Saturday, May 7, 2016



“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book,
“this line is beautiful and very true;
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
How much we will tell down there, how many things,
and how very different we will appear to have been.
Whatever we protect here like sleepless watchmen,
those wounds and secrets locked inside us,
day after day with an overbearing anxiety ―
we will tell all, freely and clearly, there.”

“Add this,” said the sophist half-smiling,
“if they speak of such things down there
and if they care about them any more.”

~ Cavafy, tr Keeley and Safidis

Of course we know the answer is No. Assuming they preserve consciousness, the dead are preoccupied with the shocking condition of being dead, not with the secrets others failed to reveal while alive. How dated and boring, how hopelessly self-centered would most of those secrets appear now! 

Nor do we need to reach for the difference between the living and the dead. The difference between the young and the old is sufficient. If we live long enough, we learn that the concerns we had while young are no longer our concerns in older age — we simply couldn’t care less at this point. So much depends on the stage of life — our priorities and interests change dramatically. Whatever it was that we agonized over at eighteen — that secret we protected “like sleepless watchmen” — probably won’t even be remembered at eighty. 

A minor note: Cavafy’s poem features features a “proconsul”: a governor of a Roman province. Greeks are at that point a conquered people, and now it’s a Roman governor who lectures to them on Sophocles (at least it’s an educated proconsul). So one of the sorrows here, implied but never stated, certainly not by the governor with his limited awareness, is the knowledge that past greatness is now just that — yet another shadow in Hades.

The proconsul, even if he is a true lover of Greek culture (since he was probably a Roman aristocrat educated by Greek tutors, we can safely assume he was), expresses a pious, conventional attitude toward Sophocles: if Sophocles said it, it must be the truth. The sophist, more at home in all things Greeks, dares to question. Free inquiry is ultimately more important than eloquence, there is no absolute truth, and even Sophocles can be wrong.

Still, even without the historical irony and the disquieting subtleties of philosophy, the poem speaks to us because its psychology is timeless. A mother of four may laugh that in her teens she used to weep because of her heavy thighs, thinking that nobody would want to marry her. But some secrets aren’t trivial after all. We have a great desire to be known, to tell all in the end — safely, to those who will understand and accept it all with compassion.

How much we will tell down there, how many things,
and how very different we will appear to have been.
Whatever we protect here like sleepless watchmen,
those wounds and secrets locked inside us,
day after day with an overbearing anxiety ―
we will tell all, freely and clearly, there.”

But the sophist with his clever half smile destroys this fantasy — who will be interested? At some point — whether in this life, or, for the believers, the life to come — we will be ready to tell all our secrets, so precious to us, so carefully guarded — but there will be no takers. Let’s face it: are our secrets so fascinating and unique? And aren’t others preoccupied with their own affairs, and the last thing they want is the burden of our long life and complicated psyche?

One of the most common contemporary complaints it “oversharing.” Cavafy didn’t know the term, but seems to have been ahead of his time.

Hades and Cerberus

Here is the modernized “imitation” of this poem by Leonard Kress:

after Cavafy

The professor picked apart the line from Sophocles,
“These three anapests, you see,” he said, shutting the book,
“words which are both beautiful and true. Sophocles took
a profoundly existential stance.” We will tell all
at last, even those things we’ve locked away, impounded,
confined, caged and shackled, our own witness protected
against divulging. For then guards will be drugged and bribed,
overpowered, restraint dismantled and all captives
shall be released—wound, insult, treachery, heartbreak
in one melismatic swoon of solace and succor.

But one student raised up his hand and smiling asked him:
“What if no one really wants to talk about such things?
What if no one wants to listen? What if no one cares?”

~ Leonard Kress


Since I don’t believe in the afterlife, I never deluded myself about “telling all” to the dead. But for a while I did have a recurrent fantasy that at some point in my eighties — perhaps right on the 80th birthday since it’s best not to push one’s luck when it comes to life expectancy — I’d start writing with complete honesty.

At long last: my true thoughts, which I know would offend conservative people and not just those — also the believers in perfect marriage and harmonious family, the believers in a “balanced life,” poets yearning for immortal fame, and various others who tend to “think big” rather than accept reality (including the reality of “think small” as the most effective way to succeed). I’d say all I always wanted to say, but didn’t say in my younger years because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, not even slightly, and/or make things unpleasant for myself. You know how nasty comments can be if you dare disagree with the prevailing views. But I imagined that at eighty I’d be so emotionally tough I could take anything — and besides, given life expectancy, there wouldn’t even be much time left in which to suffer the consequences. “Tell and die” is how I imagined it. 

