The Good Life: Part 1: Power
The Good Life : Part 1: Power
Ever since I stopped believing in God it took me a minute to find my positive outlook again.
I had been using the whole idea of God as justfification for betting on a better future, when I stopped I felt lost and depressed. I still felt that truth was important enough that I should endure my pain rather than flee back into a lie.
I stopped believing in God by reading "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, which is truly a wonderful book, and really a great treatiese on scientfiic thinking. But it does nothing for someone who has truly placed their hope in God.
When I read "The God Delusion" I had been a liberal Christian for years.
I did not believe in Hell, I belonged to a Church which cared more about community service than it did about the angels, and it was a really fulfilling life. In fact it is because of churches like the one to which I belonged that I know I can make common cause with so many Christians.
What did Richard offer me as an alternative, well he offered awe at nature.
I was already a Junior neuroscience major at the time that I read "The God Deluison" and I had seen neurons stained for their metabolism, I had followed a thought along its circuits. I had taught herds of pigs tricks, and I had seen the secrets of a persons feelings ratted out by the muscles on their faces with electrical signals that cannot be measured without electrodes. Yet, Richard's offer of awe at nature as a replacement for what I once got from religion was not cutting it.
I guess it does the trick for some, but awe at nature is something else for me.
I need purpose in my life.
Nature offers no purpose that I can embrace. The chemicals collide, electron densities decide which ones stick and which ones repel, and from this comes all matter. Our instincts are all built to the purpose of making as many babies as possible, as our DNA has developed to steer billions of other molecules towards nothing but reproduction.
If anyone tells me that awe at nature is the purpose of life, for one I have to wonder why they don't have dozens of children, because thats what evolution demands of any who can do it.
The cosmos speed with us at some insignificant corner, with the end of all memory as we know it an inevitable fact of the process.
I love nature, it is most amazing. It does nothing for my feelings about my life.
I need purpose.
I have always found one reliable source for purpose. As I have always needed purpose and was not raised religious.
When I was lost, and I had lost my God, I went into my own mind to seek a wellspring of purpose which was once there for me as a child, that wellspring ispower.
Power gets a bad reputation in society. The first thing that comes to mind is the intro in the "Lord of the Rings" film in which the narrator says,
"And one ring was given to the Kings of men, who above all, desire power."
Oh no! The Kings of Men desire power. How terrible!
Lets all be good humble trembling Christians, and yearn for impotence instead!
My thrist for power began at an early age.
My mother and father divorced when I was around 3 or 4 in Chile. The year would have been 1982, the country was in the grip of a military dictatorship, and my father's family was in danger due to their leftist leanings. In fact he had already been sequestered at gun point along with my grandfather as communists.
The threat of the police state was everywhere. I remember one day that my grandmother, who was a right-winger to her core, and I were shopping. She had to pick me up and run into a department store to escape the blast of a water cannon.
Again I reitorate, my grandmother was sympathetic to the goverment, and was not a protester. It did not matter. She was in the street when the government felt that it needed a display of its power.
Thats right! A water cannon, the same kind that were used against protesters in the United States during the civil rights movement.
My mother moved with my brother and I to Argentina shortly after her divorce. My brother is paraplegic and blind. My mother had remarried a cruel man.
Thats a crash course in power for you, try to see someone live with that kind of disability and yearn for impotence. I will revisit the concept of power with the disabled again shortly.
My step-father would beat my brother regularly, and as a child during these episodes I tasted power for the very first time. My step father would heat his fork with a lighter and burn my brother because he felt he was eating too slowly. I stood up to my step-father, and was punished myself. But it was too late, I had become as the kings of men "who above all, desire power."
I broke the school bully's nose that same year in school.
My father came to get my brother and I to take costudy shortly after that. In the US I learned a whole new kind of powerlessness first by not speaking the language, and later by beeing sexually molested by a neighbor.
It was at this young age that I decided that most important thing in my life had to be the acquisition of power.
My favorite philosopher, Paul Kurtz wrote, "The first humanist virtue is the development of one's own sense of power-of the belief that we can do something, that we can succeed, that our own preperations and efforts will pay off."
