The Fear of Anarchy
Time, being what it is, passed. Another Sunday came, and with it another radio show. And shows, being what they are, must go on. This one was Caller’s Choice.
The challenge of Caller’s Choice is that I have no co-host on with me so, unless a listener actually gets sufficiently inspired to dial the station, I’ve got no one to talk with. In that situation, I have sometimes thought of the line from the first Godfather movie where Sonny, the older and more impulsive brother, is trying to make sure that when his kid brother, Michael, until now not implicated in the “family business,” comes out of the rest room in the Italian restaurant where he’s having a “meet” with the corrupt police captain and the drug-dealing guy named Turk, whose efforts to move in on the Corleone family has triggered, as it were, the shooting (not quite to death) of the Corleone don –the young men’s father– he will indeed have the gun that is supposed to have been cleverly concealed in advance in the elevated tank of the toilet there. “I don’t want my brother coming out of there,” says Sonny to the guy who’s supposed to hide the “piece,” “with nothing but his dick in his hands.” Anyway, the situation Sonny does not want Michael to be in, upon leaving the john after his mid-meal trip to the lavatory, captures how I feel in the absence of calls.
I’m doing radio to enter into dialogue, not monologue.
But the air time must be filled –interlocutor or no– and so I’ve got to be prepared to come out of the john firing even if I don’t have a gun.
On this particular occasion, early in the show, there was a lull in the inaction, and I bethought to fill it by talking about my recent letter to the editor published in the local newspaper. My son, Nathaniel, had just graduated from the public elementary school in our area, and I was perturbed by the fact that never, in their years attending the school, had Nathaniel or any of his fellow students been invited by the authorities of the school, from teachers to principal, to express any of their thoughts or feelings about how the school organized their education and ran their lives for a good chunk of their day. Not once had the communication loop been closed.
My letter was by no means hostile. April and I both felt that Nathaniel had been, on the whole, under the wing of some very good people at the school. But I did argue that it would be appropriate for the school to invite feedback at least sometimes, asking them something like, “What have you liked about things here? and what would you like to have changed?” For one thing, people at the top should find out how things look to those at the bottom of this hierarchical institution. But more important, perhaps, if we want to help educate children to become citizens in a democracy, we ought to treat them –during their formative years, and their first sustained exposure to an institution of their society– as though what they think matters, and as though those above them in the system will listen and possibly even be responsive to the constructive expression of legitimate concerns.
Little did I suspect that putting out this –to my mind– fairly innocent idea would so decisively eliminate my concerns about a dearth of calls.
“You start letting those kids challenge authority,” one caller began, “and order in the classroom will go down the tubes.”
“How do you expect to be able to teach these kids anything,” said another, “if, when the teacher tells them to take out their spelling books, the kids can say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do it’?”
“I don’t know why you think the kids should be running the schools?” yet another challenged me.
And finally, a caller came in to say that, “It’s a real bonehead idea you’ve got, opening the door for the kids to say how they want things. What you’ll have –pronto– is anarchy!”
It did not seem to matter how much I explained how I wasn’t saying what my callers evidently heard me saying. My suggesting that, at least once in their several years at the school, the schools might invite their feedback hardly equated with giving them a license to challenge every teacher telling them to pull out their spelling books. Nor would allowing the students some forum to express themselves imply the school’s surrendering all power to the children. A voice is not control, I maintained. I pointed out how our whole society is based on the idea that it is possible to have a healthy, well-ordered society without all the communication being from the top down.
But despite my attempts at such clarification, the callers continued to hear my message in a most distorted form.
At first it was unsettling. Upon reflection it became illuminating. I had inadvertently uncovered a layer of fear in my local culture regarding the need for order and control. In the world as my callers perceived it, any loosening of the tight regime of control threatened to lead to a complete breakdown of order.
In the few days since I’d finished that long new segment of “Lousy First Drafts,” I’d not known where I stood with my project about unfolding. I regarded that project as, if not dead then at least comatose. At best, sleeping. With my Taskmaster still somewhat appeased by the “Lousy First Drafts” writing, like Cyclops sleeping off his latest indulgence of Greek-meat and wine, I wasn’t too uncomfortable with this state of affairs. (Except when I thought of it in terms of the apparent pattern of dead-end false starts.)
But in the wake of this unexpected panicky response, from callers to my radio show, to my little proposal for the schools, my project-stew started simmering again. I couldn’t tell just what was cooking. But something was starting to smell up my mental kitchen nicely.
I know the Way
Whatever the dish was, it seemed to get enhanced from an email message that arrived the next morning from a friend of mine, Charles Geier. Charles lives in Menlo Park, California, but does hot-shot business consulting all over the country and on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Calvin, he has been part of the “transformational” movement in business– that effort to reconceive the way businesses organize themselves and conceive their missions.
