While jogging at sundown one day in April 2003, I had a very moving experience, one that may indeed have bridged my conception of the spiritual and the worldly. My wandering mind juxtaposed my impression of American Indian culture, spirituality, worldview, and morality with the current state of affairs and mentality in European-American culture. I experienced a combination of seemingly coincidental events that struck me as conveying great meaning: that we may come to face a startling reckoning for our legacy and lifestyle.
For even if my people were absolved of the historical and continuing mistakes and atrocities that cling to us as Americans, it is ironic that we now seem to long so achingly for something that our myopic forbearers systematically stamped out in their approach to indigenous people and ancient wisdom. And which many generations hence have overlooked and ignored.
If spiritual and moral fulfillment can be achieved in the present, it will be due to a sea change in Americans’ moral sensibility—a quantum leap forward in our individual and collective dedication to a life of value.
Gazing at the sunset in the distance while a compelling American Indian tribal song played in my headphones, and with the second war in Iraq ever-present in the news, I experienced feelings of both reverence and regret, appreciation and shame. Though proud of the positive aspects of contemporary culture and values, I lamented the displacement of American Indian philosophical and spiritual perspectives for dubious “progress” and “globalization.” Western lifestyle has replaced a profound appreciation for the divinity of nature, overall respect for the planet, and true community with a mechanized, profit-driven, staunchly individualistic lifestyle symbolized by our reverence for currency and respect for SUVs. I like to eat cake as much as the next lucky person, but I think there is much that is distasteful and unsatisfying about our typical level of consciousness and conscientiousness.
The wind against my face, the beauty of the sunset, and my release of endorphins must have enhanced the emotion of the experience. After the uphill finish, perspiration dripping from my face and heavy thoughts on my mind, I yielded to the novel urge to get down on one knee and, looking at the multi-hued sky, offer: “I’m sorry.” To do so was an unusual departure from my more cerebral, conventional, and admittedly materialistic lifestyle. In what I characterize as a “moment of clarity,” I attempted to connect with the pantheistic force that has spiritually guided non-Westerners for centuries and to make a sincere statement about the fact that we have sometimes acted so very wrongly, motivated to a large extent by greed and dominance, perpetrated by ignorance and unnecessary violence.
Just then, in what may seem like a coincidence to an onlooker, a conspicuous black bird landed on a nearby tree branch. As an elder was chanting and drums were sounding in my ears, and as the wind slowly moved the bright clouds in the distance, the bird seemed to be infused with a supernatural element. Believing its appearance to be more than just happenstance, I felt a similar depth of meaning in the experience as I did when I offered my feelings of regret seconds earlier. Later that evening, I watched a movie I had purchased the day prior, one that explored themes of courage, reckoning, and dedication. I fell asleep like I usually do, along and having sunk back into my relatively privileged and self-centered lifestyle.
I was jolted awake that night by a poignant nightmare!
Perhaps “the Muse” that worked on Romantic poet John Keats’ mind as his life was turning from spring to winter was whispering to me whilst I was dreaming. Maybe that night I was in some place that exists between here and there; outside of normal time and space—not unlike the fantasy world Shakespeare created for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Perhaps, like the tempestuous and drug-addled Samuel Taylor Coleridge was able to conjure the mystical and masterful Kubla Khan as soon as he awoke from a wondrous dream, my rational brain was in the dark while my subconscious mind was wide awake. If, during those long nights, aided by candlelight, Nietzsche could expound on matters of great emotional and philosophical significance until his quill hand was sore—gazing into the abyss, as it were—I could experience a dream that jarred me to an insight that was prophetic and deeply significant. Psychoanalyst and interpreter of myth Carl Gustav Jung would not doubt these seemingly-farfetched conjectures for a minute; he believed that due to what he called the collective unconscious, mankind could conceivably see deeply into the transcendental with its marvelous and sophisticated brain that evolution so adroitly developed over millennia.
Alternatively, as the great writer Henry James—brother of the deeply insightful early psychologist William James—proposed that “in the arts, feeling is always meaning…. When the art is great, then the reader does quite half the work.” Accordingly, perhaps there was nothing transcendental, mystical, or extrasensory about my dream. I am thinking of Dickens’ unforgettable character Ebeneezer Scrooge skeptically “doubt[ing] his senses”; purporting that it was not an actual ghost he was conversing with—reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Is this a dagger I see before me?”)—and proclaiming, “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” In this vein, I was not in touch with anything nearly as special or privileged as I first thought; I was not encountering any divinity in Nature, as William Wordsworth did so remarkably in that marvelous decade of his. I was merely projecting feelings onto an event I had earlier in the day, and imbuing it with great meaning and significance.
Well, either way, here are recollections of my dream. Though it is difficult to describe the emotion and intuition present in a dream long after awakening, I had quite a lot of feeling associated with it, and I gleaned meaning from it. Feeling is the indispensable element to the creation of meaning. As, pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud said, “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”
When John Keats was merely in his early 20s—already becoming one of history’s great English Romantic-era poets, though he didn’t feel he was appreciated for his merit while he was battling grief and tuberculosis and Cupid in Rome, Italy—he said in his now-famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (apparently quoting someone): “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” That is a marvelously intuitive, conjectural, perceptive, fanciful, trite, or sagacious philosophical and poetic insight that Keats interpreted, conjectured, shared, claimed, realized or bequeathed to future generations (depending on one’s point of view!) whilst staring at what was no doubt an astonishingly aesthetically beautiful ancient Greek vase/vessel.
