Realizing Relevance

I recall reading years ago a comment written by Kurt Vonnegut in one of his novels, I forget which one, that, although we all suffer through life’s inequities, in the end all anyone really wants is to be granted a bit of dignity. I sense deep truth in this idea but lately I’ve been thinking that realizing some sort of relevance may be more important.

These thoughts come to mind as I wonder, lately, about my own relevance: no longer in the ‘work force’, disengaged from many of my former social interactions, occupying myself with activities many would think, I suspect, of being little more than playtime. I live comfortably in retirement with the basic benefits afforded anyone who has worked most of his/her life, but is it enough? Should I be doing more by contributing my vast accumulated knowledge and skills to the proliferation of alienated misdirected youth so apparent everywhere one looks?

As I think about my own alienated misdirected youth and the skepticism with which I viewed the opinions of my elders whose life experiences might have been worthy of my consideration, I’m inclined to live with my questionable relevance and just accept the slight dignity age allows.

An Enlightening Perspective

I’ve been reading essays, lately by the 19th Century philosopher William James. W. J. believed the best path to a healthy happy existence passed through religious belief, which, he writes, involved embracing the best, ‘more eternal’ things in life. He poses his argument at a time when many were coming to grips with the revelations science had uncovered about the natural world. Mysteries previously attributed to the supernatural became understandable; an Enlightenment world view undermined religious belief for those who thought about such things. W. J. argues philosophical pursuit of ‘objective truth’ will only yield, in the end, a deadly dogmatism, an intellectual dead end unable to accommodate experiential re-discovery. Such a pursuit lacks grasp of the realization that scientific knowledge is but a drop in the sea of the unknown.

Our philosopher maintains all of us, everyone, has an ‘inner voice’, an intuitive sense beyond our rational, logical minds that we sometimes suppress, but, when acknowledged can contribute to a superior life experience. One must, he suggests, exercise intellectual bravery, seeking answers to Life’s Big Questions, to not fear being wrong, to conjure the faith to believe. Skepticism he writes delays man’s emotional, intellectual development, is no more than a delaying tactic for those afraid to be wrong. A foray into the metaphysical, the supernatural world is an enlightening prospect, a means of realizing possibilities of eternal entities which will convey a sense of optimism to those religiously embracing that which is beyond the confines of science.

On the face of it, to my 21st century mind, W. J. seems a bit too optimistic. Was the late 19th century a simpler more naïve time? Well, certainly not. It’s just that we’ve put the front and center LBQ’s on the back burner these days.

An Audience with Lord Ganesha

The Beauty of Rationalization

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the nature of consumer capitalism and how it tends to disenfranchise tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Folks who are, on the whole, perfectly functional individuals, who have been caught in an impossible financial bind not always of their own making, find themselves unable to provide basic human needs, particularly shelter.

I’ve been reading about a large sub-culture of nomads living in various mobile vehicles who rely on scant social security payments and taxing seasonal employment to make ends meet. The dilemma has me wondering how these folks, who have not chosen to ‘drop out’ in order to exploit the social safety net but rather work in order to maintain an autonomy, deserve such a tenuous existence.

Convinced as I am of the oppressive predicament suffered by thousands, of whom I’ve been made aware by a dedicated and credible reporter who spent extended time living with these vulnerable folks, I find myself disturbed and righteously indignant at the unfairness of it all.


But, to be honest and upon further consideration I must admit my righteous indignation is pretty hard to sustain, you know, having to suffer such distressing contemplation, which has led me to the rationalization that maybe not all of these folks are such innocent victims, that maybe their dilemmas are the result of irresponsibility on their part; maybe they dealt frivolously with their formal education, blew off consumer math, made bad choices in the selection of spouses.

So now, upon even further consideration I find I must relieve myself of my overly righteous suffering. I find myself able to comfortably return to the placid complacency which is my mien and so proceed with my normal daily routines untroubled by occurrences beyond my control.

The Good Life: Realizing the Fascinating

I’ve been wondering, lately, about what’s required for certain things to be found fascinating; what it is certain objects, people, ideas possess that place them into the realm of the alluring, compelling and intriguing. Certainly, these terms are used too freely without true consideration of what exactly qualifies as delightful, enchanting or riveting, still, most of us will have experienced things that, upon reflection, we would assign the category.

Fascination, I suspect, requires not knowing all the details. The fascinating must be the mysterious, harboring hidden meaning maybe ambiguous forms existing in subdued light, beyond the completely knowable. Obscured, the fascinating becomes captivating, inhabits the imagination, mesmerizes, holds one’s attention to the exclusion of all else: sensual magnetism.

It occurs to me assigning the concept is subjective, that such a designation has to do with personal experience, state of mind. And one’s perspective, unquestioned certainties about the world tend to dispel the imaginative sending the fascinating to a slow death. Plus, too much knowledge of the object in question, too much exposure will turn the fascinating into the mundane.

It’s a quality-of-life issue, it appears to me, but realizing the fascinating, experiencing pleasure in the sensuous will require relinquishing certainties. One must leave herself open to the unforeseeable, put himself at risk of surprise.

I’m good with taking a chance now and again.

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.