Saturday, March 23, 2019

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 6

This is the first time I missed a February for this blog. The Ides of March have already been upon us. No excuses. I even had an idea brewing. I have a few favorite podcasts and I want to relate a couple recent episodes from one of them. It’s Bart Campolo, and he includes something from another favorite, On Being. In fact, I’ll go ahead and start with the poem, rather than try to lead up to it. 

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Everything Is Waiting for You

David Whyte
After Derek Mahon

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

The podcast is called Humanize Me. If you follow the link you’ll see a story of a conversation with Conan O’Brien and Albert Brooks. 

The story doesn’t quite complete the answer to the question posed, can insignificance be liberating? Bart spends about a half hour filling in the blanks. It’s not some simple folksy wisdom. We’re all at different places with regards to how well known we are and how others judge our significance, but our approach to the idea of significance can have an effect on our happiness and maybe significantly more than that. He mentions the Tiger Mom who drives her kids to succeed. Whatever you think about that, it will most likely lead them to more success than if she had not done what she did. What her philosophy doesn’t talk about is that at some point in their lives, those kids will be able to make their own decisions, based on that success, and they will no longer need to be driven to succeed strictly for the goal of succeeding. They will be able to enjoy the journey they find themselves on.

With memes and commercials and self-help books and helicopter parents and just everything that is available to us at any moment, we receive a lot of wisdom in small bites, and a lot of it is not for us at this moment in our lives. Like, stopping to smell the roses is a good idea, but if you are on your way to your final exam, better not stop for too long. People will tell you all sorts of reasons for working hard and others will tell you to spend more time with your family. Others will tell you that you can have it all. What I love about Bart’s podcast is that he’s spent some time thinking about what “all” actually is.

In the story that starts this podcast, Conan O’Brien uses the example of President Calvin Coolidge and Bart has referred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, people who have changed the world in significant ways. We don’t know much about Roosevelt’s private life, and very few people visit Coolidge’s grave. While they were alive perhaps only a hundred people knew them intimately, maybe less. When Albert Brooks tells Conan, “none of it matters”, he’s talking about his movies and his legacy and even the lives he touched because even those will pass and be forgotten. But of course, something matters. It’s true that all of us will be forgotten, so if we despair our individual inevitable end and dwell on the comparison of our accomplishments to those of great Presidents, we have miscalculated where we should be spending our emotional energy, because in the end, we all end up in that same place.

If you are focused on survival then you probably aren’t reading this. If you need to focus on survival, then do that. Hopefully you aren’t creating a sense of panic where there is no need for it. But if needed, you can find help and get to a place of comfort. There are tribes that have room for more and there are ways to find help, so do that first. If you’re already there, reflect on how that happened, what did your tribe do for you, what do you have to be thankful for? Bart tells the story of a chess mentor who teaches a young man not just to play well, but to love the game. Unfortunately, we don’t all get coaches like that, but we can hear about a story of someone who did. It comes around the middle of the podcast. I won’t spoil the story for you.

In February, this theme continued with a call in question from a 15 year old talking about her science class. It was great just to hear something so well thought out and articulated from someone her age. Bart wasn’t quite as happy with this his own answers as he usually is, so he followed up with a redo of it about a month later. I liked both episodes, but you could skip the first one and not miss much. Her question was about how to cope with the dire warnings of the future based on the climate science she is learning about.

In the first one, Bart tried to come up with some analogies, like riding a wave. You don’t control the wave, but you can control the surf board and make it to the end of the ride without getting dunked. He gets a bit dark at times and he apologies for that. He tries to end on a positive note about love. No matter when the end times occur or how, it’s still important to love your kids and appreciate the world we have now. The difficulty of this type of question is a matter of focus. The wave analogy breaks down when you start thinking about where our “waves of life” come from, the things that push us along, some of them are man-made and have levers behind them that we can get control of, and maybe we should try to grab them, instead of just going along for the ride. Or, I’d like to spend time appreciating the world, but there’s a lot of crap going on, and I’d like to fix some of it while I’m here. Bart posits that if the choices we make as individuals lead to a life well lived, then those same values should also apply to what we do as a species, as a whole.

After doing some research and giving it more thought, Bart comes up with some more solid answers to the question in episode 409. One of those is; we just aren’t wired for thinking about the future. Throughout history we’ve survived many disasters, of our own making or not, either by luck or ingenuity and that survival is both due to and feeds back into our optimism bias. I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing. You can check out the optimism bias Wikipedia page and TED talks about it.

Josey, the one called in the question, is a student, so she is just learning about this looming disaster and wondering why everyone is not acting like it’s coming and like it’s the highest priority for all of humanity. Her teacher is not wired to act that way and he has other things to teach. We could get hit by a meteor, our economic system could collapse or we could create nanotechnology that gets out of control and destroys everything. He has to teach all of those things knowing that his students understanding of any one of them could cause a lot of worry. He has also known about them for a long time and has continued to keep his job and feed his family throughout, so he might not see them as worrying. I don’t know what he is thinking, but it’s poor reasoning to equate all doomsday scenarios and conclude they are all wrong because we are still here, but that is part of how our brains work.

This is a problem for anyone trying to get others to adjust their actions to actual threats. Some people will respond to fear but many will get fatigued with constant warnings that don’t appear to be near or present. If you can show that people are trying to solve this problem, even if they are failing, you’ve just shown that someone is working on it, and we can hope they succeed. There are other problems, many more immediate, that also need attention. A constant drum beat becomes background noise. Bart didn’t defend this way of thinking, he just pointed out that we do it.

This isn’t just some psychology problem to deal with when you are talking to your friends either. It is built in to our political structure. To solve the problem of despotic kings a few centuries back, we created a democratic system where leaders can be voted out every couple years. This works great for slowing the accumulation of power but it is not designed for a change in climate that is occurring over many decades. We didn’t plan for this because it is only recently that we can predict such events. It’s only the last couple hundred years that we knew the earth was more than a few million years old. It’s even more recently since we have been able to predict the weather, let alone long term climate trends. We survived a long time without thinking on these scales.

It may be that the action we need is not the technological solution, although we’ll need that too, but we won't get to that if we don’t adjust our thinking first. We need to figure out how to accept and understand the science, understand our place in a vast universe and deep time, see our part as cooperative social creatures including future generations, and learn to discuss all of this with a diverse set of people and cultures knowing our survival depends on all of us getting along in ways we have never seen in human history. That’s a pretty tall order.

At the end of this episode, Bart says the answer to the question is to listen to all his other episodes. That might sound like a cop out or a marketing ploy, but I have listened to a lot of them, so I know it’s not. Bart’s theme of building community attempts to address all of these concerns at different times and in different ways. It takes hours of discussion to even begin to chip away at this and Humanize Me is one effort to do that. They answer it from the perspective of providing comfort to each other in difficult times, even up to and including the end of the world and how to be in a world of difficult choices so we can get together and solve all the world’s problems. The bottom line answer to all those is to care and nourish those close to you and do it in a way that helps to expand that caring and nourishing out into whatever surrounds you.

The summer of Year B covers some problematic behavior of Kings in the book of Samuel
Ecclesiastes really speaks for itself
Solomon upgrades the relationship to God in Kings
There are many ways to interpret Job. One could fit with this story.

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