The Chosen Ones?

A little while ago someone asked me to name something I did not like about Judaism. At the time I could not think of anything. My experience of Judaism has always been joyful and uplifting.  Erstwhile, I put the same question to a Jewish friend of mine who had a number of grievances against Judaism and as a consequence had turned away from Jewish practices and avoided being identified as a Jew.  I have had a thirty year connection with this man and I love this friend dearly, but Judaism has always been a point of contention between us, albeit one rarely spoken of. Hitherto, when I put the question to him; “what do you not like about Judaism”? His answer was clear.

“The idea that Jews believe themselves to be God’s chosen people, is highly abhorrent”, he said.   He then went on to describe how he had dumped Judaism, but found solace in another movement;  metaphysics, which meant he was interested in the Kabbalah, but not Judaism (a somewhat contradiction in terms). Nonetheless,  the problem for my friend was simply, a term; the “chosen people”.

Clearly, if one person puts themselves above another, this would be abhorrent. However, most Jews I know feel quite embarrassed to be referred to as God’s chosen people. For me personally, I think taking this Biblical statement literally and out of context is a mistake.  Speaking in the vernacular, being special or chosen as an individual, or a group, does not preclude the possibility that others were also special or chosen.  There may be no record of God choosing others,   but this does not rule out the possibility or probability of it happening. In God all things are possible!

God’s task for the chosen Jews was to spread His words of loving kindness among the masses and to grow the movement of Judaism.  In ancient Israel the movement of Judaism did grow significantly, but as in any gathering or movement, historical or current; there are always those who want to hold onto power and keep it for themselves. Judaism’s gains and achievements became directed towards an elite.  Jews became exclusive due to the desire of a few to maintain supreme power.

The perceived power that teachers and leaders held sway over others was not the way “chosen” or “special” was meant to be expressed.  Indeed, it became a system of an “Othering”.  To this end, those who decided to cling to the notion of being God’s only chosen people did not fulfill God’s wishes.   Instead, the word chosen became synonymous with the word superior, which concomitantly caused a separation of the Jews from the rest.  It is my belief that this was not God’s intention at all.

For me, one of the special things for me about (Reform) Judaism is we can all come to worship from different perspectives, or to put it euphemistically, there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.  The meaning of being chosen in my life has had many avenues for exploration and like others before me, I was chosen to be many things, an artist, a writer, a mother, an environmentalist and much more. In addition,  what I do has equal value to others doing the same,  irrespective of their religions or conditions of birth.

Further, being caught in the semantics of a word has no real basis for the inter-subjective expression of Judaism either as an identity of as a follower of God’s Holy teachings.

What then do I find wrong with Judaism?  Today, many people seeking to join a religious group would find it a lot easier to become a Christian or a Muslim than to become a Jew.  I have  heard it said that some Rabbinical cohorts will refuse an application to convert a Gentile to Judaism three times in the belief that those applicants will get tired of begging for admission into the faith and not return with the same request.  Notably, if this practice  happens (and I have never met anyone who has experienced it), I imagine it would be to make sure someone (an applicant) was making the right decision.  After all, once becoming a Jew you are a Jew for life and historically for many that has been a very painful burden.

That said, there is also a lot of work involved in converting to Judaism,  but there needs to be some form of demonstration towards commitment.     Moreover, the task of learning how to become a Jew is not restricted to converts. Many secular Jews have missed out on such learning, as was the case for my friend.   Life-long learning is one of the main tenants of being a Jew and it is a goal many non-Jews also aspire to.

Jews have maintained their connections to other Jews because they have laboured tirelessly over the voluminous traditions that include historiographies, theologies, liturgies and rituals as well as the daily practices of love and compassion.   Most practicing Jews value these lessons highly and apply them to their lives as well as to their worship.

In a practical sense,  beliefs and rituals can make life a lot easier and certainly more pleasurable.  We all need to connect to the many aspects of the world around us, but if we connect only to the material things we lose touch with our inner being; our soul.   True Judaism elevates the soul to a position of love, joy,  and well being, is not about power or the labelling of groups or individuals, it is about being immersed in the glory of God, however that goodness might be translated into belief.

 

Poverty Leads to Fascism.

The Shema

I have written a lot about post-war Britain because it had such a profound impact on my life.   After the war Britain was a dangerous place to grow up in.  Predatory behaviour was common.  Rapes and sexual assaults were abundant, but no one talked about them. No one used the words, “sex” or “rape”, they were taboo.  You knew something terrible had happened when a person disappeared. Rape victims kept quiet as it was generally the woman who was blamed and removed from the home. Unwanted pregnancies propped up a lucrative trade in backyard abortions and predatory behaviour   was dismissed as just boys being boys.   Crimes gained little attention from the authorities unless someone was severely injured or murdered, even then there was bias against women and children who were not breadwinners , thus, they had no economic value.  Many young women called themselves “wombs for hire”.  Rapes and assaults in marriage or relationships were deemed normal and women in these circumstances were inextricably trapped.  No one would employ a divorced or separated women so life was a dead end, marriage or nothing.   The upshot of this was, a man was determined “good” if he did not rape or murder his spouse, irrespective of what else he might have done.  In reality, it was the lack of a wife’s physical injury that was the definition of a good husband.  A good wife was one that was totally obedient and did not complain.

The only punishment for deviant behaviour was gossip and disapproving gossip could be mighty powerful, it could make a person’s life unbearable, but women were always to blame, women were known as the gossipers.

The aftermath of war was visibly horrible and it would visit me in my thoughts daily as well as in my nightly dreams.  Most of my dreaming was immersed in war scenes and the fear of another war. Many who survived the Second World War came home without arms or legs or they were sick from the effects of gas and gun fire. Most were prone to ongoing illness and poverty so a lot of deviant behaviour was overlooked.

