Learning from our mistakes
Edith Piaf, the world-weary French cabaret singer, famously sang Non, je ne regrette rien. “I regret nothing.” George Lichter, the WWII fighter pilot, titled his memoir Ups and Downs with No Regrets. What universe did they live in? Did they not make mistakes? Did they really have no regrets? Or were they just roaring defiance against adversity that had failed to take them down?
Or had they learned nothing? Our one shot at redemption in a world where we are condemned to make mistakes is learning from them. I didn’t know Edith Piaf, but George Lichter was my friend. He redeemed himself. He lived and died with amazing grace. An example to follow, because the one regret I hope to avoid is to have learned nothing. If learning from our mistakes is why we’re here, then there’s no reason not to.
Yet an iron resolve not to learn and grow accounts for much of the misery and mayhem that our species inflicts on itself. We cycle back on our horrors because something in our minds and hearts, our souls, won’t let us look back. Won’t let us reflect on what went wrong or our part in causing it. The fault always lies with someone or something else. The responsibility, the guilt, can’t possibly be ours. Like angelic little kids -- we didn’t do it! We’re innocent!
The war cry of chest-thumping supremacists who’ve taken up permanent residence atop the Empire State Building. Going King Kong one better by ruling over Reality and Truth itself. By fashioning their delusion – a psychotic impossibility – into irrefutable fact. What else is it but madness? The refusal to learn and grow from our mistakes. The refusal to do what we’re here for.
Finding my voice
I commit to causes. Casting myself in advocacy, a role that naturally tests boundaries and attracts opposition. Emulating my ancestors but without their male supremacy, their ad hominem combativeness and grandiosity. Or so I thought. Some of it must have rubbed off on me. They were opinionated, outspoken – my masculine father and his father. Looking for a fight, giving as good as they got. Their voices both weapon and shield, and though I shied away from their noisy stage presence I joined the fight.
I let myself go with the pen. Voice and cause, pen and making a difference, went hand in hand. So long as right was to be served I was determined to be heard. And I was, and it did make a difference. The history of Boston’s expansion into its harbor, high dam building in the Connecticut River valley, flood management in the Red River valley of the North, and community leadership development in the Monongahela River valley, owe something to me. So does water diversion from the Missouri River, an unintended though not unwelcome byproduct of my work in the Red River valley.
The reformist not to be denied
My cause to reform the 1965 Water Resources Planning Act attracted support from congressional committee chairs and staff. They brought me to a meeting with White House liaison at the Capitol to endorse my proposal: a pilot project in an interstate river basin to demonstrate how policy should evolve under the direction of local governments, democratically from the bottom up, rather than top down from unrepresentative and biased government bureaucracies. What the meeting revealed instead was that the new administration, under the influence of western water interests, would soon dismantle the act and any federal attempt to formulate national water policy. The U.S. Water Resources Council and every river basin commission were to be zeroed out of the federal budget. To accommodate a political faction the administration was ridding the country of its only process and structure for rationalizing the use and management of one of its most vital natural resources.
Denied one avenue I found another. I took my proposal to the former director of the National Water Commission who arranged an affiliation with the National Academy of Public Administration. The Academy put me and my ideas under the scrutiny of a cross-section of prominent authorities headed by the dean of the country’s leading school of public affairs. It then, with their approval, published my monograph on the need for a national water policy process. It attracted coverage in the National Journal, required reading for Congressional staff. It also drew rare tribute from Mo Udall (D-AZ), point man on national water policy in the House of Representatives, a tough critic who deemed what I wrote “one of the better things I’ve read.”
I find my river basin!
Being noticed led to another affiliation, this time with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS was charged with putting out a White House report on science and technology and I was to produce the section on water policy.
The report was cancelled but what I wrote did see the light of day. With oversight from another panel of experts I produced “Institutional Barriers to National Water Policy,” the lead article in an issue of Water Spectrum published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The head of the South Florida Water Management District hailed it as the final word on the subject. My brother-in-law, so maybe it shouldn’t count. But maybe it should, because faculty at West Point – no relation -- ranked it one of the ten most important articles on the subject. I learned this through the editor of Water Information News Service, to which I was a frequent contributor.
It was a U.S. senator from Minnesota who brought me to my objective: a river basin where I could test my approach in a real world setting. He was besieged by millionaire farmers in the Red River Valley of the North desperate for help with flood management. I secured funding from the Ford Foundation and the Freshwater Foundation and affiliations with the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and with the Continuing Education department at the University of North Dakota.
