Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Two Most Stupid Acts of My Life. So Far.

My experiences with racism in Virginia contributed to my interest in socially and politically progressive expressions of Catholicism. Catholic schools were, generally, the only ones in the south that were not segregated and Catholic priests and members of religious orders were very active in the civil rights movement. On the other hand, the great majority of white, Protestant churches in the south either supported or quietly tolerated segregation; just as they had done with slavery. There is an interesting history of Church opposition to slavery, beginning with papal bulls condemning the practice in the Fifteenth Century, which were almost totally ignored, and including impressive figures, such as Bartolome de Las Chapas, a Dominican monk, who in the Sixteenth Century became a fervent advocate for the abolition of slavery in the New World.

When we returned to Montreal in the Fall of 1966 we were still very committed to progressive, Catholic social and political activism. A former Italian worker priest, who was our friend since arriving in Montreal, arranged for us to live in a house in Point St. Charles, at that time a poor, working-class, mainly English speaking area of Montreal, dedicated to providing services to the poor. It was established and run by a woman named Margo, who was inspired by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement in New York City. The house had a food and clothes bank, as well as a very busy medical clinic, and my wife and I helped with its operations. Happily, Margo wasn't as conservative when it came to Catholic morality as Dorothy Day and birth control services were amongst the most important given through the clinic. Dorothy Day visited the house at least once and was shocked at the poverty of the area, which she claimed was worse than any she had seen in New York City. I spoke often to adults in the Point who had never been to downtown Montreal, which was in easy walking distance, fearing that they didn't have proper clothes and would be humiliated. Our first son, Raphael, named after the Prior of St. Andrew's Priory, was born while we were living and working there. My wife having completed her PhD, took a teaching post in a small, girl's college and, later, at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and I returned to teaching at McGill.

I taught Ancient and Medieval philosophy, but increasingly became interested in what I came to call "philosophical anthropology": reflections from a mainly theoretical point of view on what it meant to be a human being. My dissertation had been on the concept of nature as used in Aristotle's ethics and examined his use of what was considered "natural" in forming ethical judgments. Given my subsequent personal and intellectual evolution, that was an interesting choice of topic. Using an analysis largely based on the work of Wittgenstein, the dissertation attempted to show that the main use of the concept of nature in Aristotle was a dynamic, potentially evolving one, rather than the rigid, backward-looking notion of nature as origin that has dominated Catholic thinking related to natural law; the same, intrinsically conservative concept of nature that leads to judgments that homosexuality is unnatural and that marriage has always been between one man and one woman. Looking back, I can see that I was, at some level, attempting to reconcile my sexuality with the teaching of the Church that such an orientation was not natural and to be condemned; however, at the time, and not surprisingly from the perspective of narrative therapy, I don't recall ever, consciously, making such a link.

Academic life was never a good match for me. I liked teaching and interacting with students, but disliked research and publication. McGill, like most universities, valued the latter considerably more than the former. Seeing as it was the Sixties and I was very much a part of Hippie sub-culture, transcendent experiences and alternate dimensions of consciousness were aspects of being human that especially attracted my interest. Those experiences touched on my own religious experience, the growing interest in the use of psychedelics to expand consciousness and my philosophical research on the function and limits of language. The only article I ever wrote that would be considered academically legitimate was entitled, "Language and the Interpretation of Mystical Experience." Amusingly, if you Google it, you'll find that it is still anthologized and argued about today. It's as close as I'll ever get to going viral.

There was a small group of psychiatrists, mainly of the Freudian persuasion, connected with McGill and led by Dr. Raymond Prince, who organized the R.M. Bucke Memorial Society for the Study of Religious Experience. The Society was loosely organized, met in members' living rooms, published a modest journal, but was quite influential at the time in the field of cross-cultural psychiatry.  Since the graduate programme in which I studied at Claremont was multi-disciplinary, I knew quite a bit about Freud, was somewhat familiar with anthropology. As a result of that background I was invited by Dr. Prince to be a member of the Society.  I wrote a paper for their journal on Freud and transcendent experience, which was well-received in our little circle, but had no life beyond. Subsequently, I gave a seminar at McGill with Dr. Prince that was offered in both the psychiatry and philosophy departments and was one of the most enjoyable of my academic experiences. Shortly thereafter, I formed a study group in radical psychiatry with three or four progressive psychiatrists and a professor of sociology focusing on the works of R. D. Laing and David Cooper. Those interests were not particularly smiled upon by my colleagues in philosophy, who would have preferred that I stuck to ancient history. I was slowly evolving towards considering leaving academia for some other career permitting more concrete involvement in what might be called "mental health", though I wouldn't have approved of that designation and still feel queasy about it.

