Roger S. Gottlieb

I have seen the future brother: it is murder.
Leonard Cohen
All this is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.
Edward Abbey

I haven’t been outside for 2 days, and I’m getting pretty hungry. But the wind just won’t let up. Every time Grandpa shuffles up what’s left of the stairs and pokes his head out, I can hear it—howling, whining, pulling at everything it touches, trying to get in here. So he just slams the hatch door shut, and shakes his head, reaches over to pat me on the shoul-der. “Soon Adam, soon. Then we’ll go out and see if the berries have ripened; and maybe some kind of fish is in the flood plain.

I know it’s hard here, but it could be worse. There are places where the wind is as bad, but it just stopped raining. People are stuck inside without water when the blows come hard.” He’s right, I know. We have jugs and jars and old plastic containers full of water. And we sprout old seeds, the ones that aren’t too moldy, and that’s mainly what we eat when we can’t get out.

But I also see what he doesn’t think I can see—that look in his eyes. It’s pretty bad, not as bad as the look I saw in a dog once, that we caught and chased down because it had lost a leg, just before we killed it. We roasted it slow over a fire, that last time the wind stopped for a whole week. Grandpa’s eyes look like that dog’s—fighting till he couldn’t go on anymore, but knowing it was hopeless.


If it wasn’t for the boy I would have killed myself years ago. He’s lucky, he doesn’t remember what it was like before…It had been happening for years. But the stuff before seems like nothing—a few tornadoes, hurricanes, long droughts in Oklahoma and Texas, typhoons in Bangladesh, heat waves in Moscow. A few hundred deaths here, a few thousand there. Maybe, if it was a really bad heat wave or typhoon, as many as 50,000; and maybe a few million homeless.

We thought that was bad. We didn’t know. Or we knew and we didn’t care.
How many of us are left? In the U.S.? The world? No way to know. The the planes, the grid, the cloud, the cell phone towers, the Internet—all gone. Everything we believed in, from local hospitals, to supermarkets where we bought all that food, to the police smiling and helpful on the corner, to the gas stations—Ahh, all those gas stations, and how we loved to say “fill ‘er up” and whip out the smooth plastic card that made it all happen.

How did it start? With the first car or the first train? The first time some scientist said “Global warming? We’ll just float white Styrofoam on the ocean to reflect sunlight.” The first time there was an “oil crisis” and we just went back to business as usual afterwards. With every stupid empty phrase: Drill baby drill, energy security, American way of life, job creation, gross national product, economic growth, standard of living, protect the middle class. We didn’t know we were just whistling in the wind, dreaming of a future that was about as real as some little girl’s fantasy of marrying a prince.

But me, I think it started with the bees. And the bats. Global warming, climate change, all that—most people couldn’t get their minds around it. The earth is too big, other people’s weather was just a lot of headlines; and if it was in the third world, well we were always used to those brown, yellow, and black people dying like flies anyway. If something went wrong here—a hurricane in Vermont, twisters in Alabama—there’d be headlines and hysterical newscasters and interviews with blown out families.

But then things would calm down, more or less, after a while, and we’d all think about the next election or the Big Game, the new American Idol or some idiot on reality TV.
But when the bats and the bees started to die—a fungus for the bats, a pesticide for the bees—that cut into the food supply. Fruits and vegetables started to skyrocket in price—well, there it was, right in front of us. We’d made some changes in the food chain, in the air and water, in the bugs and microorganisms.

And now those changes were going to change us. But lots of things were right in front of us and we didn’t look at them. A hundred thou-sand pine trees in the Rocky Mountains were falling every day because some beetle really, really liked the warmer weather and could eat trees for an extra few months every year. Breast cancer was an epidemic. Spring was coming weeks earlier and the ski resorts were go-ing out of business almost as fast as the pine trees in Colorado. There was a stew of plastic junk in the Eastern Pacific that was as big as fucking Texas, some said as big as the U.S. We knew all this. At least some of us did, and tried to tell the rest.
But we didn’t listen. We thought we’d ride it out. That someone else would take care of it.

Worst of all: we didn’t realize all this was kid stuff, like rolling down a little hill. And that we were about to fall off a cliff.

The wind is slowing down. Grandpa says we’ll go up soon. We’ll try to find something safe to eat. Grandpa says there used to be lots of good things—something called bread, which he tells me about but I can’t quite understand it. He even showed me a picture in an old magazine. But I’ve never seen anything like it and I can’t really imagine. I only know this world. And there was fruit, all kinds of fruit, all year round, and so many different vegetables besides the seeds. And none of it was moldy; and you didn’t have to fight the rats or the roaches for it.

