“Which is older- the rocks you see on the ground or the light you see from the sky? Usually it’s the rocks that are older, with their origin sediments deposited well before light left any of the stars or nebulas you see in the sky. However, if you can see, through a telescope, a distant galaxy far across the universe- further than Andromeda or spiral galaxy NGC 7331 (inset)- then you are seeing light even more ancient.
Click image for larger size.
Featured here, the central disk of our Milky Way Galaxy arches over Toadstool hoodoos rock formations in northern Arizona, USA. The unusual Toadstool rock caps are relatively hard sandstone that wind has eroded more slowly than the softer sandstone underneath. The green bands are airglow, light emitted by the stimulated air in Earth's atmosphere. On the lower right is a time-lapse camera set up to capture the sky rotating behind the picturesque foreground scene.”
“The Maori of New Zealand imagined the original man with his head planted firmly in the earth, an ocean issuing from his mouth, in his groin a gum tree, clouds on his feet. What are we to make of this upside-down Adam? No head-in-the-clouds this fellow. His tattooed noggin is fixed in the soil like a tuber. Arms spread like an ocean-going outrigger canoe. Heart and lungs smoldering in the hearth of his chest. Only the soles of his feet keeping the sky from crushing him out.
Looks good to me. Humankind as integral to nature. Earth, water, fire, air. The spindle on which the world is spun. Compare this to Adam in the Judeo-Christian myth, breathed into a world already formed, almost as if he were an afterthought. Lord and master of the whole affair. His dealings are with God alone.
Of course, no one who is at all cognizant of the last 400 years of science believes in a literal Adam, or a literal Maori man for that matter. The stories are interesting from an historical point of view, and they can serve a metaphorical purpose, but we don't take them seriously. We have our own creation myths, and some of us take them very seriously indeed.
Here is John Haught, a theologian I admire, in a recent issue of "Commonweal", offering his own take on how it all came to be: "It is the presence and lure of infinite being, wisdom, truth, and goodness that grounds both the world's intelligibility and our own intelligent life. Through natural processes the inexhaustible love of God evokes an anticipatory restlessness that we call evolution and, in our newly emergent minds, an unrestricted desire to know. Such a theological vision not only makes the world a favorable place for scientific inquiry; it also provides good reasons for entrusting ourselves to the mind's spontaneous quest for understanding and truth."
Well, yes. Give Haught this: He doesn't dismiss science as a way of reliable knowing. And he espouses a faith that doesn't stand in stark opposition to science. But the story he proposes is no less a myth than Adam or the Maori man. For that matter, so is the myth of the scientific materialist, evoking chance and non-teleological emergence. At least the latter has Ockham's razor on its side.
We spend a lot of time contesting each other's myths, as if they had an objective foundation. We have a hard time saying, ‘I don't know.’"
Central bankers not only continue to insist their free money for financiers will eventually “trickle down” to the masses–they’re angry that the masses aren’t buying it. Central bankers are now blaming the masses for maintaining a perverse psychological state of disbelief in the omnipotence of central banks and their policies. Central bankers are raging at the psychology of hesitant households, which they finger as the cause of global weakness: if only people believed everything was great, they’d borrow and blow tons of money, and the ship would leave port with a full head of steam.
The central bankers have spent seven years constructing “signals” that are supposed to create a psychological state of euphoria that leads to more borrowing and spending. The stock market is at all-time highs–don’t those stupid masses get it? That’s the “signal” that all’s well and they should get out there and borrow more money to enrich the banks!
Central bankers’ anger is not directed at the source of the policy failures– themselves– but at the masses, whose BS detectors suggest all the signals are manipulated and therefore worthless. The skeptical psychology of the masses is akin to the mark at the 3-card monte table: the crooked dealer (in this case, the central banks) has let the mark win a few rounds to “prove” the game is honest, but the mark remains skeptical.
This is infuriating central bankers, who counted on the marks falling for the rigged game. This wasn’t supposed to happen, they rage; the Keynesian bag of tricks was supposed to work. Stage-managed perception (i.e. rising markets mean the economy is healthy and vibrant) was supposed to trump reality (i.e. the economy is sick, dependent on the dangerous drugs of debt and speculation).
Next up: bargaining. Central bankers are kneeling at the false gods of the Keynesian Cargo Cult and saying that they’ll offer “helicopter money” (more fiscal stimulus) if only the financial gods restore “growth.” They hope that by being “good central bankers” the gods will delay the inevitable destruction of their empires of debt.
There are now signs of debilitating depression in central bankers. The failure of their policies is finally sinking in, and central bankers are sagging under the depressing reality. They look somber, freeze up at the microphone, and have withdrawn from “whatever it takes” euphoria as they realize that another round offree money for financiers and manipulated markets will only make the problems worse and erode what’s left of their crumbling credibility.
Only when central bankers accept the complete and utter failure of their policies and accept the reality that their policies have increased wealth inequality and crippled the global economy with debt, speculation and manipulation, can we finally move forward. Until then, we’re stuck with the world central bankers have created: a world of rising wealth and income inequality, of permanent manipulation of markets as a means of managing perceptions and of speculative debt/leverage bubbles that will burst with a ferocity few expect or understand.”
