Saturday, June 30. 2007
Our minds do not work the way we think they work. In How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker offers dozens of examples of how our supposedly unified brain actually behaves as a collection of specific modules evolved for different specific survival tasks. I experienced it more directly today, in the form of sunscreen.
As we were getting ready for the beach, my wife offered me sunscreen. Now Iâ€™ve been out to the beach and gotten burned on many occasions. Iâ€™m pale as a cave fish and so is my wife, so we slather on the SPF 30. Experience is working for me: Iâ€™ve learned from my mistakes and am acting to avoid them in future. Good brain!
Out at the beach, I go in the surf with the kids, and wave after wave of salt water washes over my feet and legs. Somewhere back there in my brain, I know that all this water is washing off my sunscreen. My wife even quoted me an article the day before, about how sunscreen breaks down over time and needs to be reapplied. But I watch my wife reapplying sunscreen to the kids, and she turns them into bread hushpuppies, as blowing sand coats the sticky sunscreen. And some other part of my brain said, â€œI donâ€™t want to be a breaded hushpuppy.â€ So no more sunscreen for me.
At the end of the day, we stop by a hotel pool to swim around, and taking off my sandals and shirt, my hubris is made apparent. Iâ€™m burned â€“ not too badly, but visibly. And at this point the two parts of my brain start having their argument:
â€œYou knew this was going to happen!â€
â€œBut it didnâ€™t look like I was getting burned . . .â€
â€œYou idiot, you can never tell at the time youâ€™re getting burned . . . by the time you see it, itâ€™s too late.â€
â€œWell, truth be told, I didnâ€™t want to look like a dork with light breading of silica.â€
â€œWell, truth be told, now you look like a dork with bright red lines across the tops of your feet.â€
â€œIâ€™m ok, really. It doesnâ€™t hurt.â€
â€œNo, really, it doesnâ€™t hurt . . . well . . .
â€œItâ€™s starting to hurt now, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œUh-huh. You put socks back on those feet, and now â€“ youâ€™re â€“ feelinâ€™ â€“ it!â€
You would think that years of experiencing this same pattern would make a greater impression on me. I put on sunscreen, I wear hats, I wear shirts, I keep to the shade when I can . . . but I still donâ€™t do everything I ought. This would be a deep mystery, if I still believe that the mind was a single entity. But even Richard Rose, who predated Steven Pinker by several decades, could see by direct observation that the mind was not singular. [I tried to find an appropriate quote here, but Rose is frustratingly difficult to cross-reference, since he, like Nietzsche, would rather be vivid and hard-hitting than organized.]
The challenge for the spiritual seeker, or the dieter, or the person who doesnâ€™t want to get sunburned, is to maintain one state of mind long enough and consistently enough to overcome the perpetual shifts in perspective that overtake oneâ€™s consciousness. My wife (whose sense of overwhelming caution has never been overpowered by her fear of appearing dorky) could have helped me overcome my lapse, had I given her license to do so.
Thursday, June 28. 2007
I'll be going down to the beach this weekend, so I may be offline for the next few days. (It always feels vaguely gauche to ask one's host for internet access . . . with my reputation, everyone would assume I wanted to do some more work while I'm supposed to be vacationing. Frowns all around.)
I suck at taking vacations. I spent most of my life schooling myself in Work, and am at my happiest when I am doing something productive that I also happen to enjoy. For instance, I actually found great release in reading In Persuasion Nation for a book club -- I was doing something leisurely, but still felt like I was also fulfilling some sort of obligation. All the fun, none of the guilt. I'm not quite like Bill Gates, whose idea of fun is to lock himself in a beach house for a week and read white papers twelve hours a day. But pure leisure -- diverting oneself to no useful end -- has always been difficult.
And yet leisure is scripturally mandated. If God himself declared "a day of rest," who are we to argue? I sometimes think the Sabbath was explicitly conceived to overcome the Marthas of the world who would feel a perpetual moral imperative to workworkwork and never stop long enough to open themselves up to something greater.
Since the days of Christ people argued about the significance of the Sabbath. Are we resting because the day is holy, or is it holy to be occasionally resting? I can see the contemplative value in mandating a forced succession from worldly cares. But does that include water skiing? Playing Scrabble with nieces and nephews?
