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Notre Dame is Burning — Long Live Notre Dame

In No Particular Path on April 15, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Notre Dame de Paris is burning.

The date is April 15, 2019. The great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is burning. As I write this, the roof is destroyed, the great spire has collapsed. I do not yet know if the rose window remains, or the fate of the great works of art that lived inside the cathedral walls. Most are likely gone forever. The building itself may be rebuilt, the parts that survive the fire, the great stone works, may be restored. Yet what remains or what comes next will never be what was.
This is the way of the works of men.
An irony in the tragedy is that it seems likely that the fire struck as restoration on the cathedral was beginning. Notre Dame was dying, crumbling under the weight of more than seven centuries. And a decision had been made to restore it, to give it new life, to keep it a while longer.
I think we may suppose that, like so much else that humans have put upon the Earth, it was inevitable that humans would destroy it, or the Earth would bring it down and cover it over. But this was not supposed to be the time. This was not supposed to be the way. Surely, those who wanted to restore it must have believed they could give it at least some greater measure of immortality, of permanence, however illusionary they might prove in some distant end.
I have often wondered at this idea of the immortality of the works of humans. What is it that drives us to preserve certain select pieces of the past, with the expectation that the future will value them as we do?
There have, at times, been movements in the arts which have celebrated impermanence. The “Happenings” of the 20th century, the works of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are high profile examples. But how many of us have built sand castles, drawn on sidewalks with chalk, marveled at ice sculptures, or gasped at fireworks displays. Some arts are by their very nature impermanent. Any live performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every time an actor or a dancer or a musician goes before an audience, the event is new, fleeting, impermanent. Even as long as there are humans to remember it, the memories themselves are shadows of the original.
We can, of course, record these things, just as we will continue to have photographs and paintings and literary descriptions of Notre Dame to helps us remember its grandeur. But our records and our recordings are not the thing itself, and neither will be what goes up where the fire has brought it down.
The truth is, I think, that our attempts at permanence, our striving for immortality for the things we create is a measure of the value we place on things precisely because they are not immortal.
We do not really value immortality for its own sake. Those things we make of plastic, which are virtually indestructible, are mostly utile, cheap, meant for ordinary consumption, meant to be discarded – how ironic to create indestructible objects for impermanent uses. And ironic, too, I suppose. To create impermanent objects for the ages.
It is our mortality, our vulnerability that makes our lives so precious, and that is also true of the things we create.
In Shelley’s “Ozymndias” we are asked to look at the arrogance and futility of our attempts at immortality. In Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” the titular character forestalls his decline and demise through artistic sorcery, but in the end is, as are we all, reduced to dust. The Egyptians mummified the dead, but what remained was no more than a preserved shell of its human occupant, and if exposed to the air for too long, it too would go the way of Dorian Gray. We surround ourselves in art and literature and architecture and all the other arts with reminders of the impossibility of immortality. But we try, anyway.
Cathedrals are especially reflective of the struggle between death and eternal life. This is the central theme of all major religions, that it is possible for us both to die and to live forever.
There will be mourning for Notre Dame, as there is with any great loss. There will be also be discussions of how it might be raised from the dead, what measure of eternal life might still be possible for it. The faithful will not lose their faith, for if Notre Dame can find a way to live forever, then there is hope for us all.
For these are the ways of humans, as it is of all our works.

All Grown Up

In No Particular Path, Uncategorized on December 31, 2018 at 9:11 am

The old man asked the child.
What do you dream of doing in your life, what would you like to be?

The child responded.
Do you mean when I grow up?