I’d met Charles more than seven years before, during my brief stint as a consultant in the corporate big-time. A fellow at one of the Dow Jones Industrial corporations had read my book Out of Weakness and, believing that I had insight into the dynamics of human conflict, had brought me in to help him transform that corporate giant. He and his compadres there believed that the dawn of a new age was at hand. They were not the first to discover how good the world is at staying, in some fundamental ways, the way it is. Anyway, Charles was another consultant operating in the corporate scene and, unlike me, he had his tent pitched there permanently and profitably.
“Sorry, Andy, to have taken so long to get back to you about your ‘unfolding’ project. (How’s it unfolding?) I’ve been out on the road, doing workshops– lately with a couple of the big oil giants. (Can’t give names, of course– you know the code.) I know you’re skeptical about how able we’re going to be to change the rules of this global economic game, but really it is very encouraging how some of these companies are really taking up the new ideas about management.
“Anyway, as you doubtless suspect, that issue is not irrelevant to your inquiry. In almost all the big corporations –and I would say most of the other organizations– of the modern world, the approach to leadership has been what I would call, ‘I know the way.’
“You might be flattered that I got that phrase from that piece you sent me last year– the one that tells about your experience of college students’ having no patience with being taught in the Socratic fashion. (They wouldn’t believe that you really wanted to explore with them, and you weren’t there to give them some fixed set of answers to all the questions.) Of course, as you say, you took the phrase from Bob Dole’s 1996 speech announcing his candidacy, when he declared to the throng –about our course for the future– ‘I know the way.’ Your point was that people seem to insist on their leaders’ knowing just what needs to be done, as if they possess a complete map of the world ahead.
“Anyway, that pretty well captures the long-standing corporate approach to leadership. The leader is the guy who knows. However much this approach reflects the needs of the followers (as in the case of your students) or comes from the leaders’ own sense of what a leader must be, it seems to be built into the whole institutional structure. The trouble is, when you lead that way, you close off information that may prove essential.
“When I work with these corporations, I do a lot of listening. In one exercise, I invite the people to tell about the times that they as a company have navigated tight straits successfully, and then also times when things didn’t work.
“One of the fascinating things I’ve discovered is how often the failure results from the people in the organization (usually starting at the leadership level) putting on the equivalent of blinders and ear-plugs, and then running full speed ahead. It’s like the play they’d drawn on the chalkboard became more important than what was actually happening on the playing field. The leader, meanwhile –because of the way his posture as the one who ‘knows the way’ intimidates his subordinates– gets shut off from any corrective reports from the people out in the field. No one tells him how the lay of the land does not correspond to the map. So the corporate organism stumbles blindly.
“It is striking how often, in my sessions, these stories come as a real revelation to the people at the top. They are amazed to find out that people below them in the organization often knew –early on– about problems that even now are news to them. (Sometimes this discovery actually creates some real awkwardness, right there in the workshops—awkwardness which it’s my job to help move through in constructive ways.)
“In the process, it becomes evident that this old model of ‘I know the way’ stunts the full realization of the gifts of both those ‘in power’ and those down below. The underlings, of course, are frustrated at being utilized as little more than cogs in a machine, at having some of their possible contribution to a successful team effort squandered.
“But the leaders are also hurt by this approach, though it generally takes a while for them to grasp the down-side of their being cast to play God. They’re more aware of their grand posture. But deep down, they have this intuitive feeling (even if they don’t acknowledge it, even to themselves) that this posture is dishonest, that like the snake-oil salesman turned Wizard of Oz, they’re really engaged in some kind of imposture. When these guys get in touch with the fear and loneliness that result from this unconscious sense of fraudulence, they become a lot readier to move beyond the ‘I know the way” kind of leadership.
“For that old approach to management to give way to a more humble approach, the people in the grand positions are required to present themselves to the world a more humble posture. Humble in the sense of acknowledging uncertainty. In addition to the humbling involved, there’s also the fear factor: this transformation implies a new relationship with the ‘unfolding’ of the future that’s scarier even if it’s also more open and exciting.
“In something I came across recently,  the social planner, Donald Michaels, spoke about how the nature of planning is changing. Planning used to mean ‘having control over the situation, getting from here to there in the future in a precise, controlled, highly structured way.’ Now, he says, planning has to be seen ‘as a pedagogy,’ a learning process involving ‘revising our movements and directions as we go… It becomes,’ he says, ‘more like whitewater rafting.’ And he connects all this with the idea of a ‘learning society,’ characterized by the openness to knowing that one does not know, and the vulnerability that comes with it.