I then organized the first Red River Valley International Water Summit Conference at UND in Grand Forks, an effort that brought together hundreds of regional leaders from two states and the province of Manitoba. In the account published by the Freshwater Foundation it “exceeded all our expectations.” Importantly the conference initiated a regular process of bottom up basinwide direction for flood management, which was its purpose. My approach worked as I knew it would. I shared its success with my profession in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Water Resources Association. Lessons learned that might help to bring a better day to the field.
At least one respected authority spoke to that. Frank Gregg was a force in the field who listened and was listened to. A veteran of the Water Resources Planning Act, river basin commission chairman, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and head of water resources research at a western university. Also keynote speaker at my Red River valley conference, mensch, and friend. Frank wrote years later to confirm that top-down had now given way to bottom-up in the federal approach. He was well aware that my advocacy had found an audience where it counted and it deserved some of the credit. I was “Big Dave.”
The price of advocacy: unacceptance
Paradigm change happens when generations that cling to old paradigms give way to new. Self-interests are bruised. They let you know it, and when they do, you know you’ve made a difference.
The National Journal’s coverage had been motivated by the same frustration that I felt. Things as they were were “terrible.” I said so. I was quoted, and my colleagues, devoted professionals, heard it. They had published my speeches and put me in charge of committees. I was a regular on Washington’s wine and cheese circuit. They had given me a home and a voice in the profession, and now I’d turned on them.
Years later, I sought an affiliation at the University of Colorado where I’d enjoyed the sponsorship of Gilbert White, a revered patriarch in the profession. The door was closed. Not by Gilbert, an accomplished reformist sympathetic to change, but by workers unsympathetic to change. Unsympathetic to reformists who competed for recognition and jeopardized their careers.
It wasn’t only careers that were threatened, I’d actually helped to kill major water projects – flood control dams on seven tributaries of the Connecticut River. Simply by bringing Manitobans into the conversation in the Red River Valley I’d imperiled the Garrison water diversion project on the Missouri River. Projects that inspired passions for and against. Canadians loved me because they were against the diversion. The New England Division of the Corps of Engineers and North Dakota’s state water manager did not love me.
I hadn’t set out to attack their projects. I was doing my job. But, confined by their own narrow contexts, they saw it differently. I was a change agent with one consuming bias: to do them and their beloved projects in. This is not an exaggeration. I know it to be true.
The price of advocacy: untruth
It was misperception that inevitably leads to misjudgment. My next project after the Red River Valley brought this home to me in a uniquely unpleasant way. While I was doing a victory lap with another river basin, I was slandered. By lies from a source that I didn’t bother with. Mainly because they were obviously ungrounded and the damage was slight. But making enemies can’t be ignored. It was OK if my father, an employer at war with organized labor, was targeted for assassination by a labor leader. That was his choice. But if an enemy lurking in the shadows was targeting me, it wasn’t OK. It was my intention to do what’s right, do it right, and get it right. It meant that I’d gotten it wrong.
I was learning that the dark side of the human mind, engaged with attack, will retaliate with what it is: unreality and untruth. The weapon of choice for a source that’s a mirror-imagine opposite reflection. That has no self. That mis-identity has turned into self-deception. The epidemic of misinformation crippling governance today is the response of a political herd captive to self-delusion. Reacting to defeat and the opportunity to superimpose its unreality on reality with mass denial. With wholesale detachment from reality. Mass psychosis. With madness.
“There must be a better way”
My work in the Monongahela River Valley attracted wide editorial support and the support of an impressive array of regional leaders, among them West Virginia’s Senator Robert Byrd, the president of Carnegie-Mellon University, the once and future governor of West Virginia, and the grassroots support of communities, businesses, and nonprofit groups up and down the Valley. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded community leadership training, a three-year collaborative effort among ten colleges and universities. I was given two faculty appointments at West Virginia University, subsidized housing, and organizational support from its Department of Continuing Education.
Yet at the same time, I was moving on. The original dream of regional leadership and policy coherence was giving way to something more compelling. While externals still mattered, their story was increasingly intersecting with internals that were telling another story. A Course in Miracles outlined its fundamentals with logic and love, clarity and authority, so authentically and respectfully that I felt myself to be in the presence of a trusted friend. Not a force that had come to take over but a resource for my help and guidance should I request it. Not a dominance that undermined independent judgment but a Free Spirit who empowered it.
