On Meaning and Purpose

Much to my shame and regret, I do not own a microscope. I think there are two instruments any true student of knowledge and life should own: a microscope and telescope. I have the latter. In order to use the former, I have to sign in to the science lab at my alma mater, the University of Missouri.

So, one day I got this idea up my sleeve. Unbeknownst to my wife, I spirited away a mason jar and hid it. In it, I placed three cups of tap water, a leaf found on the ground outside, half a piece of moldy bread, and one spoonful of old milk. After three weeks of letting the mixture marinate at room temperature, I retrieved the jar from my hiding spot and took it with me to the aforementioned science lab, whereupon I stood at a microscope, stuck a dropper into the jar, extracted some liquid (ignoring the smell), and then dropped it onto a slide. When I looked through the eye viewer at my creation, I saw a microcosm of wonder. All sorts of funny looking organisms—some with hair, some with tails, some shaped liked cylinders, some with no discernible shape at all—were zipping about in the liquid, moving to and fro with great haste, never once pausing to question themselves or the meaning of their endeavors, just taking part in life for no other reason than, from what I could tell, mindless impulse.

As one might do, I likened their movements to that of my own species, which I think is a logical connection to make. Are we not very much like those miniscule organisms? Do we not also zip and shoot here and there with great haste, rarely pausing to assess the meaning of it all? Yes. And yet, in that very same vein, we’re also quite dissimilar, for sometimes we actually do stop and wonder and ponder and assess, often with frustration or even despair, the meaning our individual lives and of that the great collective whole known simply as “life itself.” I have written elsewhere and at great length of the hustle in which modern humans busy themselves, and after seeing those microscopic bugs darting about, I was tempted to do so again. But later that same day, as I was pretending to watch a movie with my wife but was, in reality, meditating on the events in the lab, it occurred to me that this aforementioned difference, this curious habit indigenous to humans of philosophically questioning life, is conspicuous by its absence in the world of single-cell organisms (and the entire animal kingdom, really).

In short, there is something to be said about the distinct fact that every single form of life on this planet—all 8.7 million of them—go about their business without pondering the meaning of it all—save one: us. Think about that for a moment. Of all the various manifestations of life on Earth, something close to 100% of them do not worry about existential and philosophical issues like meaning and purpose. They just do what they do and die and, as far as I can tell, do so without complaint. But then you have the human, who likewise just does what it does (and sometimes doesn’t) and dies and, it goes without saying, clearly complains about it constantly. This one species—the only one that can comprehend its own death, by the way—is characterized just as much by what it thinks about as by what it does. Ergo, if someone were examining them under a microscope like I did with the single-cell bugs, they would see some of us moving to and fro with haste while others were just sitting there, moaning about existence, bitching about the deficits that abound in reality, and losing sleep and energy over questions they’ll never have answers to, no matter how intelligent they might become, prompting one to wonder which is to be more pitied: the amoeba who cannot ask the question, or the human who asks it and cannot have an answer.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

(Though I, someone who’s not afraid to use that quote, rarely agree.)

At any rate, it occurred to me, upon drawing these conclusions, that humans would do better to take a page from the amoeba. Perhaps it would be better for our species to just do what we’re here to do and not analyze it too much, or even at all. And yet that prospect only raises new questions, the chief of which, for me, involves the distinction between meaning and purpose

Suppose, if you will, that you’re an amoeba, perhaps one not unlike of those tiny bugs scurrying about on the slide of that microscope. If life is precious, then all life is precious—even that of an amoeba. That means that you, as a brainless amoeba, are special. And yet, to the eye of someone like me, scrutinizing you through a lens, you’re nothing—too irrelevant to matter, too small to know personally, and too fleeting to have much of an impact. One might therefore say that your life has no meaning. And really, when you get down to it, does an amoeba have any meaning? Perhaps it has a purpose. In fact, it most certainly does, even if that purpose is little more than replicating. But having a purpose is not the same as having meaning. Even inanimate objects have a purpose. A hammer’s purpose is to drive a nail, a shovel’s purpose is to scoop dirt, coal, and snow—but neither of these has a meaning, nor do they go looking for one. A virus has a purpose: to infect a host and subvert it. But does it have a meaning? I would say no. A bumblebee has a purpose. It exists on this planet to pollinate the flora. But does it have a meaning? Does a bumblebee, upon returning to the hive after a day of having sex with flowers, retreat to some dark corner and ask why he just did what he did? No, he just goes out the next day and does it again. Over and over. Until that one day when finally he dies. Likewise, does your dog ponder her meaning? Does your cat pore through philosophy books to ascertain why it exists? No. Only the human does that. Therefore, all objects, be they living or inanimate, have a purpose. But few of them have a meaning. And, to be honest, probably none of them do, it’s just that we humans, creatures of thought that we are, demand one.

And that’s where the pain comes in.

I’ve written elsewhere, and again at great length, about that state of being known as the human condition. One might say it’s my métier. In my studies and ongoing investigations, I’ve come to believe that this “condition,” such as it is, is really nothing more than the product of thought. Reason, which I have elsewhere described as a “double-edged sword,” is the culprit here, for without the ability to think, we humans couldn’t flirt with the possibility of overthinking. Once a species attains the ability to compute facts and implications, it thereafter inexorably attains the ability to project and predict and draw conclusions. Ergo, it’s all too easy for humans to look at their lifespan and, when measuring it against the backdrop of existence, deduce that it’s too short. When that happens, it becomes incumbent for the human to ensure the time he does have is used wisely and for the maximum benefit. And yet this aspiration is thwarted, time and again, by the persistent natures of chance, chaos, and probability. In short, bad shit descends with or without provocation, life can end prematurely, regardless of how many safety measures are taken, the best-laid plans can go south on a whim, and tragedy, which is always hovering just above the shoulder, can strike at any moment. This creates a deficit, characterized by the following equation:

X (our expectations, the result of thought) + Y (the nature of reality) = Z (a persistent sense of loss and discontentment)

This deficit, when felt, is felt acutely, and every human being who has ever lived has been the victim of it. And that, I think, is the truest understanding of the “human condition.”