“So this approach aligns pretty well, I think, with your concept of unfolding. It isn’t the main way the world is organized now, of course, but I do think it’s coming. It’s coming because we need it, or otherwise we’ll stagnate inside our old strait-jacket. And it’s coming because we’re capable of it, and we humans are adaptive creatures.
“Hope this has been helpful. CHARLES”
A Culture Out of Balance
Indeed, Charles’s message was helpful, as I told him gratefully in a brief return message.
In the time between my originally having emailed Charles and his having now replied, I’d hit that bump: my initial idea of “celebrating the unfolding” had foundered on my growing realization that our challenge is more complex than that. I’d put onto the back-burner the question of how, if at all, I might write a book to capture that complexity. And now, with the help of my recent radio interactions and of Charles’ message, I felt I was beginning to get a glimmering of a more apt, more nuanced position on the subject of unfolding.
My initial approach was too simpled-minded. Although just letting things unfold could be wonderful, it could also be part of our problems. And while our efforts to impose controls were sometimes a mistake, in some areas it is vital that we gain greater control.
So, no outright celebration of unfolding is called for. Nor condemnation of control.
But these recent inputs suggested that, nonetheless, perhaps there was a good reason behind my initial impulse to embrace the unfolding side of the picture. Though apparently I had misinterpreted the positive aura in which I’d seen the unfolding, I now felt emerging another possible basis for that celebratory “felt sense” with which I’d begun.
I tried to think systematically about it. OK, I said to myself, let’s take it step my step.
We’re engaged in a dance which might be conceived as involving two elements. one called unfolding, or flow; the other called control. The basic question concerns what posture is taken toward “what’s happening” –or toward what wants to happen– by our conscious ego with its intentions and purposes. No, let’s expand that: not just the designing human ego, but also all of its fruits. So that would include laws, governments, and other regimes of control that we institute.
With the energies flowing unfolding within us or around us, I continued, our posture can be either to let them flow or to try to control their flow.
No, I thought, that formulation is too binary. It is not just flow or control. The question is, what proportion of each? And how we’ll answer that depends on how much we trust that the forces at work will bring us blessings or fear that they will injure us.
So, of what does wisdom consist? Being able to judge how much that reality is to be trusted, and thus how much to get out of the way of its unfolding, and how much that reality is untrustworthy, and thus how much to work to direct it into a course that will serve us better.
And so folly can take either of two forms: too much control or too little.
Looking from this standpoint at my callers’ excessive fear of anarchy and at Charles’s message about the need for a new concept of leadership, I sensed a more balanced and wiser way of interpreting my original impetus to celebrate the “letting unfold.” Instead of seeing one element of the dance as the good and the other as the not-good, I was now thinking, perhaps what really needed to be said was that in our present world we have too little of one and too much of the other.
Our world is out of balance, in other words –too much controlling will and too little willing receptivity– and we’re called upon to set it right. It made sense for me to see a positive aura around “unfolding” because I live in a world that needs more of it, just as a diner with nothing to drink on the table, but plenty of food, will yearn for water, while one with plenty of beverage but nothing to eat will yearn for food.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that what should be celebrated is not just one side of the dynamic but the proper balance between the sides. Not only is it obvious on the face of it, but I already knew it. It was there, for example, in the thinking I did about the traveler whose life was changed by the journey he undertook without an itinerary, as it combined subsequently with the idea about the importance of thorough planning if your journey is like that of Apollo 13. What that clearly implied is that wisdom is a matter of degree and balance, depending on circumstance: to the extent that the trip is in dangerous territory, to that extent is the regime of control wiser than that of unfolding.
Likewise in my discussion with Murray about the conflict he was experiencing between his being called to do comedy, as an expression of his deeper nature, and his feeling compelled to seek economic security, to survive in the reality of the world as it is. Had I not conceded that the decision required a weighing of the competing values, suggesting only that his father’s scales were skewed toward the fear-driven end? Had I not understood that, depending on a given person’s circumstances, the path of answering one’s call might either be reasonable or reckless?
All of which led me to wonder once again about how it is that I could seize upon an idea that did not altogether comport with all that I already knew. And to wonder about what it means to say that I know something, when I nonetheless can proceed as if I didn’t. I consoled myself with the thought that if I can stick with the cutting edge where my image of things comes into contact with the reality, my knowledge will deepen.
The “Culture of Domination” Hypothesis
I decided to try out this new thesis –about the need in our society to lean toward unfolding in order to gain a better balance of the elements– on a handful of my intellectual buddies. The exercise, I figured, would be beneficial in two ways. First, it would be good for me to put my thinking into words, which often aids in the unfolding of my ideas. And second, the responses I would get back would likely give me some helpful notions about where to go from here.