Because you are always punished for telling the truth. Funny, it’s lying that’s supposed to be a sin, but it’s telling the truth that’s forbidden. In the past, everybody knew that. 

That’s why I had to be at least eighty, since at that point I could “afford” to be frank.

I formed this fantasy back at the time when people were indeed more secretive. Most atheists were in the closet, and to say publicly that all gods and religion were made up, a human invention, and Christianity was just another mythology — that wasn’t done “because people would be offended.” No, Jesus is never coming back . . .  and neither is Ron Hubbard. Might as well expect to see Elvis Presley riding on the clouds of glory (that's actually more imaginable, given Las Vegas). Then it turned out that millions thought and felt the same, but . . . the time wasn’t ripe for revealing this huge subversive secret that atheism used to be.

But Cavafy’s poem is more about the secrets of one’s personal life. As a gay man, who certainly knew that secrets could be a burden. But we need to universalize “secrets” to mean ordinary, common secrets that people tend to have. Perhaps you married X, but all your life carried the torch for Y. Or perhaps, after decades of being an erotically starved virtuous spouse, you had an affair at last, and changed your attitude about love and marriage, tossing the pious “family values” and regretting all the self-denial. Generally we regret not the things we’ve done, but those we haven’t done.

Then it dawned on me, much as in the ending of the poem, that if I started “confessing” at the age of eighty,  it’s likely no one would be interested in what a “little old lady” did or didn’t do, or what she thought on various matters, no matter how controversial those used to be. Culture will have evolved by then, and I’d be a relic, battling against oppressive beliefs that were no longer held by most.

Furthermore, my “radical” thoughts began to be expressed by others! The conservative viewpoint  is slowly eroding anyway. Mottoes like “You only live once” are coming to replace Puritan (or Catholic) asceticism. Frugality is seen as pointless hoarding — “You can’t take it with you.” Self-denial is out; self-fulfillment has gone mainstream. So much for the idea that anyone would be shocked by anything I learned the hard way and late in life while the culture evolved by leaps and bounds.

And as for those closely guarded personal secrets, few people’s are unusual enough to be of broader interest. There is always someone else whose life has been more dramatic, more extreme. Besides, as a writer you learn that it’s all in the telling. Anyone’s life could be a novel, but unless written with depth and artistry, it would hardly be worth reading.

And the wisdom that’s supposed to arrive with age? Did I really have anything to say beyond “Nobody’s perfect” and “Nothing is all good or all bad”? Did I have an iota to add to the praise of kindness and tenderness?

So much for the idea of waiting to tell it all — or at least telling it directly. Telling it indirectly, through art — that still remains a worthy task, even if the poems are ephemeral, of the moment.  We too are of the moment. Wisdom lies in making the most of that moment, without waiting.

Gustave Moreau: A young Thracian woman carrying the head of Orpheus on his lyre

"Who are the muses but the Maenads, repentant, clothed, and in their right minds.” ~ Jane Ellen Harrison (my thanks to Leonard Kress)



“What did so many of history's greatest warriors stress as key to success and optimal performance?

"Being calm.”

Nobody really needs to sell us on the value of staying calm.

You know the benefits: You think clearly; you don't make rash decisions; you don't get scared.

But how do you get and stay calm?

Our society is energy drinks, 24 hour news cycle, Starbucks on every corner, and relentless social media feeds. GO GO GO.

And even funnier, much of what we know about relaxing and being calm is dead wrong.

The samurai trained in martial arts a lot and they thought about death a lot.

Really, they thought about death a lot.

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year's Day through the night of New Year's Eve. [Code of the Samurai: A Contemporary Translation of the Bushido Shoshins]

Hey, you would too. Death was pretty much in their job description, right?

But research shows training very hard and imagining the worst that could happen are two powerful techniques for promoting calm.

Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always "be prepared" (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)

Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don't have to think.

And how about all that thinking about death?

"Negative Visualization" is one of the main tools of ancient Stoicism and science backs it up. Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they're not that bad.

Okay, but you don't want to spend all day training in swordfighting or thinking about death. I get that. Frankly, neither do I.

So what's the key here?

Research shows the most powerful way to combat stress or anxiety — to stay calm — is to have a feeling of control.

Without a feeling of control, when stress gets high we literally can't think straight.