But what of the “amoeba condition?” I saw none as I observed those single-cell organisms moving about on the microscope slide. What of the “antelope condition?” I detect none when I visit the zoo. An antelope does have a purpose, even if that purpose is merely holding up its end of the food chain, but it has no meaning, and doesn’t go looking for one, nor does it worry about it.

In my observations of life and in my studies of intellectual matters, I have seen nothing in existence to dissuade me from thinking the Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche were right. There is no inherent meaning at work in this Universe. Even the Universe itself has no meaning. It surely has a purpose. It has many purposes, and these it carries out without question or complaint, but I see no meaning at work in it. It doesn’t cheer me to observe this fact or to state it here, but I pride myself on being a dealer of the straight dope, no matter how hard it might be to swallow.

And yet I, as one of these humans I’ve been talking about it, crave meaning just as much as everyone else. What am I to do, therefore?

It’s at this point that I often begin speaking about the necessity for the individual to assign his/her own meaning to his/her life. And it’s also at this moment that the theists, usually Christians, pipe up and offer their two cents: that meaning can only be derived from knowing or believing in a deity, which is almost always personified by the god they happen to believe in. I confess, as I’ve done before, that I find it more than a little puzzling that some people are so eager and willing to allow someone or something else to determine their meaning for them. To even allow another human to decide your meaning is, in my opinion, an indulgent and unwise waste of resources. But worse than that is the willingness to allow a deity, whom you’re not even certain is there, whom you only believe tentatively (let’s face it, even the stoutest of faiths is, when subjected to the greatest of sorrows, revealed to be flimsy), and whose “intentions” can only be guessed at through the erroneous human interpretations of a supposed sacred text, to determine the meaning of your one and only brief life on this planet. Why are so many people, the victims of that aforesaid deficit, the unwilling partakers of that human condition, prepared to allow the meaning and direction of their lives to be determined by someone other than themselves? Some say to do is a mark of humility. I patently disagree. Humility, as I understand it, is the decision to be less when the possibility of being more is offered. Simply admitting the deficit is not humility, nor is dumping the deficit in someone else’s lap and expecting them to make it right. That, if you ask me, is little more than immaturity, indecision, and an appalling lack of self-confidence.

If the meaning of my life is to be determined by anyone, it is going to be determined by me, and any deity who would deny me that right or condemn me for exercising it must be categorized as a selfish, egotistical narcissist. (Not a deity, in other words.)

Therefore, while I grapple with accepting the inherent meaninglessness of existence, I also continue to assign my own meaning to it. That’s my prerogative as a form of living matter in this Universe. Perhaps my meaning means nothing to you, but so what? I don’t live in your mind, and you don’t live in mine. Perhaps some would say a self-assigned meaning means nothing on its own, but that’s the same as saying your marriage is meaningless simply because your neighbor doesn’t love your spouse like you do. Is your love for your spouse measured by the how much everyone else doesn’t love them? No, and neither is the meaning of your life. Everything is relative, as Einstein pointed out. Even meaning. And so, when I think of those tiny bugs that made a home in the mason jar concoction, I remind myself that I have a purpose, which is the product of my biology and my own interests… and I have meaning, which is the product of my own self-assignation.

And I am just fine with that.

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A Tree and Its Roots…

In the spring of 2016, while the rest of the world was lost in the absurdity of Donald Trump and his strange bid for the White House, and before he actually won the election and, in so doing, broke the hearts and blew the minds of rational thinking human beings, I quietly slipped out of my city and drove down to a park in southeastern Missouri. The name of the park is neither here nor there,[1] what’s important is that, for me, this particular location represents the closest thing I can get to feeling like I am truly in the wilderness, someplace where civilization isn’t so near by. It’s not really true, for the park is just a few miles southwest of small city called Ste. Genevieve; however, its terrain and the genius loci of the place enable me to fool myself. As such, when I’m hiking around in this park (that’s what it’s known for, it’s superior and strenuous hiking trails) I can play a little game with myself by pretending I’ve been transported to a locale that’s decidedly more wild and free than the congested city in which I otherwise spend my days.

Most of the time, when I travel to a place that is outside my normal sphere of experiences, I come with an agenda. I come with some axe to grind, some question to answer, or a deep thought to ponder. On this day, I went just for the sake of going, just to get out of the house and be among the trees and rocks and babbling brooks that are to be found there. Sometimes, a human needs to do that. There are moments in our lives, especially if we live among the crowded streets of a large city, when the state of our minds can get stretched so thin and so feeble that if we don’t escape from our typical routine and chase down that proverbial “change of scenery,” we fear we might be consumed inwards, as though there’s a singularity at the center of our bodies, like a planet that gets sucked into itself… I went because I needed to be reminded that there are places like this park in existence, spots where the beauty of Nature isn’t hidden behind a cement wall and you don’t have to look too far to find traces of the Earth as it was in the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods. I went because I wanted to hear the song that a place like that sings. After all, I’d been living in seclusion the last year or so (although, as I’ve said before, I did venture out of the house sometimes), and as such, I had nothing else on my plate that day. It was a beautiful morning and I had access to the car my wife and I shared, so I thought upon waking that day, “Why not?”