“My present thought,” I wrote toward my message’s end, “is that our society is on an excessive ‘control trip.’
“We see nature as so many resources to be exploited. And that goes not only for the nature around us –the trees we turn into board feet, the rivers that we translate into kilowatts– but also for the nature within ourselves.
“Our industrial psychology started out the century with time and motion studies, to make the workers better –meaning more efficient– machines. And now we seek to engineer motivation, to manipulate the workers into ‘getting with the program.’
“We bend everything to our will until it corresponds with our image of how things should be. Every problem must be overcome with a technical solution, engineered by the rational processes of mastery. Our approach to whatever ails our society is to create a program that will socially engineer a change.
“In all these areas, we seem to show little sense of respect for the underlying nature and tendency of the living stuff.
“So what do you think of this hypothesis: that our society commits the systematic error –with respect to the balance between flow and control– of continually leaning too much toward control?
“And, do you agree that our society would be well-served by a book that would bring home, in a vivid and accessible way, both the fact of this systematic imbalance and the value of more fully embracing that neglected side of the dynamic, i.e, of allowing things to unfold?
The first answer I got was from Barbara, an old friend of mine from when we’d taught together in the 1970s at Prescott College, in Arizona. Since then, she’d gone on to become a Renaissance woman in the field of education– writing books, doing workshops, and, most recently, becoming the head of an innovative K-12 school in the suburbs of Seattle.
“Well, hello, my philosopher friend! Good to hear from you. (I enjoyed that exchange we had a year ago about the concepts of ‘grounding’ and ‘centering,’ and I’ve missed our philosophical forays. Our relationship really is Platonic, isn’t it.)
“I think you’re onto something here, with the idea of imbalance. Sure ’nuff, the world looks pretty askew to me, in precisely the direction you’re talking about. Where I sit –and from where I sit you can see Mt. Ranier (not too shabby, eh?)– the world of mainstream education in America looks pretty clueless about what human beings are really capable of. I remember a line you once wrote me years ago. You worked at some foreign policy think tank in Washington and, feeling frustrated by the menial use that people in power were making of you, you likened the assignments they gave you to ‘using a Nikon to drive in a nail.’ That line has come to my mind more than once when I’ve heard stories about what our schools do with the children of this country.
“The parents who want to switch their kids to my school bear with them stories a-plenty. Not that it’s really anything you and I don’t know from our own experience, but my hearing these stories keeps me stirred up about it. A mind is, indeed, a terrible thing to waste.
“The schools waste these minds, I would suggest, because they do not even conceive their charges to be in possession of anything so grand as a mind. Even an average child, in my opinion, is endowed by her Creatrix with a capacity for thought and imagination of extraordinary richness and complexity. Just get into a conversation with your average truck-driver, or carpenter, or waitress, about something they really care about, and you’ll hear it. Not always well-trained by the standards of our intellectual upbringing, their minds nonetheless create rich and nuanced images of that piece of world they really attend to. (I remember a driver in Chicago, responding to a question I’d asked about the Bulls, extemporaneously delivering an elaborate essay on how Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin, with their different strengths and styles, interact synergistically on the court.)
“Remember that conversation you and I had a half dozen years ago inner-city kids? A lot of these kids come out of high school unable to read beyond a fourth grade level, which many assume to be evidence of their low intellectual ability. But we discussed how some of these kids have ‘street smarts’ of the greatest sophistication. And, oh yes, one of us brought up how some teacher in the Midwest had led a bunch of such kids to a national chess championship. So what the hell does the fact that such intelligent creatures so often come out of so much ‘education’ with so little to show for it say about the schools?
“So, the schools –not seeing the gift of mind that children possess– treat them as boxes to be filled. Dump information in, see if you can get it to stick to the container. The schools know what’s supposed to be in there, so the kids are just the passive recipients of what texts and lectures instill. When students are asked questions, it should always be to get them to regurgitate the ‘right’ answers that the teacher already knows. It’s all mapped out for the students by those who know, who have planned and designed already where the students are supposed to arrive and by what route. By no means ever try to find out what the child has any desire or passion to learn.
“Education was once understood to be something quite different from brute imposition on the receiving mind. That’s shown by its linguistic root: educere, to ‘lead out.’ In his newest book, Parker Palmer writes that “In classical understanding, education is the attempt to ‘lead out’ from within the self a core of wisdom… The inward teacher is the living core of our lives that is addressed and evoked by any education worthy of the name.”  The one educated is helped to find her own inner teacher. In our society, do we even have a concept of such a capacity in our students?