Many families were so poor that babies and toddlers would sleep in cardboard boxes placed on the damp floors and most decent parents were too proud to ask for help from the charities. People came constantly to our door for help as we always appeared well off, at least our personal struggles were secret.   My grandmother always had food and a few coins to offer the needy, she would go without herself to help someone.  Indeed, my grandmother was deemed the local angel, but  sharing with the needy was a Jewish creed. Christians helped people too, but there was always a Bible in one hand and gifts in the other. Christians sought to boost their congregations because that way they could  expand  their churches.  The Jews had no need of a church., they had survived for centuries without a Temple or they had built a sanctuary of a different kind through kinship.

My grandmother was an added blessing to the poor because the charities were never trusted as they had the power to take children away from their homes.   Briton was an institutionalizing nation and anything funded by the church  was suspected of being in collusion with the government.

Where there is poverty there is also added disease, polio, diphtheria and whooping cough were rife.  Added to this, after the war years Britain was experiencing some of the coldest winters on record with people dying on mass from the freezing temperatures.  Reduced means impacted on the rates of survival. For some death could not come quickly enough. People could be heard through the thin walls of terrace houses praying to God to take them out of their misery. Suicide was not unusual, but know would own up to it. Sympathetic doctors would find some ailment for the Death Certificate.

Where there was death  the churches did well in gathering up souls for redemption.  Grieving families turned to Jesus, but there religion was full of contradictions.     On Sunday mornings the congregations would sit in the pews singing:

Onward Christian Soldiers, marching on to War, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

“Why would Jesus be involved in war” I asked my grandmother. ” I thought religion was about peace?”  This was her answer.

“Jesus was a Zealot and the revolutionary leader of a group of men who plotted to drive the Romans from the occupation of the Holy Land. There were may attempts, but it was after Jesus died that the Jewish War really began.  It was a failed coup that caused the destruction of the Jewish Temple”.

No one dared talk such heresy when I was growing up, but my grandmother was a wise old woman who cared little for peoples’ opinions.  She talked often about the Temple, but I was too young to understand its significance.

My grandmother’s words endured, perhaps because my mother had chosen to become a Christian which served to divide the family.    I never really understood this choice. However,  in Britain after the war politics was much more powerful than religion and Britain was a Christian country that had historically fought hard for the separation of powers, so religion was often not taken seriously, it was just somewhere to find community.

Where there is hardship there is always corruption, even in the churches.  Food and luxury items were also linked to religion and sold on the black market leading to fights and attacks against non-religious rivals. Pimps and prostitutes were rife on the streets and the authorities either turned a blind eye to them or extracted a part of their earnings for protection. Corruption was so visible on the streets that no one really thought there was anything wrong with it.  Corruption in the churches was much worse.

War did not just end on Armistice Day it brought, guilt and disenchantment to survivors and their descendants.   It brought different kinds of challenges and hardships, some got through it and many didn’t. Many were just too old, too sick or too weary to survive the turmoil.

The War resulted in much more than a loss of material comforts it was also an identity crisis that caused a rapid deterioration of hope and well-being. Britons were always strong on the need for an identity. Many took pride in being working-class and poor. There had always been a proud culture of poverty that few could escape from so they formed an exclusive identity around it for the sake of survival.  Jews did the same, they gathered their identity, not through poverty, but through the teachings of the Torah.   It did not matter where you were in the world, the Torah was always with you.  The Torah was the rock of survival.

Poverty could become so deeply buried into the post-war psyche that it appeared as a privilege with its own mantra, “the meek shall inherit the Earth”.[1]  This in turn slowly eroded the family processes so when times were hard many of the established social structures collapsed and violence took over, which was made evident in the rise of British fascism that would ultimately vents its anger on the Jewish population.

It would be a mistake to think that the persecution of the Jews ended with the Second World War. Hatred of the Jews seemed to come in waves and it deepened with harsh conditions and a rank sense of hopelessness in the aftermath of the war.   The Jews never gave up hope.  My grandmother taught me to “count my blessings” and I have continued to do this every day of my life.

[1] the Bible Matthew 5.5.

Good Times Remembered. 

 

 

                                  Image of the Tate Gallery 1964, Google Images.

As one grows older there seems to be the tendency for remembering the past, whether simply for pleasure or because there was an important lesson to be had.  Also, the things we appear to remember the most are the pleasurable and exciting experiences or those that are particularly unusual and quirky.  These quirky times arouse the most emotion and hence the strongest of recollections.

One short episode that stayed in my mind for many years happened  when I first stepped out into the world as an adult; well, near adult!  I formed one of my closest friendships with a young woman I met on a train.  Her name was Linda Levine, she was very gregarious, totally crazy, in the nicest possible way and very giving.  Linda  opened my mind to the notion of personal  revelation.   I recall her saying, “what is hidden inside, for whatever reason, needs to be revealed and  shared because it can bring people together in all kinds of circumstances”.  Linda seemed like the wise teen of a wise mother, but sharing  did not come easily to me because I was an only child and I grew up very protected from the world,   introvert and isolated.  Only children tend to live in a bubble of their own making, it is a very head-spaced existence so I did not bode well with Linda’s ideals , it took time and a lot of work on my self to understand her.

I was sixteen when I met Linda.  We were both travelling on a late night train from London to the coast.  We both occupied a single compartment marked for the use of   “Ladies Only”.  Linda was heading for Westcliffe-on-Sea, a small township on the River Thames estuary.   I was going back to Canvey Island, a similar small landmass situated just off the coastline with a bridge that connected it to the mainland.   The island was called after Cana’s people and it was my home for nine years until I moved back to my origins in London.

We were alone in the carriage, just the two of us, perfect strangers,  yet wildly curious about the other’s  paths.   Linda was about my age and she was dressed in a bright red coat, which matched the colour of her lipstick.  The  colour red usually turned me away from people, my mother believed it to be gaudy and in poor taste.   Not this time, I ignored my mother’s evaluation as I was drawn to the figure that  sat opposite me in a way that was unusual and inexplicable.

At first there was a mutual awareness of each other’s presence,  but also  a noticeable and  awkward  silence existed between us.  It was the kind of fear based silence that happens  when you want to say something , but reconsider the implications of such a bold move.  There is always the fear that one might  be offended, or worse;  one might experience complete rejection.