In the years that followed my molestation I embraced countless phases, most of them in Lubbock, Texas, where to this day I have a reputation for being someone who is caught up in every flight of fancy.
These phases included trying to be a wizard with magickal powers, which lasted from ages 12 to about 15. It was during this time my friend Nick Simmons and I were called into the office at Mackenzie Jr. High for trying to try a cult in school.
You should have seen my father's face.
At age 15 I wanted to be the gothic dark prince of Lubbock, Texas and essentially try to become Marilyn Manson. I began to fight my bullies, and win. At one point after a fight the wrestling coach, took me aside after reprimanding me and asked me to join the wrestling team. I wish I had accepted the invitation, it would have taught me much needed discipline.
At age 17 I had to go further. I antagonized my parents until they kicked me out of the house. This was no small feat, and required me becomming violent with them to do so. But I wanted to be the punk rock ideal, a year later I was the leader of my own skinhead gang, which you had to beat-in to join, just like the bloods and crips. I could tell stories about the Dirt City Skinheads (DCS) all day long.
A little over a year later I found Jesus.
Jesus became another source of power to me. Anyone who has any doubts need only look at my art from that period. I was drawing depicitions of Christ in the explosions of atom bombs. I even called Jesus the Panzer Christ, invoking the image of Nazi war machines as analogs of my God.
I was not a typical Christian. Which should not come as a surprise, I have never been a typical anything.
Yet, I went to a Church in the black neighborhood of Lubbock where I would speak in tounges and see people healed by the laying on of hands. It was the promise of such direct supernatural power which kept me in the Charismatic (pentecostal) movement for so long. It did not take long for me to lose exponentially more of my belief in God when I left this world where Christians are promised "spiritual gifts" of supernatural power. These Christians were here for the power of God at their disposal, and so was I.
Paul Kurtz continues in the same paragraph I quoted above, "The courage to excel- the courage to become what we want, to realize what we will-is essential. It is in the process of atainment which we thrive: Sisyphus is not to be condemned: there are always new mountains to climb, new stones to heave, and they are never the same."
I did not just go to church for my sense of power, I also started doing as much as I could in the community.
My friend Mark Key and I started a missionary outreach to the punk subcluture where we were both big fish in the small pond of Lubbock, TX. We started a weekly bible study, which as far as I know still exists to this day under the leadership of our friend Nat Long, who also pastors at a retirement home. Some of the punk rock kids are still around, including one skinhead who is now a police officer in Lubbock.
I started a runaway shelter out of my own apartment, we called it "The House of Calvary." We took in kids who were in the worst kind of problems, who sending them home to their parents would in some cases have been sending them home to a nightmare of sexual abuse.
One of my best treated kids, actually had his parents regularly stealing from him. I had no resources and no money, but once you begin a project like this, if you have an ounce of human compassion you cannot easily stop. I had several church organizations promising me support soon if I would just keep this project going. I kept it going for over a year.
All of the kids would eventually leave because they would tire of my rules.
I remember once seeing a thirty year old man with one 16 year old girl at my place, and screaming in his face. The thirty year old was a gangster and a drug dealer, and I risked quite a bit to disrespect him like that. My only regret is that I didn't put the son of a bitch in the hospital.
Paul Kurtz continues, " However in order to have a sense of our own self-power, it is necessary to be able to live in an ambiguous world of indeterminacy and contingency. Nature is not fixed, nor is our destiny preplanned. We can build new monuments and discover new theorems; there are new worlds to be conquered and created. We must not let ourselves be mastered by events, but we must master them- as far as we can- without fear or recrimination."
When "The House of Calvary" finally died I acquired a job as an orderly at the Lubbock State School, which is an institution dedicated to the care and keeping of the mentally retarded. I got the job by telling the head of the H.R. department that God had told me to get the job, this is no joke, also no laughing matter.
It was at the State School that I developed my love for science. Slowly, and due to many harsh conflicts with reality.
I worked in Birch, which is a dorm known for high-functioning adolescent males. To make that a little easier to understand, it was teenagers who were only slightly less intelligent than normal teens.
I cared for sexual predators, which was a crash course in the ambiguities of nature for me, as a victim of a sexual predator. These guys who had the normal hormones of an adult male, but their underdeveloped brains did not give them the power to restrain themselves.
