An Update

Saturday night, my fiance spent the evening watching YouTube videos on my new couch (a graduation gift from my mother) when my Internet went out.  When we finally got in touch with my roommate just this afternoon, we discovered that he had done a security update and out MAC addresses were accidentally wiped (our router has MAC address filtering so our neighbors don’t max out our bandwidth).

Also, since my trip I’ve fallen into a particularly uncomfortable state.  I feel agitated, uneasy, and entirely uncertain about the future.

Things seem good on the surface; the US, a country I had tried to flee for political reasons in two successive lifetimes, has finally embraced same-sex marriage, upheld its first real attempt at health care reform in decades in the courts, is taking a long hard look at race relations for the first time in decades, and is gradually beginning to draw down on the destructive and costly unwinnable war on drugs (marijuana will be legal in my current home state in less than 24 hours and it’s already legal across the river in Washington, where cozy neighborhood shops on main street now sell the stuff).  Also, transgender visibility from figures like Caitlyn Jenner gives me hope that one day it won’t matter what I was assigned at birth and I won’t have to worry how many people have connected the dots and know that I was born male.

In my personal life, I’ve graduated, I’m well on my way to graduate school, and my home is getting cleaner and more livable as I finally have time to focus on the domestic space and to stop living out of boxes like I have for the last 4 years.  By the end of July, I should have yet another novel ready for publication (my goal is for a debut at that annual convention in Seattle this year).

But I don’t feel happy, satisfied, or at ease.  There is a pervasive sense of impermanence, of something being “off.”  I’m still dealing with severe employment-related anxiety that brings me panic attacks every time I start looking for jobs.  I’m still unsure of how I’m going to go about learning Latin ahead of grad school (not necessary but it helps immensely).  I’m still not sure I’m where I need or want to be in life.

Then there are the external factors.  Driving through some of the more rural parts of my own state was an eye-opener.  Confederate flags are springing up next to billboards condemning homosexuality, non-Christian religions, and the federal government, and if it’s getting like that in Oregon, I can only imagine that large parts of South Carolina- where I grew up and got firsthand exposure to the culture from age 4 to age 23- are starting to look a bit like a Klan rally 24/7.  Churches are going up in flames all over the South (several this week, including a number of confirmed arsons), and the Confederate Flag is quickly becoming a go-to symbol not simply of Southern identity politics, but of militant far-right culture warriors riled up by recent events.

The sort of people who legitimately feel this is worth fighting, killing, and dying for (and aren’t just posing in militant gear on Facebook to look tough) are fortunately a small minority, and they become isolated more and more every day as the tenor of their extreme rhetoric pushes away more and more reasonable people.  But do not underestimate the damage that a mentally-unhinged and well-funded group of even a few thousand militants can do; if the difficulty of controlling ISIS is any indication, a similarly-structured “Crusade” by rabid fundamentalists toting AR-15s in the backs of their pickup trucks could quickly take over large parts of the country and make life difficult for people in other parts of the country.

I do not anticipate that any of the groups who seek the overthrow of the federal government and establish strict Calvinist religious law a la Cromwell will succeed, but what I do anticipate is a bloody struggle as a small but well-armed minority that feels threatened and disenfranchised begins to lash out with increasing ferocity.  I also anticipate losing friends to violence, especially a number of openly gay friends I have in places like Texas and Oklahoma where moods are souring by the minute.

I just hope that I can live to enjoy the progress we’ve made without seeing the coming madness at my doorstep.  .

The “Human Nature” Excuse

How often, when some injustice has been done, have you heard someone say “It’s only human nature?”

It’s one of the many excuses people rushed to after two world wars ravaged Europe and a third threatened to break out, all before the 20th century was over.  It’s an utterance that has become almost a reflex. We say it without ever thinking. Whenever someone does something cruel or selfish or underhanded, we just shrug and say “human nature,” and walk away with our view of humanity diminished slightly more.

But what’s the truth? What does the archaeological record say about “human nature?”

Consider violence. Now, a lot of us are familiar with the Biblical narrative of Cain and Abel, said for many generations to be an authoritative account of the first murder. For hundreds of years, the Western world has lived with the presumption that it only took one generation for murder to enter the repertoire of human behavior. When one considers it that way, a deterministic outlook on violence is pretty hard to avoid.