Did we understand how easy we had it? How much we had? Couldn’t we have made do with a little less, just to to protect Adam and all the others?
Moot point now, too late. We wanted food without sweat, so we kept playing around with the genes and the earth and insects; and we wanted to make a lot of money off it, so we gave the power to agribusiness. When the viruses came, the ones the monocultures couldn’t handle, and they hit the rice, the wheat and the barley, and something else had al-ready begun to wipe out the bees and the bats so the pollination was way down, and then they tried something to kill the viruses, and that spread to the vegetable fields in California and what they used to deal with that spread to the wheat and corn in the Midwest and the fruit in Mexico and Brazil.
And all of a sudden the global marketplace was a series of shuttered windows and locked gates protected by armed men. Every country got more and more afraid that what we had would spread to them. They shut us out. After a few months, while we lived on that processed crap in the supermarkets, all the shelves were empty. In six months there was nothing to feed the cows and the pigs and the chickens so they died off.
In the big cities, in the suburbs, people were starving. The little isolated organic farms were o.k. But even if we couldn’t eat, we still had guns, lots of them. And people started to fend for themselves and no one with a little farm could hold it for long. So the government declared martial law and nationalized all the farms, everywhere. Which worked for a while, at least it got food for the people in power. But then they couldn’t feed the soldiers, who turned their guns on the great and powerful, and took the little that was left.
We begged the rest of the world for help. But no help arrived. Because each country started to close the doors to everyone else, not just us. But it turned out all the technology depended on trade. When things started the break down, they had to choose between fixing the machines and taking the chance that all the food would be ruined. And when whole na-tions started to suffer, they would take their weapons and do just what people here did with the farms. Take for themselves.
And then the weather really turned bad. Nothing we’d built, almost nothing anyway, was made for this. Cars picked up and tossed around, we’d all seen that before. But trucks, trailer homes, bulldozers? After a storm it wasn’t twenty or thirty power poles down, but hundreds, thousands. And it wasn’t just the little poles on the little streets, it was the big metal things that carried the main lines. Even if they could stand the wind, they couldn’t stand the trees that smashed into the wires. There just wasn’t any power you could depend on, not with the wind like this.

So we went above, and for a whole day the wind was down. There were no ‘nadoes and we didn’t have to fight off any of the wild dogs. There aren’t too many of them left, Grandpa says, because they can’t get enough to eat. But when they do come, I get really frightened. Out on the road there are lots of cars, lots. They used to move around, really fast, I’ve heard. But then something ran out, or we couldn’t get any more of it, and there wasn’t any way to use anything else. So people walk everywhere now. Some folks have hors-es that they ride, but it’s hard to get food for them. And when the winds come, sometimes they go a little crazy and we can’t control them and they run away and get eaten by the dogs.

When the oil stopped, that was the worst of it. No cars, no planes, no ships, no ferti-lizer, no cars. Suddenly we realized we’d been living on a dream, a dream of oil forever. Even most of the alternative sources–wind, sun, hydro—depended on spare parts and machines and stuff that came by truck, or car, or were dependent on other stuff that came that way. Or the people that made it or fixed it needed some medicine for their asthma or their diabe-tes that came that way. We could get power off the grid, but we couldn’t live off it, not enough of us anyway. And the same thing that happened with the organic farms happened with everyone who had solar or wind. People tried to take it, and then the government took it, and then the soldiers took it for themselves or their families, and then it broke or ran out and there was no way to get it back.
I heard there are some places where they still have some oil. Venezuela maybe, or somewhere in Africa. But they don’t have the machines to get it out, refine it, make it do an-ything. Or if they did, they don’t have any spare parts, or enough engineers to make it work. They always left that sort of thing to us. And even if they did, people would come to take it away, and there would be fighting. Someone told me they heard a last desperate message from some radio station in Saudi Arabia, before all contact was lost. They had a secret reser-voir of oil, a fair amount of it, at least what had become a fair amount after the major wells ran dry. And they were offering to trade it, straight up, gallon for gallon, for water. They had all this oil, you see, but they couldn’t get their machines to run because all the spare parts had stopped coming, and there hadn’t been rain in three years, and all the other countries around them had dissolved into chaos and no one would help. They were dying of thirst, fi-nally realizing that you can’t drink oil.
I remember, when I was a teenager, some kind of storm hit New Orleans and people got very upset. Thirty years ago we had four of them in a month, and the last two just went up the eastern seaboard—Miami, Charleston, D.C., Baltimore, New York, Boston, Portland—water in the city center, coastal homes taken down, subways ruined, roads washed out. No electricity for months, no way to get food to kids, to evacuate hospitals or old age homes, dead dogs and cats and homeless people rotting in the streets when the waters went down. And then a week later the real tornadoes hit the Midwest, from Chicago and St. Louis to Lin-coln and Ames and all the rest. And three nuclear power plants on the rivers got overrun with water and there was no electricity to work the pumps, so the waters turned radioactive. Millions of people without a place to go, no power, bridges destroyed so fuel deliveries were stopped, cars left on the road. And then what we used to call a freak snow storm took out train tracks and highways from California east—and the food deliveries stopped. How many died just from starvation—and then from the gunfights for food—we never knew. That’s when martial law came in, and never left—not until the government just dissolved because there was no power and no food in D.C., or most state capitals either.
Who knows, maybe the president and the other big guys are still in some undisclosed location, waiting for things to clear up.
But in those other places, inland, it’s worse. There’s just no rain, no water. Whatever oil they have left they use to truck in water, or to pump it in. But they can never get enough, and then their storms kick up and smash the roads, or the machinery, or the pipeline. We never did figure out how to desalinate ocean water—too busy building smart phones and tablet computers, I guess. All we’ve got now is hundreds of millions dead, refugees from storms, and drought, and famine roaming the land hoping to find something better. And when they do, there are too many of them and then in a few years, or months, that’s gone too.

I guess this is just what it is. I’ll never understand what happened, what there used to be. Grandpa says all the broken trees used to be something called a forest, that in some places you could swim in lakes, they weren’t all choked with green slime; that there were things called beaches where people went into the water, which wasn’t all filled with jellyfish and old plastic.
All those things that used to be.

Where did they go?



I love to go out into the garden before anyone else. It’s cold, but I put on two sweat-ers and Amanda doesn’t mind. The vegetables in their beds are just coming in now. If I push my fingers down just a little I can feel the carrots, and the lettuce just glistens (Oh I love that word) with the dew on it when the sun comes over the hillside. Of course I wouldn’t do more than look, and touch them a little, and say a blessing over each carrot I see and all the vege-tables, thanking the goddess for plants, and sun, and water.
There are new flowers on the apple trees. The fruit won’t be in until the fall, but I bless them for their colors and their smell. So many beings to bless. So many.
Of course I know I have to be back in the tree house before the sun really comes out. It’s too hot later, and if I get caught in the sun in the middle of the day, Amanda says, some-thing bad could happen to my skin. But I bless the sun anyway, because without it nothing would grow.
It’s not us who make the food, says Amada, it’s all these others. We just help out a little, and they help us out a lot.

