Monday, May 18. 2009
Kenny pointed me to his essay on fantasy, which he had written after seeing Prince Caspian.
So, let me share some parts of my life that I had never shared before:
I was deeply involved in fantasy life when I was a child. From about the time I could read novels (9 or 10 years old) I would spend vast amounts of time reading fantasy and sci-fi, and then even faster amounts of time day-dreaming about those worlds. I was never merely the observer of those stories; I almost always become an active participant. I dreamed up roles for myself in the stories, or back-stories, or unwritten sequels to all those books. I developed relationships with the characters based on long conversations I had them.
To give you a sense of what this looked like from the outside, I'll tell you a story. One sunny spring day when I was nine I went outside in our back yard, climbed on a plastic faux tire swing, and began swinging back and forth. And swinging . . . And swinging . . . And swinging. I never looked around. I just stared into space, pushing off the tree again and again. At one point my mother came out into the yard and asked, "Are you ok?"
"Are you all right?"
"It's just that . . . you've been swinging on that swing for two solid hours."
I don't recall, now, what world I was in at that time. It might have Xanth, or maybe Pern. My imaginary life was totally immersive and addictive, not unlike the old Hanna-Barbara cartoon with the day-dreaming kid who was constantly losing himself in dreams, fighting arithmetic problems on the blackboard or deep-sea diving in the classroom aquarium. I eventually learned that people think you're autistic if you sit in one place while you fantasize, so I found socially acceptable repetitive things to do: weeding gardens, hitting tennis balls against schoolyard walls, biking, walking. I have always been a physically fidgety person, more comfortable moving than sitting still, so I usually needed to be moving to fully lose myself in the dream.
An imaginative life is the sort of thing that's supposed to make great artists and writers. But I didn't write, or draw, or create much of anything, other than more and more elaborate dreams for myself. I did read a lot, because my imaginative world needed the fuel of new worlds, new characters and quests. I did not play with other kids when I was in the grades, nor did I "hang out" with people as I grew older. I had only the vaguest sense of what friendships looked like. It troubles me, sometimes, when I think back on my childhood and try to remember it, and there is so little detail. I cannot write the story of my life then, because my life had no story back then. I was living in someone else's. I remember a lot of physical details. I can fly through every house I've ever lived in, and see every room in my mind's eye in perfect detail. Every road or path I walked is equally fixed in my mind. Sometimes, when I'm thinking through a problem, a part of my mind walks through those places again. There are no people in that mental space, though. It's as empty as Charn, the world of the White Witch after she spoke the Deplorable Word.
Someone might suggest that I had retreated into a fantasy world because my real life was unpleasant. I'm sure that's true for some people. But there was nothing wrong with my real life. I lived in a decent home, with good parents and brothers. I did fine in school. If anything, the causality went the other way: I didn't fantasize because I didn't have friends, but rather I didn't bother with friendships because my life was already lively and entertaining enough in my fantasy world. Were it not for puberty, and the strongly felt need to associate with flesh-and-blood females, I might never have come out.
Like the Pevensie children, I also was eventually cast out of the fantasy world. It coincided with the development of my religious life. I started reading C.S. Lewis' theology and philosophy books, at the same time that I was going to Christian youth groups and trying to interact with humanity. At some dim level, I knew that I had reached the stage when living in dreams was no longer appropriate. God did not bring me to this place just to have me dwell in a dream. But it was a secret addiction, a guilty pleasure, and I struggled mightily to overcome it. I never completely did, though I did finally find a place in this world.
Kenny makes the suggestion that people inclined to fantasy literature are also later inclined to spirituality, and that perhaps the reason for the interest in fantasy is that it appeals to some dim intuition that there is a deeper hidden reality in the world that is more real and more alive than the "real world" that most people deal with. There is definitely something to that.
I fell in love with the Narnia books, not just because they were such great fantasy books, but because they explicitly, knowingly made the connection between fantasy and spirituality. Lewis wrote the mythology of Aslan to parallel the mythology of Jesus Christ, and it resonated deeply in me. It was a good and a bad thing. It was good, I suppose, in that it created a deep desire in me to have an encounter with divinity. I had many sleeping dreams in which I finally met Aslan, and could enjoy the peace of knowing him. I was always bitterly crushed when I woke up.
