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.

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.

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.

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.

Realizing the Unthought

I’ve been reading about the 20th Century philosopher Michel Foucault, a truly enigmatic Frenchman preoccupied with thoughts of death. It wasn’t just death in general he thought about.  He seemed intent on taking his own life.

Suicide or near-death experiences he believed would reveal the ‘unthought’, conceptions beyond imagining, not to be found even in dreams. Extreme behaviors, sadomasochistic indulgences, which carried one to the brink of insanity, had the potential in our philosopher’s view, to reveal what lay beyond the capacity of the rational human mind. Foucault thought of madness as a potentially positive occurrence, as a category of being realized by those, artists and such, stretching the envelope of societal propriety that, he believed, in the future, be accepted as a pathway to the ‘unthought’, to a deeper knowledge beyond the limitations of conventional reason.

I have to admit it all seems a bit much to me; my daily workouts are about as masochistic as I ever want to get and I have few acquaintances that inspire in me any sort of sadistic imaginings. I guess I’ll just have to leave the unthought unthought.

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, he says, 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.

Mythical Thinking

I’ve been trying to understand, lately, what exactly perpetuates the fairly widespread ideas of conspiracy theory surfacing these days in the political sphere. It occurs to me that perhaps many of us are being visited in our thinking by a deep-seated primal intuition: that appearance and reality are intertwined.

The problem with such thinking is that appearances change; what appeared to be one thing one day takes on different meaning at another time in another context. For mythic believers, a rigidity develops. The idea that once an ‘appearance’ is defined and locked in and what is thought to be the case must be the case, any sort of subtle change in or redefinition of what appeared to be the case can only be thought of in terms of conspiracy. Someone or something must be manipulating Truth.

I suppose one who engages in mythical thinking does realize a richly imaginative existence, one that can be shared with other like-minded conspiracy theorists, of which, it appears, there are many. One would hope, in the interests of a healthier society, reality will make an appearance at some point.

A Balanced Nature

I’ve been reading a very interesting article about the tiger population in India. Bengal tigers, considered a threatened species, have been given protections against hunting as well as a large protected reserve in the jungles of Madya Pradesh were they share the land with the indigenous forest villagers. To the east, in the Sundarbans mangrove swamps between India and Bangladesh the growing tiger population, facing a scarcity of traditional food animals ( due in part to human incursions exploiting resources), have turned to humankind as an easily obtained substitute, killing and eating one or more villagers a week.

This got me thinking about the food chain. While we may entertain the notion that we, humankind, have an advantage, a superior position among our animal neighbors in securing our piece of the environmental pie, upsetting the natural balance would seem to be a dangerous ignorance. Logic would have us focus on providing necessary habitat and resources for survival of all species. When one species grows and exploits the earths finite resources beyond what is fair to all, perhaps limits should be imposed.

Just wondering if we might not have a moral obligation, you know, in terms of the health of all earthly inhabitants to encourage the tigers to eat the villagers.