Chicxulub

Across the land, turbulent air flowing from the chilly north encounters the breezes of the hot south.  As the two fight it out over the plains, tornadoes are spawned.  Ninety percent of the worlds tornadoes occur in North America.”   The Eternal Frontier,  Tim Flannery,  2001.

Long before it became the first global human empire, North America was a climatic dynamo affecting the entire earth.

Unlike any other continent, it is a giant “inverted wedge”, 4000 miles across the in the sub-arctic north, sixty miles across in the south,  with the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Rockies Mountains to the west.  This wedge is a giant. . . carburetor. . . funneling super-chilled Canadian air southward in winter, and warm Gulf air northward in summer, generating explosive storms, torrential rains, giant lakes, thunderous rivers, and intense seasons that have fueled an evolutionary combustion of plants, reptiles and mammals.  This includes the great forests of deciduous trees that shed their nutrient-drained colorful leaves in winter , when the sunlight is low, and reabsorb their fertilizer energy in the spring when the sun is bright.  And not only leaves, seedlings too, including nutritious, soft-shelled nuts that entice small mammals to carry them away and bury them.  North America invented squirrels.  Native american societies, too, thrived on the gathering and storing of nuts. Only in North America did inland complex societies arise that were not based on farming.

Sixty five million years ago, North America was  two continents separated by a shallow sea, the BearPaw Sea, covering what is now the great plains.

And. . .then. . . a renegade Manhattan-sized meteor from a broken asteroid escaped the gravity of the asteroid belt, and found its way toward Earth.  It lunged in from the southeast and across the equator and crashed into what is now the town of Chicxulub, on the Yucatan peninsula. It struck with a glancing blow “like a giant golf chip shot“, at a speed of 54,000 miles per hour, digging a celestial divot straight up into the BearPaw seaway, with a collision blast of a 100 million megatons of TNT, 2 million times greater than the largest nuclear bomb ever made, exploding a hole 3 miles deep and 100 miles wide, and creating a tsunami wave . . . one-half mile high. . . that smashed the whole world.  With heat one thousand times that of the surface of the sun, the entire North American forest was ‘carbonized’ – incinerated – all the way to the Red Deer River valley in northern  Canada, and even across the Pacific Ocean to Hokkaido island of northern Japan. Fourteen genera of dinosaurs immediately became extinct. The Age of Giant Reptiles cataclysmally ended.  The lee of the mountain ranges of the Appalachians and of the Sierra Nevada and inside the Arctic Circle were the only areas of sanctuary for life.

For many, many years, debri, dust, and smoke blocked out the sun, freezing the land, and poisoning the atmosphere with sulfur and acid rain.  This was “Impact winter”,  the long “polar night”. . .that starved planetary life.

It would be centuries before the charred North America would turn green again, slowly rejuvenated by a. . . fern, Stenochlaena.

 

Natural Civilization

Fourteen thousand years ago, Siberian and Mongolian people crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. Following the ice-free coastline, they eventually found the Andes mountains, the longest linear stretch of mountains in the world.  There, unaffected by Rome or Greece, or Moses, or Plato, or Aristotle, or by any of the rest of world history, they . . . naturally . . . became the Inca civilization, the largest, most sophisticated civilization of the New World.   One hundred thousand elites controlled 10 million peasants, unified by a religion of sun worship, ruled by an emperor who was “the king, the pope, and Jesus Christ all rolled into one.” All land was state owned, peasants were granted rights to till communal lands. Taxes were paid with labor, which created surpluses of food, tools, and weapons, which were stored along the Inca road network, and which were used for times of want, for war, and for patronage.  The few ruled the many.  Natural civilization.

In 1528, Francisco Pizarro found a Bronze Age society, 2,500 years back in time. The Incas did not have writing, or money, but they had deadly slingshots, and clubs, and vast armies. The Spaniards, though, had steel swords, armor, and horses, and like tank warfare against foot soldiers, 168 Spanish horsemen conquered 10 million Incan foot soldiers.

History has been the story of men killing other men, and so also in the New World.  The Incas had been fighting a gruesome civil war for many years, ever since their great Inca chief was killed by another old world weapon – small pox.  His sons fought to the death for the throne. Atahualpa had just conquered brother Huascar and executed his entire family, and was on his victory trip to Cuzco, to be crowned Sun King, when strange boats appeared off the coast. At Cajamarca, Atahualpa crossed Pizarro’s path. He promptly executed any of his men that showed any fear of the strange horse beasts.