Note I said "feeling of control" — it do
esn't even have to be legit control, just feeling like you do can work wonders.

Even a good luck charm can help — because good luck charms really do work.

Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually makes people perform better with them.

… people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That's right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games.”

Lucien Freud: Self-Portrait, 2002


Last night I dreamed about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember, all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me. Finally you somehow caught fire. ~ Kafka to Milena Yesenska, 1921

Hand drawing back the Golden Fleece from a Cloud to show Gala the Dawn, Completely Nude, Very, Very Far Away Behind the Sun, 1977. (It's actually one of two "stereoscopic" panels that somewhat differ in color, one being lighter, more golden in tone.) My thanks to Charles for having supplied the title.


“[Martin Seligman], who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology, found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.

The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus (“I can change this”) tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened.

Resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be learned.”

“Against the Wind,” snowy owl near Quebec City, Canada; photo: Dominic Roy


“You can practice being strong, or you can practice falling apart.” When I read this statement, I already knew that I can become very good at either of these. The motto became very handy soon afterwards, when I decided not to be depressed.

If you are interested in exploring the subject of resilience, much has been written about it. Going back to this brief write-up, I'm struck by the first statement that a person needs to embrace: “Bad events aren’t my fault.” A person who has had a difficult childhood learns to blame herself even for the weather! Of course it will rain on your parade . . . it always does. 

"Free Spirit," Angelica Paez


In The Invention of Peter, Fordham University theology professor George Demacopoulos argues that Peter never visited the city of Rome, never founded a church there, and was not the first Pope. In fact, the very idea of Peter as the Supreme Pontiff and leader of a worldwide church is a much later idea that took its rise in the ecclesial politics of the fifth century.

The evidence for Peter visiting — much less dying in — Rome is pretty thin on the ground. It simply never comes up in the New Testament: the Acts of the Apostles, our first history of the Jesus movement, never mentions Peter journeying to Rome. And when Paul nervously greets the Christian community there in his Letter to the Romans, he never refers to Peter’s presence in the city. In the two letters attributed to Peter in the New Testament the author is said to be writing “from Babylon.” Babylon could be a euphemism for Rome or it could just be a metaphor for imagined exile.

While papal discourse starts to heat up over the second and third centuries, no one appealed to Peter as the rock of the church or the holder of the keys of heaven until the fourth. There was a bishop of Rome, to be sure, but there was no Supreme Pontiff, and it is difficult to concretely tie the legacy of these bishops back to Peter himself.

Generations of Catholic schoolchildren may have learned that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16, but early Christians didn’t give the passage second thought until the fourth century. It was only with Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century that the Bishop of Rome started to cite Matthew 16 as proof of Papal supremacy, and characterize himself as the “heir” of Peter.

from readers’ comments:

Paul's theology was quite different from what became Catholic theology. For instance, Paul had no concept of a Trinity, of Original Sin or as Jesus being identical to Yahweh, among other things).


What? The origins of Christianity and of Catholicism are grounded on myth? Is that supposed to be a revelation?


Roman Catholics are discouraged from studying the history of their church (and, truth be told, reading the Bible.) I know an ex Jesuit who says that the most liberating thing that any Catholic can do is study church history.


Why not believe Peter was in Rome and is buried in the cathedral? Christians believe in the resurrection, miracles, walking on water, in devils and angels and exorcism and more, so why not that Peter was in Rome and was the first Pope and that John Paul II and John XX III are Saints? It is religion, all about believing.


Most Christians are oblivious to the political history of their own religion believing instead in the "sacred holiness" of things determined by a bunch of guys sitting around Nicea in 325 AD.

The above is from the Daily Beast; here is a paragraph from the laconic and cool-headed official website for the book:

On the first anniversary of his election to the papacy, Leo the Great stood before the assembly of bishops convening in Rome and forcefully asserted his privileged position as the heir of Peter the Apostle. This declaration marked the beginning of a powerful tradition: the Bishop of Rome would henceforth leverage the cult of St. Peter, and the popular association of St. Peter with the city itself, to his advantage. In The Invention of Peter, George E. Demacopoulos examines this Petrine discourse, revealing how the link between the historic Peter and the Roman Church strengthened, shifted, and evolved during the papacies of two of the most creative and dynamic popes of late antiquity, ultimately shaping medieval Christianity as we now know it.