I arrived at the park fairly early, bringing with me only a few bottles of water and, per my usual custom, a notebook. With these and my pipe stowed into a small knapsack, I stretched, grunted, and proceeded to hike my way into the heart of the park, the words of John Muir[2] at the forefront of my mind: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

The trail at this park, which is thought to be one of the most strenuous hiking trails in the state of Missouri, is in the shape of a figure 8. In other words, halfway through you can double back if you’re tired. On most of my prior visits to this park, I opted to do the entire trail. But today I planned to double back at the cross point, not because I thought I’d be tired (although I did think that; I mean, I’d been spending the last year sitting around thinking, so of course I was completely out of shape), but because I hadn’t come to hike as much as I’d come to find a secluded place and sit there for a few hours, meditating and thinking and doing all the usual sort of mental things that I tend to do. As such, I knew that opting for the entire trail would take up way too much time, and I had to be back in St. Louis to pick the wife up by 6:00pm. So, with that plan in mind, I chose not to conserve my energy, a decision I would rue later in the day.

After about twenty minutes into the hike, my thoughts drifted to my late father. I had expected this, for less than a year prior to his death, he and I had hiked this very trail together. I should clarify that we didn’t get too far along the trail, for he was dying of cancer at that point and his body, which had been subjected to many rounds of chemotherapy over the last few years, was nowhere near fit enough to convey him through the entire park. Still, we came that day, he and I, to enjoy some father/son time in a beautiful place. We knew he was dying. He always talked about beating the cancer, but we both knew the truth: it was beating him and had been doing so for some time now. Either way, we came and hiked for as long as he was able, and on that day we had some of the most profound discussions I ever experienced with him. During one of these conversations, I used a term that utterly impressed him. He, like me, was obsessed with geology. We were standing off the trail, staring at a certain rock about which he had been pontificating for the last ten minutes (my dad was an outrageously quiet man unless the topic of discussion was either 1970s rock music or geology—in which case you couldn’t shut him up). He was speaking of all the clues he noticed which informed him that this rock had been washed here by some ancient flow of water. He was mentioning how the Earth compensates for an empty space when something gets moved, and I said, “You mean ‘displacement?’” His eyes lit up and he smiled big and said, “Yeah, exactly that! Displacement. I’m impressed.” That was quite something, for my dad was not easy to impress.

I smiled at the memory, but my smile turned sour when I noted that in just a few months (August 2016) it would be ten years since his death. I missed him, but more importantly, I was reminded of that ever-present inevitability that hovers like a specter over us all: someday, as incredible as it sometimes seems, we will die… Our existence, which is characterized by so many “somethings,” will, at some point invert and become one great big “nothing.” Sometimes it’s so hard to really, truly grasp the full weight of that.

(sigh)

Anyway, I should point out that on this particular spring day there was not one single cloud in the sky, which was of such a deep and crisp blue that even a curmudgeon like me, who otherwise prefers his days to be gray and gloomy and wet, couldn’t help but feel as though reality itself was saying that somehow everything in this fucked-up world was going to be okay. Even if it was a lie (which I know it is), it was worth believing on that day. The blue sky, the lush green of the foliage, the earthy, nut-colored hue of the beaten trail, and the silvery tone of the occasional boulder all conspired together to lull me into feeling, if only for a little while, that there wasn’t a single instance of suffering anywhere on the surface of the planet in that moment.

(You know that old saying? “We lie best when we lie to ourselves.”)

After a few sips of water, I hiked on…

Perhaps two hours had passed since I’d started. I was feeling good. Moving briskly, thinking that perhaps I wasn’t as out of shape as I’d thought, and now humming the theme song to Game of Thrones, I was on the lookout for a place to sit for a few hours and meditate. That’s when I remembered that just past a bend in the trail ahead, you could stray from the path for about fifteen minutes and eventually come to a decent-sized creek. I recalled that a few flat boulders sat in this creek, their surfaces jutting out of the water just enough for a man to sit on them and stay dry.

Checkmate, I thought, and after the bend in the trail, I left the path and made my way to this location.

There’s a small waterfall somewhere nearby that place, for even though I couldn’t see it, I could hear it. Had it been any louder it might have spoiled the effect, but it was just right and I sensed that I’d found the perfect spot to Buddha-sit my ass for a few hours. Navigating the creek wasn’t hard at all, and in no time there I was, sitting on a smooth, silver boulder, surrounded by gushing water on all sides, a vertical wall of earth and roots to the left of the creek, behind me; and an arching slope of grass and trees, down which I had hiked to get here, to the right… in front of me. The earthen aroma of encompassing Nature enveloped me, clinging to me like smoke, and I decided to augment the smell and the smoke by lighting my pipe.

And with that, my adventure was finally ready to truly begin…

From my position on the boulder, I instantly noticed a giant tree on the arching slope to my right. It was close to the creek bank, just one among a score of such trees, but for some reason this particular specimen stood out to me. I’m not the fellow who knows his trees, so I can’t knowledgably impress others by saying, “Oh, that there? Why, that’s a chestnut tree. And that? Just your textbook elm.” The only trees I know on sight are maples and birches. If I had to guess, I’d say the tree I was looking at just then was an oak, but I cannot be certain. Perhaps someday I will revisit that particular section of the park, snap a photo of the tree, and simply ask Google about it. In any case, this tree (we’ll call it an oak unless otherwise corrected) was tall and thick and, if I had to guess, quite old. It spoke to me of sturdiness and persistence, of the hardships of withstanding the elements, and of standing fast against the test of time. And for some ludicrous reason, a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree popped into my head: “And the tree was happy.”

My suspicion was that, yes, this tree was happy.

And why shouldn’t it be happy? All it ever has to do is just stand there and be what it is. It’s under the pressure of no one’s expectations.

