Archive for category Life
In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.
Still, yeah, I get it. Nine may be too young for that. Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds. But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job – was absurd overkill.
Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds. She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!
It still says something about our society. Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult. An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes. An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested. Huh? The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.
They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running. But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN! I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit! She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants. It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.
When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch. Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like. It wasn’t always government approved healthy. Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing. The unhealthy lunch in question? Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk. How could they feed their child such rubbish! Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy. I mean, HUH?
What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play. If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised? If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?
Of course not, kids need freedom to explore. If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them. They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.
Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games. You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you. That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.
The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids. Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails. Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.
Then there is fear. Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids. People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability. Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.
When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets. I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid. Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door. But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).
Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs. Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days. I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.
And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense. When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it. My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school. The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there. But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested! Sending a kid to school with a toy gun! And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!
So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore. Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride. Let kids play. They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work. This time should be magical. They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment. And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.
The world is mostly nothing. And it came from nothing. If you consider the amount of “empty” space between the stars and galaxies, well over 99.999999999% of the universe has nothing. But if you also consider the stuff of every day — like this table my computer is resting upon — about 99.999999999% of it is empty space. It feels solid to us, but the reality is that the distance between the subatomic particles is immense, and thus the reality we see as solid and real is actually mostly empty.
Of course, this could mean that our perceptions are illusions. Consider: computer programs can create the illusion of vast worlds, all located on a tiny hard drive in the computer, used by an even smaller memory unit. It still is only two (or perhaps three) dimensional on a screen, but the ‘feel’ of being in a vast world exists. It’s not too much of a stretch to expand the metaphor to think of our reality.
That’s absurd, right? Space and time exist. But space and time are the same thing – it’s space/time. And it seems to be a unified entity, meaning all space/time exists together “simultaneously.” In other words, just as you can travel about in space, theoretically one could travel about in time; indeed to travel through space one must travel through time, they are unified. Yet for some reason we don’t comprehend, we’re temporally uni-directional. And it appears that while we can “speed up” our passage through time (if we traveled at near the speed of light we’d age much, much less quickly than those left on earth), we can’t go in reverse.
This is all very odd – and I’m not even going to delve into quantum and particle physics, except to note that they indicate that matter, or “stuff,” isn’t really a particle but a ripple in a field that has no precise location until it is measured or perceived. That means that we’ll always see the world as having a real discernible form because we’re perceiving it. If we ceased to perceive it, it would lose that form.
That makes no sense, and with all due to respect to Erwin Schroedinger, cats and other animals – and perhaps any form of life, including plants – perceive in some way. Which ones magically solidify reality into one form? Well, that’s anybody’s guess.
British clergyman Bishop Berkeley – who has both a university and a Star Trek character (spelled Barclay, the actual phonetic pronunciation of the Bishop’s name) named after him – thought material reality was simply a persuasive illusion. All we have is perception and experience, but we can never truly judge the reality of those perceptions. Dim witted people responded to Berkeley with things like “if reality is an illusion, why don’t you just jump off a cliff.” Of course, the perception of and experience of pain or even death would still be real. Whatever reality is.
Berkeley thought it was in essence God’s dream – we were products of God’s mind. And if we keep the metaphor of a dream going, it’s apt. Consider our dreams, especially dreams in which one knows he or she is dreaming. Those dreams have space, color, sensation, but yet we’re silently (or perhaps not so silently) snoozing in bed, creating those worlds in our minds. Perhaps waking reality is more like the dream world, but with different rules and laws. Why would such a view make any less sense than the idea something exploded from nothing and we inhabit a world where we drift quietly with no discernible purpose? Given our utter lack of knowledge about why there is something and not nothing, both possibilities are equally plausible.
Of course, a universe coming from “nothing” can also be seen as non-sensical. Before the big bang time and space presumably did not exist. The term “nothing” is a space-time term. The beginning of the universe is a space-time concept. Before space-time existed, time did not exist. Neither did space. Can you imagine a reality that is not defined by space or time?
