Shadows on the Stars

Holding onto Hope in a World that’s Hard to Understand

By Susan Cooke

Sure on this shining night

Of star made shadows round,

Kindness must watch for me

This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.

All is healed, all is health.

High summer holds the earth.

Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone

Of shadows on the stars.

—James Agee (1909-1955) from his first published collection of poems, Permit me Voyage

Twentieth-century classical composer Samuel Barber’s setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Agee’s poem “Sure On This Shining Night” is one of my favorite songs to sing, which I do a lot of when I’m not writing. I love it because it’s an impassioned jewel of a poem filled with sorrow and hope, and because Barber wrote such gloriously inspired music for it. The song came tumbling into my head recently as I pondered when and how all this misery we’re now immersed in would end.

You can hear several lovely performances of it on YouTube, but I was especially moved by this luminous one sung by soprano Roberta Alexander:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgskIsztC8w.

Agee’s voice as a writer was a major presence during the Great Depression. The website AllPoetry calls his book Let us Now Praise Famous Men “an eloquent and anguished testimony about the essential human dignity of impoverished sharecroppers during the 1930s,” adding that it’s regarded as one of the most significant literary documents of that time. While “Sure On This Shining Night” is not from that book but from the collection of poems Permit me Voyage, the site’s commentary suggests its words must be understood in the context of the suffering and darkness of the Depression, about which Agee wrote so much and so eloquently.

Suffering and darkness were on my mind as the song came back to me, yet my personal take on the poem has always been that in this beautiful world we inhabit, hope must triumph over despair. Lately I’ve wondered more and more, is hope even realistic? And yet I can’t imagine us all moving in any direction other than hope. Anything else is too unbearable. Still, it seems so many of us, with or without forethought, and for reasons many others of us cannot understand, are willing to accept an ending filled with despair.

As your basic non-cynic, I’ve always thought, when it come to most problems, “Of course we can solve it!” But one woman’s comment on the news recently stopped me in my tracks. As experts were calling the rising numbers of Covid cases near-apocalyptic, she was asked, in one of those states where it’s the worst, why she won’t wear a mask (I paraphrase here) even though it might mean she could become quite ill or contribute to someone else’s severe illness. Her answer, “That’s life,” chilled me. When asked, “Even if that other person dies?” she said something I’ve heard a few times now in such interviews: “We all have to go sometime.”

This willingness to contribute to the suffering and very possible death of others–maybe many others–especially coming from a youngish person–maybe late 20’s or early 30’s from what I could tell–old enough to have had a chance to read or watch at least some news and think some about the issues, one would imagine–knocked me flat. My optimism took a dive and I felt awfully depressed. I had to remind myself of all the stories I’d seen and heard in which many Americans are trying to help in any way they can, not just with the pandemic but with fighting racisim and inequality, fighting for fair elections, for kinder prisons, to end the suffering of those without a voice such as children and animals, and to stop global warming.

With so many problems facing us all, and with having to see lately such a terrible confluence of events and words on the world stage that push us toward despair, it’s indeed hard to maintain hope. When we see selfishness or hate revealed by random people on the street who talk to reporters, as has occurred often lately, it’s deeply upsetting not only because we can see they may have been influenced by some of our leaders who we hear voicing similar sentiments, but also because we know it adds to the suffering of many. It’s just hard to accept that some of our fellow humans can be that lacking in compassion.

Some of us wrack our brains asking how so many people can feel loyalty to such a shockingly incompetent, narcissistic, downright mean person as the one now at the helm of our country. We see what we think are bright young people, usually the hope of the world, admiring this person and taking a cue from him that it’s fine to offend and hurt those of other colors or religions, and to kill people by ignoring science if you feel like it. I personally am fortunate never to have met a person like that, so they almost seem unreal or made up to me. It’s naive, I know, but it remains hard for me to understand how people so young can already be filled with so much hate and lack of empathy. Of course the adults who must have taught them also stun and sadden me. So, again, to maintain even a little hope, I must think of the many other people of all ages I know who are out there fighting hard for justice and good.

Still I have to ask, is there no way to reach those who seem so hateful and uncaring, and let them know this is not a good road they’re traveling on? How on earth do we convince them?

I have to reiterate what I always end up saying, that in the end, after all my research I come up with the same solutions for almost all our stressful issues, both in our cities and everywhere else: kindness, empathy, and compassion. These may seem like soft words that can’t accomplish much, but in fact they possess great power and have often caused near-mountains to be moved. And this is what we must do now–move mountains. Of course money and political influence will likely also be necessary because of the way the world works at present, along with lots of education by example. But what ultimately can bring all those things into play is a flood of energetic and deep compassion, pushed and insisted on by citizens themselves, even if their leaders are devoid of it.

