bad apples in policing, or if instead the whole barrel is tainted. My view is that there is truth in both counts, but it is too easy to misunderstand why.

In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In policing, it is attitude, attitude, attitude. If officers are not up to a genuine and sincere effort to take their oath to protect and serve seriously, then poor public service is the best we can expect. At worst, misconduct will likely follow. Police officers with a jaded mindset are analogous to a person using a GPS with bad coordinates: Every interaction one has with the public is a bit off-kilter.

When citizens call 911, they are requesting a form of thoughtful dominance that will bring order to chaos. It is assumed that alpha males and alpha female officers will respond to the call, because the job requires such a disposition, regardless of whether such a character trait comes naturally to them or not.  But unfortunately, because this boldness is required by law enforcement, the occupation is attractive to individuals with authoritarian personalities, people who see the world in simplistic terms: right versus wrong, black versus white, with no room for gray areas, nuance, or the need for deliberation. When racists become police officers, they have effectively been given a license to hate, but the nature of the work and the physical changes that ensue can have a negative effect even on officers with noble intentions.    

Peace officers in America have for generations been afforded almost complete autonomy in a culture in which their word has been traditionally accepted as the truth, creating a license to act without needing to worry about consequences, and over time, this has led to abusive behavior as having been effectively grandfathered in as acceptable. Technology has upended this sovereignty, and increasingly police union reps are angry in part because they are being asked, for the first time, to be subject to the law, rather than assuming they are above it.      

I know something about bad cops because I was one. I wasn’t corrupt or abusive, but I didn’t meet the standard of education then that I believe is necessary to be a police officer. In Blue Bias, I mention Michael J. Nila’s book, The Nobility of Policing, and his advice that police officers will be “both blessed and cursed to see more of life in a year than most people see in a lifetime,” and that they must be prepared “emotionally and spiritually.” I was not prepared. At the time, I simply did not have the knowledge that would have armed me with the perspective to deal with witnessing so much of the worst of human behavior without becoming overly cynical and jaded.    

I let domestic disturbance calls get to me because they seemed so infantile that I became disgusted by them and began to resent being asked to answer them. But a decade after I left policing, I developed an insatiable interest in the behavioral sciences, and as I became engrossed in an ethos of self-education, I began to regret having given up on policing.

In the 1970s, I moved to Alaska and went to work at Prudhoe Bay for Atlantic Richfield. The work schedules offered an equal time off and I began to use that time to study history, primatology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociology and myriad other subjects. I have been writing books and essays about the value of self-education for more than 35 years.     

In preparation for writing Blue Bias, I have spent the past five years studying the history of policing and race in America, and how biology and neuroscience applies to policing.

In my time as a Dallas police officer, I never hit anyone with my fist or a nightstick. I didn’t even carry one.  We used chokeholds in those days long enough to get a person handcuffed. I am not exaggerating when I say that if the number of men whom I used a chokehold on were in an average-sized living room, there would be standing room only.  But when someone told me they couldn’t breathe, I gave them the benefit of doubt.

Being a police officer today, in my view, requires an extensive education about the history of policing in America just to be grounded in the knowledge about how one’s presence is viewed by the members of minority communities. The history of policing in America regarding race is appalling.  As I point out in Blue Bias, every time I hear a police officer express doubts about the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter Movement, all it reveals to me is someone egregiously ignorant of that history. 


As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, America has experienced two and a half centuries of slavery, ninety-plus years of Jim Crow, three generations of separate but equal, two generations of legal redlining, followed by illegal redlining that is still alive in some states today. Add a century of lynching as a measure of silencing protest, and then being restricted only to menial labor and domestic servants in employment for more than a century, and you must ask, how then could the result be anything but poverty?    


From the very beginning, low-income communities have experienced a markedly different standard of policing—a double standard that still exists today. Nothing is written in police procedure that calls for different treatment in low-income minority neighborhoods. Instead, the behavior of police officers is rooted in tradition, as in, “this is how we do it here.”


Officers don’t need to mention that they treat people differently; the subject doesn’t need to be discussed. The double standard has been internalized through actions that began when the first officer donned a uniform with a gun and badge.


Simply stated, the history of policing in America regarding minorities, especially Black and Brown citizens, has been horrific. For decades after the Civil War, once the backlash to Reconstruction began, peace officers in the South arrested Black men en masse on trumped-up charges to supply prison labor for convict leasing by individual white farmers and private companies.  Moreover, the atrocities committed by police officers all over America, but especially in the Deep South, were on par with the darkest periods in world history.  


The reason for having police departments is decidedly simple: It is to keep communities safe—safe from bad actors and increasingly in many cases, safe from over-policing, as initiated by local politicians who see their police departments as a major source of revenue. Through such policies, the police edict becomes a relentless effort to write traffic tickets and to issue summonses for misdemeanors, for offenses that have much less to do with public safety, and everything to do with funding government.

