July 2007

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We’re getting older and older – as a population and each one of us – each day, every day. Our health seems to be pretty good; or not so bad. There is some sense of…well, aging: slower, occasional or frequent pains, not so sharp as we used to be, sometimes Senior Moments, slightly out of balance. Not too bad, most days! We’re “hangin’ in.”

We live longer in a time when we concentrate on how to age well – perhaps, as some people think, to sage more than age. But much of this, so far, is mostly about coming to terms with our dilemmas, adjust as much as we can to the idea of death. Look for answers to life’s dilemmas, mostly outside of ourselves. Good ideas, certainly. But…

But…something seems missing from this description of older people. What’s not much thought about – or practiced – is the idea that we might actually “grow” or “develop” as we age, with some sense of directions our growth might take.

Wisdom Path photo by Vlazygirl

Also missing from this accounting of aging, is the pursuit of who we truly are and can be: paths of growth, toward deepening our “characters,” a quest: toward something like personal “wisdom.”

The very idea of wisdom seems to be virtually absent in our thinking. Other places or traditions in the world seem to think that the older one is, the more knowledge one has: the experiences of each new day, the sense of telling what or how we know, being teacher to others and to the world.

Aging, within “wisdom traditions,” seem to see the aged as gifted and expansive. Each day, every day, one knows more and grows. Noting the world, healing what ails it and us, communing with the spirits of nature and one’s nature: that’s the way of the world. Older age – a great gift, perhaps a blessing. Mostly beyond the urges and rages of youth, we can find places in our being to study and practice anew.

Sages, shamans, pastors, imams, rabbis, priests: many cultures place in us the sense that being and knowledge are in tune, and in tune with the greater world. Character is destiny! – said Heraclitus, the great “puzzler” who thought that all was change. Character is the idea of the longest life: who we would most love to be in this ultimate summation of being: “Have I lived a good life?”

But not much is the idea of destiny here, as we find ourselves getting older. We seek to live long, but to “retire” as early as possible. What, then? Live easy, live well, ease into a life of…ease. Travel, play golf, watch TV, talk, gamble, use medications to ease all that ails us…or might. Get used to it, and do as well as we can; a slow deterioration overtakes and overwhelms.

This leaves very little thought or discussion about how to grow ourselves, to pursue, to fill-out our greatest possibilities: whatever that might mean for each of us. Looking mostly outward, we seem to neglect or dismiss the person we truly mean ourselves to be…Have I lived a pretty good life, a meaningful pursuit, expanding ideas and knowledge?

Walking Together, a hiking photo by BlueOakPhotos

How, then to grow ourselves? Think, reflect, meditate. Pursue our “Next Places“, to examine ourselves, to rethink all the aspects of our selves: the seven, thirteen, twenty year old; the selves others told us to be (or not to be); to reexamine how and who we “make-up,” toward becoming who we would be, and move toward our next and growing senses of self…today, tomorrow, most days.

Work with our bodies: stretch, move – practice Yoga, Alexander technique, Tai chi or other explorations of the aging body. Enter more deeply into the music of our lives, the ways we view the world – our experiences become forms of art. Loving oneself more seems to lead us into loving…others, life, the very ideas about being who we are and will to be each next day.

Tai Chi in Bejing photo by Nagyman

Who are we: at this moment in our lives? Who were we told we were, who did we make others and ourselves to be? Where do we find or develop paths for becoming that person we might be: next, next, with a growing sense of…who I mean to be. Time to pursue our characters, with a growing sense that aging is more gift than burden.

I sent this into the NYT in response to a piece in last Sunday’s World in Review section.

Our obsession with what’s next, Next, Next (Adam Bryant’s “iSee Into The Future, Therefore iAm” – July 1, ’07) provides insight, critique, and wonderment about how we are and seem to live. “New is an observable fact, to deem something ‘next’ suggests special insight.”

The reference is to our current obsession with the iPhone and every next gadget and next idea, and next Next. The notion of ‘new’ has given way to ‘next in the new movie, “Next” (Nicholas Cage), in Newsweek’s annual “Who’s Next” for who’s hot, and Time magazine’s, “What’s Next,” – extended to New York magazine’s “The Next Next Things. We seem to be neglecting or forgetting the present, as we obsess about the future – but always in some pretty immediate senses.

1964 World's Fair, Peace Through Understanding, photo by Daniel Latorre

This is not all bad, interesting to be looking out and ahead, more than dwelling on every today. Questions of where we are, how we got here, with some vague sense of a longer future, filled-in day by day by looking for what’s next…create a mind-full of nextness.

But we don’t seem to be spending much time in dwelling on ourselves and who we might want to be – next. Maybe this is about the intensity of these times – politics, money and celebrity, a sense that money floats about our heads, a bit like the constantly thickening atmosphere of global warming. Maybe it’s about the impending sense of retirement and living long, long without too much sense of what to do, or how to be.

For ourselves, I suggest it’s about time to think about our own “Next Places” – my book of meditations on “seeing yourself, and seeking your future.” In a time like this, it’s vital to rethink ourselves, to ask who we are, and hope to be – next. In this sense, next is possibly as filling as the idea of the iPhone, and perhaps fulfilling in the contexts of our longest lives. To life!

The State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.

Why are we doing so poorly in understanding those who oppose us: terrorists, enemies?

Are we studying toward understanding their worlds, or engaged principally in inferring from our thinking to how their’s must be?

The Original Ugly American, photo by cote

Several recent journalistic books agree that our ways of studying the Mideast have fallen way short of the actual situation, mind-sets, and thinking of our declared enemies. (E.g., Dennis Ross: “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”)

Studying the 9/11 terrorists, they’re not poor, uneducated, merely “evil” people. They came from middle to upper-middle-class persons in England, Brussels and Germany: had a deep sense of the loss of meaning, sought for direction and help, and dedicated themselves to their mission. They were thoughtful, rather than merely stupid and angry – sought and apparently found mission and meaning in their horrendous (certainly to us) activities.

We have misread the people and factions in Iraq, and seem bent on continuing our ways, irrespective of whatever is happening, and the costs to our soldiers, to the people of Iraq (and elsewhere), but muddle on, apparently content that we “know what we are doing”.

The journalists agree that we have done a poor job of examining our opponents, and I want to report on some fairly personal history of my teachers who had been members of linguistic units during WWII and then part of the newly created Foreign Service Institute right after the war. They were anthropologists and linguists who examined first hand the cultures, languages, thinking.

I was one of their first two students at SUNYBuffalo, where several of these persons were hired as their place in the State Department was terminated. And the then Dean of Arts and Sciences at Buffalo (who my spouse worked for as his child’s care-giver) hired them to begin the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics where I earned my M.A. — Henry Lee Smith, Jr., and George Trager (link to PDF noting his influence on E.T. Hall) were their names. Others went to other universities: Northwest and Pittsburgh – where they lived productive lives as scholars and teachers.

As far as I can tell – I know this through the 1990’s, for sure, and it seems very obvious to this day – that the State Dep’t doesn’t much study others in the world – to explore how they live, talk, think: my training. How did this happen, may reveal a good deal about how our foreign service operatives know and think.

My teachers were canned as John Foster Dulles came into be Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had a particular view of America, and how we are with respect to the rest of the world: America is the “City upon a Hill.” We are the best country, the example and exemplar for all others: the best, the highest. Never mind how other countries are or think: they are long ago. It was, apparently, Dulles’ way of dealing with the Cold War: to oppose rather than to seek new or other ways of talking to our “opponents.”

And my teachers’ heirs have never gotten back into the State Dept – we do not train or use linguists – almost no one speaks the languages of the mid-east, or studies their cultures, educational modes, religions – they are not students of the world who actually go there, live, study, learn. The State Dept, and our foreign policy persons, are not skilled in the world-views of others, but more stamped by how our more military/religious thinkers tend to label them: e.g., we are good, and they must be evil – if they oppose us. If poor, just become active American-type capitalists, and all will work out, good, right.

So sadly, our understanding of the cultures and languages of the rest of the world is not much part of how we deal with that world. Isn’t it finally time to rethink how our diplomatic world is – just that – diplomatic, rather than from the “best country in the world” whose job it is, apparently, to impose “democracy” on all others.

(Just a few months ago, an Australian anthropologist was actually hired to work in Afghanistan, advising our guys at least in that context. Let us hope!)

Bureaucracy can be very strange…!