We Must Fix Our Hearts or Die

Minneapolis burns. A man in Nashville called Johnny Cash’s granddaughter a liberal pussy for wearing a mask during a pandemic. Infected Republican legislators knowingly exposed Democratic legislators to COVID-19. The president takes to Twitter to complain about Twitter, when he’s not tweeting racism and incitements to violence. Tens of millions are out of work. People are paying their rents on credit cards, and are likely to be unable to do that much longer. Police murder Black Americans with impunity while right wing reactionaries are treated with kid gloves as they enter state houses with long rifles strapped to their thick backs. Even otherwise decent people scoff at wearing masks or social distancing, saying that they’re unlikely to  die from the virus. 

Our hearts are broken.

This doesn’t mean we are sad, although many of us – a great many of us, more than you might think based on the incessant negativity online and in the news – are. What it means is that the part of us that can feel and give love is broken. It doesn’t work. It’s clogged up, and we are trapped inside an illusion of separation, inside a self-centered place where we think we are protecting ourselves, but where we are actually killing ourselves.

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FIRST REFORMED And The Sin Of Hopelessness

Hopelessness and despair have been constant companions for me the past few weeks. I’m having a hard time seeing a future past the immediate next few months, and sometimes I catch myself spiraling away into the urge to just give up, maybe in the most drastic way possible.

But when I get like this I think about the movie First Reformed, the Paul Schrader film starring Ethan Hawke as a priest-turned-ecoterrorist, and I remember the beautiful message of that movie – a message that I think many people don’t see. But I do. And it strengthens me. It’s a line from the film, based on the writings of Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “Despair is a form of pride.”

I wrote about this aspect of First Reformed years ago on my Patreon, and while it was a Patron exclusive back in 2018, I think in 2020 it’s okay to share it with everybody. I hope you find something useful in here, if only the urge to watch First Reformed.

Without further ado, my original piece on First Reformed and hopelessness and despair:

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Recommendation: Teenage Lobotomy (As Covered By A Buddhist Monk)

Every week I make a recommendation to my $5 and above subscribers at Patreon. Sometimes it’s a movie, a book, a concept. I write in depth about it. This week I’m recommending a Buddhist monk who covers pop songs, and I’ve decided to share it with everybody. If you like this, please consider becoming a Patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

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I Get So Fucking Angry Every Day

I don’t wake up mad. That’s something. That’s a blessing. 

But I start to get mad soon after I awake. I check the news, and I begin getting angry. It’s manageable, though. I mean, as manageable as anything is these days – my head hurts a lot and my neck has been killing me. That neck pain, that’s the thing that lets me know how mad I was the night before. 

As the day goes on I find that anger laps at me like waves on a beach. Sometimes the anger will reach up, right up to my head and my face will get flush and I’ll mutter something like, “This motherfucker” or “Jesus fucking Christ.” But usually that anger breaks, again like a wave, and I’ll laugh at myself. 

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Faith In Quarantine

(Above: Pope Francis prays in an empty St Peter’s Square during lockdown)

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting us in the middle of one of the most important stretches of the calendar for religion. Today is Palm Sunday for Christians, coming up is Passover for Jews and then back to the Christians for Easter. Ramadan is on the horizon for Muslims (a month long observance possibly aided by life in quarantine). It is, of course, the Christians who are causing a ruckus in this country – an evangelical priest was arrested for continuing to hold megachurch services in the face of lockdown orders, Donald Trump has become fixated with getting people into church on Easter, and on Twitter I’ve seen more than one right wing extremist bemoan the fact that churches will be empty on Palm Sunday (ie one of the holidays when lax ass Christians who act holier than thou online actually make it to worship). 

There have been other stories, deeply disturbing ones, from across the globe. Russian congregants saying they cannot get sick in church. A woman interviewed saying the blood of Christ makes her immune to the virus. Video of televangelists SPITTING on the coronavirus and demanding its submission to the will of the Lord. In 14 US states religious services are exempted from lockdown restrictions. This, we are told, both by the faithful and those who mock them, is what faith looks like. But to me it looks nothing like faith. It looks like a middle finger directly aimed at God.

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We Are Not A Virus

It is a beautiful day in Los Angeles. Walking my dog this morning I was struck by the incredible clarity of the air, the deep blueness of the smogless sky, the smell of the trees and the singing of the birds. It was 9AM and there was no traffic, just the occasional jogger coming down the sidewalk, respectfully veering into the street to give me and my little buddy, Oliver Reed, the required six feet of social distancing. The mountains, so often occluded by haze, are clear in the distance, and I can see white snow dusting the peaks. 

Gone are the pollution and the rumble of cars, the airborne streams of cigarette and weed smoke, the booming sound systems passing by and giving today’s pop hits a disconcerting Doppler effect. The manic state of the world is not reflected in the streets. 