As two nonplussed bodies, we sat in this same space of silence as the train pulled out of the station. The whistle blew and a puff of smoke flew past the window.   We glanced at the smoke  simultaneously as if this might break the silence.   There was a meeting of the eyes between the two of us, then my overtly ostentatious  companion broke her silence.   With great gusto Linda    leaned forward and asked me a question, “are you Jewish?”  It was an inquiry that had been put to me often, but for the sake of being too conspicuous I usually avoided answering. Nonetheless, Linda pursued  her question. “Are you Jewish?”

Captivated by the the flashing brown eyes and astute demeanor I answered, “My mother is a Christian”.    I thought my rather terse response would put an end to the inquiry, but I had no such luck.

My fellow traveller was looking at me with a strong and determined expression and again she asked, “Are you Jewish? You look Jewish,” she said.

“So people tell me”, I answered.

There was no doubt the question embarrassed me. When I was growing up we did not talk about politics, religion or sex, it was considered impolite and ungainly to do so, but I could see that Linda would not concur with such a view.   It was then with much relief that the topic was changed and we talked about our respective journeys on the Fenchurch Street steam train.

Linda was returning home to Westcliffe-on-sea after a night at the movies in the West End. I was visiting an elderly women who had been taken ill, she had been my carer for many years after my grandmother passed away.

“Where do you live?” Linda asked.

“Mayfair”, I replied.

Linda’s eyes lit up and her smile extended to a gaping
“Wow!”  She had to compose herself to continue the conversation. Only the rich lived in Mayfair and clearly, I was not of that ilk.

“Mayfair”, she retorted.

“Yes, Mayfair”.

By the time the forty-minute journey had ended I knew everything about Linda that she wanted to tell me. Her father had passed away and Linda and her mother needed to move from the coast to London so they could be closer to to employment. Both Linda’s parents had been tailors working in Saville Row,  but they had fallen upon hard times. Linda’s mother now worked in a clothing factory and Linda was looking for a job.

There was a small flat vacant in the apartment block where I lived so I suggested that Linda and her mother inquire about it.    The flat was  close to shops,  near the America Embassy, and not far from Park Lane” , I thought they might like it.  I knew they would like it. Who would not like a Park Lane address?

The train pulled into Benfleet Station and I alighted, Linda waved to me as I walked along the platform to the gateway. As I made my way to the bus stop I contemplated further on the prospect of having Linda and her mother living next door to me.  I had secured an apartment in the building myself with a pure stroke of luck, my boss knew someone who was departing the country.  The building was historically unique and it housed  a particular kind of resident, they were upwardly mobile and very discrete.   I wondered  how the effervescent, vivacious and excitable Linda would fit in.

A few weeks passed and I never saw Linda on the train again, but  then on one evening on my return home from work, who should  I see strolling aimlessly down the grand staircase of the Leas Mews apartment building, but Linda.   I did not recognize her at first, the dull jeans, red coat and lipstick  she wore at our first meeting had been replaced with an elegant Channel wool suit.  She looked glamorous and her attire was immaculate as if she had just stepped out of a posh Parisian couture.  Indeed, she had, Linda and her mother had acquired a significant inheritance and had been on a shopping trip to Paris.

The following day Linda knocked on my door and told me how her father’s inheritance had brought all her dreams to fruition.   They were now residents of Mayfair, albeit in a one room apartment with a bathroom shared with all the other residents on the second floor.

I got to know Linda and her mother quite well, they were kind, conservative and sometimes over demanding.  Like all Jewish mothers, Linda’s mother wanted the best for her daughter and that meant marriage to a  nice Jewish boy, preferably a rich one.   Further, in the absence of my mother, I had become like a second Jewish daughter to this kindly woman , hence I was subject to the same advice.  “Find a good and wealthy husband”.  Matrimony was the  expectation of the times and the  ultimate goal for most women under twenty five, but not for me, I had other ambitions to follow.

Linda and her mother were big spenders so the  inheritance money was not to last, two wardrobes of expensive clothes and trips to restaurants in limousines soon ate into the funds. Linda’s mother had failed to secure an an affluent spouse for her daughter so they were both  forced back to work.

Linda had some difficulty finding work, she had not achieved well at school and her character could be flippant and overwhelming.    Then  a few weeks later, despondency turned to enthusiasm as Linda was given a position as the receptionist at the Egg Marketing Board.   It sounded like good employment.

A few more weeks passed then as Linda was again descending the grand stairway from her apartment  I noticed that she was looking quite miserable.  I had anticipated a drop in optimism, but Linda was feeling helpless and  deeply moribund. She was not copying with the responsibility that was asked of her and I was concerned.   It begged the question, what had happened to this happy-go-lucky mashugana  that I had met on the coastal train? What stood before me someone who was totally lost.

Mother and daughter were struggling.  Linda and her mother had sold a lot of their belongings to pay the rent and life in Mayfair had reached a painful hiatus.  They were on the move again.   Linda was looking so very depressed that I tried to cheer her up by suggesting we have dinner together.  ” I have two tickets for an opening at the Tate Gallery,” I said, “would you like to come with me?” She was a little taken a-back, but agreed to come.

We arranged to meet me for dinner the following day and attend the exhibition opening.  I found a suitable gown for Linda to borrow and when I got to the office I booked a chauffeured driven limousine on the company account. My boss allowed me to do this for special occasions and Linda, a suitably  humbled Jewish girl in trouble, was a special occasion.

The following morning was one of routine, sorting mail and answering phone calls so the day passed quickly.   I left the office in good time to walk to the Egg Marketing Board where I had arranged to meet Linda.  The office where Linda worked was not was not easy to find.    Most big corporations had big buildings, but the number Linda gave me led me to a narrow stairway up onto the first floor of what had previously been a clothes store.  I climbed the stairs and knocked at the door.  There were strange noises coming from the other side of the barrier.  “Who is it?” a voice answered.

“It’s me, we had a dinner date, remember?”

“Hold on”, came the muffled reply.

I waited a minute or two and suddenly the door opened.

“Come in” said Linda.

