Capitalism and Divergent Thinking.

For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism.  Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least  any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.

Capitalism loves homogeneity.  It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship.  Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same.  Shipping is cheaper.  Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture.  One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same.  Meanwhile the real variety is absent.  Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products.  It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas.  Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood.  Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.

Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well.  Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost.  When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up.  In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators.  The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles.  Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity.  We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity.  Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.

Even our own brains reward conformity.  Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man.  Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon.  It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth.  This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms.  To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth.  In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.

This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale.  Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced.  Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression.  When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.

In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression.  This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self.  The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.

So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self.  This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward.  It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.

This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people.  We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people.  We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful.  Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.

The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge.  We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous?  We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch.  We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke.  It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul.  This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad.  These are just parts of being human.  But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.

The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves.  The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy.  The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.

So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?

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We Are, In Fact, Our Egos.

Last summer, I think it was, a bunch of paper fliers showed up around town.  They were on white letter-size printer paper, and they had a message hand-written on them in what appeared to be highlighter:

“You Are Not Your Ego.”

ego2

This is a regrettably common sentiment among the creative types; the idea that the Id is somehow the true self and that the Ego is harmful or not a real part of you because it restrains the Id out of a sense of fear.

Okay, before I go on, I want everyone to know that I have no background in psychology, and in fact am a community college drop out.  It’s important to understand that I do not at all know what I’m talking about here.

Got it?

Okay, so I think that people who dispense this claptrap do it with the best of intentions, I really do.  But I feel like either a) the people who do so don’t understand Freud’s Structural Model and are using the words incorrectly; b) that it’s a side effect of an aspirational approach toward human thought and behavior that is not just wrong, but also damaging; or c) both of the above.

So let’s talk terms.

The Id, as Freud described it, is a mass of instinctual desires.  It is the only part of the structural model that we are born with.  It drives libido, aggression, hunger, all of those things that are more or less common to all animals.  It will not tolerate delayed gratification, it wants what it wants immediately and there is no reasoning with it.  Infants have no moderating influence; they are just Id… so if they are hungry and are not fed, they cry.  They cannot tolerate the conflict between the desire and the availability of the object of that desire.  I’m sure that you can see, particularly in adults, how the Id can be capable of a lot of darkness and danger.  This is why it terrifies me when people assert that the Id is the true self.

The Ego moderates the desires of the Id with reality, and seeks to satisfy those desires in the least harmful way possible. For instance, the Ego is responsible for enabling us to not just take what we want, but to purchase it instead.  The Ego restrains the Id, and as it does so, it fulfills basic and genuine needs.  Functions such as cognition, judgement, intellect and memory reside in the Ego.  The Ego is the root of conscious awareness, and of a sense of self.

For the sake of completion, the Super Ego is the portion of the psyche that internalizes societal rules and expectations. It is where morality and feelings of guilt come from.  It restrains the Id, galvanizing the psyche toward morally and socially appropriate actions.  The Ego mediates between the Id and the Super Ego.

It’s worth noting at this point that as I understand it, Freud’s structural model is no longer in use in practical psychology, or if it is, it’s generally not used in the way that it was originally conceived.  Freud had some odd ideas about human psychology that are too firmly based in gender and sexuality to be of much use in modern psychology.  Still, if you’re going to use words, you should probably know what they mean.

The fact of the matter is, we are very much our Ego.  As seen from my brief and inexpert description above, the Ego acts in a conciliatory and defensive way, and some of the strategies that it employs may be deceptive in nature, but that doesn’t mean that the Ego somehow doesn’t exist, or can be excised from the psyche.  The strategies that it employs are employed in the pursuit of fulfilling very real and valid psychological needs.  Moreover, the ego is what makes us people, rather than a collection of desires and social directives.

This idea that we are not our ego is well-intentioned, but incorrect and in the end probably damaging.  It’s a sort of a hippy-dippy notion that says that you can have whatever you want and can be whatever you want to be if you live without fear.  This on the surface is a benign statement that some may find inspirational, but it’s yet another aspect of the sort of aspirational thinking that seems to come in cycles in western culture.