The issue of police departments as major sources of revenue is notably missing from the calls for defunding the police, but in so many cases this is the underlying reason for many instances of the excessive use of force, simply because these incidents are so often born out of the implicit goal of revenue enhancement.

The impetus begins in the detail room of each shift, as officers are told not to focus on making community safety their highest priority, but instead to focus on petty offenses and to produce results. One of the most egregious examples of this is detailed in the Department of Justice March 2015 Ferguson Missouri Report. Read the report online and don’t kid yourself that this kind of policing is not still going on in many communities. But add to this revelation the fact that the existence of a bedrock implicit racial bias has resulted in a double standard in policing and the mistreatment of African Americans that is deeply rooted in the horrific history of American law enforcement.

Over-policing creates a higher reported incidents rate of criminal activity (albeit of misdemeanors and minor infractions), which is then used to justify more over-policing, even though over-policing created that higher crime rate in the first place. Because police departments are already short of the number of officers needed to meet the demand of 911 calls, the lack of officers to respond to true emergencies, simply because too many officers are out in pursuit of revenue, exacerbates the difficulty in making a neighborhood safer. 

Instead of focusing on defunding the police, concentrate funding local governments through sources other than fines for petty offenses. In most communities, police officers know who the active criminals are in the areas where they are assigned—being available to keep abreast of their activity is critical to public safety. However, oppressive tactics aimed at stopping everything that moves in hopes of deterring crime makes any neighborhood a candidate for being what I call a “Cortisol Canyon,” a place which elevates the residents’ stress hormones beyond all reason.  

From Blue Bias: “Pick a city: Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, or Ferguson, Missouri. Imagine two young black men are walking on a sidewalk in a low-income residential area, a police cruiser drives by slowly, and one of the young men says to the other, ‘Nothing for us to worry about with those guys in the neighborhood.’ Sounds hysterically absurd when you consider the reality of such a scenario. It is more likely that these young men feel like quarry, prey, a target. And this, in my view, is prima facie evidence of law enforcement missing the point of their very existence.”     


There have indeed been improvements in policing in America. There are many police chiefs and individual officers working tirelessly to improve policing, but there are also officers in every major city in America who routinely behave like Derek Chauvin. The look on Chauvin’s face when he had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was a look of entitlement: He was acting in keeping with the double-standard tradition. 


While overt explicit racism has reared its ugly head during the past five years, the most significant problem we still face is a failure to admit that implicit bias is not about racial hatred or animosity but is instead simply the way our brains catalogue what we assume comprises reality. From the time we are toddlers, our brains sort, categorize, and stereotype, and they do this without our conscious awareness.


Coast to coast, America’s inner cities represent the fallout of both explicit and implicit bias, as does our disproportionate percentage of racial minorities in prisons. In our literature, television, and cinema, black men are often depicted as being exceptionally dangerous. It’s thrilling entertainment, cast this way for effect, and so it’s not surprising to hear of black men who are also wary of black men.


As professor of biology and neurology Robert M. Sapolsky points out in his profoundly enlightening book Behave, we are more likely to assume a glimmer from the hand of a stranger is a weapon—if it is dark, if the person is male instead of female, if the person is of another race. The kind of neighborhood matters too—then back we go from what kind of a day we are having, all the way back to childhood development, our prenatal experience, to our ancestral lineage that occurred millions of years ago, in which evolution equipped our limbic system—all set the stage to make snap judgments based on appearances.


We don’t have to hate or dislike strangers to treat them differently than those who are familiar to us. So, arguing incessantly about whether we are racists or not is a tragic waste of time, and it gets us no closer to solving the problem, which is that our subconscious snap judgments based on our cultural upbringing come to us milliseconds before our conscious awareness has a chance to assess the issue at hand. We are predisposed by nature of our cerebral architecture to be geniuses when it comes to rationalizing, yet we are still unlikely to realize we are simply trying to justify our position.  


Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of Why We Snap. He puts it this way: “Racial prejudice is wired into the human brain. Stereotyping of people as members of outcast groups is also wired into the human brain but by somewhat separate circuits…. The human brain instantly sorts people into different groups along racial lines. This may be difficult to accept, but the latest neuroimaging evidence supports this surprising conclusion…. That there can be no patriotism without a foreign adversary, no maternal bonding without seeing other babies differently.”


For 99.9999 percent of our species’ time on this planet, we were on the dinner menu of large predators and subject to meet warring tribes at any given moment. As a result, evolution saw to it that our limbic system (which consists of the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the thalamus) handles our experience by forming a sentinel awareness which notes and captures anything and everything that may prove harmful in milliseconds before our frontal cortex (our executive brain function) is even aware there is danger. In other words, our brains evolved to jump to conclusions for safety’s sake, and this includes everything that qualifies as being unfamiliar.