The Incas, it seems, did not know the plight of Montezuma and the Aztecs. They were self-sufficient mountain people, not traders with the larger world. Pizarro had been with Cortes. He enticed Atahualpa into a courtyard, and in a bloody ambush, captured him.

For ransom, Atahualpa filled the Cajamarca courtyard with gold.  Pizarro executed him anyway.  His wife became Pizarro’s mistress, and bore him two sons.

To subdue a civilization, dethrone its religion.

The last Inca Emperor, Tupac Amaru, in Cuzco before his execution, tells his people that their religion has been false.

Lords, . . . Let it be known that I am a Christian, and they have baptized me and I wish to die under the law of God – and I have to die.  And that everything that my ancestors, the Incas, and I have told you up until now – that you should worship the sun god, Punchao, the shrines, idols, stones, rivers, mountains, and sacred things – is a lie and completely false.  When we used to tell you that we were entering [a temple] to speak to the sun, when we told you what it said and that it spoke – this was a lie.

The Last Days of the Incas,  Kim MacQuarrie, 2007.

Swerve

Quantum theory predicts that the vacuum of space is a roiling bath of virtual particles that continuously appear and disappear.  These vacuum fluctuations produce measurable phenomena, such as the Casimir effect, which arises from the pressure the virtual photons exert on stationary bodies.  In 1970, Gerald Moore theorized that bodies in accelerated motion would produce real photons out of quantum vacuum fluctuation . . . Accelerated bodies modify quantum vacuum fluctuations, causing emission of photon pairs from the vacuum and dissipation of the bodies’ motional energy.  The power dissipated in the motion of the body is equal to the total radiated electromagnetic power, as expected according to the law of energy conservation.”  Nature,  November, 17, 2011.

Acceleration of matter in vacuum space creates photons, particles of light.  Acceleration of spin creates magnetism.  Acceleration of mass creates gravity.  There. . is. . something. . about. . acceleration.  It is a form of change, of variation, in our universe, a special form, it is change of change – change squared. And it is the essence of  gravity, matter, and light.

It is mysterious that light has the same velocity for all observers, but it does.  To be so, it must be something like infinite acceleration, each point of light being infinitely close to being instanteously brief, but infinitely accelerated from the previous point, infinitely close to reaching an asymptotic limit of velocity that is, weirdly, infinitely close to being constant and therefore . . .finite. Einstein realized that light, then, being infinite acceleration that  paradoxically achieves finite and constant velocity, is the universal invariant. It can be relative or variable to no other position or movement.  Curiously, although matter and energy are interchangeable, only energy – electromagnetic radiation – can travel at the speed of light, matter cannot.

The Roman poet, Lucretius, in his famous poem:  On the Nature of Things, introduced to the Roman world, the philosophy of the pre-Socratic Greeks of 300 B. C.  These thinkers had deduced that the building blocks of reality – atoms – were infinitely small, infinite-in-number entities that repell and attract each other such as to create all things and events. These ancient Greeks saw, long before Darwin and Einstein and quantum physics, that the fundamental units must have . . . what Lucretius called: swerve  – an irreducible, varying indeterminancy in their behavior so as to make for the change with variation that is necessary for the evolutionary processes that manifest all things and events, inorganic and organic. The most basic units of reality, they realized must be, themselves, units of variation, units of change.

If all the individual particles, in their infinite numbers, fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like raindrops, nothing would ever exist.  But the particles do not move lockstep in a preordained single direction.  Instead, “at absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree thqt could be described as no more than a shift of movement” (2.218-20 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things),   Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt, pg.188.

Even if cooled to a temperature of absolute zero, all objects will retain a fundamental jitter in their physical positions due to quantum ‘zero-point’ fluctuations.”  Painter, et. al, Phys. Rev. Lett. 108, 033602, 2012

 

 

Zero Empathy

Gestapo Chief Rudolph Diels:  “The infliction of physical punishment is not every man’s job, and naturally we were only too glad to recruit men who were prepared to show no squeamishness at their task.  Unfortunately, we knew nothing about the Freudian side of the business, and it was only after a number of instances of unnecessary flogging and meaningless cruelty that I tumbled to the fact that my organization had been attracting all the sadists in Germany and Austria without my knowledge for some time past.  It had also been attracting unconscious sadists, i.e. men who did not know themselves that they had sadist leanings until they took part in a flogging.  And finally it had been actually creating sadists.  For it seems that corporal chastisement ultimately arouses sadistic leanings in apparently normal men and women.  Freud might explain it.” In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, 2011.

