Humanity

Be the Religion You Want to See in the World Part 1: What is Paganism?

The emaciation of the lexicon of human religious ideas in recent history is, in my humble observance, cause for concern. On a planet with seven billion intelligent and emotionally complex apes, shouldn’t we have a more diverse set of mythical paradigms? You there, reading this right now! I implore you: explore your own mythology. I don’t care if you are a Hasidic Jew or an atheist. Unless you are in a situation where practicing unique religious or a-religious ideas could put you or someone else in danger, I encourage you to look around, really look. You need not apostate your religion or atheism, but at the very least enrich it. The world is magical. If you have to redefine magic to believe this, redefine away. We’d all love to hear what you come up with!

In the interest of expanding the lens on religion, I’d like to talk a bit about nature worship, or “paganism.” Though this term has endured many meanings, I find the general gist it implies useful. Examining how nature worship came into being gives us a fascinating new context to put so-called “modern” religion into context.

It’s important to remember that today’s cultural views on “nature” are fairly new. With the dawn of agriculture, humans began viewing the environment around them as something under their control. If plants could be grown, animals tamed, and ground repurposed, the world could bend to suit the needs of man. The resulting “settlements” were built on the implicit assumption that the earth had finally been “tamed” and would continue to support life without the arduous need to move about the globe to forage and avoid inclement weather. If this assumption were not solid, it would have been hard to encourage nomadic humans out of their hunter-gatherer ways. Still, even in this new era of Earth seemingly under humanity’s thumb, culture began to evolve  to accommodate the forces of nature.

The first human religion was arguably what we often refer to now as “paganism.” It’s generally accepted that the word pagan first appeared as a pejorative term for peasants of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t conform to the teachings of the Christian god. It was likely used as a catchall term for polytheists, atheists, and practicers of magic. But nature worship and polytheism appear much earlier in human history than ancient Rome. Though Hinduism is regarded as the oldest religion in the world by many noted Historians, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, polytheism and theism in general are regarded as much older. Primitive cave drawings and sculptures dating back thousands of years before Common Era depict god-like supernatural forms, such as the impossibly voluptuous Venus figurines and impressive animal-human hybrids. It’s impossible to say in what way primitive humans viewed these representations as deities, but it’s certainly not outlandish to infer they looked to them for comfort or guidance.

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“The Guennol Lioness is a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue depicting an anthropomorphic lioness. The statue was found near Baghdad, Iraq and is on display in New York City’s Brooklyn Museum of Art.” [Wikipedia Commons]

The creation of art that represented otherworldly forms may have been the spark that fueled the creation of more complex and organized polytheistic religions such as Egyptian gods, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion. It’s likely our nomadic ancestors created deities to make sense of the often-chaotic natural world and passed these gods onto their agricultural descendants to aid them in harvests and war. Thus it’s not surprising to think Paleolithic humans may have prayed to idols of women and animal-human hybrids. The female form, especially in its oft-exaggerated relief, is a perfect symbol of fertility and perhaps, by association, power and creation. Lion, snake, and goat-headed humanoids may have been dreamed up to inspire the channeling of strengths from the “natural” world, acknowledging that there is a little of these animals in all of us (which, evolutionarily speaking, there is!).

The construction of belief paradigms based on “natural” forms and phenomena can easily be conflated with the Christian church’s definition of “paganism.” Yet the people persecuted across the ages were hardly the goat-worshipping witches we often think of when we see the word pagan. More likely than not, pagans were just believers in the traditions that had been absorbed from the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. The celebration of Saturnalia, a winter solstice holiday, and praise for the many Greek/Roman gods existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Still, it wasn’t long after the reign of Emperor Constantine (the first “Christian Emperor”) that these beliefs were shunned into obscurity, leaving us with the fragmented understanding of paganism we have today.

Despite its seemingly long history of persecution, the reverence and worship of nature has actually endured longer than any other “religion.” Throughout history, paganism has enjoyed its fringe believers, often in some of the darkest corners of human history. Supposed “witches” in Europe and the Americas were aggressively hunted for allegedly “casting spells” on innocent God-fearing citizens, using twigs, bones, and animals in their sacrificial routines. In reality these people, most commonly poor women, were likely the shamans and spiritual guides of their small pagan villages. It seems crying witch was a convenient way to get rid of bothersome or threatening women (and what intelligent woman isn’t threatening, right?). Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa also maintained complex polytheistic beliefs before many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Their unique culture and shared faith likely gave them hope in beyond desperate times.

