Sunday, October 23, 2016


Warsaw: Lazienki Castle, First Snow


Other grandmothers knitted.
Mine only crocheted.
And exclusively hairnets.
Ever since I was a toddler,

I remember her that way,
with a little silver hook,
spiraling around and around
the nothing at the top.

Endless hairnets! 
She kept her hair short.
Even after eighty,
it was only beginning to gray.

Her hairnets were brown
or black, the yarn so fine
the hairnet hardly showed.
It was not about need.

Only now I see
it was about that spiraling
around empty space,
the eye of wisdom that opens

when you come to know
how in one moment
you can lose all, except
your own soul.

Everything else
is a ball of yarn.
It’s about the flight
of the hook.

~ Oriana © 2016

Quickly: when I use the word “soul,” I don’t mean the detachable little ghost that’s supposed to leave the body at the moment of death, a brain-free consciousness or self that continues to live on for eternity. Rather, I mean the core values, the innermost essence. But once published, the poem belongs to the reader who may read his or her meaning into this undefinable word. And that’s fine with me.

“In one moment you can lose all” — I had in mind specifically the fact of being taken to Auschwitz, losing not only your possessions (how minor that really is) but your whole former life — your profession, your social identity, your human rights — everything but that very core of yourself that you could still preserve.

For me the moment of a similar overwhelming multiple loss was leaving Poland and coming to America. Of course at the moment of leaving I didn’t yet comprehend the loss. That came later, when I saw that indeed “in the morning I had a homeland; / in the evening I had two suitcases.” What came even later, after the loss of home and family, the language and the culture, was the perception that I still had my “homeland of the mind.” Eventually I also made a home in poetry, but my first refuge was simply my intellect.

Kraków; photo: Ania Maria


~ “Last night for the third time in as many months I found myself explaining to someone raised outside of a devoutly religious environment that religious people are not stupid simply because they believe nonsensical things.

Very often they flatly disagree and insist that anyone who believes in things like demons and angels and Young Earth Creationism must be morons. But then like last night they get a puzzled expression as they sit across from me and finally admit, “The thing is, you don’t seem stupid to me. So how on earth did you ever believe such things?”


The first thing you have to realize is that intelligence is compartmental. By that I mean that people who employ sharp wit and critical thinking about one area of life (or even multiple areas) can still remain almost juvenile about a number of others. One need only look at how adept many of history’s greatest thinkers were at parsing ideas related to their own field of expertise but were complete disasters in their personal lives because they could never wrap their heads around the intricacies of human social interaction.

To see what I mean by compartmental intelligence, look no further than Ben Carson, who distinguished himself as a pioneering brain surgeon but who displays the political acumen of a remedial third grader. Or consider another less-well-known medical example whom I’ve mentioned here before: The last Sunday School teacher I had before leaving the church is a world-class oncologist who chairs an international committee on research protocols in his medical field, but he also studies “creation science” as a hobby. He uses up-to-date, state-of-the-art treatments for fighting cancer but gets all of his geological theories from the Institute for Creation Research, which quit putting out new theories in the early 1970’s (or as some would argue, in the late Bronze Age).


Another thing you must realize is that very intelligent people will believe very nonsensical things if you get to them young enough. When you grow up in an environment which takes for granted that a system of belief is sacred, your knowledge base and your critical thinking skills grow up around that belief structure in such a way as to leave it undisturbed. In fact, an argument could be made that without the checks and balances of the scientific method, human reasoning only serves to rationalize and validate the emotional content already in place in our psyches from our earliest years. We think in order to rationalize what we already believe.