The most extreme example of this that I’ve encountered is The Secret: a book and a film that propose that one can have whatever one wants through the miracle of positive thinking.  This of course leaves people dying of cancer bearing up under the burden of not having thought positively enough to cure their cancer, or the homeless person not having thought positively enough to bring himself a modicum of prosperity.

I feel like I’ve been writing about this a lot lately.  What I’m saying is this: while it might seem harmless to espouse this living without fear as an ideal, the reality is that these fears, these dangers, and these risks all exist, and are valid.  To insist that the ideal way to be is to exist outside of them is to insist that the ideal existence is outside of humanity, and this sort of thinking is why I left religion.  This view of life as a struggle toward unattainable goals sets all of us up for failure.

The doctrine of the positive thinking movement does not set us up with the tools that we need to deal with the darkness and the horror that exist in the world… instead, it seeks to distract us with work that will never be finished, like Sisyphus and his stone, and we never give ourselves the opportunity to feel and work through those feelings, and this activity, this experience and internalization and rationalization of horror is a big part of what being a person is.

People are not perfect; they were never intended to be and not one of us every will be. We are all just people; and we are all a little monstrous.  We are all terribly terribly flawed, and we are just thrashing in the mud and struggling to find or make a place in the world for ourselves.   And to expect ourselves or anyone else to be anything more than that is not just wrong… it’s cruel.

We are all our egos.

The Utopian Delusion.

There’s a peculiar delusion that seems to effect only humankind.  It doesn’t happen to rats in labs, or to chimpanzees, or to dolphins.  It is a thing, a mental illness, that is only observable in human beings.

There’s a chaos to humanity.  This is not exclusive to us; it’s a thing shared by all the animals of the land, sea, and air.  Every one of them, down to the microscopic level, has its share of what we would describe as chaos.  Bloodshed, wars, violence, greed… these things happen all over the world, even inside our own bodies.  Humankind  bears the distinction of being the only animal to deny that these things are an intrinsic part of who and what they are.

You know what I’m talking about.  The insistence that we can somehow end hunger, end war, end desperate poverty, end racism, end violence, end abuse, end corruption.  The view that world peace could just happen if everyone just stopped.  If everyone just settled for enough, and stopped clawing through the mud for more.

And try as I might, I can’t figure out where these ideas come from.  Maybe it’s the ideas of right and wrong, our inborn concept of fairness that helps us to maintain the social relationships so vital for our survival.  Maybe it’s the intelligence, born from our intensely social nature and also vital to our survival, that makes us think ourselves so different from all of the millions on millions of earth’s other residents.

But I was thinking today, maybe it’s also religion.  Monotheistic religion.  The faiths of the Abrahamic God, to be specific.

Prior faiths, from the simplest nature worship cults now all but lost to the mists of time and a short memory, to Hinduism, a tradition so incredibly complex that one could study it their whole life and still not learn all of it, leave room for the natural complexity and chaos of the human spirit.  But monotheistic religions showed up, with their one perfect god, and their one perfect evil, and attempted to divide all of human endeavor, all of human behavior… all of humanity, into two categories.

If you were good, you would earn yourself a place in a heaven of some kind.

If you were bad, or if you committed any in a very very long and seemingly arbitrary list of sins, you would go to some version of hell.

And in most versions there is little to no room in the middle for the vast variety of human behavior and motivation.

We are told that there is god inside all of us, and that god is perfect.  We are told that we must be as close to perfect as we can, to strive for perfection, to secure some kind of blissful immortality.

Heaven was the first utopia ever invented by mankind.

This theistic duality is at the root of a lot of our social ills; most notably, it makes us easier to control and manipulate.  I don’t necessarily believe that this intent was in the founding of these religions, and I haven’t studied them enough to know whether there was an earlier mysticism to them that reflected humanity rather than reflecting an impossible but necessary perfection.  But I do believe that in many cases, the establishment has been built up since founding in a way that made it a weapon, and a way to coerce people, to anesthetize them, to manipulate them.  The striving for perfection is a distraction that so many of us fall in to, especially in the western world, where so much of our culture is built on an abusive tradition of religious authority.