“In his Meno, Plato has Socrates bring forth out of a ‘mere’ slave boy knowledge that he doesn’t know he has. (It has to do with geometry and, more specifically, if I recall, with the problem of finding the square root of 8.) The idea is that the human mind contains, naturally, an abundance of latent knowledge that can be brought forth if that mind is but engaged properly.
“What I’m trying to do in my school, therefore, is to engage the students. Not altogether different from the kind of teaching we used to do at Prescott College, with that ‘self-directed learning.’ Except with these younger students, compared with already-alienated eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, the natural curiosity and motivation from the core are generally less completely strangled by previous schooling.
“Start where the students are –which includes their interests and wants–and great things can be accomplished. Disregard it and the potential of the human mind withers.
“Well, this is my bread and butter these days –or maybe it’s my main course– so I could go on and on, with examples and elaborations. But I expect you get the point.
“Yes, our society has a lot it needs to learn about the value of letting up on the controlling approach and getting into that dimension of the unfolding about which you write. May the Force be with you. BARBARA.”
Well, that was nice, I thought. Good old Barbara– the spirit remains undaunted. I wished that our Nathaniel could be in a school presided over in that educative spirit, that way of leading forth.
The next email came from Mort, a fellow I’d never actually met face-to-face. We’d first come into contact when I wrote him a letter of appreciation –a fan letter, I guess it could be called– upon reading a piece of his in Harper’s magazine. The combination of imaginative imagery and intellectual insight, woven quite deftly together, had quite delighted me, and I felt moved by the article to write to the author just to give him an “Attaboy.” Unlike a lot of people whom I’ve contacted in such a spirit over the years, Mort had the grace to write back. It was only then that I began to share with him that in addition to being a reader who appreciates good stuff, I was also a writer who tries to create it, too. And after a few exchanges we evolved into something of a mutual admiration society. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the great things for a relationship to be.
“I think you’re barking up the right tree, Schmoo,” Mort wrote. “And I wish you a ferocious bite to go with your bark. This land of the free is indeed quite f***ed up with its control trip. In particular, I’ve been contemplating our punitive approach to social control. And by that I mean mostly our penal system, though in view of how many people are getting screwed by it, perhaps it ought to be called our penile system.
“While Aristotle may have spent time contemplating the ‘Bust of Homer,’ what I’ve been contemplating is the bust of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Are you aware that there are ten times as many Americans in prisons today as there were just a few decades ago? And are you aware of how many of these are in the pen for minor drug infractions but, because of mandatory sentences, are doing time big-time? (I’ve written several articles to decry this practice, but nothing’s changed, of course, proving that the pen is mightier than the pen.)
“America seems really to have given up on the idea that inside each human being there is a soul or something that can be touched, saved, redeemed, turned back to the right path. When we were kids, the idea of rehabilitation was important in the field of criminology, but it’s virtually nowhere to be seen nowadays.
“Anyone who comes out of prison in anyway ‘improved’ is either a saint or the beneficiary of a miracle. Not that there aren’t such miracles, but the rule with prisons is that it scars and maims people, brings out their worst potentials. No surprise. Who is going to become better or saner or more compassionate in an environment that institutionalizes abuse and humiliation?
“Punishment is an alternative to understanding. So I see our punitiveness as an index of the depth of our lack of understanding. Who cares why this person committed this crime? Lock him up and throw away the key! Would we have done something similar in response to the same set of environmental influences? Hey, that’s not my problem! Book ‘im and let me head out to my country club! And so no effort is made to enlist the better angels of the perp’s nature and try to lead him out from the unhappy and destructive place he may find himself, and from which he makes the world around him a more unhappy and destructive place, toward a life more like the one he was born wanting to live in the first place.
“And now, with mandatory sentences, even the human beings who administer this system of injustice are not trusted to employ their own understanding of particular human circumstances, but rather are forced to deliver the blows as unseeing parts of an unseeing machine.
“Add to that the war on drugs…. But don’t get me started! Suffice it to say that when the people who pass these laws –to throw somebody who uses a little marijuana into the slammer for ten years– and go home to their wet bar to have a nice cocktail before dinner, we see revealed social power at its judgmental, narrow-minded worst. ‘We’ll make the rules –declaring our way of life respectable, and punish any other ways as the devil’s– and call it “justice.”‘
“So yes, Schmoo, the control trip in America today is alive and unwell. If you can find a way to show that there’s a better way to deal with what people are and what they might be allowed to become…. well, I don’t know what. But I’m for it! MORT.”
I was feeling encouraged by all this when I headed out for another session with my bodyworker, Winston. “A feast fit for the gods,” I joked as I got onto Winston’s massage table, “if the gods like their meat tough and chewy.” Late in the session, when I sighed what had been a joke when I’d first used it years before, about wondering where I might get a new body, Winston replied in all seriousness, “You know that most folks would trade bodies with you? That is, if they were aware of what was happening in the one’s they have.”
