Chefs and Sea Captains

Chefs and sea captains and drill sergeants and Zen masters have been born in and borne by a legacy of abuse passed down the generations. It would be easy to condemn them outright for their aggression, but only if we fail to look at their motivations…. There is something widespread and deeply similar behind what they do.

And, what is that exactly? They demand that those in their charge pay attention.

There is more here than complicity in perpetrating abuse and abusive practices. These are there, unavoidable, but not the point of why they do what they do.

They are all past-victims of the abuse they hand down. The methods, the means, are inherited. These go way back. They go back to the beginning of whatever changed in human life and brought trauma to its center. They were traumatized and they go on traumatizing others, but they are not simply serial abusers. Tangled in, hopelessly so in many cases, into every bit of violence they pass on is a warning. And this warning grows out of love.

There are many forms of abuse that thrive in an atmosphere of hate. Those involved, those perpetrators, hate. They hate everything. They hate themselves.

There can be a certain overlap with these other forms. What these people do can degrade into that same loathing and lose any core of something else they may have had. This does not change the fact that a certain type of behavior, in an attempt to help, to protect, to affirm something very deeply, can still be tangled in abuse.

What makes this significant; why it is not sufficient to just say, “Stop it!” has to do with the ways in which life, when our view of it is not hazed over by sentimentality, is always vulnerable to some form of external violence.

This is, and has always been, a dangerous world. Every form of life needs to carve out for itself a space of relative safety, to make a home in which vulnerability can reside without being destroyed. This destruction can have many forms and, besides the obvious tooth & fang stuff, there is the violence of emotional neglect and abuse. The former is never an excuse for piling-on the latter, but it has often been the case that insecurity leaves us vulnerable to thinking that it does.

Our chefs and sea captains and Zen masters have done what they do out of love, but they have also very often been led to go too far. But, even here, what is too far? And, what is the alternative? Neither of these questions is settled.

What do I mean that they do what they do out of love? There seem to be two aspects to this. One, is a passion for doing things well. For paying attention, for being alert. This theme can be found in every case. It can trend into obsession, but it is an obsession to be clear, to see what-is, and to act with capacity and skill when it is required. It is pitted against the incoherent, the befuddled, the dim-wittedly reactive ways that are so prevalent. In this way these are forms of caring, no matter how harshly they are expressed. This root in caring is clear. It distinguishes these actions from nihilistic forms of abuse growing out of hate.

This aspect is connected via caring with the other aspect these cases display. The harshness, even violence, brought to bear is done as a means of protecting their charges from something worse. We tend to live in situations today, those of us with the time and inclination to find ourselves in a place like this website, where the violence that cocoons our local security is hidden from us. Civilization has thrived by means of its efficiency at placing the violence it requires to maintain its oases of stillness at a remove. There is always a frontier, a border, an outside from which all its needs are extracted as ruthlessly as necessary and this violence is maintained in such a way that the trail of complicity goes cold by the time we arrive at its center. Here, all that shows are the benefits and the surpluses stripped from somewhere else.

As civilization swallows its tail after destroying everyone and everything outside it; this sense of oasis is getting harder to maintain. In a form of metastasis the remaining outside is now carved out of its own insides. Civilization is eating itself. As a result our complicities are harder and harder to ignore.

None of this changes the fundamental need for a relatively safe center every form of life needs to persist. What has happened is that all of our attempts to do this for ourselves have now back-fired. Everything we do to “make us safe” destroys another fragment of the tattered web-of-life we all depend on.

This is the tangle writ large. How can any of us care about acting responsibly to protect those we care about when the entire edifice on which we have built our strategies and tactics have led us to this point?

This may be why chefs and sea captains and Zen masters loom in my imagination. Their situations persist as a concern that cannot be explained away by simply charging them with abuse.

There is another important aspect to their condition. It is this universal tangle of complicity we all share in. The institutions they serve are corrupt. This corruption goes as deep as civilization itself. It cannot be exorcised by playing the civilized game of choosing a scapegoat and mobilizing hatred. No matter who is being singled out. No matter how strong our apparent justifications.

This corruption goes down to the level of who is inside and who is outside. Any attempt to resolve this that continues to perpetuate this insider/outsider dynamic has already failed. However comforting it is duplicitous to give it another go, chase some new foe.

A creature defending its young or taking down its prey may feel anger or even joy in their actions, but they do not create an edifice of hatred. They don’t have enemies lists. We use terms like parasite or predator to mean things no animal would recognize in their own actions.

It’s funny in all the warnings against anthropomorphizing with which the civilized attempt to maintain a position of human supremacy that there is never any mention of the fact that when humans prey on others we tend to do this in a manner totally foreign to other animals. It is hard to say when, but somewhere along the path to civilization we crossed this boundary where we began to see whole categories of life, human as well as animal and vegetal that we came to consider our prey in this peculiar sense of the word. Adopting this language of predator and prey in a manner that tore apart the relationality among all of us and created these harshly delineated boundaries between us and them.

This is the corruption we suffer under. A chef may want to do their best. They want to feed people. They want their food to be good. Full of flavor, embodying a joy in life. But, they must do this inside an institution, the restaurant. The rationale behind this institution – or the military, or an institutionalized religion – is totally at odds with their motivating desire.

A drill-instructor wants his recruits to have a chance to survive in battle. They want to give them the means to do so, “I am tough with them, but the enemy is ruthless! I have to prepare them to face that.”

This is basically what all these professions come down to. But, what is missing from these calculations is that the institutions in which they work are equally ruthless. It’s not just the enemy that wants to kill the soldier. Their own nation is more than willing to sacrifice them for its purposes no matter how shady because those who are eager and willing to take these positions. The ones who call the shots, tend to be pathological abusers. This has been the case since the beginning of civilization.

We are not free to be moral actors if we fail to see and respond to the fact that our institutions are mired in corruption and themselves immoral.

It could be that this incoherence is at the heart of why these people, attempting to do good, so often are trapped in abusive behavior. It could be that this tension resulting from an unexamined complicity keeps them fixed at a point of reaction where their motivations are blocked by the only means they can find and cannot see beyond.

This is an enormous question. One we cannot dismiss or avoid. We remain stuck. We will either go on sentimentalizing life or we will continue to brutalize it unless we can find a way to clarity on this question.

Life is hard. A place must be carved-out for vulnerability and this can only be done by those willing to pay attention and develop praxes to meet the necessities of life. Every animal parent is ready to inflict a sobering but harmless warning to its offspring to prevent their falling into greater danger. In humans this so easily grades into the creation of suffering in an attempt to minimize misery, inflicting trauma that over thousands of years has left us this legacy of abuse.

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