We cannot conceptualize the reasons for our existence because they are completely outside our frame of reference. We think in space-time terms, but space-time is a creation. I’m not saying it was created by a God — and if one believes that, it just pushes back the core question to “where did God come from.” Moreover by definition God becomes non-material, with attributes not defined by space-time. Such a God would be utterly incomprehensible to humans, suggesting that our God-myths are just that – myths. Perhaps they came about because people were trying to put into words some kind of deep intuitive spiritual knowledge but then again, perhaps not.
We cannot imagine what is not space-time, so we are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual capacities. We think everything has a beginning and an end because we are unable to conceive of reality absent time. We think everything has a location because we cannot imagine reality without space.
But that says less about reality than our ability to understand it. So it seems we inhabit a world that given our understanding of the laws of physics, should not exist – because it requires getting something from nothing. Clearly our laws of physics themselves are not universal, at least not outside our space-time universe. That means we can be reasonably sure of a few things:
1. The belief we are in a meaningless universe of mechanical practices that follow the laws of physics without regard to anything immaterial (spirit, a god-concept or something like that) is unlikely to be correct. It relies on an assumption that this is “all that is,” but that requires a contradiction: our world came from nothing, but you can’t get something from nothing.
2. The idea that life is an illusion, a “dream of God” or some other fundamentally different nature is as realistic a belief as a belief that we experience an external world “out there” that we as discrete, separate individuals come in contact with. In fact, the odds are greater that Berkeley was on to something, given how bizarre quantum physics operates.
3. Science is defined by measurable material phenomena, and generalizes laws about the physical world – our space-time world. Therefore science cannot answer questions about a deeper fundamental nature of reality, or where this world came from. Thus science is pragmatic in the sense it tries to explain how the world works – or how we experience the world working. While it can inform philosophical and spiritual speculations, it cannot give definitive answers.
4. Neither philosophy nor spiritual/religious experience yields definitive answers to these questions either; to me that means one has to be playful, non-dogmatic and open minded.
Throughout time the idea of love has confounded psychologists, philosophers, romantics and skeptics. What is love? Is it, like Tina Turner claims, “a second hand emotion?” Is love, pure as Paul claims in Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
We live in a society where the divorce rate is over 50%, where the idea of love is brandished around in greeting cards and songs, but little understood. I’m thinking about this after a three month process of breaking up with someone after 16 years, going through a divorce, moving to a much smaller apartment, and making decisions involving kids and the future.
Lest anyone feel sorry for me, the process was amicable, the right course of action, mutually agreed upon, and we remain friends. That adds poignancy to the question, however. At some point in our discussions we had to deal with the question that maybe being able to not hate the other person and just co-exist was as good as it gets. “There are lots of miserable people staying together,” one of us said. Perhaps the idea of love is deceptive.
We still decided to separate – the lack of a deep relationship had yielded stagnation and wasn’t good for the kids. We realized that mutual annoyances and distance/disagreements were casting a pall over the household that was bad for everyone. Yet once we did think we loved each other. Did we? Was it an illusion?
Romantic love is often separated from other forms of love. I have a love of life, a love of humanity, a deep love for my children. Parental love is unconditional, romantic love tends not to be. Love of others, life and humanity is almost always filled with conditions – I love my fellow human until the bastard cuts me off in traffic. We’ll profess love for others and the sanctity of life until there’s a war and then people even rejoice over dead civilians.
Romantic love is said to have stages. For about four months we enjoy the “halo effect,” a sense that the other is the best thing that ever came into our lives, not noticing the faults and channeling our desire for love and connection into a belief it’s there. What we don’t know about the other, we fill in with our imagination of what an ideal should be. And with each side trying to impress the other, both play the part of the other’s ideal, reinforcing the halo.
Then reality bites. People spend more time together, they let their true selves show. Soon disappointment sets in, resentment over differences, and walls are built. Love becomes conditional, the other needs to change how they behave, or if they don’t, their habits irritate. At that point love can go two directions. It can fade due to the building of walls and hidden resentments, or the couple can try make it work. The important question: how do you make it work? How do you know if love is fading due to choices made in the relationship, or some kind of deep incompatibility?