And the old man shook his head gently, but smiled, remembering.
Grow up? Why on Earth would you want to do that?
Listen to me. I have become old learning this.
Some day; at eighteen or twenty-five or forty or eighty years of age, perhaps; you may get up out of your bed, or linger wistfully over your breakfast, or stop halfway through chewing a bite of your sandwich, or see yourself mirrored in a darkened window, or sit alone in your chair, and suddenly see that you are grown up. And you will wonder, oh my god, when did that happen? You may even feel a bit of panic, wondering if you’re ready yet, or if it is already too late.
But the truth is that there is no time or place in life where you will be grown up. For growing up is the work of your life, not the end of it.
Choose well who and what you want to be today, do as well as you can what you want or need to do today, grow a little more today than you were yesterday; and you won’t have to think or worry about what you will be when you are as old as I am now. You will simply be what you have always been and what you have wanted to be.
Whatever you choose to do; whatever goals you set; whatever your accomplishments, large or small; whatever titles or labels you accumulate, and whether you wear them with pride or humility or uncomfortably or with regret; don’t let them trap you into being all grown up. Don’t let them define you, for definitions can become limits.

And the child looked sad then, and the old man wished, for just a moment, that he had not asked the question.

Why, the child asked, have you never told me this before now?

And, alone in his room, sitting in his chair, looking out the window at the new day, the old man sighed deeply. And a tear ran down his cheek.
Finally, he stood up. He put on his jacket, opened his door, and stepped outside. He turned around and looked for a moment at the walls within which he had been living for so long.
Today, the child said, I will be brave. Today I will do something new. Today I will stop being grown up.
And tomorrow I will, if I can, be whatever tomorrow offers me to be, and I will do whatever tomorrow brings me to do.
So, the old man, with the child guiding him, faced away from the walls and stepped into the world.

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm

 

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.

 

The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.

 

The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.

 

Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 

 

It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.

 

But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?

 

One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.

 

American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.

 

The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?

 

Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.

 

But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.

 

It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 

 

There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.

 

As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do Children Really Need to Know How to Grow Food?

In No Particular Path on May 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Our public schools should be teaching every child how to grow food in a garden.  They should be teaching every student how to change a flat tire, how to cook their own food, how to make change, how to balance their checkbook.  Comment yes if you agree.  Like and share.

Yeah, no.

While those are all admirable things for people to know how to do, they are also things that any adult can figure out and anyone with access to the internet or a library can find instructions for.  And that’s what we need to be teaching.

There is so much knowledge in the world; and new information, new discoveries, new important things to learn are being created every day.  This is the information age, and we are awash in things that it would be good to know.  But we don’t all need to know exactly the same things and we don’t all need to know them at the same time in our lives.

The biggest impediment to quality education for everyone is the belief that there are certain things, particular narrow ideas or “life skills,” that everyone needs to know.  What everyone really needs to know is how to think and reason effectively; how to ask effective and relevant questions; how to find relevant, valid, useful and credible answers; and how to apply those answers to the specific problems they need to solve or specific tasks they need to accomplish.

All the rest is optional.  Teach some of it so that students can see how to use the thinking skills they are learning, but focus on the thinking itself, not the specific tasks.

Teach students how to read well and nothing they need to know will be unavailable to them.

Teach them how to use numbers effectively and keeping track of their own money will never have to be a problem.

Teach them to think scientifically and they will be able to tell the difference between what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t actually know, and what they believe.  And they will understand the proper role of each in their lives.

Teach them how to think historically and they will be able to see how their own story intersects with the stories history tells us; and they will be able to use those stories to help make the world a better place.

Teach them to think and express themselves creatively and they will never lack for beauty or inspiration of their own, or for appreciation of the beauty and inspiration of others.

Teach them to express their ideas articulately and eloquently in speech and in writing and they will always have a voice that cannot be silenced.

Teach them to argue rationally and with civility and they will not need to follow demagogues or charlatans.

Teach them to think ethically and responsibly and they will become the leaders of a world with the potential for honest, compassionate and peaceable coexistence.

Teach them to listen effectively and the world will be open to them.

That does not, of course, mean that we might not choose to teach some “practical” skills.  But product should always be the servant of process, not the other way around.  If we teach students to garden it should be in the service of teaching them about other things.  A garden is, after all, more than just a collection of vegetation sitting in dirt.  There are reasons in science for why some plants need one kind of soil and others need something different.  There is a science to understanding why some plants should be paired with other plants, but avoid being too close to others.