Metaphorically, it is like our limbic system photoshops our life experience, not as we think it should be, but as it appears. When you give this some thought from an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense. Most of human thought derives from our subconscious, and this intuitive and instantaneous response is independent of our frontal cortex, which is what we commonly refer to as our executive brain function. Let’s say you decide through much executive reasoning and reflection that you are no longer afraid of snakes. That’s fine, but it will still not stop your limbic system from freaking out if you are about to step on one.

Now, it is crucial to understand that our brains have been sorting, categorizing, and stereotyping all through our childhood to and through our adulthood and that we have all internalized myriad assumptions about subjects we are consciously unaware of until we have an occasion to proffer an opinion. It is critical to be fully aware that our subconscious assumptions are not based on the way we think things should be, but only as they appear. 

In the same manner that, if we had chicken pox when we were young, the shingles virus is now a part of us, the same analogy applies if we have grown up in a culture in which racial bias is systemic. This includes the whole planet. Another way to visualize how we are instilled with this ability to sort and stereotype is to think about how easily we recall drama when we are personally involved. When we study a myriad of subjects, the process requires a concentrated effort to recall what we have learned, but when we have a part in drama, the recall is effortless. In some cases, we can never forget, even when we try.  It makes perfect sense that evolution prepared us to easily recall danger in any guise and to make this memory permanent.


As I point out repeatedly in Blue Bias, if police management is not obsessed with keeping their officers from routinely using excessive force, then it is inevitable that they will become abusive because their work will cause both physical and emotional changes in them. Even with good intentions, their biology will work against them.


There are four subjects I will mention briefly that I seldom hear discussed when we talk about policing and behavior.   

1.     The first is that we are accustomed to comparing our gray matter to computers, but it is more accurate to imagine that we have a chemical factory in our heads, and that we are chemically cocktailed to behave tribalistically. 

The hormone oxytocin often called the love hormone because of its role in mother and child bonding, is also mysteriously instrumental in socially goading us to ostracize outsiders, but we still do not understand precisely how this works, or what the tipping point is that causes it.

2.     The second is that, as history suggests, we do not grow up in this country with a clear understanding about how bias works, and how our limbic system front-loads our life experience to consider risk assessments up front. Recall Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and Slow and this will begin to make sense.

From the time when we are infants, our amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus act in a sentinel capacity in which our brains sort, categorize, and stereotype to keep us safe from physical harm and embarrassment. We make assumptions subconsciously all our lives without being aware that we are doing so, and neuroimaging confirms it. There is an often-quoted example of a little white girl in the south who upon seeing a black infant said, “Look, Mommy, a baby maid.”

If we grow up in a society with systemic racism, it is almost impossible not to have been negatively influenced, at least as a matter of degree in the form of an intuitive nudge. Implicitly biased judgments come to us in milliseconds from our subconscious before our frontal cortex or executive brain function is even aware of the subject at hand.

 Simply put, our personal opinions about whether we harbor racial biases are pretty much worthless, and police officers who adamantly avoid bias training, while believing they don’t need it, are the people who need it most. The bottom line is that implicit bias can only be mitigated by people who care deeply about doing so.

3.     Third is that police officers who engage in frequent altercations are likely to experience physiological structural changes in their brain, with their amygdala growing larger, causing them to become hypersensitive to insult, or having their authority challenged. Some behavioral scientists refer to this as a sense of entitlement, which is what I believe we saw on the face of the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. If police management is not hypersensitive about scrutinizing the behavior of their officers, some of them will get out of control just from doing their jobs.

Police work demands hypervigilance. Working in densely populated cities is emotionally difficult—seeing one’s fellow citizens at their worst day after day for years at a time is both physiologically and psychologically taxing. It is hard, extremely hard, not to become jaded and cynical. The frequent excess of cortisol from emotional stress has long-term physical implications, made worse because, after an emotionally challenging incident that causes a flood of cortisol, simply recalling the incident can repeat the surge of cortisol.

4.     And finally, police work is exciting and the endorphin rushes one experiences at a slot-machine frequency can become addictive. If officers are unaware of how this can affect them, they can begin to subconsciously escalate conflicting situations to get an endorphin rush without realizing they are doing so.  Now, add to these the physical and psychological changes that come with intensive emotional activity, and it is easy to see that police officers can begin to crave the very thing that is causing them personal harm.     

My take is that until we acknowledge the biological and tribalistic nature of our species, and how our minds work in mechanically and automatically categorizing and sorting, we are never going to solve the problem of implicit bias.