For Boethius, the 400 AD Roman philosopher, evil is US – we all have capacity for evil, and therefore to combat evil we must look to ourselves and cultivate our goodness. Evil is the absence of good. “We must break the ‘cycle of violence‘. This is the modern view, the enlightenment view, the christian view.

That evil is OTHER, that there is a distinct dualism of good and evil, this is the premodern view, the Manichaean view,  the view of Mani, the early 250 A.D. Persian mystic whose ideas rivaled and threatened Roman paganism, and then christianity.  Evil is a force to be opposed, to be conquered.

In Science of Evil, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen finds that evil is a disorder of empathy. We all vary in our ’empathy quotient’. There are those with the ‘continuous, unstoppable drive to empathize‘, and those with lesser empathy.  There are components of empathy – recognition and response, feeling and understanding, action and inaction. Failure to act is as significant as not feeling.  There is transient empathy erosion, from fatigue, or drugs and alcohol, or depression. There is Groupthink evil, empathy that is over-powered by enthusiasm and solidarity. Nazi gatherings were organized pageants of celebration.

Lack of empathy can be a failure to be good, but it also can be something else. There are those with no empathy. . . at all, zero empathy.   For them, lack of empathy is . . . .enjoyment. Serial killers relish their deceit and the knowing terror in their victim’s eyes. Stalin’s greatest joy was to go to sleep knowing that his plans for revenge were unfolding. Nazi evil was beyond efficiency. The Nazi’s precisely engineered emotional as well as physical suffering, over and above the murdering.  They practiced this with a sickening aesthetic, an almost artistic intensity.

Empathy by definition is seeing one’s self in others. Those with strong empathy just aren’t likely to perceive, aren’t likely to “empathize” – with the lack of empathy others may have. This asymmetry of awareness empowers those with no empathy to use charm, and to thrive, and the rest is human history.

In Explaining Hitler, 1998, Ron Rosenbaum, in his survey of theories of Hitler, found every reason considered but that Hitler wanted to be evil and do evil things.

“Man is Wolf to Man.”

 

Koolaid Consciousness

Pain really does hurt, but what is it that hurts?  In consciousness, the subjective and objective are mysteriously unified. I am unmistakably corporeal, and yet also, unmistakably, immaterial.  I have diverse sensations and thoughts, yet I am unitary. I unconsciously act and feel, and yet have agency and free will. I daydream and sleep, and yet have continuity. I am both me and I refer to ‘me’. I am self-disclosing.

Our experience of consciousness is outside of normal mental categorization. We experience ourselves as ineffable.

No currently available concept of induction is applicable to it.” Thomas Nagel, philosopher.

We are the singular of which the plural is unknown.” Erwin Schroedinger, physicist.

“I AM THAT I AM”.  God, to Moses at the burning bush.

Most experiences are made sense of in relation to other types of experience. . . Any experience immune to all this will be a mystery to its subject. There is only one experience for which that is completely true:  phenomenal consciousness.” Natika Newton, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2001.

What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either“.  A. S. Ramsey, philosopher.

In Soul Dust, for psychologist Nicolas Humphrey consciousness is a sensation. Whatever sensation is, consciousness is. A reaction to stimuli is always an action. No sentience, no brain phenomenon is passive.  All mentation is behavior. Responses to the outer world get internally registered, and they become representations. These representations then also become aspects of our further experience. Conscious beings become dual processors, they process outer world experience simultaneously with inner world representations of current and past outer world experience. An ever expanding loop of internal and external responses, and responses to responses, reverberates into a self-sustaining loop of memory, thinking, and feeling. . . and this is what we call CONSCIOUSNESS.

Because our present experience includes at least two distinct times, it is experienced not as an instantaneous slice of time, but as a extended time, containing elements of both ‘now’ and ‘not now’, in a unified, immediate representation.

This thickened time of consciousness, this cinema of consciousness, creates an artificially robust illusion of willful power and sense of the future. It enables us to imagine possible futures, design behavior strategies, plan and seek goals.  This inner theatre gives us a sense of creative agency that drives us to endure.

But it is an illusion. We are all drinking the koolaid.