The story that it told put every thought, every feeling, every act into a different context. Unfamiliar and from a different perspective, and yet at home in my mind, heart, and soul. At home with my Self. Gently and imperceptibly. I could not help but wonder where it might lead, about its purpose and meaning for me, one insight at a time.
Idealism of another kind
The end of my nine-year sojourn in the Monongahela River Valley marked the end of a calculated risk. That I could put all the resources of a privileged life – education, health, connections, and wealth – to work for an ideal and not be punished for my improvidence. I was punished. When I left Morgantown I was broke. Education and health were intact but wealth was gone and slander was eating away at connections. By the usual measures of the world I was ruined.
And yet I felt blessed with Abundance and prospects. Whether or not worldly “success” – wealth, status, power -- had accompanied my efforts I’d given idealism a shot. I hadn’t passed it up for an existence in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. I’d made enough of a difference to take pride in what I’d accomplished. The cost was high but so were the benefits. My calculated risk was worth taking. I had no regrets.
And now a new idealism was on the horizon: the chance to learn and grow with the living author of the Course. With Logic and Love. With a Soulmate of the Mind. To gain insight into its perspective and to apply it to all my relationships. To find purpose and meaning in my work even if it was just a means of earning a living. The fear that I’d be abandoned to a dusty law library in Allegheny County was gone.
ESFP vs. INTJ: when pleasantry meets honesty
Living a directed life with my Guide, values, causes and ideals naturally attracts opposites. This was the lesson that life had made obvious so far. Now it was to teach another lesson in opposites: personalities.
An intimate once observed that “You drive like you’re actually going somewhere.” The characterization of my personality type in Isabel Briggs Myers’ Gifts Differing – introvert, intuition, thinking, judging (INTJ) – explains why. My type actually is going somewhere. It’s not just living out its life, “waiting for the undertaker.” An authority on personality types once observed that “INTJs rule the world.” If so, this may be why.
It’s a heads-up to those who shelter under tact, diplomacy, and pleasantry when it conflicts with honesty, sincerity, and truth. Prudent if you’re dealing with groups, especially those ruled by psychopaths armed with weapons. But a poor strategy for dealing with intimates who depend on trust.
ESFPs – extraverts, (body) sensing, feeling, perceptive – are drawn to group-socializing rather than individual intimacy. They don’t mind sacrificing honesty, sincerity, and truth to social pleasantries. Or to wishful thinking that can excuse corner-cutting and wrongdoing. But in intimate relationships trust-busting dishonesty is fatal. INTJs do mind. Not because they’re moralists but because, as Isabel points out, they’re programmed to act. They can’t stand by and watch if they see something wrong. They will act to make it right.
The bull still has horns
Intervention and making it right require the Logic and Love of getting it right – no easy task. Especially if it’s correcting “youthful folly,” so hard that it’s considered a “holy task” by the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. It’s taken long experience with A Course in Miracles to discipline my INTJ so that it’s not a bull in a china shop. But the bull still has horns. In a world where Reality and Truth are subject to physical as well as intellectual assault it needs them.
So why should it surprise me to find my will obstructed by opposites when I act to do good? Even from families of blood relatives supposed to be intimates. Only once have I applied myself single-mindedly and received only affirmation: from the Boulder County Democratic Party. Where I was honored for my work in “infrastructure,” a special category that left out advocacy. A rare instance of being helpful and harmless.
The sense that got knocked into me
Life in the arena of opposites didn’t begin well for me. Being the son of my combative father, lured by my warrior voice, I picked fights. My first mistake, a big one that I repeated into early adolescence. It started on the school playground when I recall Nancy Woollett picking burrs from my sweater after I’d gotten into a fight. I was hard-wired to fight.
On the way home I asked my big brother why we fight. If he’d had an answer it might have done me a big favor, because I had to be taught a lesson the hard way -- by picking the wrong fight. My opponent’s Two-Ton Tony Galento haymaker missed my face by barely an inch. This after I’d launched a pitiful punch to his gut that bounced off him like a puffball. What was I thinking! I called off the fight and had to suffer the humiliation of his taunting. But it was better than getting my brains knocked out. My fight-picking days were over.
The sense that may never get knocked into me
In time, I came to learn a larger lesson, that I was letting myself be guided by the voice of an unreal self. A self-delusion. I was making unreality real as naturally as I was getting into fights on the playground. By engaging with the guides of “others” I made them real and did their bidding. I continued making this mistake all the way to the present. It’s so ingrained I doubt even today if I can stop. Not without more time and experience, and I’m running out of both.