"Gregory Mannarino- It’s All Going to Collapse at the Same Time"
By Greg Hunter’s USAWatchdog.com
"Trader/analyst Gregory Mannarino says you better be protecting yourself for what is coming in the financial markets. Mannarino explains, “It’s just a matter of time. Who knows when this actually rolls over–days, hours, months, who knows? There is no stopping it. All they are attempting to do is sustain it a little bit longer, and it’s only going to make this worse. The whole correction to fair value is going to seem like the mother of all collapses. It’s not a collapse in that sense. It is a correction to fair value because everything is just out of the realm of reality. There is no price discovery mechanism on anything—anything.”
On the Federal Reserve continually hinting at raising rates in the face of a very weak economy, Mannarino says, “I think the Fed is playing a very dangerous game with the market, and I mean it’s a game. We hear there is going to be a possible rate hike. How did the market react? The market pulled back. Then in a day or two, we get a different Fed President saying hold on a minute, it may not be June. Then, the market goes back up higher. They are creating this market where it’s going up and down. So, these institutions are buying ‘calls’ and collecting cash on the bottom and buying ‘puts’ and collecting cash when it goes back down. So, they are fostering the wealth transfer even more. This is just more of the same. The Federal Reserve is a serial bubble blower, and what they are doing now is putting these little bubbles in there, too, so all this cash can be collected.”
On quantitative easing, or money printing, Mannarino says it has “never stopped.” Mannarino contends, “Here’s the proof right here on your show that they never stopped. How does the Federal Reserve keep interest rates low? They don’t have any magical powers. They can’t just make up a potion and drink it and their yields are going to stay low. The Federal Reserve has to print the cash out of thin air and buy bonds with it. What does this sound like? It’s quantitative easing, and it has never ever stopped, and it won’t ever stop.”
On the so called “recovery” in the U.S. economy, Mannarino says, “How is that even possible from a common sense standpoint when we have a labor force participation rate still at a four decade low? We have a money velocity rate at a four decade low. If cash is not moving through the economy, we cannot have a recovery. If we have more people leaving the work force than are entering it, you cannot have a recovery. So, this is all part of the illusion.”
Mannarino goes on to say, “I am just waiting to see what they will do to prop this up further, or at least stop it from making a precipitous plunge. That is coming no matter what they do. The debt market here is on fire. It’s in big trouble here. Another alarm is the yield curve. The yield curve is flattening. This is a bad, bad omen. It’s a very ominous sign that something is lurking just beyond the horizon.”
In closing, Mannarino says, “We’ve never seen anything like this in world history. It’s unbelievable. It’s collective collusion between world central banks and their respective governments to inflate this global bubble in debt in an attempt to stimulate growth. It has not worked. It’s very simple. If they could have fixed it, they would have fixed it by now. They can’t do it. 2008 was the ‘party over’ moment. We are existing now in a terminal side effect... It’s all going to collapse at the same time.”
Join Greg Hunter as he goes One-on-One with Gregory Mannarino, founder of TradersChoice.net.
"Truth is always stranger than fiction. We craft fiction to match our sense of how things ought to be, but truth cannot be crafted. Truth is, and truth has a way of astonishing us to our knees. Reminding us, that the universe does not exist to fulfill our expectations. Because we are imperfect beings who are self-blinded to the truth of the world's stunning complexity, we shave reality to paper thin theories and ideologies that we can easily grasp – and we call them truths. But the truth of a sea in all it's immensity cannot be embodied in one tidewashed pebble."
"Facebook Could Be Eavesdropping On Your Phone Calls"
"It’s irresistible, enticing and addicting. And, it’s available 24-hours a day all over the world to billions of people. Facebook beckons to users seemingly with a two-prong approach – both the pressure and pleasure to post. We share stories, photos, triumphs and tragedies. It is ingrained into our daily lives so deeply that studies show people check Facebook, on average, 14 times a day. With all those eyes all over the globe dialed in and the purchasing power available, the online giant has tapped into a controversial delivery of data into its intelligence gathering. It all starts with something that you may not even realize is enabled on your phone.
USF Professor Kelli Burns knows the power of social media. The longtime educator incorporates it into her classroom curriculum every day and, in the fall, will lead a graduate course in social media analytics. One online behemoth, in particular, is more popular than ever, she admits. “People are definitely addicted to Facebook. They’re addicted to their phones,” she told WFLA. “We have a two-second attention span. People are always checking to see what’s going on. Anytime you’re using your phone, any kind of information that you’re putting into your phone, looking at on your phone, Facebook can access that.”
With the continuous invitation for users to share, post and like, just how much information is Facebook learning about you? According to Kelli, more than you could ever imagine. “I don’t think that people realize how much Facebook is tracking every move we’re making online,” she said. “Anything that you’re doing on your phone, Facebook is watching.” Indeed, they are.
So, be careful what you say in the presence of your phone. Facebook is not only watching, but also listening to your cell phone. It all starts with enabling your microphone feature in your settings. Once you do, choose your words carefully.
The site, itself, admits in an online statement, “We use your microphone to identify the things you’re listening to or watching, based on the music and TV matches we’re able to identify.” But, experts contend that the site is going a step further. In what some users are calling an alarming trend, described as “Big Brother”, Facebook also listens for certain buzz words. Once identified, those words trigger an interesting response. Items are then carefully placed in your Facebook feed, specifically crafted with your interests front and center. Wait! What?
We tested the theory with Kelli, and even we were surprised by what we found and saw. Kelli enabled the microphone feature and talked about her desire to go on safari, right down to her mode of transportation. “I’m really interested in going on an African safari. I think it’d be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps,” she said aloud, phone in hand. Less than 60 seconds later, the first post on her Facebook feed was a safari story that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Turns out, it was a story that had been posted three hours earlier. And, after mentioning a jeep, a car ad also appeared on her page.