And there is a cost, for with our inner extended time, we can sense that we aren’t significant, we can know that we are going to die. We can try to find meaning, we can try to escape.  We are seek intoxicated, altered states. These can be enlightening, they can illuminate the distortions of our normal consciousness, but they can also deepen our confusion, and worsen our dread. Many of us can’t manage consciousness, despair is not uncommon, suicide is not rare.

With our consciousness we transform the earth, with ever-increasing risk and reward, the genie out of the bottle.

Mathematics Story

I want to know how God created this world.  I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element.  I want to know his thoughts, the rest are details.”  Albert Einstein.

An overwhelming intuition for Einstein was that there is an all-encompassing, intelligible, something, ‘out there’, some unified and unchanging reality behind the ever-changing particulars of everyday experience. This is what he was after, what he called the secrets of the “Old One“.

For Einstein the clues were to be found in the phenomena that are invariant, phenomena that are the same, regardless of manner of measurement, or relative position, or dynamic operation, or observer point of view.  He saw this in the speed of light, which was found to be the same to all observers, regardless of their own motion.  With this, space and time are relative, but space-time is not.  Einstein’s own great insight was that acceleration, inertia, and gravity are equivalent, and therefore, rather than a ‘force’ between two masses, gravity is inherent in all of mass and motion.  It is invariant, and so must be related to space-time, and so he derives his theory of general relativity:

Ruv– 1/2 guvR = 8πTuv

Matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space-time tells matter how to move.” – John Wheeler.   “an entwined dance of space, time, matter, and energy” –  Brian Greene.    Einstein, Walter Isaacson, 2008

It is really a theory of what isn’t relative. Einstein preferred that it be called the theory of invariants.

It turns out there is a brilliant mathematics of invariants.  It is called group theory. It was invented by Evariste Galois, in France, in 1730. He was refused admission to the elite Ecole Polytechnique institute of mathematics, too advanced for their examiners to understand.   He died in a duel, at age . . . . 20 .

Galois wrote his theory on a mere sixty pages of personal notes, and in a famous letter to August Chevalier just prior to his duel.

My dear friend, In the theory of equations, I have investigated under which conditions the equations are solvable by a formula:  this has given me the opportunity to make this theory more profound, and to describe all the transformations possible on an equation even when it is not solvable by formula.”  The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved, Mario Livio, 2005

This theory is the mathematics of permutations and symmetries, which are patterns of geometry and number that remain unchanged during some defined operation. They are the invariants that mark the hidden unity and relations in disparate sets of phenomena. Imagine an unknown, multifaceted geometric object, unified, and complex, and dynamically changing.  Imagine its sides and corners are ink soaked. Next, imagine this object tumbling across a white sheet of paper.  The ink will create obscure and puzzling markings.  Group theory mathematics, when applied to these markings, will yield the clues to the configuration and dynamics of this mysterious object.

This theory may well be the most profound in all of mathematics.

Einstein stood on the shoulders of giants, . . . and on those of a 20 year old genius.

 

 

 

Evil Contagion

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist“, Scientific American Mind,  by Jack El-Hai, Jan/Feb 2011

The highest ranking captive of the Nazi leadership, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was evaluated at Nuremberg by Major Douglas M. Kelley, MD, from Truckee, California, Chief Psychiatrist of the U.S. Medical Corp.  He found Göring to be forthright, engaging, composed, eloquent, smart, . . . even charming.  And Göring was unapologetic and defensive.  He planned to call Britain’s Lord Halifax as a witness to testify to his [Göring’s] willingness to pursue negotiated settlements before the outbreak of war.”

With the Rorschach inkblot and psychiatric assessment, Kelley diagnosed Göring as . . .normal.  He had no sign of mental illness.  He was sane.

My conscience was named Adolf Hitler“.

Göring displayed “extreme fondness for and tenderness toward his family and friends“, such that Dr. Kelley was moved to help locate and bring to him his wife and daughter. But there were the glimpses of the narcissism and cold calculation of the charming psychopath. Göring spoke of having a close associate murdered. How could he? “Göring stopped talking and stared at me, puzzled, as if I were not quite bright. Then he shrugged his great shoulders, turned up his palms and said slowly, in simple one-syllable words: ‘But he was in my way’ “.