There is much we can learn about gardens from the history of agriculture, from folklore and literature, from the politics of our relationship to the earth and its ecosystems.  There are ways to make a garden beautiful as well as productive, and to use what we grow to make aesthetically pleasing food served in beautiful surroundings.

In the skill of changing a tire there is much to be learned about applied physics, about risk assessment, about relationships between humans and their machines.

In balancing a checkbook, there is the application of mathematics, understanding of money and wealth as sources of power for both good and ill.  There is a chance for self-awareness in seeing how each of us thinks about money and possessions in our lives.  There are ethical questions that can be asked and answered.

All of these things are possible, but there are also a nearly infinite number of other ways to teach the same things, and we should be open to them all.

There is an old saying that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day; if you teach them how to fish you feed them for a life time.  But fish is a very limited diet.  So, if instead, you use fishing as a way to teach them about a great deal more than that, then you will not only feed their stomach for a lifetime, you will feed their whole body, their mind, and their spirit.

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

One Shovelful at a Time: When Life Gets Overwhelming

In No Particular Path on March 20, 2017 at 9:49 am

 

Sometimes life can be overwhelming.  It can be hard for anyone sometimes to simply decide on the next thing to do.  There are lists, obligations, needs; and too few resources of money or energy or spirit to get done what needs doing.

 

I will begin with a brief story.

 

I used to live in a rural home set back from a tertiary road.  It had a large turn-around and a 140 foot driveway.  All of this was back when it was still common in New England to get several big snowstorms in a single winter and have snow on the ground from November to April.  Some mornings I would get up and look out on a foot or more of snow from the front of the garage to the road, and the plows had piled even more at the end of the drive.

 

In those days I didn’t have a snow blower and I couldn’t afford to pay for someone to plow me out every week or two.  But I had a shovel.  And I usually got up early.

 

Standing in my garage looking out at the, literally, tons of snow to be moved out of the way could be overwhelming, to say the least.

 

That was when I developed a philosophy of “one shovelful at a time.”  I would start at the garage door and take one shovelful of snow and toss it to the side.  “Well,” I would say to myself, “that wasn’t so bad.  I guess I’ll do another one.”  I didn’t look up toward the end of the driveway until I had passed the halfway point between the turn-around and the road.  With each shovelful I assessed how I was doing.  Was I too tired to continue?  Had I done enough for now?  Could I take one more?  And my goals changed as I went along.  One shovelful became, as I made some noticeable progress, this small area here, as far as that tree there, might as well cut through to the road, and so on.  I always left myself the option of stopping at any time.  There were, after all other things I could do.  Each of those options had their own consequences, of course; they might cost me money, or time, or I might miss work or an appointment; but I knew that and knew that continuing to shovel could also have consequences other than a clean driveway.  I could injure myself, or be too exhausted to do other things that needed doing, for instance.  Usually, though, I persisted, one shovelful at a time, until the job was done.

 

There are five stages to this method.  The first is to know what has to be done and break it down into smaller tasks.  Try not to focus on the whole chore or the whole list or the entirety of the need, but to isolate smaller pieces that are manageable in the moment.  The second is to start where you are.  See what is right in front of you that you can do right now.  Don’t worry about how it is related to the whole overwhelming task; it is doable and that’s what matters. Third, let your goals be flexible.  Some days you’ll feel like you can accomplish more than other days; and there will be days when the most important thing you can do is rest.  Fourth, be pleased with yourself for each thing you do.  If today you had a couple of boiled eggs for breakfast instead of Cocoa Puffs, it probably won’t move you meaningfully close to your weight loss goals, but good for you, anyway.  Tomorrow you can make the choice again.  And fifth, give yourself permission to stop when you need to.  Sometimes, the most stressful part of any task is thinking that it all has to be done now.  When we know that it’s a choice at each stage, we can often get a lot more done simply because it feels good to do it, rather than feeling stressed by the obligation.

 

The one thing this method requires of you is that you pay attention and stay as much as possible in the moment.  Learn to recognize your own feelings and needs; your fears and griefs and limitations as well as your strengths, your hopes, and your skills.  And honor, respect and accept all of them.  They are who you are.  They are fair and legitimate and honest. In each stage, allow yourself to face them and use them to decide which shovelful to take first.