I’m not saying that I think that these religions are by nature bad, or that faith itself is bad.  You can read more about my feelings on that here.  What I am saying is that the theistic duality changed the way that people interact with one another, and with the world.

Utopian thinking, the idea that we can solve all of humanity’s problems, does not appear to be an inherent quality of human thought.  This is probably something that you’d have to travel outside the western world to observe, though, because our culture (not american specifically, but western culture) is drenched in it.  When you travel among people not infected by the theistic duality, utopia doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration.

There is a widely held belief that utopian thinking is the province of the political left, but it infects all segments of society like a virus. Indeed, for every peacenik hippie on the left insisting that food should be free, there is someone on the right telling you that the world would be just if we gave all people absolute liberty.  One end seeks utopia by imposing structure, and the other side seeks it by eliminating all structure.  On the one side is the Soviet Union, and at the other is Somalia, each with their share of human suffering.

Many people, many very smart people, have thought that progress toward a state of utopia is noble and just, and even that utopia is the eventual destiny of mankind.  And on the surface, it seems as though it is a desirable state… everyone gets what they need or deserve, everyone is treated fairly, war and human suffering end.  Sounds great, right?

Except it’s not the way people work, and it’s not the way other animals work either.  Even the chimpanzee, who some try to paint as a gentle forest dweller, will kill one another in territorial disputes and are known as one of few animals who will kill humans for food (human children, but still).  They eat a lot of meat, and they hunt for it.  They hold territories and expand them whenever they get the chance, stealing resources from neighboring troupes.  These are not bad behaviors; they are behaviors that have evolved in the chimp brain over thousands of years.  And we have a lot of that wiring.

This doesn’t mean that I think that we should engage in violence and murder in pursuit of material gain; we also have a greater degree of intelligence and social awareness than does the chimpanzee, and with that comes a degree of responsibility for individual behavior.

Utopia means a lot of different things to different people, but one thing is true.  It either is, or it isn’t.  It is good, or it is a lack of good.  It is a new duality; an aspirational form of government in which the goal itself is by nature unachievable.  And what happens then?  The same thing that happens with the theistic duality; all necessary actions are taken to maintain the illusion that the goal is being met.  The failings are hidden away, swept under the rug, and dissent is crushed.  This happens regardless of who it is that’s in charge… it happens on the right and the left and in the middle.

Imposing a state on humanity that isn’t supported by human behavior requires such a tremendous amount of governance and structure that it becomes impossible on a national scale without the implementation of fascism.  At some point during that process, the goals of this utopian progression fall away, and the maintenance of the structure of control becomes the new and absolutely vital goal.  The structure takes so much support to maintain it that there is nothing left to ensure that the original utopian goals are met.  Justice falls by the wayside and humanity is crushed under a new and overpowering god.

Utopia is an aspirational goal, and it is the same as all other aspirational pursuits.  It is like a sugar-water… sweet to the tongue, but ultimately unfulfilling and without substance.  In order to be wholly human, we must turn our faces toward suffering and hatred, acknowledge it as a part of ourselves, and balance it with as much kindness and joy as we can muster.  We must live as undistractedly as we can bear.  Anything else is a lie.

The Working Artist.

I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite comedians in which he said that as a young man, one of his greatest fears was ending up in an office, and that it represented a kind of little death for the creative person.  The idea was that, for the creative person, there was no worse fate than that of mundane work. I’ve heard this idea repeated over and over again in different iterations from people in all kinds of creative fields, and in communities both near and far.

I cannot say how strongly I disagree with this idea.  I feel that anyone who can move directly into their career of choice can consider themselves very lucky in some ways, since these opportunities aren’t available to most, but I believe that in most cases their creative work will suffer.