The problem was, I think Lewis did his job too well. I loved Aslan more than I ever loved Jesus. Aslan was powerful and beautiful and subtle; he was most deeply personal while remaining awesome in his magnificence. Jesus was . . . Well, none those things, really. He was this guy that people seemed to perpetually take advantage of, until they finally killed him. Aslan's myth was better. That alone was enough to make me see it for what it was -- a myth, a story, something that might point to a deeper truth, but could never be taken as the Truth itself.
By then, though, the desire was too firmly planted. A life in Mundania could not possibly be enough. In this world people care about fashion, and cars, and who's going to what party, and sports. In other words, they care about things that are stupid and meaningless. (I'm sure that they would look at the things I care about -- philosophy and fiction and spirituality -- and find them equally stupid and trivial. That does not change my opinion. They're wrong.) I had seen a glimpse of life lived for something more real and true. Only now, trapped in a world without magic or miracles, I'm having to create that life on my own. One of the great strengths of the Prince Caspian movie is that it showed how hard it was for the Pevensies to live on the Outside, banished from magic.
Saturday, March 21. 2009
I hope that when BeliefNet and other such outlets are judging “best spiritual films” for 2009, they will include Coraline, Henry Selick’s 3-D stop-motion animation adaption of Neil Gaiman’s novel. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s Sandman comic for years, and Coraline has the same creepy-fantastic-dreamworld feeling that pervades Gaiman’s stories of the King of Dreams. And, like Sandman or Pan’s Labyrinth, you go into it thinking you’re getting fantasy and are shocked to find that it’s really horror, a genre you wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot-pole had you not been tricked into it. Then you have to deal with the surprising self-knowledge that you kind of like horror, if it’s done right.
Many parents will see trailers and think this is another Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride – that is, faux horror, a cute take on horror, not real horror. But when the MPAA ratings say “PG for thematic elements,” they mean that the movie is designed to creep you out. Critics seemed to differ on whether this is a good thing or not – some found it to be a defect in what they continued to mistake for a children’s film, while others recognized it as the film’s conscious achievement.
So, if Coraline is so horrific, why then am I proposing it as a “spiritual” film? Partially, it’s to cure the prevailing notion that “spiritual” is synonymous with sunshiny, feel-good moral uplift. There can be a lot of spiritual value in being disturbed, and sometimes the best way to discover the light is to face the darkness. But besides that, Coraline is packed with so much Jungean archetypal imagery and spiritual themes that some pop-culture grad student is certainly writing their Master’s thesis on it right now.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I would catch the DVD and then see if you caught the same details I did (caution: spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Coraline"
Sunday, March 15. 2009
Another unexpected spiritual insight from Pinker's How the Mind Works is that it almost exactly reproduces Richard Rose's general view of human psychology. People usually think of themselves as a single person, making decisions consistently in their own rational self-interest. Rose, however, noted that if you observe the proceedings of your own mind through introspection, and observed the behavior of people in general, it made a lot more sense to think of the mind as a collection of people: a bunch of Mini-Mes, often coalesced around desires and fears that competed with each other for control of the body.
It's not hard to persuade people of a multiple-self model – it pops up all over the place in our language and culture. Cartoon characters, when facing a moral dilemma, often have little angel and devil versions of themselves sitting on either shoulder, whispering in their ears. An overweight person wakes up determined to stick to a diet, and then ends the day eating a piece of chocolate cake – behaving almost exactly like two completely separate people with contradictory goals.
Based on this observation of the multiplicity of selves, Rose's advice to spiritual seekers was half common-sense folk wisdom and half mystical philosophy:
Rose's model of psychology came out of his own observation, and the pastiche of pop psychology, folk wisdom, and plain old superstition. Pinker's model has a much more scientific providence, but essentially confirms the same observations. A major theme of How the Mind Works is that human intelligence is not some undifferentiated blob of reasoning stuff, but rather a collection of discrete tools for cognition, each with its own programming and often leading the organism to differing conclusions. Pinker recognizes that each human emotion is a separate set of programming, to cope with different situations, and that they often contradict each other. He goes a few steps further and even demonstrates that because of the multiplicity of modules, evolution has designed certain emotions to override reason and seize control of the organism, so that other humans could count on a consistent reaction from someone regardless of the turn-over of motivations and rationales (e.g. marital infidelity will be consistently met with murderous rage). And, like Rose, Pinker sees consciousness as the mystery sitting in the middle of it all, the one begging to be explained.
