Category Archives: Freedom

What do we really know after all?

Charley has just begun to plot her next adventure, a journey forward from Leonardo’s time to a period where the world was unevenly wakening to what it means to be fully alive, fully human. In the early to mid-17s, most of humanity (at least in the Western world) was still firmly in the grips of the Inquisition, superstition. This was pre-Revolutionary America or France, where the Rights of Man (but not Woman) had yet to be enunciated.

But hope and change were in the air.  The thrill of examining another moment in time where brilliance and genius could bubble up, where scientific thought,  and debate were leading us to new innovations that would help define our own post-modern world, is about to draw our girl Charley back into adventure like a moth drawn into flame.

As we start to look at the time of Voltaire, Diderot and the kings of Divine Right in France, there is another pioneer and “brainiac” of the period whose flame has been dimmed by history because–gasp–she is a woman. If Charley has any say about it, la Marquise Emilie du Chatelet is about to get her due.

Meanwhile, a look at the satirical brilliance of Voltaire, Emilie’s consort and intellectual partner, from a modern musical theater performance adapted from his novel, Candide, ou l’Optimist, from a 2011 blog post on my Pass the Talking Stick blog.

What do we really know, after all?

I went to see Candide last night – a musical opera based on Voltaire’s famous satirical novel (“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”) set to Leonard Bernstein’s music. It was a fabulous production by The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Bernstein decided to undertake the adaptation in 1953 upon the advice of his friend, playwright Lillian Hellman. At the time, Hellman was one of many artists, scientists and intellectuals under investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, the noted McCarthy hearings against alleged Communists. Hellman was one of many artist victims of this modern day witch hunt. Voltaire’s 1758 satire of the institutions that held enormous sway over public opinion in his time – from the Catholic Church to the emperors, from physicians to philosophers – were intent on trying to impose their dogma, and control on the public. Even when the facts didn’t line up with teachings – the inconvenience of the Inquisition being a notable breach of Christian spirit, for example – it was all for the best!In a contemporary parallel, some politicians of our day insist that our country’s Founders had God and right on their side in the original framing of the U.S. Constitution — and that they are the special people who can read he Founders intentions correctly and prune our laws of anything that the framers and their successors didn’t really intend, except those parts that don’t suit their current ideology. No hypocrisy there!

As the French themselves are fond of saying, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
What struck me about the “philosophy” behind Voltaire’s mocking words was how the best knowledge of his day had much of the science wrong. The best medicine then promoted bleeding (leeches) to cure disease, the auto-da-fe to “purify” religion, and Optimism as a philosophical explanation for every Job-like tragedy that befell the world and poor Candide, including earthquake, war, plague. What do we “know” today that will lead the scientists and philosophers 300 years from now to conclude that our best practices are equally misinformed?

It would seem that skepticism – questioning what is generally accepted as fact – is actually a healthy approach to counter the conventional wisdom. Candide’s teacher, Professor Pangloss, tenaciously holds to his optimistic philosophy (“All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”) despite suffering these personal trials and tribulations: war, poverty, beatings, earthquakes, Auto-da-fe (the Inquisition’s infamous public heretics “trials” which inevitably ended up in conviction and public execution), hanging and, finally, destitution. Equally, today, we might be skeptical of the absolutists who claim to “know” what is best for our country, for our children and for our future.

Fortunately, technology, communication, transportation and a healthy public debate in our democracy promote ever greater tools to engage in public skepticism. Through the Internet, television, social media, ever-more transparent government and the free press, Americans now have more power than ever to question, debate, learn and challenge the status quo.

Still, it is tempting to stay out of the debate and “cultivate one’s garden”, as Candide concludes at the bitter end of his story. By this time, Candide’s one true love, the Lady Cunegonde, has lost her station, her beauty, her youth and her wealth. To engage in the conversation – to challenge conventional wisdom publicly – may leave one subject to ridicule or worse. But, as in Voltaire’s time, satire can be a biting tool that, on the face of it, seems to endorse the authorities whose knowledge is “beyond question” while mocking their hypocrisy.

A musical highlight of Candide is the lovely Cunegonde’s famous comic soliloquy, “Glitter and Be Gay”, lamenting that a lady of high nobility stripped of her title, wealth and family should become the sexual object for everyone from Catholic Cardinals, to the City of Lisbon’s wealthiest and most influential men in exchange for baubles and expensive clothes. True to the teachings of Professor Pangloss even in the most horrific circumstances, Cunegonde searches for the best in the situation.

 The aria is here performed by the incomparably gifted actress Kristen Chenoweth. Her high E-flat is a Wicked feat!


OOT_music_icon[1]In the time travel adventure story Out of Time, our heroine Charley plays violin–taught and encouraged by her professional violinist mom, Gwen. Charley and Gwen even compose what Charley calls a “sound poem” together–the song “Out of Time” that ends up connecting mother and daughter across centuries.  Practicing the violin is not Charley’s favorite thing to do: Gwen has to nag alot. What Charley really wants to concentrate on building Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for a time machine to win the school science fair.