On impulse, I pulled my notebook from my knapsack and proceeded to sketch the tree and the scene around it. I’m no artist by any stretch of the word, but I feel my rough illustration, crude though it was, captured at least a hint of the aura this particular tree was giving off, at least enough to ensure that I’ll always be able to recreate the sensation every time I look at it. Had anyone seen me at that moment (no one did—there was no one else around for miles), they’d have beheld an unkempt, unshaved man smoking his pipe and sketching something in a notebook. As such, they likely would never have imagined that I’m actually a pedantic city boy who couldn’t have told them what genus of tree I was drawing.

Here’s the sketch:

SAM_2442-001

As I was drawing the tree, a quote from William Butler Yeats came into my mind: “Though the leaves are many, the root is one.” I admit, I have never quite understood this statement. Dig up any tree and you will find more than one root. You’ll find tons of different roots, in fact; stretching out all over the place, like an underground web. Perhaps by “root,” Yeats meant the trunk? Maybe. That would make more sense, both practically and philosophically. And yet the more I thought about it, the more I sensed Yeats knew exactly what he was saying. The root is one. Yes. Isn’t that exactly what the Buddhists have been saying for centuries? That though we are many, we are all one. Perhaps this idea of separate individuals is merely an illusion—a deception, even—one that has caused our species to forget some basic truth about ourselves, that we’re all connected, that we’re all parts of a whole, portions of one sum, that we’re all cells in the tissue of one great, indelible organism, the organism of consciousness. And perhaps this illusion, this deception, is at the very heart of the collective ache we humans feel, the concealed culprit of that thing we call the human condition. I don’t know. I admit that it sounds a bit silly, the idea that we’re all one. And yet some deep, deep, primal place within me is haunted by the notion, haunted because somewhere down there in the lowermost recesses of my subconscious, I know that it’s true. And crazier still is the notion that there’s another part of me, lurking in that same deep place, that hates this truth, a skewed part of me that craves separation, individuality, and isolation. But why? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the question we’ve been trying to answer all this time.

At this point, I stopped drawing and began looking at the tree in a new way. I recalled an image I had seen somewhere, an image showing a tree as it actually is, not just the part we can see above the ground. The trunk went as deep into the ground as it did into the air… and just as there were branches at the top, so too were there roots at the bottom, making the thing look like a kind of dumbbell, half in the ground, half out of it, as seen in this diagram:

tree-with-roots_23-2147509999

And it hit me at that moment that this tree was a perfect symbol for the true nature of reality, that things are almost never what they appear, that for everything we perceive on the surface, there is always more going on below. A tree is never just a tree… it’s more than that. It’s a complex, living thing, only part of which is presented visually to us. Likewise, existence and reality and life itself are always more than we can detect with our senses. There are doors down the hallway of reality that we’ve never walked through or even opened, because, just as with the roots of a tree, we don’t see these doors, and thus we don’t know they’re there. Or maybe some of us do. Not me, but someone somewhere. People who have trained themselves to see more than that which is presented to them. And it occurred to me just then that that’s precisely why I was doing what I was doing. The seclusion. The removal from the world. The deliberate exit from the general populace. The turning off of that blaring radio… All of it was because I wanted to be someone who saw more, someone who perceive not just a tree but a tree and its roots… Someone who knew how and where to find those hidden doors along the forgotten hallways of reality, someone who has opened them and stepped through to the mysteries beyond…

Then I recalled the phrase, “As above, so below.” I knew through my previous studies that the saying was taken from the Hermetica, a 2nd century Greek/Egyptian collection of philosophical texts. The phrase, which today can be taken to mean many things, initially meant that whatever occurred in one sphere of reality would correspondingly occur in the opposite sphere of reality (whatever that means), embodied in the dichotomy between the “above” (or, in heaven) and the “below” (or, on Earth).

The tree was like that… As the branches reached for the sky above, so the roots dug into the ground below. Thus, the tree epitomized for me a kind of dualism, a yin and yang fused together, a representation of Newton’s proverb that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that what goes up will come down, the life is just a cycle of above and below, life and death, highs and lows. And I observed that whatever we do in this life does somehow echo in eternity, whatever eternity means. There is no action, nor a single thought, that doesn’t somehow invert and karmically come back to us.

I suddenly felt that my thoughts were trending toward the absurd. Indeed, I felt quite silly thinking about the implications of some tree and its roots. So I set my notebook aside and relit my pipe, trying to focus on something else but still being somehow captivated by that goddamn tree. Before too long, I glanced back at it. It was mid-April, and the leaves were out in their full splendor. The leaves of this particular tree were of a rich, ferny green. A light wind was blowing them about gently, and the silliness returned as I thought, just for the briefest of moments, that this tree was using its leaves to wave at me. Smiling, I finally gave into the absurdity and allowed my true inner nerd to surface. I actually waved back and, as crazy it as sounds, spoke aloud. To the tree. I said, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, young man.” And in my mind, I imagined the tree saying, “Young? Son, I haven’t been young since there were Injuns roaming about these lands.” To which I replied, “You know, it’s actually politically correct to say ‘Native American.’ The term ‘Injun’ is considered to be offensive to some.” At this, the tree bristled and said, “I won’t be corrected by a Leafless One.” And that’s when I realized that this tree was actually a dick.

So I packed up my shit and hopped back over to the arched slope, giving the tree my middle finger as I passed it.

“Fucking racist asshole,” I said.

As I began the hike back to my car, which I estimated would take two hours, the truth about my body’s condition hit home. To say I was “out of shape” is putting it mildly. Having conserved no energy, I flung myself down trail with moans and groans. When I finally staggered to my car at the end of the trail, I was soaked with sweat, breathing in giant, rough heaves, and babbling slightly, under my breath.

Still, it was an insightful adventure, and I drove back to St. Louis feeling as though I was richer for having come…

——————————

[1] The park is called Hawn State Park. *shrugs*

[2] John Muir (1838–1914), a Scottish-American naturalist and one of the first advocates for preserving various sections of wilderness in the United States. He wrote several books and essays about his adventures out West, and his activism specifically led to the creation of two National Parks: Yosemite and Sequoia.