As I walked into the room all I could see was cage upon cage of very  disgruntled chickens screeching and flapping their wings in protest.   I looked at the birds and looked back at Linda, but before I could ask the question she explained that the chickens were for a exhibition and they were just in the office overnight until someone picked them up and transported them to the appropriate venue.

“Oh!  Are you ready?” I asked. “I have a car waiting, but we have to walk back to Green Park”. Green Park was about twenty minutes away.

Linda was dressed in the gown I had given her and she had indulged in a  beautifully styled hairdo  at a popular salon.   She obviously wanted to be her best and it would have cost her a large chunk of her wages.  “Come on”, I said trying to hurry her up. “We do not want to be late”

Linda answered hesitantly, , “ Nearly ready, I just have to feed the chickens”.

Linda opened a bunch of sacks and  transferred handfuls of grain from inside the bags  onto large bowels that were on the floor of the chicken’s cages. There would have been more than a hundred chickens of all shapes and sizes so the task took a good half an hour or so and I could see that Linda, who was generally highly strung, was getting more and more anxious. “Are we going to be late?” She asked.

“Yes, come on, hurry”, I replied.

Eventually the feeding frenzy was over, Linda opened the front door and we were on our way. However, before the front door closed again, Linda turned to me,  “wait a minute” she exclaimed, “I have forgotten something”.

It was too late, Linda had forgotten to lock the cages and as she approached the stacked wire pens  she encountered a host of marauding birds fluttering in all directions, there were like giant flies that had been caught in a jam jar.  After one bird found the open door to the stairway, others followed.  Soon an entire army of chickens was hurrying down the stairs towards Oxford Street.

It was after five o’çlock and hordes of people were late night shopping or making their way home from work.  For a moment we both stood mortified in the middle of  a second lot of wing-flapping escapees.   Linda became hysterical and tears rolled down her face.  “I am such a Schmuck” she said, ” nothing ever goes right for me.”  Very little did seem to go right for Linda.

Linda was destined to lose the job anyway because she lacked the skills to be a receptionist.  She was absent minded, irrational and often silly, but after getting to know her, I loved her for her innocence.

We set about trying to catch some of the chickens, but it was an impossible task.    There were shouts and screams coming from the street as people tried to brush away the creatures that had perched on heads and shoulders and whose desperate attempts at freedom terrorized the bevvy of shoppers and  nighttime commuters.   There were chickens everywhere trying to negotiate their way through the crowds of disoriented people. Women screamed, children cried; some people saw the funny side of it, but most were frustrated and frightened. One or two chickens might have been manageable, but in their hundreds the scene resembled a horror movie.

We both ran after a small group of chickens that were about to descend into the underground. We were too late, they were heading down the stairs and onto the escalators.  We followed them.  Several station officials attempted to round up the flying visitors, but they too were unsuccessful.  An incoming train stopped in the station and as the doors opened, in flew the chickens. The train was heading into the tunnel before anyone realized what had happened. The police arrived and put up barriers, but the chickens simply climbed over them. Human life was coming to a standstill due to an invasion of prized exhibition poultry.    The television station had been alerted, but they were too late to catch the best of the action.

We made our way onto the street again. The chickens were running along pavements, jumping onto cars, entering stores and settling onto the platforms on London buses.   There was nothing we could do except watch.

With a deep sigh and a lot of wishful thinking we pushed through the crowds and  made our way back to my office.  Linda’s very expensive hair style had accrued and sheath of white feathers. I could only  make fun of it.   “Madam, you have a new hair fashion, how elegant, you will set the trend for the season”.  Linda raised a smile and we both laughed.  We had managed to glean some amusement out of a catastrophe and we still had time to get to the gallery.

When we got back to my office  the limousine was waiting. We cleaned up and eventually we made our way to the art exhibition. Linda still had feathers in her hair. Our invitations were collected at the door and inside we sat at a table ready to listen to the opening speech.   We watched as the rich and famous negotiated sales of some the world’s greatest paintings. Linda knew nothing about art and she was bored so she left the table and wandered around the gallery.  When she finally arrived back at the table she told me she had met an American art dealer who had asked her out. She was meeting him for lunch at the end of the week.  I was pleased for her knowing that her mother would be just ecstatic.

We had missed dinner so when we left the gallery and ditched the limousine we walked to an all-night café.  We ate, chips, chocolate cake and soy ice cream.  We  chatted, laughed and acted like two normal working girls.  It was nice and it was comfortable.  We bonded, but  as time passed the friendship dissipated.   I knew Linda had lost her job and she and her mother had to find cheaper accommodation.  The next thing I heard Linda and her mother had gone to America where Linda was getting married.

About a year later, quite by chance,  I bumped into Linda again on the   Fenchurch Street to Southend train.   She was sitting alone in the “Ladies Only” carriage.  I got in, greeted her with much delight and surprise and sat down on the seat opposite.  She smiled at me. I could see she was pleased to see me.  There was a moments silence.  “Are you Jewish?” She asked.  We both just burst into a fit of laughter.  It was as if nothing had separated us.

Linda told me that she had married her art dealer and was on holiday visiting family. “Mazel tov”! 

We continued laughing as we recalled the events of the mass chicken escape and the night at the gallery.  Neither of us would ever forget it.

I was again vising my old carer on Canvey Island, but when I arrived I was told that she had died.

Linda returned to America and  I had no need to catch the coastal train again. A new passage in life had opened for Linda and for me.   I never saw or heard from Linda again and life simply moved forward as it always does.

What is Consciousness? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Google images.

 

Consciousness and the Evolution of Consciousness.

The consciousness/awareness/self-consciousness and/or knowledge that we experience on a daily basis are only “the tip of the iceberg”.  In the psychoanalytic theory of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind the “iceberg” metaphor is often used to explain the levels of consciousness.    The tip of the iceberg is what we knowingly experience while the unconscious is represented by the ice hidden below the surface of the water.

Sigmund Freud believed that all human behaviour and personality derive from constant contests between the governing psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness; the unconscious, the pre-conscious and the conscious.   For example; a person might intend to make a statement, but the words come out differently to the intention and generally mean something that was unintended.  This often happens in the error of a single word; Freud called this “slips of the tongue”.  Freud also argued that this is not an accident. Rather, it is the unconscious material revealing itself in the external world.