Wednesday, March 11. 2009
Steven Pinker is an atheist; in How the Mind Works he is not shy about stating, without fanfare or argument, that the explanations of religion are "palpably not true." Why, then would this book be high on my list of recommended reading for the spiritual seeker? Am I trying to argue people out of their faith, with Pinker as my secret weapon?
Steven Pinker demonstrates the best attitude towards finding the truth. He's not afraid to ask the hard questions, and not afraid to accept the hard answers, and (most astounding of all) not afraid to admit what he doesn't know. He's not afraid of giving opposing views a hearing, nor is he afraid to ruthlessly critiquing them, while still avoiding being outright snarky. He is, simply, not afraid. He has a marvelous equipoise that makes you remember that science is a noble manifestation of Reason, with a capital R, and not just an excuse for the geek-and-wonk crowd to bully you with their assertions. And his inquiries have gotten him in trouble -- in fact he wrote an entire book, The Blank Slate, to explain why so many people -- both the religious conservatives and the liberal intelligentsia -- will fight tooth and nail against the notion of human nature.
Maybe it's just a result of his extremely clear, friendly, and witty style, that he seems so fearless. But frankly, I could have used a little more of that in youth. In my teens, everyone who talked about spirituality used the language of fear. Back then it seemed my only possible choice was to exchange the fear of eternal damnation (courtesy of traditional Christianity) for the fear of existential nothingness (thanks a lot, rational intellect). I latched onto mysticism because it seemed like the only way out of perpetual anxiety. Why guess, when you could know? Sometimes I think my philosophy might have gone down a different path, had I just known a few more people who had the guts to face the Unknown without ducking for cover or shitting their pants. Rather than working out my salvation with fear and trembling, I might have spent a lot more time just really paying attention.
That fearlessness only counts, though, if someone is fearlessly asking the right questions. I don't have much use for people who are fearless because they don't have a thought in their head, or who choose to stay in their philosophic bunkers and not go outside into the Doubt. And that's the biggest reason Pinker should appeal to spiritual seekers -- he doesn't shy away from the question of Consciousness. Most other cognitive scientists, after happily explaining why you're just one big ball of algorithms, will just wave their hands indignantly at consciousness. They pretend it doesn't exist, that it's an illusion, or that it doesn't matter, or that it's a question to ask another day, maybe in another hundred years or so. But Pinker, bless him, recognizes that consciousness is THE question, the one we most care about. If there is one thing we know with more certainty than anything else, it's that we are Aware . . . and what the hell is that about?
And, even more interestingly, Pinker is willing for now to let consciousness defy the computational theory of mind. No algorithm or neural network can satisfactorily explain how you come to have the experience of red, with all its redness. Pinker even suggests that it might be truly unfathomable for the human mind, because the human mind never needed to evolve the capacity to understand such things. Our ability to solve problems and predict the future was mighty handy for our ancestors on the African savannah -- but the nature of consciousness might be outside of our ability to comprehend it, because our ancestors never needed to in order to survive. This also feels intuitively true -- if there is any possible way to understand consciousness, it's going to be an entirely different sort of understanding than we're used to.
Pinker has lots of useful insights to share about every other kind of thought and feeling that occupies your philosophic contemplation. But the biggie, the best, the pearl of great price, is this: keep your eye on consciousness, because THAT'S what science can't touch, and that's where all the action is. If God is ever to be found to be "palpably" real, it's going to be there.
Monday, January 12. 2009
Ok, let me take another stab at the take-home Objectivist message from Atlas Shrugged. The other day I showed how Augie uses objective fact to drive spiritual progress, but I didn't really tie back to Rand's book.
