Stumbling Blocks

If, as we all wish we could believe, people are inherently “good,” why do all societies (at least all with which I am familiar) establish law enforcement authorities of one kind or another? Clearly, either deviance is a naturally-occurring phenomenon or societies’ efforts to inculcate in their members the morals and rules of the the society are insufficient and unsuccessful. But if society must resort to training its members to be “good,” then “goodness” must not necessarily be natural. In my view, societies’ rules typically are universally accepted by a limited universe of its members. The others, who do not naturally subscribe or acquiesce to the rules must be taught or bullied to comply. And punishment of some form must follow either repeated incidents or massive failures to follow the rules. So, it seems, we have two universes; one (the majority) that falls in line, the other that deviates from the path. We (the majority) claim laws and the consequences (punishment) for infringement are meant to protect all of society. But is that true? Do we not infringe on the minority by stripping them of their rights to deviance? If we could actually demonstrate potential harm to the majority for each act of infringement, prohibitions and punishment might be defensible as legitimate. But if we cannot demonstrate actual harm, we are punishing deviance only because it is deviant. I could go on about this and I probably will; just not right now. I’ve thought about this dilemma for more than fifty years. With coffee as fuel for the deep thought necessary to find a workable solution, I believe I could find a way to universal compromise in a matter of days. But who wants to go days without sleep? That’s the stumbling block.

Before I leave the subject, I want to argue that both deviance and normalcy in human behavior depend on perspective. But I won’t at least not for the  moment. I’m trying, with some difficulty, to resurrect my thoughts from dusty old sociology classes. While I’m able to wipe the dust away from some of them, I’m having a bit of a challenge comparing my long-buried thoughts to what I would read in newer sociology books and what I would hear from more recently hatched sociology professors. Some of what I might read and hear are simply old ideas clothed in new garments. But I might experience an occasional epiphany. Epiphanies are delightful, except when they shatter long-held convictions. Thinking of new clothes hiding the same, old tired bodies reminds me of the title of a Leonard Cohen album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.” And that leads me to a final thought this morning on normalcy and deviance: everything is normal when circumstances require it, just as everything is deviant when normalcy insists.


My dream last night was very, very long and convoluted. It began as I was driving—far too fast—on a crowded freeway when, as I was about to round a long, sweeping curve, I lost control of the steering. I could not make the curve, instead leaving the freeway onto a side road. The car was still operable, though the steering was very difficult. I wanted to re-enter the freeway, but I was at a point at which it was impossible. Instead, I followed a road that paralleled the freeway as it curved.

The street I was on ended as a cobblestone path in front of an old-fashioned motel, where I asked a man how to get to the freeway, heading north. He said his wife has to take a road that parallels the freeway to work, but she must walk several blocks and then catch a bus. He then turned his attention to some young children who were going in and out of two doors to motel rooms.

It was then I realized the problem with the steering. A small wheel, between two smaller ones, on the end of a metal fork (like a bicycle tire) was missing. I had been driving on just one of the smaller wheels, because the other one was broken. This made sense in the dream, though it is laughable now. Somehow, I managed to find another road I had been looking for and followed it, with very bad steering, for a while. I realized the street was awash in people walking, riding bicycles and scooters, and otherwise taking up every square inch of pavement. I had to just ride along at the same slow speed. The road entered a tunnel in which the walls and ceiling were elaborately decorated with tiles. The tunnel was well-lighted and on both sides of the street were shops of all kinds. The people around me were an incredibly diverse lot; I heard them speaking Spanish and German and all sorts of Arabic languages.

I awoke from the dream while listening to the unintelligible voices all around me and staring in wonder at the beautiful ceiling of the tunnel. The instant I awoke, I wanted to tell my wife about my dream, because she would know the freeway curve where I had to exit. Instead, I am doing a poor job of relating the imaginary experience here on the blog.


While I was typing, the sky brightened. Unlike the little corner desk where I used to write, this desk hides me from the light. There are no windows from which I can see the sky and the forest floor beneath me. But if I turn my head, I can see the light through the shades. The light reminds me that it’s time to get out of my chair and make breakfast. Today, I will make congee. I will flavor it with ground pork (yet to be thawed) and grated ginger that I now store in the freezer to keep from going bad. It, too, must be thawed; first, I will cut off a finger or two of the stuff and peel that piece. I’ll cook the rice in either vegetable or chicken broth until the rice grains break down so I can crush them into a thick porridge. When it’s done, I’ll ladle some into a bowl and dress it with sliced green onion, soy sauce, and sambal oleek. And, then, I will moan with pleasure as I taste the first spoonful.

It’s 7:00 on the button. Time to do my thing.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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