I’m hard-pressed to think of any facet of our existence more universal, more essentially human, than work.  Maybe not work in the forms that we now see in the Western world, but work nonetheless.  We have worked for a large portion of our days since the beginning of when we could reasonably be called human… walking, hunting, gathering foods, and processing those foods, building shelter and producing clothing and containers, rearing children, etc.  Work was essential to our survival.  Later, after the invention of agriculture, we worked on community or family farms, and later we performed industrial work.  While our work in the modern day is less directly attached to our means of survival, it is no less a vital part of our existence.  If there’s one thing that I have learned from my extended time of unemployment and underemployment, it’s that not having useful work to set one’s hand to even has psychological and emotional effects on people.

People without work become less productive in their personal lives as well.  Unemployment and underemployment has been shown to correlate with increases in depression and anxiety.  I’m certain that some of this has to do with the inevitable financial hardships that come with a lack of work, but I also think that the living person wants purpose.  Needs purpose.  People want to be a part of a community, and wants to function in a useful way within that community.  These useful roles may vary from person to person, and from culture to culture, but they are no less necessary to the emotional well-being of the individual.  Without practical purpose, the sense of self-worth withers, and one’s place within one’s specific community begins to feel uncertain.  This uncertainty of place is painful to the social mammal; it embodies a very basic fear that, being of no use to the larger group, we may be excluded from that group, and there is a very small and primal part of our brain that views this as a death sentence.  In this sense, in the sense that work is essential for emotional well-being and for the human experience, work is a kind of a sacred thing.

Artists are no different.  For those who are able to make a living from their art, there is still work.  One must handle their books, their taxes; one must market their work, book shows, network with other artists, with venues, with gallery owners, and with the public.  There are a dozen mundane tasks to each one exhibitionist act that, when you work for yourself, you must perform, or manage, or arrange to be done.

The only way to escape so-called mundane work is to become wealthy enough to never have to work again.

I don’t believe that even this is a healthy goal for the artist.  To be human is to work, and to not have work is to, in some sense, lose touch with humanity.  If one believes (and I do) that the work of the artist is to touch the essence of humanity and then to translate it into an audio or visual or verbal form that can communicate that humanity sufficiently well to touch the soul of another person, then to lose touch with humanity in any way is to drift further and further from that goal.

Think of the human experience as a reservoir.  There is a certain amount of stuff stored in there, and when one creates their work, it uses up some of that stuff.  You can refill your reservoir by engaging in human activities, by having human experiences, and by engaging with other humans.  Then you have more raw materials, more stories to tell, more concepts to explore.  But if you never refill that reservoir, the creative wellspring will trickle to a stop, and your work will become self-referential.  You will do again and again the things that you’ve already done in the past, or even do things that you’ve seen other artists do.  You will become inwardly focused, and rather than reaching for humanity itself, you will only reach deeper into yourself, producing work with such strictly personal implications that nobody else will be able to derive value from it.  At that point, you are no longer serving your community or even the ideas of truth and beauty, but only your own ego.

And this is at best masturbation, and at worst, outright fraud.  It is also, I believe, the reason why creative work suffers when an excess of success is achieved.  Once you can insulate yourself from all suffering and once you can afford to delegate all menial aspects of your work, what remains of the person that you once were?

How to Ruin Atheism.

I was raised protestant by a catholic mother and a protestant father.  I went to church every Sunday, dressed in pretty dresses.  I went to bible study as a child, I read the bible, cover to cover, as a kid. I set it as a goal for myself, and I think I finished it when I was around ten or eleven… it was pre-puberty in any case.  I read the bible because I was missing something… I didn’t believe in God.  I felt the same way as a child about God as I did about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.  I thought that perhaps if I read through the bible, there would be something in that text that would bring faith to me, that would inspire me to belief.

