Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"People of good will"

That plain and simple phrase struck me when reading a post by Frank Schaeffer, in his crusade against all forms of fundamentalism, including atheism.

This - hopefully short - post is not about religion, but I can't read anything that Mr Schaeffer writes without realising how much I admire the strength of will and basic integrity required by all those who, drawn into fundamentalism by birth or circumstances, have the courage to understand and walk away from its seductive negativity.

But the phrase "people of good will" leapt out at me yesterday as the story of BP, the US President, the devastation visited on animal and plant life, and those just trying to earn a living, began to get its predictably hysterical skates on. We hear the sound of those with a personally fulfilling credo to launch beginning to rub their hands at the prospect of scoring some points against their tribally defined opponents - liberals, conservatives, capitalists socialists ETC.

Now this is all good mental exercise perhaps, and gets those who need it an adrenalin fix, but what does it actually achieve? Does it stop the spill? Does it solve the inherent problems of needing to extract fossil fuels from increasingly difficult locations? Does it rebuild the eco-system, and the lives of the fishermen and tourist industry workers who depend upon it?

Our world is currently set up for this adversarial bullshit of course. Most of our problems are long term problems, and politicians think in 4/5 year cycles, and industrialists think of short term profit for investors. To get elected, you need to make yourself distinct by espousing some "ism" which will save the world and the whale, or which will preserve your freedom from the ravenings of "big government", or save your wages from being consumed by taxes.

This is essentially fiddling while Rome burns, and the more unlikely it seems that "people of good will" will emerge through this fog of polarised rhetoric, the more essential it is that they do.

Narrow self-interest doesn't work in the long run. People can be oppressed and enslaved, but not indefinitely. If we hang onto everything we have, sooner or later, the dispossessed will come and get it.

Enlightened self-interest is co-operation. It involves diverting our considerable brain power away from school yard insults, and into defining and solving the problems we all face.

If I have to choose between what might sound like idealistic claptrap, and the prospect of the progressive disintegration of an ever more divided society and world, I think I'd at least have a go at the claptrap.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The language of love

It was while reading this post by Aaron Ben-Zeév, that I started thinking about the language of love, and the inevitable gap between what we say and what we may mean.

In making his points, I think Mr Ben-Zeév is being a tad literal, bless his philosopher's heart.

It is true that we need warning against unrealistic expectations, and the potential of unhealthy obsession for sucking the life out of a loving relationship. But, when attempting to apply language to describing how it feels to love someone in the romantic sense, we are grappling with the difficulty, or impossibility, of describing a feeling. This is why we have developed art - music, visual art, or, specifically the heightened language of poetry, non-literal prose ETC.

So, I would suggest, when someone says "you are everything to me", we shouldn't immediately send them off to counselling. They may be, perhaps for the first time, experiencing how it feels to have someone impinge on their world in a way which feels unique. Words best describe the concrete and rational. I think love between two people is more than a by-product of mutually ticked boxes. Now there's nothing wrong with a relationship based on mutually ticked boxes, but if they aren't, or don't remain, mutual, watch out! But such a quasi-contractual relationship isn't love. What love is, however, is very mysterious, hence the need for vague and perhaps hypurbolic language when we try to talk about it.

Aaron Ben-Zeév draws parallels between the experience of romantic love and religious experience, which make a lot of sense to me, since faith doesn't depend on rationality either - it's a conviction we "feel", wonderfully unprovable, and not, in my opinion, amenable to transmission to anyone else.

I would go so far as to say that love, as we may be lucky enough to experience it between us, and religious experience, are aspects of the same thing. Just as we can't be too literal about the language of love, so I think we shouldn't get too hung up on the detail of our individual numinous experiences. They speak to us through the lens of whom we are. Whether we do the processing, or whether the Spirit does it to suit our needs or our best channel of receptivity, I have no idea. For what it's worth, my feeling is that Spirit is external, as something like Tarot is based on our internal response to our consciousness - everything we know of ourselves, like dreams.

So how could so many versions of what feels "true" be true? That's because we all see through a different glass darkly. This is OK because, if there is some kind of absolute truth, and I suspect there might be, I have no expectation of being able to understand it, even if confronted by it. Better to do my best to be the best goldfish I can be, only dimly aware of the possibility of some super being who throws me dried insect eggs and changes the water. (Only spiritually speaking of course. A physically interventionist Divinity makes no sense to me.)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Thought and feeling again - a personal perspective

I need to write this. Whether anyone else needs to read it remains to be seen. In case anyone who doesn't know me reads this, some personal detail is required if it is to make any sense.

In the last 18 months, I have, increasingly intermittently, visited two different counsellors. The idea was to get help with understanding, and hopefully managing, occasional outbursts of anger. I wasn't aspiring to sainthood, I don't think there's anything wrong with righteous anger, if it turns out to be righteous, and simply repressing anger can make it worse in the long run.

My problem is anger that pre-exists, and is really happy when it finds a target on which to vent spleen and spite, almost always way disproportionate to the perceived misdemeanour of the luckless target. Even worse, this is more likely to happen with someone with whom I feel safe, who deserves it even less, and whom I would do anything not to hurt when in my right mind.

