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The dog you feed the most will dominate your life

AGNES OF GOD - AMAZONIn 1985 the Broadway hit “Agnes of God” was released as a movie directed by Normal Jewison. Marshall Fine tendered this review on Amazon.com:

This Broadway hit gets a solid film treatment by director Norman Jewison, but that can’t make up for the weaknesses of the script (which were as true onstage as they are here). Jane Fonda plays a chain-smoking shrink sent to a convent to do a psychological evaluation of a novice (Meg Tilly) who gave birth to a baby and then killed it in her little room. Was it a virgin birth? A miracle? And what of the bloody stigmata that seem to spontaneously appear on her hands? Fonda also finds herself clashing with the Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft) over the line between faith and science. But writer John Pielmeier can’t flesh this out beyond an idea; in the end, the solution is a disappointingly earthbound one that even the strong acting in this film can’t elevate.

OK, so the film isn’t flawless and has garnered more than its fair share of “1 or 2 thumbs down”. With this said, I like this flick. Why so? In-a-word it lays in the fact Agnes the novice nun somehow manages to interact with the world thorough a lens of innocence. That is, the unjaded aspects of her being for the most part dominate her day-to-day existence and how she perceives life and those around her.

Hollywood nonsense, you say? I might have agreed with you if this were early 1999. But not afterwards. What changed for me? I spent more than four years in Japan living and teaching classes of Japanese young people from pre-school through doctoral level plus many corporate classes filled with adult working professionals. What I discovered was that virtually all the young folks were, well, in some ways “Agnes of God” like. Mind you, I was aware that there were exceptions and many expats I shared sake and chat with were quick to point out their bad experiences with pretty jaded Japanese characters. But on-the-whole even they agreed most Japanese people they had encountered while teaching and in society at-large exhibited less of the cynicism and sheer nastiness that appeared commonplace back in the US and the West in general (Some of these expats came from the UK, New Zealand and Australia).

My then girlfriend and later (2001) wife thought I was seeing her people through rose colored glasses. This changed once we moved from Japan to southern California in early 2003. Having left being the corporate world in Japan (18 years work for a major multinational corporation in Tokyo), she pursued her long held dream of becoming a marriage and family therapist. This journey took her through the MS in Counseling program at Cal State Fullerton (she graduated with honors) and internships at a number of places including the Salvation Army residential program in Anaheim. While doing an internship at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, she happened to counsel a number of Japanese students who had come to the US in order to obtain specific educational credentials in an English language environment. What she discovered — and made a point of mentioning to me — is that her Japanese charges were very “unjaded” compared to the American students she counseled. Maybe my glasses were not so rose-colored after all.

At the very least, there seems to be at least a modicum of real world evidence that my original observation was spot on: The Japanese were and are on-a-whole less jaded (“more innocent”) than Americans.

Were Americans less jaded in the past? It seemed that way to me when I was a youngster. TV and movies in the late 1950s into the 1960s tended to reflect a certain un-worldliness (Less cynical, less nasty). This began to go out the window with the advance of the sexual revolution, Vietnam and all that entailed, and the general rejection of authority and conventional ways among many young folks of that era (including moi).

Can we ever recapture what we lost short of embarking on a 2nd childhood (individually and collectively)? Is the genie out of the bottle for good? Is there any way to truly be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Rabbi Yehoshua’s admonition). Good questions, I think. We American Indians (Choctaws) have a saying that goes like this: “The dog you feed the most becomes biggest”. By this token if we as Americans feed ourselves on jaded & cynical things such as pornography, greed, pride, and other vices then the dogs that will steer our sled (lives) will be these vices. On the other hand, if we feed virtues and starve vices, well, we just might find ourselves less jaded and “wicked”. And while we may not become a nation of “Agnes of God” characters or even Japanese-like, we could inch a little closer to it.

Dr. Anthony G. Payne

Copyright 2013 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.

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Frankl & Custer: We are all headed to the Little Big Horn

Dr AG Payne - May 2017One of the most beloved verses in the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the 23rd Psalms:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me

In Japan, where I lived and taught for many years, a general sense of “gloom & doom” pessimism pervaded the lives of many folks. This was especially evident among my university students. Japan’s protracted economic woes had apparently sapped the vision and vitality out of many of these otherwise industrious, tenacious souls. A great many kids spoke of there being “no real future” for them. Needless to say, depression and despair reared its ugly head fairly often.