What I took away from reading the bible was that there are some really beautiful stories in there, and that Jesus was a pretty great guy.  I still did not believe in God, or that Jesus was a prophet or the son of God.  I thought Jesus was a man full of both anger and compassion, who genuinely wanted people to live in a just way.  I just didn’t believe that he was magic; the immortal God-made-flesh who would cleanse the world of its sins.  I had questions about what was in the bible… and an inkling that my parents, who had chosen to raise me within the church, didn’t believe any of this as literal truth either.  I went to my dad one day, not my mother, for reasons that I may explain at a later date, and asked him about Genesis.  I wanted to know how one could reconcile the biblical creation story with what we know to be true about the age of the earth, and the evolution of the plants and animals, so I asked my father how he could believe that God created the world in seven days when we now know that it took a lot longer than that to create the earth and the seas and the skies and all of the plants and animals.

“Who’s to say what a day is to God?” my father asked in response.

This set the tone for my entire understanding of religion in the world… what I took from that simple question was that religion and science fill different roles; they have no correlation, either complementary or oppositional.

As a teenager I continued to explore the idea of religious faith.  I took courses on religion in high school.  I spent a brief time as a “pagan,” an admission that I now find a little embarrassing.  I read the Bhagavad Gita, I learned about some of the Hindu myth cycles (there are a LOT; Hinduism is an incredibly complex thing), and I read about Islam (though I have never read the Koran itself).  I learned about several forms of Buddhism, and about Sikhism.  I know now that in these studies I was searching for some explanation of God that would make sense to me, that would compel me to believe.  I hungered for faith, and I still envy people of faith in a lot of ways.  I imagine it must be an incredible and joyful thing to have faith in a God.

I know also that while I was studying religion, I was seeking a way to better understand humanity; this is something that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.  People are fascinating because they are terrifying.

So now, as an adult, I have no faith; I don’t believe in Big-G-God.  I call myself an atheist on some days, and an agnostic on other days… because I don’t really know if God exists, and honestly I have very little interest in God for God’s sake; what fascinates me about the whole situation is how the God-concept is experienced by people.  I’m more likely to call myself an agnostic these days, or just to say that I’m not religious.  The reason for that is very simple.

Militant Atheism.

Militant Atheism is a word used to describe people who aren’t satisfied to simply not believe in God, but also insist that nobody should believe in God.  This is based in the belief that religion is the cause of a lot of evils and harm in the world.  This is true on the face of things, but the fact as I see it is that what we refer to as “evil” comes not from faith, but from people.  This includes the faithful and atheists as well.  We can run through a quick list of bad people who were also atheists… Mao tse Dong, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Jeffery Dahmer, Jim Jones… but people will often contend that religion as an institution is the source of evils.  Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were all areligious and were leaders of extremely bloody regimes, with death tolls of at least five million, ten million, and nearly two million, respectively.  People will seek power and abuse power regardless of religious affiliation.  People will rape, kill, oppress, and abuse regardless of religious affiliation.

Some will say that religious institutions suppress learning, reason, and science, and this is sometimes true, but it’s also sometimes true of non-religious institutions as well.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a horrifying thing to any intellectual or scholar.  I think the militant atheist often overlooks the very vital role that the church played in education and in preserving knowledge… in the medieval period, the church was responsible for maintaining and transmitting vast stores of human knowledge… the monks and priests were the only literate people in most of Europe.  Even afterward, in the Renaissance, learning and technology and art all flourished under the church.

Religion and faith have been the source of virtually all human culture.  Advances in architecture were made in the construction of beautiful cathedrals, mosques, and temples.  The beginnings of all music come from religious faith, even modern rock and roll.  Some of our finest works of art and greatest philosophical writings, even the roots of poetry come from religion.  All of our holidays are religious in origin and I have to admit if there’s an american tradition or custom that doesn’t find its origin in religion, I can’t think of it.  To differentiate between religion and culture is foolhardy; since ninety percent of the planet is religious, religion is a facet of culture and informs other cultural facets.  To remove religion from the world is to begin the process of homogenization of human kind.  I like us non-homogenized… different cultures have brought so many interesting things to my life, and the different faiths that I’ve had the opportunity to study are beautiful in and of themselves, with stories that intertwine with one another, and places where they overlap and shine through one another like two stained glass windows.  They tell the story of what it is to be human; how we deal with adversity and temptation, and what it is to be deeply and terribly flawed.  These stories, these acts of gods and goddesses and spirits and creatures and mythic figures are all retellings of the human story, and in hearing them, learning them, and repeating them, we learn something of what it is to be this unique and desperate animal.