“That is kind of weird,” she laughed. “I’m still not so sure this isn’t just coincidence. I don’t think Facebook is really listening to our conversations.”
USF graduate student, Danielle Quichocho, is not at all fazed by the online “eavesdropping” with Facebook. In fact, she admits, “I don’t think it’s at all surprising.” The 22-year-old is planning her thesis around this very topic. “It’s all about the bottom line, and if this is a way to fatten that bottom line, they’re gonna do it,” she told us. She maintains that people should be aware and educated as they use the popular app. Her motto? User beware.
So, how does she feel about Facebook using her interests as a basis for online ads, specifically designed for her in mind? “If you agree to the terms and conditions, then you know what to expect,” she said. She also advises, choose your words carefully! “The internet is forever! You leave a footprint there. They’re going to find it. That’s just how it is,” she smiled.
On a support page, Facebook explains how this feature works: "No, we don't record your conversations. If you choose to turn on this feature, we'll only use your microphone to identify the things you're listening to or watching based on the music and TV matches we're able to identify. If this feature is turned on, it's only active when you're writing a status update." I wonder how many people are actually aware of this?"
"That is life, isn't it? Fate. Luck. Chance. A long series of what-if's that lead from one moment to the next, time never pausing for you to catch your breath, to make sense of the cards that have been handed to you. And all you can do is play your cards and hope for the best, because in the end, it all comes back to those three basics. Fate. Luck. Chance."
- Kelseyleigh Reber
"Unless, of course, there's no such thing as chance... in which case, we should either- optimistically- get up and cheer, because if everything is planned in advance, then we all have a meaning and are spared the terror of knowing ourselves to be random, without a why; or else, of course, we might- as pessimists- give up right here and now, understanding the futility of thought-decision-action, since nothing we think makes any difference anyway, things will be as they will. Where, then, is optimism? In fate or in chaos?"
"June 7: FEMA Will Hold A Drill To Prepare For A 9.0
Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake And Tsunami"
by Michael Snyder
"Starting on June 7th, FEMA will be conducting a large scale drill that has been named Cascadia Rising that will simulate the effects of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone and an accompanying west coast tsunami dozens of feet tall. According to the official flyer for the event, more than 50 counties, plus major cities, tribal nations, state and federal agencies, private sector businesses, and non-governmental organizations across three states Washington, Oregon, and Idaho will be participating.
In addition to Cascadia Rising, U.S. Northern Command will be holding five other exercises simultaneously. According to the final draft of the Cascadia Rising drill plan, those five exercises are entitled "Ardent Sentry 20163," "Vigilant Guard," "Special Focus Exercise," "Turbo Challenge" and "Joint Logistics Over-The-Shore." The primary scenario that of all of these participants will be focusing on will be one that involves a magnitude 9.0 earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone followed by a giant tsunami that could displace up to a million people from northern California to southern Canada.
We have never seen such a disaster before in all of U.S. history. Do they know something that the rest of us do not? It is funny that they are preparing to deal with the effects of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, because that is precisely the size of earthquake that I warned about in an article back in March.
The San Andreas Fault in southern California gets more headlines, but the Cascadia Subduction Zone is a much larger threat by far. This fault zone is where the Juan de Fuca plate meets the North American plate, and it stretches approximately 700 miles from northern Vancouver Island all the way down to northern California.
If a magnitude 9.0 earthquake were to strike, the immense shaking and subsequent tsunami would cause damage on a scale that is hard to even imagine right now. Perhaps this is why FEMA feels such a need to get prepared for this type of disaster, because the experts assure us that it is most definitely coming someday. The following comes from the official website of the Cascadia Rising exercise: "A 9.0 magnitude earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) and the resulting tsunami is the most complex disaster scenario that emergency management and public safety officials in the Pacific Northwest could face. Cascadia Rising is an exercise to address that disaster.
June 7-10, 2016 Emergency Operations and Coordination Centers (EOC/ECCs) at all levels of government and the private sector will activate to conduct a simulated field response operation within their jurisdictions and with neighboring communities, state EOCs, FEMA, and major military commands."
If you don't think that the scenario that they are studying is realistic, perhaps you should consider the fact that the largest earthquake in the history of the continental United States stuck along the Cascadia Subduction Zone back in 1700. The following comes from CNN: "In fact, the Cascadia already has made history, causing the largest earthquake in the continental United States on January 26, 1700. That's when the Cascadia unleashed one of the world s biggest quakes, causing a tsunami so big that it rampaged across the Pacific and damaged coastal villages in Japan.
Yes, we all remember the big Hollywood blockbuster about the San Andreas fault. But if they wanted to be more realistic, they should have made the movie about the Cascadia Subduction Zone. According to a professor of geophysics at Oregon State University, the Cascadia Subduction Zone has the potential to create an earthquake "almost 30 times more energetic than anything the San Andreas Fault can produce."
Everyone knows the Cascadia's cousin in California: the San Andreas Fault. It gets all the scary glamor, with even a movie this year, San Andreas, dramatizing an apocalypse in the western U.S. Truth is, the San Andreas is a lightweight compared with the Cascadia.
The Cascadia can deliver a quake that's many times stronger, plus a tsunami. "Cascadia can make an earthquake almost 30 times more energetic than the San Andreas to start with, and then it generates a tsunami at the same time, which the side-by-side motion of the San Andreas can't do," said Chris Goldfinger, a professor of geophysics at Oregon State University.
