“The Whole Neighborhood Looks Out for You, Paul”

The painting I’m working on has a moon in it. Tonight I wanted to check out something about the real moon for the sake of the painting, so I stood outside my cottage on my open patio, gazing up at the moon with my back to my cottage door, which was only about three feet behind me. It was raining lightly.

After a few minutes, my neighbor, who has a roofed over porch that shelters her from the rain, happened to come outside to smoke a cigarette. Cheryl can be a bit of a wit, and she must have found it funny that I was standing in the rain gazing at the moon…

Cheryl: “Why are you standing in the rain, Paul? Are you lost? You look lost, but never fear: just turn around and you’re sure to sooner or later find your way home.”

Me: “Why thank you so much, Cheryl. That is truly helpful of you.”

Cheryl: “Anytime, Paul, anytime. You must know it’s not just me: the whole neighborhood looks out for you.”

Me: “That’s…um…not quite as reassuring as you might have meant it to be.”

Cheryl:  (Audible giggling).

The Reason I am Justifiably Indignant This Morning…

One of the Big Questions in life, a question that seems to me to have long captured the fascinated interest of most thinking people (and even my own fascinated interest) is, of course, the nearly infinitely debatable and exciting question of whether one should match the color of one’s socks to one’s shoes, or to one’s pants?

Tragically, that’s not the question I have been asked to talk about today.   I say “tragically” because it seems to me inconceivable that anyone could be genuinely indifferent to the question.

After all, the more you allow yourself to think about how to coordinate socks, the more of an exciting mystery it becomes.  One question leads to another, and then to another.   Before you know it, you are just as wrapped up in the questions as, say, your feet are wrapped up in a pair of fine dress socks made of wool blended with a bit of spandex or elastane for stretch.

Some folks — who were, I’m saddened to say, no doubt emotionally shallow people — have listened to me go on about socks only to state, “Paul, your problem is not socks, your problem is you have no life. Let’s go catch a film, go to the bars, or at least do something!”, but how can it possibly be true that I have no life when I as a man have boldly sought the truth of “Cotton or Wool?”; bravely faced without fear the dark issue of “Black or Midnight Navy Blue”; and even courageously written to my Senator on the pressing need to combat the evils of paisley?  

Alas!  None of that matters now!  For the otherwise kind and obviously intelligent lady who emailed me yesterday morning from (I’m pretty sure) South Africa regrettably failed to even mention socks, but merely wrote instead, “I have been pouring over some of your old ‘Saturday’s Nude’ posts from years ago in which you posted amazingly beautiful art photos of nudes, and I would so enjoy hearing your opinion of whether I’m pretty when nude.  Please find attached numerous high resolution pics of me without my clothes”.

“Enjoy?”  “Enjoy!”  What a strange and peculiar word for her to use when savagely inflicting upon herself the tragedy of failing to ask my opinion of socks!  Does she even know what a thrilling discourse she’s missing?  What a life enhancing experience she’s passing by?

Are We Humans Better Liars than Thinkers or Sages?

I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language.  That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.

I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins,  or — most likely these days —  a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve,  it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.

Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language,  various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.

There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on.   Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two:  Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us?  Why are we so good at it?

It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.

It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.  There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom.  That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.

Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot.  Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.

It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people.  Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.

So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying.  And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom.  In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.

For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”.  The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.”  But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it.   How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely?  At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely.  Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”

Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”.  But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth.  In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal.  Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.

For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice.  Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel.  But that question can be answered objectively.

The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal).  And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.

In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”.  Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome.  If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question:  Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?

The Working Title of My New Painting

For the past week or so, I’ve been working on a new painting.   I haven’t gotten very far yet, but the preliminary drawing on the canvas of what I intend to paint is about 95% done now.

Although the actual painting itself still remains to be started, and I have yet to brush even one dab of color onto the canvas, I am absolutely certain at this stage that the finished painting will be magnificent, stunning in both composition and execution, my first true masterpiece, and a major contribution to the world of art.

Unfortunately,  I am also absolutely certain that my current expectations will soon enough be crushed by reality.

For one thing, I recently counted all my finished canvases to discover that I’ve only painted 24 pieces since first picking up a brush about three years ago, so I must admit I haven’t been working hard enough to expect myself to have much skill at painting yet, let alone be capable of producing something of lasting value.  Consequently, I have chosen as a preliminary or “working title” for the new painting  —  “Opus Number 25: The October Offensive on the Noble Science of Aesthetics.”