Another thing which is almost impossible to grasp if you were never devout is how deeply we were taught to distrust ourselves. The notion of sin and human brokenness is bedrock to the Christian message, and the church drove this home to us before we even learned to read and write. We learned at an early age that human reasoning cannot be trusted.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

With a narrative like that, is it any wonder that Christians grow up suspicious of the life of the mind? We were taught to distrust our own intellects even within those subcultures which otherwise valued science, education, and exploration (I know that’s inconsistent but see point #1). We learned early on that when our powers of logic and reasoning conflict with the teachings of our faith, we should privilege “what God says” over what anyone else thinks makes sense. Who can disagree with God himself, amirite?


And finally, people who did not grow up thoroughly enveloped by a community of faith will find it difficult to appreciate how heavily the social pressure to remain faithful keeps us from freely embracing our own cognitive dissonance. I recall clearly how apprehensive I became each time I collided with my own inner skeptic, realizing how costly it would be for me if my pursuit of reality ever led me outside the Christian fold. I knew long before I finally became honest with myself that I could lose everything, and for the most part I was right. When your whole life is built around an idea, challenging that idea shakes you to the core of who you are, both psychologically and socially. For some of us, this threatens to demolish our entire world.

And that’s why we hold on to irrational beliefs long after our own critical thinking skills seem like they should have outgrown these inferior ideas. Those ideas were always privileged for us, and it’s not as easy as it sounds to shake them when they are the very house in which you live.” ~



I freak out when I remember what bizarre things I used to believe when still a Catholic. A devil perched on my left shoulder, whispering temptations to sin. Behind me, or slightly to the right, my Guardian Angel. The world full of angels and saints and demons, of course, a sky filled with ghosts (with vastly more ghosts right underfoot, in hell. And this vast world, with billions of people, was ruled by the Invisible Man in the Sky who could (and did) read every thought in everyone’s head.

I was told those things at the age of eight, and at the age of ten I still believed them. Serious doubt didn’t begin until the age of twelve or so. And only soon at fourteen did doubt win.

(Other religions were of course crazy, absurd. A believer, blind to the absurdities of her own creed, stands agape at the thought that anyone could believe in Zeus.)

The only thing I could never believe was that the idea that god was good. Now that was just too absurd. God was blatantly evil. He was cruel. He out-Hitlered Hitler. There was no way I could love an evil god, so I knew I was doomed to eternal damnation. I did believe in that, and to believe it was a sin against the Holy Ghost, the one sin that would not be forgiven. There seemed to be no way out.

“Suffering is good for you”; “Human reason is very weak,” (i.e. “you’re too dumb to understand, so shut up”); “You are a sinner who deserves eternal damnation” — this and other harmful twaddle was the constant fare. The power of repetition. And, above all, a child’s trust that adults know better and are telling the truth. When I feel astonished that I truly believed this and more nonsense, I have to remind myself that I was indeed a child, even if an intelligent child.

And besides, what good was intelligence? It was held to be completely inadequate — “Of course this doesn’t make sense to you; it’s a divine mystery.” Any atrocious bunch of nonsense can be defended as “divine mystery.”

A child is easily intimidated by adult “authority.” Many thoughts were forbidden, the penalty being eternal hellfire. It was an Orwellian culture obsessed with sinning “in deed, in word, and in thought.” I was especially worried about sinning in thought — Orwell’s “thought crime.”

I was also told that god chooses who will believe in him and who won’t — “Faith is a gift.” It is a gift he gives to some and not to others (who are doomed to hell). Oddly, no group seemed as likely to possess the gift of faith as old, uneducated women. But now it strikes that it wasn't their belief in god that was deep and impervious to doubt. It was their belief in the devil.

Alfred Stieglitz: “Going to Prayer,” 1895


But then religion is so out of kilter with reality that it can be shed more easily than more subtle kinds of indoctrination and social pressures. We may not even be aware that we harbor certain views as absolute truth.

Coming to another culture showed me this — certain things I took absolutely for granted were regarded with horror in the US. I had no idea the US public was so conservative. In my teens, if someone had told me, America is a very conservative and religious country, I would have burst out laughing. I naively thought technological progress = progressive social ideas, so the more technologically advanced a society is, the more we can expect things like paid maternity leave and free medical care for everyone (remember, I grew up with those). What an eye opening it was.