My mistake was thinking that issues didn’t go beyond personalities to guides and conflicting realities. I assumed that their scope was limited to what was on the surface, to personalities and their commitments to values and priorities. I knew in theory that personality differences originate with guides and fixed agendas. That they can override conscious deliberation, but I didn’t practice it. I didn’t recognize the illogic of my adversaries that took intuition’s insights, aided by Logic-Love, back to the mistake that preceded the Big Bang. Unconscious Mind’s mis-identity of Self with its reflection, its shadow opposite.
Mind deluded is useless except for getting out of the way
My mistake that contributed to breakdown’s effects was emblematic of humanity’s mistake: making unreality real by engaging with it. By assuming that it is real. That it’s accessible and susceptible to direct intervention by “others” embedded in the same unreality. That it can be worked with as though the mistake never happened. The same mistake that science makes with its circular reasoning: imagining that it can succeed in its “quest for knowledge” by examining matter with its own eyes. Without objectivity.
Neither mind nor matter can be worked with as though the mistake never happened. The mistake can only be undone and replaced by Reality and Truth restored through explanation. Through the Understanding of Forgiveness that awakens the dreaming mind to its real identity. Not to an apparition conjured by delusion from its reflection but to its real conscious Self.
I engaged without explanation that leads to Understanding. Understanding the Logic of Forgiveness: that it’s awakening. That Self that’s awakened can’t be the mistake. Can’t be the deluded mind that I imagine myself to be without letting my Guide from Logic and Love transform self-delusion into Self-awareness. Without understanding that mind deluded is useless except for getting out of the way. When I engaged with unreality I was getting in the way.
I got it wrong. I failed to Forgive and paid the price. The one we all pay for repeating the same mistake: separation and retribution. Sent back, again and again, to the drawing boards.
One Soul with enough power to light a city
When I listened to another voice, I learned how to use my gifts instead of being used. Through disengagement from self-delusion, the hollow specter of rivalry, and engagement instead with my Self. With the call for Love and Innocence instead of the lure to hate and guilt. With Reality and Truth instead of unreality and lies.
One logically and gently undoing the other just by being itself. By being light that’s seen and voice that’s heard. The sharing, affirmation, and empowerment of Understanding. Not the false peace of inertia but the Peace of Force engaged with the one Self – my real Self – rather than the illusion of self-the-many. The individual not the group.
Understanding where progress is to be made, at the level of the smallest circumstance in an ephemeral world of many – one soul. Like the atom, with enough force to illuminate a city of millions.
The universal bond of language
The difference between making unreality real or not making it real is where the rubber meets the road. The difference between guides and philosophies, personalities and values. One lives to record appearances, the crowning achievement of the body’s senses – unreality. The other lives by the vision of Logic-Love that searches beyond appearances to find Reality and Truth.
With the gift of insight that mind intuits, with no need for the body’s senses. That needs no images to represent reality but accomplishes its purpose another way. With the reciprocations of Logic’s implications, Love’s relationships, and Soul’s bonding. Integrated into purpose and meaning by the tools of Logic and Love: language, like Energy, a universal presence of Mind.
Language that in Reality needs no words. That’s equally at the disposal of the Truth of Mind conscious or the untruth of mind dreaming. Because, like Energy, it is the Interconnectedness of Everything, indivisible and inseparable. The power of voice to communicate throughout Reality-Creation and be heard whether it’s the voice of the Self conscious of Reality or self dreaming a made-up reality. The host or its reflection. The “information” that unaccountably unites all of quantum gravity, its elements bound in communication from one end of spacetime-matter to the other. Because no matter the difference, it’s all one Self with one voice. One self dreaming and, therefore, one self with two faces: one real, the other not. One light, the other dark.
The lesson for the Idealist still to be learned
When the mistake was made, it could not attain its illusory effect without Energy. Nor could the deception be pulled off by the magician without language. Without words to deceive and the voice to speak them. Energy and voice, whose direction comes ultimately from Mind conscious. Direction that can’t be cut off. And therefore Energy, voice, and language that can’t be put to the exclusive use of the self-delusion. The mistaken identity and its derived code of unreality, non-being, and opposites.
What was the mistake? Losing our voice. What’s to be learned? Finding it and using it.
1 thought on “The Education of an Idealist”
What a fascinating saga David! I walked some of that road with you and I can tell from both an external viewer and a more intimate observer's viewpoint that you always had drive. Tons of drive. Like the little Nash Rambler. Now it appears you've managed to get that thing out of second gear! Go man go. Lightning McQueen's got nuthin on you.