The wrong readings of signals, slips of the tongue or improper judgments can often lead us into trouble; indeed, they can turn life into chaos. Freud argued that by talking about our past histories [the talking cure and/or psychotherapy] individuals could eradicate the historical scripts that lay behind the errors, misjudgments and bad decisions.  Freud’s work was deemed controversial and remains so today. Nonetheless, almost all the psychotherapies are based on Freud’s original model of consciousness.   Hence, in order to bring about life changes we need to understand Freud’s model of consciousness.

  1. Consciousness includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental activity that we can think about and discuss rationally. Some aspects of our memory are included in this category, but not all memories.
  2. The Pre-conscious mind is the part of the mind that represents ordinary memories which we often lose track of, but which can be retrieved and brought to consciousness when we need them. This is sometimes termed “recall”.
  3. The Unconscious mind contains all feelings and emotions, thoughts, desires, urges, and memories that reside beyond our conscious awareness. Freud believed that most of the contents of the unconscious mind are painful, socially unacceptable or unpleasant in some way such as pain, anxiety, depression, delusion and/or inner conflicts. Accordingly, Freud believed the unconscious continues its influence on our conscious mind even though the memories appear no long relevant. He also believed that we are unaware of these powerful influences.    Freud’s first and third proposition remain largely unchanged in modern psychotherapy. However the second proposition [the pre-conscious] has undergone some further study that includes the examination of the brain’s neural pathways, whereby the pre-conscious is now called the “adaptive unconscious” in the belief that every conscious thought is altered to match an existing script that lies in the unconscious.[i]  In addition these pathways are influenced as much by evolutionary processes and they are individual human histories.    It is important then to have some rudimentary understanding of the evolution of the human brain.  There are a number of theories I will use “Relational Frame Theory” formulated by Robin Dunbar who argues who when the size of a social group increases, the number of different relationships in the group may increase by orders of magnitude. [ii] Consciousness also expands by association. [Group increases can also contribute to social anxiety and can be dealt with in therapies based on Relational Frame Theory such as Action Commitment Therapy].
  4.   The most efficient model for understanding the brain in terms of its evolutionary history is the triune brain theory developed by Paul MacLean. According to this theory, humans actually have three brains inside the skull.
  5. The reptilian brain is the oldest of the three brains and it controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, instincts and balance. Our reptilian brain replicates the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brain stem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is rigid, compulsive, impulsive and cannot be changed.
  6. The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can records good and bad memories and experiences, so it is responsible for emotions and value judgments. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain unconsciously exerts a strong influence on human behaviour.
  7. The neo-cortex is the new brain which contains two hemispheres responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neo-cortex is flexible and is believed to have almost infinite learning abilities and has contributed to the development of art and culture.
  8.   So far we have identified the physical attributes of the brain. However, the question of what gives rise to consciousness is a little more complex.   A description of consciousness is not the same as experiencing consciousness.  For example, if I describe a sponge cake, its recipe and how it is made, this does not explain the experience of eating a sponge cake. I must engage the senses in order to do this. If I want to change the sponge cake, perhaps to make it sweeter, I must understand the subjective qualities of eating the sponge cake.  This leads us to the notion of mindfulness.
  9. Most of our daily activity is controlled by the unconscious and the adaptive unconscious.  In order to make changes to our thoughts and routines it is necessary to actively engage the neural pathways  and the senses. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.  Try a simple mindfulness exercise,   explore the slice of an apple for its textures, colour taste, the space it occupies and every other aspect of its presence you can think of.

 

[i] Timothy D. Wilson [2004] Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious  N.Y. Belknap Press

[ii]Robin Dunbar [2005] The Human Story. London, Faber and Faber.

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Do Children Remember Being Born?

Google images.

Scientists suggested that neither children or adults can remember being born, despite the many anecdotal claims of birth memories.  The inability to recall birth or any early childhood events before the age of three or four is called childhood or infantile amnesia.[1]  However, it appears that infantile amnesia does not hamper the unconscious that stores information about how to do things, for example how to navigate a birth channel.[2]   It seems possible then that if a person can recall the journey to birth,  other memories might be accessible as well.

According to the 1950s psychoanalyst Otto Rank, every birth is a traumatic experience.   He believed falling in dreams was simply the latent desire to return to the embryonic womb, which was deemed safer than the birthing experience.    Sometimes this desire to return to the womb might be played out in other symbolic fantasies like being under water or being sucked into quicksand. Otto Rank suggested that every psychological problem generally ended with some kind of representation of birth.

Sigmund Freud was interested in the links between dreams and repression.  He maintained that human anxieties and hysteria generally happened through processes of emotional and experiential denial and this could be revealed in the content of dreams.    Freud was renowned for his dream analysis, which he turned into therapies called the talking cure, or psychoanalysis.

Clearly, experiences are going to re-occur in our dreams and might be the source of further anxieties.

Anxieties were rife in the post-war period and they were probably exacerbated by the newly invented television set that graced the lounge rooms of those who could afford one.  My family were one of the first to acquire a black and white television set.  Television changed people’s perspectives. The scenes of the post war struggles that surrounded us were very real, we could identify with them; but at the same time, they were dispersed. When portrayed on the new media everything was concentrated into a small square box screen that flickered back and forth over a much wider area than that experienced first hand and this magnified the problems as well as the emotional responses from the audience. Then, over time this perspective changed and the distance made it easier to look at the devastation. However, no one could truly escape the devastation of War.

Britain had won the Second World War, but London’s outskirts were impregnated with the stench of poverty and hardship. The Second World War Armistice took place in 1945 and it brought with it some rapid changes, but also much chaos. The biggest problem for most people was finding somewhere to live.   All the eligible men had been called up for National Service, which was a compulsory two years contract so British women had basically kept the nation running in their absence.  Women lost their employment when the soldiers returned to England so the traumatic experience of the blitz was coupled with the sudden disappearance  of income.  There were other problems too.

