Archive for category Psychology

The Ones that Saw it Coming

wallstreet

Although Wall Street got away with creating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there were some who saw it coming, sniffed out the true nature of the mortgage backed bonds and the craziness of an out of control under-regulated housing market.    Those people are the subject of the Michael Lewis book The Big Short mentioned in the previous post.

They cover a range of character traits.  There is the self-promoting Greg Lippmann whose desire to spread the news in bombastic fashion helped convince a number of people that the housing market was a bubble and the securities backed by those mortgages were toxic.  Then there is Steve Eisman, a blunt, honest hard nosed investor who would offend just about everyone he met.   He started as a conservative Republican but realized as he learned about the game on Wall Street that the real mantra was “fuck the poor.”

Mike Burry of Scion Capital was the first to really understand the scope of coming crisis

Mike Burry of Scion Capital was the first to really understand the scope of coming crisis

The first one who really sniffed out what was happening was a one eyed doctor turned stock blogger turned investor, Michael Burry.  He read through the material with an almost superhuman patience and attention to detail.  He realized that the investments were crap, especially the bonds backed by subprime mortgages.   When his son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome he realized he had it too.  That had given him the focus to figure out what everyone else was missing as early as 2003 – and also explained the lack of social skills that alienated his investors who were planning to sue him before suddenly his bets paid off.  They never thanked him.

Ultimately they figured out that not only were the big banks creating mortgage backed bonds that seemed to pass off risk, but when they didn’t have enough of those they packaged the bonds into CDOs that, thanks to rating agency incompetence, would magically turn BBB mortage backed bonds into AAA investments.   Then they took it a step further with synthetic CDOs.   To Burry, Eisman, Lippmann and a few other characters Lewis describes, this was blatant fraud.  For Eisman it was a moral cause – the big banks were pulling in billions, earning their traders bonuses in the tens of millions – because they were able to create bonds so complex that the rating agencies didn’t realize they were crap.  Investors thinking they were getting very low risk bonds were being fleeced.

CDO's were a method by which banks could take low rated bonds and package them to create a AAA rated toxic bond

CDO’s were a method by which banks could take low rated bonds and package them to create a AAA rated toxic bond

The thing that shocked them, however, is that when the inevitable collapse hit, the big banks themselves were exposed.  They had rigged the game, but played the sucker anyway.   Corporate leadership didn’t understand the way this new derivative bond market operated, and individuals looking only to maximize their bonuses didn’t care about the long term.  At some point they had to keep playing because that was the only way to keep the game alive.   But it was unsustainable.

What I find intriguing is the personality characteristics of those who figured it out.   They share a few traits.  First, they were honest and not afraid of what others thought of them.  In a world where most people seek approval from others and want to be liked/appreciated, these guys didn’t care.  Eisman would blurt out comments offending powerful CEOs giving a talk, not care what he wore to the golf course, and genuinely didn’t seem to mind what others thought of him.

Second, they were remarkably self-confident.   If it were me figuring out the insanity of the derivative market and how the big banks were setting the entire world economy up for disaster, I’d say “wait, these are the most intelligent big institutional investors on Wall Street – they must know something I don’t.”   And while the thought crossed their minds now and then, they had confidence in their analysis and conclusions.  They were willing to place multi-million dollar bets on an outcome the media, Wall Street and government dismissed as impossible.

Some of most entertaining moments in Lewis' book are the ways in which Steve Eisman would confront the big players on Wall Street and tell them their products were crap

Some of most entertaining moments in Lewis’ book are the ways in which Steve Eisman would confront the big players on Wall Street and tell them their products were crap.  Eisman’s latest crusade is against for-profit on line universities

Finally, they were oddly moral.   For Eisman it was righteous indignation at how big money was not only screwing the small investor but also putting democratic capitalism at risk.  For Burry it was a strong sense that the truth mattered, and he needed to follow it.  Lippmann was grandiose and self-promoting, but was up front trying to help others see what was happening.   In fact, they all tried to shout out warnings only to find that the rich and powerful either responded like deer in a headlight or laughed them off.

Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett, who created Cornwall Capital and discovered first that even the AAA rated CDOs were certain to fail, were pre-occupied by what this meant for society as a whole.   The system was sick, could it potentially fall apart?