Eve is a good girl, and so precious after all those miscarriages. God knows what was in the food and water for her mother, even after The Change, and what it did to her. I’m very lucky to have made it to my age, not many do. But I’m still concerned that something will start to show in her. If I go, well it will be my time. And others will take care of Eve. That’s what we do now.
Death we will always have, but at least we have stopped poisoning ourselves and the others. We eat what comes from the Goddess, we don’t add and don’t subtract. And thank Her for everything we have. And if there’s a bad year with bugs or storms, we eat less and thank Her for helping us understand our limits. Even if that means some of us die.

Some months, even one whole year a while ago, can be pretty bad. Nothing grows right, there isn’t enough rain, and we don’t eat much. But Amanda says that is just the rhythm of life. The Goddess blesses us with food, and then with hunger: to teach us to ap-preciate every day, every moment, every song we sing and breath we take.

How did we get here? I’ll tell you, I don’t know. All I can say is about the part I played, me and a few others I know. The rest of the world had to do it their way.
There were some storms, big ones. And there was hardly any winter that year—it on-ly went below freezing a few times and the river, which had always frozen solid for at least a few weeks, ran all through January and February. Then a thaw which wasn’t really a thaw because nothing had frozen came in mid-March, and the May flowers were out before the first week of April was over. And it was hot, t-shirt and shorts and still sweating hot, in April when you usually needed a sweater and jacket both.
Other stuff was going on too, and getting worse. People diagnosed with cancer, scared about water quality, bats and bees were dying, a rash of frogs with horrible deformi-ties. Coral reefs off Florida bleaching white from the warming, and a bigger than usual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from the chemical agriculture, and the Asian carp had gotten past all the barriers and was ravaging fishing in the Great Lakes.
It was all going to hell and no one was doing anything about it. Oh the EPA was mak-ing its usual noises, and the environmental groups were trying to raise consciousness, but the people with the real power, from the networks to the politicians to the CEOs, were doing business as usual. Talking about keeping up job growth, and economic growth, and more buildings and more computers and more cars and more and more and more, God forbid we should just be satisfied with what we had right now, or double God forbid we should ever have less.
I couldn’t stand it. Neither could my friends. We said “it can’t go on” and “why don’t they do something?” and, most of all, we saw that our parents and Aunts and uncles, and the priests and ministers and rabbis and school teachers and rock stars and really really pretty girls in movies and on the magazine covers and the team that won the Super Bowl—that they weren’t going to do anything for us. That the people who ran everything and owned everything, well they sure weren’t going to do anything.
So if anything was going to happen, it would have to be us.
And you know it was easier that anyone dreamed. And it happened so much faster, too.

At night sometimes I get up and leave the tree house oh so quiet and climb down and walk to the meadow. Amanda doesn’t know, because I hardly breathe when I pass her sleeping pallet, and my bare feet don’t make a sound on the path. And I sit in the little space between the garden and the wild, and I just listen. I can hear things—insects and small ani-mals and bats in the night. And even more. I can hear the earth breathing, and the sky humming along being the night sky. And sometimes, when it’s perfectly clear, I think, I just think, I can hear the stars.

It was on the parkway, one morning going to school, which was a few miles away from my house, but of course no one would walk or bike. I was driving, all by myself, and my friends Sue and Rachel were up ahead. The traffic was horrible, we were barely moving, just inching along, so we were texting about, I don’t know, some nonsense or other. To think of how much time I wasted with that ridiculous phone of mine—when there was all these oth-ers to listen to, and look at, and care for. Oh, but that’s just silly. We were what we were, and we’re different now. And better.

I am so glad I am alive. And that Life is here to provide for me. Every breath, Amanda tells me, every breath shows how I’m connected to everything else in Life. After all, no breath, no connection…no life!

So all of a sudden Rachel’s texts get a little crazy. There’s a guy in the car in front of her. He gets out. He stands on the hood of the car. He starts to yell so that people can hear him over their stereos and car TVs and IPhones. “This is no way to live. Don’t we all know it? This is crazy, this is suicide. We have to find something else. NO MORE CARS, NO MORE HEATING UP THE EARTH AND POISONING OURSELVES. We must tell them it has to change. We must be the change. NOW!”
And crazy as crazy as it sounds, he just leaves his car and starts to walk. Where? Who knows. Maybe to the state capital building, which don’t you know was about four miles away.
Well the craziest thing is, people started to follow him. They knew what he was talk-ing about, and the word spread to the other cars of people who hadn’t heard him. They un-derstood. We all understood. We’d just been too scared and too wrapped up in all the cars and phones and computers and handy little gadgets and meat to barbecue and orange juice that got shipped here from Brazil to do anything about it. And we’d all gotten so damn lazy at the same time that we were so wrapped up in the crap that we were all the time exhaust-ed. We didn’t sleep, we just passed out when we couldn’t stand being online any more.
So I got out of my car. Just walked away, and joined up with Rachel and Sue and we started to walk too. What were we going to do? We didn’t know! Isn’t it wonderful? We didn’t know—we just knew something had to change, and it was going to start right now, right here, with us. Yeah, with us—a bunch of dopey high school girls who didn’t know their asses from their elbows, as my father would have said, but just one thing, one thing we did know. The way we were all living was crazy.