The Second World War Armistice was portrayed as a time for celebration, but the immediate future looked grim.   For many Britons life would deteriorate far beyond the hardships of the War years and the difficult times did not discriminate between rich and poor because the entire nation was lacking in resources.  The War years had left Britain with a myriad of state regulations and a bureaucracy that was highly complex and beyond human comprehension. People were already struggling and the paperwork made things worse.  Taxes were high and wages were low. Rents were out of reach for a lot of families due to the shortage of housing.  Some basic commodities like dairy products, tea and fuels still had to be purchased with coupons.  Sugar and treacle were freely available and people would eat sweets instead of food. Meals were nutritionally lacking.   In winter the poor ate humbugs to keep warm when clothing was inadequate. A bright orange cough candy was also said to ward off influenza.  The high levels of sugar intake were bad for the teeth so charcoal was used to clean them as tooth paste was a luxury item and unavailable.

The lack of food for purchase also encouraged people to produce their own.  Around the city high steal wire fences were needed to stop people from stealing the home grown produce because the need was so great and the poor were suffering.  Some individuals who did not have land took advantage of the allotments that ran along the railway lines, but they had to be paid for, the sum was small, but money was hard to come by as there was little or no work.

In the 1940s and well into the 1950s many people who had homes lacked modern facilities like water, sanitation and electricity. Only businesses and rich people had modern appliances such as stoves and telephones. The washing was done in a boiler and put through a roller machine that stood outside in the yard, the rollers froze up when the temperatures fell below zero and the rollers perished and deteriorated, they were expensive to replace.

The water pipes had lagging to stop them from bursting. My grandmother would cut up old rags and put around pipes. It was not as though we could not afford to buy materials, there was just nothing available.   Winters were cold and wet so newspapers would be spread under carpets and mattresses to keep out the rising damp. There were no tradesmen, you had to take care of your own problems from plumbing to the removal of splinters and weeds.

It was said that the First World War took roughly 1,385,300 residents from the United Kingdom. The Second World War claimed the lives of nearly 500,000.[1]   Every family lost someone and some families were completely destroyed. People were numbed by the circumstances and they were despondent, which left them open to exploitation. Career thieves become landlords and entrepreneurs by taking advantage of the poor, the sick and the homeless.  Gamblers and bookies operated on every street corner encouraging people to bet on the horse and dog races. Most of the activities were illegal, but there was hardly any policing.  There were other forms of gambling too, cock fighting, racing pigeons and the football pools, with the latter offering such high rewards that some people would pour every penny they had into them and regret it later. Gambling and drinking were common past times as they served as a diversion from the harsh existence, but all too many succumbed to the addictions which dulled the painful memories and added to the squalor and dereliction.

The short supply of housing coupled and the high demand forced some families to live in old bomb shelters. Many were dug deep into the ground and  made of concrete while others were flimsy and built above ground with of corrugated iron. The shelters were hardly adequate protection from the rough winters, they were cold, damp, they leaked and they were havens for vermin.  Later the government built prefabricated bungalows, which were equally flimsy and damp.

Everything was in short supply, but housing was the worst problem with the highest demand. Some folks were so desperate they were prepared to squat in condemned buildings.  Table cloths and old blankets could be seen swinging from glass free windows and the holes in floors were covered in scrap tin sheeting that had fallen off the back of trucks or was stolen from local scrap yards.   The stench from the sites was repulsive, there were open drains and no toilets.  Most sites had not been properly cleared of contaminated debris and the smell of death and incendiary fuels made for an unpleasant mix.

My family escaped much of the sordidness, but my aunt drove and ambulance and I would often go with her to a call in the poorer regions.  Ambulances did not just pick up sick people, they collected body parts and the dead.  It made for an enlightened upbringing.

Returning to the topic of memories, it is hard to assess how much one actually remembers first hand or what is gleaned from conversation.  Either way, it was a shocking picture for most to process.

Some memories can be relied upon. I recall an odorous air of carcasses that seeped from through the alleyways as giant rodents scavenged for any decomposed remains, mostly dogs and scraps that had been thrown from cafes.   The rats were twice the size of the domestic species as the poisons put down by the town council had resulted in an immunity which doubled the size of the animals.

The rats would run along the small front gardens and along the kerb-sides before disappearing into the drains.   . Women could not leave their babies outside in perambulators for fear of their children being attacked and eaten by rats.

I grew up with a loathing for rodents, but my cousin Eve  loved rats. She worked in a laboratory that made biological weapons and rats were used for experimentation. My cousin would sometimes visit my grandmother on a Sunday afternoon and she would generally bring a rat or two with her for our amusement.

On one occasion  a rat escaped in the kitchen. My grandmother gave chase,  but the rat outsmarted her . It jumped from the floor to a chair and then on to the cooker where my grandmother had a pot of soup cooking for dinner. The rat observed the soup and tried to balance on the edge of the saucepan, but fell into the boiling liquid.  The loss of a nights dinner was not small dilemma. My cousin Eve was upset at the loss of her rat and my grandmother was furious at the loss of a pot of good soup.

Many lives were in ruins after the War, but there was a strength of character that grew from it.  The will to survive seems to surpass every human dilemma, be it small or a grand upheaval.

[1] War Causalities https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties Retried 6th October, 2018.

[2] The consumption of mentholated spirits was common.

 

[1] Infant Amnesia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood_amnesia Retrieved 29th October, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

What Binds Us?

 

 

 

 

This is a personal story, which I want to convey as a tribute to the people at the New York Central Synagogue.

 

Image from Wikipedia.

Recently I have taken up the habit of live streaming the Friday Shabbat service from the New York Central Synagogue. For those who have never experienced a Shabbat service, or perhaps who have not participated in a religious celebration to speak of, let me tell you the Shabbat gathering is full of poetry, song, wisdom, joy and a culture that is both ancient and modern and the experience  is very uplifting.

A traditional part of the Jewish service is to honour those who have passed, especially people who have been victims of wars and crimes.  On Friday night when this moment of remembrance arrived in the order of service the Rabbi read a letter a mother had written to her deceased daughter aimed at conveying just how much the child was missed and how much she was loved and  remembered.

