One of my favorite movies, a movie I am too much of a sissy to watch any more, is "Apocalypse Now." The movie comes as close as anything I have ever seen to capturing the amorphous, searing quality of a nightmare... a realm in which laughter and screams are locked in an intimate, dizzying embrace.
"Apocalypse Now" takes its template from author Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and places that template around the Vietnam War. In the movie, a CIA agent is sent out to kill an American colonel who has disappeared deep into the jungle, formed his own indigenous fighting force, and carried the policies of war to extremes that his American handlers consider to be off-the-reservation ... extreme, "crazy" and beyond the pale of the war scenario those handlers created in the first place. In their minds, there is such a thing as a 'good war,' a war bounded by visions of civility and justice and a societal decency. As the movie makes plain, who, precisely, is crazy remains a very real question.
Today, I am thinking that going to extremes has its very real and sometimes imperative uses, but when it involves harming others, it has met its maker and deserves to be restrained. In spiritual endeavor, there is something to be said to going the whole hog ... really digging in; getting down and dirty; going the distance in an effort to winkle out the true truth of things. But this is a personal matter and when it begins to spill over onto others ... then it becomes a nightmare obscenity and completely antithetical to the goal that inspired the effort. As I say, I am just thinking....
In the news, an American soldier has become a focal point because, sometime after 3 a.m. today, he walked off base and killed 10 or perhaps as many as 17 Afghan civilians before turning himself over to American authorities. Men, women and children ... at random, apparently. Speculation suggests he had a nervous breakdown. But whatever happened, it is clear that his actions have horrified his superiors and probably the country he represents. Over the line, beyond the pale, off the reservation... and he is called "crazy." No doubt the court of public opinion will convict this man without a backward glance at the men and women wearing American flag lapel pins ... the ones who, in their sanity, shaped and initiated the war this soldier was sent to fight. He was sent to kill people. He killed people. But... oops ... we didn't mean those people. Killing those people is not what we meant. Honest.
In pursuit of goals touted as sane, we created a world of insanity and darkness ... all in the pursuit of light. And when our instructions are followed to their logical, insane ends, we balk at our own complicity. We find reasons and excuses for how and why we had no hand in such a nightmare. The need to maintain our lofty dreams will sacrifice this American who went "nuts."
Conservative shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, a legend in his own mind, 'went too far' recently when he called a young woman a "slut" after she testified before Congress about the need for insurance coverage for women's contraceptives. People like shock-jocks. They are bad boys. They say things publicly that others may confine to private conversation or perhaps just to their own minds. It's a relief and delight when someone says aloud what I do not dare to say. It helps me to believe I am not alone and not crazy. And yet the nature of shock-jocks is to say increasingly-shocking things ... more and more and more shocking until, as with Rush Limbaugh, the listening constituency says he has gone too far, he has stepped over the line, he has gone off the reservation, he is nuts. It is easier to blame Rush Limbaugh, a self-serving twit from the get-go, than it is to examine the lapel pins of approval that many wore before his misstep.
A rabbi suggests that Zionism, the Jewish nationalism that asserts the rights of Israel, is "against the will of the Almighty" and "is not what it means to be a Jew." Jews have historically suffered many outrages and it is perhaps understandable that their handlers might therefore make a profession out of defending themselves against real or perceived future threats, weaving a philosophy that is conveniently political or religious as circumstances demand. Zionism is pedal-to-the-metal. Understandable ... and, to the extent it hurts others, plainly nuts. Or, more accurately, as in all such situations, "righteous and true" or "plainly insane."
A Zen teacher was once asked what "the Middle Way" meant. He answered succinctly, "It means the extremes." And this speaks, in my mind, to the heart of things. It is important, for those who take their spiritual endeavor seriously, to enter into the heart of darkness, the heart of light. Under cover of some lofty aspiration, it is natural to uncover the shit-strewn nightmares that anyone might dream. Pedal to the metal, balls-out, go-the-distance ... purity uncovers slime, virtue reveals noxiousness, God actualizes Satan ... in no uncertain terms. It is not enough to praise the light and damn the darkness. It is only enough to surrender both light and darkness, stand on these two good feet ... and try not to spill your shit on anyone else's shoes.
Handlers like philosophy and religion and politics are simply not the point. Caterwauling and eulogizing simply cannot set a peaceful table.