And the kind of tsunami that would be created by such a massive quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone would absolutely dwarf the massive tsunami that struck Japan back in 2011. In fact, an article in the New Yorker quoted the head of the FEMA division that oversees Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska as saying that "everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."
If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That's the very big one. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast." In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.
All over the world the Ring of Fire is roaring to life, and the Cascadia Subduction Zone lies directly along the Ring of Fire. Just last week, I wrote about the alarming earthquake swarms that we have seen directly under Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens, and now we have learned that FEMA is about to hold a major drill that is going to simulate a magnitude 9.0 earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone and an accompanying west coast tsunami dozens of feet in height.
Of course most Americans aren t concerned about this threat at all. Most Americans just assume that life will continue to go on normally just as it always has. But I happen to agree with the experts that are promising us that an absolutely massive earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone will strike someday, and when that happens life in America will be permanently altered."
This is meant to inform you of factual events and possibilities, not alarm or frighten you. As always, follow the linked sources, decide for yourself their veracity, and draw your own informed conclusions as to what if any effect this may have on your own life.
"To some, it looks like a giant chicken running across the sky. To others, it looks like a gaseous nebula where star formation takes place. Cataloged as IC 2944, the Running Chicken Nebula spans about 100 light years and lies about 6,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Centaur (Centaurus).
Click image for larger size.
The featured image, shown in scientifically assigned colors, was captured recently in an 11-hour exposure from a backyard near Melbourne, Australia. Two star clusters are visible: the Pearl Cluster seen on the far left, and Collinder 249 embedded in the nebula's glowing gas. Although difficult to discern here, several dark molecular clouds with distinct shapes can be found inside the nebula."
"Acceptance is a crucial step forward for those who prefer the idea of living this life over simply existing within it. Accept all that you've said and what you've done, because you cannot change your past. Accept the idea of the unknown, because the future is the unknown waiting patiently to reveal itself. Accept the person you have become thus far in your journey, because you are the only person who will be there with you when you finish it. Do all of this so that you may never find yourself having to accept regret that haunts you at two a.m., leaving you sweaty and broken hearted. All you have is this minute; not this hour, or this day, or this year. Live in this minute so that you won't get stuck simply existing with your guilty past, or with nothing but anxiety for the future."
“That was the week Hillary began to look like the candidate who fell off a truck wearing a Nixon mask. Email-gate is taking on the odor of Watergate — the main ingredient of which was not the dopey crime itself but the stonewalling around it. The State Department Inspector General’s report saying definitively, no, she was not “allowed” to use a private, unsecured email server validated Donald Trump’s juvenile name-calling of “Crooked Hillary.”
We may never hear the end of that now (if Trump is actually nominated). And, of course, there lurks the Godzilla-sized skeleton in her closet of the still-unreleased Goldman Sachs speech transcripts, the clamor over which is sure to grow. Meanwhile the specter of the California primary looms, a not inconceivable loss to Bernie Sanders. And onto the convention in Philly which I contend will be even more fractious and violent than the 1968 fiasco in Chicago.
I’ll say it again: Hillary is a horse that ain’t gonna finish. The Democrats better be prepared to haul Uncle Joe out of the closet, fluff up his transplanted hair, wax his dentures, give him a few Vitamin B-12 shots, and stick a harpoon in his fist for the autumn run against the White Whale (if Trump is actually nominated).
The Republican convention in Cleveland is apt to be as bloody and violent a spectacle too (if Trump is actually nominated), with Black Lives Matters cadres having already promised to put on a show for global television and their Latino counterparts marching with Mexican Flags and cute signs saying: Trump: Chingate tu madre, perhaps garnished with the sobriquet pendejo. In such a situation, Trump has enormous potential to make things worse with his childish snap-backs. Hubert Humphrey in 1968 at least had the good sense to keep his mouth shut about the moiling multitudes out on Michigan Avenue inveighing against him.
The Vietnam War was a grave debacle, and it especially pissed off the young men subject to being drafted to fight in it, but the woof and warp of American life was otherwise intact. Blue collar workers still pulled in high wages in the Big Three auto plants, and women had not yet declared war on men, and the airwaves weren’t pornified, and there were still people in government with moral authority who loudly opposed official policy. The sobering martyrdoms of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy sanctified the opposition to the status quo. Even Hubert Humphrey himself, a thoughtful man underneath his Rotarian clown mask, began to turn away from Lyndon Johnson’s war hawks.
Nixon won. He surely benefited most not so much from the war issue and the riots in the streets as from the mass defection of Southern states from the long-entrenched domination of the Democratic Party — directly due to Johnson’s dismantling of the old Jim Crow laws. As a personality, Nixon was as much a pendejo as Donald Trump, but no one doubted his ability to run the machinery of government, if not the way they wanted to run it.
One difference today is that the two supposedly leading candidates, Hillary and Trump, are broadly loathed and mocked by people of all ages, not just disaffected youth. Trump appears to actually know so little about the major problems the country faces — energy, trade, the animus of foreigners — that he would be literally helpless in crisis. Hillary would enter the White House more mistrusted than Tricky Dick, and more starkly wired into the parasitical elites draining the body politic of its precious bodily fluids — in the immortal words of Doctor Strangelove.