Implicit bias, the kind without malice, is ubiquitous simply because of the way our brains prize familiarity, but explicit bias, the kind that thrives on hatred is like Covid-19: It is viral, and it is carried via conscious opinion as tradition from one person to another, analogous to the way viruses travel through the air. If a group or race of people has been stigmatized for centuries, then negative feelings are deeply embedded in tradition. We are so thoroughly influenced by conforming to cultural submersion that we develop accents in the regions in which we grow up. Pre-Civil War attitudes are known to still exist in the Deep South. If all it took to eliminate them was a conscious change of mind, we could have put an end to racial prejudice in 1865.

Bias is what brains do. Accounting for our tribalistic nature requires an educational patch that is equal to the task of repairing the mistaken assumptions that our primordial limbic system makes routinely.

In Blue Bias I am trying to improve policing by helping to prevent officer burnout, reduce the incidents of excessive force, help officers adopt a perspective that prevents cynicism, and increase mutual respect between officers and citizens.  

And finally, in closing, I hope that what I have said makes it crystal clear that this advice is not just for police officers, but for every person in this country because we are never going to deal effectively with implicit or explicit bias, until understanding how our brains work is common knowledge, or a no-brainer, so to speak. Thank you.  

Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing

(c) Charles D. Hayes

Finally, after a half century of reflection and four years of writing and obsessive rewriting, I’ve just published Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing. In preparation for the flak I’m going to be getting from politically hard-right conservatives, I recently re-watched all five seasons of The Wire, written, produced, and directed by David Simon. To those who don’t understand the problem of drugs and intercity poverty, Simon says watch the series, and if you still don’t get it, watch it again.

The Wire, of course, is fiction, but it is in my view a masterpiece of insightful social commentary. Our criminal justice system is an unmitigated disaster, yet what is required to fix it is amazingly simple but over the moon expensive.

America’s inner cities need a Marshall Plan that includes compensation for systemic unemployment caused by decades of racist oppression, from the end of Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to redlining, and current recognition of the transformation effects of digital app technology on employment. The expectation that traditional employment opportunities are going to spring up en masse in inner cities in enough numbers to solve inner-city employment without a formidable investment is pure fantasy.

The moral objective of policing must be to make communities safe, not play a numbers game based on the pretense that the numbers are more important than the people served. If you want to assess the quality of community policing, numbers are less important than the feelings of being safe, less important than the people who live there actually feeling safe. When the citizens in poor neighborhoods feel protected from bad actors and oppressive policing, the goal will be reached, but not until then. 

Worse, local politicians often fund their government on the backs of poor citizens, by focusing on traffic tickets and misdemeanor fines that have nothing whatsoever to do with safety, but everything to do with a funding arrangement that effectively turns petty crimes into felonies. And while their police officers are tied up with minor incidents to raise revenue, they aren’t available when real emergencies occur.  So, in a nutshell, over-policing leads to under-protection. 

And of critical importance, the problem of racial bias in policing won’t be solved until it becomes commonplace that police officers and the general public have a much better understanding of how our minds work with respect to implicit bias.

If the current level of misunderstanding about how bias works had been the plan of saboteurs to confuse us, it would be hard to figure out how to do a better job, if the objective was to bewilder and mystify.  I can say this much without worry of being incorrect: If you haven’t studied the subject of racial bias intensively, you can’t be objective about it. It’s just not possible. 

What makes these problems so infuriating and existentially sad is that we have known since Reconstruction what is necessary to address systemic racism and inner-city poverty, but the inevitable greed-based corruption that comes with the ambition exhibited by hierarchal governmental authority is damned near impossible to correct across the board, and David Simon’s series makes this point crystal clear. 

I had made up my mind that I was going to shelve this book project if we didn’t retake the House of Representatives in 2018. Now I must contend with the possibility of promoting a work on police reform in the event of Trump being reelected, since it seems that doing so would be sort of like spitting into the wind.

But after some serious reflection, I realize that this kind of thinking is misplaced, because I believe that most of the police officers in this country and most of the public servants in the Justice Department are well intentioned; most really do want justice for all, but the bureaucratic mess that has been created by partisan politics represents a staggering obstacle.

When you think of the irony in the fact that at the very time when we have a serial sexual predator in the White House, that there would be so many positive results stemming from the #metoo movement, that perhaps the same principle can be applied to Bill Barr’s right-wing politicization of the Justice Department, and we can improve policing in the shadows of tyrants, whose call for law and order has more to do with repressing minorities in what they view as a deserved punitive comeuppance, than anything to do with justice. 


The paper version of Blue Bias is available now on Amazon and a Kindle version can be preordered with a release date of March 31st. If you are an Amazon Prime member, I believe the Kindle edition will be free. This was an expensive book to produce. I have more than 10k invested in the bibliography alone, and there are well over 600 endnotes.

