In a factory, a girl’s bones stick out through her brown flesh like shards of glass, as she hunches over, as she gazes down, seven days a week, for cents an hour, sewing brand merchandise that will eventually fill up luxury condominiums and office buildings
Overseas, in a town owned by outside corporations, two workers nap under a mirror of gnarled machinery so they can complete a shipment on time; in three years they will be replaced when they turn nineteen and twenty three for younger women without fetuses in their wombs
In shantytowns, rows of roofs rust through the oily dead of air, and trees lean over, their limbs curled beneath the sky; soon all the bark will peel back into white skeletal dust and space, before the last motes settle
In gated communities equipped with security cameras guard dogs walkie-talkies whistles pepper spray tasers and electronic key codes that change every week, sprinklers will spray over identical lawns at dawn until the grass glistens like fallen crystals
In a a suburb shaded by trees, a boy jumps higher in his new designer shorts and shoes and shirt and headband, scoring a basket off the backboard, while his father works at an international bank, approving and denying loans
A pop superstar smiles in a commercial for life insurance, his recognizable teeth enhance across electronic screens in shops, airports, and living rooms; an ad flashes with mild side effects of diarrhea depression fatigue insomnia high blood pressure paranoia irregular heartbeat; regularly scheduled programs return with words from their sponsors
I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.
Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.
But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.
You are an unwavering band of light.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.
Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.
Many are still not.
Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.
In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.
Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.
People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.
Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.
If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.
“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” (Frankl, Viktor)
The life of the average concentration camp prisoner, who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was a daily struggle for existence.
They were tattooed on their flesh. Most of their possessions were stolen. Even their identity was taken away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
“Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he tended to the sick, injured, and dying.
For the Capos, who still got their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent their starvation. Then there were the cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves in despair.
“The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When a prisoner first entered camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
“In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who first arrived at camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk over and inspect each person, deciding on whether they would be sent to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
“‘Was he sent to the left side?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
‘A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewels, and photographs; anything that resembled their former identities. They were stripped until they were trembling and naked, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.” (Frankl, Viktor)
In Auschwitz, a prisoner had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Cold, unclean, sleeping huddled together after eternities of hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in the mud.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most commonly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared through those grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
As time grinded on under ever harsher conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, having only the instinct to survive. After so many days, their physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.
After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just for a little longer. They dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to a deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality.
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.” (Viktor, Frankl)
Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners huddled together to work. They moved from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed into apathy from repeated daily trauma.
“There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
As prisoners struggled to endure, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on his sore feet, touching her with his memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.” (Frankl, Viktor)
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence.
“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of each prisoner. They had to suffer ongoing turmoil, which threatened their values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” (Frankl, Viktor) The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, had faded. After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the lights of candles, dwindling into enveloping darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make decisions or take an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.
On Frankl’s last days at camp before he was rescued, when he thought about escaping, he wrote: “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was only one defense against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find a way to endure.
Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hells of their conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Among the greatest suffering and injustice, they still had to choose and not choose.
Even though they were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect on what had meaning for their lives. They could still hold onto their higher purpose or discover a new meaning. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in the ongoing struggle for their existence.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” (Frankl, Viktor)
While many prisoners fell into despair or conformity because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were still some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping others when everything was stolen from them, up until the time of their extermination. They died with no names, no families or friends, but they never forgot their humanity.
To give their last bite of bread to a child, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never being known or praised for their innumerable small sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’” (Frankl, Viktor)
While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future anymore. Outside the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. They had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and to not lose themselves in their past, in their apathy, in giving up any future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
“Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or in the future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
‘These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What type of person would they be?”
“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
‘Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When the prisoners were finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted on as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to be human for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endless torment of the camp, where death was their companion.
Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
Pressure had been building inside every one of them for years because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered before them, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living.
“One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Some of those who were freed returned to where they once had lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, but their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their suffering.
Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired for them to be. They endured the utter depravity of their conditions, for years and years, seeking what would transcend them, returning to their humanity again.