There it is again, evil, corrupting power. Which should not be yearned for.
If one thinks powerlessness is virtuous, one simply needs to spend some time among the mentally retarded.
One will also see the most amazing and virtuous displays of power imaginable.
I have seen clients go from total lack of self control, to being as productive and assimilated into society as possible. I have seen mentally retarded individuals work as hard as I have ever worked, to master the tedium of the jobs they are allowed to do, and to master their own impulses with less than the brain power of a normal human being.
It was with these wonderful mentally retarded individuals that I fell in love with the mind and consequently the brain.
Kurtz tells us, "If cowardice and fear are our nemeses, so are gullibility and nicompoopery, which must be controlled by the use of reason. To use reason is to demand evidence for our beliefs, and to suspend belief wherever we do not have adequate grounds for it; it requires that we do not be deluded by purveyors of false wares, but that we base our desires, as far as possible, upon the reasonable ground of practiced reflection. There is a constant tendency to fly from reason to a pradise of perfection or quietude. There is no easly salvation for humans, and it is a delusion to think that we can find it. Life is restless and outgoing. It can never be content for what it is; it is always in the process of becomming. It is the new that we worship, not because it is better but because it is a product of our own creative energy."
I saw my fellow Charismatic Christian employees pray for, and try to exorcise autistic and retarded clients when they would have a violent outburst, that I admit matches the new testament descriptions of demon possesion. This sowed seeds of doubt for me.
There were a few misadventures along the way of me quitting religion and seeking new sources of power, much like the recovering alcoholic will occasionally demonstrate a relapse. These relapses are interesting, but I will skip them and focus on two events, as I continue this autobiographical account of my relationship with power.
Amy Devoge had a heroic role in saving me from Christianity. She did something very important, she inspired me to break several years of abstinence. Which I had been holding too as a devout Charismatic christian.
Kurtz writes on this subject, " Among the finest pleasures of life are the joys of sexual passion and eroticism. The celibate has committed a sin against himself, for he has repressed the most exquisite pleasure of all: the full and varied sexual life that is so essential to happiness."
I learned the truth of Kurtz's words from Amy.
Amy and I went on a tremendous adventure to travel the country, with very little money. In the course of this adventure I took up two activities, pan-handling and secular activism.
I will not write much about my pan-handling here, except to admit to having done it, it is not the worst of my crimes.
But from the education I had recieved in Charismatic Christianity along with the life lessons that I had been taught by the mentally retarded individuals placed in my care, I set forth to change the world.
Though I still identified as a Christian at this point, I saw the bible as purely allegorical and of little use besides as a source of personal inspiration (which it can still provide, as any fiction can) and I was having serious doubts about my internal dialogue with the almighty.
Eventually Amy and I arrived at Santa Cruz, California, where I became a fulltime activist. I joined the Santa Cruz Programming Collective which was dedicated to promoting anarchist thought with art events. I joined Food Not Bombs, where I washed dishes, cooked, and served the homeless, who I was sleeping with at night. I joined countless anti-Iraq war protests, and I also joined Earth First! the militant enviromentalist group. It was here that I first learned to use basic organizational tactics that I had learned at the Church and apply them to something else. I will always remember this as one of the happiest times in my life, and the fact that I was finally getting laid played no small part in that joy.
Kurtz writes, "Our actions are mere random impulses until they are organized into creative work. It is the unity of effort and energy that gives vent to our dreams. Thus the good life uniquely involves creativity. This is the great source of joy and exuberance. It is in our work that we best reveal ourselves, not in idle play or leisure - as important as these things are - but in the mood of seriousness. Yet creative work is a form of play and, if coterminus with it, can be among the highest forms of aesthetic satisfaction: planning a project, teaching a class, constructing a road, and performing a symphony are all forms of creative endeavor. Those who do not work lack the key ingredient of happiness."
Alas, Amy and I did not work out. I returned to Lubbock and had one last relapse, but this one was a little different, I wanted to change the church.
For this time I wrote a blog called Christianarchy, which was based on the idea that Christianity could be a force for the left, indeed it could be the strongest force the left had ever posessed. I had not yet learned about the Catholic liberation theology of latin america, and was trying to birth a Charismatic version here.