I think the answer is to let go of fear and embrace acceptance. That doesn’t mean it will work, but one will learn more quickly if there is real incompatibility and be able to avoid falling into a delusion.
Fear prevents us from showing our true selves to others. Early on, we’re afraid perhaps of losing the other. So we hide things, don’t admit true feelings, push aside annoyances, hide bad habits, and aren’t fully honest. We’re afraid the other will judge us for our past, and thus we might rationalize not opening up by saying the past doesn’t matter, rather than discussing ones’ full self and experiences. Fear causes us to create an image for our lover or mate, and not be true to ourselves.
The mirror image of fear is not accepting the other for who he or she is. That lack of acceptance, of course, creates incentive for the other to hide part of themselves. Love requires accepting the other person as they are. If love is there both people will change in some ways and in fact grow together over time. That can’t happen without acceptance. Without acceptance walls form and people will grow apart rather than together.
To be sure, this kind of ‘unconditional love’ isn’t possible for all couples. But if they are open, honest, and accepting, they can find out early that it just isn’t right for them to be together and they won’t fall into the trap of fooling themselves by thinking it’s good and then wondering what went wrong. They can recognize early the reality of their incompatibility and not let it destroy their ability to be just friends. And if they find out that they really do fit and “get” each other, they can build a path to a long term loving relationship.
Or that’s my theory. Obviously, I haven’t made it a reality. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and not let go of the belief that true long term love is possible.
My blog posts may reflect more on my personal situation rather than politics in coming weeks because with all this going on politics has seemed rather boring. I’m really doing fine – it’s emotional at times, and I stopped blogging for awhile just to handle all the change. But life is about change, and our quality of life reflects how we respond to change.
Since the new semester has started things both professional and personal have left me no time to blog. I plan to be blogging again soon – but as days pass with nothing new, I expect it could be March before I get back to the usual pace.
For now suffice it to say that my life is undergoing a kind of transformation, and overall it is a very good thing. But it is cutting into my blogging time, probably for the next three weeks.
So I’ll end with two thoughts:
1. I really loved President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night; and
2. My new favorite quote, a great way to approach life, from Anthony Hopkins: “My philosophy is: It’s none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am and I do what I do. I expect nothing and accept everything. And it makes life so much easier.”
It does! I’ll post when inspiration strikes, but it may not be until into March!
The idea that a new year represents rebirth, renewal and change is on its face silly. Every day is a new day, the year is just a human construct, making days numbers and delineating them in an arbitrary fashion. The idea that this is a time for resolutions and transformation is irrational – it’s just a new day, like every day.
Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that ideal of a new beginning. Yes, every day is potentially a chance for rebirth and renewal, but usually we squander those opportunities, living hypnotized, following the same routines. Instead of asking what would make life truly joyful, we check off our “to do” lists and take care of the mundane tasks at hand.
And that’s OK – life is a series of moments and we need to shop, cook, clean, work, and take of things that just need to be done. Yet we can do those things thinking the mundane is life – that life is about making money, paying bills, achieving success and consuming products. Or we can work through the mundane with a higher ideal in mind – happiness, love of both nature and others, and a sense of magic. The world unfolds for us, we just have to trust it.
So my resolution for 2013 is simply to live awake.
To try every day to look out the window and see nature as magical and beautiful. Not to get used to it or take it for granted. To feel blessed to live in foothills of western Maine, a place of pure beauty. To be sure, the wide open plains of South Dakota, where I was last month visiting family, has its own magic and beauty as well. Wherever one is, one key to living awake is not to take nature for granted.
To be true to myself. We humans are our own worst enemies, we repress who we are, we say what we think others want to hear, we distrust our ability to simultaneously be true and be accepted. We conform. We decide that our dreams are silly or unobtainable. We settle for a life less than we could have.