Expo 67 opened in Montreal that Summer and my wife and I decided to head out of the city and spend a few months travelling in Europe. We bought an old VW bus in London and made the back area into a crib/playpen for Raphael, who was about six months old at the time. We stayed in pensions or guest houses and ate in small restaurants or purchased food along with a bottle of wine from markets or street vendors. Hippy folk had learned from wolves and lions that the most threatening beasts elicit warm and cuddly feelings when accompanied by an infant or two. We were happily received in places, such as restaurants, with our baby-in-a-basket or baby-in-a-backpack; places where I wouldn't be pleased to see a couple with a baby take a table next to us. In London tour buses full of Americans would slow down so the passengers could take pictures of what they supposed to be a typical, Carnaby Street family. In Italy strangers would sweep Raphael away from us and go bouncing with him down the street. The only exception was Germany were our manifestation of peace and love generally failed to move them from their obvious, dour disapproval. I suppose that was to be expected. The south of Germany, even the atmosphere of beer gardens in Munich, reminded me very much of the south of the USA: jovial on the outside; angry and rejecting underneath.

It was on our European trip that I committed the second most stupid act of my life. Before we had left Montreal a close friend, who was Hungarian, asked us to help out a couple living in Budapest, who had been her closest friends in Hungary before the aborted revolution against Russian occupation. The couple were prominent in the Communist power structure; the husband a leading professor of medicine and his wife an assistant minister in the tourism office. They wanted to flee Hungary to join their children in the USA. They were only permitted to travel to Yugoslavia, but couldn't take any documents they would need to immigrate to the United States because that would betray the fact that they had no intention to return. They wanted us to smuggle their documents out of Hungary and in return arranged to give us a very nice apartment in Vienna for a month.

We took a hydroplane boat up the Danube from Vienna to Budapest. Since they were planning their escape, they used our visit to discretely say goodbye to places they liked in Budapest, which they realized they would never see again.  It was a rare privilege to get to visit places that were at that time reserved for the governing, Communist elite. On our last evening they arranged for a babysitter and we drove in their Mercedes to a restaurant that was located deep, down in a cavern near the old fortress, close to St. Stephen's Basilica. It was an excellent, romantic restaurant, totally lit by candlelight and delightfully cool on the hot, Summer night; a small ensemble quietly played chamber music. Sharing that time with them was special. They were planning to escape the following week.

The next morning we were to return to Vienna and discussed where to hide their documents: birth certificates, diplomas, and professional attestations. We decided to use Raphael's pablum box and buried them in the bottom. Passing through the strict exit controls to the boat was rather anxiety provoking, but we felt that travelling with an infant we made unlikely looking smugglers. On the other hand, looking as we did, we could have been suspected of bringing drugs into the country and cash out of it.  At the baths on Margaret Island I had been offered a fortune just for my bell-bottom jeans. Happily, we weren't seriously searched or questioned, arrived safely in Vienna and passed the documents to contacts in a scene reminiscent of a cold war spy film.

I won't keep you in suspense regarding the other most stupid act. It occurred when I was working as a guide at the powder magazine, where weapons and ammunition were stored,in Colonial Williamsburg. Sven, a friend and colleague from Sweden who was a few years older than I, had started smoking a pipe; an affectation we all took to teasing him about. I decided it would be an amusing prank to put a few grains of gun powder into the bowl of the pipe so that it would spark a small flash at some point after he had lit it. He lighted the pipe and just at the moment he removed the stem from his mouth a stream of flame shot out of it. Almost assuredly, had the stem still been in his mouth, he would have suffered serious injury; perhaps, life-threatening, almost certainly, life-changing.

Those are the most stupid acts I've committed thus far in my life, at least in my own estimation. Others might offer different examples. Both acts could have resulted in a radically different direction of my life and serious harm to those I cared about. Both turned out to be benign through no agency of my own; just through pure, dumb luck. Neither could be said to have been unthought out in a morally or legally mitigating way. The only attenuating element to a much worse outcome was that I had not intended to harm. I envision the possibility that with both acts an alternate universe, one of the many, infinite ones parallel to our own, could have opened up and carried my life in a radically different and unhappy direction. When I hear angry condemnation and demands for punishment directed toward people, especially young people, whose stupid acts resulted in serious harm to others, perhaps playing with a loaded gun and killing a friend, perhaps pressing the share button of a video with damaging content, I recall my own stupid acts. I have the "there but for the grace of God" thought and try to pull back from harshly condemning them. Most often having committed the act and seeing the harm it has caused is punishment enough. I believe almost all of us have done stupid things that could have resulted in equally serious harm, even if it were only speeding though a changing light at an intersection, and were spared a terrible outcome though no agency of our own. A more appropriate response would be compassion, rather than outrage and condemnation.

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