I find myself spending a lot of time, lately, following the real-time reality drama that is the daily news. As soap operas go, the story lines, being divisive and antagonistic to a considerable degree, don’t lend themselves to feel-good reaction, but I’m captivated, hard-pressed to turn away from the unfolding events available to me almost as soon as they happen. What I’m experiencing in moments of contemplation between bombardments is more often than not anger and anxiety as soundbites reemerge in my thoughts.
So, It’s pretty clear this obsession of mine is interfering with my true goal of achieving eudaemonia: a peaceful tranquility beneficial in so may ways, manifesting in personal health and greater care for others, which, it’s additionally clear to me is a vastly superior stance to dwelling on issues beyond my capacity to change in any meaningful way.
Time, I guess, to shut down the laptop, turn off the Newshour, catch my breath and re-establish the countenance that I know will make me happier and more useful.
Reading the news these days leads me to the observation that humankind is existing in disparate realities. Political discourse seems to be polarizing, getting nastier, adherents on left and right becoming angrier and angrier. It’s almost as if we’ve submerged ourselves in sensory deprivation chambers resulting in a behavioral regression to a more primitive animal nature. ‘Sensory deprivation’ in this case amounts to willful ignorance, to a refusal to see views other than our own as valid, leading to tribalistic demonization of the ‘Other’.
It is pretty easy to find one’s preferred narrative nowadays, there being such a variety of news offerings. Unfortunately, many of these information providers seem to be less interested in providing fair assessment than attracting followers who prefer their intuitive beliefs reinforced, which seems to be a pretty consistent characteristic of our innate tribal natures.
Sometimes it’s hard not to be embarrassed for our species.
I’ve learned from the ancient Stoics that one must pick one’s battles: there are certain things that will occur in one’s life that one simply has to accept and live with. I get the idea, you know, that screaming and hitting one’s head against a wall in impotent exasperation is never a useful procedure.
But now I read that Friedrich Nietzsche not only advocated the acceptance of one’s fate, but he said it should be embraced, loved even. Granted, F. was a bit crazy toward the end of his life and not particularly upbeat before that, still, the idea deserves contemplation, I suppose. As I wait around to see what happens next, what fate has in store for me, embedded as I am in the real world, I’m not sure all conceivable possibilities will necessarily be loveable. In fact, there are several scenarios I can imagine so dire, that, if they were to happen, may lead me to the precipice, threaten my very sanity, be so totally incapacitating as to render me catatonic and irretrievably mentally lost.
Such a realized occurrence may, I guess, have been what happened to F.
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.
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.
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.
I happened upon a commentary the other day about perspectives: how we as individuals see our world(s) as inherently good places or as bad and getting worse. The suggestion the psychologist author offers, in the end, is that our world view(s) are less about the world than about certain primal beliefs we harbor. To emphasize her thesis the author provides access to an on-line questionnaire whereby the reader might find out why, exactly, he or she wakes up in the morning enthusiastic and ready to face the new day or in a funk.
I couldn’t resist. I answered the 20 or so questions designed to determine to what degree I saw the world as safe, enticing and alive fairly quickly and was then presented with bar graphs ranking my responses with those of other survey takers. According to the results I found that my world view is pretty positive; a safe and enticing place (for the most part) inviting enthusiastic exploration, rife with opportunities to earn and grow and populated with mostly warm and supportive people.
When it came to the ‘alive ‘ part I didn’t fair so well, ranking down in the 20-30 percentile, which meant, I guess, that I couldn’t come to grips with the idea worldly events happen for a purpose which was how the questions were posed. But then I got to thinking about the idea of synchronicity, the idea that coincidences of time and place occur too frequently to be, well, coincidences: like thinking of an old friend one day and then hearing from him the next. And then there’s chaos theory, you know, like the butterfly effect where a small inconsequential occurrence begins a chain of events that snowball into a happening of enormous consequence, like the meteor sited by the Emperor Constantine providing the impetus for the rise of Christianity.
So, it has become clear to me that the world is a living, dynamic albeit chaotic place. I retook the test and did much better on the ‘alive’ part. So, I guess I see the world as a pretty good place. Well, mostly anyway.
(If you’re curious about your own perspectives take the survey at myprimals.com)
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.
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.
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.