 

Every choice we make in life is a beginning of something.  Sometimes we can see where it will all end, but sometimes we have to act on faith that we are headed where we want to go.  As long as we can see what is right before us, right now, then we can choose. 

 

And it doesn’t matter whether you have a small shovel or a great big front-end loader.  A shovel is a shovel; your shovel, your shovelful; one shovelful at a time.

 

I have tried to remember this over the years as I have faced loss and grief and anger and fear.  On those mornings when I have gotten out of bed not knowing what to do next, not wanting to do anything, feeling overwhelmed, I have tried to remember.  I say to myself, “I know what this is.  I know that there is more here than I can face right now.  But I can take a shower, or I can have some breakfast, or I can sit and feel what I’m feeling, cry or laugh or pound my pillow; and I can know that all of it is movement; all of it is a choice; all of it is a shovelful.  And when I have done whatever I have done in that moment, I can do the next thing or I can stop, knowing that one less shovelful of whatever it is stands between me and where I need to get to.

 

The blizzard is temporary.  The snow is finite.  The shovel is real.  And all you have to do right now is decide whether to use it.

 

 

 

GIVERS AND TAKERS — The Normalcy of Need

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on December 7, 2016 at 11:35 am

The First Nations, for the most part, had no concept of ownership of things. We are given only temporary custodianship in this world, and that is both a gift and a responsibility. Our purpose is to consume only what we need and to leave the rest, both to meet the needs of others, and so that the world can replenish its resources for our future use.

But within that statement is the very troublesome word “need.” The word has connotations of weakness, inferiority, and shame. And that’s too bad, because need is at the very heart of the human condition and the nature of our relationships. There are six things you need to know about needs.

  1. Everyone has them.

Anyone who has sat through Psychology 101 has probably heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. There have been several versions of his famous pyramid, but the basic idea is that human beings have a range of needs from the basic biological needs all the way up to our need to self-actualize; to become as fully aware of and as comfortable as possible with our own humanity. Some of these needs are important to our physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual health and well-being. Others are necessary for our growth and development in all those areas.

But our needs aren’t identical. Each of us has greater needs in one area than in another: and each of us is successful in getting at least some of our needs met.

2. Everything we do is an attempt to meet our needs.

And the corollary to that is that we nearly always attempt to meet our needs in cooperation with other human beings. Basically, we trade one need for another. If I have a physical need for food, I may trade some of my cash (which you need to meet your physical needs) for some of your food. If I have a need to validate my sense that I am a good person, I may give you food and thus trade for a feeling that I have done a good thing. Most of the time, the trade-offs can get quickly complicated. If I have a need to express my creative and spiritual self through sharing a musical gift with others, I may trade that gift for payment to perform in front of an audience you provide; they have a need to satisfy their aesthetic needs which they satisfy by paying you for the privilege of hearing me perform. If I am a poor person in an isolated third-world village who needs medical assistance, I may trade that to a doctor who needs to satisfy his altruistic needs by performing the service for free, with expenses paid by a rich person who needs to maintain a reputation for philanthropy.

Whenever we enter into any kind of relationship with another human being or other human beings, no matter how trivial or momentous, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how intimate or distant, we are each of us getting some need met by the interaction.

  1. We nearly always multi-task the meeting of our needs.

When I get something to eat, I may be satisfying my need for food, for basic survival. But I may also be meeting a need for maintaining the health of my body, by choosing nutritious, healthful food; and I may be satisfying my aesthetic needs by choosing food that pleases my eye and my palate; and I may also be satisfying my social needs by sharing my meal with others, which may also satisfy my needs for love and belonging; and if I cook the food myself, or provide it in some other way that reflects back on my abilities in some way, then I may also be satisfying my needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.

All of our needs are systemic. They affect each other. None of my needs are isolated from my other needs.