As I was saying, I was jolted awake by a poignant nightmare….. I wish to communicate some of the content of my dream, and what I believe it symbolized (it was 2003 then, and is now but a fading memory which, fortunately, I wrote down). To me the dream was a representation of mainstream American culture’s intellectual and moral ignorance; its inhumanity. I am describing the beauty of America tarnishing due to its decadence. Unfortunately, sitting here nearly 20 years hence, I am forced to reflect that America has largely disappointed those of us who are good-natured and patriotic. I can only imagine what would have been had I the power to affect this juggernaut; if I somehow had the power to affect change and to alter the trajectory of this mighty Titanic I am a part of.
My nightmare elucidated much about America that is not fulfilling our highest potential: elitism, unsustainable values, posh luxury, and an inauthentic and unspiritual lifestyle. It exposed selfishness, ignorance, and corruption. Its denouement was pain and death.
I awoke with a gasp, and stared wide-eyed at the opaque ceiling. I was breathing fast as my mind was still afresh with ominous images of familiar faces being forced to choke down a reckoning of dire proportions: white bodies twisting on a rope from the ceiling of their marble-tiled bathroom.
It harkened back to the dark song written by Abel Meeropol and lifted to a notorious fame by Billie Holliday, “Strange Fruit”:
black bodies twisting in the Southern breeze
Awake then, I flashed to an image of Donald Rumsfeld, apparently my mind’s personification of the darkness that rests where power meets politics and money and subterfuge. His visage superimposed on an image of the vile Nazi concentration camps—another representation of how far we humans can stray from our potential for peace, justice, shared prosperity, and love.
My dream signaled my disappointment in the fact that we are the wealthiest people in the history of the world, yet so many of our fellow human beings—even our kin—have unmet needs. I’m talking about children going hungry; “rape kits” languishing in a police evidence locker for agonizing months, or years. Institutionalized racism.
The corporate mentality that pollutes water and does Machiavellian cost-benefit analyses on human life.
Municipalities run into the ground economically while something as basic and important as clean drinking water is denied to citizens.
Environmental degradation for profit.
The inadequate funding and nominal importance of our educational system.
The intractable problems with drug abuse and overdoses.
In the quasi-Orwellian, post-September-11th, 2001 era marked by outrages against liberty and truth, the small-minded man ostensibly elected by maybe 65% of voters used such polarized rhetoric as, “good versus evil”, and “crusade.”
My nightmare appeared to foretell a frightening and arresting collapse of our optimistic vision of the future of the planet—at least the American version of that vision.
Wide awake at night during an Orange Terror Alert, thinking of humankind’s age-old desire to dominate and destroy, I heard myself lament, we’re going to hang.
I will never forget the imagery, or that premonition.
I wish I could say that we have, as a country, left behind our adolescence, and ushered in an era of values such as tolerance, magnanimity, equality, sharing, caring, and concern for our fellow man, but that would be false.
The land of opportunity—which is also the land of the all-you-can-eat buffet, the suburban Hummer, and the so-called US Patriot Act—has made greater strides than perhaps any other civilization, but obviously, we are failing to seize the advantage of our unparalleled power to do right.
I am urging a creative and beautiful fusion of ancient wisdom with progressive thinking. Of progress with traditional values. I mean to signal that America has such amazing potential, and yet never seems to fail to fall short of it. We know what is right, but we typically only pay lip service to it.
Ironically, it is a Navajo saying that warns, “If we don’t turn around now, we just might get where we’re going.” Incidentally, that is a favorite quote of the Middle East expert, Thomas Friedman.
I don’t know that we’re headed for a cataclysm, but if the omen proves true—and we feel the unyielding pull of the coarse rope around our tender necks, we will know.
If we don’t think better and more wisely—of wholesale change—before the noose is tightened, it will be too late. It may be extinction, or it may be Big Brother and “the Metaverse”; a never-ending slide into a dystopia not that different from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.
Rome was mighty and self-assured; expansive and inventive and great. And then Rome decayed, deteriorated, and transmuted into a shadow of its former self. It elevated humankind in many ways, but it was as infamous for slavery as it was notorious for megalomania and expansionism. Rome essentially fell, and the wise no doubt consider the grave dishonor and disgrace that all Americans share (some much more so than others, frankly!) to be a figurative failure (or a fall, as Christian orthodoxy would term it) of the most egregious nature.
More militarism equals more safety is alluring but in a sense, absurd. Furthermore, the unconstitutional surveillance and legal procedures that mark the USA Patriot Act would make America’s founding fathers book passage back to England and ask the forgiveness of His Majesty, the King. Holding prisoners in an isolated camp without judicial review or other basic protections is a glaring example of the United States doing what is expedient, rather than what is right.