I’m encouraged that some of the readers of the manuscript who adamantly opposed me on some issues said that, despite their disagreement, Blue Bias is a pleasurable read. I took this to mean they were talking about clarity and it being easy to understand. If you should read it, I would be very much interested in your thoughts. I believe Blue Bias offers the best explanation of how bias works than any I have ever read, and recommend it for that reason.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Fraudulent Trickledown

© Charles D. Hayes

I posted this short piece on Facebook a few days ago without a title and it sort of went viral. 
A half century ago, General Motors was America’s largest employer and the hourly wages then, were equivalent to $50.00 per hour today. Now, America’s biggest employer, is Walmart and the value equivalence of their hourly wage is $8.00 per hour.
This is the reward of 50 years of trickledown economics and because this loss of equity happened so slowly over time, we have a frog in the pot scenario, in which, the frog (we) let the water get too hot, until jumping was not an option.  
Moreover, the small-government-low-taxes mania that accompanies trickledown economics, combined with a governance that operates on the principle of legal bribery, is a recipe for oligarchy at best, and tyranny at the worst.    

That the GOP still has wildly enthusiastic support for a system rigged so effectively that it amounts to Socialism for the top one-percent, and that CEO’s and Boards of Directors openly loot our public corporations, without public outrage, is an assault on the very idea of democracy. Donald Trump currently has an 88 percent approval rating with Republicans. How in the name of hell is such imbecility possible?

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put our predicament in clear perspective: “We can have a democratic society, or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

French economist Thomas Piketty’s exhaustive research on the history of global capitalism, shows clearly and definitively that over time, unless there are very strict safeguards, capital will exponentially outpace the value of labor, resulting in an ever-increasing economic inequality.

This is where we are in 2019, and it’s going to take a lot more than a little tweaking with the minimum wage to fix this. Ideas?
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Monday, December 17, 2018

Facing the Reality of Death: Angst, Exhilaration, and Solace

(c) Charles D. Hayes

I’ve been working on a forthcoming book for 2019 titled: Blue Bias: A Former Cop Rethinks Policing and Deadly Force and haven’t posted on this blog in almost a year, although I do post short pieces frequently on Facebook.  I wrote the piece below my sixties and now I am half way through my seventies and this essay that is from my book Existential Aspirations is one of my favorites and I find consolation in rereading it every now and then. So Happy Holidays I hope you find it interesting.

The evidence is pervasive that we are predisposed for illusion. I’m convinced that the best intellectual exhilaration to be had in adulthood is to break the spell. The way psychologist Erich Fromm characterized it, aging, especially after age sixty-five, is a time to live as if living is one’s main business. To do this effectively requires keeping the alternative in perspective while cutting through cultural fantasies and popularized nonsense.

Thinking recently about Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion that life is a loan from death and sleep is the interest we pay on the loan, it occurred to me that forgetfulness qualifies as a reminder of death. Perhaps this is what makes it so irritating. As we age it makes sense that many of us seem more easily annoyed. Forgetfulness, when it becomes increasingly noticeable, is a constant reminder that we are not in control.

Near the end of his own life, Sigmund Freud theorized about his long-held notion of the existence of a universal death instinct. He acknowledged that what most people do about facing death is to shelve the subject and avoid it with distraction. Freud surmised that all living creatures struggle with the opposing forces of life and death. He believed that, more often than not, the death instinct shows itself as varying forms of aggression. Freud’s theory was not well developed and was not well received in academia.

In my view, a far stronger case can be made that a profound conscious and subconscious existential fear of death favors distraction as a means of avoiding thinking about death, period. We occupy ourselves with cards, television, Internet, books, puzzles, sex, religion, mysticism, golf, a hobby—whatever it takes. Both high and low culture, and drama in particular, provide blissful escape and perhaps a vicarious but subtle method for dissipating our aggression through our imagination, as we sidestep thoughts of our own mortality. Although distraction appears to ease one’s immediate angst, in the long run it ratchets up anxiety that can readily turn into despair of the worst kind, “despair unaware that it’s despair”—as Søren Kierkegaard defined it. So, in effect, the advantage of distraction is more apparent than real.

Deep into my sixties, and despite the above, I now find more and more people willing to discuss the notion of their own death. Through this, I’ve come to believe that there is also a positive side to counter the dread of nonexistence that has the potential to show itself nearly as frequently as the negative reminders like forgetfulness. Trouble is, almost no one speaks about the affirmative side. I’m confident that I’m not the only person who has such experiences. There are times, for example, when the music I’m listening to sounds better than it should be possible for music to sound. The same feeling occurs with the endorphin rush of comprehension that comes from reading a particularly inspiring passage in a book or watching an actor or actress in the delivery of a brilliant performance. Similar feelings occur with other sights, sounds, and even odors that seem more pronounced than ever before. These occurrences are moments of intense clarity and exhilaration. They appear as if in bold capital letters, italicized, and underlined. True, they are fleeting, but they’re no less powerful for it. The impression on my memory is like an asterisk on the experience. I may or may not recall it exactly as it happened, but what matters most is that it did happen and left me with the optimistic expectation that it might happen again.

