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J is for Jim Jones and the cult of calm

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
October 10, 2002


"The normal is the good smile in a child's eyes –all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills-like a god." — Peter Shaffer

Trying to calm the instinctual panic associated with a world out of balance, people are flocking to all sorts of spiritual charlatans offering, for a substantial fee, the latest brand of new age Prozac. The members of Heavens Gate sought inner peace and we all know how that social experiment ended.

Inner peace is a now a billion dollar a year industry. From fortune telling phone psychics to annoyingly effeminate men with a direct line to the dead, Americans will buy anything packaged in mystical mass marketing. Call me a cynic, but anyone offering seminars on the source of happiness, are just the latest incarnation of P.T Barnum.Believe me folks, fire and brimstone is preferable to the feel good fleecing of those promising to erase the negative emotionality of fear and frustration.

Lobotomies are never pretty regardless of the amount of incense used to mask the smell of the burning away of critical thought. I understand the need to find peace in a world at war, but ignoring injustice in favor of a mantra of self-absorption and personal gain makes as much sense as a jihad of cultural intolerance.

This is not to say one should not seek the spiritual path of their own choosing, they should. Inner truth is not purchased wholesale, nor can it be found in a book of the month club. I believe truth is found in the wisdom of elders, in the innocence of children, and ability to be one self.

Nothing bothers me more than having condescending people tell me I should learn to meditate. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I assure them I do meditate, it just happens to be a little ritual known as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Watching Buffy slay her own personal demons helps me wrestle with my own. I highly recommend it.

Personally I don't understand the lure of inner peace that comes with unconditional acceptance. Hell, even the idea of surrendering self seems like suicide. Life is messy, and every attempt to clean it up only deepens the damage done. Having been raised a Southern Baptist I am no stranger to faith and the importance of seeking fellowship. Given the choice between righteous indignation and quiet capitulation, I would choose the one that brings with it the most change.

Where would the civil rights movement be today if Rosa Parks decided to stick with the status quo, choosing instead to go home and meditate on social injustice in order to find the strength to endure it. Martin Luther King, although a man of profound faith, did not have faith in the system and channeled his anger in such a way as to bring about progressive change. America, from our founding fathers, to the young people rioting in the streets of Seattle have never been one for sitting quietly by while their quality of life was being undermined by those in power.

As an environmentalist I prefer to work within the system, not only is this easier and less stressful, it is also more productive, more lasting, and more likely to result in a deeper understanding of how such change benefits everyone. When he created the National Park System Theodore Roosevelt used the bully pulpit to gain support for his actions. No one today would doubt this was a monumental achievement. Would this have been possible if he sought to smother his burning passion, as not to rock the proverbial boat?

Calm is deceptive, and can be debilitating, just as aggression can be the most liberating of all things or the most constrictive. Neither is right or wrong, depending on the time and place. Hiking in nature, miles from civilization, gentleness of spirit comes naturally. But then again standing up and demanding environmental protection from those unwilling to give it is also as natural as breathing. Both have their place, and compliment the other.

Here in Southern California the most popular form of meditation is surfing, no gurus needed. To hear my friends tell it, nothing is more calming than having the perfect wave to yourself,at one with the goddess nothing else seems to matter for the hour or two spent straddling a surf board. Personally, spending time in the ocean would leave me a nervous wreck. Yet, an hour spent cleaning up a beach leaves me with such a feeling of accomplishment I'm ready to take on the world.

So instead of the Grape Kool-Aid, I suggest everyone have a martini and relax.

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