Those traits:  honesty, lack of concern for what others think (as long as you’re being honest), self-confidence and a strong moral streak gave them the capacity to truly comprehend what was happening.  They were not intimidated by the big names in media and on Wall Street who dismissed such concerns, did not feel like “I must be wrong because the big guys all say differently,” and stoked a sense of moral outrage and purpose.

Once considered an economic guru, Greenspan's cheap credit and anti-regulatory stance now make him a villain in this story

Once considered an economic guru, Alan Greenspan’s cheap credit and anti-regulatory stance now make him a villain in this story

There is something to learn from this example.   These traits gave them the capacity to avoid the hypnotic effect that culture, media and “conventional wisdom” can have on people.   All around experts repeated the mantra that “the bonds are safe, housing prices won’t fall, this is real, the money will keep growing…”  They did not fall victim to the power of those suggestions; instead, they saw through the facade and ended up turning a huge profit.

They not only saw through it, but it was obvious to them.   Now whether one reads the book by Micheal Lewis or one of the others out there dissecting the crisis (The End of Wall Street by Roger Lowenstein, All the Devils are Here by McLean and Nocera, House of Cards by Cohan about the end of Bear Stearns, etc.), it is so obvious in hindsight that one has to ask “how could they have been so stupid?  How did more people not see it coming?”

The answer: groupthink and a kind of cultural hypnosis due to the power of pervasive suggestion.   The only way to keep one immune from falling into such a trap is to foster true honesty, not worry what others think if acting honestly, be self-confident, and have a moral core.   Not only might one see through scams and thus make money (or avoid losing it), but one will also live a life less controlled by the hypnotic suggestions permeating our culture and media, and instead develop the capacity to be true to oneself.

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Trapped Intellects

trapped

One of the main problems in the world now, especially the industrialized West, is our reliance on isolated intellectualism.  Our intellects are trapped in a world that appears chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable.   The world moves only from past to future, with no way to predict for certain what will come next.    We can imagine horrible consequences of global warming, genetically altered food, Islamic extremism, and economic collapse.  The world appears on the brink of something disastrous.

Some people grab that with relish.  You know the type – they forecast ‘collapse, downfall, ‘endarkenment’ and other calamitous futures.  Sometimes they imagine themselves to be like Cassandra, seeing clearly the future that others miss.  More often it’s simply a kind of voyeuristic rush – it’s exciting to imagine disaster.   Think of all the disaster movies that have hit the big screen since Irwin Allen’s “Poseidon Adventure” proved such a hit in 1972.

Others find ideological or religious faith – their “ism” tells them the truth of the world, and they divide the world up into those who are right (share their belief) and those who are wrong, often believing the wrong folk to be inferior humans.   In other words, ideologues are like religious extremists – they need to think they have the truth, and they are psychologically driven to see others as wrong or inferior.

I think all of these taken to an extreme reflect a trapped or imbalanced mind.   Isolating the mind from intuition, emotion, and spirit leads to a cold, harsh view of reality.   Idealists can quickly become disillusioned cynics if they don’t temper their ideals with pragmatism, and a recognition that the intellect, logic and reason cannot explain all of human experience.

If the intellect meshes with emotion – with intuition, faith, and spirit – there can be a very satisfying balance.     Consider the following propositions:

1.   Our world had a beginning.   Due to the nature of space-time, it is inconceivable that we could be in the present if there were an infinite past.   The laws of physics, however, indicate that you cannot create something from nothing, meaning our universe could not have been created.   (One caveat – in quantum mechanics its possible to ‘borrow’ energy from the universe to create something apparently from nothing.   However, in quantum physics  the universe is permeated with ‘probable energy.’   So it’s not really something from nothing.)

universe

2.   The laws of physics governing this particular universe were created at the time our universe was.   If according to the laws of physics our world could not have been created, but if it must have had a creation point (not convinced – here’s an article from this month’s Discover on this), then the laws of physics were also created.    To be sure, there is likely a larger set of “laws” of the universe that we cannot comprehend that go beyond our space/time physics.   Yet clearly something about reality outside our universe (that is, outside our realm of space-time, created about 15 billion years ago) that does not have to conform to what we consider the “laws of nature.”

