Eternal Optimism

I’ve been reading, lately, about the primary concepts of Stoicism. Among them is premeditatio malorum, which means, I guess, to ponder potential ills in order to keep in mind that bad things may occur at any time to prepare one for the eventual worst-case scenarios that life may impose. The idea seems to be that by living under a slightly dark cloud, one isn’t surprised and overwhelmed when bad things occur.

The concept seems counter-intuitive to the naïve paean to eternal optimism: “things could always be worse” which most of us intone pretty much all the time, even through the pain of the oppressive pandemic. The notion reminds me of Voltaire’s satirical ‘Candide’ where the eternal optimist Pangloss maintains we live in the “best of all possible worlds” even as one terrible event after another fall upon our hero.

But, there are other important Stoic concepts to keep in mind like starting each day with a morning meditation, ending each day in reflection, practicing moderation in all things, speaking less and thinking more among them. All of which suggests Stoic practice has many benefits even if eternal optimism isn’t among them.

Why We Laugh

I’ve been reading that laughter is a means of communication. It’s an infectious behavior that manifests in social groups particularly but not exclusively in party settings. It’s understandable I guess as a stress reliever given the social pressures we all endure. What we laugh at though is often, more than likely really, about disparaging someone.

Humor may be self-deprecating or gentle teasing but a good laugh generally requires a victim and the focus of derision will often be someone seen as holding a position of superiority, a boss perhaps, or someone seen as feigning dignity. So, it’s a status thing. Put-downs level the playing field psychologically, distill our insecurities and are great sources of raucous laughter shared with friends.
Certain comedic routines feed the same need. There are comedians who play the dunce card; who display an incompetence or obliviousness that makes us all feel better about ourselves.

In any case it appears that humor tends to focus on subjects who are clearly inferior to us, a true doofus or two who allow us the illusion we are good and well-functioning individuals, at least for a little while. Which, I guess, is reason enough for a little fun-poking, realizing, of course, each of us is likely to be the recipient of the poking at some point.

Contemplating Destiny

I’ve been watching a fantasy series, lately, a video adaptation of a series of books and accompanying computer game that presents a fairly contrived plotline meted out in, what I can only describe as inane dialogue but is, nevertheless, compelling in its presentation of quite inventive monsters of various sorts and gruesome and bloody fight scenes. The storyline depends on the idea of destiny; that the ‘Law of Surprise’ (in which unforeseen events determine a necessity of binding obligation) will eventually reveal each character’s ultimate end, or, I guess, the point at which he/she/it comes to realize his/her/it’s life purpose.

Following this story has me thinking about what my destiny might be, which, I think, is a reasonable contemplation given that I’m spending time engaged in a video fantasy land. I might imagine, I suppose, an upheaval of my sedentary routine leading to an awakening to a broader knowledge of what existence might mean.

Given my fairly advanced age as well as a reasonably firm understanding of modern science, my destiny would not appear to have in store anything particularly dramatic. Even so, I can appreciate that letting my imagination loose on occasion is an uplifting even if delusional enterprise: a way to retain youthfulness.

Fundamentalist Fervor

I’ve been wondering lately what sort of life events, what kind of social influences one would have to experience to lead him or her to embrace the stringent discipline of fundamentalist religion. Apart from an innate proclivity toward a rigid, reactionary conservatism (can there be such an inclination?), what, I wonder, propels some people toward angry condemnation of any and all perspectives differing from their own?

In fairness, most everyone seeks answers to the big questions: the nature of existence, life’s inherent meaning, but only some of us (a small minority one hopes) determine their answers to be an infallible, absolute truth that leads them to rail against the slightest suggestion that there might be other good answers.

Some of these true believers have come to the conclusion that the life they had lived before finding the Truth was so despicable that a psychic renewal was required: a re-birth into a total acceptance of, commitment to, their recognized god. In order to maintain their new persona and recently acquired cosmic world view, an Opposition, an inherent Evil identified as constant reminder that one’s beliefs are constantly under siege, that life is a battle between the forces of God and Evil. Tension and conflict then become an everyday experience and concern.

There are, of course, degrees of fundamentalist fervor. Not everyone who embraces conservative religious beliefs are overtly hostile to those they might consider infidel or apostate. Still, the idea of immanent cosmic conflict isn’t buried too deeply below the surface.

These are disconcerting thoughts to my mind, but, I guess, in the end, it’s all about being certain where the truth lies: for these folks it’s not within the empirical but rather the cosmic realm. For some the rewards of a promised afterlife tempers the outrage and sustains their vision of the soon to be realized cosmic light.