It wasn’t the first time that a bodyworker had made some such observation to me, putting my own woes into the broader perspective they gain from the parade of people who come to them and from observing the rest humankind with a trained eye. Like the chiropractor in Bethesda who understood how off kilter I felt but still said that 90% of the folks walking around on the street were in worse shape. It had always been somewhat difficult for me to grasp, since it seemed to me that I had more “complaints,” in both senses of the word, than most people. When I mentioned this to Winston, he said that with a great many people the “pain” in their bodies was never “felt,” never registered in their awareness.
“It happens frequently in this work,” Winston said, “that when people come in to do this work they become aware of pain –in their legs, maybe, or their backs– that they’d never experienced, though it had been there all along, because they were just dead to those parts of their bodies.”
I recalled some such experience myself, when my work with my bioenergetic analyst twenty years before had made me aware of those downward-pointing appendages I walk around on (a.k.a. “legs”): they’d come to life, to awareness, and from then on I’d had to pay attention to them and take care of them.
“If there’s pain but no one feels it –like a tree falling in an empty forest– is there pain?” I asked Winston. “I mean, what’s the good of feeling pain or the harm of not feeling it?”
“What’s the good of being alive?” Winston asked as a way of answering. “Or the harm of being dead?”
I was silent a moment, thinking that maybe he’d ducked a serious question. But instead of pursuing that, I decided to ask, “So what brings those people in to see you in the first place,” I asked, “if they aren’t feeling the pain?”
“Oh, it can be some kind of injury or crisis that gets them here. Then maybe they sense what the work offers them and start trying to recover parts of themselves that, previously, they’d not even known they’d lost. But the reality is that most people never do any work of this kind, and that includes most emphatically most of the people who need it most.”
“So, tell me, oh great healer and sage,” I began, “what happens to that silently suffering majority? If they need it most, and get it least, what’s the outcome? Do they die of terminal off-kilterness?”
“Hahr hugh mehkin phunne of mhee?” Winston asked nasally, drawing upon a line from a favorite Narragansett Beer commercial that Mike Nichols and Elaine May did * and that was a favorite part of the lore we shared from both having lived in Massachusetts in the early 1960s. “Dangerous to mock me while I’m still tenderizing your meat for the feast to come,” he teased, as his hands found some untenderized point with which to punctuate his playful indignation.
“Seriously folks,” he continued in his normal voice, “these problems you and I work on wouldn’t exactly kill you –except softly, as Roberta Flack would put it. But in America –where the idea of ‘health’ means just the absence of sickness, and where ‘treatment’ of sickness is basically a form of engineering– they’ll frequently end up either administering chemicals to themselves –to put the distressed body back to sleep– or going under the knife. Drugs and surgery– the Holy Binity of Modern Medicine,” Winston declared.
“Can’t sleep?” Winston went on, “here’s a pill. Muscles in spasm? try this one. Too many years twisting yourself into a pretzel and now something’s given way? Here, we’ll cut you open and cement your vertebrae together.”
After the session, we talked a bit more about the difference between those approaches to healing that emphasize enlisting the body’s own natural tendency to heal itself and those that come in from the outside and, without aligning with the body’s own tendencies, work to engineer change . Winston certainly conceded that the medical engineering approach had valuable contributions to make, but he was also firmly convinced that our society overemphasizes the engineering and significantly neglects the more holistic and natural approaches that he, for one, had devoted his life to learning.
The conversation then shifted to the subject of childbirth, regarded from a historical perspective. “Here’s something,” Winston said, “that’s the most basic of natural events. It has been performed by female bodies for millions of years. And then what? When you and I were born, the doctors did everything they could to turn this natural process into a medical emergency. They pushed the woman out of the picture as much as they could –I don’t know about yours, but my mother was completely knocked out by general anesthesia– and just took over the whole process. There are lots of reasons to believe that wasn’t so good for the mothers, or for the babies, or for getting that vital relationship off to the right start. But hey! We’re the guys who know how to run everything, so get out of our way! Fortunately,” Winston concluded, “since then medicine has lightened up some on its control trip. But medicine’s general pattern, of intervention through domination, persists.”
All of which, as I thought on my drive home, reinforces my thesis that our society is peculiarly out of balance along the unfolding-vs.-control axis. I felt light and upbeat, partly because of the way things seemed to be falling into place again on the project. But that good feeling, I also realized, was also quite likely a direct result of the work Winston and I had just done on the old body: it was just more of a pleasure to walk around in tenderized meat than in that tough and stringy stuff I’d come in with.
