The Machinery of Cowardice Fails the Children of Rotherham

policeMy children once heard someone address me as “Doctor,” and so they asked me if I am the kind of doctor who helps people. I told them no, I have a PhD. I told them I’d studied why smart people do dumb things in groups. It interested me at the time, but when I see the headlines coming out of Rotherham, England—hundreds of children systematically raped and otherwise brutalized while authorities did nothing—I think the problem isn’t smart people collectively behaving like fools, but decent people becoming cowards.

The details of this tragedy are varied enough to whet any axe: the ethnicity and religion of the perpetrators; their targeting of impoverished children; fear by authorities that cracking down would lead to accusations of racism; the notion among police officers witnessing gang rapes that the victims—some of them as young as eleven—were willing participants; the concurrent persecution by child welfare authorities, even as they ignored these crimes, of foster care families whose political activities were deemed unsavory. The entire story sparks rage and it invites despair.

I am always curious about the decision processes of authorities in the midst of such atrocities. How can an infrastructure of ostensible protection become so dysfunctional that it overlooks mass rapes of children for a dozen years? [Read more...]

Medicating the Religious Mind

I’ve been taking an antidepressant for six months now. Psychiatry wins: I’m a more functional human. I don’t feel so isolated and restless. The tasks of daily life don’t seem impossible. Even the feeling of shame that I need to be on medication has been lessened by the medication. But it’s a dry season, God seems distant, and some days I don’t recognize myself.

I wonder how much higher the dosage would have to be to silence that little voice that wonders with every shift in mood and emotion—is this me or Celexa?  Is the real me revealed when the medication suppresses my anxiety, or am I suffocating her with an SSRI?  Is there a drug that can quell this stubborn refusal to be well—even though I feel well—the belief that peace is just a chemical haze that clears as soon as the bottle empties?

At the risk of sounding like a religious freak, or even just a garden-variety freak, I confess I’ve often worried that this voice inside is the devil. Except it’s the same voice that urges me to write and to throw myself at the foot at the cross—two good things I’m decidedly less inclined to do now that I’m on drugs. Physically, mentally, I’m waking up, getting well, returning to life. Why do I feel so spiritually and creatively dead? [Read more...]

A Jew Prays in Venice, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

On the pleasant train ride from Florence to Venice, my wife Laurie and I began to piece together a relaxed itinerary for our final days in Italy: the Jewish Ghetto—definitely; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—pretty sure; the Doge’s Palace—we should (but haven’t we had enough history?); the Basilica di San Marco, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari—haven’t we seen enough churches?

As it turns out, we did make it into a church (more than one) in Venice, but it was only at Santa Maria della Salute—a church on which we stumbled while rushing to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection so we could see it and have plenty of time for the famous Jewish Ghetto in Venice—where I felt the tenacious need to maintain my separate, external, egotistic will relax.

There was a prayer to be said and I said it in this church built to honor the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in 1629 to 1630 killed 47,000 residents; a third of Venice’s population.

In the presence of the Madonna of Healing, my eyes fixed on the sculptures above the main altar, fixed on one sculpted figure in particular: a woman below and to the right of the Madonna, her body turned away from the Madonna, her arms outstretched beyond the “frame” of the sculpture, into the void, in anguish, afflicted, her neck twisted so she could look back and up at the towering Virgin holding an infant in one arm.

[Read more...]

Christmas Past

20131222-200619.jpg I once watched a boy steal all my Christmas presents. I lay on my stomach and stared through a sweaty blur as he grabbed my box-full of gifts and scampered into the woods. I did not chase him; propped on one elbow staring as he ran, I did not even rise from my stomach. The presents were gone.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, I was camped out with my Marine unit in the woods at Cheat Lake, West Virginia, where we were setting 300 pounds of C-4 to blow a bridge. Four months later, I was camped off Green Beach, near Subic Bay, Philippines, training for desert warfare in the dense jungle—by Marine Corps logic it makes sense—on our way to Iraq.

[Read more...]

The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]


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