I’m at a loss to explain these experiences. They are describable only as existential exclamation points—a vivid sense of awareness accentuated with a hint of urgency, part lament, and part celebration. For a long time, I thought these incidents were something other than what William James discusses in The Varieties of Religious Experience, or what Abraham Maslow describes in Peak Experiences, but now I’m not so sure. The example closest to my own experience that I recall reading about is philosopher Brian Magee’s emotional elation while listening to the music of Gustav Mahler, a moment he recounts in Confessions of a Philosopher. It’s not surprising, though, that there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the brighter side of gazing into the abyss, simply because of the common practice of vigorously avoiding the subject.

Mingled with these highlighted experiences are memories of events that didn’t seem so special to me when they occurred but that now give rise to a sense of regret that I may not experience them again. Such memories might be the mesmerizing sound of crickets on a warm summer night and June bugs buzzing under a streetlight, fireflies sparkling like embers in deep woods, the smell of freshly plowed earth, a sudden, blissfully cool downdraft of air preceding a thunderstorm on a hot summer day, the crisp smell of the coming winter in late fall. These are all exclamation points not fully appreciated until the chance of their being repeated is threatened by want of time.   

I’m beginning to suspect that all the meaningful knowledge that prompts people to write books, give lectures, and make movies is a simple thread of fleeting experience that can only be grasped in brief flashes of insight. The effect of these moments is so profound that we intuitively spend the rest of lives in search of more, often without even knowing for sure what it is that we are pursuing. Thus, for many people, meaningful experience has a way of becoming the Holy Grail of their existence, often without their ever realizing it as such.        

The longer we live and the more our friends and family members precede us in death, the more profound I suspect is our awareness of our own mortality and the more aware we are of our being aware. It’s sort of like a stage actor who’s observing herself acting but not worrying about how well she’s doing. Having seen the Discovery Channel’s series about climbing Mt. Everest, I liken the experience of acknowledging the short time ahead to trekking at high altitude and seeing the summit in plain sight. It represents the end. The clearer the end becomes, the more sensitive we are to everything in our midst, and we can be grateful that the air is too thin at this level to sustain much pretension. Strewn about below is a lifetime of memories petitioning to be measured against expectation-- routine and mundane daily experiences interspersed with moments of high drama that turned days into weeks and weeks into years.

Our decades are stacked up like chapters in a novel that lacks a definitive plot; some sections seem as though they belong in the book of a stranger. “Auld Lang Syne” rings in our ears, honoring old acquaintances long forgotten. Images reappear in our mind’s eye, the haunting faces of the elders we knew when we were young. These are the folks who died out of sight and out of mind, but as we near our own death, we find ourselves wondering what happened to them and how and when they passed away. We recall events that seemed critical and profoundly important at the time, that don’t matter at all now, as well as matters that once seemed trivial but are no longer. All those unpleasant memories of occasions we would rather forget come to mind, too, along with those satisfying experiences we wish we could remember more clearly.

One of the things that I find most regrettable in imagining my own demise is the reality of the generation break. The fact is that the memories I have connecting my life to my grandparents will be lost forever. Sure, I can tell my son and granddaughter about the objects I’m leaving behind that belonged to my grandparents; I can even explain how and why they are so special to me, but the meaningfulness won’t be the same. For me, this is an unshakable existential regret.   

Still, so many questions remain unanswered. Has our life been successful? By whose standards do we judge? What of our legacy? Do we actually have one? Would we know it if we didn’t have one, or recognize it as a legacy if we did? What is there left to do that we still might accomplish? If we had our life to do over again, would it be worth the effort? Would it be worth reliving eternally? What would we do differently? Have we learned enough about living to lay down good memories in the present without wishing we could redirect the scenes? An ending is required to put our story in perspective, and yet our very nature dictates that doing so will always seem premature. 