This isn’t a new observation. Almost immediately after over a billion of Earth’s inhabitants went into shelter in place mode people began noting that the air was clearing, that noise pollution was diminishing. Seismologists have noted that the background rumble of daily life picked up on their seismometers has died down, and most of what they hear is the noise of the planet itself.

With this observation has come a little meme, based on a bit from The Matrix. Agent Smith, disgusted by his time in the Matrix, has captured Morpheus and gives him a villain speech about how fundamentally worthless humanity is.

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Surrendering To Baking

I’ve been doing some baking here, in the middle of the disaster. 

The baking comes on the heels of me beginning to learn how to cook. My childhood was not a food-friendly one; my mother ate a lot of junk food (and was thin as a rail), didn’t cook very much, and what she did cook was low effort stuff. She was a single mom, so that was part of it, but I also think she wasn’t a good eater – she’d hole up in her bedroom with a two liter of Pepsi, packs of Viceroys and a bag of pretzels and that would do it for her. She probably never learned to eat properly either. 

On my Italian side there was a lot of food, all of it rich and starchy, and lots of sweets. None of it healthy, nothing green. My grandmother would make enough food to feed an army, and serve enough pastries and cookies to also give them diabetes. 

For most of my life I didn’t cook. I could boil water, and every now and again I made stabs at learning to cook, but it never stuck. Cooking is more than the act of cooking – it’s the process of buying food, having food, preparing food, cleaning up. I’m lazy, and I want it quickly. Give me delivery, or give me something I can throw in the microwave. There’s a new generation of Lean Cuisine frozen meals where you don’t even have to take the plastic wrapping off – this is the dream. Star Trek’s food replicators have always been the technology I want the most. 

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The Needs Of The Many In The Age Of Coronavirus

Spock: “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…” 

Kirk: “The needs of the few…” 

Spock: “Or the one.” 

That’s the reasoning that Captain Spock has as he leaves the bridge of the Enterprise during the Battle of the Mutara Nebula, as the crippled ship struggles to escape before the Genesis Device, activated by Khan, threatens to wipe them all out. He heads down to engineering and enters a compartment flooded with deadly radiation in order to manually make the repairs necessary so the ship can warp away with death nipping at its nacelles. 

I was eight years old when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in June of 1982. I saw it in theaters and I wept when Spock died. I cried the whole way home in the car. I had been a Star Trek fan since before I could talk, zooming around the living room in my little wheeled scooter when the opening credits played on WPIX Channel 11. I have no memory of a time before me knowing about Star Trek, about Captain Kirk, Mister Spock. 

Spock’s reasoning has deeply impacted me. I’ve not led a blameless life, and I’ve failed at keeping my own ideals, but again and again my moral compass has eventually found its way to this true north – that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Even as Western culture, especially American culture, has taught me to look out for myself, even when I’ve fallen into that trap and thought “Fuck that guy, I gotta get mine,” I always come back – eventually, painfully – to this belief. 

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Thoughts On Learning Rush Limbaugh Has Cancer

“I hope it fucking hurts as he dies.”

That response to the news that Rush Limbaugh has ‘advanced lung cancer’ isn’t all that crazy. Rush has been instrumental in creating a horrifying and fascist atmosphere in the United States of America. Whether he led the charge or was just an opportunist who figured out how to make money stoking the flames doesn’t matter – you can draw a straight line from Limbaugh’s show to the increasingly dictatorial toddler in the White House. It’s foolish to blame individuals for the sweep of history but… we can kinda lay some of the blame for our current situation at Limbaugh’s feet. 

It’s human to have a reaction like that. We have enemies, rivals, adversaries, and we want them destroyed. It’s the animal in us, the pack beast that jockeyed for position. You think cancel culture is bad, you should see what chimps do to each other when one of them falls from grace. But the point of being human, I believe, is to transcend whenever possible those most animal urges, the things that evolution left sitting in our brains like time-delayed dirty bombs. The things that make us selfish and cruel, because being selfish and cruel might have at one time been useful in order to pass our genes on to the next generation. 

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THE GOOD PLACE Invents Buddhism

This contains spoilers for the latest episodes of The Good Place.

Everybody on The Good Place is dead. This is not the spoiler promised above – rather it’s the very premise of the show. Four people wake up in a waiting room where they are informed they’re dead and they’ve made it to The Good Place. But very quickly it becomes clear that none of them actually belong there, and over the course of the first season they try to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place. Then came the first season twist: they were already in The Bad Place. This had all been a part of their eternal punishment, a new spin on damnation.

The next season was an endless series of reboots, with The Bad Place trying to make them forget they were in The Bad Place, and after that they tried to escape. In the process they discovered that the afterlife works on a point system, but that the system is impossibly flawed. The complexity of moral life in the modern world – when you buy a turnip you’re possibly enriching a truly evil corporation that is ruining the lives of millions – has rendered the system moot. Nobody goes to the real Good Place anymore. Nobody at all. 

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