It’s not that we humans are stupid. We settle because it’s comfortable. It’s easy to conform, to go with what others want, to push aside youthful ambitions and dreams of happiness. We replace those with stuff – or perhaps with societal approval of us as successful. Prestige replaces joy. To be normal is safe, to conform is to be comfortable.
And then we slowly stagnate.
Please read this “comic”. It is a powerful comparison of two good women who choose different paths. One was true to herself, one conformed. The price of conformity isn’t always so high – and there is nothing wrong with being like others if one is at the same time true to oneself.
But too often we drown our inner voice and make choices out of fear of not fitting in or somehow missing out. We fear lacking income, making others mad, or ending up alone. Fear can’t guide life, to be truly happy one must be true to oneself. We need to trust our conscience and inner voice, even when it goes against what most people seem to be thinking and doing. And that is my resolution for 2013. To live awake, to listen to the voice within, to live true to myself.
The snow is beautiful here in rural Maine. The trees seem magical with a white icing, deer tracks visible on the ground, the dull brown colors of early winter given way to a crystal beauty.
Of course, I have to get the snow blower out and the roads are a bit slick. Cancellations alter the routine and force schedule changes. Some people complain about the snow and its inconveniences. Better to live in Florida or California, away from all this!
Life is like that. Seen from one perspective it’s magical, full of synchronicity, opportunities and beauty. We reach out and we find friends. We cry and are comforted. From another perspective life is a burden. Children are gunned down in schools, corporations run roughshod over common folk, people break hearts, lie and hurt.
I try to focus on the magical, but the mundane drags me down.
I wonder if I’ve lived my life up until now fooling myself. I see the beauty, I understand how perspective shapes our reality, I have a grasp of the underlying spiritual truth of existence. Yet I haven’t lived it. I’ve lived a bit afraid, too addicted to comfort, comfortable even with boredom.
I’ve not lived a life as full as I could because it was easy not to. The path of least resistance is enticing. It may be boring, unsatisfying on many levels, but full of distractions and easy to travel. Moreover, since so many of us enjoy that path, it’s socially acceptable. Take the path of least resistance and others nod and approve. It validates their choice of that same path, we’re all in this together.
There is another path, through the woods, unshoveled and unmarked. The soul tries to lure us to this path, it contains richness that the path of least resistance does not. It leads to a life of meaning, but it is risky. The thorny weeds are all around, the snow is deep. There is uncertainty.
We question our soul. Is this really the path to take? The other is cleared and easy. This one requires risk. The soul says in clear uncertain terms that to achieve true happiness you have to run from safety and be completely true to yourself. The path of least resistance is the path of conformity. It is living small, but living comfortably.
The snow falls, the ice piles up on my jacket. The wind hits my face, a raw wind. The wind is harsher on the path my soul wants me to take, there are shelters on the path of least resistance.
“It’s worth it,” my soul whispers. “You don’t know where it leads, or what’s beyond the next bend, but if you are true to yourself life has more value than it ever could if you simply go with the flow.”
“Come on,” friends yell from the path of least resistance. They’re heading towards a shelter, warm and comfortable. They seem bored, but there are distractions – games, contests, and comfort. Who needs meaning, who needs risk, who needs to listen to the soul? Just go with the flow, relax, unwind, watch the tube, get old and die. Meaning? Who needs it?
Yet the soul beckons. What is life if you live it just to find some comfort and then die? Why exist if it’s just to distract oneself from boredom and be part of the crowd? Death awaits in any event. What’s the point? What if I want more, what if I want to follow my soul, even if it means risk and uncertainty?
Those on the path of least resistance laugh. “There is no meaning,” they insist. “You live, you die. Avoid pain and discomfort, don’t take any risks. If you’re lucky enough to be able to glide through, you’ve won! Why take risks, that would be foolish.”
I stand and look, and realize that I am a fool. And that is good. I turn towards the risky path, wave to my friends and say, “I’ll see you around, but I’ve got to go explore.”