3.  Spiritualism is not supernatural, but a different theory about the laws of nature.   This is in line with especially Buddhist thought (though I am not a Buddhist).   The argument here is that the usual claims by religion that something “outside the world” – a God or series of Gods – created and maintains our reality are misguided.  Rather, our reality may have its origins (and perhaps is maintained) by something that does not conform the the known laws of our physical universe, but reflects a deeper reality.

I submit that this proposition is very strongly supported by quantum mechanics.  While the mechanistic building block view of reality put forth in Newtonian physics has already been destroyed, the philosophical implications of this move are still under hefty debate.  Yet quantum mechanics, full of paradoxes and weirdness, suggests that the true laws of nature are far more complex and strange than the Newtonian notions we entertain.

Some who want to hold on to a very clear and straightforward mechanistic view of the world insist that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some level because the paradoxes often lead to clear contradiction.   They claim that the law of contradiction indicates that the claims of quantum physics can’t be true – two contradictory things cannot both be right.  However, it could be that we see the claims as contradictory because we do not understand reality.    The contradictions may be linguistic constructions.

4.   The key to liberating ones’ intellect is not to fear the spiritual/intuitive side of life, even if the nature of reality, as we now understand it, prevents us from ever being sure if a belief is right.   Freedom requires an embrace of uncertainty, and a recognition that there isn’t an answer card to tell us exactly what this life is about.   That means rejecting dogmatism and accepting that there are multiple perspectives about the world, and we learn more by exploring each, rather than grabbing and holding on to one, and trying to prove the others wrong.

spiritual

Ironically, by rejecting intuition, emotion, sentiment and spirituality, we cage the intellect into a cold mechanistic world devoid of meaning.  That breeds cynicism and undermines empathy.   By freeing the intellect we give up on the hope to have “the right answer” and replace it with gaining insight and understanding.   After all, if uncertainty is unavoidable, then we can freely and with a spirit of joy make our best calls about life, recognizing its OK to be wrong!

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Physical Suffering in Quantum Life, PI

torture

(Note:  this is part 12 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.”  It is in English, which the book calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all the complexities of the world as it really is.   I’m not sure where this book came from – these next sections on suffering are fascinating).

Physical Suffering PI:  Pain directly inflicted by players on other players

In the early trials of Quantum Life Sunitolp and the designers were shocked by the level of cruelty and the lack of empathy of the first players.   People were doing horrific things to each other and causing considerable suffering.   The trial was terminated and the future of Quantum Life was in doubt.

The working theory had been that separateness from the natural unity of existence would leave individuals lonely and vulnerable, leading players to experience emotions in the Quantum Life realm much more intensely than in the real world.  It was expected people would have fear, sorrow, joy, and anger – emotions we know exists within unity of all, but which are balanced and evened out by the fact we are all connected.

What they did not expect is that these emotions could lead individuals to engage in actions that were so barbaric.    Many wanted to call off the game right there – clearly separation from the unity of all is a pain so horrid that it leads to atrocious acts.    Why go there?

Upon returning to the real world  players described the intense pain they felt both suffering and, after the game, on realizing how they inflicted suffering.  That pain was quickly relieved by immersion into the unity of all existence, but it was clear that Quantum Life had provided a troubling experience.

Sunitolp’s Argument

Just when it appeared Quantum Life would not get beyond the trial stage, Sunitolp made one last pitch.  He was countering the argument that said that Quantum Life was dangerous in that it causes suffering and leads normal people to engage in atrocities that may harm them, even when they’re back in the comforting realm of the real, unified world.  Experiencing separation is unnatural, sadistic and masochistic.

Sensing the collective will shifting against him, Sonitolp made an impassioned plea.   “Were we not once separate, like the players in Quantum Life?   While we experience unity, are we not still individuals, me with an idea, trying to convince you to allow me to move forward?   We need to look inside to who we really are.   Yes, our unity creates a world of contentment and joy – and that proves that our nature is more pure than evil.  Yet our nature also allows fear, which leads to anger, suffering and hate.

“Allow me to make some revisions to the program, and assess it then.  But don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn the deepest aspects of our nature – to learn perhaps what we were in the long lost pre-history of our world?  This is a voyage of discovery, of exploration to the very nature of what kind of beings we are, both individually and collectively.  It cannot help but make us grow!”  Sunitolp swayed the collective.