OK, so off to counselling to find the source of this anger. The usual approach is that we're angry with someone whom we don't feel we should be angry with - typically a kind and loving parent. As a 5 year old blind child, I'm sure I was devastated by being shipped off to a special boarding school, even though, I knew my parents acted for what they thought was the best. Anyway, the point is that there's plenty to be angry about, and any counsellor will tell you that. Also, being blind can be frustrating, and I know I get angry about that sometimes. But a sighted counsellor is inevitably putting her/his sighted self in my position, which they have no way of understanding, since blindness is, to them, dark and terrifying, whereas I don't know what darkness is, and my status quo is not particularly terrifying to me (most of the time).

I did get something from examining my relationship with my parents, and the damage that boarding school inevitably did to it. And examining how I feel about blindness is something I hadn't bothered to do much, because it is just how things are.

Finally, I get to the point. This morning it struck me that, for all this searching for specific targets, parents, blindness ETC., what I'm really angry with is things that can't be changed. And the very pointlessness of being angry about what can't be changed is what makes me angry, because there's nothing to be done.

Now when I say "it struck me", I'm sure this idea had previously occurred to me as an idea. But one of my problems with counselling is that I'm definitely someone who says "yes I can see how that might be true". that's a totally non-emotional response of course, and I'm good at those thanks to boarding school, and getting beyond that rationalisation is the hard part. I'm saying that because I may be appearing to state the extremely obvious about the primary source of my anger. But, talking as someone for whom feeling is something of a novelty, I actually felt a very small penny drop.

In my last post, I was musing about thought and feeling, and here's a personal example of what I was talking about. Our reason is crucial to us of course, but its limitations are just as great as the limitations of that part of us which some would dismiss as mere wooly psycho-babble about emotions and spirituality. Wherever our faith, love, or potential self-awareness come from, it feels qualitatively different to me from the chemical stuff. And, unfamiliar territory though it is to me, I'm certainly coming to value it greatly.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

"The Ghost In The Machine"

Hardly an original title, but it sums up my current preoccupation.

Two posts on one of Ann's blogs got me started. And please don't follow that link right now. If you do, as I did a couple of years ago, you might never come back, and I haven't finished yet. Today's prescribed reading list is this post, in which she cites this one, and this post, in which she cites this one.

OK, got all that?
The themes raised by all those posts are interesting in themselves, and very well expressed; so I certainly don't propose to attempt to gild those lillies. But they got me thinking about humans as reasoning machines and as spiritual beings. Do the latter exist? If so, can they be in any way separated from the former, or how do we synthesise these two constituent parts of ourselves in daily practice?

Our powers of reason are brought to bear as soon as we seek to describe anything. We may feel prompted to make a particular ethical choice. Does that prompting come from the same source as our attempt to answer the question "why was I so prompted?" It may do, but I don't feel it does. We should use our eason to scrutinise such feelings as best we may, but as with religious faith or love, we can't deny the reality of a feeling or impulse simply because we can't precisely explain or define it. We yearn for neatness, for tractability, for what Writing Kaye calls "One True Wayism". This is great of course as long as we are the pilgrims on that particular "True Way" (see Ann on the fundamentalist Christian moral position).

Neatness elludes us. To take Ann's 2 posts as examples, we strive for clarity in our ethical choices, perhaps wanting to get closer to scientific standards of discussion, in order to avoid the common confusions, such as someone insisting that you must accept the inerrantcy of scripture simply because they believe it. And yet, when thinking of her creative aspirations, Ann finds herself inexorably drawn into metaphysics again, as Susan Yanos talks about the transformative power of writing, or creativity in general
"Although the writing process is not the only place to engage in such transformational dialogue with the Spirit, it is a powerfully effective place because of its concern both for questions of meaning and for questions of technique:
what we know and how we have come to know it."
"The Spirit" refuses to go away. We may simply be the result of brain chemistry and learned experience, but it seems that most of us don't feel as if we are. This may mean nothing of course but, however unscientific in a narrow sense, I think we cannot simply ignore our convictions because we can't prove them to be true.
I should perhaps say that, in taking examples from Ann's posts, I wasn't seeking to expose inconsistency so much as pointing out that the rational and the metaphysical are endemic to the human condition. We try to consider them as if they were completely separate, but they both inhabit the same person, and refuse to be dealt with separately for long. We seem to need both. When wearing our rational or our spiritual hats, we may appear to deny the other. Synthesis is the hard part. Perhaps we should devote our prime attention to living life, and demote tryin to make sense of it to the category of things which are merely very interesting. But that search for synthesis is, persistently, very interesting.

As an after-thought, if the question of whether our brain chemistry gives us access to our spirituality, or whether it simply creates the illusion of spirituality, were not confusing enough, you might take a look, and have a listen to this audio magazine on current research into mystical experience, accessed by hallucinogens or non-chemical techniques. It may surprise you. Let me know.