It is hard to imagine the pain of losing a child and  the letter was so poignant that the Rabbi, while reading the words,  was moved to tears and struggled to get to the end of the reading.   It brought tears to my eyes and I suspect to many in the congregation.

The reading reminded me of a time when I was young, about seventeen in fact.  I had left home and I was working and living in the Mayfair district of London, every young girl’s dream was to be among the rich and famous and I had made it into the echelons of the elite.  Life was good and a little crazy as well.

Every morning I would leave my flat and stroll across the green  square to work.    Every morning I would see a small, somewhat frail, middle aged women walking in the same direction.  I would always greet the woman and she would always greet me with a sweet smile and discrete “good morning”. 

One day, quite by chance, the woman and I both stopped in the square and struck up a conversation. The woman asked me where I worked and I told her with great enthusiasm  how lucky I was to be working for a famous film producer and how much fun it was, not like work at all really.  I think I giggled my way through every sentence.  I went on and on spilling out words and extolling my good fortune.

I learned that the woman I was talking to worked as a translator at a nearby embassy. She was highly skilled, very serious and much more resigned to moderation than I was.  Over a short period of time we became friends.  With great kindness and a hint of maternalism the woman    took me under her wing.  I was young, impetuous, estranged from family and friends and not always thinking straight, which made me prone to many misadventures.   My new friend was very wise, stabilizing and she had a calming effect.  I think we both shared a need for honest and sincere companionship. It seemed, in reality, we were both very alone.

It was a great and perhaps unusual friendship. We would have lunch together and sometimes see a concert after work or go to an art gallery. We both loved art. My friend was unmarried and made no mention of family ties or marriage prospects.  We talked only of our passions,  music, art, literature and life in general.

After about six months, my friend and I were having lunch at a restaurant in Bond Street when I suddenly felt the urge to ask her if she had children.  There was a pause before my friend answered the question. “No”, she said. There was a longer pause and then she told me she was unable to have children.  After several shaky sips from a coffee cup, my friend explained that she was a Holocaust survivor and she was unable to have children because she was one of the many women the Nazis had used for their medical experiments.  I was speechless and unable to ask what the Nazis had actually done to her and I imagine she would have been unable to find the words to tell me.

In truth, I did not know what to say to my friend.  How does a young person respond to such a statement of pain and suffering?  What struck me was the glow of strength and composure this woman had after having borne the burden of such heinous crimes.   I do recall  asking how a person  might deal with such a terrible experience? How does one overcome such a trauma and its ongoing memory?  Her answer was simple,  “faith“.

My friend  attended a Shabbat service every Friday evening and gained support from a community who were not afraid to remember the Holocaust, a community who would not be blamed or shamed, but who would rise up bravely and honourably in order to tell their story.

As a society we like to forget bad experiences, but my friend insisted that remembering was the only way to prevent such a thing happening again, so however much it hurts we have to remember the bad experiences.

I went back to my workplace that afternoon and instead of heading to my office I locked myself in the toilets and cried, I could not tell at the time why I cried, but I truly sobbed as if the whole world had suddenly come crashing down on me. There were some aspects of my friend’s story that truly resonated, like the feeling of solitude that comes in the aftermath of a war, a feeling that I had gleaned from growing up in East London.  My own family had been devastated by the Second World  War.  Most of my relatives had survived, but on my father’s side there was no one  and my father’s sole survival left him riddled with physical and mental illness, which made him suicidal.

Watching with a deep sense of empathy as the Rabbi at Central Synagogue  became reduced to tears reminded me of how we feel each other’s pain and how important it is to have faith and to remember even if it hurts because in remembering we gain our strength and the fortitude we need to help others through difficult times.

My friend had given me the most wonderful gift a young person could ever receive, the wisdom that comes from the other’s shared experience.  We are all on this planet to help each other to rise up from the pain and feel the joy and for me this is what the Shabbat celebration has provided. Further, it has shown how vulnerable we all are and that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength.

I want to thank everyone at New York Central Synagogue for the wonderful gift they are giving to me and to others like me.    Shalom.

What To Do With a Dictator?

 

 Google Images.

America’s President Trump has now declared a national emergency to fund his long-sought after border wall.  How will people react?  Parliamentary governments have historically enacted emergencies that put limits on civil  liberties and human rights and give impetus to the centralization of government and its overriding authority in order to protect themselves from protests, disagreements and social disarray.

Emergencies also relate to natural disasters, but the mood  against Trump is distinctly different. The imposition of a coveted legislature by a would-be autocrat has stirred the fears of a dictatorship.     Natural disasters, and other unforeseen calamities cannot be avoided,  however, Trump’s move is more in line with the emergency provisions in Germany when Article 48 of the Wiemar Constitution granted the president the authority to overrule the legislature. This provision of emergency was implemented many times and Adolf Hitler used it to legally sanction Nazi attacks on his opponents. Importantly, every move under this provision was completely legal and the population blindly supported it.

There has been a lot of speculation about Trump’s past, his alleged connections to the Right Wing white supremacists and members of the Ku Klux Klan. He has been highly visible in his misogynist attitudes and  treatment of women.  His complacency about the abuse of black citizens has also been noted and if I remember rightly, he even accused the previous President Obama of being a Muslim, not that it should have mattered if he was.

Trump is not alone in his determination to be a dictator. Political narcissism is plaguing the world and it has a long history.  Mussolini inaugurated his dictatorship after failed assassination attempts. Argentine’s military junta seized power in 1976 and suspended parts of the constitution.

If we look more closely at the period of government that preceded Hitler from 1930-1933, there are many similarities between then and now. The German working class and poor were suffering through a Depression. There was a lack of employment, food shortages and a sense of hopelessness.  Hitler promised to make Germany great again when Nazi violence was already in full swing. Jews were targeted for their money and business acumen (Hitler had a personal hatred of Jews much like Trump’s apparent hatred of immigrants).    By 1930 the German Communist Party were arguing that Germany was already a fascist country.

Many Americans are saying that Trump’s national emergency has to be stopped. People can see where Trump’s action  might be going, but we have seen in the previous examples that protest is not always enough to stop an ambitious dictator.  How do we deal with a dangerous zealot like Donald Trump?

