What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

I’ve been reading about some pretty disturbing trends on college campuses these days. It appears there’s a growing tendency to eliminate curricula and class discussion that might be offensive to sensitive students who will, it’s purported, wilt under the exposure to real world beliefs inconsistent with their own.

The push-back against ‘offensive’ commentary has gained legitimacy, been embraced by some faculty (mostly members of the psychology departments, I bet) empowering some students to employ censorial behaviors, shutting down class discussions and disrupting lectures by certain visiting speakers who are found to be unacceptable to the beliefs and delicate sensibilities of the sophomoric sophomores.

What seems to be happening, rather than lively debate on important issues, is an elimination of discussion and reinforcement of the inclination of our primitive brains to tribalize: nothing as comforting as an easily identifiable evil to rail against.

I have to wonder if some of our educational institutions have lost site of their essential purpose: to create strong creative thinkers able to make a difference.

 

 

Fear Revisited

Upon reflection it’s become apparent to me that the idea of fear can be thought about in different ways: there’s practical fear related to immediate concerns for family, friends and personal survival and then there’s the existential fear of one’s life ending, the inevitable extinction we all face. Well, at least those of us not expecting the heavenly reward of immortality. For those whose strong beliefs and strong faith lead them to the second scenario I guess there’s not much to think about other than to stay on the straight and narrow. Even these folks, I suspect, have an occasional doubt in between Sunday reassurances.

The question, then, becomes, for pretty much all of us, how best to deal with the inevitable end to our earthly existence. The fear, of course, isn’t death itself since once dead fear isn’t an issue. The fear is the anticipation, the preliminaries; potential debilitating illness, loss of control over your life, possibly the inability to be of support any longer to those who depend on you. All one can hope to do, I guess, as one nears death is to realize the inevitability of such events and approach them with dignity and the knowledge that a good life has been led (which hopefully is within the realm of reasonable truth).

Anyway, I haven’t time to dwell on it all: I’ve got people to see, errands to run and projects to complete. I have a life to live in the eternity of now.

Fear

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of fear. It is, after all, a psychic inevitability that we all must wrestle with, something we can only experience in the moment as relating to something that potentially could occur in the future. Personally, I accept anxiety as a familiar if not constant companion, worrying as I do in the abstract about national and global issues and more specifically about intimate relationships and personal situations.

The ancient Stoic’s stance, intended, no doubt, to ease one’s mind, reduce internal acidic build-up and so forth is an intellectual one requiring strength of mind. Don’t dwell, the thought goes, on that outside of one’s control, act when it’s possible to act, set aside thoughts of potentially dire events that you have no possibility of affecting. Such advice pretty much rules out agonizing over most of what one hears and sees on the news, and, as I think about it few of my personal concerns for family and friends are within my power to affect in any meaningful way. The Stoics, I’m sure, would counsel me to let events take their courses, let things play out as they will.

So I guess I’ll just try to stay informed, vote when the opportunity presents itself and give folks a call once and awhile so they know I care.

Interpretations of Faith (Covering all the Bases)

I’ve been reading, lately, about the beginnings of the religion of Islam. It appears the prophet Mohammad realized, early on, Truth was available as belief in a single all-encompassing deity that could be appealed to by each faithful man or woman. Each supplicant, through engagement in personal devotion and by leading a virtuous life would come to realize a heavenly reward.

As I think about the Christian belief in a triune but singular God and the promise of immortal reward for one’s resistance to sinful ways, I can’t help but recognize significant commonality, you know, in the way humanity seeks appeal to a higher Truth and hopes to avoid mortal extinction through adherence to a Supreme Being.

The divisiveness playing out these days as a result of fundamental extremism on both sides of the religious divide doesn’t seem to fit with the common tenets these religions share. One has to wonder if the essentials have some how been lost in the interpretations.

What’s Art got to do with It?

I’ve been reading that our brains evolved over the millennia to serve pragmatic purpose, you know, solve basic problems of survival: how to fend off dangers, procure nourishment and such. I have to wonder, if this is indeed the case, how and why, exactly, a pleasure center that responds to something as trivial as art evolved. It seems reasonable that our primeval ancestor was happy to experience a sharp and clear visual image as it would certainly be advantageous in hunting, foraging and warding off dangers, but at what point and for what reasons did our minds evolve to include the concept of beauty?

I can only imagine that at some point our primordial hunter may have been walking along a beach when his eye caught an unusually shaped piece of driftwood. Thinking about the bison pursued in the morning hunt he came to the stunning realization that this broken shard of willow resembled, quite accurately really, a large running animal. In this instant of cognitive brilliance we must assume the beginnings not only of animistic spirituality but the birth of art as well.

It all snowballed from there, I guess.