I have just posted a spiritual fantasy called “Dreams.” The heroine Jenny finds herself in a different reality, able among other things to enter into the dreams of others – past, present and future. Go read it if you’re into that kind of thing! I wrote it about 20 years ago and have given up on ever having it published. However, more than anything I’ve ever written it outlines my core beliefs about life, including speculation about the nature of reality. Read that and you know me, even 20 years after the fact.
The story had an odd genesis. While I was studying in Germany I had the pleasure to spend a chunk of time in a Studentenheim (dorm) in Bonn on the Endernicher Allee. When everyone left for Christmas I stayed in my room. I could have gone to visit friends elsewhere in Germany, but I wanted a little bit of time alone — I had been traveling all through November as I shifted from staying in Berlin to Bonn, and wanted some time by myself.
On December 25th I took a magical train ride through the snowy Moselle valley (I had a German rail pass I was using up), eating my Christmas dinner at the Frankfurt train station. On the 26th I took another train ride, finishing my rail pass. That evening the Letsch family – caretakers for the Studentenheim – invited me for Raclette. I drank at least two liters of beer and enjoyed a wonderful evening.
The next morning – December 27th – I awoke at about 4:00 AM. I had been listening to a CD from the former Supertramp member Roger Hodgson Eye of the Storm quite a bit that week. It has strong spiritual undertones, and the time alone had me in an introspective mood. I woke up with a story in my head. I grabbed my Zeos 280 laptop and started typing.
It was like that for the next two and a half days. All day on the 27th and 28th I was in my dorm room, typing out this story. I’d run out of ideas, take a break and lay down…and then get up as new ideas popped in my head. I finished it on the 29th, a sunny bright day. “Wow,” I said to myself, “where did that come from!?”
I then went for a run through downtown Bonn and along the Rhein river, finally getting outside after spending nearly three days consumed by this story. I thought I had something really good – I printed it out, made copies, gave it to friends, many of whom reacted positively to the ideas. A couple said it was remarkable and inspiring. I looked into publishing it a few times, but with no luck. I would share it with people I thought might enjoy it and for awhile fantasized about getting it published and maybe even becoming a full time author. But that was a pipe dream – I write too much like an academic!
This morning I started a blog post in which I mentioned how I used to keep a journal of my dreams, including lucid dreams. I had interesting encounters with vicious dogs in those dreams, and some of that had worked its way into my story. I put that post aside and decided to post my story for anyone who might be interested in a story I still feel really close to.
So I’d be honored if any of you take the time to read my story Dreams.
Boredom is the root of evil. That was the wisdom of Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and he had a point.
Happiness can mean many things, but it probably requires an attitude towards life of gratitude, joy and love. Boredom works against all of that. Boredom replaces joy. We think we want something new, but once we get it the newness wears off and it becomes unimportant. A fine meal is joyful, stuffing ourselves with cheap junk food is a joyless habit. We don’t like being bored. So how do we handle it?
Think about a game of monopoly. Once you have the hotels on the dark blues and greens and know it’s a matter of time before you win the game, the game ceases to be fun. If you’re struggling against an opponent, each with a chance to win, relying on the roll of the dice, then the game is engaging and stimulating. So one response to boredom is to try to add excitement.
Therein lies the wisdom of Kierkegard’s claim. For many people in hum drum routines excitement might be an illicit affair, playing the lottery, heading to the race track, partaking of chemicals to alter one’s state, or things even more destructive.
Of course many people have too much social responsibility to choose those kind of escapes. Socially acceptable methods of relieving boredom include throwing oneself into a career, spreading oneself thin with commitments and social engagements, or becoming addicted to sports, television shows, books or in my case earlier this fall, following pre-election polls. While clearly someone who relieves boredom by constantly reading new books has a much more constructive approach than one who turns to whiskey, it’s an escape nonetheless.
This brings me to another Kierkegaard quote: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
Boredom seems not only to be a lack of something intriguing to do, but perhaps a disconnect from ones’ self. Boredom is an emotion, or perhaps a message from the soul to the self: “don’t lose yourself…you’re alive, vibrant and you’re wasting that – do something!”