 

The Writers…

Hemingway said that writing was as simple as sitting down at a typewriter and proceeding to bleed. Consequently, he was known to be surrounded by stacks of prosed papers. Jane Austen may have agreed with that sentiment, except for the fact that she wrote her manuscripts by hand, and as such was most likely to be found surrounded by a debris field of scribbled papers. Then you have Jack Kerouac, who like Hemingway used a typewriter, but who wrote On the Road on paper taped together to form one large, unbroken scroll. One can only imagine what his workspace looked like. And then you have guys like Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Alighieri who no doubt penned their famous medieval works to the dim and dancing flames of candlelight, painstakingly scrawling onto vellum parchments with scratchy quills. And if you go back far enough, you’ve got the unidentified writer or writers who employed the strange technique called Cuneiform to compose the Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets.

The point is this: wherever you go in history, you’ll find eccentric, slightly misanthropic people sequestered away somewhere, using the technology of the time to record their thoughts. These are the writers. The scribes. Those who capture for posterity the collective consciousness of any given period. They usually toil in anonymity, experiencing little or no reward for their efforts during their lifetime, and are sometimes even persecuted for daring to express what everyone else thinks but is otherwise too cowardly to say. Sometimes their words are weapons or instruments of change. A writer can, simply by transforming thoughts onto paper (or parchments, or tablets), ignite a fire within the minds of a people, ushering revolution. Or perhaps they just use their talent for smithing sentences to create timeless stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of everyone who comes after them.

Whatever the case may be, it is the writers who are perpetuating the human story (and perhaps the human condition, too) down through the ages. The writers are the vehicle by which the history of this species is told. Whatever we humans are, or were, or will be, there have always been scribes in the shadows, recording the experience and, in so doing, capturing a bit of time’s infinite nature in a finite form for everyone else.

I flatter myself to be counted among these.

The Stupidest Thing Jesus Ever Said…

Jesus is a character known just as much for what he said as what he did. And he said some interesting things. Some of it, I must admit, is pretty good, though none of it was original to him (indeed, the Buddha said nearly all of the same things in a different way 500 years before Jesus was even a thought). Some of it, however, is patently ridiculous. That children, for instance, needed to leave parents and husbands needed to leave wives in order to live the kind of life God wants for them. Or that no one should work to obtain food and provisions. But for me, there is one thing he said that resonates as possibly the stupidest, most absurd utterance of all.

It is found in Matthew, chapter 18, verse 3: “And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

The Christians will argue that this is among the sagest wisdom in the New Testament. “The faith of a child,” they will say, “is a precious thing and we should all endeavor to be like that.”

Uh huh. Except for the fact that, well, children, even the brightest of them, are pretty much clueless. I mean, even if a kid is a born genius he still needs to be taught how to use that ability, how to live and move and operate in society, how to solve problems, how to do simple tasks like tie a shoe or bait a hook. After all, no one comes out of the womb ready to teach college. A child, no matter how smart or capable, does not—cannot—grasp the difficult implications of reality without first having lived in the world and among its people for a sufficient amount of time, thus gaining not only knowledge but experience as well. In other words, even the smartest toddler is still significantly more ignorant than the most doltish adult.

And yet Jesus tells his followers that if they want to have any kind of access to God and his “kingdom,” they need to become like children. Children—who think there are monsters under their beds regardless of how irrational such a belief is. Children—who will believe implicitly in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy—entities which are not real in spite of how fervently children may believe in them. A child knows only what the adults around him teach him, and as we have seen in history, you can implant any kind of erroneous or wicked belief into a small child’s impressionable mind and it will pepper the way he lives his life as an adult. Children will believe anything, no matter how utterly ridiculous it might be. But according to Jesus, this is exactly how God prefers his grown-ups to be.

Think of it this way. Suppose we pull a young boy out of the crowd. 7 years old, say. We run some tests on him and determine that his mental capacities are astronomical, that this boy is in fact one of the smartest humans ever to have lived. Suppose also that he is an incredibly kind, well-behaved, generous, and thoughtful young boy. So, we take this 7-year-old boy and bring him into a room, sit him a chair, and proceed to lay all the problems of the world on him. “Here are the statistics on hunger,” we say. “And look here, this is the number of homeless people in the world.” We show him some footage of what war looks like in Afghanistan, and what the radioactive landscape looks like in post-tsunami Japan. “We are waiting for your answers,” we tell the little boy. And, having said all that, we sit silently, looking at him with expectation.

What exactly is he supposed to do?

Suppose we take this little boy to a hospital room where a woman is about to have a delicate operation to remove a cancerous brain tumor. And we stop the doctor, move him aside, and bring forth the little boy. “This boy,” we tell the woman, “is better equipped to do this surgery because he is much smarter at 7 than this doctor will ever be his whole life.”

What should the tumorous lady do? Should she say, “Yeah, okay. Doctor, give the scalpel to the kid?”

Obviously, the point here is that the separation between what makes an adult and what makes a child is one of extreme importance. But this distinction, no matter how it might have served to help a woman beat a tumor, no matter how it might have determined how to combat hunger in the world, apparently matters little to he who is known as the Savior. Unless we can be like children, we have no hope of getting into heaven.