I learned to read two years ago. Amanda and I had to walk for two days to the library. There was an old man there, real friendly, but I swear even the million creases on his face had creases, and his hair was whiter than the big clouds that build up in summer. But he just kneeled down, and smiled at me, and said that I was beginning a very exciting journey, and I was lucky to have such a wonderful guide. He let us have ten books, and said he would send more with a courier in 2 months.
That wasn’t soon enough for me. But Amanda taught me not just to read, but to sa-vor (isn’t that a great word? It’s like you’re eating something with your mind) each word, each thought.

So we walked together, more and more of us. And then it spread. People called their friends and texted their parents and their grown kids, and their colleagues at work; and all of sudden, all across the country people were just walking off the job, out of their cars, out of their houses and into the streets. They went to the big office buildings where the oil com-panies were, and to the banks and the police stations and the mayor’s offices and every federal building.
Well the People in Charge got terrified. They called us communists and terrorists and whispered that we worked for Russia or Al-Qaeda or were all on drugs. But it didn’t work be-cause there was just too many of us. Too many people who’d lost their mothers to breast cancer. Too many people freaked out about the weather, about their kids with asthma, about the strange, scary color of the sky on a hot day in August. They sent the police after us, but they just smiled and asked us please not to break any windows. They sent in the Na-tional Guard, and then the Army, but they just put down their weapons and lined up right beside us.
Easy? No, it wasn’t easy. A lot of people died because we were all so dependent on The Machine. The hospitals didn’t work as well, and there was a lot less food. And it got re-ally cold and really hot and a lot of the time we were uncomfortable, or hungry, and things were harder than they’d been. People had to walk miles and miles and miles. We’d try to make exceptions for the old and the sick and women with babies. But pretty soon it just be-came a kind of common sense. Don’t ride when you can walk; don’t burn something that doesn’t absolute need to be burned. Don’t use anything you don’t absolutely need.
But we all knew this was what we had to do to change. And we hooked up to people who knew how to do things local and grow food without chemicals and get power from the sun. Suddenly everything that was healthy and real became precious, and all the stuff we’d had before—everything that distracted us from what was really going on—just seemed emp-ty and a waste of time. And we started to accept that being alive meant that sometimes you’re hungry or cold and we were all going to die, so it was better to live sane than crazy.
And if a lot of people had to die…well, people were dying already: for war, for poi-sons in the food, for nothing. At least these people were dying for something.

We don’t go to the city too often. People bring us what we need—food and blankets, wool to make clothes, the news of what’s going on. Amanda says even though the cities are so much smaller, and so much cleaner than they used to be, if she is going to do her work, she needs to be out here—with just the garden for the special herbs she uses, and the forest nearby, and the animals, and the fish in the river. She is so good at being a healer that peo-ple walk or ride their bikes or if they are really sick the special cars for that will bring people to her. And that’s how we get the stuff we can’t grow ourselves.

The change came when we realized that oil wasn’t the enemy, wasn’t evil, wasn’t the source of some horrible poison that was destroying the earth by making the climate change. No! Oil is sacred; it holds the life force of billions of living beings that can give us heat and movement and so much else.
The problem wasn’t oil, it was us—treating oil like some cheap throwaway junk, wast-ing it, my God how we wasted it. As if the life force bound up in it had no meaning.
And that was true of everything else—food and water, even air, that we polluted as if there was an infinite supply, when really there is just this thin shell around the earth, and the rest of the universe probably doesn’t have a single molecule.
We finally figured out—or was it that we finally remembered?—how we should treat the things that are the most important: air, water, food, sources of energy like oil and wood, old people who need company more than a lot of medicines, kids who need love and atten-tion. We learned that the sacred is not some God in heaven, some afterlife, or some words in a book. It’s the living beings and the sources of life.
That’s all. And that’s enough.

I’m really glad I’m alive. Each morning I get up, and say my prayers to life. And I mean them, ‘cos where we would be without life? But Amanda tells me that life means death, just like death means life. That we come in one form, for awhile, and then become something else. I hope I become a butterfly, or a cardinal, I love their calls in spring. Of course I know I won’t be me when I’m something else. I’ll just be something else!
But in a way, I’ll still be me—not the me that says words and walks on two feet and wears clothes, but the me that breathes, and has a body, and lives on the earth.
That’s enough, I think.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Political and Spiritual: Essays on Religion, Environment, Disability, and Justice. [Read an excerpt here.] He has previously published Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters and the short story collection Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming.

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About Death, II

My last blog ended by comparing our lives to a song, and with the reflection: But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

I’ve been asked to expand on this thought. What are these ‘forces’? How are they larger and more creative and enduring?

We can start small. Walking my dog this morning through narrow, hilly neighborhood streets, I heard the brilliant “pyou pyou” of a cardinal standing on a tree limb about twenty feet over my head. The bird was only about seven inches long, probably weighed less than two ounces, with a small pointed beak surrounded by quarter inch of black, a tuft of feathers for a pointed crown, and a shockingly red breast and wings. “How does it do that,” I thought, “this tiny thing making a noise that can be heard for blocks? A call louder than the loudest whistle you ever heard from that friend in high school who could put two fingers in his mouth and bring forth a shriek that made people cover their ears and would stop cabs in the street.”

After wishing the bird good luck in making a nest and finding a mate, I kept turning it over in my mind: “How does he do that?” I really didn’t want the evolutionary history of bird sounds, or a structural account of his beak, throat and lungs. I was way beyond science here, and into the sheer wonder of it.

By analogy: Sometimes we look at the world’s horrors (the Holocaust, slavery, sexual trafficking, Hiroshima, Dresden, current levels of starvation) and, despite all our sophisticated political explanations, still feel that we cannot understand how such things can be. Similarly, in moments of grace, we can feel the same lack of understanding, only this time with joy and boundless gratitude rather than despair.