So we do something. But in so doing we can either find/be ourselves, or lose ourselves. Engaging in a hobby, interacting with friends, building community, doing something constructive usually means connecting to ourselves in a way that combats boredom constructively.
The problem is that distractions – actions against boredom that can actually cause us to lose ourselves – are often easier to begin than constructive responses. If I feel bored and have nothing to do I could choose to watch TV, have a beer, and eat cold pizza. That’s an easily accessible way to try to counter act boredom, but it brings no joy. Sitting on the couch clicking through stations with a slight beer buzz and chewing at a cold pizza is a distraction. It’s not joyful, but distracts from boredom.
Working on a project, exercising, family activities, getting together with friends, or volunteering to help others could bring joy and connect one to their real self, but it takes more effort than trudging over to the sofa and grabbing the remote.
The irony of our convenience oriented world is that it is really a distraction-oriented world, one we can lose ourselves in more readily than if we were actually confronted directly with the question of what we need to do to survive. If we had to tend to the garden to assure we’d have food in the winter we’d not be so easily played and manipulated by marketers selling us the latest product we absolutely need and which will bring us at least 10 minutes of distraction disguised as joy.
Boredom is the curse of the modern. We have everything at our fingertips and survival is no longer a struggle. So we can choose – dive into meaningless distractions or focus on not losing ourselves. The distractions may yield dramas that cause some to seem to jump from life-crisis to life-crisis. Or they may create a laziness that leads to an anxious depression and addictive/self-destructive behaviors. To gain weight in front of the television and choose inaction in a world so full of promise seems insane – rejecting life in favor of emptiness. To fall into soap-opera like personal dramas may add excitement, but rarely contentment. Yet it is so easy to fall into those traps.
Ironic. We’ve achieved so much and yet have not mastered ourselves. In some ways the danger posed by boredom is worse than the threats to life and limb from past eras. At least then we were forced to assert ourselves, recognizing the danger. Now it lulls us in, like a quiet hypnosis. We have to work to live awake, not to lose ourselves or our joy at living!
From Wikipedia: “Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described in this terminology by Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist, in the 1920s.”
One can look at synchronicity in terms of deep non-material causation, or as an interpretation of events that are not causally connected but to which humans give meaning. If someone’s car breaks down outside a diner, and then he goes in and meets his future wife waiting tables inside, he might conclude that the car trouble was meant to be, designed to connect him to his soul mate. It could, however, have been mere coincidence.
I’m a believer in the first kind of synchronicity, that there are forces at work beneath the material that bring things together and create important opportunities and life experiences. On its face that seems a strange belief, so why do I hold it?
1. The inherent question of meaning. Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is unanswerable in any objective sense. We can’t know. This world is space-time, a realm in which you can’t get something from nothing, and where time progresses from start to finish. Our space-time world cannot simply be, because that would contradict its own laws. It had to come into existence at some point. Why? How? The big bang 15 billion years ago may answer “how,” but that just pushes us to ask why the big bang occurred.
2. The inherent limits of materialism. Our thinking is materialist and rational. We focus on measurable “stuff” in the world and try to generalize how that stuff acts and interacts. Up until the 20th Century that seemed good enough. Thanks to Isaac Newton people knew this was a clockwork universe and theoretically if one knew the speed, position and attributes of all that existed one could calculate both the complete past and the future yet to come. By knowing the laws of physics, each moment had within it information yielding complete knowledge of the past and the future.
Modern physics blew that world to smithereens. Now reality is relative to ones’ frame of reference, space and time are unified, and thanks to quantum physics, knowledge of the present only yields probabilistic knowledge of the past and future — and there is uncertainty even in that. Matter, the “stuff” of universe, breaks down into ever small subatomic particles, which themselves are not so much particles as ‘ripples in fields.’ Things that we see are mostly illusion: Atoms are 99.99999999% empty space, meaning all matter we experience from our bodies to buildings and even the planet is almost completely empty. A few interacting ripples in fields create the reality that our sensory organs interpret as the world we believe we inhabit.