Some things are of course universal, like nationalism. And since the mystery we’re discussing here is how people can believe all kinds of nonsense, I remember how my mother used to remark that Hitler was the greatest buffoon in modern history, perhaps in all history. “How could people fall for this buffoon?” my mother would ask for the thousandth time, and again not even try to answer. She’d just shake her head in that special way she had of trying to recoil from terrible memories. Sometimes she’d vary the question a bit: How could INTELLIGENT people ever fall for this buffoon? and then just shake her head. Sometimes we simply don’t have a convincing answer.

Well, he was very skilled at whipping up a purely visceral nationalistic frenzy of wanting to make Germany great again. Watch his body language:

It’s still an undeniably buffoonish performance, so the mystery remains.


The essence of Buddha’s great wisdom was pointing out that much suffering comes from delusional thinking. Now, “delusional” is a strong term, and it may be difficult for some to accept. But it’s time we understood that thought disorders are extremely common — just as one need not be certifiably insane to experience hallucinations or false memories. All it takes is the right circumstances.

Let’s say that as a child you experienced some degree of emotional insecurity — and it’s hard to meet someone who had a mostly happy and secure childhood — a “good-enough” childhood (I truly hope such people exist, and it’s just my strange luck that I don’t meet them). A school where you were never teased or bullied (or practically never — remember, we are talking about the “good-enough” childhood). Teachers who’d never stoop to demeaning and shaming you and making you feel stupid. Clergy who praised you for being a good boy or girl rather than a sinner who deserved eternal damnation. I realize there has been an enormous progress toward less child abuse, but it’s still awfully common to have grown up in the “I'm not OK, you’re not OK” mode.

Sooner or later something bad is bound to happen — “shit happens” is the most succinct translation of the First Noble Truth — and we are required to cope with adversity, aka finding ourselves deep in doodoo. It’s rarely out own fault, pure and simple. There are circumstances. There is other people’s doo-doo. But cope we must.

One way, alas, is by falling into delusional thinking that builds on the early patterns of self-loathing and a sense of abandonment. Now, both “I am a total failure in life” and “I had to do it all by myself; no one ever helped me” are outrageously false beliefs easily contradicted if you only stop and think and remember — astounding, all it really takes is remembering — the gazillion times when you did succeed and the innumerable instances when you did receive help from someone or from numerous others — from the whole society, in fact — but oddly enough, those memories are blocked. Anger, hate, resentment, depression — it’s incredibly easy to start riding the automatic spiral, and not see the thought disorders and memory disorders underlying the suffering. Life-changing insight may come only when half or more of our life is over.

Or it may never come. But if it does, it should teach us patience with those who aren’t there yet — and also the humility of knowing that though we’re now more enlightened about X or Y, we still harbor all kinds of false beliefs, despite being intelligent and educated. It’s simply the human  condition.

The Devil and a Woman, stained glass, before 1248, from Sainte Chapelle, now at Cluny


~ “A new paper by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen [suggests] that factual belief isn't the same as religious belief.

Behind the common word "belief" is something like this:

Devon (factually) believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.

Devon (religiously) believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.

Factual beliefs seem to influence the way we act and think in pretty much all contexts, whereas religious beliefs have a more circumscribed scope. Even when engaged in pretend play, for example, children know that they shouldn't really bite the Play-Doh "cookie"; the factual belief that Play-Doh isn't food infiltrates imaginative play. And even when imagining an improbable scenario, like having a pet cat on Pluto, factual beliefs will typically guide the inferences one draws — for instance, that the Plutonian cat needs food to survive. These findings suggest that factual beliefs have a wide-ranging influence on cognition and behavior.