I helped teach Sunday School and Youth Ministry. Our youth ministry at my church was almost exclusively black. The only non-black kids, were the offspring of the congregation. I learned a lot doing this.
My pastor Gary Scoggins, who will always have a special place in my heart, encouraged me to meet the parents of the neighborhood kids and power revisited me again.
I saw that in Lubbock, Texas, the black community lacked power. I started learning about Malcom X and the Black Panthers, and learning about the wonderful Black Power movement, which is still a great source of inspiration to me.
I saw that one of the greatest hinderences to the black community in Lubbock, Texas was a hard-core commitment to anti-intellectualism.
When a black kid was well spoken, or did well in school, they were called "wanna-be-white." I found this to be the source of their powerlessness.
So I started to try to encourage the church to support programs in the youth ministry to reward good grades. Simple and cheap, if you ask me, and to this day I still think they should do it.
But I was ignored, and the Youth ministry instead spoke of the evils of liberalism and abortion. I left, and never went back. It was a waste of my power to stay one minute longer.
It was then that I met my current wife, and a wellspring of power herself, Kalisa Myers. Kalisa and I started a local political organization called Youth Emerge Today (YET) which was committed to empowering the local youth scene in Lubbock, of which I was a big fish in a small pond. YET registered people to vote, organized public AIDS testing, handed out condoms, picked up trash in the neighborhoods we hung out in, and has built relationships that are still going strong. Not the least of which was Kalisa and I's marriage.
However, we encountered a terrible inertia in our young people. I immedeately noticed, that they had no concept of their own power. I also noticed they had no academic ambitions, as a rule, and saw this as harder to detect version of the anti-intellectualism I saw in the black community.
Our kids, who were predominantly white, read one or two books, and they loved to talk about the one or two books they had read. But they weren't reading then, far more interested instead in intoxicants, parties, and their current dead-end jobs.
This gave rise to turning point in my life. I went to college. It is the second best decision I have ever made, the first was falling in love with Kalisa.
Lawrance Krauss has said that he wishes that everyone would lose, "one deeply held belief" in their education. I lost several.
My psychology professor and research mentor, Jeff Larsen, taught me to reject my own intuitions and to replace them with evidence based skepticism. My history classes, and personal studies in economics, caused me to abandon the extreme radical left as just another religion.
My study of neuroscience caused me to stop believing in the afterlife, and the soul, ironically almost a full year before I stopped believing in God.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this piece. I stopped believing in God, and was lost without purpose.
So I found power again. I found it, incase you hadn't noticed, in the words of Paul Kurtz, which I first heard on the Point of Inquiry podcast.
I began to see science not just as "wonder at nature" but a great tool to yield the greatest potential for civilization and the individual human expereince.
To quote Kurtz, "There are those who say that it is evil for humans to modify the natural ecology, as if it were some holy shrine beyond transformation...Art adds to nature; technology is the purest art of civilized life."
Science is art and art is power.
I began to experience, for the first time as an atheist, a serious sense of community with my fellow humans and yearn for us to act as one in some way.
"Important as individual audacity, courage, intelligence, self-power, and the fulfillment of one's personal dreams and proejcts are, the good life can not be experienced alone, in isolation. The richest of human plans and joys are shared with others. Love in its truest sense is nonpossessive, a cooperate participation and friendship, and is the noblest expression of a moral relationship."
I began to reach out to my friends who believed as I did, and we faught the supression of Darwinism in the biology department in my school, we started a Sam Harris book club, and now we are moving full speed ahead with an on campus club.
"...we cannot focus on inward ends alone, for the world intrudes in our domain of interests. We should develop a wider moral concern for those beyond our immedieate contact, for the community, for the nation and the world at large. A person's creative work can and should involve others, and a sense of our moral obligations and responsibilities should develop that enlarges our horizons and enhances our universe."
Notice that at the center of Kurtz's words are your own individual well-being, that altruism in this form is unapologetically selfish. It totally feeds into the quality ofyour
life. It is this kind of thinking that my quest for power has brought me to, in this journey of stumbling, tears, fanaticism, merrymaking, and humor.
Your life is a love story!