Born from the wet tar of industrial lungs, nights of refugees shivering huddled in domes, looking out of windows in windows at a smear of horizon, their eyelids twitching until they rub them with their fists like flies were writhing inside their pupils
In the spring, they breathe in a yellow haze, coughing out the blood spit, their flesh raggedly hanging, blotches spreading on their backs like red moths on bark
In the winter, ashes float down so silent they taste like dry bones
Calm your mind. Open yourself to what is arising and passing. If you stir up the mud at the bottom of a lake, the water will be unclear. But when you let the water be as it is, not trying to flatten the ripples or scoop out all the mud, the lake will settle down. Then you will see not only the still water, but a reflection of the mountains on the surface.
When you watch the rain, you are the rain just as much as the rain is you. Rather than feeling that you are a separate observer, passively watching each droplet fall down, there is only the splash, splash, splash.
There is a rain beyond your words. Beyond your images and concepts and memories. Yet you often divide yourself from the rain, creating an idea of you, an idea of the rain, an idea of how the rain sounds, an idea of how you should feel when you see the rain, and so on. You forget to smell the rain because you are attached to what you think you know.
You often separate your experiences into endlessly finer categories. You discriminate between what you see as good and bad, black and white, ugly and beautiful, life and death, young and old. You organize and measure and judge. Your universe is placed into a mental filing system.
Yet as Alan Watts said, “You confuse the menu for the meal.”
When you are mindful, when you let go, you can come back to the purity of who you are. You can harmonize with nature. Breathing in, breathing out. You are here. Like a bow sliding across a violin, you are open to the continuous hum.
You are not alienated from the rest of life. You inter-are. You are made up of relationships. A flower cannot bloom without being connected to non-flower elements like the soil beneath it or the sun above it.
For the petals of a rose to glisten with dew, there first needed to be a Big Bang. Conditions before that flower existed helped that flower to be. When the rose wilts back into the old earth, another plant will take its place. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
Just like a flower, you are made up of non-you parts. You cannot exist without the oxygen you breathe or your ancestors or the gravity of the planet. You cannot exist without the water from the oceans or the clouds drifting above you. There is no you apart from anything else.
“You cannot step into the same river twice,” as Heraclitus once said. Your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are changing. You will not be the same person at five or fifteen or eighty. You may feel the same, and believe that you will remain young forever, but you are a constellation of processes, transforming in every moment. You are dying and being reborn. You are changing with the conditions of the universe.
Don’t attach yourself to one view of life and claim that is the best view to have. When you cling to your beliefs and refuse to open yourself up, you will suffer. Your dogmatism will cause other beings to suffer too.
You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all the ancestors who survived for you to be born and all the descendants who will grow old after you have decomposed.
You are the sun and water and trees and moon. Without them, there is no you.
Your interconnection with all living beings will help you to see beyond yourself. With awareness, you don’t have to judge everything outside your flesh as separate from you.
You don’t have to look for ways to isolate yourself from other beings. Clinging to rigid beliefs, avoiding alternative perspectives, and not empathizing with the vulnerable, will only cause you to suffer. You are in others as others are in you.
It’s up to you to be kind, compassionate, and loving.
Every moment is a chance for you to deepen your practice. Talking about philosophy is not enough. Your life is your message. Your teaching.
When you are mindful and compassionate, your peaceful presence will influence the people around you. Everyone you meet is a continuation of you. Your practice is a practice not only for you, but for your siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and the rest of your community.
When you think you are separate from the rest of the world, you will try to run from the world. You will seek pleasure and avoid pain. You will look for comforting answers to the mystery of your existence. You will hide from unpleasant truths.
Rather than hiding from what you don’t like or attaching yourself to abstractions, look within yourself. See yourself in the world just as the world is seen in you. You are not only the blood in your body, but the stars in your blood. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find what is already here. You only need to see.
If you walk in a park, do you notice the leaves falling from the trees? Do you feel the breeze brushing against your skin? Do you exhale as you step on the soft soil?
Look for lessons in what is already an intimate part of you. There is more wisdom in a crumbling leaf than in a thousand words about impermanence.
When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. Rather than seeking to become important or achieve something outside of yourself, rather than dwelling on your regrets or rushing off to do the next thing, continue to do what you are doing, but with total freedom.
Be present with what you are doing. When you nourish yourself, you will nourish other sentient beings. You will care for those who are suffering, who need someone to be there for them. You are not only working toward an end goal of compassion, peace, and kindness. You are those things. Every step can be a step of peace.