Though it appears that Trump has consolidated the delegate vote needed for nomination, something tells me that a move is yet afoot to knock the gold ring out of his grubby fingers. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is playing it very cagey and you can imagine that current party stalwarts and office-holders all over the land are wringing their hands over being asked to follow Trump into some dark night of the American soul. Paul Ryan must know that a coup at the convention is still conceivable and that the action inside the hall will be as violent as the street-fighting outside.”
"We are one knot in a great web of being, building out of the vast past and (with luck) continuing billions of years into the future, until the sun dies, the last of its energy reaches Earth, and our local light goes out. The most appropriate response to the world is to realize, with awe, the ferocious mystery of being alive in it. And act accordingly. The worst thing anyone should be able to say about their life is also the greatest thing anyone can say: 'I tried my best."
"Mars will look good in Earth's skies over the next few days -- but not this good. To get a view this amazing, a spacecraft had to actually visit the red planet. Running across the image center, though, is one the largest canyons in the Solar System. Named Valles Marineris, the grand valley extends over 3,000 kilometers long, spans as much as 600 kilometers across, and delves as much as 8 kilometers deep. By comparison, the Earth's Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA is 800 kilometers long, 30 kilometers across, and 1.8 kilometers deep.
Click image for larger size.
The origin of the Valles Marineris remains unknown, although a leading hypothesis holds that it started as a crack billions of years ago as the planet cooled. Several geologic processes have been identified in the canyon. The featured mosaic was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. Tomorrow, Mars and Earth will pass the closest in 11 years, resulting in the red planet being quite noticeable toward the southeast after sunset."
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.”
"Caliban is talking to Stephano and Trinculo in Shakespeare's “Tempest”, telling them not to be "afeard" of the mysterious place they find themselves, an island seemingly beset with magic, strangeness, ineffable presences. And you and I, and, yes, all of us, find ourselves inexplicably thrown up on this island that is the world, and we too, if we are attentive, hear the strange music, the sounds and sweet airs, that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere
No, I'm not talking about the usual ubiquitous clamor, the roar of internal combustion, the blare of the television, the beeping of mobile phones. I'm not talking about the Limbaughs and the Becks, the televangelists, the blathering politicians, the twitterers and bloggers (including this one). I'm not even talking about the exquisite music of Mozart, the poetry of Wordsworth, the theories of Einstein.
I'm talking about the sounds we hear in utter silence, in moments of repose, in the heart of darkness, when we are a little bit afraid, disoriented, off kilter. A strange music that comes from beyond our knowing, a felt meaning. You've heard it. I've heard it. You'd have to be deaf not to have heard it.
Where we differ is how we describe it. Mostly, we give its source a name. Angels. Fairies. Gods or demons. Yahweh. Allah. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nixies, E.T.s, shades and shadows. Naiads, dryads, Ariel and Puck. A host of invisible creatures who are, in one way or another, images of ourselves. And, in naming, we are a little less afraid.
And some of us are just content to listen, to take delight. Having woken to the inexplicable mystery of the world- the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not- we let the music lull us back into a sweet slumber, a kind of dreamless dream, a reverie. Does reverie share a deep root with reverence? I don't know.”
"If anybody feels like perspiring, I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna. Greetings and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about "teaching you how to think". If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education- least in my own case- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master".
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea. If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship. Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: "This is water." "This is water."
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck."
"We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? Be strong and of a good courage. Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes... If death ends all, we cannot meet death better."
"One day in Iowa I met a particular gentleman— and I use that term, gentleman, frankly, only because I am trying to be polite, for that is certainly not how I saw him at the time. He owned and ran what he called a “pork production facility.” I, on the other hand, would have called it a pig Auschwitz. The conditions were brutal. The pigs were confined in cages that were barely larger than their own bodies, with the cages stacked on top of each other in tiers, three high. The sides and the bottoms of the cages were steel slats, so that excrement from the animals in the upper and middle tiers dropped through the slats on to the animals below.
The aforementioned owner of this nightmare weighed, I am sure, at least 240 pounds, but what was even more impressive about his appearance was that he seemed to be made out of concrete. His movements had all the fluidity and grace of a brick wall. What made him even less appealing was that his language seemed to consist mainly of grunts, many of which sounded alike to me, and none of which were particularly pleasant to hear. Seeing how rigid he was and sensing the overall quality of his presence, I— rather brilliantly, I thought— concluded that his difficulties had not arisen merely because he hadn’t had time, that particular morning, to finish his entire daily yoga routine.
But I wasn’t about to divulge my opinions of him or his operation, for I was undercover, visiting slaughterhouses and feedlots to learn what I could about modern meat production. There were no bumper stickers on my car, and my clothes and hairstyle were carefully chosen to give no indication that I might have philosophical leanings other than those that were common in the area. I told the farmer matter of factly that I was a researcher writing about animal agriculture, and asked if he’d mind speaking with me for a few minutes so that I might have the benefit of his knowledge. In response, he grunted a few words that I could not decipher, but that I gathered meant I could ask him questions and he would show me around.
I was at this point not very happy about the situation, and this feeling did not improve when we entered one of the warehouses that housed his pigs. In fact, my distress increased, for I was immediately struck by what I can only call an overpowering olfactory experience. The place reeked like you would not believe of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious gases that were the products of the animals’ wastes. These, unfortunately, seemed to have been piling up inside the building for far too long a time.