Four major additions were made to how the program writes itself based on choices players make:

Empathy allows players to understand that each of them is a subject, not a mere object

Empathy allows players to understand that each of them is a subject, not a mere object

Empathy:   The early trial of the game went so far in trying to create the illusion of  complete separation/individualism that players saw other players as objects rather than subjects.  Players were used to being part of a unified whole, and didn’t differentiate between the objects of their new world (trees, rain, dirt, etc.) and the other players.   Pure separation, or even the illusion thereof, led to disintegration of a player’s sense of moral restraint.   Therefore a part of the real world was made more evident, so players could feel that others are like themselves.

Synchronicity:   In the early trial people suffered by chance – if one player decided to stab another, the stabbing victim was random.   What Sunitolp and his engineers had to do was devise a way in which people could let their connection with the real world (sometimes called the spiritual realm, or “God”) guide their actions.   The fullness of synchronicity is dealt with later in this manual, but in the case of suffering it helps assure that players who suffer/inflict pain are those who can learn something from the experience.

Through synchronicity events and probable events are choreographed in a way that benefits the players

Through synchronicity events and probable events are choreographed in a way that benefits the players

Karma:  As noted in the section on evil, Karma is a way in which players experience consequences for their actions.   Great rewards go to those who can endure suffering with grace and without themselves fall into the trap of wanting others to suffer.   While suffering itself is not to be sought, karma assures that the sufferer will have experiences that mitigate the pain and provide opportunities for joy.   Karma also works to create lessons for those who inflict suffering.  Since all is one, punishment or revenge would be irrational – the sufferer and perpetrator are aspects of the same whole.  However, learning of how to overcome being one who inflicts suffering benefits the whole.

Enveloping:  When physical pain and suffering get extremely intense, the program allows more access to the real world, so that the sufferer is enveloped by a sense of the greater unity.  This does not make pain and suffering go away, but keeps it bearable, as if time speeds up.    The enveloping often is experienced as rage or anger, as those aspects of what we are can help overcome extreme distress.  In fact, one theory is that the existence of hate and anger in our nature is because it helps overcome pain of suffering.

During the game, suffering, like evil, seems contrary to any belief in a natural unity.  People are angered by injustice, which reflects imbalance.  In the real world unity creates a natural balance we take for granted; lacking that the Quantum Life world is imbalanced in a multitude of ways.

Dramatic physical suffering directly inflicted by others isn’t the only form of suffering.   It can also be a consequence of culture, or a chain of actions that indirectly lead to suffering, even though there is no clear perpetrator.

—–  (end of today’s transcribing)

Earlier posts in the Quantum Life series:

Quantum Life – August 3, 2010
How to Play Quantum Life – August 4, 2010
Why Play Quantum Life – August 5, 2010
The Soul in Quantum Life – August 20, 2010
Getting Started with Quantum Life – October 1, 2010
Quantum Life: Birth and Pre-Birth – November 22, 2010
Quantum Life:  Childhood – July 20, 2012
Quantum Life: Obstacles – July 29, 2012
Quantum Life: Empaths and Extensions – August 8, 2012
Evil in Quantum Life – October 8, 2012
Mates in Quantum Life – May 9, 2013

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Sex and Love

sexlove

I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy.  Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.

One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people.  It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas.   It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices.    It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse.   That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.

In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection.   The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification.   Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves.     Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.

Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual.   If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.

This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values.   The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view.    Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive.   If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.

Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends.   People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering.   If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters.  Collect sexual encounters and material objects.   What else is there to life?

Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation.   But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed.   Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy.  Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill  needs that cannot be met.   Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.

The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality.   And that leads me to the other article.

Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):

• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm

This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.”   They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values.   The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.

I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t.    I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it.   The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed.   Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.

To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality.    Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways.   The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear.   Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.

Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible.   Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning.   And everything is better with meaning.

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Children are not property

The Daily Beast reports another bout of silliness  by the religious right in the reaction to a statement by Melissa Harris-Perry that “Your kids don’t belong to you-but the whole community”?

Now, I can see someone not liking the statement, but the silliness is where they go with it.  They trot out the old 20th Century foes of “communism” and “Leninism” to make it sound like the goal of the “left” is to confiscate children and make them loyal to the “state” because they “belong” to the whole community.