Leisure is surrender. I would like to earn the right to play, to rest after all the work is done, but that's a view for the "hardened righteous," the self-righteous Pharisees of the world. Sometimes you just have to let go, and dare to find out how little the world misses you.
Wednesday, June 27. 2007
Some couples we know from our kids' school invited us to a book club. Book clubs make me edgy; I barely have enough time to read the things I really want to read, much less make room for someone else's potentially disastrous picks. And even if you get to pick the book, you have to face the prospect that no one else will really get it. To inflict a book on an unwilling audience is bad enough; to realize that your favorite book is someone else's affliction is a double-whammy. But I like talking about books, and I would love to have something to talk about other than our kids and school gossip. So we signed on.
First on the docket wasÂ George Saunders' In Persuasion Nation, a collection of short stories. Erm. I'm especially squeemish about unfamiliar short fiction. Though I love The New Yorker and am continually enthralled by its non-fiction, I have not read a good new short story in years. My last great fiction discovery was Ethan Canin, after hearing "Star Food"Â broadcast on a public radio station late at night. But the book jacket blurbs compared Saunders favorably to Kurt Vonnegut, and he's got MacArthur "genius" grant, so that's pretty good creds to start with.
In Persuasion NationÂ was . . . actually pretty good. I'm guessing the Waldorf parents who picked the book thought its satire of hyperconsumerist modern culture would play well with the Waldorf crowd, but be dark enough to keep conversation refreshingly adult. Saunders can write; some of his stories are excellent at evoking a unique narrator's voice, a craft I always admired after reading Clyde Edgerton. And he can go into the surreal and actually make it work, which is saying something -- surreal fiction is plutonium, powerful when done well but usually poisonous.
Some of the stories feel like failed experiments. "I CAN SPEAK", "My Amendment" and "93990" feel like a college writing professor daring his students to write creatively in a usually-not-so-creative format: customer service letter, editorial letter, and scientific report, respectively. These stories never really make it off the ground. Like a badÂ Saturday Night Live skit, they are interesting premises, but you get the joke too soon, and you spend the rest of the story waiting for a bigger payoff that never comes.
Saunders has a formula he tries repeatedly: character trapped in hyperconsumerist Brave New World awakens to larger and more meaningful reality. "Jon" has a teenager raised from birth as a dedicated focus-group tester escape with his teen bride into the Outside. "Brad Carrigan, American" is a TV show character who awakens, in The Truman Show fashion, to the triviality of his scripted existence. "In Persuasion Nation" (by far the most surreal)Â has a host of afflicted commercial characters rebel against the selfish violence glorified in advertising and strive to understand the meaning of their own existence. It's a tribute to Saunders' writing that, even though this sort of premise has been done repeatedly (by others as well as himself), I find myself caring about the characters and affected by their epiphanies.
Then there are the Bad Guy stories: narrators relating how they very reasonably and understandably lead themselves into appalling sins. "The Red Bow" and "Adams" show how the greatest evils are perpetuated by crusaders who are blind to their own self-centered motivations. The stories are well-done, with a good grasp of human nature, but so unremittingly dark that you're wincing by the end.
Â There's a lot of spiritual thought lurking beneath these stories. Clearly he gets the whole "Plato's Cave" thing, and sees genuine spirituality as an awakening from the unreal to the real. He sees how much virtue (or lack thereof) is a function of psychology and self-understanding. And he manages to cling to human compassion, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the cruelty and inanity of the world around him. I don't have as big an axe to grind as Saunders does against the consumer culture, but maybe that's just because I'm underexposed. I enjoyed his stories and will probably read more.
Tuesday, June 26. 2007
Scott Adams, the creator of theÂ Dilbert comic strip, writes a daily blog. I've continued to read it over the last year, mostly to study the craft; his writing is short, punchy, interesting, and prolific. I guess that's the payoff for compressing wit into three tiny squares seven days a week for twenty years. He is also very generous in telling his readers exactly what he had to do to achieve his status as a minor celebrity. He describes his work schedule, his tools, the specific challenges he faced in breaking out, the usual "where-do-you-get-your-ideas" stuff . . . all with the relative modesty of someone who thinks he's smarter than the average bear, but not that much smarter than the average bear.