As nauseating as the stench was for me, I wondered what it must be like for the animals. The cells that detect scent are known as ethmoidal cells. Pigs, like dogs, have nearly 200 times the concentration of these cells in their noses as humans do. In a natural setting, they are able, while rooting around in the dirt, to detect the scent of an edible root through the earth itself. Given any kind of a chance, they will never soil their own nests, for they are actually quite clean animals, despite the reputation we have unfairly given them. But here they had no contact with the earth, and their noses were beset by the unceasing odor of their own urine and feces multiplied a thousand times by the accumulated wastes of the other pigs unfortunate enough to be caged in that warehouse. I was in the building only for a few minutes, and the longer I remained in there, the more desperately I wanted to leave. But the pigs were prisoners there, barely able to take a single step, forced to endure this stench, and almost completely immobile, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with no time off, I can assure you, for holidays.
The man who ran the place was— I’ll give him this— kind enough to answer my questions, which were mainly about the drugs he used to handle the problems that are fairly common in factory pigs today. But my sentiments about him and his farm were not becoming any warmer. It didn’t help when, in response to a particularly loud squealing from one of the pigs, he delivered a sudden and threatening kick to the bars of its cage, causing a loud “clang” to reverberate through the warehouse and leading to screaming from many of the pigs. Because it was becoming increasingly difficult to hide my distress, it crossed my mind that I should tell him what I thought of the conditions in which he kept his pigs, but then I thought better of it. This was a man, it was obvious, with whom there was no point in arguing.
After maybe 15 minutes, I’d had enough and was preparing to leave, and I felt sure he was glad to be about to be rid of me. But then something happened, something that changed my life, forever— and, as it turns out, his too. It began when his wife came out from the farmhouse and cordially invited me to stay for dinner. The pig farmer grimaced when his wife spoke, but he dutifully turned to me and announced, “The wife would like you to stay for dinner.” He always called her “the wife,” by the way, which led me to deduce that he was not, apparently, on the leading edge of feminist thought in the country today.
I don’t know whether you have ever done something without having a clue why, and to this day I couldn’t tell you what prompted me to do it, but I said Yes, I’d be delighted. And stay for dinner I did, though I didn’t eat the pork they served. The excuse I gave was that my doctor was worried about my cholesterol. I didn’t say that I was a vegetarian, nor that my cholesterol was 125.
I was trying to be a polite and appropriate dinner guest. I didn’t want to say anything that might lead to any kind of disagreement. The couple (and their two sons, who were also at the table) were, I could see, being nice to me, giving me dinner and all, and it was gradually becoming clear to me that, along with all the rest of it, they could be, in their way, somewhat decent people. I asked myself, if they were in my town, traveling, and I had chanced to meet them, would I have invited them to dinner? Not likely, I knew, not likely at all. Yet here they were, being as hospitable to me as they could. Yes, I had to admit it. Much as I detested how the pigs were treated, this pig farmer wasn’t actually the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. At least not at the moment.
Of course, I still knew that if we were to scratch the surface we’d no doubt find ourselves in great conflict, and because that was not a direction in which I wanted to go, as the meal went along I sought to keep things on an even and constant keel. Perhaps they sensed it too, for among us, we managed to see that the conversation remained, consistently and resolutely, shallow. We talked about the weather, about the Little League games in which their two sons played, and then, of course, about how the weather might affect the Little League games. We were actually doing rather well at keeping the conversation superficial and far from any topic around which conflict might occur. Or so I thought. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, the man pointed at me forcefully with his finger, and snarled in a voice that I must say truly frightened me, “Sometimes I wish you animal rights people would just drop dead.”
How on Earth he knew I had any affinity to animal rights I will never know— I had painstakingly avoided any mention of any such thing— but I do know that my stomach tightened immediately into a knot. To make matters worse, at that moment his two sons leapt from the table, tore into the den, slammed the door behind them, and turned the TV on loud, presumably preparing to drown out what was to follow. At the same instant, his wife nervously picked up some dishes and scurried into the kitchen. As I watched the door close behind her and heard the water begin running, I had a sinking sensation. They had, there was no mistaking it, left me alone with him. I was, to put it bluntly, terrified. Under the circumstances, a wrong move now could be disastrous. Trying to center myself, I tried to find some semblance of inner calm by watching my breath, but this I could not do, and for a very simple reason. There wasn’t any to watch.
“What are they saying that’s so upsetting to you?” I said finally, pronouncing the words carefully and distinctly, trying not to show my terror. I was trying very hard at that moment to disassociate myself from the animal rights movement, a force in our society of which he, evidently, was not overly fond. “They accuse me of mistreating my stock,” he growled. “Why would they say a thing like that?” I answered, knowing full well, of course, why they would, but thinking mostly about my own survival. His reply, to my surprise, while angry, was actually quite articulate. He told me precisely what animal rights groups were saying about operations like his, and exactly why they were opposed to his way of doing things. Then, without pausing, he launched into a tirade about how he didn’t like being called cruel, and they didn’t know anything about the business he was in, and why couldn’t they mind their own business.
As he spoke it, the knot in my stomach was relaxing, because it was becoming clear, and I was glad of it, that he meant me no harm, but just needed to vent. Part of his frustration, it seemed, was that even though he didn’t like doing some of the things he did to the animals— cooping them up in such small cages, using so many drugs, taking the babies away from their mothers so quickly after their births— he didn’t see that he had any choice. He would be at a disadvantage and unable to compete economically if he didn’t do things that way. This is how it’s done today, he told me, and he had to do it too. He didn’t like it, but he liked even less being blamed for doing what he had to do in order to feed his family. As it happened, I had just the week before been at a much larger hog operation, where I learned that it was part of their business strategy to try to put people like him out of business by going full-tilt into the mass production of assembly-line pigs, so that small farmers wouldn’t be able to keep up. What I had heard corroborated everything he was saying.