However, the archaeological record stands in sharp contradiction to this. While the human species itself dates to 195,000 years ago, according to the fossil record, we don’t really see a whole lot of evidence of violence between human beings until the Upper Paleolithic (about 30-40k years ago).

Now, if a species goes more than 70% of its history without a behavior, then suddenly starts doing it in one short period of prehistory, you can sort of guess that this is not something that just “comes naturally.” In that context, the story Cain and Abel seems like a fairly cruel lie to normalize violence than a parable against it.

So how did early humans and hominids actually treat each other before the Upper Paleolithic? Were they just heavy-browed, heartless brutes walking around in leopard skin tunics carrying heavy wooden clubs as the popular masculine fantasy of “cave men” would have us believe?

While there’s not a lot of material left from that time period, what we do have are a few clues to how the ancestors of today’s human population related to each other and the world, and it’s rather astonishing.

Homo Erectus cared for their injured, young, and sick. We see skeletons with evidence of healed fractures, something that is indicative of a highly social species willing to go the extra mile to save a family member.

Neanderthal made music with reed instruments of bone, and buried their dead in careful, deliberate ceremonies, even laying flowers on the corpse before burial.

Tens of thousands of years before their descendants went to war, a human being on the coast of what is now South Africa drilled holes in seashells and made themselves a lovely necklace out of what would have been just garbage from the previous nights meal.  As we would say in Portland, they were upcycling way before it went mainstream.

Over 30,000 years of sedentary settlements and around 6,000 years of civilization, the true narrative was nearly replaced with a narrative of control, conquest, and subjugation. These things became normalized and enculturated… but they’re not true to the broader spirit of what it means to be human.

In fact, the whole body of evidence for human evolution discovered thus far hints at a gentle creature for whom violence and unchecked egoism is the exception, not the rule. Art, love, and family were with the species long before violence and jealousy.

That, friends, is the truth about human nature.

Resensitized

Something they never tell you about past life memories is how they can change you.

Before I had that catastrophic memory of waiting for the whizz-bang that probably killed me, I was a very different sort of person.

I owned a gun and didn’t think much of using it in a self-defense capacity.  In fact I had a bit of a mean streak and kind of hoped I would have to use it so I could get a reputation as someone you didn’t mess with.

I didn’t really give much mind to war even though I was theoretically against the ones currently going on.  As far as the exact emotional and physical toll that nearly wiped parts of France and Belgium off the map, it didn’t really register.  The war was something that happened a long time ago, that only existed in highly-idealized Hollywood productions or grainy photos in dusty albums.  The last veterans of that war have all died off and so, I assumed, had the memory of what really happened.

Just a taste of what those soldiers went through was like a sharp kick in the groin.  I don’t think I fully recovered from the initial shock of the few brief slivers I saw, or of finding a grave that is very likely my own.

I no longer own a gun, nor do I want anything to do with them.  I’m going to stay out of gun politics but on a personal level, my disgust with guns has never been higher.

I also find I don’t get angry at people nearly as often, and I find that the idea of killing someone for any reason suddenly has its shock once again.  I don’t want to make people suffer or even see them suffer any more.  That was part of a life I had lived recklessly without regard to the other person involved, and I’m very sorry I ever allowed myself to think that way.

I used to be a lot more involved in fringe political activism.  Not so very long ago I was getting deep into Occupy and the Cascadia Independence movement, fully expecting things to boil over into a full-blown revolution within a decade.  While I still think independence for this region would be a good thing over all, I’ve dropped out of the activist culture completely.  I don’t want to waste another life on a war that might do more harm than good; if I joined the British Army in the name of “King and Country” in a previous life, but I had no way of knowing the hell that would follow in the next century.  What we started in France in 1914 never really ended; the entire 20th century and the first decades of the 21st have been a constant swing between extreme ideologies and the destabilization of nearly every nation on earth. 

I’m returning to my own advice I gave myself years ago: nations rise and fall, but love is the true measure of all things.

Love one another.  And for everyone’s sake, never forget what we lost between 1914 and 1918.  I certainly won’t.