On a slightly more serious note, I have noticed that when I am in the actual process of painting, I am usually a bit delusional about the quality of the work I’m doing.  That is, I tend to have an inflated opinion of it during the painting itself, and perhaps for a few days afterwards.  I think what happens is that I become somewhat like a young lover who only notices the positive traits in his beloved, and cannot, even if he tries, grasp that his beloved has any truly serious flaws.  It’s odd because it’s almost as if one has an emotional relationship to the painting that is on a par with the emotional relationship one might have to a person.

Bernie Sanders Tells the Truth, But Does it Give You Hope?

Perhaps like most members of our species of incredibly sophisticated poo-flinging super-apes, I am fully capable of taking pleasure in imagining  things that happen not, in fact, to be true.

Often enough, my imaginings are clearly fantastic: For instance, the extraordinarily pleasant fantasy that I have been elected Emperor of the Planet, and have managed to end war, involuntary poverty, disease, crime, and vicious paper cuts while at the same time justly employing my imperial powers to at last wreak final revenge on that hideous Brian T. Jurgens, who unfairly and outrageously gave me a black eye in third grade before I could unfairly and outrageously give him a black eye.

Not that the memory of losing a distant childhood battle to a person of no consequence such as Brian could possibly still rankle even in full adulthood a man of my dignity and advanced wisdom: In truth, I’m only dispassionately interested in doing justice, you see, and the uncontrollable cackling you might now hear if you were nearby has nothing at all to do with obsessed glee at the merest fleeting mental image of sauteing Brian in a man-size pan of boiling dragon’s pee.

In addition to all my other noble accomplishments as Emperor, I also once tried fantasizing that I got imperially laid without, however, inflicting insufferable boredom on the lady who laid me, but even in fantasies there are limits to what a person is able to consider imaginable.

Or are there limits?  I was reminded just yesterday morning of how flimsy is the notion of limits to what we can think conceivable when an old priest approvingly quoted a statement once made by Pope John Paul II on the topic of homosexual marriage:

 “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this [gay marriage] is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

Now, I think the Pope’s statement is fantastic.  That is, it seems to me right up there on the same level of fantasy as my imagining I am the Emperor of the Planet.  For, so far as I can see, the two claims have in common that there is not one single bit of sound evidence in support of either one of them.    But the fact the Pope’s statement is bunk isn’t what really struck me about it.

What really struck me was how the statement is just one small drop in a daily flood of nonsense. Some long time ago, I stumbled across a beautiful book of Native American poetry.  One of the poems spoke powerfully of someone who was a pathological liar: “And your words when you speak are like a wind from four quarters that carries the dust to my eyes no matter which way I turn.”  It can seem like that — seem like there’s no direction you can turn, nor place you can go in society today, that you are not being told nonsense.

Nonsense such as the Theory of Evolution is scientifically unsound, there is little or no climate change brought about by our burning fossil fuels, abstinence-only sex education works as advertised, cutting taxes on the rich will bring jobs and prosperity for all, and even that there is a War on Christmas — among many, many other such things.

And that, in a rather round about way, brings me now to Bernie Sanders.

Sanders seems to me usually honest, especially for a politician.   And — apparently by telling the truth (!) about such things as the nature, causes, and consequences of income inequality — he has become quite popular.

When the old priest quoted John Paul II yesterday morning, I at first reacted like I usually do when told a lie:  I internally sighed because I thought of how so many of us  believe such lies.  For perhaps what is most overwhelming about the daily flood is not so much the lies themselves but that so many of us swallow those lies.  How can one view with optimism the long term fate of our noble species of advanced spear-chuckers if we are basically such fools, such simple-minded fools?

But then along has come Sanders who both tells the truth  and, apparently, has struck a chord with folks by telling the truth.  He not only draws people to his speeches in record numbers, but he is also surging in many polls.

In a way, whether Sanders wins the nomination or the presidency matters less than the extraordinary response he’s gotten to speaking truth:  Speaking it — not to the powerful — but to common people.  To people that so many of our powerful elites these days seem to contemptuously think of as easily manipulated and exploited dolts.  Yet I think people’s response to Sanders permits us cautious hope for a better future, for it possibly bodes that sooner or later the truth will prevail among us despite the daily flood of lies.  However, another part of me worries that I am once again only fantasizing, and that the people’s response to Sanders means no such thing.  I suppose time will tell which part of me is correct.

