CIA Salon

CIA Salon June 17, 2010

That’s “Compassion In Action,” just to make things clear. A provocative name, perhaps, but neither part was my idea. Nevertheless, I like it. This is the name of a new group starting here in Missoula; formed by myself, an environmental lawyer and Tibetan Buddhist, and a psychology grad student. I wrote about our first meeting last week.

Yesterday’s talk was yet another journey through reality, all things large and small… Coincidentally, none of us had managed to invite another person, so the three of us took up where we had left off last week. Meghan, our psychologist, spoke again of Haiti and her wish to develop in the University some interdisciplinary programs or connections with the ability for responsive mobilization. Right now, here at least, that is lacking. Students are taught too much hypothetical or extremely local information, so when catastrophe hits as it did this year in Haiti, they are not equipped to help.

As a psychologist, Meghan spoke of the fact that many people in Haiti, especially children, don’t understand why earthquakes happen (they have only a 30% literacy rates). That, accompanied with various religious and superstitious beliefs, may leave many traumatized for life as they blame themselves or others for the natural disaster. She gave the example of a child jumping rope when the quake struck; that child might then associate jumping rope with the loss of her family, home, and way of life.  So, if we could just bring people together here, designers, linguists, social workers, and psychologists and create simple pamphlets with pictures and explanations of how and why earthquakes happen to be sent to Haiti, just think of the suffering that could be alleviated. Its such a small thing. And it’s not getting done in large part due to the complexity of the situation and the need for collaboration here.

We segued into the issue of our distractions here, in our own lives and in society as a whole. How can people really spend 4 hours a day watching TV? Or playing video games? Every day! Can you believe that the average US home has more TVs than people!?  Tom spoke of his feelings of alienation when visiting relatives and explaining that no, he doesn’t own a Wii, no he doesn’t watch this show or that. It’s as if these things have become the focal points of our culture. Not everyone agrees this is a bad thing (see book on left). But, as Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallowsrecently discussed on NPR, new media like the internet are crowding out our time spent thinking deeply about things – including the world we are living in and potentially destroying.

On the one hand we all agreed that this is the case. We all see the paradoxical wealth and consumerist interconnectedness of people around us (buying endlessly products from all corners of the earth, relying on resources -oil!- pulled from the depths of the Middle East, American Wilderness, and our ocean beds) and the utter DIS-connectedness people have with the world around them. Think about it too long and it gets truly depressing. As our conversation digressed into the power of extreme emotions over people’s perception of facts, Tom lamented, “From the time you wake up ’till you go to bed at night, never having to reflect on life; that’s become the American Dream.” Remember when questioning our president’s activities was deemed “un-American” just a few years ago because we were at war? And now?

On the other hand none of us wants to be ‘that guy’ or woman who is so fanatical about being green or whatnot that we alienate ourselves even further from family and friends. Self righteousness may win people over in the short-run, but it’s not a healthy way forward and often turns out to be just as destructive and delusional as the ‘evil forces’ one sets out to destroy with it. We’re all a part of this system, and no amount of criticism will ever fully separate us. Nor do we want to be separate, cutting off our own roots. But we do need to help steer the ‘ship’ away from destruction.

There is hope, Meghan noted, in looking at how our society changed its attitudes toward smoking. For half a century it was cool and sexy. Tobacco companies had riches and political clout. They bought off politicians, doctors, the people. But now, not so much. What happened? What happened was that many people watched their mothers and fathers and grandparents dieing painful deaths, coughing and weezing and barely able to move, but still holding a cigarette because they are that addictive. The bad news is that during the great lie, millions of people died tobacco related deaths. The good news is that it couldn’t be hidden, it was too obvious, and the anger many people felt over this could not be restrained or channeled into powerlessness.

The problem now, I pointed out, was how can we make people feel the suffering caused by our inactions or policies in Haiti, or global warming, etc? It’s one thing to watch a relative die and to demand justice, but to watch people who seem far, far away, or to watch temperatures rising ever so slowly is very different. It’s an uphill battle, but one we must – if we care for our future or that of future generations – fight.

And so the salon adjourned. We agreed, in a sense, to end always on a comma rather than a period; to live within the tension of great ideas and action, to stand on the uncomfortable ground that is our reality – when we truly look at it. The idea of the salon is an apt one; a coffee house or bookshop where people come to discuss their lives and big ideas and to set the conditions for action. These aren’t activism meetings or mere intellectual head-trips; they are incubators of change and collaboration. Our mission statement for the moment is “A free exchange of ideas, fostering diverse connections, social action, and deeper personal reflection.”
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