In that light, the idea that material reality itself may be subject to non-material causal forces is quite plausible. Especially since the act of observing is what solidifies a probable quantum reality into an actual one, material causality may itself be a misguided interpretation of our reality.
3. The limits of rational thought and reason. Reason is a tool; our assumptions about the world determine where reason leads. Alter the assumptions, and reason yields a different answer. Rational thinking and reason can’t determine meaning or truth, they only can help us figure out what works in the world. Material causation may be an interpretation of reality that seems to work in the world, but there is no inherent reason it should be seen as superior to synchronicity or the idea that there are non-material deeper, “spiritual” forces at play.
4. Intuition and Sentiment. Intuition is often wrong. Remember how the Republicans “felt” Romney would win, while the hard statistics analyzed by Nate Silver predicted the result we got. We learn not to trust intuition. Yet there are two kinds of intuition. I may intuit something about the goings on of the material world (e.g., “I feel the Vikings are going to win this week.”) or I may intuit something about life itself – its meaning and my purpose.
Since reason cannot determine purpose or meaning in life, it makes sense to follow ones sentiment and intuition about those higher issues. Intuition may be stronger there than in guessing particular material phenomena.
I am absolutely convinced that we are, to draw on another Police allusion, “spirits in a material world.” What really matters are the connections and interactions with others, not the material stuff that surrounds us. Synchronicity operates at that level.
Looking at life that way I have to change focus from the pursuit of goals defined in terms of material success towards what I learn from my life circumstances, and how I connect with and help/teach/learn from others. That’s true reality, the material stuff is stage scenery. It creates the story lines in which we live our lives. But the story is not the purpose, the story is the vehicle in which we pursue our purpose.
So when I go through the day I notice chance encounters, events that happen seemingly out of the blue but which connect to my thoughts, actions or personal dilemmas. I try to see meaning in everything and everyone. I see people and situations that push me away, realizing those dramas and situations are not for me. Others draw me in.
Life lived this way becomes magical and meaningful. There is a purpose, there is something profound in living day to day. To get lost in the material pursuit of success and gain is akin to falling into a dream or trance; we need to wake up and experience the present and the meaningful.
And life lived magically, with an eye to meaning rather than stuff, goals or plans, has a reward: one recognizes that happiness is available to everyone. That’s because happiness cannot come from other people, stuff, success in the world or even family. Happiness comes from inside, achieved by being open to the magic, focused on meaning and purpose. That banishes fear and despair. And once happiness is claimed one can turn to family, the world, stuff and other people with a renewed sense of confidence and clarity.
Don’t believe me? Practice living that way. Look for meaning, look for coincidence, look for signs and signals in the daily routine. Look for magic. Pay less attention to worldly pursuits and more towards whether or not you’re living a life that provides joy and meaning. Just try it and see if it works!
Disenchantment was the term Max Weber used to describe the impact of enlightenment thought on humanity. Humans moved from a world of deep spiritual significance to one that can be measured, analyzed and reduced to it constituent parts. Rather than experiencing reality as a deeply meaningful and even magical whole, it has become complex mechanistic set of causal mechanisms outside the self known as nature. Any meaning it has comes from the human mind.
Such a view of reality is both implausible and untenable. It is untenable because recent discoveries in modern physics, especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, defy a mechanized view of reality. We don’t know exactly what the nature of reality is, but it’s definitely not some kind of mechanistic set of material chain reactions! It’s implausible for the same reason we now see old geo-centric cosmological theory as misguided – it views human experience as the center of all reality.
Think of it – a whole cosmos and the vast multiverse, all a lifeless, soulless set of material interactions with no meaning or core value. All meaning, value and understanding in the universe takes place within the brains of carbon based life forms on one nondescript planet. Even if we allow that there may be life forms similar to us on other planets, the result is the same: a meaningless universe of causal mechanisms, forces and particles. Meaning only comes as minds behold, label, and try to understand it.
Oh what vain creatures we mortals are! We no longer believe our planet an unmoving center of the universe, but we think our minds are the essence of what gives reality meaning. Without our minds to behold the world there would be no meaning, no value, just inanimate forces and particles buzzing about. Looked at that way, the rationalist world view of enlightenment thought looks pretty absurd.
