First it was Camille Paglia [“The Myth of Sexual Liberation,” August 1990], the woman who thinks that date rape is “nonsense” and that “if civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Then there was Robert Bly [“From Boys to Men: A Conversation with Robert Bly,” May 1993], who tells about a ritual in a men’s group in which the men are asked to give up their male aggression and their testicles and penis. His response: how would women feel if they were asked to give up their “female attitude toward children” (as if someone else were willing to raise them: consider the $2.5 billion owed for child support. Meanwhile, children take their father’s name while the mother, working in paid employment or not, does the real work of raising them, such as laundry, cooking, getting up at three in the morning to nurse, not to mention actually bringing the child into the world); give up their “female attitude toward beauty” (are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and poor self-esteem about body shape female ideas?); and give up their breasts (does Bly know that breast jobs are the second most-performed cosmetic surgery, right behind liposuction?). Bly, get out of your new-age hallucination and deal with reality. Women aren’t able to give any of these things up because they are taken from us daily.
Now there is Nancy Weber [“Might Have Been,” October 1993], who offers us a short-story version of the “Life-What-A-Beautiful-Choice” commercials paid for by the antiabortion DeMoss Foundation. In one of these guiltertisements, a woman imagines the growing boy her aborted fetus might have been.
I thought of my friend J. and myself when I saw that commercial and again when I read Weber’s story. J. gave up a baby for adoption. I have had two abortions. It is she, not I, who cries for her lost child. This makes sense because she has a child who actually exists.
I have received The Sun for seven years and have always looked forward to reading it. But I do not look forward to finding such antiwoman backlashings as the three I’ve just mentioned. Lately, it seems, your magazine wishes only to abort feminism. If you published Weber’s story to get your readers fired up, it worked. Please cancel my subscription. You’re fired.
Now let me see if I got this straight: some lady hears voices telling her that the spiritual world is real and the material world is an illusion. She writes down what the voices say, and a guy named D. Patrick Miller reads it and concludes that we all should forgive murderers and eliminate capital punishment and then the world would be a better place [“A Brutal Sadness,” August 1993]. He quotes a confessed murderer who advises crime victims to “forgive yourself for all the pain you’ve gone through.” This is the sort of fuzzy pseudothinking that makes Rush Limbaugh rich.
If we listen to the voice in the Miracle Lady’s head, we will understand that the body is an illusion and, therefore, we need not execute guilty murderers because we’d only be depriving them of their illusory bodies. If I listen to the voice in my own head, however, I conclude that anyone who violates Article 3 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person”) loses the protection of society in regard to his or her own life, liberty, and security of person and must suffer the consequences.
It is ironic indeed that the murderer quoted by Miller was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit but acquitted of the murder he committed. Rather than interpret this irony as another example of the fallibility of human justice, I interpret it as another example of the perfection of divine justice. The man was, after all, guilty of murder. Society is lucky in that this individual does not seem likely to kill again, but I do not want the safety of my family to depend on luck.
In addition to mercy and compassion, there is justice and responsibility in this world. While Miller may wish otherwise, capital punishment plays a part in the administration of justice at this point in history. I, too, hope the time will come when humanity attains a state of spiritual realization in which capital punishment is unnecessary, but that is an end to be achieved through education and the great assumption of responsibility by individual citizens. Miller seems to have it backward: if we eliminate capital punishment, he argues, suddenly we will have educated, responsible citizens. I don’t think so.
Miller’s article did not have the effect on me that he intended. I am glad that Robert Alton Harris was executed because, as the perpetrator of a heinous crime, he deserved to be. Apparently it required being sent to the gas chamber for him to experience sincere remorse for his crime. His victims were not responsible for his unhappy childhood and should not have paid with their lives for the irresponsibility of his parents. Our tax dollars can help care for neglected children and rehabilitate criminals, but we should not forget that the government cannot do it alone; it requires the commitment and responsibility of the people involved. As Rabindranath Tagore said, “If everyone cleaned up his own back yard, the whole world would be clean.”
And another thing: any criminal who advises crime victims to “forgive yourself for all the pain you’ve gone through” should be punched in the nose.
D. Patrick Miller too often sounds like a true believer when he applies A Course in Miracles to the body politic. Arguing against the death penalty and in favor of forgiveness and compassion are sensible, humane positions. But our actions must be open to some evaluation in the here and now. If we have free will, we must own the causes and the results of our actions, however complex the relationship. Further, challenging the death penalty by invoking a belief that denies the reality of death is a stretch. If death is an illusion, then executions are illusions. Are the crimes illusions, too? Is pain an illusion? Is this letter an illusion?