Atlas Shrugged has two (and only two) kinds of characters – the Good kind we are supposed to admire and identify with (Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Ellis Wyatt, etc.), and the Bad kind by whom we are supposed to be repulsed and exasperated (Jim Taggart, Mrs. Reardon, and a long line of looter businessmen, politicians, and journalists). Everyone is black-or-white. Ordinary man-on-the-street types are just muted versions of the same two colors: men and women silently longing for real virtue, or quietly wallowing in self-pity.
The Good characters are constantly paying attention to objective measures – "Can I get the railroad built?" or "Will the bridge hold up?" – and ignoring all the subjective factors – "Do people like me?" or "Am I having any fun?" Meanwhile, all the Bad characters are doing just the opposite, making excuses about their objective failures – "It's not my fault the factory went under" – and justifying themselves with their lofty intentions – "I think we should care about the common man" or "Let's consider the social obligations."
Rand repeats this formula again and again and again, for hundreds of pages, until her philosophic attitude becomes embedded in our consciousness. Repetition of examples is a powerful teaching tool – generally, human beings learn faster from a bunch of examples than from abstract descriptions of ideals. Some of the more influential pop moral teachers, like "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, hash countless case studies until their audience gets an instinctive feel for their philosophic principles. They might not be able to answer, "What are Dr. Laura's five basic principles?" but they will be able to look at any situation and know, "What would Dr. Laura say about this?" Augie Turak does the same thing, mostly through story-telling. He does articulate the abstract principles, but the reason people understand him is because he illustrates with countless examples and analogies.
After a few hundred repetitions of the same sort of dialog, the reader starts to recognize the patterns of the Good and the Bad characters. The Good ones are supposedly coldly rational and have no interest in other people – and yet they are the ones who really care about things that really matter. Dagny is more concerned about the state of the country more than anyone else around her, because she sees the economic collapse that awaits them if she doesn't build her line. Dagny and Reardon claim to be utterly selfish, but in the end they provide other people the things they need most: confidence in their commitments. They speak the truth, and they do what they say they are going to do. Because they are supremely rational, they value what is obviously good and effective and shun whatever isn't. Their attention is fixed on material achievement, but they ultimately see the material realm as the matrix within which the spirit operates: a railroad might be solid steel, but it's really the manifestation of the engineer's thought and intent. The key point is: their virtue derives from paying attention to the objective.
The Bad ones, however, are doing just the opposite. They claim to be full of selfless values and concern for their fellow human beings, but actually they are completely self-absorbed. The worry constantly about who will blame them for their failures, who will like them for their flattery; meanwhile, they neglect to actually get anything done. They talk endlessly about their good intentions, and never stop to evaluate the actual objective effects of their action or inaction. Because everything they care about – praise, blame, intention, whim – is in their own heads and disconnected from objective reality, their philosophies (if they have any at all) are shot through with contradictions and irrationality. All values get turned on their heads: virtue must apologize for itself, greatness must be humbled, weakness is to be praised and served in the name of "fairness", profit is bad and failure is good. They claim to be unconcerned with brute physical existence and committed to "higher" things, and yet when they look at a factory or a railroad all they can see is physical labor and substance, and have no understanding whatsoever for the mental and spiritual virtues that made it possible. They are selfish and stupid and irrational, because they are disconnected from the objective.
I guess I should also point out that Augie is not an Objectivist. For all I know, he never read Ayn Rand at all. But I feel the same spirit moving in both their philosophies – they love the Truth, and want people to live according to the Truth, and they have utter contempt for delusion and self-deception.
Wednesday, December 31. 2008
If people default to giving their children whatever education system they themselves grew up with, then the trend is even more pronounced in spiritual education. We want our children to believe what we believe, and to value what we value . . . regardless of whether those values have really panned out for us. I was always puzzled by the term "faith of our fathers," as if the fact that our ancestors believed it should have any significance for what I believe. It doesn't make logical sense, but it does make psychological sense. Our parents are the template from which we build our model of the world and our model of human relationships. If it was good enough for Mom and Dad, and good enough for me, then by God it's gonna be good enough for Junior.