Again, Christians will say that I’m missing the underlying wisdom here. They’ll no doubt contend that Jesus is referring to faith here, that “child-like faith” is characterized by a simple willingness to openly believe anything, no matter how crazy or odd or even dangerous it might be. And so, when I present my intellectual and rational reasons for choosing atheism rather than belief, Christians will often shake their heads and tut and say something like, “What you don’t understand is that you can only find God by looking past all that intelligent nonsense and finding child-like faith.” That’s interesting, because I can remember being a young boy and convincing my even younger nephew that a witch lived in my basement. He believed this implicitly, with absolutely no data, without a single shred of evidence to suggest that not only were witches real but that I, his uncle, was above pulling a prank on him. His child-like faith might seem commendable to some Christians, but you know what? There was no witch living in my basement. His faith, no matter how commendable, was leading him astray. And that’s just a small, insignificant example. Put this on a larger scale and you can see how multitudes of adults might believe anything—that there is a spaceship flying behind a comet, for instance; or that by drinking the “special punch” you can escape to another dimension of peace and everlasting tranquility. And let us not forget this salient fact: we cannot even know how many instances of “child-like faith” led some young boy or girl straight into the backseat of a killer’s car. I guess it doesn’t matter how many lambs are led to the slaughter, as long as they are dumb enough to never figure out their fate beforehand. And I’m sure there have been many kids killed by pedophiles who were at the top of their class.

But be like a child, please. So says Jesus. Because that’s how God prefers you. Indeed, it would seem that regardless of how stunning this God made the human mind, he would ask you not to use it, for if you do, you have no hope of ever being saved by him.

No. This, for me, is the stupidest thing Jesus ever said.

Some Honest Thoughts on Racism

When I was in sixth grade I was the target of a bully. To my young mind, this kid felt to me as though he was pure malice. Looking back, I’m sure there was some sort of situation at his home, but none of that mattered to me in sixth grade. This kid was mean, and for whatever reason, he selected me as his ongoing victim. The fact that this kid was black is only relevant inasmuch as it relates to something that happened one day. I was standing at my locker, minding my own business, when he came down the hall and punched me in the gut and then smashed the back of my head against the locker. It hurt, yeah, but worse was the humiliation and indignation I felt. And so, for reasons I still ponder, I called after him, “You stupid nigger!” He stopped and turned to face me, and I knew instantly that what I’d said was wrong. I felt even worse now, but I didn’t have time to think about it because he came toward me and proceeded to beat the living hell of me—a beating I took willingly.

I’m now 40 years old and I still think about that incident. And I still feel bad about it. I’ve asked myself time and time again why I used a word I hated even at that young age. The best reason I can come up with is that I wanted to hurt him as much as he had hurt me. I wanted to make him the victim for once. To that end, I used the most hateful word I could think of (because, as a someone who has been writing since the womb, words have always been my weapon of choice). But even as I used it, I despised myself for it.

The strange thing was that he never bullied me again after that day. Instead, he’d just say things like “Racist asshole” whenever I’d walk down the hall.

But was I a racist? I never thought of myself as such. And I certainly don’t recall ever thinking anything blatantly racist in those days. I had black friends, and I never saw them as different than me. To me, we were all just kids.

The fact is that most people are racist without ever even knowing it. Worse, there are even those who go through life believing they’re these progressive thinkers and beacons of equality when in fact they’re way more racist than they would ever believe. I was saying as much to a friend recently, and he vehemently disagreed. Then he said something that stuck with me for days: “I don’t think you really know what racism is.”

I thought about that statement obsessively over the next few days and eventually came to the conclusion that my friend is wrong. I know what racism is. In fact, I flatter myself that perhaps I understand it better than others do.

Allow me to demonstrate. Not too long ago some friends and I were sitting around a bonfire and the conversation shifted toward race in the city of St. Louis. A comment was made by someone who had accidentally driven through “the bad part” of town—referring, of course, to a ghetto inhabited predominately by African-Americans. I chimed in and said there was an unfortunate historical reason those neighborhoods are what they are today. I then went on to cite things like Jim Crow laws, segregation, the strategic distribution of narcotics, and political oppression—all historical realities that have led to the creation of the “black ghetto culture,” as some put it. Someone sitting around the bonfire said, “How can you be such a racist?”

I shook my head. “I’m speaking of demographics,” I said. “The facts on paper are clear. Black people have been historically oppressed, the results of which can be seen in these neighborhoods. To discuss these facts and opine over them is not racist, no more than if we observed that affluent white neighborhoods are the result of all the many privileges given to white people over the decades.”

There was a moment of silence around the bonfire, as if those present were trying to find fault with my assessment. I went on: “If we can’t openly discuss these facts without being labeled as ‘racists,’ how are we ever supposed to work toward a solution?”

Many might therefore wonder just where racism does enter the picture. Racism happens when anyone observes demographical statistics like those aforementioned and then applies them to the race as a whole and, by doing so, suggests that the root cause is merely ethnicity and nothing else. For instance, a man might say, “Well, son, I grew up around those people and let me tell ya, they’re no good.” The truth is that maybe (and maybe not) some of the people you grew up around had some issues, but does that mean you are justified to claim the entire race, as a whole, is represented by the few people you knew in your youth? Does that mean if you encounter a black man at a store or in a restaurant or even on the street, you’re within your rights to assume your life is in danger simply because of who he is? And would it be right for him to look at you and think that just because you’re white you must be judging him?

No, racism happens not when we observe statistical facts but when we use them to judge an entire group of people. Or when we come at the situation with hatred inside simply because we don’t like things that are different. Or when we’re just afraid of that which we do not yet understand. Racism happens when you bring your prejudice (and by the way, that word literally means “judging beforehand, without any data”—hence the prefix pre and the root judice) to a situation with the aim of oppressing, subjugating, harassing, or in any other way persecuting that which is different from you.

For example, I was recently at an event where those with me were discussing the changing temperament of a white woman we all knew. It seemed she was going through some difficult times and hadn’t been herself lately. It was then suggested that perhaps she was being abused in her current romantic relationship, to which one in our party said, “Well, look at who her boyfriend is.” We all knew what was meant. Her boyfriend was black. Thus, the automatically assumed situation was that this black man was doing what “all black men” do: harming a white woman. That is an example of racism. It didn’t matter that the boyfriend was probably a very kind, loving, faithful man—no, his skin automatically determined the sort of person he was.