By emphasizing the ways in which this rhetoric of apostolic privilege was employed, extended, transformed, or resisted between the reigns of Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Demacopoulos offers an alternate account of papal history that challenges the dominant narrative of an inevitable and unbroken rise in papal power from late antiquity through the Middle Ages. He unpacks escalating claims to ecclesiastical authority, demonstrating how this rhetoric, which almost always invokes a link to St. Peter, does not necessarily represent actual power or prestige but instead reflects moments of papal anxiety and weakness. Through its nuanced examination of an array of episcopal activity—diplomatic, pastoral, political, and administrative—The Invention of Peter offers a new perspective on the emergence of papal authority and illuminates the influence that Petrine discourse exerted on the survival and exceptional status of the Bishop of Rome.



"Addiction doesn't just happen to people because they come across a particular chemical and begin taking it regularly. It is learned and has a history rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development." [The addicted brain] is not “broken." It has simply undergone a different course of development....addiction is what you might call a wiring difference, not necessarily a destruction of tissue.” ~ Maia Szalavitz, The Unbroken Brain

“Only 10 - 20% of those who try even heroin, crack, and methamphetamine become addicted. That group tends to have a significant history of childhood trauma and/or preexisting mental illness, and usually finds some way of self-medicating, no matter how much we crack down on substance use. Anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia often precede addiction.” (~ from a reader’s review)

“The facts are: The substantial majority of people who try drugs or potentially addictive activities (such as gambling) do not become addicts. And the bulk of those who do will eventually give up their addictions.

Addiction, Szalavitz notices, is, predominantly, a problem of youth. Most addicts get started when they're still kids. And, remarkably, most addicts give up their addiction by the time they reach their 30s. In effect, they age out of their addiction.

Armed with these facts, Szalavitz makes a novel and even beautiful proposal. Addiction, she hypothesizes, is a developmental disorder. Specifically, it is a learning disorder, by which she means, in the first instance, that people, kids mostly, learn to be addicts. That is, they develop the habits of pleasure, action, reaction, etc., that is what their being addicted consists in.

And, of course, they don't do so in a vacuum. Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle. The vast majority of addicts have suffered great trauma early on in life. Sexual abuse or other forms of violence, the loss of a parent, divorce are not uncommon antecedents of addiction. The cliche that addiction begins as a form of self-medication is probably right. The future addict learns to use the drug as part of an economy of feeling and action. It's not the drug, or the behavior, that is the source of the addiction. The substance is a tool or a technique for an ultimately inadequate self-mastery and control.

Addiction, as the medicalist would have it, is a disease, not like Alzheimer's or cancer, but like ADHD. It is a learning disorder, that is, one that occurs along a spectrum. And, so, her view also lets us see how the moralist is right, that we "normal ones" ourselves occupy a place on that very same spectrum. And, moreover, the moralist is right that the addict's disorder is a morally significant one. Not because addicts will cheat and lie to get what they need. But because the addict is in the grip of a kind of false consciousness.

Addiction is a learning disorder in a second sense as well. It is not only the case that we learn to be addicts, according to Szalavitz; it is also the case that learning is the key to overcoming addiction.”


This interests me because my life changed when I realized that depression wasn’t a “disease” but a learned behavior (or a set of behaviors). The more I engaged in those behaviors, the more easily I entered depression and the deeper down I could go in less and less time. My brain has obviously learned to be depressed. Later I noticed this with physical pain as well: the brain learns to feel it or not feel it. Or we can used the term CONDITIONING (think Pavlov). Pain represents a special challenge because the physical substrate (e.g. a damaged joint) is so much in the picture that we can easily overlooked the part played by learning. But the more you feel pain, the more readily the brain creates the sensation of pain. Likewise, as you start using various painkillers, the pain may cease before the drug has even been absorbed. Chronic insomnia is another condition where the importance of conditioning is obvious.

Self-destructive behavior, whether taking drugs, compulsive shopping, or brooding about the past, can also be what I call an “instead activity.” Once I began to engage in the right activity —meaningful work — my brain rewired beautifully. All this was preceded by a powerful insight. I tell that story in my blog.

Now that I feel completely secure about depression (no relapse since 2009), and as someone who's lived with chronic pain most of of my adult life, I've shifted my focus to "learned pain."


ending on beauty:
Don’t ask me why
I came down to the water’s edge —
hell, I was young, and I thought
I knew life, I thought I could
hold the darkness the way a man
holds a cup of coffee before
he wakens.

~ Philip Levine, from “Here and Now” 

Photo: Amy Chang

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