In another post here there will be some solutions including those shown by research to help, but at this moment many of us need to make what for some seems quite a difficult leap–from mostly self-interest to caring about and supporting the other person and the need to work together to solve our many problems. We need to find ways to learn to accept, empathize with, and appreciate those different from us, especially right now, in order to help protect each other from Covid-19, and to save the planet from global warming, just for starters.

If we can just begin to do this we may find once more, partly just because we’re working together, our long-lost sense of community, known to be one of the major contributors to wellbeing. We might start to get an inkling of the joy we can feel in a life that involves more than becoming super-successful and living fast, loud, and heavy on the earth even though such a life often causes suffering for other people and for animals. We might discover another kind of happiness in a life that contributes to the greater good even in small ways, such as not torturing our neighbors and further polluting the planet with loud gas-powered leaf-blowers, or destroying someone’s moment of peace with a blasting radio. These are just a few ways of putting empathy and kindness into practice, and they all will improve wellbeing for everyone.

We might like how it feels to live without the hatred or bigotry that makes no sense in a world that needs to move beyond such a destructive aspect of our culture, and to enjoy meeting and learning about those different from us. The fact is increasing research shows that we all need each other. Americans’ existence is sadly isolated now, with a corresponding rise in loneliness and a decline in mental health caused by that loneliness, and by chronic feelings of loss due to moving from job to job, home to home, state to state, and leaving a trail of friends and family behind us each time we go, in search of…what? More success? More thrills? Bigtime success and thrills are nice to experience, but we can also include in our lives proven benefits from deeper, perhaps quieter successes and joys many of us rarely experience because of this lifestyle, such as getting to know and keep even one or two really good friends–or more if we’re lucky–friends who live near us and who we can see often.

So besides what we may have been taught, might it be in large part a feeling of disconnectedness that’s making many of us less kind, or completely unable to care somehow? And could we possibly become more compassionate for ourselves and for others by slowing down a little, giving to ourselves and others more time each day to stop the noise and feel some calm and peace, asking a little less of our careers, connecting more deeply with people, and making our goals lean at least partly toward being in this way a helpful light in the world and for the world?

Could more of us then see the value and the gift of others who share the planet with us, most of whom are really nice to know? Can we start to embrace and benefit from the gifts of nature and of what could become a happier, more serene neighborhood or city? Can we then more easily work hard, all together as partners, on immediate problems such as doing what it takes to get out of this pandemic, lift up our unemployed, underpaid and otherwise struggling populations so there will be less anxiety, depression, suicide, and crime, and resolve policing issues which, I believe, would improve if we did lift those many citizens out of poverty?

When I think of such a world, and of all the good and kind acts I do hear about every day, I regain some of my dashed hopes, and dare to think my longtime dream of humans evolving away from some of their worst qualities and closer to their best ones might come true.

When I sing Sure On This Shining Night, especially the line “I weep for wonder,” I imagine people living more lightly and with more love on the earth.

It’s truly hard to go on without that dream.

Note: To read in more detail about Agee and the poem Sure On This Shining Night, go to https://allpoetry.com/Sure-On-This-Shining-Night

To read more about Samuel Barber’s choices in setting the poem to music, his later setting of Agee’s collection of poems Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the friendship with Agee that ensued, go to https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200182573/

Bullies On the World Stage

Susan Cooke

I’ve been thinking about some of our world “leaders” and how they got so mean. The classic answer, I figured at first, is someone was mean to them when they were kids, but that happened a lot to Winston Churchill and he turned out mostly okay. His dad was fiercely critical at times, and his mom was pretty much hands-off, so there wasn’t much affection (though his mother was verbally supportive). Both parents failed to visit him at school much and were pretty self-involved. Luckily he had a loving nurse, “Womany,” who was in essence mother and father to him, always giving support and affection whenever he was home. As an adult he snapped at his wife a lot, and suffered from chronic depression. The strikes against him emotionally could have made him both a miserable and perhaps tyrannical leader, or no leader at all, but some magical combination of good things must have changed what might have been an awful course for his life to take, altering what is now such an important moment in history. His father’s at least occasional closeness, and his admiration for his father seemed to inspire him periodically, though sadly this was cut short by the syphilis that gradually destroyed his father’s mind and ended his life too early. Thankfully he was also strengthened enough by the love, even if distant, of his adored mother, and the unending unconditional support of Womany even as he grew older–until she died–so that the world gained an inspiring leader rather than a powerful bully.

I’ve known other people with not the greatest childhood experiences who did not turn into bullies, and some who bullied part-time yet could be caring at other times. But what about the people who bully most of or all the time? This of course includes most heads of governments of countries whose unfortunate people we’ve seen suffer a great deal, both in the past and today, and also heads of governments who want to make people in other countries suffer too. You know the names–tyrants and dictators through the ages and those bullying millions right now.