Which led me to think of a question that I’d have liked to have asked Winston. Is everyone’s body problem, like mine, a matter of too much tightness? Or are there also problems of too much looseness, of not hanging together? Or, if those ends of a tight-to-loose spectrum aren’t the way to conceive of the difficulties with the way people are wearing their energies, just how would it be useful to conceive them? And how, if at all, would that conception fit into the question of whether –at the bodily level– we can see a problem of too much control and not enough unfolding?
I wasn’t sure whether Winston would be able to answer those questions, but I felt some pleasure in conceptualizing them.
I’m very fond of having my world appear all neat and tidy. I don’t mean tidy in the housekeeping sense, though I guess I like my counters cleared off. Nor am I referring primarily to a disposition for dividing the actors in our dramas into the guys with the white hats and those with the black ones, though I guess I find moral unambiguity a tasty treat once in a while. What I mostly mean is that I like my ideas about the world to map it clearly and cleanly.
At this point I felt on the verge of having a reasonably neat and tidy little thesis I could run with. “Our society is on this excessive control trip and, like yacht-sailors [leaning out over the waves to tack against the wind], we’re called upon to lean toward the allowing/unfolding/flowing end of things to correct our course.” But upon my return from Winston’s, I found awaiting me an email message that smudged up my map again.
“That may be how things look from the precincts of the counter-culture,” it began, “but it looks rather different from up here in the bastions of the establishment.” It was Frank Hartley, my investment banker friend who had written earlier about how the market economy was another institution that manifested the benign workings of unfolding.
“From my vantage point,” Frank continued, “there’s every bit as much reason to see the problems of American society in terms of things being too much out of control. I’m thinking about the state of our moral culture.
“It used to be that a man had to be honest to have any kind of respectable status. In terms of the issue of ‘control,’ there were standards hanging above us in the form of a moral system, and people had to conform their conduct according to the dictates of those standards.
“I’m not saying, of course, that everybody was honest in the good old days. But maybe you remember the national shock when it turned out that President Eisenhower had lied when he said that we didn’t have U-2 planes overflying the Soviet Union. People were shaken that their leader had lied to them. Can you imagine a reaction like that today? Of course not. We pretty much expect our leaders to lie to us. All this talk about ‘spin’: it’s become really just another word for saying whatever you think will help you, whether it’s true or not.
“We’ve come a long way downhill from being led by men the likes of George Washington (though I’ll concede that even in his own time, with his steadfast integrity, he stood out).
“I’ll be merciful and spare you a disquisition on the particular moral depravities of our current president, and on how the Clinton presidency reflects on the state of American moral culture generally. You have something of a soft spot for that scoundrel, I know, and other arenas of our moral decay abound that I can use to make my case.
“Maybe you’re still so enamored of the sixties fantasies of free love that you’d be unpersuaded by my arguments about the general loosening of a code of sexual morality. Maybe you have no objections to the pornographication of our media, or to the way the connection between sex and marriage has been rendered a quaint and old-fashioned notion. But I expect that you are aware of, and not indifferent to, some of the truly catastrophic consequences of this loosening, such as the extraordinary rise, since we were kids, in the proportion of children born out of wedlock. And surely it is obvious by now to everybody that these children –and our society– are seriously injured by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing.
“Need I elaborate further? Is it necessary to bring in the fact that about two-thirds of high school seniors admit to cheating on tests? Is it necessary to point to the breakdown of various aspects of decorum as manifested in TV shows like The Jerry Springer Show or in road rage or in simple daily rudeness?
“This is where we’ve been brought by the ethic of ‘let it all hang out’ and unbridled ‘free choice’ as principles (or lack of principles) to govern (or to leave ungoverned) human conduct.
“Nuff said, I think. The point is that American society is already very far along in conducting the very experiment you seem to be proposing. ‘What would happen,’ you social experimenters have asked in recent decades, ‘if we threw overboard the system of social controls that we have inherited from our cultural tradition? Let’s call those controls “oppressive” and ditch them so we can liberate our natural energies to unfolding however they wish. Let’s postulate that our human nature is so fine –just as it is, unfolded out of nature– that we have no need for a moral system in place to keep us in line. Out with shame and guilt and punishment! Let’s see what liberation brings!’
“Well, we’ve conducted that experiment, and it’s been a disaster. So, from my point of view, the image of America –or modern liberal societies generally– as being the Dominator Society on a control trip is just plain off the mark. If you’re looking for the right balance, I’d say: let’s restore some of the old controls!
“Would you really say otherwise? FRANK.”