They have scanned the brains of nuns praying, and of monks meditating, in order to get a visual understanding of how religion affects the brain, and they have found that several parts of the brain light up when processing religious experience, indicating that “… religion is not a special case of a belief system, but evolved along with other belief and social cognitive abilities,” according to Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.  And indeed, there is some evidence of an evolutionary driver for religion in humans as a way to form social and community bonds, and as a way to transmit culture, a mnemonic if you will, in a time before writing existed, or before it was widely available.  I’m not here to hate people because of things that happen in their brains, and though I’m not religious, I have felt the seemingly unexplained feelings that the religious describe while having religious experiences… I just never associated them with God.  I think attempting to eschew and remove something that is so thoroughly a part of human nature is ridiculous and I don’t understand the point of it.

Furthermore, if people are experiencing oppression based on the fact that they identify as atheist (I don’t think I ever have here, but I’m sure it happens in other parts of the country), then it pays to bear in mind that the people in modern history who were the most successful in combating oppression did so without hatred. Mohandas Gandhi freed the entire nation of India from colonial rule with non-violent strategies, and Martin Luther King, Jr made effective use of non-violence as well.  This even includes even Nelson Mandela, who once advocated armed insurrection against the apartheid government in South Africa, and Malcom X, who advocated violence in his early years.  Both men came to understand that hatred does not solve oppression.  Lest we forget, also, that both Gandhi and King were religious.

And none of this is even taking into account my personal objections to Militant Atheist posterboys like Dawkins and Hitchens, nor the bizarre correlation between militant atheism has to objectivism, libertarianism, misogyny, and racism that I haven’t puzzled out yet.

I feel that maintaining an association with a community that thinks that this kind of hate is sort of okay within their ranks is to implicitly condone such hate.  So I have no choice but to call myself an agnostic, or an “I’m not religious,” or an “other.”  Not an atheist.  Not anymore.

Catharsis and Krampusnacht.

krampus2013The Krampus, for those who don’t know, is a central European Christmas figure… a sort of a bestial demonic creature with horns and fur who walks the streets on Krampusnacht and beats bad children with sticks and puts them in his sack to carry away to his lair.  He is a pre-christian figure, but has persisted through to the modern day.  It is still traditional in the area for young men particularly to participate in Krampuslaufen, in which celebrants dress up as Krampus and drink and engage in a sort of a procession.  Krampusnacht normally happens on the fifth of December, the night before the feast of Saint Nicholas.

We went out on Friday night to take part in the Krampuslauf.  I suppose it’s more of a bar crawl than a procession, but it’s good enough for Bellingham.  It’s a day late, but the weekends are easier, and there’s a group that does a Santa-themed bar crawl every year, so we like to do our Krampusing at the same time and the same place as those folks.

I am not of central european descent… this is not my tradition.  But I love legends like the Krampus.  Things like this show the persistence of old myth in the face of overwhelming cultural change and homogenization, and old myth is where our most human stories come from… stories of terror and pain and death and beauty and joy.  We have retained a lot of stories about romance and royalty and triumph, but at least here in the U.S. we have lost a lot of our stories about death and darkness.  This is a problem because stories about this kind of unpleasantness teach us part of what we need to know about being human.  They help us learn to deal with grief and pain and the ever-present spectre of death.  I’m strenuously in favor of introducing some of these darker traditions into the modern American lifestyle… things like Dia de Los Muertos and Krampusnacht.  I personally feel more comfortable appropriating the culture of white folks, but I think all of it has a positive influence, honestly.