Not so when it comes to religious beliefs. One study, for example, found that members of the Vezo tribe in Madagascar endorsed some aspects of life after death in a ritual context but not in a naturalistic context. Another study found that even people who explicitly endorsed an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God didn't think about God in these terms (for instance, as capable of being in more than one place at once) when engaged in imaginative storytelling. These findings suggest that religious beliefs govern how we think and act in appropriately "religious" contexts but not necessarily beyond.

A second reason to differentiate factual and religious belief comes from how these beliefs respond (or don't respond!) to evidence. Van Leeuwen provides a nice example: At the end of the last century, many people (factually) believed there was a "Y2K problem." Due to the way dates were handled by digital computers, people worried that computer systems would go wonky on and after Jan. 1, 2000. However, nothing much happened and, in the face of this evidence, people stopped believing there was a serious Y2K problem.

Now consider a superficially similar religious belief: A doomsday cult's prediction that the world will end on some particular date. Many such dates have come and gone, without an ensuing rejection of the beliefs that generated the prediction. These doomsday beliefs were held religiously, not factually; they were — as a result — relatively immune to evidence.

In these respects (and others that Van Leeuwen describes), religious beliefs are more like fictional imaginings than like factual beliefs. We can imagine that the Play-Doh is a cookie without having this imagining infiltrate our thoughts and actions in all contexts — and we can imagine that the Play-Doh is a cookie in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Like fiction or imaginative play, religious beliefs may persist alongside factual beliefs precisely because they operate within restricted contexts and aren't firmly tethered to evidence. An important difference, however, is in the contexts that fictions and religion typically govern.

"How can something so serious as religion," asks Van Leeuwen, "be rooted in the same capacity that yields something as frivolous as fiction?"

His answer, of course, is that fiction needn’t be frivolous: "Humans, in fact, take many fictions incredibly seriously." Still, it doesn't follow that it's rational to entertain any religious beliefs, even if human psychology provides a suite of mechanisms for doing so.

Van Leeuwen's paper can help us make sense of how people hold seemingly contradictory factual and religious beliefs — a very real phenomenon that's been of interest to psychologists.

"I think there are two main messages. The first is an encouragement in the direction of self-knowledge. What psychological state is actually going on in your mind when you say (for example) 'I believe in God, the Father almighty ... '? If it's credence as opposed to factual belief, as I think and as the word 'creed' suggests, then perhaps you have no business pushing it on someone else as if it were a factual belief — no matter how much it may do for you personally. So I think that self-knowledge can yield a certain amount of humility and restraint. This paper, I hope, can facilitate self-knowledge."

"Second, I think another important message is that people with different religions from your own (if you have a religion) may not be as crazy as you think. Having a credence that (say) the ancestors are alive and watching is very different from having a factual belief that the ancestors are alive and watching. It could be that the former isn't crazy, even if the latter would be. So I think that grasping this psychological distinction could foster a healthier level of understanding and curiosity toward others.”

The Maoris believed this was the entrance to the Underworld: Cape Reinga, New Zealand


This reminded me of the famous poem by Thomas Hardy about the belief that on Christmas Eve cows and sheep kneel at midnight (this belief is also expressed in one of Polish Christmas carols) — and the poet’s refusal to actually go to the barn and check — because of “hoping it might be so” while knowing deep down that it isn’t. Van Leeuwen proposed that religious beliefs are not literal but rather “literary” — closer to fiction and imagination. Karen Armstrong also suggested that religion is not literal but mythological and metaphorical.


The problem, however, seems to be a lot of confusion as to which beliefs are factual and which are “merely” (if that’s the word) religious. Yes, many people are able to compartmentalize religion and hold their beliefs only loosely and chiefly for one hour on Sunday. But there are those who seem genuinely convinced that angels and devils exist and can help or hurt us, that miracles violating the laws of nature happen all the time, that the dead continue to exist in the sky, and so on. There are those who at least seem to believe all this as firmly as they believe that the earth is round.