I think we are susceptible to the same errors the Spanish parents are making about their kids education, in the spiritual realm. We take the kids to church, figuring that we want to give them some kind of baseline experience for spiritual life, but in fact our models for what makes a good spiritual education are completely lacking. Maybe they get what we got – catechism, a sense of reverence and community, a bunch of stories that are both wondrous and confusing – but is that what they really need? It might be the spiritual equivalent of the Spanish kids memorizing 18th century poems – it might look like they're learning something, but it's not what they really need.
Unfortunately, I am perpetually perplexed when it comes to the spiritual education of my children. I do not really regret having a "churched" upbringing, and yet I spent years and years unraveling the confusion and anxiety brought on by my early church experiences. The only thing I can thank the church for is giving me an unsolvable koan to chew on throughout my adolescence: how can people say this is the most important thing in the universe, and yet live the way that they live? How can so much of this stuff intuitively feel correct, and yet logically make no sense at all? Maybe that was all an important part of my spiritual development . . . and then again, maybe it was so much noise. Do I really want to baptize my children into this confusion?
The primary reason my kids are in a Waldorf school (aside from an excellent education) is that the Waldorf teachers seemed to have a pretty good notion of how to nurture the spiritual capacities of children without getting into the thorny issues of theology. I figured that bought me a few years to continue working out this question: what can we give our children to aid their spiritual development? Right now, my answer to that question is not that different from run-of-the-mill parenting advice: keep them out of trouble, keep them basically sane and sociable, and trust they will be able to find their own way.
Thursday, December 25. 2008
Today is Christmas. The traditional news cycle demands a frothy story about the best gifts, a tongue-in-check column about how to cope with your family, and a feel-good story about people spreading cheer to those less fortunate. This news cycle is as inevitable as Chipmunk music in malls.
Except this year. We have no stories of spreading cheer to those less fortunate, because for some reason everyone feels like they are the "less fortunate" this time around. The rich have seen their wealth evaporate in a financial crisis and/or scandal; businessmen are seeing profits dwindling; working class are losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Typical fare in the news: "How to Say Goodbye to your home on Christmas". "In Hard Times, Houses of Worship Turn to Chapter 11 in Book of Bankruptcy." "Little holiday cheer" has been repeated in so many headlines and lead-ins that, were the Grinch's heart still two sizes too small, he would rejoice. "They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!"
Where are the Whos? I am standing on the top of Mt. Crumpet, looking across the land, desperate to find someone who still remembers how this story is supposed to end. Even if we lose #$@%^ everything, we still have cause to sing in the morning. I bring you good tidings of great joy: life has a meaning which transcends our material fortunes.
Wednesday, December 24. 2008
When the holidays come, I always feel the urge to "keep Christ in Christmas" – to actually teach my young children the spiritual significance of the occasion. For me, the holiday represents the coming of grace into the world. I always get a little thrill when I hear the words of the angel: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." The sense that God is at work in the world, that the highest is somehow moving among the lowest, and conspiring to make something great happen . . . that's the Christmas spirit to me.
But then I sit down with the Bible, and try to prepare myself to tell the story of Jesus' birth to my eight-year-old and my four-year-old. I'm thinking, how hard can this be? Everyone knows the image of a cute little baby lying in a manger, surrounded by animals and kvelling shepherds and kings. What could be cuddlier than that?
But then I read the story, and I find that all the plot-points are premised on some seriously adult themes. The story begins with Mary betrothed to Joseph, and Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and is planning to call off the wedding. You can't even begin to get into the story without having to explain the facts of life, the prospect of infidelity and betrayal and unwed mothers. How do you gloss over that?
Then you have the whole narrative arc of the wise men, the kings seeking out Jesus. That whole narrative hinges on the evil king Herod trying to find this new messiah and kill him, and concludes with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. What, exactly, is this supposed to teach our children? That if God really likes you, he'll tip you off when the bust is coming down? That if you're not the Son of God, the Almighty is going to let evil kings skewer you in your crib?