Krampus seems to have been a figure of the wild, with his horns and his hair and fur.  Based on the aspects that have survived Christianization, he seems to my uneducated eye to be related to other such figures, such as those in the Wild Hunt myths prevalent in much of Europe.  Indeed, he bears a traditional resemblance to Knecht Ruprecht, who was sometimes cast as a leader of the Wild Hunt.  The Wild Hunt is a cultural manifestation of human fear and reverence for the wild, and witnessing the Wild Hunt was said to be a precursor to a disaster or tragedy.  Wild Hunt myths have even translated to American culture as the Ghost Riders folktale of the American west.

In Europe, revels like Krampusnacht and the traditions that preceded Halloween seem to fall in the autumn and winter, times that were dark and cold and difficult, especially for pre-industrial societies.  These were times of fear and uncertainty… and revelry, particularly these masked revels, allowed human kind to set their humanity aside, to take on the aspect of beasts and to cast aside social mores (to a point), and I can’t help but think that these revels must have been a momentary catharsis… a temporary release from the fear inherent in being human.

When we mask ourselves, we are both not ourselves and are perfectly ourselves.  For shy people like myself, the opportunity to abandon my identity is a welcome chance to come out of my shell.  That combined with alcohol-fueled exuberance creates an environment in which I can leave behind my insecurities and release the tensions that have built up… by shouting, and laughing, and dancing… it facilitates catharsis.

I think that as animals who, perhaps uniquely, are aware of their own mortality, catharsis is important.  We exist under an ever-present burden of fear and anxiety, even when we are not directly aware of that burden, and without periodic release, it wears on us and creates misery.  Catharsis gives us a moment to lay down that burden, and to rest before picking it up again.  Without that occasional chance to rest, we become sick at heart, and potentially sick in the body as well, and I think that especially for folks in creative professions, it can reduce the ability to be productive as well.

Too much reveling, however, and the dance looses it’s cathartic benefit.  I see this all the time; people chasing that catharsis… that feeling of release.  The ritual becomes hollow, and the celebrants continue on anyway, frantically going through the motions in hopes that they will gain the same effect as they have before.  With too much revelry, intensity fades, the effect becomes harder and harder to achieve, and what is left is empty and grotesque; a clanging chaos with no purpose, a falsehood that lacks the genuity that lends the ritual real substance and meaning.

This emptiness of experience is perhaps a result of Tanha, the Buddhist thirst to cling to pleasurable experience and avoid the painful.  This desire is noted within the Four Noble Truths as a source of human suffering.  I think it’s clear at this point that I’m not here to relinquish pleasurable experience, and also that I’m not here to strive for spiritual perfection… but I do crave substantial, genuine experience.  If we take our revelrous catharsis when it presents itself, it can be a wonderful thing.  If we attempt to force it, we will come away feeling hollow and unsatisfied.  That’s not a difficult choice for me to make.

Yesterday I Saw A Strange Madness.

Something happened on the internet today.  A Facebook toy, called what-would-i-say.com, tore through my Facebook feed like a digital tsunami, sending out ripples that would vanish out on the horizons of my domain, into places I couldn’t see, on the feeds of people I’m several degrees of separation from, there to combine with ripples from other tsunamis out there in the Facebookosphere.

“Profé, coffee is what I think of something heavy like heaven.” -AllisonBot

It is a toy that selects random phrases from your Facebook activity and jams them together to create new statuses.  The new statuses, since they’re combined from the tatters of previous posts, sound like the poster.  Some of them make sense, some of them don’t.  They range from the hilarious to the downright philosophical.  It was fascinating.  People stopped posting them as statuses and started posting them in comment threads, because they were embarrassed about how much they were posting, and junking up their friends’ feeds.  One friend said he had to log out and remove the app from his Facebook account because otherwise he couldn’t stop clicking.

“An open letter from Frida Kahlo at Dakota Arts.” -AllisonBot

And I have to say, I understand completely.  I myself spent an hour and a half generating new statuses and clicking over to Facebook to read what everyone else had generated.  A good portion of my relatively young life wasted, on something that created zero new content.

So what was so fascinating about it?

“Also, thought you hold your hand out flat and akissing on you.” -AllisonBot

Superficially I would chalk it up to my friends themselves being bright, interesting, insightful, and hilarious people.  When you cut up and rearrange the thoughts of someone who’s already smart and funny, the result is bound to be either interesting or hilarious at least part of the time.  I think there’s something more to it than that, though.

