First, Do No Harm

The title names the ideal set before medical students. More broadly, it’s a good goal, I think, for living – for parenting, teaching, and leadership in any institution. At first, it seems simple, and like it should be easy to live by; but it is in fact impossible for me to stick to, because of my own ignorance, hubris, and other character flaws. I was reminded of it, ironically, by a youthful ophthalmologist at the V. A. hospital, who was patronizing, self-righteous, and judgmental – common in young professionals – and orthodox believers! (He also misdiagnosed me as having macular degeneration.) Sometimes, they outgrow these defects!

In the company where I worked in IT, a bullying model prevailed, which is terribly harmful. It’s slowly being neutralized as more women and androgynous men – like me! – have begun to model a better paradigm: egalitarianism and coöperation. It seemed glaringly self-evident to me that having subordinates who would watch my back was better than inspiring saboteurs who would stab me in it. (As a subordinate myself, I have practiced both!) And one doesn’t have to look far to see destructive parenting or teaching, often involving an ego contest. More humility is what’s wanting, I think; and I’ve found a way to acquire it that works for me.

My newly-minted anthropologist friend Sarah just recommended to me a documentary called “Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality” (2003), which refers several times, in turn, to a book from 1973 by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called Denial of Death. It is, as they say, a “seminal text”. If the film’s thesis is correct, you should want to throttle me just for bringing up the subject! (86 minutes)

I find the contemplation of death to put how I live my life in better perspective. This cue from the Master is instructive. In Richard II, King Dick has been strutting around behaving like Donald Trump, but has begun to realize that he’ll soon be murdered. Oof! Shakespeare here demonstrates his mastery of psychology and philosophy as well as the skills for which he is more widely known. He makes me laugh: he called Death “the antic” – a jester. The jester’s role was partly to mock royalty; to keep their heads from swelling unbecomingly; and that’s the principle service the Antic does eventually for each of us. In the play he sits on the king’s crown and snickers at him for being a pompous ass; but “comes at the last and with a little pin/bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” We are an absurdly short-sighted species. Death is the great leveler – and comes, not with a scythe,but a pin!

Shakespeare advocates focusing on the long game, and is a committed realist. He knows that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” No delusion there; no pretense. His perspective is almost cosmological.

Let Carl Sagan say it his own way – cosmologically! (I keep returning to this, my lodestar.)

We succeeded in taking that picture [of the earth, from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.


Here’s the rest again, including the photo, if you’re enticed:

Becker’s premise in Denial of Death, and my own understanding, is that our problem arrived half a million years ago, with the expansion of our brain. We gained the immense advantage of being able to contemplate the future, and so prepare for it; but part of imagining the future is foreseeing our end. It was then we first learned to deceive ourselves, to try to evade the inevitable. We can squirm and shriek, but the Reaper is undeterred; he comes ahead with his little pin!

If I am right, that the only thing that ultimately matters is our affectionate bonds to one another, the next question is what impedes that. My answer is self-puffery – pretense. Self-deceit. Denial. I have been battling it for 60 years in myself, and I have learned that virtually every single time, when I impute to myself a noble motive, I have lied to myself – again! Motives are neither noble nor ignoble. They are what they are.

A current example of pretense: The last crop of Republican Tea Party contenders were a severe embarrassment to “Reagan Republicans” because of their uniform buffoonery, but Newt Gingrich showed a glimmer at one point. When someone asked Romney why he left the Massachusetts government after a single term, he indulged in some outrageous self-flattery. “Could we drop a little of the pious baloney?” said the Newt – to me a gut-buster. (At times like these, Mitt seemed incapable of introspection. He just smirks idiotically. I swear he has a touch of Asperger’s. The reason he kept getting caught flat-footed is simply that his feet are flat!)

Then the Newt backslid, though, with his self-righteous attack on John King for asking him about his suggestion to Mrs. G. #2 that he could just keep the lady in the white helmet on the side for a sex toy – the day irony boiled over. Bad John. Noble Newt.

Pretense is simply pretending to be more than you are. It’s especially self-defeating if it’s successful, because it merely serves to push people away: the unintended consequence.


In my determination to tame my own pretentiousness, I try to bring the sludge at the bottom up to the surface, where I can see it more clearly – examine my motives. It’s a kind of spiritual nudity. I’ve been at it ever since my experience with the Baptists’ denial, which was unbelievable to me. I was angry at them for deceiving me; and when I realized that they had first deceived themselves, I was still angry at their stupidity. And still am. However, my contempt for their smothering of their capacity to reason has pretty much immunized me against doing that myself – if I can catch myself at it.