I agree that facts, in and of themselves, are not racist. I also know that stones, in an of themselves, are not weapons. But anyone can throw a stone at your head. Intent is everything. And when facts are distorted to fit agendas, or embellished to cast a wide reaching net of bigotry, or used to subjugate one group at the benefit of another group, that’s when we have racism on our hands. It doesn’t matter who or what the group is: gays, Jews, blacks, whites, Mexicans, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats—any absence of equality and justice is racism.

To wit, if I were to post photos of a human heart, or a human brain, or a set of human lungs, would there be any possible way to determine if the owner was black or white or liberal or gay or whatever? No. The heart of a black man looks the same as the heart of a white man, and the brain of a Muslim looks the same as the brain of a Jew. There is, in actuality, only one group. Human is human.

Free Kindle Promotion for my Books

From now until midnight on Wednesday, three of my books are available for free on Kindle. (Not paperback.)
Click on any one of these three titles to be taken to Amazon, where you can get the Kindle edition for free. Again, this promotion ends Wednesday night.
1. The Offbeat Rhythms (Volume 1) 
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2. Portrait of an Infidel: The Acerbic Account of How a Passionate Christian Became an Ardent Atheist
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3. Letters From a Dissident Philosopher
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Thoughts on Happiness and Sadness

Experience has taught me that no one is happy. But perhaps that is my own pain projecting what I, in some sadistic, self-centered, subconscious attitude, hope to be true (how sick is that)? I mean, if no one is happy, then perhaps that means my own unhappiness is somehow lessened in scope. Misery loves company and all that. Or that bullshit about how if we’re all unhappy then no one is.

Maybe. Or, perhaps there’s just the stark fact that never once in the history of my living upon this planet have I ever encountered a human being whom I could describe as being genuinely and enduringly happy. I have seen happiness, yes. I’ve even experienced it myself. But observing some fleeting happiness here and there or feeling momentarily happy is not the same as witnessing someone who is constantly or at least predominately happy. This I have never seen. I’m not sure anyone has, really.

Is it possible that “happiness”—whatever that may mean in our individual minds—is a projected state of being that exists only in theory? We all have this idea of what happiness might look like, and we all know quite well that reality doesn’t match this idea. Perhaps the resulting deficit, which is created when reality fails to meet our projections of what should be, is then interpreted to be the opposite of happiness, something we call “sadness.” If so, then what we are calling “sadness” is actually just the normal state of reality, or, if you prefer, simply what is. Sadness, then, is not actually a term of measurement that describes a necessarily negative experience, but rather is a term used to describe normalcy. But because the term “sadness” has a certain meaning and definition, the context of which we all know quite well in our various languages, we are inclined to experience the normalcy of reality as though it is a bad thing, something to be mourned and feared and wept over—something to disdain, in short. And yet all that has really happened is that instead of accepting reality as it is, we projected something better in our minds, something we called “happiness,” something that may or may not be attainable. When our projections failed to manifest in reality, we characterized ourselves as “sad” rather than “happy.” But in this sense, “happiness” is an imagined stratum of experience that, in all likelihood, is unachievable. Thus, we are consigned to sadness—a sadness which is no less projected than our version of happiness is.

In other words, our sadness is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the default consequence of not dealing with reality as it is. In fact, reality, when you really think about it, is under no obligation to be either “good” or “bad.” Indeed, reality is neither—it simply is what it is. It is we who assign meaning to our experiences. It is we who burden reality with our expectations and our sense of entitlement. Existence, which is sterile and neutral on its own, is colored only by that which we end up bringing to it. We are therefore the creators of “happiness” and “sadness.” They are experiences to be determined by us. But we behave as though they have power over us, as though happiness is some set quality that we can either experience or miss out on, and “sadness” is the default setting when “happiness” has been missed.

But if we are the creators of “happiness” and “sadness” (and we must be; otherwise reality is biased on its own and we don’t stand a chance), then that means we can, each of us, be as happy or sad as we choose to be at any given time.

This hypothesis (which is by no means verified, mind you) suggests that I am the author of my own sadness, and so are you. Why, then, don’t we choose to author happiness? What is keeping humanity from making that choice in their minds? What stops us from simply deciding to be happy rather than sad in the same way we might decide to get out of bed rather than sleep in?

The answer, I think, is that we believe happiness is an arbitrary state of being that might befall us or not befall us depending on how the chips fall. Perhaps we believe happiness is some sort of karmic reflection of how we behave, and thus we are motivated to do good rather than evil. Or perhaps we believe happiness is the byproduct of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, and thus we are motivated to move meticulously through life without ever making mistakes. Whatever the case, we believe happiness is something that happens to us in the same way we might contract cancer or go bald. As such, we approach life as though it’s a lottery, one we might win but which, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know we probably won’t. Sadness is therefore the default position we assume when we lose this lottery.

What if happiness is less like a lottery and more like a buffet? What if it’s just there for the taking? What if happiness is a decision anyone can make at any time? What if—(and the implications here are staggering)—sadness is just as much a buffet? That would have to mean that most if not all the humans on this planet are loading their plates with one experience (the bad one) when they could just as easily load their plates with the other (the good one). This is a truly appalling thought, however. Why? Because it suggests that the thing we call “the human condition” is really just the biggest fucking waste of time and space and resources that has ever gone down this side of existence.