Almost despite myself, I began to grasp the poignancy of this man’s human predicament. I was in his home because he and his wife had invited me to be there. And looking around, it was obvious that they were having a hard time making ends meet. Things were threadbare. This family was on the edge. Raising pigs, apparently, was the only way the farmer knew how to make a living, so he did it even though, as was becoming evident the more we talked, he didn’t like one bit the direction hog farming was going. At times, as he spoke about how much he hated the modern factory methods of pork production, he reminded me of the very animal rights people who a few minutes before he said he wished would drop dead.
As the conversation progressed, I actually began to develop some sense of respect for this man whom I had earlier judged so harshly. There was decency in him. There was something within him that meant well. But as I began to sense a spirit of goodness in him, I could only wonder all the more how he could treat his pigs the way he did. Little did I know that I was about to find out...
We are talking along, when suddenly he looks troubled. He slumps over, his head in his hands. He looks broken, and there is a sense of something awful having happened. Has he had a heart attack? A stroke? I’m finding it hard to breathe, and hard to think clearly. “What’s happening?” I ask. It takes him awhile to answer, but finally he does. I am relieved that he is able to speak, although what he says hardly brings any clarity to the situation. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “and I don’t want to talk about it.” As he speaks, he makes a motion with his hand, as if he were pushing something away.
For the next several minutes we continue to converse, but I’m quite uneasy. Things seem incomplete and confusing. Something dark has entered the room, and I don’t know what it is or how to deal with it. Then, as we are speaking, it happens again. Once again a look of despondency comes over him. Sitting there, I know I’m in the presence of something bleak and oppressive. I try to be present with what’s happening, but it’s not easy. Again I’m finding it hard to breathe. Finally, he looks at me, and I notice his eyes are teary. “You’re right,” he says. I, of course, always like to be told that I am right, but in this instance I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about. He continues. “No animal,” he says, “should be treated like that. Especially hogs. Do you know that they’re intelligent animals? They’re even friendly, if you treat ’em right. But I don’t.”
There are tears welling up in his eyes. And he tells me that he has just had a memory come back of something that happened in his childhood, something he hasn’t thought of for many years. It’s come back in stages, he says. He grew up, he tells me, on a small farm in rural Missouri, the old-fashioned kind where animals ran around, with barnyards and pastures, and where they all had names. I learn, too, that he was an only child, the son of a powerful father who ran things with an iron fist. With no brothers or sisters, he often felt lonely, but found companionship among the animals on the farm, particularly several dogs, who were as friends to him. And, he tells me, and this I am quite surprised to hear, he had a pet pig.
As he proceeds to tell me about this pig, it is as if he is becoming a different person. Before he had spoken primarily in a monotone; but now his voice grows lively. His body language, which until this point seemed to speak primarily of long suffering, now becomes animated. There is something fresh taking place. In the summer, he tells me, he would sleep in the barn. It was cooler there than in the house, and the pig would come over and sleep alongside him, asking fondly to have her belly rubbed, which he was glad to do.
There was a pond on their property, he goes on, and he liked to swim in it when the weather was hot, but one of the dogs would get excited when he did, and would ruin things. The dog would jump into the water and swim up on top of him, scratching him with her paws and making things miserable for him. He was about to give up on swimming, but then, as fate would have it, the pig, of all people, stepped in and saved the day. Evidently the pig could swim, for she would plop herself into the water, swim out where the dog was bothering the boy, and insert herself between them. She’d stay between the dog and the boy, and keep the dog at bay. She was, as best I could make out, functioning in the situation something like a lifeguard, or in this case, perhaps more of a life-pig.
I’m listening to this hog farmer tell me these stories about his pet pig, and I’m thoroughly enjoying both myself and him, and rather astounded at how things are transpiring, when once again, it happens. Once again a look of defeat sweeps across this man’s face, and once again I sense the presence of something very sad. Something in him, I know, is struggling to make its way toward life through anguish and pain, but I don’t know what it is or how, indeed, to help him.
“What happened to your pig?” I ask.
He sighs, and it’s as though the whole world’s pain is contained in that sigh. Then, slowly, he speaks. “My father made me butcher it.”
“Did you?” I ask.
“I ran away, but I couldn’t hide. They found me.”
“My father gave me a choice.”
“What was that?”
“He told me, ‘You either slaughter that animal or you’re no longer my son.’”
Some choice, I think, feeling the weight of how fathers have so often trained their sons not to care, to be what they call brave and strong, but what so often turns out to be callous and closed-hearted. “So I did it,” he says, and now his tears begin to flow, making their way down his cheeks. I am touched and humbled. This man, whom I had judged to be without human feeling, is weeping in front of me, a stranger. This man, whom I had seen as callous and even heartless, is actually someone who cares, and deeply. How wrong, how profoundly and terribly wrong I had been.
In the minutes that follow, it becomes clear to me what has been happening. The pig farmer has remembered something that was so painful, that was such a profound trauma, that he had not been able to cope with it when it had happened. Something had shut down, then. It was just too much to bear. Somewhere in his young, formative psyche he made a resolution never to be that hurt again, never to be that vulnerable again. And he built a wall around the place where the pain had occurred, which was the place where his love and attachment to that pig was located, which was his heart. And now here he was, slaughtering pigs for a living— still, I imagined, seeking his father’s approval. God, what we men will do, I thought, to get our fathers’ acceptance.