I know that it’s also unreasonable to hate stupid people; but it presents me with a perfect opportunity to practice my theory about civilizing myself. I like the idea that our duty to one another is to employ our prefrontal cortex – which is said to contain our “new brain’s” rational overlay – the judging executive – to control the worst of our lizard brain’s impulses. Y’know, kinder, gentler, and that. It’s why Katherine Hepburn (the missionary lady) in “The African Queen” gets to recite one of the prime texts in my catechism: “Nature, Mr. Allnut (Bogart), is what we’re put in this world to rise above.”

My “hidden observer,” a sardonic thing, has been second-guessing me now for 60 years, and has often been cross with me, because of my trying self-trickery of my own. For me the mortal sins are self-trickery and self-puffery, which are an inseparably entwined pair, and seem almost universal. My hope is that when the Antic comes for me with his little pin, I’ll go noiselessly, my hot air long since released.


Now we have three latter-day musketeers, with three books. These people are at the pinnacles of their fields, so attention must be paid. No kidding! Their common thesis is that in matters in which we are not emotionally involved, we stand a good chance of making a rational decision; but that if we have an emotional stake in the issue – a bias – it will drive decision. After the fact, we will muster whatever rationale we can lay our hands on to support it. The books:

             Who’s In Charge Here? – Michael Gazzaniga on free will
The Folly of Fools – Robert Trivers on deceit and self-deceit
The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt on clashing ideologies and their physiology

I am now doing exactly as they would predict: I am insisting that their rules don’t apply to me – that in spite of my biases, I can think rationally. If I’m right, it will be easy to explain: I am so insistent on knowing the truth that that goal will override my egotism.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while – whether I’m being an ass. Here’s my claim: I have been shredding my pretenses for many years, trying to hold my feet to reality’s fire. Beneath everything else is my attempt to get conscious control of my egotism. Above all, addressing my most essential grievance against myself – my self-trickery – there’s my ego. To get through this life doing as little harm as possible – where I started this screed – there it is. In my arch-enemies – bullying and bigotry – egotism’s the problem. Even the only bias I can identify in myself, against stupid people, goes back to that. (How dare they not attend to my reasonable arguments?)

A painfully succinct and accurate definition from Wikipedia: “Egotism is the drive to maintain and enhance favorable views of oneself, and generally features an inflated opinion of one’s personal features and importance – intellectual, physical, social and other” [italics mine]. I think it would be silly to try to eliminate my ego. I’ve settled for trying to control it.

I’m fortunate to have come from the factory androgynous. I have not regretted it. There are many traits I think are more highly developed in women. I am most fond of gossip. The theory is that in pre-history, men’s job was to bring home the meat – sometimes an individual effort, sometimes in a team, but mostly a solitary activity. Women, while doing camp chores, began trying to understand people’s behavior. Gossip is essential to this effort.


The three books’ themes are necessarily intimately interwoven, and ride the crest of developing brain science. If one sticks out, for me, it’s Trivers on denial, because our society is completely waterlogged by it. Jerry Sandusky and his wife are sad examples of individuals; but there are more sensitive examples closer to home.

Pope Ratzinger found the pedophilia of the Irish priests to be a mystery! I can’t stand it. Define a vocation as celibate and you’ll get a bunch of gay men and women romping about in the seminaries and convents (a gay version of the dorm in a party school). Deprive them of normal social lives to foster emotional immaturity. Then arrange for them to get trusted, unfettered access to children. A recipe for self-inflicted disaster. (The unfettered trust part works for teachers and coaches, too.)

The hippo in the parlor is orthodox religions’ role in enabling the denial of death. For “Christians,” waiting for Armageddon also allows them to shirk responsibility for the earth’s health. (Remember John Lennon? “Imagine… No Religion”? Here’s a modern classic, an aid to your imagination:  Dawkins’s list of participants includes a lot of the people I admire most in this world.)

The Tea Party sponsors denial of global warming, evolution, GLBT research, ongoing racism… the list is endless and hideous.

What all these examples have in common is the denial of reality. That’s what I can’t stand. For that I have zero tolerance; yet at the same time I am resigned to it. If we have to wait for evolution to eradicate it – ain’t gonna happen in time. What shall we then do? Wait for Mother Nature to wipe us out and start over with another life form?

Ending # 1

The human mind demands answers. I despise my answer. What’s yours?
I need a nap. Wake me when it’s over.

Ending # 2

Let’s all climb down from our high horses and walk together. Hold hands and walk together.
Is that all there is? Yes..
and it is enough.




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