He can afford to be generous with all that information because he knows the real secret ingredient to his success: ten years of working seven days a week on his strip, most of it while holding down a full-time job. He knows that he got lucky -- lots of other people, with more artistic and comedic talent than himself, don't get to where he's at. He also knows that he hung in there, day after day, week after week, year after year, clawing his way up the business until he finally broke through.
As above, so below. Most people recognize that worldly success is usually the result of combining modest talent with huge amounts of work and time, plus a healthy does of luck. But they rarely recognize that spiritual success is no different. Spiritual experiences are essentially accidents: spontaneous events in which the truth emerges. It's a dirty little secret in the spiritual world that such experiences are difficult to reliably reproduce: everyone has recommendations, but no one has a magic formula that guarantees success . . . any more than there's a magic formula to guarantee you'll make a million bucks or hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list. But if you want that happy accident to happen to you, you have to make yourself "accident-prone." And that takes work, over days and months and years.
When Augie Turak won the Templeton Foundation's $100,000 "Power of Purpose" writing contest, someone remarked to one of his brothers how incredible it was that he had written such a powerful piece in just a few weeks. He replied: "Are you kidding? He's been writing that essay for the last 25 years!" What looks like "overnight success" is usually the instantaneous realization of years of work and faith. Most of what Augie teaches is applying the exact same diligence people apply to worldly success to spiritual success. You work, you pray, you wait.
Monday, June 25. 2007
I burned up a significant amount of my writing time this morning trying to hunt down some useful critiques of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. I'm a big fan of Pinker's work, which is why I felt like I ought to work at resolving the cognitive dissonance created by his analysis of the (non)influence of parents.
I wish I could say that I found what I was looking for. Here's what I did find:
Sunday, June 24. 2007
Why has Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life (and its follow-on, The Purpose Driven Church) inspired so many churches to embrace its vision of Christian life? The answer, I think, can be found in a book published over a decade earlier: Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels.
Pagels was among the first to read the Nag Hammadi collection of gnostic texts: gospel stories that were contemporary to the four Gospels that anchor our current Bible, and yet which were methodically weeded out and destroyed by some church fathers. What Pagels found was that Christian history was a lot messier than the modern Christian tradition was willing to admit. There was not a single consistent version of the resurrection story, but rather multiple contradictory accounts. Many texts hinted at an esoteric or "secret" teaching that was only given to Jesus' closest disciples and notÂ preached to the masses. And many suggested a far more mystical and less literal interpretation of Christ's death.
Most of the more esoteric texts and traditions died out, and the orthodox view that we have in the church today prevailed. Pagels concludes that the reason the orthodox views prevailed was not due to their relative truth or falsehood, but because they reaffirmed a social order and consolidated power in a church hierarchy. It was, quite simply, natural selection: the religion that survived was the religion that best reproduced itself. And religions that stress the importance of the church community, and the propegation of a strict orthodox view, are the ones that tend to reproduce themselves. Solitary mystics don't tend to start mass movements; church-builders like the apostle Paul, however, get the word out.
So, again: why does Rick Warren's vision spawn so many churches? Because it's a vision that puts absolute emphasis on (you guessed it) churches. Rich Warren is absolutely unequivocable about the importance of church: membership in a local church, and a small study group of believers within a church, is absolutely mandatory. Evangelism, too, is absolutely mandatory: "The Great Commission is your commission," he writes.
I think Warren deserves a lot of credit (as I had written earlier) for writing an insightful interpretation and application of the gospel. But I also see that he's got natural selection on his side. Churches will embrace a dogma that makes churches essential.
Saturday, June 23. 2007
In the comments yesterday, Kenny noted his struggle with Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and it's assertion that parenting styles do not have a lasting effect on children, at least as far as science can measure, and once all heritability has been set aside.Â I had exactly the same reaction: Yay, someone finally acknowledges human nature! Oh no, my heavy investment in parenting can't have been a waste!Â
I admit I have a stake in this question, and that it's difficult for me to examine the findings objectively. Still . . . something about it stinks. I can live with someone telling me that heretability is more important than nurture, and I can even live with someone telling me that peer influence and individual experience trumps parenting as well. But to say that parenting has zero influence . . . that just defies reasonable expectations, as well as personal experience and common sense. I do not dismiss his findings out of hand, but I do feel the urge to start looking for the holes. We gotta be missing something here.
