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On the long view, you and I are living in extraordinary times. One hundred years hence students will study us now as a pivotal moment in the history of our species. What we are experiencing right now – the responses to a perceived crisis – is unprecedented. Once covid-19 passes, our world will not be the same as it was a month ago. There will be sad, bad, good, and better – but most of all there will be change. We are in a major disruption.

What changes may we expect? I believe that our species has developed the means for general self-regulation. It is an emerging consciousness on a global scale. This is mediated by our ubiquitous information network (internet and internet-of-things). Since the 1990’s we have been struggling to use that capability effectively and are frequently frustrated by the spread of false information and social triviality spurred by apparently out-of-control technology. Yet there have also been signs of new forms of social organization. Flash mobs, Improv Everywhere, social media, internet organized social movements, and more gave us indications of what new human self-organizing systems may be like. Bruce Sterling imagined such transformations in his 1998 novel Distraction. We now have this occurring in reality globally. This is a major change in the general patterns of collective thought and behavior. We in 2020 will be studied for centuries to come on the level of, say, the industrial revolution and the Great depression. You are living it now. Pay attention.

What are the implications of this change? We have been struggling for decades with the prospect of a failed species and planet. We are confronted by visions of mass-destructive war, economic collapse, social pandemonium, and the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem. Many of us feel helpless in this and our political/economic leadership provides no positive direction. The problems feel too large for us to manage and human-nature too limited to meet the demands of affirmative shift.

Yet, if our species is capable of a self-organizing modification of individual behaviors and social systems in order to respond to existential threats, then the game changes completely. That is what we are seeing now. We are spontaneously adopting behaviors, perceptions and beliefs that allow us to adapt to a generalized threat (pandemic) both individually and collectively. Can you see and sense it? I think that you do and grasp what I mean.

Humankind will not be the same after this. We will come forth with a universal shared conception of new conventions, choices, and ways of thinking with which we may address our wicked problems. Coordinating our choices and behaviors to reduce global threats will be our norm.

In short – the human conception of what we are and how we think is changing and the pandemic of 2020 will provide confirmation to everyone that it is possible to change the world by changing ourselves.

In this new environment we will need thinkers who can perceive, analyze, synthesize and explain what is happening. These will be our new philosophers who shine light on the possible and on the essential. You my dear friends will be among those philosophers because you are aware of the power of the life of the mind. Even a small quantity of philosophical consciousness carried forward by you will combine with others to create new global consciousness. You are an integral part of that.

Don’t be afraid. Listen to people. Help one another. Realize yourself as a spark in a growing flame that casts our world in a new light.

In good spirit,


william-navarro-82Xsw-pGsJI-unsplash.jpg, William Navaro, @williamnavarro, Unsplash,

benjamin-davies-__U6tHlaapI-unsplash.jpg, Benjamin Davies, @benvisual, Unsplash,


One way to characterize philosophy is as the art of questioning. New questions and new types of question open previously unexplored possibilities. The assumptions of an entire culture or generation can be altered by the posing of new questions.
Questions are often not welcome. One way to deal with questions is by force of authority:

*Many times I have witnessed young children asking questions which the attendant adults dismiss as irrelevant, silly, or worse.

*History shows many situations in which asking certain questions is dangerous to the individual. For instance, authoritarian religious leaderships have often equated questions with doubt and then unbelief. In cases such as The Inquisition, questioning is dealt with by severe force.

*Sometimes when people ask questions of their governments the reactions are strong. In some cases, when the questions probed too deeply or challenged to much, they are not acknowledged at all but rebuffed with accusations; such as “You are anti-Soviet, anti-Turkish, anti-American, enemy of the people, etc.”

*In interpersonal situations, among friends and family, unwelcome questions (i.e. those which challenge the status quo) may be met with anger, ridicule, or denial.