When you live in the present, you will begin to see the impermanence in all things. A flower blooming in spring and withering in the autumn sun, a lover with age spots on her hands, a flash of lightning in the clouds. Without impermanence, a child can never mature into an adult and an acorn can never grow into a tree. For there to be birth, there has to be death.
When you are aware of your impermanence, every moment is precious, a fleeting miracle. You can care for all things in your life, while knowing that nothing ever lasts.
Pain and anger will fade away just like joy and happiness. Seemingly unstoppable empires will collapse as civilizations develop. Everyone you know will die and break down into the dust of bones. Plants will grow over your forgotten tomb.
When you know the truth of your impermanence, you will be grateful for what you have while knowing that it won’t be yours forever.
There is no you that remains the same. Your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors all change over time. From the cells in your fingers to the bacteria in your gut, from the wrinkles on your skin to the hormones in your glands, from the neurons in your brain to the oxygen that you inhale, you are transforming. You are not alone. You are not an unchanging entity, apart from the rest of the universe. You are the same, but also different.
Life is like a garden that you can cultivate. You can water the seeds of hatred and ignorance and greed or you can water the seeds of peace and joy and compassion. You have the freedom to choose. It is entirely up to you.
When you tend to yourself, you tend to others. When you tend to others, you tend to yourself. You must be wise enough to select the most wholesome seeds to water.
Sometimes in relationships, you may fall into negative habits. You may forget to be grateful and engaged. As the weeds grow in your garden and theirs, both of you will suffer. But it is never too late to cut away the weeds, to plant new seeds again.
Rather than chasing after abstract notions of success, pleasure, power, and reputation, see these cravings for what they are. When you desire to taste the bait, biting down with all your force, you will get hooked. Only when you can let go, mindful of your suffering, will you be free.
Be aware of your fear, your need for intimacy, your sorrow, and your compulsion to survive. You are connected with this earth. You can show compassion to your suffering while nourishing your love.
Smile because you are alive on this beautiful earth. You are here for only a short time.
“When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
— Dale Carnegie
“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
“People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: A people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water.”
— James Baldwin
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
— Isaac Newton
We like to think that we are rational. Yet we are often unaware of our cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think about information. They are distorted patterns in our perceptions and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgements, and decisions.
These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information from the total amount of possible information in the universe. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to process every millisecond of every detail in our environments. So our brains simplify what we perceive to be more efficient organs, but as a consequence of this neural simplification, we unconsciously make errors.
Our nervous systems make sense of the signals in our environments. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. We select some information as relevant while rejecting other information. But what we perceive and recall, what we integrate into our systems, is never equal to all of reality.
We continuously make internal models of what we experience, mostly below the level of our conscious awareness. As we engage with our environments, our environments are represented inside of us. Our nervous systems are always changing with the conditions of the universe.
Our existence is intertwined with the cosmos. We are interdependent with other organisms on our planet. The chemical elements that we are made up of once came from the stars. Without the sea and air, without the sun and moon, without the flora and fauna, we would not exist.
Yet we cannot consciously choose to circulate our blood or beat our hearts or grow our teeth or fire off an exact number of neurotransmitters in our frontal lobes. We cannot smell like a hound or sense infrared like a pit viper or sprint like a cheetah. We cannot perceive the same realities as a forest of redwood trees, a colony of honey mushrooms, a pack of wolves, or a bacterium inside a zebra’s stomach.
Our realities are not only relative to our nervous systems, but to the tools that we use to extend our biological capacities, such as microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and computers. Through our nervous systems and tools, we can glimpse into infinity. We can communicate to each other about these “glimpses” with linear symbol-systems made of words and numbers.
Bucky Fuller, who was an inventor and architect and futurist, once wrote, “The universe consists of non-simultaneously apprehended events.”
We will never be able to fully comprehend all the events happening from the microscopic to the macroscopic, events from the past and present and future, events from hundreds of billions to trillions of galaxies. So many events are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.
The events that we can consider are not always considered in the same way. We interpret what we perceive through our biological, sociological, and psychological lenses. These lenses are interrelated rather than separate. They change over the span of our development. Because we all have such unique ways of interpretation, there is a lot of miscommunication between members of our species.
Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic and mystic and guerilla ontologist and author, said in his Maybe Logic documentary, “Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”
1. We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We tend to be resistant to information that goes against our beliefs and values.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, causes us to question our assumptions, and contradicts our sense of identity. We may even avoid what upsets our precious delusions, isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance.
When our beliefs harden into dogmatism, then we turn into one of the blind men touching the elephant, claiming the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never knowing its true nature.
The more that we attach ourselves to abstract notions of absolute truth, while being unable to respect the perspectives of others or correct the mistakes in our own views, the more closed-off we become. When we become rigid, and unable to adapt to change, we shut ourselves off from incoming information.
Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching, “A man living is yielding and receptive. / Dying, he is rigid and inflexible. ” (translated by R.L. Wing)
Robert Anton Wilson, in Prometheus Rising, made a similar point about when we are open (intelligent) or closed (stupid) to life: “Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission.”
2. We are usually conditioned to think of a hammer in a limited way. We may see it, for example, as a tool that drives in nails. While a hammer can drive in nails, it can have other possibilities that we aren’t aware of.
A hammer, for instance, can pull nails out of boards, shape metal, smash rocks, measure, chop, bang, and demolish the walls of a house. It can be made out of steel, bone, wood, plastic, and rubber.
At a much smaller scale, a hammer is a complex of interactions between subatomic particles. At a much larger scale, it is an insignificant point, a hint of light, in the vastness of outer space.
From inside the courtroom, a hammer (gavel) can act as a demonstration of justice. In political world history, when a hammer joins with a sickle, it shows the solidarity of the proletariat. It can represent blessings, protection, fertility, and power in the sagas of Norse mythology.
From a practical perspective, a veteran will have much more skill with a hammer than a novice. A sculptor will use it for different aesthetic reasons than a laborer. An infant may put a toy hammer in his mouth, tasting plastic for the first time, while a carpenter will raise a barn for her community.
In American folklore, John Henry once outpaced a steel-powered rock drilling machine. He died after winning his grueling race, a sledgehammer still clutched in his hand. While the tale of his endurance became a legend, an inspiration for the workers he strived with, he was still only a man.
John Henry succumbed not only to the stress of his heart, but to the future power of technology. Machinery would soon replace many of his fellow workers, removing them from their purpose and livelihood. Those who still had their employment would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold and lifeless and efficient at production.
Through their dependency, their former skills would weaken. Their overreliance on machines would separate them from each other and from themselves. They had to live in a new age of greed.
Even though immigrants, ex-slaves, convicts, among many other poor workers, had struggled together to build America’s railroads, they were often alienated from the fruits of their labor. They earned low wages under deadly conditions. Then they were rejected when they weren’t as useful to their employers anymore.
John Henry was an ex-slave on the rails. In some versions of the tale, he built his hammer out of the chains that once restricted his freedom. His prowess with a hammer was not merely a gift, but a stance against his oppressors. He vowed through his grit to never let another man own him again. He may have been forced to work under deplorable conditions after the Civil War, which was common for many African Americans in the Reconstruction Era, but he used his power against the institutions that dehumanized him.
Whether he won or lost, John Henry was a hero. He stood tall, not only for himself, but for all the underdogs of humanity. He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. He sweated until his death for workers who were persecuted, exploited, and displaced under the brutal pace of “progress.” His hammer was not just an instrument of his worth. It symbolized an integral part of American identity.
The hammer was groundbreaking when it was first invented. It has since evolved in design and purpose, meaning and material. The hammer is simple, yet complex. It says more about our human nature than we realize.
Throughout our lives, we often cling to what we are used to while ignoring what could be. We may think that a problem has only one solution, an individual has only one identity, or a thing can only be used in one way, while we don’t look for more possibilities than we are comfortable with.
Our old knowledge can prevent us from knowing more. We may even refuse to acknowledge a given reality because we are so fixated on what we think we know. How can we adapt to what is new, or correct our prejudices, or imagine the unimaginable, when we are trapped by our narrow conceptions?
We must empty our teacup if we are to learn. We cannot let our teacup overflow with opinions and conceit. Sometimes we need to unlearn what we once believed, letting go of our attachments to certain stories. Everything can be our teacher.