Let's start with some of Pinker's caveats. He freely admits that all the studies eliminate extreme cases of abuse and neglect from the data; so everyone still agrees that it is possible for parents to screw their children up. This is an important concession, because he still allows that parents can have profound impacts on their children. Of course, most of us strive to do more than just "not screw up the kids." But it does make me wonder how much data got excluded, due to conscious elimination of outliers or just plain sampling error.
He also allows for the fact that parents play a big role in selecting the child's peer groups, by picking certain neighborhoods to live in, sending their kids to particular schools, forbidding them to associate with certain circles, etc.Â But this too seems suspicious . . . you mean that, with all those very important ways that parents influence their kids via peer groups, that none of it translates into a correlation that would be labelled as "parental"? It seems perfectly logical to say that children from the same family are likely to have very similar peer group experiences, which would mean that all those peer influences should show up somewhere on the "nurture" side of the column. It just doesn't seem logically consistent to say, "Peers have a 50% influence, and parental behavior has a 0% influence." Where does the "home" end and the "peer experience" begin?
Pinker also completely sets aside learned skills. Whether a child learns piano or chess from his parents is not interesting to him; he's interested in questions of temperament and ability, which supposedly are more important to final outcomes. But that seems to be a huge set of parenting to set aside. Lots of incredibly important capacities do come down to skills. Sharing is a skill. Being polite and thoughtful is a skill, as much as a matter of temperament or intelligence. Budgeting your money, negotiating compromises, communicating effectively: these are all skills that can be taught, and which parents can and do teach to their children, by example and specific direction.Â (They are also skills that can be acquired fromÂ people other than parents, and at times well past early childhood, so maybeÂ people don't consider them the province of nature/nurture discussion; but it seems to me that the earlier they get them, the better they will be.)
So . . . keep poking at Pinker. Maybe we'll find something.
Thursday, June 21. 2007
Very good, Bill. Move to the head of the class for recognizing that it's not enough to know what you believe, but why, psychologically, you're inclined to believe it. SKS luminary Kenny Felder has a good exercise for trying to suss out that influence, and it goes something like this:
Every day, you see people, and in a very short time you make some quick categorizations about them. For instance, there goes an Ambitious Young Businessman, walking with an Old-Boys-Network Fatcat. Behind them, sneering, is an an Earth Momma and an Eco-Punk. If you happened to hear these people state some conviction (e.g. the Ambitious Young Businessman says, "Man, those rioters at the G-8 Summit are freakin' nuts," or the Eco-Punk says, "Exxon is just plain evil") you will probably think, "Well, of course someone like that would think something like that." The important thing to notice is that you believe that any convictions that you may have are based on facts, careful reasoning, subtle intuition, and experience -- that is, you believe what you believe for Good Reasons. But you go around generally assuming that other people (especially the people whoÂ have different views than your own) believe what they believe because "that's the kind of people they are." Â
So, the challenge is: can you look at yourself with the same eye that you look at others? When someone else sees you and sees "that kind of person," what kind of person is it? And to what extent are they seeing correctly? Or, as Kierkegaard put it: "Most people are subjective to themselves and objective to all others -- frightfully objective sometimes -- but the task is precisely to be objective to oneself and subjective to all others." (Works of Love)
So, to answer Bill's question: yes, absolutely, I see how my psychology reaffirms an emphasis on action. Even my way of analyzing it (thinking about how others perceive me) is a very Three way to go about the problem. But I also see a paradoxical truth that goes in the complete opposite direction: that my ultimate reality is rooted in the Ground of Being, that absolutely nothing needs to be done, that nothing I can do will win salvation because I am already whole. Just because my psychology lends itself to one truth does not mean I am blinded to the others.
More on that doing versus being paradoxÂ in my next post.
Wednesday, June 20. 2007
I finally finished Rick Warrenâ€™s The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For? It took more like 140 days, versus his prescribed 40. If the audio jack on my Treo hadnâ€™t given out, I might have finished sooner. But I guess that reflects my overall take on the book: it was well worth reading all the way through, but not enough to make me rush to the end.