I’m not “soft on terrorism”; I’m strong on justice and responsibility and against our policies that justifiably anger the rest of the world. We consume more than almost anyone on a per-capita basis; we frack and we build oil pipelines and we demand goods that require what is tantamount to slave labor to produce at low prices. In fact, nowadays there are more slaves on the planet than there were in the 1800s. America is home to a still-living Bill Cosby and a dead Jeffrey Epstein.
If my dream’s dark message comes to pass, Americans are either dying a slow spiritual and moral death, or we will experience a grisly literal one. Though terrorism was the threat du jour back in 2003, currently we are doing more to harm ourselves than 20 hijackers ever could. We die due to opioid overdose at astounding proportions; artists such as Prince and Tom Petty accidentally killed themselves with fentanyl, and currently the super-drug is wreaking havoc across the country. It is just so quintessentially American that the Sackler family (of Purdue Pharma) was able to foist addictive pain killers on the American public for so long—enriching themselves so outlandishly! Millions fell victim to the legal drugs that were peddled by good-looking pharmaceutical reps to complicit physicians, paid for by those dark-hearted insurance company executives and the easily-bilked government administered insurance programs like Medicare.
We keep doing these kinds of things over and over and over and over again. One can have a Pollyannish sense of optimism about the goodness and the righteousness and the privilege of the America depicted in whitewashed history textbooks of yesteryear. One can have a deep sense of patriotism, claiming this is the “best country in the world”—perhaps displaying a bumper sticker on their truck that reads, “If You Aren’t Proud to Be an American, I’ll Help You Pack!” One can pray to their god, beseeching them to smite the evildoers and usher in a glorious era of prosperity and light and goodness, but the prayers emanating from megachurches and red states never seem to be answered—they only seem to receive hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and mass shootings.
I know what it is like to feel anxiety, and a mood that is absolutely bereft of joy, comfort, and trust. I have been in that dark place that a black man about to face a Southern magnolia or a poplar tree in the Jim Crow South. I know what the caged bird is experiencing; why it offers its full-throated, plaintive song to those on the other side of the bars on its cage. I have experienced, like Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale” as he was enticed out of a solipsistic world of pain and anguish by the incessant and striking song of the nightingale: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…” He longs, in the second stanza, to:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
When I’m in that mental place of pain, where the darkness dwells, during such times I feel a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat. I have that desire many have had—to pray to the God of the Hebrews to have mercy on me; to let me go back in time and right the wrong—to take a different turn at some critical point. To wake me from what seems like a nightmare. Like a person who is facing an imminent death, I would bargain and deny and become agitated. I would give anything to be out from under the dark and foreboding mental experience I was having; to rewind time and escape the trajectory that led me to my quagmire.
Should such a scenario as my nightmare startle one into consciousness, should that feeling of awful dread hang around one’s neck like a heavy necklace, the one thing he or she is going to be clawing at is one more chance; a chance to make things right! For those who are having difficulty breathing because of the rope supporting their body weight, any place along humankind’s path will be preferred to the now.
Remember the time when Columbus preyed on the gold- and slave-rich “New World”? Or the era marked by a smug isolationism and a crippling economic depression (a hangover from the “Roaring 20s”) that gave rise to Hitler—and the megalomaniacal Emperor Hirohito, the man-god, joined him in aspirations of world conquest?
Would we not beg some powerful force to allow us to be in that lab where the sins of science split the atom for the first time? Or perhaps the manic Crusades to “take back the Holy Land” from the benighted Muslims.
The Spanish Inquisition.
Japanese internment camps.
Enslavement of man and animal.
The experiment that introduced syphilis into unwitting human subjects to merely study the effects.
The final moments lived by the murderous religious zealots who executed their ignominious surprise attack on innocents working peacefully on September 11.
The fateful day that Trump, glowering, squinty-eyed and self-assured, descended his golden escalator in his colossus of a hotel to begin his quest to end Barack Obama’s legacy—and cement his own.
In any of these scenarios (or a few hundred other pivotal moments in our collective history), as Boethius’s nurse Wisdom taps on our shoulders (or as God makes His move against evil at long last)—whichever allegory is more apt for each individual—we each will feel a deep and irritating sense of regret as we recast the past as countless missed opportunities to act to bring about significant change in ourselves and our culture.
Any place along the road would be fine to us, the dying; any deal we can strike, just to go back from where we now realize we were headed all along.
Nearly all Americans will find ourselves begging our idiosyncratic versions of a higher force to mercifully grant us just one cellular phone call to say goodbye to our loved ones, for we would then realize, as clearly as Giordano Bruno felt the flame lick first his tender skin, in a panic, that our plane has long been hijacked. Our complacency and our entitlement and our selfishness are the fundamental factors that hijacked airliner flew below our radar toward the unsuspecting workers doing their level best to make a buck in the twin towers that symbolized to the world, We are America, and we are great.
Americans as a people (and perhaps we as an entire species) are, I believe—and have for at least 20 years—headed for the fate of the proud ancient ruler named Ozymandias, from the haunting poem by the inimitable Percy Bysshe Shelley of the same name:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Ω