KID BULLIES

On the bullying information site “Ditch the Label” which largely addresses school bullies, it says bullies usually want to gain a feeling of power, purpose and control over you. In their research they found that many bullies were likely to have experienced a stressful or traumatic situation in the past five years before they bullied someone. They say while some people meditate or find other ways to deal with their trauma, some simply don’t know what to do and may bully as a coping mechanism. 66% of the people who told these researchers they’d bullied someone were male.It’s believed this has partly to do with the way boys are raised, not feeling it’s okay to show emotions, while girls are usually encouraged to talk about their feelings.

Their research shows those who are bullied are twice as likely to bully someone else. One in three who bullied told researchers they felt their parents/guardians didn’t have enough time for them. They were more likely from larger families, less likely to live with biological parents, often felt rejected by their parents, or came from violent households with lots of arguments and hostility. They tended to feel relationships with their friends and family were not secure. They were more likely to feel those closest to them weren’t very supportive or loving, and made them do things they were not comfortable doing.1

I was bullied often as a child, but I guess there was enough love and support from various people along the way to prevent me from turning into a complete jerk. For what it’s worth, being bullied is probably partly what made me want to fight on behalf of victims of all sorts. (Still, I don’t recommend the experience.) So this seems an imperfect science–predicting who becomes a bully–but I do think based on my own experience that the people I quote here have a lot of ideas that make sense.

ADULT BULLIES

Psychology Today‘s page on adult bullies tells us one way people bully others is to use title, position, or material leverage to intimidate, threaten, harass, and/or harm. The bully uses his advantage in stature and/or resources (like wealth) to control and dominate the victim. It quotes Edmond Burke: “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” It also mentions verbal abuse as bullying, including threats, shaming, hostile teasing, insults, constant negative judgment and criticism, or racist, sexist, or homophobic language. Quoting Lundy Bancroft, “The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds or punches but are often not as obvious.”

The site discusses physical, cyber, and “passive-aggressive or covert” bullying. Author Preston Ni describes the latter this way:

This is a less frequently mentioned form of bullying, but in some ways it’s the most insidious. With many bullies, you can see them coming because they are quick to make their intimidating presence known. A passive-aggressive or covert bully, however, behaves appropriately on the surface, but takes you down with subtlety.

Examples of passive-aggressive and covert bullying include negative gossip, negative joking at someone’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, the invisible treatment, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success. 2

On another Psychology Today page, Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D, author of the book A Unified Theory of Happiness, reports bullying is widespread and increasing:

Bullying is an aggressive behavior with the aim to intimidate and harm another, repeatedly over time and with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one. While it happens more frequently in countries that promote violence and that are intolerant of inter-individual differences, bullying is everywhere. Even in other species: chimpanzees do it; dogs do it; mice do it. 

We might bully, she says, when we feel threatened by someone who stands out or who seems to have a competitive edge over [our] perceived limited resources. She says anyone different from the group is a potential target. Her quote from Hogan Sherrow of Scientific American is especially apt and I think interesting in our present culture:

Individuals whose behavior challenges, disrupts or are considered unusual are often the targets of aggression, and that aggression continues until those individuals change their behavior…Bullying-like behaviors are used to enhance an individual or coalition’s competitive ability, or to coerce others into changing their behavior to conform to the rest of the community. Bullying-like behaviors provide the individuals who engage in them with advantages over their targets, through enhanced status or access to resources, or both.

If I understand her correctly, Polard is saying some (I would think mostly insecure) people want power of various kinds, either just because they want it or because that power leads to getting resources like money, attention, status from a peer group, or fame. Such people seem to have no qualms about bullying to get those resources.

STOPPING BULLIES

Polard says the victims’ coming forward to say they were bullied isn’t near enough to stop the bullying. You have to understand bullying better, and understand what’s up with the bully and why he/she feels insecure, threatened or disempowered enough to do this. It’s also the responsibility of the community to stop the bully by building powerful coalitions around the victim (I assume she means provide widespread protection of people who tend to be bullied.)

Her next thought seems important to remember: we can’t wait for bullies to become aware of how they need to change. We need to empower the victim now with education about why bullies bully, and help the victim discover his/her own power. Next, victims (and I would think the rest of us too) should let the bully know we know they bully because they’re fearful and insecure or don’t feel they have enough or are good enough. We should demand not only an apology, but that the bullies examine their behavior, get help, and not bully again. She suggests a support group for the victim, and finally a look at the entire society. Is it hostile or unkind, for instance?

I know she is talking largely about kids at school in this instance, but in many ways this applies to adults in the larger world, for example she writes:

All parties ought to look into the contributing factors of an atmosphere of intolerance and aggression. If schools promote competitiveness from an early age on, dividing kids according to their test taking skills, offering special classes, discussing college in elementary school and the “rush to nowhere” in general, we ought not to be surprised that kids start to elbow each other. We need to look at racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other discriminative behavior and engage in open discussions. Where is the dialogue about uncomfortable truths?