Now reactive depression is a wholly expected and understandable response to intractable adversity or woe. We all have a tendency to get sorely vexed when our lives are turned upside down and held there by trials and tribulations. In such a situation, one tries to console and counsel the suffering as best one can. (A touch of satire and self-deprecating humor sometimes doesn’t hurt either). And this I ably extended to my angst-ridden student charges with varying degrees of success. But more was needed.

The “more”, I reasoned, had to lie in something that would get these kids to change their outlook or perspective on certain aspects of life. To do this I looked to a tried-and-true source for generating insight and encouraging change: history. Specifically, I had my students tackle and examine two notable chapters: Famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s account of his years of struggle in various Nazi concentration camps (as recounted in his timeless classic, “Man’s Search For Meaning”), and the saga of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Dr. Frankl and his imprisoned compatriots suffered cruelly at the hands of sadistic SS guards, all the while struggling with scarcity and living conditions so calculatingly appalling as to beggar the imagination. Mindful that he could not change his circumstances and that his Nazi tormenters could snuff out his life at any minute, Frankl nonetheless felt empowered by a single fact: They could take everything from him but his power to choose how he would react to their brutal actions! And it was this realization that essentially helped buoy up Dr. Frankl during his agonizing walk through the “valley of the shadow of death”!

Frankl emerged from Hitler’s reign of terror intact and went on to establish an influential school of psychotherapy called logotherapy (http://logotherapy.univie.ac.at/). He died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 92, having survived the Third Reich by 52 years.

Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument,
While Dr. Viktor Frankl was the victim of totalitarian oppression and a state-sanctioned policy of malignant racism and genocide, Brevet Major Gen. George Armstrong Custer stood on the other side of the divide, so to speak. Custer played a somewhat pivotal role in the United State’s 19th century pursuit of lebensraum (“living space”) and its calculated program of conquering and containing indigenous peoples (American Indians). It was not Custer’s successes in the so-called Indian War that helped advance the narrow social and political agenda of his time, but rather his death along with that of over 200 of his soldiers at the Little Big Horn (June 26, 1876). The “massacre” of then Lt. Col. Custer and his troops elicited a massive military response that ultimately led to the total subjugation of American Indians during the early years of the 20th century.

After my students had fully acquainted themselves with the lives and feats of Dr. Frankl and Lt. Col. Custer, I had them conduct an open comparative analysis of the two (men) for the purpose of extracting principles they felt to be especially insightful and personally meaningful.

Of course, these bright, eager young people came up with an illustrious roster of “goodies”. Among them: The power of choice; how evil seduces people by playing up to their basic desires and egos; the futility of life spent focused on narrow, self-serving and self-aggrandizing goals; the nobility of service to others informed by prior suffering; etc.
After we had reviewed their litany of ideas and comments, I asked them to sum up what we had learned from the lives of Frankl and Custer. The general consensus was that we must all have the power to make choices that will steer us through life; choices that may decide whether we end our days with a tally sheet that favors having achieved something worthwhile,…..or its opposite.

I had only one thing to add to what their conclusion, which was this:

“Each of us is headed into the valley…to our own “last stand”. Whether you get there as a young person or during middle-age or as a very old man or woman,….we all have to the enter the valley and depart this world. No one escapes this fate. But as you correctly surmised, it isn’t that final battle alone that determines the meaning and value of the life you have lived, but what you do in the days, weeks, and years leading up to it. And yes, the impact of your life and the ripples it sets in motion are determined by the choices and subsequent actions you take while enroute to the valley.

“Now I have but one final point to make – an admonition, really – which is this:

“If Dr. Frankl could exercise choice in his dire circumstances and by so doing not only survive the fiendish horror that was Nazi Germany, but set in motion ideas that have transformed countless lives ever since,….then certainly you can lay hold of the promise that lies in the abundant choices and options you have in life.”

Of those students who have stayed in contact with me in the intervening years, most appear to have made prudent choices that have helped them forge personally meaningful, productive and fulfilling lives.

How goes your journey to the valley?

© 2013 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved. Photo of Dr. Payne made & added in 2017.

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