But at least in the West we are past the point of burning alive those who doubt those various archaic beliefs, and it does appear that religious beliefs are increasingly more loosely held and more confined to ritual occasions.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the point about “credence” not being bound to evidence — thus doomsday dates come and go, but those who were preparing to be “raptured” just shrug off the non-fulfillment of prophecy and stand ready for next time.

I suspect we need to study in more detail how the brain functions in terms of imagination, fiction, false memories, and acceptance of various degrees of “reality.” There is no denying that children only pretend to eat Play-Doh cookies. But Catholics are supposed to believe that the wafer (or a piece of cracker) becomes literally the body of Jesus. In past centuries, people killed and died for that belief. It was “factual” then — is it merely “religious” now?

The human brain seeks survival, not truth, so it's easy to see the hand of evolution here. Myths can serve survival, especially the collective survival. And then there is wishful thinking, so hard to resist! Sometimes I wonder how science ever emerged, given our bias to believe whatever makes us happy.

“My mother was watching me from heaven!” someone who just narrowly escaped an accident may exclaim. But later the same person may claim to have left religion a long time ago, and is in fact not a church goer. But are you going to needle him, “So, does your mother really watch over you from heaven?” That would be unkind. We understand that he adopts the belief about his mother in heaven in times of emotional need. 

Even more interesting is to look at "religious professionals": how much do ministers, rabbis, priests, monks and nuns REALLY believe? Already in my early teens I strongly suspected that some priests were non-believers. Not that they were jolly about it; they looked tortured, depressed. There was an occasional jolly fat priest, but most priests looked seriously unhappy. In part it may have been celibacy. I remember a sad monk in a TV documentary; he said that every day he thinks what it would have been like if he'd gotten married and had a family life. "I hope god is pleased with my sacrifice," he finished. I felt so sorry for him: he sacrificed sexual and emotional/family fulfillment to worship a fictional character.

And those doubt-filled letters of Mother Teresa, what an eye-opener! Apparently as a young nun she really did expect Jesus to come to her cell as a bridegroom . . . and later was forever bitter “because I don't have Him, so it all means nothing.” How revealing that it wasn’t quite to help people that she did her good work, but to have a special relationship with the imaginary Beloved . . . She (now officially a saint in spite of those letters) admitted that she never sensed the presence of god.

And then there is the fact that occasional hallucinations are a perfectly natural phenomenon among people who are not mentally ill. It just takes special circumstances — prolonged fasting, for instance, or extreme danger. It seems that Mother Teresa heard a voice telling her to “serve the poorest of the poor” during an illness when she was running a high fever. Apparently she craved more such “mystical experiences” — but that opens up another huge chapter.

Can we make a general claim that people understand the difference between religious beliefs and factual beliefs? Not with any clarity about it. But it’s probably a step in the right direction to suggests that beliefs fall into those two (or several) categories. 



~ “We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.” ~ Alan Watts

I’ve just rediscovered this thought-provoking statement. It’s interesting that Watts sees faith and belief as almost opposites. Belief is akin to having a closed mind. Faith, according to Watts, is open-mindedness.

In common usage there is no such opposition between faith and belief. In fact there isn’t even a “clear distinction” between the two words. Yet obviously there are different shades of meaning, and those differences can be significant. When a person says “I believe in kindness” it’s a not a factual belief like “the earth is round,” nor a religious belief like “Jesus died for our sins.” (I find it fascinating that Watts traced the etymology of “belief” to “lief,” related to wishing or desiring; to him a belief [I think he means mainly religious beliefs] is a type of wishful thinking).

Faith seems to be a broader term, and is closer to “trust.” I was raised in large part by an Auschwitz survivor (my grandmother), and yet, like Anne Frank, I have faith that most people are good at heart. I have been mocked for it, called naive, overly optimistic, and “rather silly.” But in spite of having experienced my share of cruelty and deception, and in spite of having, through my grandmother’s eyes, stared into an abyss of enormous evil, I still find that *most* people are good and even altruistic, glad to help others if they can. Likewise I have faith in some other conceptions about reality that I have reached over the years, though I realize that they are not absolute and keep on evolving.