Letâ€™s start with some truth in labeling. If you thought this book was about discerning your personal purpose and calling, you will be slightly disappointed, unless you happen to already be a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. Warrenâ€™s job is to tell you what your purpose is: Â commit yourself to Godâ€™s work. Which, in his vision, translates unerringly to: commit yourself to a church community and spreading the Gospel. To get any more specific, he tells you everything your guidance counselor already told you: find something youâ€™re good at and that you enjoy. If this sounds suspiciously like the same fundamentalist evangelical Christian message thatâ€™s been around for as long as youâ€™ve been alive . . . well, yeah.
So, you might ask: what makes this book so different, that itâ€™s created an enormous empire and moved legions of churches to embrace its message? To give credit where itâ€™s due, Warren is a very effective writer and preacher. He structured his book carefully to make it direct and accessible. He uses short punchy sentences, lots of an analogies and examples, lots of memorable catch-phrases and anagrams. He cites scripture a lot, and well, to give his message the steady drum-beat of authority. He convinced me that the evangelicals have accurately translated Paulâ€™s vision of the church into the modern world. (I think Warren would be pleased with that description; I know lots of others who would be appalled.) So, in a nutshell, Warren stuck to the knitting, taking good-olâ€™-gospel preaching and giving it maximum impact.
But surely there must be more than that? Well, he does do a good job of making the message personal, of forcing people to accept and process the real-life implications of the message. In the Baptist church I grew up in, the preacher could preach for two hours and never really, really push his congregation to change their lives. Warren doesnâ€™t go more than two pages at a stretch without â€œrolling back to the closeâ€: what are you going to do to change your life in this way? He makes every single chapter in the book â€œactionable.â€ This is Warrenâ€™s true genius, and the message I hope all spiritual seekers of all faiths pick up: spirituality is a genuine commitment to transforming your life. And transforming your life requires immediate action. (The exact same message is central to Augie Turak's â€œBrother Johnâ€ . . . which is probably why Warren, among the others on the Templeton committee, picked it as the winner of the â€œPower of Purposeâ€ contest.)
If it sounds like Iâ€™m shifting into business-y language to describe Warrenâ€™s message, I am. Warren uses all the tools of modern business practice to his advantage. He teaches the reader to write mission statements, to set goals, to work with small groups to insure accountability, to review progress. He takes spiritual life seriously. Should it be any wonder that his message is effective?
Tuesday, June 19. 2007
I hung up the phone at 5 pm yesterday, but it was only ten or fifteen minutes later before my mind was not on the conversation. "Maybe you should have let me drive," says my wife. "You don't look very relaxed." The customer was still having bugs with the software, after weeks of debugging, and was talking about scrapping the whole project. I feel like a failure. I'm one of those awful consultants who is utterly incompetent, and imposter, a fake.
An hour later I'm sitting in a skybox at the Durham Bulls stadium. I have a footlong and 16 ounces of beer in me. The kids are devouring hotdogs and looking out the window, mesmerized by the cocophonous pomp of minor league baseball. Aidan says brightly, "I really like the Durham Bulls!" Heart melts. Pain is dulled. Maybe things aren't so bad.
Another hour. I'm screaming in the stands at a home run. Malcolm is literally swinging from the rails and bouncing to the music. Our company's name flashes across screen, along with dozens of others, and we're all cheering. Harry has loaded us down with food, a big shindig for one of the rare occasions when the whole company is together. I AM an expert, by God, and part of a select few. I'm grateful.
Half an hour on. I'm crashed on the couch in the skybox. I've eaten too much, an extremely rare occurance for me. I would feel like a self-indulgent bourgiousie, were it not that thinking that way is about as self-indulgent as eating too much. Maybe I'm not quite as smart as I thought.
Back home. Mal is asleep, his legs propped up,Â a Durham Bulls ballcap cocked sideways over his peaceful face. Heart melts again, but the shadow of tomorrow's work is already looming. I read an email from my mother-in-law, who is valiantly fighting physical decline but in a lot of pain. I would feel all kinds of anxiety again, except that all my energy is drained and now I'm just numb.
Philosophy is supposed to give you fixed point of reference, something unchanging that can guide your state of mind even in the midst of change. Intellectually I might know where I stand, but emotionally I am perpetually at sea. I think that's what I keep hoping to acquire from spiritual experience: that the convictions of my mind would be continually, unshakably felt in my heart, above all changes of circumstance. But I don't think that's in the cards. All you can do is what those emotional states go by. The watching itself is the fixed point of reference, the still point of the turning world. But the world still turns, and you turn with it, too.
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