*Questioning ourselves to ourselves can be very difficult. Some thinkers have aptly described mechanisms of the human mind that resist change and challenge. It is not hard to test this on yourself by trying to seriously question your most basic and cherished beliefs in a sustained way. The defenses go up pretty fast – and they really are convincing when we are the ones putting them up. Here is one simple way to detect a defensive shield against some area of questioning in yourself: study some topics that are quite different from your usual interests or invest effort into understanding views that are opposite to your own. If you find yourself reacting with strong and involuntary emotion, especially with immediate and intense judgement of the topic as “pointless,” “boring,” “ridiculous” etc. – chances are you have identified a personal defense system that protects you against new, thought and potential change. Self-knowledge of this sort is very valuable.

*Even in education we can find questions to be unwelcome. In 3rd grade I recall being in a class in what was then called “New Math.” The teacher showed us the various symbols of operations including =, >, <. One symbol was called “less than or equal to.” I asked; “Since there is already an equal sign and a less than sign, what is the use of the ‘less than or equal to’ sign?” The teacher was angered by this and told me; “Stop asking stupid questions and just learn the lesson!” Instead, I responded by refusing to learn any more lessons from her ever again. At that moment I closed my mind to math altogether. Have paid the price for that defensive reaction my whole life with sub-par math skills.

I realize now that the teacher really did not understand my question. I meant it honestly. I suppose she thought I was smarting off (I was also known for asking unwelcome questions in catechism [i.e. religious doctrine] class). Even as I look back on this experience, I think that my question made sense. After all, a quantity can be less than another or equal to it, but not both. I know now that there was a mistaken assumption in my question, but that did not make it a poor question (much less a stupid one).

The problem was that I was not asking a question that fell within the domain of assumptions. If I had asked a question that accepted and made use of the symbols, how to work within the system, the teacher would have likely been glad to sho

w me what to do. My question, however, was about the givens. It challenged the reasoning for the system itself. If you want to get yelled at, shunned, ridiculed, fired, failed, etc., an excellent approach is to ask serious, intelligent questions about the assumptions of the given system.

When we ask questions such as “What is truth?”“What is reality?”“What is Good?” – or “What is reason?” we are asking to open the system itself to examination. deep-thought-1296377_960_720They are calling our most basic givens into question. It is natural that some people will receive such questions as ridiculous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. Some folks are inclined to say; “Stop asking stupid questions and just get on with it!” To be fair, perhaps those folks have a point worth considering. Maybe some things are not meant to be questioned. Maybe it is impossible (nonsensical) to pose some sorts of questions. But see? Even by opening this possibility I am doing it again! I am inclined to take their thought seriously even if they dismiss mine as worthless.

What is your own experience with questions? What are your most important questions? How have those questions been received by others throughout your life? Do you have an idea about how questioning will influence your future? What is the single most important question that you may ask yourself.

It seems to me that a question is a form of openness. By asking a genuine, serious question, one presents oneself as incomplete and uncertain. There is a vulnerability in the sincere question and an assumption that the universe remains open-ended in some respects.

I think that the idea of an open-ended universe populated by incomplete minds comes into conflict with some other ways of addressing reality. One common view (or my interpretation of that view) assumes that most of the important questions have already been answered and all that remains is filling out the details. Asking questions such as; “What am I?” and “Does my life have purpose?” and “What is death?” are impertinent and silly from that perspective.

I believe that how we respond to such questions shows much about our assumptions concerning the structure of experience, the relationship of the individual and authority, and the limits of human possibility.

My plea is this: when you encounter a question that evokes intense reaction such that you are inclined to dismiss the value of the question entirely, consider the possibility that your interpretation of the question and associated ideas is incomplete. Maybe it is not, but this is always a hypothesis worth testing.

Assignment – Pose and ponder these two questions several times in the next year:

What is the single most important question that I may ask myself.

What question about myself do I least want to ask?



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Who wants to talk about death?vintage-1751222_960_720

Many people, it turns out.

Every week for the last two years, Death Café Corvallis has met to give anyone who cares to a space to share their thoughts on mortality.

Some weeks it is one person, at others it is ten. At most sessions there is someone new to the conversation and often folks who keep coming back.

On a recent sunny afternoon McKenzie and Piper showed up; both Oregon State undergraduates pursuing a writing assignment.

At first they listened thoughtfully taking notes, soon they began to share their own experiences.

Their participation resulted in an article that instructor Thomas Strini deemed strong enough to publish in The Corvallis Review: Death Café Corvallis: A Club All About Death.