My special challenge has been developing the faith (trust) that no matter what happens, I will be able to cope with it somehow. It has taken me a long time and many life experiences to come to trust in my ability to cope. Still trembling a bit, I think that I have enough intelligence, emotional strength, accumulated wisdom (“This too shall pass” is priceless), and other resources to be able to cope rather than fall apart under stress, come what may.

This kind of “faith in oneself” may sound pretty obvious, even trivial, to someone who’s always had high self-esteem. But many women know what it’s like to have experienced being put down and disvalued, of being made to feel incompetent and inadequate; those women (and some men, but women in particular) will understand that gaining faith in your ability to cope can be an achievement.

I believe in hard work; I believe in studying things in depth; I believe that “you get what you pay for” in more ways in one. I believe in treating others as I myself would like to be treated. I believe in forgiving rather than trying to take vengeance. I believe in moving on rather than holding grudges.

I also have faith in “negative capability.” I believe in waiting for clarity to arrive “in its own sweet time” (i.e. “ripeness is all”) rather than rushing for an answer; I believe the cognitive unconscious has the capacity to produce amazing solutions. Perhaps “I have faith in” would be a more accurate expression. My long experience with the creative process has taught me to trust my unconscious.

I also have faith in the collective human genius and the collective human goodness, a dominant tendency to cooperate rather take pleasure in inflicting harm.  When Bernie Sanders defined his spirituality as acting from the knowledge that “we’re all in this together,” that was an example of this faith (trust) in human solidarity — also called humanism. Once we fully grasp the fact that “we’re all in this together,” we see the need to work together, to help one another.

But perhaps we’re getting too caught up in words here. What matters is not how precisely we define the difference between “belief” and “faith,” or even what we believe and/or have faith in, but how we act.

William Blake: Behemoth


    ~ "Strange clouds forming above the Bermuda Triangle could explain why dozens of ships and planes have mysteriously vanished in the notorious patch of sea.
    Using radar satellite imagery, [meteorologists] discovered bizarre “hexagonal”-shaped clouds between 20 and 50 miles wide forming over the dodgy patch of water.
     The blasts of air are so powerful, they can reach 170 mph — a hurricane-like force easily capable of sinking ships and downing planes." ~

Will it convince the conspiracy nuts that something supernatural isn’t at play here? I doubt it. They’re impervious to evidence. As the saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of something they were never reasoned into in the first place.


~ “The habit of always saying “please” and “thank you” first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — among those very middle classes who were largely responsible for it. It is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.

The English “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this” — it is the same in most European languages (French s’il vous plait, Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.” “Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!” This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language, lies). When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word “please,” you are saying that it is not an order. But, in fact, it is.

In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true either — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does means “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor”s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) — the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true — is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying “my pleasure” — you are saying, “No, actually, it’s a credit, not a debit — you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!” ~

Debbie Milma: Please, 1993


Fascinating. Saying “please” and “thank you” is something we take for granted, unaware that such “good manners” didn’t exist until relatively recently in human history. You didn't need to thank a slave. Relatively speaking, we live in an era of emphasis on human dignity.

Someone pointed out to me that Southerners cultivated exquisite manners toward their white peers. And Hitler was known for “beautiful manners” towards women — his secretaries, for instance, who were notoriously in love with him. This almost makes me want to say, “Beware of people with beautiful manners — they may be compensating for being complete bastards toward SOME human beings.” Beautiful manners and rank prejudice — not uncommon. And in my unfortunately experience I’ve found that great charm can go together with utter cruelty. Of course in most cases this need not be true. Ideally, we should have beautiful manners when dealing with anyone. 

ending on beauty:

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” ~ Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

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