Alternative Realities

I read about a lady, the other day, who, when asked about a controversial idea she was championing declared that she knew that it wasn’t true but that it was consistent with her beliefs so she embraces it. Just an example, I guess, that our deep philosophical divisiveness has morphed into alternate realities. The spin has turned into, at least in some cases, ‘alternative facts’. The information we receive has become not simply differing versions or interpretations of events but actual counter-facts, egregious distortions. The fact checkers, who I tend to trust, have, I suspect, been working overtime to decipher truth from fiction.  There are no excuses for those who deliberately misinform to suit their own agendas but I suspect many of us simply experience differently, which has me thinking about what exactly Truth is.

Even life versus death will have nuanced meaning for some I suppose (at least those of a spiritual bent), and like the half empty/ half full glass of water interpretation must be accounted for. As I sit here writing this, I can’t know the truth, when I finish, of where exactly I will be physically, the world turning as it is. I peer out the window at a beautiful blue sky and suspect there are those whose truth upon viewing same will be something other.

So, I guess it’s only fair to assume that what I know to be truly the case will not necessarily be truth for others. I guess we’ll all just have to learn to co-exist in our alternative realities.

The Cancel Culture

I’ve been thinking lately about some of the public individuals who have been fading from view, have virtually disappeared from the cultural narrative in recent months (or years). Some of these folks have found themselves in disfavor for a variety of reasons: perceived racial bias, sexual improprieties, sometimes simply political incorrectness or holding views found to be inappropriate by the more sensitive of our cultural judges.

I can think of a particularly clever and insightful comedian, a creative radio personality, a talented dramatic actor and several pols who suffer the sins of behaving badly in a moral or ethical sense. There appears to be a particularly virulent group of vigilantes sifting through the pasts of those deemed suspicious seeking condemning information. I suppose condemnation may be in order in some particularly egregious cases even though the perpetrator may have contributed to the public good most of his/her life.

It all makes me think back, wonder if there’s anything there, in my past, that might be brought up, maybe by a disgruntled neighbor or former friend, that I might find embarrassing were it to be revealed.

And, of course, there is.

What can be Known but not Spoken Of

I understand that neuro-scientists are going to great efforts these days to make sense of what exactly constitutes consciousness. A lot of their efforts are about correlating conscious experiences, like the world view before us or our sense of time extension, with specific brain activity, what synapses fire when and where in the brain as our experiences are happening.

No easy task, I guess, but one particular difficulty these researchers are having is how to deal with extreme subtleties of consciousness, those experiences that defy verbal description, like the aesthetic response one might have when hearing a particular musical refrain or the ineffable responses to the smell of flowers on a spring day. To make matters even more difficult the same sounds or the same odor may not elicit the same conscious response experienced a second time.

It seems to me reducing conscious experience to specific brain activity isn’t necessarily a desirable enterprise anyway. Perhaps allowing the ineffable to remain ineffable is a breath of fresh air.

How Gunsmoke Can Save the World

I’ve been watching re-runs, lately, of old Gunsmoke episodes. This oater usually ends with a peaceful resolution established by Marshall Dillon. Dodge City is once again made safe by the larger than life lawman. Injustice is vanquished, evil clearly at a disadvantage in Dodge.

Bad things happen, of course, over the dramatic hour. Good people are taken advantage of, racism rears it’s ugly head, murder happens. In the end, though, Matt, Kitty, Doc and Chester (or Festus) will be sitting around a table in the Long Branch at peace with their existence.

For hard-core fans (naïve as we may be) a subliminal message: good will always prevail and, by extension we are all in the embrace of a benevolent God. Delusional, I suppose, if taken too seriously and quickly undermined by personal tragedy, still, if a moments peace is provided why not embrace it.

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, says the professor, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded spirituality.

A Public Persona

I’ve been thinking about how the public eye so often transforms individuals caught within it. A narrative is invariably required of those publicly recognized. The storyline of one’s life, when spelled out to a waiting audience, will almost always be enhanced beyond the mundane existence one lives. Truth be known, most lives are quite ordinary, hardly the stuff of inspiring fiction.

What got me thinking about this was exposure the other day to the biography of Ernest Hemmingway. E. H.’s early successes as a young writer earned him high praise and recognition that eventually led him to remake himself. Half-truths depicting him as a hard-living, risk-taking soldier of fortune garnered near constant media attention. He became who he must be but wasn’t. Living the lie led to broken relationships, alcoholism and eventually, suicide.

In contrast, E. H.’s contemporary, J. D. Salinger, who also received considerable attention for an early novel, shunned public attention throughout his life. He was able, for the most part, to ignore attempts to draw him into the role of reclusive genius the media tried to create for him.

I wonder, given the choice of inventing a persona in order to receive ego-boosting adulation or living an anonymous private life, if at some time the public eye were to fall on me, how I would choose.

I’m really not too concerned about having to make such a choice.