I had thought he was a cold and closed human being, but now I saw the truth. His rigidity was not a result of a lack of feeling, as I had thought it was, but quite the opposite: it was a sign of how sensitive he was underneath. For if he had not been so sensitive, he would not have been that hurt, and he would not have needed to put up so massive a wall. The tension in his body that was so apparent to me upon first meeting him, the body armor that he carried, bespoke how hurt he had been, and how much capacity for feeling he carried still, beneath it all.
I had judged him, and done so, to be honest, mercilessly. But for the rest of the evening I sat with him, humbled, and grateful for whatever it was in him that had been strong enough to force this long-buried and deeply painful memory to the surface. And glad, too, that I had not stayed stuck in my judgments of him, for if I had, I would not have provided an environment in which his remembering could have occurred.
We talked that night, for hours, about many things. I was, after all that had happened, concerned for him. The gap between his feelings and his lifestyle seemed so tragically vast. What could he do? This was all he knew. He did not have a high school diploma. He was only partially literate. Who would hire him if he tried to do something else? Who would invest in him and train him, at his age? When finally, I left that evening, these questions were very much on my mind, and I had no answers to them. Somewhat flippantly, I tried to joke about it. “Maybe,” I said, “you’ll grow broccoli or something.” He stared at me, clearly not comprehending what I might be talking about. It occurred to me, briefly, that he might possibly not know what broccoli was.
We parted that night as friends, and though we rarely see each other now, we have remained friends as the years have passed. I carry him in my heart and think of him, in fact, as a hero. Because, as you will soon see, impressed as I was by the courage it had taken for him to allow such painful memories to come to the surface, I had not yet seen the extent of his bravery.
When I wrote "Diet for a New America," I quoted him and summarized what he had told me, but I was quite brief and did not mention his name. I thought that, living as he did among other pig farmers in Iowa, it would not be to his benefit to be associated with me. When the book came out, I sent him a copy, saying I hoped he was comfortable with how I wrote of the evening we had shared, and directing him to the pages on which my discussion of our time together was to be found. Several weeks later, I received a letter from him. “Dear Mr. Robbins,” it began. “Thank you for the book. When I saw it, I got a migraine headache.”
Now as an author, you do want to have an impact on your readers. This, however, was not what I had had in mind. He went on, though, to explain that the headaches had gotten so bad that, as he put it, “the wife” had suggested to him he should perhaps read the book. She thought there might be some kind of connection between the headaches and the book. He told me that this hadn’t made much sense to him, but he had done it because “the wife” was often right about these things.
“You write good,” he told me, and I can tell you that his three words of his meant more to me than when the New York Times praised the book profusely. He then went on to say that reading the book was very hard for him, because the light it shone on what he was doing made it clear to him that it was wrong to continue. The headaches, meanwhile, had been getting worse, until, he told me, that very morning, when he had finished the book, having stayed up all night reading, he went into the bathroom, and looked into the mirror. “I decided, right then,” he said, “that I would sell my herd and get out of this business. I don’t know what I will do, though. Maybe I will, like you said, grow broccoli.”
As it happened, he did sell his operation in Iowa and move back to Missouri, where he bought a small farm. And there he is today, running something of a model farm. He grows vegetables organically— including, I am sure, broccoli— that he sells at a local farmer’s market. He’s got pigs, all right, but only about 10, and he doesn’t cage them, nor does he kill them. Instead, he’s got a contract with local schools; they bring kids out in buses on field trips to his farm, for his “Pet-a-pig” program. He shows them how intelligent pigs are and how friendly they can be if you treat them right, which he now does. He’s arranged it so the kids, each one of them, gets a chance to give a pig a belly rub. He’s become nearly a vegetarian himself, has lost most of his excess weight, and his health has improved substantially. And, thank goodness, he’s actually doing better financially than he was before.
Do you see why I carry this man with me in my heart? Do you see why he is such a hero to me? He dared to leap, to risk everything, to leave what was killing his spirit even though he didn’t know what was next. He left behind a way of life that he knew was wrong, and he found one that he knows is right.
When I look at many of the things happening in our world, I sometimes fear we won’t make it. But when I remember this man and the power of his spirit, and when I remember that there are many others whose hearts beat to the same quickening pulse, I think we will. I can get tricked into thinking there aren’t enough of us to turn the tide, but then I remember how wrong I was about the pig farmer when I first met him, and I realize that there are heroes afoot everywhere. Only I can’t recognize them because I think they are supposed to look or act a certain way. How blinded I can be by my own beliefs.
The man is one of my heroes because he reminds me that we can depart from the cages we build for ourselves and for each other, and become something much better. He is one of my heroes because he reminds me of what I hope someday to become. When I first met him, I would not have thought it possible that I would ever say the things I am saying here. But this only goes to show how amazing life can be, and how you never really know what to expect. The pig farmer has become, for me, a reminder never to underestimate the power of the human heart.
I consider myself privileged to have spent that day with him, and grateful that I was allowed to be a catalyst for the unfolding of his spirit. I know my presence served him in some way, but I also know, and know full well, that I received far more than I gave. To me, this is grace— to have the veils lifted from our eyes so that we can recognize and serve the goodness in each other. Others may wish for great riches or for ecstatic journeys to mystical planes, but to me, this is the magic of human life."