We already live in a culture committed to denying the reality of death. Do we need more variations on the Christian pie-in-the-sky viewpoint? For that is what Miller finally offers us, asking us to “relinquish the world as we know it, in favor of a peaceful world that is presently beyond both our perception and our imagination.”
Further, seeing vengeance as the primary motivation for the death penalty grossly oversimplifies. A pragmatic friend of mine views capital punishment as a “bookkeeping function,” coldly arguing that it’s the only way to guarantee that those irredeemable murderers will not kill again. The cold logic of economic analysis produces this intriguing option. If it costs fifty thousand dollars a year to secure a prisoner, that’s one million dollars over twenty years. Capital punishment allows us the choice of spending that one million on food and books and education for a lot of desperate, hungry five-year-olds in this world.
What if you were governor and you had to make this real, immediate choice? The idea of miracles engages the child in each of us and its need for clear, happy conclusions — the necessary stuff of wonder and myth.
Adulthood is tougher.
Like Lewis K. Elbinger, I, too, hope the time will come when humanity attains the state of spiritual realization in which capital punishment is unnecessary. But unlike him I am actually interested in humanity getting there — not endlessly delaying that attainment in order to land one more punch on anybody’s nose. “Education and the great assumption of responsibility by individual citizens” are indeed how we will get to a state of merciful realization. Education and responsibility are what I pursue as a writer and a human being. Thus I am satisfied that my essay did indeed have the effect I intended upon Elbinger: making him question his own belief in vengeance. He would not have defended it with such exasperation had he not been moved to question it. That’s all the effect I can have. Actually surrendering his belief in vengeance is a miracle he will have to induce himself.
It’s absolutely true, as Robert Becker suggests, that killing a murderer prevents him from killing again. But it does not prevent our society from producing murderers. Finding a way to do that would greatly improve the bottom line of our societal bookkeeping. In fact, Becker’s calculations to the contrary, capital punishment is much more expensive than life imprisonment, and it will continue to be unless we so greatly shorten the appeals process that we increase the proportion of innocent people who are executed. Can we afford that write-off? In a vengeful and violent society, there’s a great temptation simply to eliminate the worst byproducts of our cultural mind-set. But facing and caring for what we have created, in order that we might someday understand and undo our violence, is a great collective assumption of responsibility. Societal adulthood is even tougher than Becker thinks.
I study the communication of orca whales, so I read with interest Jim Nollman’s “Wild Heart” [September 1993]. Disappointingly, it left me doubting that he could ever have a dialogue with animals when his judgments of the indigenous peoples he has encountered in the Arctic are so ignorant. I am thinking of his statements that “shamanism is dead everywhere in the Arctic I have visited” and “the Inuit’s relationship to wildlife and the land today is that of a hunting culture stripped of its original esteem for the sacred in nature.” These remarks lead me to suspect that his writings about the Arctic and his communication with its animals are as insubstantial as the candy bars he eats in his tent while wearing capilene underwear. They are empty of the sacred knowledge of the people who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, who take into their very cells the blood and bones and flesh of the animals that share the landscape with them, who wear the skin and fur of animals against their own skin.
There are many ways of expressing one’s sacred connection with the land. Perhaps we want the modern-day Inuit to conform to a Dances with Wolves version of what shamanism should be. But how many times do you share your most profound spiritual beliefs with a total stranger? What if this stranger were from a culture that had tried to eliminate those very beliefs in your parents’ lifetime?
A biologist friend of mine has spent two summers living in an Alaskan coastal community. She was sent by the federal government to monitor the villagers’ annual harvest of sea mammals. When she arrived, she was met with suspicion by the villagers. One man even yelled in her face as she got off the plane. My friend is a congenial, respectful person who loves to laugh and tell stories. By the end of her first summer, she had made friends in the village, including the man who had yelled at her. One night, they stayed up until four in the morning telling stories. As the pale Arctic night melted imperceptibly into dawn, he told her of the last shaman of the village, and of his own dreams and visions. He shared something of the sacred with her that morning.
I live in the interior of Alaska, and I feel blessed to be able to move among the many cultures that make up this state. I invite Jim Nollman to learn more about these cultures before he criticizes them. I invite him to attend the Festival of Native Arts in Fairbanks, where the power of native dancers will move him to reexamine his impressions. I suggest he read Richard Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven. I urge him to seek an invitation to live for a month or two in a native community with his ears and heart open, with as much respect as if he were hearing the song of a whale.