We applaud McKenzie and Piper for their thoughtful work, Thomas for the inspiration that he gives to learners, and to all the intelligent and sincere individuals who continually make and remake Death Cafe Acknowledgements:  

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Errata: In regards to academic rank, I am an Instructor of Philosophy, not a Professor.
Much of my life has been in the company of young people like McKenzie and Piper, 17-25 years old, the typical age range of undergraduates. I believe that is part of what sustains me in a youthfully optimistic state.

Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

172352729A vital factor in who we are as individuals is how we conceive of death.

This is because how we conceive of death conditions how we value life.

Few of us value all lives equally, even when it comes to human beings.

Nor do many of us think of our own deaths in the same terms as we do for others.

Some folks may have a degree of clarity in these variations, but I suspect that for most of us the deep questions about life and death are a confused tangle.

Plenty of the day-to-day disquiet of our minds arises from this confusion.

Our mortal struggle is explored by Stephen Caves, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, in his essay Not Nothing.

“When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye.”

Caves sets out the dilemmas of life/death values starkly then seeks a balance point between them.

The degree to which he succeeds at this depends upon the insight gained by an attentive reader, such as yourself.

I suggest that you read this article and come back to it on successive opportunities for at least three readings.


Take your understanding of Cave’s analysis into conversation with people in your life.

They may embrace the topic outright, recoil at the mention of death, or dismiss the entire issue as meaningless.

In any of those cases, and the points in between them, you will at least gain a perspective on the various ways that people think about dying and accord value to the living.


Image Acknowlegements

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John Shields was not a man to let death get in the way of a good party.

His wife sent out the email invitations so that at 78 years, John could leave this life surrounded by family and friends.

He chose to die by assisted suicide rather than by the amyloidosis that was shutting down his body.

A New York Times article – At His Own Wake, Celebrating Life and the Gift of Death – by Catherine Porter explores voluntary dying, love of life, and John Shields’ legacy.

Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

jose_fallenWhatever I anticipated on Friday morning it was not to witness the last breath of a young man.

I walk to work whatever the weather and this morning the rosy fingertips of dawn hinted at a sunny Spring day.

I had an early meeting so stopped at the corner café to organize my notes over espresso.

After coffee I set off to campus. A block away I saw something on the walkway my side of the railroad tracks.

The object looked like a sleeping bag, though as I approached it moved and I knew there was a person there, perhaps asleep.

There was a person there, but he was not asleep. He was unconscious. He had fallen face down, his left shoe at a right angle a few feet behind.

His arms were tucked under as if he grasped something to his chest as he fell.

Blood seeped from his forehead and saliva pooled at his lips.

There were no others around and I said to him; “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” No response so I called the responders at 911.

The dispatcher asked the right questions in the right order and instructed me not to move him.

One of the questions was; “How far did he fall?”

As I think back, my answer was strange; “To the pavement.”

I was not being glib. I was speaking from an image in my mind of a human body falling from upright to fully prone without catching itself. My image was of the impact such a fall onto cement must incur. That is, I suppose, what happened.

While answering the 911 dispatcher’s queries a man passed walking along the tracks. He was shouting something. I looked up to catch it. Waving his arms the man said; “He’s a drunk!”

Ignoring the irrelevant I asked the dispatcher to repeat his question. I do not recall what it was or how I answered.

While waiting for the paramedics an elderly woman approached walking her small elderly dog. She asked if the man on the ground was awake as the little dog sniffed at him. They moved on.

There was a moment of stillness – quiet and lonely. The sun was not yet high and we were in the shadow of buildings, he on the ground, me standing near.

He lay motionless but for a deep exhalation that came from his mouth bubbling the saliva which mixed slightly with the blood.

I did not see him inhale and felt this may be the last of his breath

Ancient texts from Egypt, India, China, and Israel speak of the life-force as a form of breath. The Greeks called it Pneuma.

As Jose’s life leaked out onto the pavement I said aloud; “You are not alone.” That was all.

In a moment the stillness broke with a siren wail and police were there.

They knew him as “Jose” and tried to awaken him. One checked for a pulse at his jose_response_pastelthroat. They turned him over, opened his shirt and began CPR.

