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Making Sense of the Sixties: Reflections for the 40th Reunion of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1968

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At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, an Australian observer wrote this letter to the Sydney Morning Herald: "Thank God we got the convicts and they got the Puritans."

For me, the legacy of the Sixties has been my journey from Puritan to convict, or at least renegade. When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of '64, I was a Goldwater Republican. How did that happen? Like any impressionable and obedient teenager, I was under the influence of my father.

My father, an immigrant Jew who arrived from Lithuania during the Harding Administration, subscribed to right-wing politics because, one summer in the thirties, his buddy Abe Rekant took him to a camp in the Catskills for young leftie singles. And there, for the first time in his life, he encountered interracial couples making out. The sight so repelled him that he fled into the arms of the GOP.

He was demonizing the Other, as puritans of every stripe and creed always do. In taking that narrow view, he was setting up his son's rebellion, for my challenge -- indeed, much of our generation's challenge since the days of our youth -- has been the effort to remind the world that in fact there is no Other. That the illusion of human separation can be overcome by love.

It was, of course, a growing revulsion with the Vietnam War, coupled with sympathy for the Civil Rights movement, that began to turn me away from hard-right dogma. I might have continued to see both in purely political terms if the Beatles hadn't come along and steered me inexorably to the realization that evil was nothing more than the failure of love, and a shift in consciousness was essential if we were to free the future.

This is a tough swallow for a puritan. The demonizing spirit insists on seeing evil as a force to fight against, whether an unwelcome neighbor or an absolute cosmic being. The root of the name Satan means adversary in the original Hebrew, but in Judaism the figure has never been invested with anything like his Miltonian status. The character who shows up in Job to make a wager with Godhead may represent nothing more than the adversarial mind, the instinct that fears suffering and death, and out of those fears creates Hell.

"Get thee behind me, Satan," is just a way of overriding that instinct.

The dress, music, drugs and loose morals of the emerging counterculture must have looked to a Sixties puritan like a reversion to chaotic paganism. The appearance of a distinct tribe of people defying social convention in the name of a higher ideal was about as welcome in uptight America as Christians were in first century Rome. And when one of the conventions thus defied was consumerism itself, reaction was inevitable. Fundamentalist religion and corporate capitalism discovered the bond of their puritan ancestry. The custodians of morality shadowed by angst shook hands with the custodians of industry shadowed by greed.

From the perspective of a freer consciousness, the vigor of the opposition was at first incomprehensible. What's so bad about learning gentle ways and favoring self-examination and creativity over amassing possessions and status? If rationality led us into Vietnam, maybe there are better paths for the mind. And thus began the Culture Wars, which have managed a long and vituperative run without actually quelling the human desire for something better, a world view not adversarial but cooperative. Get thee behind me, Satan.

My Sixties really began in the Seventies, when, like a loyal son of Harvard, I turned to books for an intellectual framework to help me understand and communicate the meaning of some beatific psychedelic episodes. One of the first I took to was The Varieties of Religious Experience, by Harvard's own William James, a book that changed my life. I often wonder what Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens would make of James' thesis that although no theological argument can prove the existence of Divinity, the many loving encounters with Divinity by people of all eras, climes and classes, consistent in tone and effect, must mean something. For James, the beneficial outcomes of such encounters justified deeper delving into the fields of consciousness that surround the rational mind.

"My rational mind is a perfect servant and a lousy master," said Ram Dass famously in Be Here Now, another life-changing book. Alan Watts followed, The Wisdom of Insecurity among others, and Walt Whitman and Martin Buber and Dame Julian of Norwich, Bucky Fuller's doctrine of Spaceship Earth, and the Catholic priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin's vision of evolution as a Divine mechanism for the awakening of consciousness. Maslow's transpersonal psychology and Jung's quest for wholeness were yet more paths to the beacons of love latent in every psyche. And Buddhism demonstrated that authentic self-realization needed no God-figure.

And there was a still greater path: that of loving, playful human contact. I moved in 1971 to San Francisco and spent six years in a Haight-Ashbury commune, growing vegetables, making music, cooking stoned feasts. To the diversity at Harvard that had awakened a sheltered, closeted boy from suburban Washington was added a new dimension: living with less educated people who shared the common vision of a peaceful planet, whose wisdom and graciousness flowed not from book-learning but from affirmation of simple universal truths that powered the whole Aquarian wave.

These were the years when Neil Young sang "Don't let it bring you down/It's only castles burning/Find someone who's turning/And you will come around." And we did.

And it was perfectly natural. Science has determined that it was from exploding supernovas that basic-to-life elements like carbon were derived. So, literally, we are stardust, we are golden. How, after a twenty-eight year detour, we will get ourselves back to the garden is the question we have every right to ask on this august occasion.

Some would say that political choices are the Mapquest to the garden. True, but a shift in consciousness has to come first, and such a shift is both possible and desirable. The election of 2008 is a huge step in that direction. Now we need to free ourselves from the puritan mindset that makes evil a noun, when it's merely an adjective. Turning our fellow humans, as individuals or by group affiliation, into instruments of evil only strengthens the dominance of the adversarial mind. Recognizing that evil consequences spring from the actions of ignorant people allows for dialogue. It opens us to forgiveness, healing, and the way ahead.

I have a friend who said he looks forward to the time when all the isms are wasms. Capitalism, Communism, paganism, Buddhism, all can degenerate into blind belief systems in the grip of the adversarial mind. The free mind looks for guidance not in dogma but by cultivating wholeness within and without. As our internal monologue becomes less agitated and more self-accepting, there's space to discover the beauty of others, what an old hippie friend called "bringing out the gold in everyone." Or maybe just recognizing that, as the Firesign Theater put it, we're all bozos on this bus.

I don't know for sure that kindness wed to intelligence is the solution to all of our problems, but I don't see them doing any harm. Kindness is often condemned by the shrewd, but isn't shrewdness the opposite of wisdom? The danger facing our species is vast and complex, just the kind of survival threat that has typically pushed us to our next level of ingenuity, organization and success. If a new and more conscious range of awareness is to emerge from this era's crises, we have to let it flow. Imagine being free to regard the past without resentment and the future without anxiety. Turn your love light at the world and watch what happens. Because wisdom is what's left when you get rid of personal opinions.

In the 1970 film Burn, Marlon Brando plays an agent for the British government who provokes a slave uprising on a Spanish Caribbean island. The charismatic native that Brando sets up to lead the doomed revolt offers him a memorable thought: "It's better to know where to go but not how, than to know how to go but not where." A more hopeful way of putting it comes from E. F. Schumacher, author of another 70s classic, Small Is Beautiful. At the end of the book whose subtitle is Economics as if People Mattered, he wrote: "I can't raise the wind that will blow us into a better world. But I can at least put up a sail, so that when the wind comes, I can catch it."