 

 

Politics Gone Mad!

 

Google images.

America’s President Trump has declared a state of emergency to build a huge wall in order to keep out the influx of  immigrants coming into the United States, while the Australian Prime Minister wants to re-open the Christmas Island Detention Centre, an old disused facility to house boat people that have not even arrived yet and may not arrive.  Why should we be surprised?  The two governors  have much in common when it comes to desperate measures, dispassionate and irrational decision making.

Leaving aside the American problem of the so called invading immigrants, Professor Ben Saul, a rapporteur for the United Nations has called Australia “recalcitrant and a pariah state”.  He is correct! With respect to Australia the United Nations’ committees have upheld 36 Human Rights complaints against the country, the fourth largest number of adverse findings in the world.  Half related to arbitrary detention.  Indeed, since 2009 thousands of asylum seekers and dozens of refugees have been held in detention without just cause.

Australia has a long history of arbitrary detention which dates back to the convict era.  The most heinous examples being that of women  and the Stolen Generation, or the displacement of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families and put into institutions or white peoples’ homes.  Aboriginal people  were not only massacred en mass, those who survived, were relocated and/or put to forced labour.  The Australian nation has a shocking history of abuse that seems never- ending.

In addition, Australia engaged in the transportation of orphaned children who were put into farm schools as unpaid labour.  Eventually, the schools were closed, but not before significant damage was done to individuals.

Historical files at the Public Records Office have revealed how women were locked up in mental institutions due to poverty, senility, bad nerves or change of life.  Unmarried mothers were also institutionalized and many had their children removed and put up for adoption. This heinous practice was not addressed until 2012.

In 2012 a Government Senate paper reported on the Commonwealth’s contribution to forced adoption detailing policies and practices. Adoptions were carried out by nurses, social workers and religious leaders.  Women with no visible means of support often lost their children, which caused many mothers to seek relationships with men who were neither reliable or caring. Many women were subjected to domestic violence and were simply unable to leave for fear of losing their children.  In the 1960s, adoption could take place even if consent was given under duress, the situation remained the same well into the 1980s and beyond.

Women in same sex relationships were also at risk of losing their children. Mothers could be made to feel they were bad mothers and unworthy of having offspring. Many mothers who tried to fight the system were scrutinized and terrorized. Many were told to give up their children. Forced adoptions were illegal, but there was no policing and a lot of pressure.  The records showed that mothers with new born babies had BFA (baby for adoption) written on their files. Fathers of the children escaped all liability. By the 1980s the situation had eased, but not altogether, society condemned unmarried and lesbian mothers whose lives and well being were often disrupted by verbal and physical abuse.

Australia has engaged in many forms of arbitrary detention. Most government and non-government authorities have  made the desperate, the poor and the powerless their targets.  The Universal Declaration on Human Rights prohibits all forms of arbitrary detention, but Australia is a rogue state with little concern for international opinion.  Currently it is refugees and asylum seekers that are the target.  The issues are divisive and ugly, but they will not go away until all Australians learn that every life counts, every life has value.

References.

Sydney Morning Herald Australia 7th 2019.

 

The Cold War.

 

 

 

 

Cuban street. Google images.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolt at the Bay of Pigs that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  The dictator’s regime had been friendly with the US government and had allowed US interests (often corrupt) to flourish.  The US government distrusted the communist Castro and was wary of his relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union so the US planned an attack using support from Cuban exiles.

Before his inauguration, John F. Kennedy was told of a plan that was already in place, whereby  the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had developed a strategy during the Eisenhower administration to train Cuban exiles together with the military for the invasion.

President Eisenhower approved the invasion program in March 1960. The CIA set up training camps in Guatemala and by November they had a small army for an assault landing on Cuba. José Miró Cardona led the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the United States. A former member of Castro’s government, he was the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, an exile committee.  Cardona was poised to take over the provisional presidency of Cuba if the invasion succeeded, it did not succeed.  Despite efforts of the government to keep the invasion plans  a secret,  the plan was leaked and  through Cuban intelligence, Castro learned of the guerrilla training camps in Guatemala.
Shortly after his inauguration, in February 1961, President Kennedy authorized the invasion plan.  The landing point at the Bay of Pigs was a remote swampy area on the southern coast of Cuba, where little resistance was expected, but the invasion was plagued with difficulties.

The first problem occurred on April 15, 1961, when eight bombers left Nicaragua to bomb Cuban airfields. The CIA had used obsolete World War II B-26 bombers, and painted them to look like Cuban air force planes. The bombers missed many of their targets.   As news broke of the attack, photos of the repainted U.S. planes became public and revealed American support for the invasion. President Kennedy cancelled a second air strike.

On April 17, the Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire.  Over the next 24 hours, Castro ordered roughly 20,000 troops to advance toward the beach, and the Cuban air force continued to control the skies.

Some exiles escaped to the sea, while the rest were killed or rounded up and imprisoned by Castro’s forces. Almost 1,200 members of Brigade 2506 surrendered, and more than 100 were killed.

The brigade prisoners remained in captivity for 20 months, as the United States negotiated a deal with Fidel Castro,  prisoners in return for baby food.   Castro eventually settled on $53 million worth of baby food and medicine in exchange for the captives.

Determined to make up for the failed invasion, the US administration  sabotaged and destabilized the Cuban government and economy, but this  only worked to lift the determination of the Cuban people to build their state independently of the major powers.   . 

The American plan failed when Russia came to Cuba’s aid placing nuclear missiles on a base in Cube pointing towards the US.  The US in turn retaliated with threats of a nuclear war. We were just the press of a button away from total destruction.

Most people in Europe and America thought a Third World War was imminent.  People took to the streets in protest.

I was still at school when I joined the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.  One of the teachers at my school organised a group of students to go on a march in London.  I ended up committed to the cause of global peace and marched across the country with thousands of others.  We thought we had won when the Nuclear Weapons Treaty was signed, but we were wrong. Today, we are still threatened by the war that could end all wars and all of humanity.