Still, the enlightenment was about liberation. The individual now came first. Rather than being products of a community, individuals were now seen as the creators of community. As such they had to use reason to determine how to structure it, became responsible for their own happiness and success, and learned to question or distrust the religions and traditions which had provided meaning and social cohesion.
The biggest drawback, noted by first real critic of the enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, is alienation. The individual used to be part of something greater than himself. An individual in so-called primitive times was one with nature, a part of an enchanted world where every event, action and experience had meaning connected to that person’s life. The boundary between the self and the wider world was imprecise. Even after Christian thought came to dominate the individual was part of a community, had value due to his or her role, and had a network of support in the clan, village or extended family. Religion provided certainty in life – as bad as things may be here, a paradise awaits!
Now we’re not so sure. Most religion myths are seen as implausible, and ever since Montesquieu it’s been clear that the idea that salvation could be an accident of birth – a baby lucky to born in Iowa is likely to be taught the “right” religion while one born in Cairo may be doomed to hell – doesn’t seem likely from a loving God. In fact the ability of one culture to think its religion the one true one is far fetched. When you look at the claims of individual religions, their stories break down.
Moreover, individual responsibility for happiness, value and meaning in life — what the enlightenment liberates us to pursue — is a daunting task. With advertisers insisting that you can’t have a happy life without the newest product, magazine covers defining beauty, and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, it’s easy to feel like one is failing. Even Mitt Romney, the GOP Presidential candidate, stated that prosperous countries have “better cultures” than those with less wealth (he used GDP per capita as the defining principle). Get that – a culture is judged to be superior ont the basis of its economic output!
Disenchanted humans, burdened with these tasks handle the challenge in various ways. Most will turn to existing religions, friends and family, their communities, and their own life experiences to find meaning. Often this yields an outcome good enough to make life bearable, and sometimes even pleasurable. Others lose themselves in a host of distractions – sports, gossip, politics, activism, life-dramas, entertainment, books, etc – and train themselves not to think about any deep meaning to life. That may be hectic, but it makes life like sleep walking.
Yet this disconnection with the world has yet another sinister side, the violence and destruction which has accompanied western thought. We have high GDPs, but we’ve had the most destructive wars and pioneered true weapons of mass destruction. We continue to devastate the environment and treat plants and animals as mere products. After all if only the human mind provides meaning, everything else is to be used. Their value is measured by the utility they provide for humans. Colonialism, war, and the destruction of cultures (which, of course, are inferior if they are economically lower — hence exploiting them is doing them a favor by extending western ideas to them) are all actions inherent in this disconnect between individuals and the rest of existence.
It’s time to recognize that enlightenment thought without a spiritual component is untenable. It’s time to assert that meaning cannot just exist in individual disconnected minds. It’s time to recognize that we are part of a larger reality where meaning permeates all of existence. We may not buy the symbols primitive peoples held – indeed, we need to build on rather than reject western thought. Religious fundamentalists fear modernism because of its disenchanting quality, we need to rediscover enchantment!
As a new information revolution expands our power to connect and communicate, as modern physics breaks down boundaries and shows how little we understand the true nature of reality, we humans have to discover the natural empathy within us. Enlightenment thought turns off the deep connections we have with the rest of reality, forcing us to experience life through a stark dichotomy of internal and external. Somehow we have to find a way to reach and feel beyond that. If we can we’ll have a revolution in thinking that can open doors, expand understanding, and overcome the dark side of enlightenment rationalism.
I don’t mean some kind of new age mysticism or magic crystals. I also don’t mean a complete rejection of western rationalism. We simply need a re-enchantment of human existence. I’m not sure how this will look, but the first step must be to think about the world differently. See it as magical, see ourselves as connected, to try to feel those connections and the lack of a true boundary between object and subject. Experience coincidence as synchronicity, see the internal reflected in the external and vice-versa. The world isn’t as meaningless, cold and separate as we’ve been taught to believe.