Göring was responsible for the ‘Hunger Plan’, the Nazi plan to starve the conquered eastern Europeans and Russians, in order to feed Germans and depopulate the lebensraum.  He made decisions on execution versus forced labor, as the war circumstances required.  It was he who ordered Heydrich to devise the Final Solution, initially framed as being about forced labor and deportation, but he had to know it was in reality about genocide.

Of course, we rearmed.  We armed Germany until we bristled.  I am only sorry we did not rearm more. Of course, I considered treaties as so much toilet paper.

When asked why he had always been Hitler’s ‘yes man’, he replied: “Please show me a ‘no-man’ in Germany who is not six feet under the ground today.”

Göring was addicted to the narcotic, paracodeine, since just before meeting Hitler in the early 1920’s. Narcotics drugs, it is known, create and enhance antisocial personality. They effectively block feelings of empathy, shame, and guilt for its users. Was Nazi evil deepened by narcotics?  Hitler’s first mentor, and important early supporter, Dietrich Eckart, was a morphine addict.

Göring managed to commit suicide with cyanide, just hours before his scheduled execution.  This was his coup, his final refusal to bow.  How did he obtain the cyanide?  We don’t know.  Dr. Kelley had abruptly left Nuremberg before the psychiatric work was completed, for reasons unclear, taking his papers with him (only recently released by his family for this article).  He became alcoholic, and on New Year’s Day, 1958, at age 45, during a domestic drinking episode, he put a cyanide capsule between his teeth, and threatened to bite down. And then suddenly he did, and he died instantly.  His son was there. He believes it was an accident.

Murder Leaders

When criminals take over . . .

The utopias in summer 1941 had been four:  a lightning victory that would destroy the Soviet Union in weeks; a Hunger Plan that would starve thirty million people in months; a Final Solution that would eliminate European Jews after the war; and a General Plan Ost that would make of the western Soviet Union a German colony.”  The BloodLands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder, 2010.

In their Hunger Plan, the Nazi’s planned to feed German soldiers and German civilians by intentionally starving the millions of Soviet citizens they would conquer. They would destroy the cities, and the industry in Ukraine and Southern Russia, and “the terrain would be returned to natural forest“. They particularly wanted the forests of Poland, for hunting. The eastern Soviet Union and Ukraine would be returned to a preindustrial state, and Germany would become “a massive land empire in Europe” to eventually “rival the British and the Americans“.  They would do to the Ukraine, for Germany, what Stalin had already done, for Bolshevism, – starve the population of that valuable bread basket nation.  A Leningrad, starved “from the face of the earth”, would be given to the Finn’s.  This was directed, in writing, on May 23, 1941.

As time fades, there can be a temptation to think of the Nazi’s as like other conquering leaders in history, albeit brutal, sort of like we think of Genghis Kahn. But no, they were, from the beginning, vicious Ted Bundy killers, bent on murder. And murder they did.

To recount, only partially, in the East, in 1941, and these are civilians, not soldiers, mostly shot point blank outside of their homes:  72,000 at Ponary, Lithuania, in Latvia, 69,750, in Estonia, 5,000, in Bialystok, 1000, 19,655 in Eastern Poland, 13,778 between Belarus and Ukraine, 23,600 outside of Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, 33,761 from Kiev at Babi Yar, 12,000 at Dnipropetrovsk, 10,000 in Kharkiv, 6,000 in Mahileu, Belarus, 14,000 in Riga, 17,000 from Rivne, Ukraine, in the Sosensky woods. In 1942, the remaining 10,000 of Rivne, at Kostopil, Ukraine, 10,000 at Hirka Polonka, from Kovel, 14,000 near Kamin-Kashyrshkyi, 6,624 and then another 5,000 from Minsk, at Tuchinka.

Notes are found.  “My beloved Mama!  There was no escape.  They brought us here from outside the ghetto, and now we must die a terrible death.”  “One wants to live, and they won’t allow it.”  “I am strangely calm, though it is hard to die at twenty“.

Himmler is treated to ‘show’ executions in Minsk, and this is made into a movie, for enjoyment back in Berlin.  Another 3,412 are shot in Minsk.  German SS try to kill all Jews ‘in their territory’ by April 20 to honor Hitler’s birthday.  A ‘death facility’ built in Minsk kills 40,000, and 208,089 are killed in Belarus, 30,000 alone by one monster SS Commander, Oskar Dirlewanger .

As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War“.

As the war against Russia failed, the Hunger Plan became the Final Solution.  Murder became the whole point of the war.  “A war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.”