The answer to Frank’s parting question was that, while I could quibble with what seemed to me overstatements in his case, I saw a lot of truth in his argument. Indeed, I thought that, overall, on the most important point he was right: that in some crucial areas, we did indeed seem to be suffering from things being out of control.
If that was the case, I wondered as I absorbed Frank’s challenging message, what was left of my lovely, currently-reigning hypothesis?
And then once again I saw how, in my apparent eagerness to get a neat and tidy map, I’d apparently stopped paying attention to part of what I already knew. Hadn’t I myself propounded earlier the notion that our society was the embodiment of a profound movement of cultural evolution toward an enthronement of unfolding? (I’d thought of it in terms of the trinity of institutionalized liberty– democracy with its bill of rights, science with its unfettered inquiry, and the market economy with its free enterprise. And had I not, in adducing the environmental crisis as a prime illustration, recognized the dimension of excessive liberty and inadequate control? But I’d been quite ready to jump to the conclusion that this was an atypical aspect of our problems, with too much control being obviously the greater issue.
Now Frank’s adding the problem of moral pollution to that of industrial pollution made the picture a good deal more ambiguous in my eyes.
Part of the impact of Frank’s argument, it occurred to me, came from its attacking so directly a keystone in the arch of unfoldment: faith in the trustworthiness of human nature. Had it not been core through much of this exploration that there was something fine and beautiful that could flow out from us, if only we would let it? And now Frank was pointing to that experiment of liberation, of unleashing our impulses by tearing down the regime of moral controls, with their rules and sanctions, their authorities and inequalities of power. If the results of that experiment were not wonderful, did that not undercut something quite fundamental in the whole notion of the value of unfolding?
The other part of the impact of Frank’s argument on my thesis –about excessive control and the need for rebalancing– was that it brought home to me how complex a matter it is to try to judge some Overall Balance of our whole, many-dimensional society, weighing the areas where the controls seemed excessive against those where they seemed inadequate.
When I looked at Frank’s message together with those from Barbara and Mort (as well as the conversation with Winston), I felt like the rabbi’s disciple in the famous joke, where the rabbi, upon hearing the wife’s side of a marital quarrel, tells the woman she’s right and then, upon hearing the husband’s story tells him that he, too, is right, whereupon the disciple cries out, “How can they both be right, they contradict each other?” To which the rabbi replies, “You’re right, too.”
Yes, we have too much control. Yes, we suffer from things being out of control. They’re both right. Just how are these contradictory observations to be reconciled? I wondered.
Well, maybe our civilization is one that’s over-controlling when it comes to our insistence on the mastery of engineering everything we touch, and under-controlling when it comes to the liberty to pursue our individual interests and pleasures. I wasn’t sure where to go with that.
Then I returned to the question of where I was with my project if I decided I had to relinquish my too-much-control thesis. If it’s beyond my powers to judge which is the larger phenomenon –the “too much control” or the “out of control”– where do I go from here?
This led to a still more fundamental, still more disturbing question. Is the whole dichotomy between the allowing and the controlling a sterile or meaningless one? Was the whole endeavor misconceived from the outset? That I could even ask such a question so far along in the process reflected something that had been there all along: that at the core of the idea of this question of unfolding and control was something that felt too big and too deep for me to wrap my mind around. (Why couldn’t I be sensible, I wondered, and tackle issues easier to grasp and define– questions like a history of the relationship between the Tutsis and the Hutus in Central Africa, or the life of Lord Acton, or the image of the wolf in Shakespeare’s plays?)
I felt unsettled, but able to turn away from that slough of despond. That turning was, as much as anything else, an act of faith. Faith that my feeling drawn to the question was in itself powerful evidence that something important must be there. But what is it? If wisdom lies not in being the partisan of one side of the spectrum against the other, then where is it? To seek an answer I thought I’d practice a piece of what I had been preaching: sit there with the two elements of the reality that appeared to contradict each other, and let reality speak to me until I heard some way of answering the disciple’s question, “How can they both be right?”
It was not just the objective and logical reality I wanted to listen to, but also one within my own heart. Throughout this whole process, the allegiance of my heart had been with the side of the unfolding, and I believed that there was something about my heart’s leanings that could be trusted. Which led me to ask: If I postulate that there is some natural wisdom behind my heart’s allegiance, and if that wisdom is not to be found in either of my first two hypotheses –that unfolding is simply to be celebrated, or that my world is generally unbalanced in the direction of too much control– what is it that wisdom is seeking to express?
It turned out to be along that path that I made the next good step toward a greater understanding.
 Discussed in Debating the Good Society, Chapter .
 From an interview of Donald Michaels, social planner, by Jeffrey Mishlove, found on Mishlove’s website on Intuition, at …..
 Palmer, Parker, The Courage to Teach, p. 31.
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