Perhaps, with the summit in sight, we can imagine that upon our shoulders rests the mountainous weight of all our earthly problems, and, upon our demise, these will lift away like a spring mist. Then maybe we can dissolve some of the angst of our predicament. Moreover, the same can be said of our discomfort about nonexistence and any aggression we may secretly harbor. So, even though Freud was probably mistaken about the death instinct, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

As the aging and openly communicative baby-boom generation makes its way to the peak, I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about subjects that earlier generations chose to leave on the shelf. Based upon my own experience, I think that in avoiding such topics our predecessors cheated themselves out of something constructive that only comes with a harsh dose of reality and the desire for perspective. Better to do as Emerson and Schopenhauer suggested: look death in the eye and refuse to blink. Near the summit, the air is clearer, and one can be more objective than ever before. Although enough air to maintain the routine of daily life is lacking, available still is a panoramic, big-picture view that seeks comprehension, rationalization, and justification. It yields no great secrets; instead, it reveals a more realistic view of the way the world is, not as we’ve wished it to be or thought that it was when we were young. The power of this elevated viewpoint is that it enables us to observe layer upon layer of nonsense we have constructed with the help of our culture for reasons that may suddenly seem inconceivable. 

This view may be one reason it’s possible to experience moments of sharp sensory perception, when music can sound better than we’ve ever suspected possible. It’s a kind of clarity of contrasted experience, part bittersweet sorrow because life is passing, and part celebration for having had the privilege of living.

This kind of perception arises in similar fashion to Alan Watts's “backwards law,” which says, when you let yourself relax in the water, you don’t sink as you would expect; instead you float. It’s an unencumbered observer phenomenon unavailable to those whose thirst for security is never satiated. Watts said, “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Counterintuitive as it sounds, I believe that, just as aging makes our lack of influence over the future more and more self-evident, the letting go of our personal involvement with the world enables us to see and think clearly enough to do something that might have lasting consequences. This may be what prompted life-stage researcher Erik Erikson to observe that wisdom is a product of “involved disinvolvement,” and why some aging citizens achieve a sense of “grand-generativity” as a generous and broadly felt sense of goodwill intended as an aspiration for posterity.  

On the dark side, though, are the many people among the living whose daily existence is but one excruciating health catastrophe after another, not to mention those who die young and those who experience premature senility. For persons living in constant pain, with relief coming only from stupor-inducing drugs, who can blame them for despairing about the mention of exhilaration and aging together in the same sentence? I think of people in this circumstance when I encounter the New Age nonsense, so often pitched in self-help books, with its empty platitudes and cliché-ridden slogans about how wonderful everything is. When I compare these mindless assertions with Schopenhauer’s example of the feelings among animals while one is being eaten by another, the bubble comes back toward the center.

Then there is the late Ernest Becker’s award-winning book, The Denial of Death. Becker argued that if we were to dwell on it too much, the precariousness of our own mortality would drive us insane. He may have been right. But too much shelter from reality also yields deleterious effects. Near the summit, the perspective is grand, unless, fearing the inevitable, one refuses to look. To perceive of life metaphorically above the fray of everyday concerns offers a chance for taking up philosophy, as Thomas Ellis Katen suggests in Doing Philosophy, in order “to get out of the unremitting rain of unreflected-upon information.” But philosophy, as Socrates demonstrated, and as many philosophers since have claimed, is also about learning how to die. The view on high is clear because there is plenty of time and space for the practice of sheer, unfettered observation and contemplation. Taking in the view from this level is unique in that after a lifetime of arguing about what is and isn’t of value, it suddenly becomes clear—real value is not what we thought it was.

In the spirit of Schopenhauer, Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, “Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness.” A bit harsh, I think. Speaking for myself, I would rather have the chance to appear as a stain in the pit than not, and I bet I could find lots of folks who would agree with me that there have been some fine moments on our way to the compost heap. 

            More than three decades ago, physicist Stephen Hawking postulated that the existence of black holes means that all information in the universe will ultimately end. Recently he changed his mind. Now he argues that the end will come only to information in galaxies where black holes exist. This kind of logic is probably as close as we will ever get to why some people seem to live charmed lives and others live in perpetual misery. It happens sometimes but not always. So, it doesn’t take a lot of life experience for observant individuals to conceive that for human beings there are many things worse than death and that both good and ill must be considered and weighed constantly to keep one’s perspective.

Of course, simply trying to wrap one’s mind around metaphysical mysteries like time and space being interchangeable, or the unfathomable notion of space as infinite, or, as the Theory of Relativity suggests, past, present, and future, coexisting simultaneously, could drive us mad if we thought we had to reduce these matters to a realm of concrete understanding before we die. Contemplating these mysteries, I suspect, is analogous to the living brain trying to comprehend its own nonexistence—the very act of doing so is a metaphysical violation of causality.

We appear to be wired to shelter ourselves from too much reality. In Wings of Illusion, psychologist John F. Schumaker argues that we should think it worthwhile to determine a proper degree of illusion as a psychological shelter, but to be very careful about not overdoing it. Recall his epigraph at the beginning of this essay. If we are truly honest with ourselves, our predisposition to believe the unbelievable becomes exceptionally clear near the summit. From here, we can see the distraction for what it is and not be nearly as distraught as expected.