Diogenes the Cynic

The ancient Stoics were of the opinion that in order to maintain a stable and strong essence a man has to prepare a bit by voluntarily practicing austerity, depriving himself (or herself, women too, of course) of certain basic human needs for a time in order to strengthen him/herself to face the inevitable difficulties life will most certainly offer at some point, probably in the not too distant future. This means, I guess, one should suffer a bit in order to steel oneself to better face future personal disasters, which could mean turning off the phone and laptop but could be a real challenge like spending time with the homeless for a while.

This idea got me thinking about Diogenes the Cynic, who for very different and less personal reasons, voluntarily lived the life of a social outcast dressed in rags, living in a wine cask and existing on handouts. But, living the meanest of existences he feared no loss which enabled him to live with absolute integrity.
He exhibited great strength of character unaffected as he was by the cultural trappings of the day, unintimidated by the power players of the time. Even Alexander the Great addressed him respectfully. (Bob Dylan’s admonition ‘you have to serve somebody’ doesn’t apply to Diogenes).

Well, as much as I admire Diogenes commitment, I’m not about to give up all my creature comforts, but I can see the value in modest deprivation, you know, as a way to prepare for the inevitable ill winds.

Maybe I’ll go camping for a while.

The Right Way to Live

I’ve been reading, lately, about the conflicts that developed between the ancient Romans and early Christians. The Romans were polytheistic, their many gods acquired for the most part from the Greeks were represented by magnificent marble sculptures housed in elaborate temples that played significantly in their daily rituals. Through sacrificial offerings the gods were appeased whereby good fortune reigned upon the Romans (well, the monied ones anyway).

The monotheistic early Christians were reluctant, to say the least, to recognize the Roman gods much to the displeasure of the Romans, and, so, suffered some pretty nasty earthly ends for their defiance, that is, until the visionary emperor Constantine converted, tossing the ball into the Christians court. The game changed big time; churches were built, idols and temples destroyed.

Over the centuries to follow the Christians, through draconian laws and inquisitions singled out the heretics, finding ever more creative tortures to convince the pagan Romans of the truth of the Cross. Tit for tat, I guess.

Other than who or what was worshipped the rub seemed to be primarily about the right way to live. The Romans ate, drank and were, more or less, happy in their licentious debauchery, recognizing as they did, the shortness of life while the Christians lived in severe austerity forgoing anything they saw as sinful in nature, suffering this life for the rewards of the next.

Notions of how best to live one’s life have been somewhat softened these days but the dichotomy persists. I guess we’re pretty evenly divided as to which path is the best one to take. A good case could be made, I think, for pursuing a middle way.

Politics and Reason

I’ve been reading that one’s political affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.

To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.

So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may all be left up to a younger generation to re-find enlightened thinking; their power is growing, after all, funeral by funeral.

Populism

It appears populism has become a significant factor in world events these days. I guess the term refers to, among other things, belief in the need to protect the homeland against outside pressures and influences; the homeland being the small segment of the world where the populists reside. Ideas like establishing a world community where important issues like environmental degradation, global conflict, world hunger or the potential spread of catastrophic diseases might be addressed isn’t on the agenda apparently.

I’ve been reading that populist movements are made up, primarily of old white guys that oppose, for the most part, in-coming populations of people of other ethnicities, who, they apparently think (the old white guys, that is) are weighing too heavily on limited resources. Other fears surface as well: fears of being over-run by alien cultural beliefs and being relegated to minority status if the influx is allowed to continue.

There’s a sense here of not wanting to think too hard about the big picture, or, maybe even acknowledging there is a big picture. It seems a bit like, you know, when you were a kid, pulling the covers over your head to escape the unknown entity that is making the noises under the bed and then in the morning manning-up and informing the authorities of the presence of aliens.

Well, anyway, I’m hopeful that an enlightened view will reappear in the not-to-distant future and a cooperative, inclusive humankind will re-emerge and the light of reason will break through the momentary darkness.

Violence

I’ve been reading that, by nature of our very existence at this point in time, most everyone has been endowed with the genetic propensity to behave violently. Given the necessary provocation, or not, our ancestral drive for survival has instilled the will and desire toward physical aggression in the interests of protecting kith and kin on the positive side and for some of us who may be leaning toward the psychopathic, rape and kill for personal gain. Violence may be the prevailing characteristic of humankind given our histories of Wild West lawlessness, clannish feuds and nearly constant warring.
Passivity is, I guess, a logical reaction against having to deal with any sort of revenge perpetrated upon us by survivors of aggressive behavior on our part, who, then, would have to be back-watching for retributive response from us, which would likely create a stand-off and perhaps perpetual distrust, which would place everyone in a fairly constant state of tension.
So, I’m sticking with passivity; I’m anxious enough as it is.