A fire truck arrived with paramedics who broke out equipment and became busy.

A police officer had questions for me and I turned away from their efforts to bring Jose back to the living. He was not coming back.

The officers were respectful of Jose and tried to save him. They were kind to me.

The remainder of my day was not so eventful though I remained slightly disengaged.

My words were in a measure unclear to others and by the end of the day I felt as though I were speaking through a veil.

I walked home late by the same route and found flowers in a cardboard box where Jose had fallen.

jose_momento_pastelLater I learned that Jose was known to his friends as Francisco.

In my evening meditation I contemplated the death of a young man, just 34 years.

The Gazette Times had an article about the incident in which Jose is identified and I am designated a passer-by.

In truth, I am but a witness to the passing by of Francisco “Jose” Semadeni.


He did not die alone.


Yama – God of Death and Dharma

Among those who contemplate death, few are as thorough in detail and depth as are Buddhists.

A traditional Tibetan book, Bardo Thodol, is often referred to in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, though a more accurate translation is The Great Liberation through Hearing.  A modern classic of Tibetan Buddhism is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Two contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Patty Winter and Gregg Ruskusky, share their understanding via workshops – one of which is coming to Portland OR this April 28-30.

This extended session addresses care-giving for the dying and grieving with a overall objective of opening insight to our personal mortality and self-care.

I have registered and am looking forward to learning! Maybe I’ll see you there.

The workshop is sponsored by Maitripa College, the single degree offering Tibetan Buddhist College in the US.

Our Common Ground: Death and Dying
Patty Winter, RN, and Gregg Ruskusky
April 28-30, 2017
Friday, 7-9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am – 12:30pm and 2-5pm

Information and Registration

Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

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starkAs family matters go, death is surely a big one.  How families respond to the deaths of loved ones is likely a primary determinant of a culture’s treatment of mortality.  Death is not a common social topic in the U.S. and I have sometimes thought that stemmed from a form of denial.  On the other hand, perhaps it is a function of propriety in which as a family matter, death is left to the family.  Still, it is my experience that death is not a common topic within families until someone within dies.

The W.H. Stark House in Orange, Texas is a museum that took an interesting approach to the typical silence on death with an exhibition specifically about the aspects of death in a family over a decade.  At issue is the Stark family who lived in the mansion that has since become a museum.  The exhibit – A Death in the Family – explores the private lives of the Starks in the context of loss and mourning.

Stephanie Fulbright reviewed the exhibit noting;

“By grounding the conversation in someone else’s story” the exhibit “opened the door to the conversation about death and mourning and offered people an avenue to think and talk about mourning and loss in their own context.”

Effectively representing personal experience with death in a publicly accessible way is an accomplishment that will hopefully be continued in other venues.


Image Acknowledgement



Tdad@92his first spring day my father turned 92.  He was in the hospital for a fall, but without much damage, so he bounced back fast.

His room provides a terrific view of the harbor and snow capped Mount Baker of the North Cascades.

The hospital staff conveyed one key point – Dad has a great sense of humor.  Everyone who knows him will concur.  Whether I live past 60 or 100 I know that the soul of wit and levity is too dear to be lost.  Forsaking humor for the sake of discomfort or fear is to lose all.

My father taught me patience of a particular sort born of persistent focus such as time may not weaken.  Humor sharpens focus and disassembles diversion, hence reinforcing patience.

I visit my folks every month and am looking forward to Dad’s 93rd day of birth when we may share a laugh in the new spring morning.


bed and light, kalama community conservancy, northern kenya-fromImagery often carries meaning beyond words.  Documentary photographer David Chancellor’s recent exhibit, ‘Handle Like Eggs,’ continues his investigation into life, death, loss, and other forces that bind humans together.

Chancellor’s exhibit presents photographs taken in Southern Africa.  All are evocative, some perhaps disturbing.

Chancellor makes use of color and mass to shape the sense of his compositions.  The images are packed with potential emotion, though the subjects in them rarely express the feelings overtly.

Photography has possibly changed our concepts of death more than any technology. Let us know whether Chancellor’s discerning eye impacts your own.

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