The Mystery of the “Human Condition” Solved in Less Than 1,000 Words…

a (1)Sometimes being a human feels like a constant internal struggle between two opposing forces. Such a conflict will always produce a troubled experience, and yet we often find it odd that our lives should be characterized by ongoing inner strife. We’re perplexed as to why life should be so exhausting when, in actual fact, it makes perfect sense. When two opposing forces come together under one roof, it is highly unlikely that the result will be peace and tranquility. Thus, seen in this light, the vexing nature of the human condition, which philosophers have grappled with since time immemorial, actually has a rather mundane explanation: a house divided cannot stand.

What are these two opposing forces? Quite simply, our instinct versus our intellect. We are, biologically speaking, nothing more than a mammal. We may have made ourselves more than that, but biology put us in the trees and the fields and steppes with all the other mammals. That is who and what we are at the genetic level. As such, when you strip away the civilized confines we have contrived and imposed upon ourselves, we are just another animal. And like all animals, we have innate drives and impetuses wired into the very strands of our DNA. We call these drives and impetuses instincts. While some instincts urge us to behave in acceptable ways and others urge us to behave in what we’ve come to recognized as unacceptable ways, none of the urges are our fault. We are not responsible for what we are at the genetic level. We may try to override those urges—we may even succeed in doing so—but the fact that these urges, whatever they are and whether or not we defeat them, are inherent to us is not something we need to apologize for. We are, when you get right down to it, biological machines whose first and most basic inclination is to operate from a place that exists beyond thought, a place I call the instinctual core. And whatever else instinct might be, one thing it is not is rational.

However, we are also beings that have inexplicably evolved to the point where our brains are capable of reason. For better or worse, we now have access to logical thinking, the fruits of which are manifested in our species’ attempts to “civilize ourselves.” In other words, at some point in our distant past we were able through the use of reason to conceive and project an “imagined ideal” for existence, something that required forced behavior on our parts, something that promised to bring order and stability and even prosperity to our experiences on this planet. We conceived of this thing called “civilization” and it looked good to us. It seemed doable. But even though we were able to conceive of it mentally, we never asked ourselves if we were ready for it instinctually, and thus we charged ahead and took ourselves out of the fields and caves and put ourselves into cities where we—mere mammals—could play “house” and artificially fashion ourselves into creatures of intellect rather than instinct. And we do alright at it, most of the time. After all, our brains are indeed stunning machines of complex thought capable of way more than any of us can actually imagine. We’re so good at complex thought, in fact, that we have actually allowed ourselves to forget our true identity, that we are merely animals who wear suits. We are forcing ourselves to operate from a place I call the intellectual core.

Therefore, we are a creature that has two places from which to draw its motivations. One of them is innate—the instinctual core. The other is, for the most part, self-imposed—the intellectual core. Sometimes the drives that originate from these two places are in agreement. Most of the time they are not. Thus, when you have a creature whose existence is characterized by a continual inner conflict resulting from two equal and opposing forces doing battle with one another, it makes perfect sense that the standard existential experience of that creature would be one of angst and despair and erraticism and exhaustion. Our instincts bid us to behave in one way; our intellect bids us to behave in a contrary way. Which will win? Some people are better at winning this battle than other people. Some people will just never win it. We call such people “evil” or “deviants” or “monsters,” but perhaps they just don’t have the same energy to mitigate the inner battle that you or I may have.

In any case, I can’t help but feel that the philosophical riddle of the human condition, which has inspired more books and poems and late night conversations than anything else in the history of our species, is actually no riddle at all. It is, when you really get down to it, a rather simple and plebian case of “left” and “right” trying to exist together on the same hand.

Cogito Ergo Sum

I’m not against René Descartes. In fact, I usually defer to pretty much everything the man had to say. But there is one thing he said that I fervidly disagree with, and it happens to be the most famous thing he ever uttered. Je pense, donc je suis, he said. “I think, therefore I am.” (Cogito Ergo Sum, in Latin). This phrase originally appeared in his work Discourse on the Method (1637) but has since go on to be the catchphrase that essentially personifies the whole Age of Enlightenment. The use of reason, Descartes says, is enough to prove our own existence. Philosophically speaking, I get it. The thing is, I feel that here is a rather blatant instance of circular reasoning, a patent no-no in the hallowed halls of philosophy and rationalism. What Descartes is actually saying, it seems to me, is that because he possesses the ability to reason, he must therefore exist as a real, empirical entity. But this, to me, is the same as saying the following: “I possess the ability to run, therefore I have legs.” But that is the same as saying this: “I have legs, therefore I can run.” What has actually been proven here? Nothing. We didn’t came away from the statement learning anything new. The validity of our existence as living entities does not need to be confirmed by the ability to reason out that validity, because if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t be asking the question to begin with! It just seems circular to me. I feel like saying, “Hey Descartes, you know that the instant you opened your mouth to say something, you validated your existence. The instant you even formed the thought to say something, you validated your existence. In fact, the very moment you decided to contemplate your existence, you validated it. Thus, your famous statement, to me, is a bit redundant and categorically overrated. Sorry.”

Besides, do dogs and cats and birds and fucking monkeys not exist? If science is telling the truth (and I’m not sure it is in this particular instance), then animals do not possess the ability to reason. In fact, science asserts that animals don’t even know they’re alive because they don’t know what “being alive” means; they’re just automatons that live on pure instinct and nothing more. (Again, I do not agree with this.) But if that is true, then they don’t even exist at all, at least not if Descartes famous aphorism holds water. If existing requires the ability to reason out one’s own existence, then my cat doesn’t exist. “If Cogito Ergo Sum is a factual statement, your dog is just an illusion, Descartes. As is that lion that’s mauling you to death, or that bird that just shat on you. The bird shit dripping down your shoulder doesn’t actually exist, according to you, because the bird cannot reason out its own existence. Nor, for that matter, can the shit itself.”

Okay, I’m little soap-boxy about this, but still, Descartes is just wrong here. In my opinion, at least.