The day after reading Jim Nollman’s “Wild Heart,” I returned to a small Alaskan village for a potlatch honoring someone who’d recently died. Being back in the village was immensely uplifting. I was moved by the villagers’ affinity for one another and by their centuries-old ties to the land. It was clear that although shamanism has been outwardly replaced by Christianity, native spirituality most certainly is not dead.
Nollman’s account reminded me of the negative, generalized, and sensational accounts often written by nonnatives who spend short periods of time with native people. While there are grains of truth to such writing, invariably missing are many of the positive, spiritual aspects of native culture. I’m left pondering a contradiction: Nollman, in a few short trips to the Arctic, seems to have connected spiritually with the land; but native people, who’ve lived close to the land for centuries, have lost, he claims, this very spirituality.
While native people may not have a monopoly on spirituality, it is nonetheless a gift of insight and intimacy to experience the beauty and power of a large community hall overflowing with people singing native songs, dancing native dances; to see strong people with love and pride in their hearts and tears of sadness and joy in their eyes.
Most of the Inuit people I have traveled with over the past ten years do not hide their frustration at feeling caught between the modern world they cannot have and the traditional world they cannot rejoin. The pervasive Christian fundamentalism in the Canadian villages I’ve visited certainly offers people solace, but it also suppresses their formerly sacred relationship with nature. The manner in which I’ve seen animals killed has been a special source of dismay for me. That does not mean, however, that I don’t honor the high Arctic hunters I have worked beside. Some are friends, and they have often reduced me to the status of an eager student who wants to learn more about their deep knowledge of the land and animal ways.
Since both Eva Saulitis and John D. Lyle contest my use of the word sacred, let me stir the pot further by saying that I find the knowledge of the best Inuit hunters to be no more and no less sacred than that of perfectionist carpenters or virtuoso musicians. Furthermore, I wrote “Wild Heart” not as an expert, not as an Inuit, not as a pseudoshaman, but as a seeker of a benign relationship with both wild animals and an immense wilderness. I stated in the essay that my few comments about the locals were colored by the fact that I was someone whose work — communicating with animals — they couldn’t relate to any differently than the people in my own town. This surprised me at first, but it soon taught me that most of the au courant ideas about shamanism are based on a modern longing and never existed in traditional culture. However, I believe that this ideal called shamanism — with its vision quests and talking to animals — is very appealing to people who have lost their connection to the earth. That includes myself, probably Saulitis and Lyle, and most of the traditional people I have met. Having said that, I suppose I open myself up to more letter writers defending what it is I am not actually criticizing.
The response to my essay was unanticipated: I personally received over sixty letters in six weeks. Except for the preceding two writers, who sent their letters to The Sun, all the others commented positively about the central issue of seeking wildness by walking alone in nature.
But Saulitis’s and Lyle’s points are valid. For those sensitive to the northern lifestyle, I could have been clearer. And I am encouraged to learn that both writers have experienced a deep level of communion between native people and nature.
But I’m disappointed that Lyle tries to invalidate my experience. He also exaggerates: my so-called “negative, generalized, and sensational” account of the Inuit was actually only a few sentences in a four-thousand-word essay. And Saulitis’s curious desire to humiliate me seems unworthy of what she wishes to protect. Her tone mirrors that of the native man who yelled at her visiting friend. But she and I are not so unalike. Both of us are promoters of a communion with nature in a world that does not yet honor it.
I was particularly moved by Sy Safransky’s essay “Venice Shimmers” [October 1993]. I recently returned from a grass-roots volunteer effort in a refugee camp in Bosnia and was feeling somewhat discouraged about our human community. Safransky’s description of the Balkan war captured my conflicting feelings and thoughts about the predicament in that region. As I read about the woman with tears on her cheeks, I felt tears run down my own face. It was the first time I’d been able to let them flow since my return home to the Midwest. The sad truth about the current state of the world is reflected in that woman’s statement “I am not so good.”
With some time and distance my depression has given way to hope. The painful memories from Bosnia are now balanced with those of courageous individuals — refugees and volunteers alike — who showed me just how strong the human spirit is. In spite of the horror we create in this world, there are always those willing to stamp it out. They are the true peacemakers. When the problems of the world begin to look overwhelming, I am reminded that I am responsible for peace in every action I take.