How does the cardinal make that sound? Because the universe has been working for fourteen billion years to create just that bird at that time on that branch on that street. And it has also been working to create me—the person who can delight in the sound and marvel at the universe that made it possible.

Neither the bird nor I will be here—cosmically speaking—for very long. Death is just around the corner (how big the corner is I cannot say) for both of us. Is this a great tragedy? A loss to be hated and feared?

Not for me, at least not today. Today I realize that condemning any reality always presupposes an alternative. “Death is horrible?” “Compared to what?”

Rather, I take comfort in having been here at all. That the universe came into existence, and that the combined forces of particles, atoms, gravity, the strong force and the weak force, molecules, cells, DNA, evolution, weather patterns and the like have enabled me to exist.

These are the forces so much more powerful, creative and long-lived than my own little self. These are the forces to which I feel compelled and privileged to bow in gratitude.

That it ever was, and that I got to be a part of it. And that along with the natural/physical forces there have been millions of human beings in their own quiet or noisy ways inventing language, science, culture, art, religion, human rights, equality, poetry, chocolate cake and peanut butter.  

Could my life have been easier? You bet, but it also could have been much harder. Have I suffered? Give me a few hours and I’ll tell you some details that would make your hair stand on end. But at least I got to be here, to love and be loved, listen to Beethoven and Bach, see Mount Everest, caress my wife’s face, and hold my daughter when she was born. Did I make all that happen? Maybe one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth… (you get the idea) of it. The rest was the product of all those other forces: impersonal laws of nature, wonderful chance evolutionary developments, the creative capacity of humans and animals and plants, and the support of air, earth, water, and fire.  

And they all brought me to the cardinal this morning. Scared of death? Sure I am, I’m no hero and I’ll probably fight against the dying of the light like anyone else.

But ultimately, if I have an ultimately, I’m just damn glad I got to be here. And damn grateful to everyone (and I mean that in absolutely the widest sense) who made it possible. 


Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.


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Amour, Death, Song


That was the day of the white chrysanthemums, so magnificent I was almost fearful…And then, then you came to take my soul…



For someone way beyond middle age Amour is, as we used to say, quite a trip.   To those unfamiliar with this Oscar winning French film, it chronicles the illness, degeneration and death of an aging French piano teacher, who is cared for by her loving, stoic husband. The acting is superb, the writing spare and focused, the pacing almost in ‘real time’ as the camera lingers on the woman’s first stroke, being bathes by an attendant, the husband’s excruciating attempts to get her to eat some oatmeal. In the end the husband, overwhelmed with grief for his wife’s guttural cries of pain, her loss of even a shred of autonomy or dignity, and perhaps also his own exhaustion, frustration, and anger, takes matters into his own hands.

This is the kind of last weeks, months, or years many of us may well expect. The very great majority of those who read these words will not die of war, starvation or lack of medical care.  Although some, sadly, may be taken early by cancer, auto accidents or murder, most will die from age: with dementia or Alzheimer’s, after strokes or heart attacks or some other slow, debilitating condition reduces us to pale, burdened, endlessly needy shadows of our former selves.

There is an easy way out of the fear and grief this reality generates: to believe that pretty much the way we are now we go “somewhere else.”  For me, like the idea of a personal, omnipotent creator God who cares how I live, notions of heaven or reincarnation were never what William James called a “live option.” The thought that I could be “myself” without a body or starting another life from scratch, knowing nothing, never connected. For me comfort must take another form.

An alternative suggestion is that people “live on in the memories of those whose lives they have touched.” While in Amour the couple had a daughter and one of the women’s students was a successful pianist, it was clear that after their death both of them would fade from people’s consciousness pretty quickly. And in any case, outside of the extremely few who are Very Great or at least Very Famous (Plato, George Washington, Shakespeare, Buddha) none of us are thought of very much after a few years, or at most a few decades: when the people who knew us for who we were—as opposed to our books or political acts, say—themselves pass away.

Which leaves us—or at least me—with the unshakable realization that what I face now is a future of continually becoming less than I am now: less intelligent, active, and industrious, with worse hearing, eyesight and ability to concentrate.  There will be a gradual turning down of the volume until the player, one way or another, just shuts off.

I can still remember lying in bed, perhaps 7 years old, crying about all this, terrified at the thought of the annihilation of my just budding self-consciousness. My mother was reassuring, “Don’t worry, this won’t happen for such a very, very long time.” For some reason that was good enough then, but today Mom’s words carry, shall we say, a bit less weight.

What makes aging and death tolerable? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we must all, as Dylan Thomas put it, “rage against the dying of the light.” And really there is nothing wrong with such a response. Surely it is just because the juice of the cherry, spilling out of your mouth on onto your shirt and you don’t care because it is so sweet, is so wondrous that it must be bitter to know one day all you’ll have in your mouth is dust you can’t even taste.

But besides anger (and its cousins grief, fear, and regret) there are other (non-heaven, non-reincarnation) ways to face death.

The first is simple and seems almost unarguable. Think of life—and I mean not just our own allotted time but the whole system which makes it possible: planets and seasons, microbes in our gut and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, the hydrological cycle and the truly magical way DNA gets a part of each of your parents into you. If we truly love life then we must love death as well. Without death there would be no system at all. Things would be unbearably crowded, all sorts of folks (in the broad sense) would have nobody to eat, and there would be little room for innovation, growth, and evolution. We would all be fixated in some vastly earlier stage of existence. And 99.99999% of what we get to taste and see in this life, including our own alternately glorious, dopey, confused and insightful selves, could never have come into being. 