Is There a Perfect Formula for Meaning in Life?

I sometimes wonder if we humans are the only species on earth that is capable of taking pleasure in returning, after a long absence, to places we once frequented, or where we once lived.

For it seems to me that, when we do indeed take pleasure in such a thing, it is largely pleasure taken in discovery — specifically, discovery of what has changed, and what has not changed, about the place.  And so, does any other animal besides ourselves take pleasure in that sort of discovery?  The question can be interesting to ask, but how could you ever answer it.

I was reminded of that question this morning because I returned — briefly — to an internet forum that I once spent considerable time on.  As it turned out, not much seemed different from when I last frequented the forum, and so I didn’t often experience the minor excitement of, “Oh, that’s new!”  But nevertheless someone had put up a thread on the site that got me thinking — and I count it astonishing whenever someone, somehow, manages to get me thinking at any time of day, let alone the morning.

The author of the thread asked a question that I’d seen asked in one way or another many times on the site.  One of those “big” questions about the meaning of life that it has always seemed to me are at at once so simple and so ambitious they can be readily answered in three or four short sentences — but the sentences then take a book or two to properly explain. Here, now, are his precise words:

“What do you believe is required to have in your life to bring true success, fulfillment and happiness. Is there a perfect formula? Is religion necessary? A belief in god? And how does what you believe bring you that happiness?”

As I said, I’ve seen the question asked many times in many ways, and I’m a bit jaded to it.  So, it somewhat surprises me that the way he has asked it has actually got me to thinking for once.  But I suspect the main reason for my interest is this one, simple part of the larger question: “Is there a perfect formula?”

I’m sure it’s happened before that someone on that forum has asked about the meaning of life while at the same time raising the possibility that there is no one answer to his or her question, but I myself don’t recall it.  In fact, most of the time I’ve seen that questioned ask (and I find this telling) the author has at least suggested that there is only one true answer to it.  And sometimes they have even out and out stated that anyone who fails to recognize the “one true answer” is a damn fool.  An attitude that, of course, is perfectly commonplace on the net, but that, offline, usually murders the chance of someone getting invited back to the next group orgy.

As for myself, I very strongly suspect that most of our species of profoundly sophisticated, stick-poking super apes are in practice quite pragmatic about meaning(s).  That is, it seems to me that most of us do not fixate on a single, over-arching meaning for our lives.  Instead, we might dance between several meanings, often on a daily basis.  At times, the meaning that concerns us most is the work we are at the moment doing.  At other times, it’s our family.  And at still other moments, we might seek meaning in helping others, in science, in philosophy, in religion, in politics, in sex, in literature, in a hobby, and so forth.

Humans seem to have an innate need or constitutional bias — which appears to me to be rooted in the human ego — to rank things in terms of “superior” and “inferior”.  At the same time, it appears to me that we can often enough lack a genuinely profound reason for doing so — apart, of course, from when we are dealing with relatively trivial matters, such as when ranking various brands of broccoli according to their nutrition, various sports teams according to their performance, or various sticks according to their efficacy in poking other members of our noble species. But so very often, we rank things that neither need ranking, nor that it actually benefits us to rank. However, the inclination to do so appears to be reflexive.

Which seems to raise the question: Is it usually (let alone always) necessary to rank the various meanings we give life?  Perhaps the impulse to rank things is so deep rooted in us that we are uncomfortable when we don’t.  But I’ve found that feelings of discomfort are a poor guide to sound reasoning: The truth often enough makes us uncomfortable.  So that is today’s question: When (and when not) do we actually need to rank meanings?  And when we do, must we maintain forever the rank we give them at the moment?  Or are we wiser to change about their rank with changing circumstances?  For instance, if to the dire alarm of my boss, I think that having sex with my wife is more important to me at the moment than spending time on my boss’s work assignment, am I wise to always rank those things in that order?  Or, to ask a slightly more subtle question, when, and when not, do I need to think having sex with my wife is “more important” than my boss’s work assignment in order to decide to have sex with my wife?

I ask those questions because it seems to my simple mind that they in some way strike to the heart of the question posed by the author of the forum thread I read this morning.  “Is there a perfect formula?”  But enough of my own ramblings.  What do you yourself think?