When we view ourselves as beginners, we can ask questions that aren’t regularly asked. We can approach familiarities as if they were new again. When we no longer drag around our prejudices and outdated notions about how life should be, we can open ourselves to more possibilities.
3. We often overestimate our knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited not just by what we know, but what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know.
Sometimes we even think that everything we think is all there is to think. Then we look back at how foolish we were, at how we have changed over the years, after having been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience.
Our simplified understanding of a complex subject does not mean that the subject is simple. Maybe there are other views that we have not examined or comprehended. There may be subtleties to fields that only specialists can understand after decades of education and diligent practice. We may never have all the answers to the questions we seek.
When we aren’t humble enough to accept our limitations, when we refuse to ask for help, when we don’t reflect anymore on the mysterious and unknown, we can become proud of our illusion of knowledge. Our ignorance can make us feel that we are superior, when in actuality, we don’t have the humility, or the honesty, to seek the truth of our conditions.
4. Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, honor, respect, and so on, believes in a particular idea, that doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily true. Even if most of the population believes in X or Y, including sixty-one biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y, along with any other answer we can imagine, necessarily true either. On the other hand, no matter how much we may distrust a particular individual, even a fool or a liar can speak the truth.
Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to think of a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative answer out there. Our lack of knowledge means only that: a lack of knowledge.
As far as we know, we don’t know. And when we don’t know, we can try to find out what the most accurate answers are, but we should not believe in ideas that are not supported by a sufficient amount of evidence. We can suspend our judgment while remaining open to future possibilities instead.
Even when we do accept certain ideas as valid, we should accept them tentatively, because what we believe today may be wrong tomorrow. It is better to have a degree of certainty with room enough to doubt that certainty.
5. We are often persuaded by compelling personal stories. Some people are eloquent speakers, born with the gift of the gab. What they tell us may even be partially true. At the same time, we have to consider whether their stories are exaggerated, made up, delusional, prejudiced, misinformed, or physically impossible.
Can their stories be tested? Can they be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that are highly improbable or probable?
Sometimes people use premises that make logical sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.
Sometimes they assume too much when they argue for their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for any information that fits with their conclusions. They want to persuade us but they may not have logically arrived at their conclusions beforehand.
They may even take their assumptions as givens and then proceed further on in their argument. Despite their ready acceptance of their own points, some of us wouldn’t agree with their assumptions.
6. We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than people who are not as close to us.
When the number of those who are suffering increases to be on a massive scale, when human beings are judged more as abstractions than as meaningful existences, our compassion fades.
We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through a crisis, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see our humanity in them.
It is far too easy for us to ignore others when they are presented as numbers. We have to learn their perspectives.
We’re interconnected, dependent on each other in this world, while dependent on this world to be. We all want to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to belong to harmonious communities, not ones divided out of war and hatred and fear.
As Martin Luther King Jr., minister and civil rights leader, wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
7. We are more likely to act in a similar manner to how those around us act. We may feel more comfortable conforming to social pressures rather than critically thinking for ourselves, especially when we are made to feel lost, alienated, and persecuted.
We normally take cues on how to behave based on the behavior of those around us, but when we do so, we may neglect our intuition, reason, and ethical judgment, sacrificing who we are for the values of the herd.
What we do matters to those around us. What others do matters to us. We are highly influential in our interactions with each other. Our actions have significant consequences for other beings. Our social environments profoundly affect not only how we feel, but how we treat the people around us, and how they treat us.
8. We often underestimate the severity of threats and warnings. We act as if dangerous events could never impact our personal lives. Natural disasters, market crashes, motor vehicle accidents, contagious viruses, and so on, are often ignored, disbelieved, minimized, and underestimated.
We feel uncomfortable when certain ideas contradict our values, beliefs, and attitudes, even when those ideas are valid, even when those ideas can better prepare us to deal with future crises. We are resistant toward information that challenges our sense of normalcy and comfort and security. Rather than plan for catastrophes, we downplay them. Rather than confronting potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.
9. We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities, talents, and intelligence. We may even believe that we have more control over a situation than we really do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t that accurate in our assessment of ourselves.
Sometimes those of us who understand the least about a given subject are the most confident. We may fail to recognize our incompetence because we are not aware enough of ourselves or of the given subject. We are ignorant of our ignorance, believing that we are wise. Our hubris distorts what we see as reality.
The more we learn, the more we come to realize how much we don’t know. We will never know all there is to know, but as our knowledge expands, we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. We can reflect back on the patterns of our history.
When we are conscious of our shared humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.
10. We tend to believe in ideas that we can more easily remember than other ideas. We accept ideas that we hear more frequently and that emotionally impact us.
Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.
Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories every day while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, disgusted, and so on, while not offending their advertisers and corporate owners.
Politicians know how to appeal to their voters, delivering passionate rhetoric on some issues, while never giving straight answers on more pressing concerns. They show off a carefully cultivated persona — smiling, shaking hands, dressing in expensive clothing, kissing babies, attending lucrative events, pretending to care about the same issues as their base — while covertly serving their own class interests.
When we don’t critically think about the quality of information that we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our memories.
Available information is not always credible information.
When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.
Rather than only believing what makes us feel good, or what other groups believe, we have to examine the information we receive. We have to reflect on our moral choices, on our values, seeking to know more than what we have been indoctrinated to think.
When we refuse to accept what is true for a long enough time, we will eventually settle into the false comfort of delusion. Through our self-deception, we may hurt ourselves or those around us. We have to critically think about our lives so that we don’t make poor choices with even worse consequences.
We can open our minds to future possibilities, to hidden meanings. We can help those who are suffering, who are ignored, hearing their stories, tending to them as best as we can.
The more that we study our lives, the more that we question what we are taught, the more that we are ready to abandon our old perspectives, the more we can mature as human beings.
“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
― Erich Maria Remarque
“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles; the master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — including their lives.”
― Eugene V. Debs
“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
― Arundhati Roy
“The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.”
― Howard Zinn
War is profitable for the ruling class but not for the dead.
But what if the dead could talk back?
Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare. He continued to write for major pictures under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Academy awards for his uncredited work. Before his successes with movies such as Spartacus and The Brave One, Trumbo had written a blistering antiwar novel.
Johnny Got His Gun sticks to readers like gauze dressings on third-degree burns. It is as brutally honest as it is gruesome. It is an ugly book because war is ugly, because violence is ugly, because the systemic exploitation of human beings is ugly.
Behind all those patriotic slogans about fighting for honor and democracy and freedom, behind all those militaristic ideals about duty and glory, behind all that jingoistic propaganda crammed into the minds of the young and ignorant, there is an ugly greed for more power. There is mutilation and death and rot.
Joe Bonham served in WWI but he could’ve been a soldier in any war. He woke up in a hospital bed after an artillery shell exploded, disfiguring him. The war took his arms, his legs, his face, his nose, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his flesh, his organs, his almost everything. It had turned him into a mucus dripping meat. A burned torso, gurgling out of a throat. A bandaged wound, trapped forever inside of himself.
He was deaf. He was blind. He had no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no tongue to taste, no lips to speak, no ears to hear. His life was darkness and dreams. Sometimes there was no difference. Yet he could still think. He could still remember who he was, even after drifting through years of insanity. He could still breathe through a tube in his throat. He could still tap his head and squirm. He could still feel the sun warmth on his tingling skin. On his last patches of skin. On his forehead slicked with sweat. He was as alive as any dead man could get.
The warmongers had pinned a sickening medal to his body. Those bastards decorated him with false awards and then ignored him. Yet they continued to enact their aggressive policies and propaganda. They continued to throw their annual parades and marches. They continued to sacrifice the lives of more sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, for their goals of endless expansion and domination.
They didn’t care about his suffering. He was useless to them after his body was used. But he was still a man, he was still a man, he was still a… human being. Wasn’t he? If he wasn’t, then there was no point in existing anymore. Maybe he could be a human again if only he could communicate. If the nurses let him outside into the world, he could scream out of his lightless tomb, defying all the swine who had manipulated him, who would manipulate more generations into their deaths.
Joe Bonham deserved his dignity. He deserved to be recognized not only for who he was, but for what they had turned him into. He had to warn all the impressionable children around the world, forcing them to stare at his fate. He had to warn every naïve kid who was so eager to sacrifice themselves for their government, who was so certain that their side was righteous and just and good. He could show them what war could do to a human being. He could show them what was left of a human being after war.