  1. Sometimes we meet our needs in healthy ways; other times, not so much.

We all eat some junk food once in a while. (Yes, even that organic, vegan, low sugar, gluten-free, whole-grain chocolate chip cookie you just ate is junk food.} We consume all kinds of junk, from pizza to internet click-bait. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Junk meets important needs for us or we wouldn’t consume it. Moderation in all things (except coffee and chocolate, but only organic, free-trade, sustainably and humanely sourced for both and only 70% or higher cocoa content.), right?

We all make uncomfortable and challenging compromises in our relationships with others and ourselves. Sometimes we even make dangerous ones. It is generally accepted that someone in an abusive relationship, if they end that relationship and do nothing else, is about ninety percent likely to form a new abusive relationship. Why? Because they have learned somewhere that in order to be loved, they must expect pain as part of the relationship. That’s the trade-off. They trade their need to be loved for the other’s need to be powerful. Sometimes, we will sometimes trade freedom for even the perception of security, or vice-versa. The artist will ruin her health rather than give up her art.

But it’s not all about hurting ourselves for reasons that are difficult for others to understand. A mother can go without food to ensure that her children are fed. A firefighter can ignore personal safety to rush into a burning building to save someone else. People will stand in the cold, risk arrest, violence, condemnation in order to support a cause which has no direct effect on them, but satisfies their need to be of service in the world.

  1. Virtually all bigotry, hatred, cruelty, and violence are needs-based; but so are compassion, love, understanding, and healing.

And the corollary is that they are the same needs. The need to feel valued by ourselves and others can be exaggerated and perverted into a need to feel superior to someone. Love and hate are often described as two sides of the same emotional coin. The need to have enough to survive and thrive can easily become a need to have more than enough; and with a perception that resources are limited, a need to keep others from getting more than you. The need for security can become a need for control. Fear is the dark side of trust; judgment is the dark side of compassion or understanding; apathy is the dark side of empathy.

  1. Understanding our needs can help us to meet them in healthy ways.

Because none of us wants to be “needy,” most of us have developed a bad habit of understating, self-justifying, rationalizing, or denying the needs that affect us most. And because we aren’t being honest about our needs, we often seek out unhealthy, even self-destructive ways of satisfying them.

Things like fear, anger, stress, depression, even bigotry and hatred are expressions of serious needs that are not being addressed in healthy ways. Violence is always a result of failing to meet needs in healthy ways.

Whenever we find ourselves in negative spaces, it is useful to ask (and answer honestly) several questions:

— What are my needs here? Have I identified them accurately and given them appropriate importance?

— What am I currently doing to try to satisfy those needs?

— Is it working? Is it healthy? What else could I do?

— Who can I trust to help me? What trade-offs am I willing to accept?

It might even be better to spend time each day checking in with ourselves, rather than trying to do this kind of assessment when we are already in crisis.

Ultimately, we are all in this together. We are all givers and we are all takers in equal measure.  We need each other. Understanding our own needs can help us to understand others’ needs as well. And then we can find ways to help each other.

The Treadmill and the Highway: Liberal, Progressive and the Relativity of Movement.

In No Particular Path on October 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

All motion is relative.

And our experience of it is personal and related to how we perceive the fixed points against which it is measured.

A few years ago, as I was driving cross-country, I entered Utah on I-70, where a sign at the Colorado/Utah line warns that there will be no services for the next 106 miles. That is a truly frightening thought for a New Englander, but it was not the distance that I noticed while I was driving across Utah, but the lack of a sense of movement through it. The mountains that rise above the high plains are well in the distance, so they seem to move along with you as you go, like the moon. And the landscape up close is unchanging to the unfamiliar eye, which does not see that this bit of desert is subtly different from the one just passed ten minutes ago. The untrained eye sees the whole without being able to distinguish the parts; as the untrained ear hears all the beauty of a symphony without being able to distinguish the violins from the violas. I had no reference points for sensing movement. I had no idea how far I had gone because the environmental cues I rely on for determining progress were missing; there was too much sameness, it was all too vast, I was in the middle of the ocean trying to navigate by individual drops of water.