Hold onto that thought and join it with another: if I stop thinking of myself like a mountain, or a stone cathedral, or some other item which seems built to last and instead think of myself, my self, as something radically different, maybe death would seem less threatening.

Does a song regret ending? As the last notes of the symphony crash into the air and slowly fade, is there some regret from the melody and harmonies whose echoes will soon turn to silence?

Perhaps that is all we are: just a song sung by the universe. Does a song—does my ego—really want to last forever? Thankfully I’ve grown a bit since I was seven, and now I think not. We—I—will end, and if the song is as sweet as ripe cherries there might be a faint wish from us or others that there be a little more. But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.




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What difference does it make if torture works?…and a few other questions…

 What difference does it make if torture works? Is that all we need to know about it? Is it possible that we shouldn’t torture people even if it does work? By analogy: We could probably eliminate a good deal of the Taliban—at least for a while–if we carpet bombed regions they control. Once we were clear that it ‘works’—why not do it? So what if we kill some innocent people. After all—the point is to accomplish what we set out to do. Therefore, if torturing a few people, or many people, gets us the information ‘we’ want, that’s all we need to know, right?
Disliking my admittedly extreme example, a person might object: “What if a suspect knows where a bomb is placed that might kill 100 people, wouldn’t it be o.k. to torture him?” To which I reply: “Since we are dealing in ‘what if’—try this one: what if there is a terrorist bomb set to kill, let’s be bold, 5000 people. And suppose you know that the person who controlled the bomb is in a particular room. The only problem is that there are 10 other people in the room and you don’t know which is the terrorist. Well, do the math: why not torture them all until you find the right one? And suppose it’s not 10 people in the room, but a 100. You’ve still got a 50 to 1 ratio—so torture away, right? Even better: what if torturing an innocent person—say, the terrorist’s 6 year old daughter—would compel the terrorist to talk. Do the math again, surely we’d be justified in torturing the girl. And what if, as Dostoevsky asked, we could end all human misery and bring about a perfect utopia by torturing one innocent child—would we have the right not to do it?
 Isn’t it a little late to worry about gun control? Well, perhaps not. Even if one mass killing is stopped by making it a tad harder to get an AK-15, I’m all for it. Yet since we spend untold billions on “defense,” since various kinds of media glorify violence, since the typical male socialization process privileges physical prowess and the willingness to stand up for yourself, since God knows how many guns are in circulation already, since our response to threats from Afghanistan was to kill (in a ‘mass shooting’ if ever there was one) tens of thousands in Iraq…. Given all this and a good deal more that could be mentioned, what do we expect?
If two people are fighting, and in their struggle they end falling off a cliff, and then they shriek “But what do we do now?!?!” –isn’t it a little late? Could it be that until we give up the army and the football and the toy soldiers and Grand Theft Auto and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we will produce men (for some reason advances in women’s rights haven’t resulted in equality when it comes to mass shootings) who kill when they can’t stand their lives anymore; or for money or power or God or politics.
 I live in Massachusetts, where today, January 31, it’s 57 degrees and we’ve had near hurricane force winds. There is zero snow on the ground between Boston and Worcester (forty miles away) and already in January we’ve had several days of temperature way above the “old normal” for this time of year. Why is it that some people revel in the warm weather—good day for jogging, you barely need a jacket, hats and gloves can stay in the closet–while others, like me, run an emotional gamut between lurking fear, mild depression, and suppressed panic? Despite years of writing, teaching, and moderate activism I know that whatever I do global warming is on the way, in fact already here. I know that the paltry efforts of well-intentioned people worldwide don’t stack up against the power of the oil and gas and coal companies, the desire for a ‘better lifestyle” in China and India and Latin America and Massachusetts, governments’ voracious appetite for military and the military’s voracious appetite for energy. So why not just enjoy a warm day in the middle of winter? What do fear and grief gain me or anyone else?
Probably nothing, but then again—when someone I love is dying or has died, I am first fearful and then sad. Even though my fear and sadness can’t change a thing.
 Isn’t it remarkable, even wonderful, that despite everything we are here at all? That there is something rather than nothing? That parents love their children? That at least some people are trying to make the world more peaceful, sane, sustainable, and caring? That birds fly, dogs chase sticks, and lovers hold hands? Isn’t life a miracle?

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.

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Zero Dark 30 made me cry, but it wasn’t the torture scenes…

It’s not that the torture scenes weren’t pretty bad. They were: the bruised face, haunted eyes, scarred skin, and gradual deterioration from arrogant jihadist to a helpless, broken body pleading for mercy. But that didn’t make me cry, for when such torture is not an instrument of sadism, as the process unfolding in the film clearly was not, it is simply an instrument of war. And war is hell. That’s just what it is. This I knew.

The torture victim suffered, greatly. So did the victims of the terrorist attacks portrayed in the film: at the Marriott hotel in Pakistan, on buses in London, at a military base in Afghanistan.

There are of course other suffering groups that the film did not portray. For instance, the victims of the American led coalition’s air strikes against Iraq—estimated by the British medical journal Lancet to be over 60,000; the Iraqi civilians who suffered—perhaps died—when ‘shock and awe’ destroyed electric power, transportation, health supplies, and hospitals.

If we are to have a war on terrorism, if Al-Qaida and its ilk are going to have a war on us, if all of us, together, are going to make war, the suffering will go on and on. From torture, from bombs; of soldiers, of civilians; of men, of women, of children; of other species, of the earth.

So it is not the suffering that made me cry, but four simple words spoken by one of the Navy Seal team who took Bin Laden out. With confirmation of the kill, following the only mildly celebratory word “Geronimo,” came the soul-chilling phrase:

For God and country.