Also helpful are her observations on the contribution of mental illness, which itself is added to by unhealthy trends in our culture:

We need to address the fact that a myriad of people are unhappy and highly medicated, suffering from depression and anxiety, triggered by the great recession, social injustice, glorified aggression in movies and actual warfare, extremely high divorce-rates and dysfunctional families, inertia, anorexic role models and reality TV stars whose one God is money. Happy people are the exception, not the norm and are therefore an easy target for those who are fashionably unhappy. The least we can do is to be mindful about mental health and the lack of thereof. 3

TODAY’S BIG BULLIES

I imagine as you read through these various quotes and ideas about bullies, the behavior of many people comes to mind, people both in your inner circle and in public life. Since I was looking primarily for keys to help us stop political bullying from those in power in the world now, I’ll only comment on them here.

I might in the future look into those bullies’ childhoods and see what I can find, but I think our main problem is what they’re doing right now. I’m not sure we can undo enough childhood damage to change those bullies, although I’ve always thought we should have the best psychotherapists around working for the government to help formulate policies with regard to world bullies. (Those psychotherapists should be selected carefully, using peer review, etc. and no politics!)

Our own President is a bully in more ways than I can get into here, but I’ll mention one that applies to several comments of Preston Ni on covert or passive-aggressive bullying mentioned earlier: “…deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity…professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success.” Trump just did the above to ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe by firing him a few hours before his pension began. Even if it’s found that McCabe broke the law he could have been given his pension for now. This was classic, mean bullying. We need to act on Polard’s direction to build a coalition of safety around McCabe, support him in his efforts to obtain justice, and call out the bully Trump for what he is as well as let him know he’s showing his fear, insecurity, and the fact that underneath his shows of bravura he doesn’t think he’s good enough. He needs to know we’re onto him and how he’s using power and money to belittle and harm someone (and the someone’s family). Trump’s behavior in general is also reflected in part of another statement mentioned earlier, on using verbal abuse to bully. Methods include “threats, shaming, hostile teasing, insults, constant negative judgment and criticism, or racist, sexist, or homophobic language.” My experience of him has been he uses many of these methods constantly.

As for Putin, we need to let him know even more certainly than we have already that we’re onto him, that he’s using resources and the power he used bullying to get, to then bully millions by threatening their very existence. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have as much money from what I understand, but his nukes and the friends (I think some of them are also bullies) who give him money for nukes and for whatever other brutal stuff he’s cooking up are all clearly a threat to us and seem happy in that role. (I’d like to see an entire book on what makes people happy to be monsters. And what does it take to go from bully to monster? It seems hard to know where to draw the insanity line.)  I’m not sure but I think Kim is more transparent about what’s bothering him than is Putin, though Kim may not mean to be. We all know he feels unsafe, so I say do what we can to make him feel safer, but let him know the world can see he’s feeling insecure. On second thought he might be too unstable to withstand that. (It really is time to consult the world’s therapists.) Maybe we should just let him know we think he’s acting dishonorably, in case there’s an ounce of him that cares about that.

I’m afraid Putin would be unaffected by our calling him dishonorable. He seems both a covert and overt bully, with his constant denials that he’s done anything wrong while he continues to threaten and frighten people. I guess Polard would say we need to build up our own methods of protection against both these bullies, but maybe we should also remind them that if they did even only partially destroy us it would in the end give them a very expensive clean-up job to do. Our country wouldn’t be worth near as much to them in the terrible disarray, death, and destruction a nuclear (or severe cyber or wide chemical) attack would leave. We might mention that most history books and countries would vilify them forever if they did enough such nasty stuff to us or to other countries. They’re already down for some pretty negative pages in those history books now of course. It’s worth mentioning, since we don’t have lots of alternatives left to use to defend ourselves from all of their many methods of causing death and chaos, other than harming yet more innocent people in an un-winnable war. If they do contemplate lots of expensive further destruction, I’d like to remind them that we could all (including them) put that money to great use helping each other’s countries become wonderful rather than scary places. So I refer them to a new idea on the off-chance they ever read this: They should look at my posts on making and living in a kinder world. Better yet, they should just start doing it. Bullies, put your energy and money into something that will really make you famous–doing good.

At some point we have to hope today’s big bullies can stop thinking about their own amassing of power for a few minutes to remember they won’t live forever and may leave behind terrible reputations as hateful, useless humans who had the power to contribute wonderful gifts to the world but chose instead to use power to harm. The mess they make will be an embarrassment to their memories and for their families down through the generations for eons to come, that is, if they haven’t wrecked or blown up the whole planet before then.