Panopticon

The private ego is the most precious thing we each have, and it is far more vulnerable now than ever before”  Tomorrow’s People, Susan Greenfield, 2003

Modern Madness, by Louis Sass, 1992, explores the disordered self of schizophrenia to illuminate the nature of normal psychology.  The self, it seems, is not a self, but is selves.  We are at least three, an immediate-being self, a social self, and a self-observing self.  Particularly in modern times, the self-observing self must also be the leader self, the self-managing self. We are this mental multiplicity, and we need to be integrated. Modern times may be working against this.

Michael Foucault wrote of the Panopticon, a prison architecture in which inmates were to be housed such that they were always under observation, while never able to see their observers.  This was proposed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1885, and he theorized that this predicament would uniquely disarm a person psychologically, creating a state of mental confinement that would reduce the need for physical confinement. Somehow, in the naked presence of omniscient observation, one’s self-observing self would not be able to ground its functioning in a place of privacy, and thus weakened, it would be subject to outside direction and control.  In this theory, the self-observing self is built and maintained by direct personal experience – experience that we differentiate from the experience of others – and to achieve this, privacy is an absolute requirement.

Lady Greenfield, Oxford neurophysiologist, cross bencher in the House of Lords, controversial popularizer of science, has fears that modern forces are eroding the personal self.  The mind is plastic, she knows very well from her research, and its experiences determine its nature.  For her, that increasingly ubiquitous experience – computer screen experience – which is fast becoming the dominant mental experience of young people – with its hypnotic suspension of self observation, its enhancement of immediate being, its artificially instantaneous feed back, its blocking out of prosody and gesture, its insulation from social emotion, its replacement of body-kinesthetic experience, its displacement of personal pedagogy – is undermining the development and integrity of the self-observing ego of young people.  She notes the explosion of ADHD, the prescriptions for ritalin, and the growth of autism – the latter a condition very comfortable with computer screen experience. For Lady Greenfield, a diminished personal ego is susceptible to GroupThink, and to fundamentalisms. She worries that the internet is driving this weakening and collectivization of the self.  She cites Bertrand Russell:

Man’s collective passions are mainly evil; far the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry directed towards other groups.  Therefore at present all that give men power to indulge their collective passions is bad.”

Are we building a panopticon?

Iowa America

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience.  That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.  How well do we understand our role?

Gilead,  Marilynne Robinson,  2004

A small farm town in Iowa, like Gilead, formed in the abolitionist fever of the 1850’s, for many years would have to take care of itself.  There would be no national funding for a social safety net, or even for police protection or public safety.  A town like that, and most America towns were like that, would have to develop and nurture a culture of self sufficiency.  People would need to be self managing, self policing, self controlling.  And so they were.

In Robinson’s novel, Gilead, the character John Ames is an aging (and probably dying) minister, who, in an act of love and of responsibility, is writing for his young son, explaining himself now, while alive, so that years later, his son will have a way to know his father.

In Gilead, people try to do the right thing.  They pray and suffer and carry their guilty feelings, their hopes, their jealousies, their resentments, their appreciations.  They strive to understand, to forgive, to tolerate.  They consult their Bible, their ministers, and their consciences. They feel small, weak, sorrowful, and proud. They suffer loss and hurt. They endure.  “I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true.  But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it”. In disappointing times, these are people who ask themselves:  What does Jesus want me to learn from this?

In this world, Jack, the difficult and not-so-good son of another preacher in town, Robert Boughton, returns home.  He brings with him the uneasy memories of his past – not uneasy for him, but uneasy for everyone else.  He was a thief, he skipped school, he was devious, and mean, and it never seemed to bother him. He made a hapless girl pregnant and then abandoned her.  As a forgiving christian, Jack’s preacher-father assumes that his son was ‘aggrieved’ – that he had reason for his transgressions.

A perennial user of others, Jack may be back for more.  With devilish intent, he may try to insinuate himself into John Ames’ family, after John is gone. We sense that he never fully felt he had gotten the best of John Ames, and he needs to, people like him are like that. We feel uneasy, for in this town, he may pull it off.  John’s wife doesn’t seem wary of him.  Good people are foiled by his kind. The forgiving aren’t comfortable with anger. They avoid the resentment they feel being exploited and manipulated, and so they give berth, when they shouldn’t, and Jack Boughton will take advantage of it.

There is such a thing as no conscience at all.