And that’s when, in comfortably appointed stadium style seating in a large urban multiplex, I had to muffle the helpless sobs that shook my body.

For God and country.

For isn’t that, more or less, what the jihadists also say? Bin Laden, whatever else one may say of him, believed that he was serving God, and the cause of creating a morally and spiritually purified Islamic state. Doubtless he and his followers—at least the ones not in it for the thrill of violence (of which we surely have plenty on our side as well)—knew that their acts were good and ours evil, that any reasonably moral person could tell who was in the right. Surely the terrorists on both sides know that they are defending the innocent and slaughtering people who deserve to die.

And if in that righteous, even holy, struggle some innocents have to be hurt, if some collateral damage occurs, well—that’s unfortunate. But we are sure that it is worth it. Perhaps some of our smart bombs misfire and hit a civilian home, a marriage procession, a school. Perhaps a jihadist bomb hits a London bus on which devout Muslims are traveling. Perhaps this or that torture victim really didn’t’ know anything, wasn’t hiding anyone, and just had nothing to say—all that anguish you caused him was for nothing.

That’s just the price we pay for war. Don’t want to pay that price? Horrified by what you see? Don’t moan about innocent deaths, as if we could ever just bomb the guilty. Don’t object when the strong overpower the weak—that’s what strength is for. Don’t complain about torture, as if you might advise a prizefighter to keep hitting, but try not to hurt anyone. If you truly want the horror to stop:

Stop the wars.

And that’s why I sobbed in the dark, because right now that’s simply not possible. We would rather kill and be killed, taking our chances in unending battle, then find another way to live.

I realize that some people are evil and “must” be stopped. I know the endless critiques of American imperialism, soulless, repressive dictators, lunatic religious fundamentalists who marry carnage and prayer books. And I know there are lots of reasons for the killing: class privilege, exploitation, the joys of patriarchal power, the lust for oil, the fear fear fear that our way of life, our homes, our culture are under attack.

And so the question is not “Does this film justify torture?” (It doesn’t ) But—“Is there any hope that human beings can stop the madness?” For thousands of years humanity has lived with war and dreamed of peace, died violently and prayed for non-violence, worshiped saints and prophets who preached love and then shed endless blood on battlefields.

Justice, care, compassion, willingness to live with less and to give more to others. Empathy for the suffering we cause to match (at least) rage over our own pain—these might help a little. But to really make an end to our species’ attachment to death–who knows?
The only certainty is, for the indefinite future, the continued torment. On the faces of the victims of torture, and of suicide bombs, and of smart bombs, and of justified revolutions and government repression and world empire and resistance to world empire.

What can we do?

As often as we have courage, try to be examples of peace. And weep.

That’s about it.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.

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Holiday spirit getting you down? Try Holiday spirituality instead…

This means to make the simple but often incredibly difficult decision to meet life’s difficulties with self-awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love. (This is the position developed in my new book: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters—a book which not only answers all of life’s important questions, but has a really nice cover!).

So if inescapable  Christmas music, endless JUST FOR TODAY GET IT NOW!  sales, and long lists of gifts for everyone from your brother-in-law to your daughter’s day-care provider are getting you down, let’s see what these simple, quite traditional, but challenging spiritual virtues have to offer.

To start, let’s ask ourselves what is going on. Through meditation, reflection, self-examination, or just plain free associating at the keyboard, what might we find? Perhaps… Disappointment that your family doesn’t match the quirky-but-happy, deeply-caring  but non-intrusive, rooted in tradition but open to difference ones on the greeting cards or the TV specials. Resentment that as a non-Christian you have to listen endlessly to all this holiday stuff? Bitterness that everyone else has (fill in the blank…a job, a lover, children, healthy children, a nice house…)? The religious revulsion that any serious Christian might feel at seeing the birth of the savior turned into consumerism and family get togethers shaped by an awful lot of drinking?

Realizing the source of your irritability, frustration, or even downright depression, the next spiritual move is acceptance. This is what God, or fate, or your genes, or a crummy economy, or your bad choices or other people’s bad choices, or the current state of American culture/economy/politics have given you. It might be far from what you want or deserve. But it’s what you have. Perhaps we can settle in with it, examine it with as much detachment as possible, and repeat that simplest of old time mantras: “Yes” –a yes not of approval or endorsement, but one that allows us to relinquish the exquisite torment of believing that it is up to us to change something which in all probability can’t be changed very much right now. We have and we are what we have and we are, and all the negative feelings won’t help.

So, moving on to gratitude, let’s try something else. Despite the hypnotic attraction of negativity (I mean, what’s sweeter than a pure blue, nasty funk, after all???), can we find something, anything  which not only makes us feel good but for which we are thankful? That we have ears to hear the interminable carols and eyes to see all the decorations? That we have food and drink, and the ability to take it in? that even if we are stuck in a hospital with a desperately ill child, or in a 12-step group fighting the demons of alcohol or heroin, that we are alive, that some people are trying to help us (a doctor or nurse, a sponsor or the guy who tells you to “hang in there, you can make it.”) That despite everything we’ve done to it, the world still turns, at least some birds still fly and sing, and that we ourselves, no matter how much we’ve lost, still have the chance to make tomorrow a little better than today.

And how will we do that? First, we will extend a little, and then a little more, compassion: to the people who seek to show love through buying stuff, for we remember first that they are trying to show love, and second that many times we ourselves have been loving in ways that were clumsy, foolish, even destructive. And if we are not Christian, we can be happy that our neighbors are celebrating a holiday that, at least for some folks, is about peace and good will. There’s little enough celebration of such things and every little bit helps. And in our own family situation, we also try a little compassion: for the intrusive, judgmental mother; the overbearing, foot-stomping father; the alcoholic uncle; even our own spouse who has—just like we ourselves—failed us over and over again. We remember the good times, rare though they might have been, our own less than perfect behavior, and the pain that these men and women have suffered in their own lives.