Don't get me wrong – it's a great story, full of intrigue, suspense, interpersonal tension, faith and doubt . . . it's just not a children's story. And once you sanitize it from all the adult themes, you are left with just the one scene of the Nativity: mangers and donkeys and camels and a baby. (Well, maybe two scenes – you've got the angel coming to shepherds as well. That's pretty clean.) Maybe that one image is enough. Obviously, it IS enough, because our culture has been able to sell a lot of Nativity scenes and make Christmas a child-centered holiday for decades. And I suppose it's peanuts to sanitize the Christmas story, compared to, say, Easter, which is chock-a-block with betrayal, political intrigue, torture, and capital punishment. But the Nativity seems to lose a lot of its meaning, if you don't know how Mary and Joseph came to be there, and the kings as well.
Tuesday, December 2. 2008
I keep mulling over the importance of narrative – literally, story-telling -- in human thought. It's clear to me that stories are powerful vehicles for human thought: far more effective than anything else for transmitting knowledge, retaining information, communicating emotion, inspiring action, and sharing wisdom than any other mode of discourse, bar none. And yet . . . philosophers seem to have a very ambivalent relationship with story-telling.
Philosophers do plenty of story-telling – the good ones, anyway. Augie Turak is an excellent raconteur, and his teacher Richard Rose was as well. As much as they loved to talk about the Truth (with a capital T), it was also clear that they loved a good story almost as much. (Augie often said, only half in jest, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.") And if Jesus taught in parables, why shouldn't the rest of us? One of the best lessons I took away from the SKS was how much better stories were at revealing the soul than any abstract argument. I could listen to people talk about religious paradigms and theories for hours, and know almost nothing about them. Then, almost by accident, someone would tell a story, and instantly I knew much more about who they really were, what they really valued, and how their minds worked. Stories had a magic about them . . . and anyone who read the great novelists, poets, and playwrights couldn't help but know that stories could point out the truth.
And yet . . . there is also a powerful distrust of the story, especially when people become aware of its story-ness. Who are the people we distrust the most? Why, the story-tellers: the used-car salesman, the marketer, the huckster. The media, the politicians, the self-appointed prophets. Anyone who crafts a story that is calculated to change our behavior is seen as counterfeit, slick, superficial, false. We even euphemistically refer to lying as "telling someone a story." Especially when it comes to matters of religious, spiritual or philosophic conviction, it is extremely important to us that we are hearing the truth and not "just a story." Many spiritual teachers seem to have a distain for stories as so much mental noise that gets in the way of our perceptions of the truth.
So what are we to do? We long to find the truth, and yet all our minds have to work with are stories. The very thing that lets us taste the truth is also the thing that seems to stand in our way.
Friday, November 28. 2008
In Malcolm Galdwell's Outliers, he makes a bold assertion that math skill is directly and primarily correlated with persistence – how long are you willing to try to solve a problem? He's looking for an explanation for why Asians are, statistically speaking, better at math than most of the rest of the world. He finds that Asians are measurably more persistent in problem-solving, and their persistence directly correlates with their math scores, relative to other countries. Which leads to the next question: what makes Asians so persistent? He believes it ultimately comes from a culture of rice farmers, which is a form of agriculture that demands vastly more attention and work than other forms of agriculture more common in Europe. Their culture values work, because the rice paddies reward work. That cultural norm has persisted far beyond the rice paddies into their industrial economy.
I'm not used to thinking of other cultures as valuing work more than mine. After all, the Europeans are constantly slighting the Americans for working all the time, and never taking time to enjoy their families and the simple pleasures of life. The Americans, in turn, look down on the Europeans for their stagnant economy and their socialist sense of entitlement. We are the hard workers of the world, right?
I might have thought that, until I started working with a Chinese programmer. He works eight hours a day, seven days a week, every week. Moreover, as far as I can tell, he does not consider himself to be a particularly hard worker. That is in line with the Gladwell's estimates that the average traditional rice farmer works 3,000 hours a year.
I take great hope in such findings. Mathematics is a field we often associate with high IQ and raw intellectual talent . . . and once again, Gladwell is showing that talent is not nearly as important as work and persistence. Maybe, after hearing this, people will be more inclined to believe that work and persistence is the determining factor in spiritual endeavors as well. Teachers have been saying it for eons. "Earnest is all," says Sri Nisargadatta. "Pray without ceasing," says St. Paul. Holiness is not the domain of specially gifted people; it belongs to anyone who keeps after it.
(Page 1 of 10, totaling 92 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog