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Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Jul 23, 2009 6:48 AM PDT


 This essay is dedicated to Robert Putnam, distinguished sociologist and author of Bowling Alone

Growing up in Portland in the early 60s, I remember careless summer nights playing kick-the-can with all the kids in the neighborhood for half the night on Saturdays, while my parents held pinochle parties with dozens of their friends from all over the Portland area. They would have a few beers and laugh about the foolish bids they made, or the foolish choices they had made as kids together. They didn’t worry about us kids. It was a different day. We and our parents were living in two different worlds at times, but I always knew that I would come home to a loving family.

My family went to church together and I was happy to belong, at least until I was ten years old. I had attended services for as long as I can remember and had listened attentively, marveling at the life of Jesus and all that he accomplished in the short span of his ministry. Eager to understand his teachings in more depth, I remember looking forward to religion training classes when my dad asked me to try them. I was disappointed to learn that in this church, you were not expected to study what people’s recollections of Jesus might have meant in light of the purported statements of the rabbi himself. Instead, religious training in this church consisted of memorizing the questionable interpretations of others. So after a few classes, I began to read the Classics Illustrated comic collection in the classroom we used, instead of listening to the teacher. After all, I was and always have been an ardent believer in democracy, and it seemed to me that any church I would belong to would not have a creed, but would be devoted to helping the flock understand his words for themselves. So when I finished the last comic, I waited for class to be dismissed, and walked out on that church forever.

Looking back, it is hard to remember what it felt like to be so free. Few kids today are brought up to go hang out God knows where with just anyone until bedtime. Parents must maintain an illusion of controlling the risk of their children coming to harm by monitoring and restricting their movements, in an attempt to control their exposure to ideas and images that they believe could have harmful influence on them and how they think. Controlling their thoughts is important to these parents because they think that it is their job to turn out adults who believe exactly what they do. The problem is that often those beliefs are often simply reflections of their own pain and fear. This creates children who grow up feeling disconnected from their community, fearful of interactions with their neighbors, and lacking the social consciousness that is the tie that binds each of us to another.

It is sad to think of how many of our children and their parents have grown up feeling isolated from everyone but their family (if they have one) and a church (if they have one), both of which often insist that everyone ought to think alike on the most important issues of life. Sadder still is the loss of tolerance and sense of belonging to a larger community to which each citizen owes his utter allegiance. This has so weakened our democracy that it was until now on the verge of dying out altogether. The bankruptcy of the social capital of America has led to the loss of our ideals regarding equality, a shared sense of American identity of purpose and the concept that government exists to serve the interests of the citizenry as a whole.

In a culture of individuals who too often accept without question Ayn Rand’s assumption that greed is good, antisocial behavior becomes not only tolerated but encouraged by many citizens. These are the voters who make me want to tear out my last two hairs when others say of them that they have to vote because it is their civic responsibility, These individuals have become so angry that they cannot tolerate listening to opposing viewpoints from those not in their immediate circle of handpicked friends and family members inculcated with the same beliefs. Confused by the propaganda spewed by the corporate media and morally bankrupt politicians who see maintaining their positions as the most important function that they serve, they are easily led to support candidates and politicians who do not serve their interests or those of the American people. This is why democracy is on life support and the reason that it will take the efforts of all of us to become the "doctors" who save democracy and the world.

To understand how this problem arose, I have come to think of America as a patient with bipolar disorder. When young, such individuals typically seem quite normal. It is only at a certain developmental stage that the average person with bipolar disorder reaches peak susceptibility to a manic break. When life becomes more complicated as such an individual approaches adulthood, the additional stress is what is thought to typically trigger the first episode. By analogy, when America was young, healthy and terribly optimistic, the illusion of safety prevented this form of madness from threatening the psychological health of society’s collective consciousness. As the world has grown more complex, the illusion of safety was shattered and we have become frantic with fear and its corollary, anger. Instead of easing our fear and calming our anger, too many of our politicians ruthlessly exploit these powerful emotions to crate the politics of division by unfairly maligning their opponents and using emotionally laden language that conceals their true feelings and intentions.

A manic episode arises when the excitement of the brain overwhelms the ability of the frontal lobe to control the rate of information processing and sort out the data coming in from our senses, organizing memories and thoughts according to their emotional valence. This system has a counterpart in the reptilian brain, which lacks a cortex and therefore the ability to reason. In this primitive system, common to snakes and reptiles, the memories stored in this way are painful ones. These are created by traumas that are perceived as presenting a threat to the integrity of the organism. In the amygdala, memories are stored which are many times more resistant to extinction than memories tenuously stored in our rational brain, as shown by brilliantly designed electrophysiological studies. The consequence of this is that we react much more strongly and on an unconscious level to situations which remind us of these traumas, such as the 9/11 attacks. These reactions are thus over generalized by the unthinking part of the mind.

The ironic thing is, it is these overreactions to often ordinary and even expected “threats” which leads to the corollary of mania, bipolar depression. When the manic individual or society has had enough suffering from the consequences of its own irrational behavior, it usually sinks into a deep Depression, which serves the survival function of controlling mania but which only adds to the suffering of the affected individuals. Only through the rational mind can this vicious cycle be broken. Once we understand this, we can truly teach our children well.

In the immortal words of Graham Nash:

You who are on the road,
must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well,
their father's hell did slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams,
the one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why.
If they told you, you would cry.
So just look at them and sigh… and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
can't know the fears that your elders grew by.
And so, please help them with your youth,
they seek the truth before they can die.

Can you hear and do you care and
can't you see we must be free to
teach your children what you believe in:
Make a world that we can live in.

Teach your parents well,
their children's hell will slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams,
the one they picked, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why.
If they told you, you would cry.
So just look at them and sigh… and know they love you.

Rick Staggenborg, MD

Coos Bay, Oregon

1 comment:

  1. This was a very enjoyable essay to write in that it allowed me to meld concepts from Psycholgy, Sociology and Political Science to give some perspective on the way in which society has broken down since the Vietnam war, as detalied in Putnam's brilliant study of the breakdown of social capital in Bowling Alone.

    I disagree with Dr Putnam that the war itself was not a major cause of the breakdown in civility and social cohesiveness. Just because he could not prove the case statistical does not mean that it was not more important than the rise of TV and later, the Internet.

    Vietnam provided the impetus that started the United States on it's rapid decline downhill. Parents and children, conservatives and liberals were suddenly at war with each other. The war was brought into our living rooms and the emotions aroused by the images of war sparked strong emotional reactions in all who watched the evening news. Neighbors and even spouses stopped talking to each other when they could not tolerate the anger of those with divergent opinions.

    Vietnam led to the splitting of the generations, as young people threatened with pointless death in the jungle grew more and more angry while many adults clung to the illusion that we were fighting for freedom and democracy rather than naked power and Empire for the few who profited from the 58,000 deaths that eventually resulted from our forgetting that any nation will defend itself when invaded.

    The United States fought back when Britain tried to enforce corporate privlege by sending warships to avenge the loss of property by the East India Company and its wealthy stockholders in the Boston Tea Party. The men and women we now call patriots were the insurgents and rebels of their day. How ironic that right-wingers told us to "love it or leave it" when we tried to point out that dissent is an act of patriotism.

    In the political realm, Nixon started using the politics of division in his ultimately pointless effort to subvert the Constitution in his ruthless effort to extend his power and that of the corporatocracy who had given it to him. We are reaping the whirlwind of our allowing angry, veangeful and ultimately selfish men to lead the world's greatest superpower since the Roman Republic.

    Now, we find ourselves battered and demoralized by the apparently successful coup of the corporations who dictate legislation to our Senate and policy to our Presidents. It is up to us to forget the slights of the past and to quit regarding politics as a zero-sum game played by teams of professional politicians who are now playing for the same owner, the international corporate terrorists who start wars for their own perceived short-sighted interests.

    We are all in this together. We can rebuild the infrastructure of American society only when we work together for the greater good of all. Ayn Rand was dead wrong. If we are truly selfish creatures driven by Id, we are also creatures capable of reasoning and deciding that our individual survival depends on taking care of the least among us, lest we lose our souls and destroy the planet in the aftermath.


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