And don’t forget to try a little compassion on ourselves: for our frailties, addictions, casual cruelties, and refusals to change what we know we should. It’s not easy being human, truly human, and that’s a reason we all deserve compassion for the times we miss the mark.

Finally—and this, by the way, is something that has a basis in physiology—we feel a lot better when we show other people some love. Give some money away to people who need it more than we do—whether that’s 50 cents, 5 dollars, or a thousand—and see how rich that makes you feel. Offer a kind word to someone who is down, and you might be a little more up yourself.  Give a little time to a positive campaign—about global warming, human rights, or to raise funds for a local hospital. Listen to your grandfather tell the same old story and pretend you’ve never heard it before. Let your sister brag about her boyfriend or her job. Smile and realize that we’re all in this together. In these and countless other ways, the world is just waiting for what you, in particular, can do.

The greatest gift of the season—more precious than a 67 inch flat screen or a new IPhone—would be your own practice of these spiritual virtues. They would bring you some honest, long-lasting and genuine pleasure, and make you a lot more fun to be around for everyone else.

And what could more in the spirit of the holidays than that?

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Gratitude and (of all things) Politics

America’s annual consumerism orgasm is just passed. And if a little bit of post-sex let-down is to be expected, it may also be that some of us view the whole thing with negative feelings ranging from mild distaste to horror. People camping out on the sidewalk for days to buy a 54 inch flat screen, Wal-Mart customers coming to blows over a pair of shoes, families devoting hours to military style strategizing for the best way to hit the mall, a holiday defined by “thanks” and “giving” followed straightway by a veritable festival of desire, grasping, and I-me-mine. Endless environment damaging heavy metals, transportation, packaging and fossil fuels.

Even if the shopping is keyed around Christmas presents for others, what we have then are human relationships defined by things—and things, we should be clear, which are a long way from necessity. Virtually none of this is about food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the chronically ill. Actually, it is generally about toys for those who already have several dozen, phones with a few more features, or somebody’s thirty-seventh sweater or forty-fifth pair of jeans. In my own case it is likely to be about yet another classical cd or mp3 player for a man who has far more than he needs already.

Spiritually, the counter to all this, or at least one such counter, is gratitude: delighting in what we have, appreciating all the forces in the universe (from the sun and water and the process of evolution to the species that make food possible and all the people who labor so that we have housing, clothes, medicine and everything else). Gratitude is the very opposite of the endless search for more and better, the short attention span which finds pleasure in the new toy for only a few days or hours, the restless pursuit of the faster, sleeker, and more fully featured. Gratitude offers satisfaction in place of restlessness, simple joy instead of anxiety that someone else might Get the Last One.

Above all gratitude gives a terrific feeling which comes when we realize that so much of our life is an unexpected, undeserved gift. Who, after all, “deserves” the colors of the sunset, the sound of a Robin in spring, the feel of the skin of a newborn, the smile of a spouse who has put up with you for 40 years, the taste of clean water, the genius of Beethoven or Coltrane?

While gratitude is not always easy to come by, surely it is a more reliable source of human happiness than what we’ve just been through.

And yet…here it gets tricky, and complicated, and (of all things!) political. For how are we to know what is a proper object of gratitude and what, indeed, is something from which we should divest? Consider an enormously wealthy man offering a prayer of gratitude before God—for his possessions, his social status, his many gratifying luxuries—and then we learn that his wealth comes from human trafficking. Imagine a slave-owner thanking the universe for making him a master rather than a slave; the triumphant general praising God for the victory which allowed him to slaughter his enemies; an offering of thanks that I am white rather than black, a man rather than a woman, a colonialist rather than colonized, in power rather than downtrodden.

For what can we legitimately be grateful?

The beginning of the very long answer to this question is that we can only respond to this crucial spiritual dilemma by a deep and serious consultation with political ideas and movements. We will need to critically examine and challenge the social arrangements which have given us what we call our own. And perhaps realize that authentic spiritual gratitude cannot coexist with injustice, domination, and oppression.

Many will find this move from spirituality to politics a strange idea. From a spiritual perspective, after all, isn’t politics about struggle, power, violence, war, control, and one big ego after another? How could politics help us develop the spiritual virtues of gratitude and mindfulness, compassion and acceptance? The answer is that politics, which has certainly gotten (and often deserved) a bad name, is also a profoundly important source of insight which the pursuit of spiritual wisdom desperately needs.

How is that possible?

Political movements may be the scene of ego-bound competition and violence, yes, but they have also given us democracy and the rule of law, women’s rights and civil rights for ethnic/racial minorities. It is political movements and theories which have challenged the conventional status quo which said there was nothing wrong with a slaveholder thanking god for the wealth his slaves brought him, or a man’s gratitude for his morning relaxation while his wife does all the childcare and housework. If compassion is a central spiritual value, it is political life that helps us understand what compassion means in the context of the broad contours of social reality. If spirituality requires gratitude, gratitude requires a long hard look at the balance of power and the distribution of wealth.

This is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. If we have learned anything from the lives of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, it is that activist politics have a good deal to learn from spiritual traditions as well. In the end, when we look at justice and wisdom, compassion and revolution, non-violent civil disobedience and mindfulness we see that each requires the other to be informed and effective—or at least a little less likely to betray its own best intentions.

So let’s move on from consumerist grasping, but also from a too restricted or self-concerned spirituality. Wisdom and kindness have only their credit cards to lose, and a whole world to win.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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