As I was clicking the “Generate” button, over and over, waiting for something good to come up, a thought came to me.

This thing could probably replace me on Facebook and nobody would notice.

“Yesterday I saw a strange madness. Concord grapes, ninetyeight cent pomegranates, persimmons, and some rain.” -AllisonBot

It was not a thought that was forlorn or weighted with loathing.  It was accompanied by a sense of wonder and delight… the kind of delight that makes you giggle, unexpectedly, as if the laughter is bubbling out of you in response to some kind of inescapable internal pressure.  The kind of laughter that surprises even the laugher.  And that thought was not so far from the truth… with the exception of personal messages, and the ability to post links to interesting news articles, a human “editor” could probably use this to create a pretty realistic facsimile of Allison-on-Facebook.

I mean, eventually it would run out of feeder material and start folding in on itself, but still.

So here is the source, perhaps, of the fascination… that we could be replaced by a Facebook toy.

“He wanted to understand all of my eye today.” -AllisonBot

That statement is not intended to reduce the complexity of human existence.  I just think that what-would-i-say is the most poignant and hilarious indicator of the ridiculousness of our online lives.  When you distill yourself to just words on a screen, a lot of that complexity and depth is lost, and we become on-screen caricatures of ourselves.

And I think we all know this.  And I think that having this portion of our lives presented as a part of the great cosmic joke feels good to us.

I also think that if you go deeper than that, understanding that so much of what we think and do is ridiculous and inconsequential is therapeutic.  I think that maybe we all recognize on some level how absurd human existence is, and that having this confirmed feels good; it is freeing.  It helps us shed the importance of the consequences that our actions have; it frees us, if only momentarily, from anxiety and dread.

“You’re going to start defueling the reactors, they managed to tilt my thoughts.” -AllisonBot

One of the common threads that I’ve noticed in some casual reading that I’ve done on things like space euphoria and near-death experiences (I don’t mean any out-of-body or astral projection stuff, I mean the impacts that impending death has on the brain) is a feeling of interconnectedness paired with a feeling of smallness or inconsequentiality…  it’s something that I’ve noticed reported by users of hallucinogenic drugs as well.  It is described as a positive feeling pretty consistently, not associated with fear or being overwhelmed.

So why would the brain retreat here in situations of stress, at points of extremity?

I’m not sure… I’m neither a psychologist nor a biologist.  What I do know is that adults, we live in a world that it mostly made up.  Our governments, boundaries between nations, our money, our bank accounts, our jobs, a large number of our activities… these things are contrived.  They’re real, and they’re important, and they have consequences both negative and positive, but they exist only because man invented them.  These invented things are things we spend most of our time, day to day, doing.  The only things we do that aren’t invented are eating, shitting, walking, dying, and engaging in communion with god (I’m not religious; hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to talk about my feelings and thoughts on god and religion at a later time. For now it is enough to say that I believe that religion, that ecstatic experiences of the divine, are a common human experience and that they happen in our brains).  And we are responsible for the creation and continued function of an unbelievably complex world that without us simply would not exist.

Mankind is an animal burdened by his own significance.

“Bill; I do not realize how wondrous life is.” -AllisonBot

This, I think, is why it feels good to us to be shown how small and strange and inconsequential we are; it lifts a burden.  Buddhist teachers often talk about relinquishing permanence and individual significance.  I prefer to think of it as the great cosmic joke; tiny mortal soft-fleshed animals made into tiny gods.

And what-would-i-say shows up and reveals the ridiculousness of what has become an entire portion of our lives, and we are fascinated… we are compelled.  Not by what it produces, but by what it says.

The takeaway from this is as follows; embrace absurdity, whenever and wherever it presents itself.  It is one of the ways in which we can lay down our burdens for a moment, and the only way that I’m aware of that we can lead truly happy lives.

“I would do it, to achieve selfsustaining fission.” -AllisonBot