Do you belong to a community?  Of course!   You belong to many communities; we all do.  I belong to the Farmington community, the Mallett PTA community, the University community, the community of faculty who lead travel courses, etc.   Belonging to a community is not communistic, it is natural.

Children belong to the whole community, not just the school community or the community of parents.  They will work to support the retiring generation, they will keep society going and enhance the life of the community.   Her point was not to say that the community should control children, but that we should invest in education and programs to help make sure our children have the best possible future.

So why the wild reaction?   One word: property.   Some groups on the religious right have a notion that children can be seen as the property of the parents.   The parents can raise them as they want, educate them or not educate them, indoctrinate them, control them, and sometimes even abuse them.   To these people the parent owns the child, just as a master might own a slave.

Such thinking is inhumane.   Children are humans with all the rights of any human.    Beyond that if you look at human history we are by nature a collectivist species.  We form families and villages.  Villages look at the good of the whole, including not just all the people but the traditions and values of the community, as being more important than the individual.  This is true world wide, and throughout history.

Erich Fromm notes that what changed in the West was the process of individuation, whereby people started to separate from the community and think in terms of their own self-interest.   This is not a bad thing.  It is a particular part of our culture.   That individuation is why we strive, compete and progress – why we reject traditions and embrace change ranging from giving women equal rights to allowing gay marriage.

Yet this capacity for progress rests on a potential contradiction with our collective nature.   We still yearn to form communities.   Look at the popularity of social media, Facebook and blogger communities.    People have psychological difficulties with the demands of trying to be an individual responsible for their own happiness and choices, ranging from depression to anxiety and eating disorders.    People try to escape the pressure of the modern world through alcohol, drugs and other addictions.     We seek the comfort of tradition and a supportive village in a world that finds us disconnected and on our own.   Life for us has become materially easy and psychologically/spiritually difficult.

Which brings us back to the children.   The greatest gift we can give the next generation is the capacity to exercise their cultural individualism with a proper respect for community.   Respect means to recognize I do belong to my community.  I am part of it, I should act to support it and others who are in it.    Individualism requires that people be strong enough to be themselves rather than conform to the expectations of others, secure enough to look inside and learn who they are without feeling like their real self is weird or inadequate, and tolerant enough to accept the choices others make in expressing their individualism.

We have to give children the tools to navigate a world that can be daunting and intimidating.  Only if they learn to be strong, secure and tolerant individuals with respect for their community can they live awake, not giving in to the cultural hypnosis aided by marketers trying to define what one needs to be happy, normal or ‘acceptable.’   They will rejoice in who they are, rather than fear that others will see beneath the facade.  They will accept others for who they are, making real friendship and love, both personal and within the community, possible.

Unfortunately, the lack of funding for education, the removal of the arts from so many school districts (while competitive sports remain hot), the lack of respect for teachers, and our fetish with an individualism devoid of community with children seen as akin property, makes it difficult to give children the life skills they need to remain strong, secure and tolerant.   I take that as Melissa Harris-Perry’s point, and agree.

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What’s Love Got to do with it?

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.

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Time for Pragmatism

newengland

Notice anything interesting about this map?   The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled.   This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives.   To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic.  New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.

Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party.  They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives.   Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party.   Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate.   Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.

Republican Olympia Snowe personified pragmatic conservatism

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe personifies pragmatic conservatism, she wants to solve problems and focus on the people, not a set of rules or an ideology

This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns.   Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union.    New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative.   But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted.  Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses.  Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage.    I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!

It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems.   In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.

Ideologies are seductive.  The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts.   People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting.  They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance.    As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.

An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong.   Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult.    Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.

I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues.  Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural.  Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.

The classic example of media narrative is the last election.   On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign.   The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.

If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win.  However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right.   In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.

This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy,  guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling.   There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.

This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party.    I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party.   Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war.   That has to stop.  It is time for pragmatism,  pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion.  They are embracing simple rules.  Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work.   Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act.   Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority.  But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.

Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.

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Reflections

Off from the backyard

Off from the backyard

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.

The wide comfortable path

The wide comfortable path

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.

A path into the woods...

A path into the woods…

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.”

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Dreams

The Studentenheim in Bonn

The Studentenheim in Bonn

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.

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Boredom

Danish Christian Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

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.

boredom1

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.

But is he truly happy?

But is he truly happy?

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!

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