On the other hand, I have occasionally joked to friends who were working out on a treadmill that they were literally “going nowhere fast.” But here the problem isn’t vastness, but intimacy. On a treadmill, you are, of course, moving. It wouldn’t do you much good if you weren’t. But the reference points for that movement are almost all your own body. Your movement isn’t so much through space as within it. You’re not trying to get anywhere. In fact, the point is to create movement exactly where you are. Progress is measured internally, not externally. Heart rate, blood pressure, breath and the burning of calories are all kinds of movement. We have decided not to listen to the whole orchestra, but to pay specific attention to the oboes, the percussion, and the movement of the director’s baton.

Now, I am, obviously, I hope, building a metaphor here. Or at least an analogy.

I think of myself as a progressive. I prefer the term to the much-maligned “liberal” label. It seems to me that one can be a liberal as a kind of treadmill. It’s internal. I can believe things. I can be philosophical about it all. The movement is all my own. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. As a liberal, I have to look at the world and process what I see in ways that will energize and strengthen parts of my perspective, such as my moral and ethical codes, my knowledge and understanding of ideas and events, my empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others, and my sense of place in the world. Unless I exercise these internal aspects of myself they may become unhealthy, calcified. I am a white sixty-nine-year-old, middle-class, American male, influenced by my culture and my environment. So if I do my best to understand and empathize with the experiences of women and people of color; other cultures and beliefs; and those caught in whirlpools of poverty, mal-education, and cultural oppression; and if I make the effort to see the special privilege of my color, my class, and my sex; then I can count that as progress, even if I cannot do more right now to change those things.

If I am a progressive, on the other hand, then I need to get off the treadmill occasionally and go run outside. I need to do things, not just think about them. But to do that I need broader points of reference against which to measure my progress. In a world where there is so much that might be changed; where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, and bigotry of all kinds; where there is rape and murder and abuse of all kinds; it can be hard not to feel as though we are getting nowhere fast. The mountains we are aching to reach always seem to move with us and ahead of us, and it’s hard to tell one tumbleweed from the next or the last. I can “adopt” a child in need or a whole village, but I cannot adopt the whole world without a sense of futility. I can send money to a GoFundMe effort that will buy one beautiful child a life-saving operation, but I can’t save them all. I can move from understanding and empathy to learning how to be an ally to women and people of color and all who have been “other-ed”, and to finding ways to use my privilege to eliminate that privilege, but bigotry and oppression and privilege will still be there.

The trick is to find a place between the highway and the treadmill. We each need to understand our own path, with its unique landmarks and signposts, with its own hills and valleys, so that we know how to measure our progress by where we are and what kind of movement we are trying for. We need to seek ways to strengthen our inner selves without losing sight of the need to actually get somewhere.

And we need to stop judging our progress by the standards of people on different paths than ours or by comparing one measure of progress to another. If life is ecological, then every action, however small, makes a difference. We can say to ourselves, “Today I will help this veteran in this way, and I can do this other thing to help this immigrant.” I can say that I understand that all lives matter, but today these particular lives need special attention. I can send five dollars to GoFundMe and five more to a large political movement. I can applaud the work of people who stand with the Lakotas against the pipeline, but know that my personal movement needs to be measure by dropping off a box of food to the local food pantry. I don’t need to choose between their importance, I only need to understand where I am on my path, what kind of distance I need to travel, and how I will know that I am moving.

There is a short video circulating on Facebook right now that illustrates the theory that the solar system is moving through the universe. The result is an image of the planets moving not in simple elliptical orbits, but in vast spirals through the cosmos. It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate, but it is impossible for most of us to observe or sense. If our solar system is going somewhere and carrying us with it, then where is it going except some relative next point, and where is it leaving from except wherever it is right now? And in the vastness of the universe, where everything is so distant that it seems to move with us or away from us, how do we measure our progress?

All that most of us can do is move through the smallness of the space we occupy physically, spiritually and cognitively. We must each strive to understand and diligently observe the measure of our own progress. And we must refrain from using our reference points to judge the progress of others. The snail’s pace is as admirable as the cheetah’s, as long as we understand that it isn’t a competition.

All movement is relative.

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