But the music proves key to time travel–an energy that knows no bounds–in ways neither mother nor daughter would ever have guessed. The song gives the story an energy all its own. But Out of Time needed a real melody, not just ClonesofClones-31the tune in my imagination! I had long begged my musician son Ben (a rocker and lead singer for Clones of Clones) to compose the theme song. Now, after much doing, Ben’s obliged, with “Leo, ” a sweet ballad that gives air to Charley’s longing to find her own time and place, no matter what her parents or anyone else thinks is right for her.

Give a listen! Let us know in comments what you think.

Tyranny or Freedom: the Choice is Ours

It is fitting on this holiday of American Independence, to look at what legacy the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) might want to bestow today.

Jefferson MemorialWe are stuck in a paradigm of me versus you. Factionalism is on the increase because we haven’t yet recognized on a practical level how interdependent we are in this world.

America, that great shining experiment in Freedom and Democracy for all, has not proven to be a replicable model for the rest of the world still suffering under the “tyranny over the mind of man,” against which Thomas Jefferson swore eternal hostility to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800.

In 2014, America seems to have been diverted in its hostilities on that front and, instead, is equipping a tyrannical world to persevere in petty battles—not against tyranny, but against each other.

Instead of arming Iraqis with F15 fighter jets they don’t know how to fly, why aren’t we offering the leaders of the Sunni and Shiite factions weapons of diplomacy, economic support and reconciliation to unite these factions into prosperous and peaceful powers-for-good?

Much like the Allies accomplished with the Marshall Plan for Germany after WWII.

Where is America’s drive to end tyranny in the conflicts in the greater Middle East? Instead of feeding the cycles of terrorism and retribution that fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict year-after-year, why not teach their children lessons of acceptance, tolerance, empathy and compassion that could have a chance to end the endless hatred between these peoples?

Something approximating the resolution of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Worse, we stand by while Putin encroaches on the sovereignty of surrounding nations; while Assad massacres his own people; while Nigerian girls are kidnapped and enslaved by those proclaiming to be on the side of ignorance. We even encroach on our own citizens by giving corporations the power to bestow or deny workers benefits such as health care based on the conscience of the owners.

Shame and humiliation have only fueled the fires of conflict. It is grooved deep within the archives of many cultures: think Japanese, Afghan and, yes, even those disaffected young Americans whose solution to personal humiliation and disaffection from society is to blow up those who they think are responsible. As Dr. Brené Brown has found in her research into what keeps people from experiencing wholehearted living on the personal level, shame and blame lead us to armor up—and harden our hatreds. It is no different with nations.

Can we shift from a shame and blame mindset to one of personal responsibility? I contend it is not only possible, but imperative, if we are to bridge divisions in today’s world. A growing body of research is showing how techniques like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, play and creativity—even expressive arts like music, dance, theater and books—can be the antidotes, the cures to open our hardened minds. These are not theoretical constructs. But they are not yet widespread enough to reach the tipping point of wide acceptance.

Why aren’t we exporting these simple-yet profound tools to wage the peace, instead of bombers and drones to continue to wage war?

Beyond individuals, beyond nations, there is a unity to our cause as peoples of the world: mending the wounds of the past, forging common cause for the betterment of ourselves and others in a drive to consciously create a place where our children can grow and prosper without violence, conflict or suffering.

After all, we are all people struggling for a better existence on the same small, fragile planet. We are inherently vulnerable to things beyond our control. And, at heart, what most people want is love and acceptance. It is within each of us to create that condition. Cooperation, not conflict, can only serve to strengthen our continued existence—as individuals and as nations—united in our outlook to conserve humanity and preserve this blue-green marble we call home.

But it takes a shift in perspective. I would like to call on my fellow humans—leaders, gatekeepers in the news media, men and women—to look at these as new weapons in the arsenal of humanity. It will require a new way of looking at the world.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” What if we were to spread the word: we can expand our consciousness to solve the problems of our world?

There is nothing metaphysical about this. It simply involves stepping out of the habit of shame and blame to see our lives, our problems with a little more objectivity. If it wasn’t “my” problem, how would I counsel a friend in overcoming a difficulty? Can I apply that level of care and counsel to our own situations?

Similarly, if we were to look at the concerns of our neighbors not as “their” problem, but our own, could we apply a little more care and concern to overcoming it? After all, “their” problem ultimately has ripple effects that touch my own life.

What if we were to begin that process today? We are all connected. The actions of each of us impact all of us. What if the power for freedom, prosperity, health and well-being really rests in our own hands—if we were only to take into consideration the bigger picture?

How would you look at the world—and your part in it—differently?