Another key to understanding the exhilaration possible in facing death is that when we begin to tweak with our beliefs near the code level of our biological wiring, haphazardly tripping over endorphins is not unusual. In other words, contemplating existential matters at high altitude is pleasurable by design. Schumaker says further that culture absorbs the chaos and “manufactures the stupidity that we need in order to function in this world.” Not surprisingly then, when we begin to figure this out during the existential deliberation that comes naturally with aging, a sense of suddenly seeing through illusions without the usual dread can be enthralling. As it turns out, looking death in the eye trips a pleasure circuit. Neurological testing reveals that when we contemplate death directly, our brain responds by activating positive information to compensate. 

We are all familiar with the process of meeting overwhelmingly bad news with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance that presumably evolves into a stoic resolve. But for many of us, age catches up-- like the frog in hot water that begins to boil before he can escape—and by the time we awaken enough to see the summit in plain view, it is much too late to deny our mortality. There is nothing to bargain about. Time is short. And furthermore, nothing is to be gained from fear and depression but the possibility of missing a last chance to make some subjective sense of it all. Simply stated, the last chapters of life require some graduate- level thinking to ensure that we’ve fully checked in before we check out.

A determined effort to develop our perspective from a philosophical position near the end of life may well result in some of the best times we ever have. Such effort has the potential for having a lasting effect on whatever legacy we leave behind, provided there are no black holes in the neighborhood and there is new grass to cover the pit. The payoff from thoughtful reflection is the ability to see through the nonsensical distractions that are detrimental to civilization and our progeny’s future. Exclamation points are where you find them, and when you really start to pay attention because time is short, the rewards are exhilarating. One final but pleasurable thought on the quandary of death. Perhaps, if Einstein was right about the coexistence of past, present and future, the worst that can happen to us is to be lost in time. Thoughts?    

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Fear that Defines and Divides Us

(c) Charles D. Hayes
In Staring at the Sun, Irvin D. Yalom, says the gift of self-awareness comes at a high price. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.”

Death anxiety separates us from all the earth’s creatures. We are the only species whose lifelong motivation is subconsciously hijacked in myriad ways to avoid or postpone the inevitability of nonexistence. Death anxiety is the indoctrinating lifeforce of religion and ground zero for the reasons for doing what we do in life. 

Creating art, literature, scientific research and discovery, reading, sports, hobbies, business achievement, and gaining wealth and especially power are all manifestations of a means of pushing back and seeming to close the door the grim reaper is forever threatening to open.

There is mountainous research material in the field of existential psychology that supports mortality salience as being the breach in the dam of the human condition—at the crux of global conflict, and yet, for all practical purposes the subject never gains traction.  

I’ve have written about this human dilemma at great length.  This core humanitarian concern is too often treated like a curious novelty, instead of what it is: humanity’s Achilles Heel, and the subject never achieves momentum in everyday public discourse, even though how it is ultimately dealt with may decide our species survival. 

Strangers, chaos, change, and uncertainty are subconscious reminders of the inevitability of demise, and even the act of forgetting hints of nonexistence. But nothing is quite so toxic and psychologically threatening as the feeling that one is living an unfulfilling life, and this ethos lies at the crux of the political divide in America. Globally millions of people feel threatened by otherness (a metaphorical cousin of nonexistence) many of them need someone to blame for their fears and social contempt works miraculously as a suitable distraction. 

Worse, in some cultures the shelter of submission and losing themselves in a cause produces terrorists, eager to blow themselves up so that in some deranged sense, they can feel that their lives will have mattered. Yalom says his ultimate concerns as a psychiatrist for therapy are: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. 

My point is that we are in the grip of an authoritative regime of dogmatists, whose rhetoric for gaining the support of their constituents, fuels the fear that breeds existential angst. When the future seems overtly threatened by otherness, nostalgia replaces hope, hatred becomes common currency, and one’s identity group is suddenly perceived as having been an inadequate shelter from the inevitable. 

We have people these days with enough wealth to spend ten thousand dollars a day for a thousand years and still be rich. That these people are assumed to be acting strictly out of greed is a mistaken assumption. The money they are making, and the power associated with it, is a subconscious means of metaphorically poking a finger in the eye of the grim reaper, it means they are still here, still alive, and that they prevail.  The ultra-rich people fortunate enough to figure this out for themselves, stand out, often by giving away their fortune and by devoting their remaining years to helping their fellow man. 

In the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic there is a feature about WeCroak, it’s an app that sends you a notice five times a day that you are going to die. Being the existentialist that I am, I signed up for the cheerful reminders.  I’m curious about the effect of being rudely and randomly informed that I am soon to be toast, and I will let you know what it is like.

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