Truths held by human cultures are based on specific experiences, and the shape of the world can vary greatly through each individual set of eyes. The prevalence of Abrahamic religions today (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) denotes a departure from the specific identification of the forces of nature and an embrace of a more mythically obscure god. While devotees of these religions may scoff at the idea of a fire god or god of fertility, they seemingly have little trouble acknowledging a single omnipotent being that controls all reality. Though much of the intolerance for archaic religions seems to have evaporated, supposed “witches” and “heathens” are still persecuted in many countries and in some cases, these attacks still kill hundreds or thousands of people a year.

Will we ever turn a true corner on religious freedom in which we don’t care what deities people choose to pray to or abstain from? Will we ever stop blaming supernatural forces for our human quarrels? Should our goal be to eradicate myth and superstition or simply to evolve it? I’d like to explore these questions in the coming months in this blog series.

 

Categories: Blog Series, Humanity, Religion, Supernatural | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop Trying so Hard to Finish Everything

Your accomplishments mean nothing. No really, I’m serious, nothing. You will die and your titles, bank accounts, possessions, and relationships will disappear, be liquidated, or slowly fade away. The end result of everything you strive to do in life is inherently meaningless.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Making grandiose pessimistic claims. Clearly this is the familiar writing tactic known as the hook: Draw my reader in with something dramatic, be it inspiring or deeply disquieting, and they’re stuck reading whatever nonsense I choose to follow it with. Though I won’t say I’m not using this tactic, I will say it has a greater purpose. The above statements, in my mind, are true. But only if you interpret them in the way I intend.

No one can really argue with the fact that material possessions, status, and other fruits of human life cease to mean much once the person they belonged to is dead. Your bloated bank account may go on to support generations of trust fund babies with your last name, but your decomposing ass won’t be around to know the fucking difference. I recognize that people have trouble with the concept of nonexistence. If you think human souls consciously reside in some ethereal nothingverse before and after death, that’s your own problem. I’m operating from the seemingly logical standpoint (as there’s no real evidence to the contrary) that nonexistence is just what it sounds like: the absence of the ability to experience the world. It is literally impossible to be aware, let alone enjoy, anything in the known universe when your consciousness does not exist. Moving on.

My point is not to drill into you that you will lose everything when you die. It’s an important concept to be aware of, but it doesn’t necessitate repeating at this point. What I would like to do is place emphasis on the phrases accomplishment and success. These are the end caps of journeys and experiences. The little star you get when you turn in your paper. The trophy. The diploma. You get the idea. People are obsessed with accomplishing things. Most of us would probably skip to-do in favor of instant to-done if we had the option. When people are obsessively goal-oriented, you get millionaires who can’t stop being entrepreneurs and folks who pay thousands of dollars to have sherpas carry their shit up to Everest base camp so they can get the “climbed Mt. Everest” star.

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Fucking cool: Now what?

I’m lazy so I would never fathom trying to climb a mountain. But I did notice my own obsession with accomplishment in the compulsion to finish books. If I didn’t get to the appendix, it was like I might has well have not even opened it in the first place. I needed to finish it to mark it off as done. I needed the accomplishment of reading that book. What I realized after some time is that nothing actually happens when you finish a book. When you turn the last page, you just close the damn thing and put it back on the shelf. No fireworks. No accolades. No one even knows you finished the book unless you tell them. Often, these accomplishments aren’t just meaningless after death, they are meaningless in life unless you decide to make a big deal out of them to other people.

One of the most liberating decisions of my adult life was to decide I didn’t have to finish books. I could read a book until it no longer felt interesting or important, than put it back on the shelf and possibly never look at it again. I no longer waste my time forcing myself to get to the end of a work of nonfiction that kind of fizzles out, or past the excruciatingly slow beginning of a novel (though sometimes this is worth it if you know something great is coming). There are literally millions of books out there. Why deprive yourself of a good one by using your limited attention on a bad one?

The obsession with finishing things comes from our focus on accomplishments, instead of the actual act of doing something. It has a lot to do with concept of the “disease of more,” which pushes us to constantly strive for new goals without even enjoying the ones we already surpassed. Yet, it’s hard to tell someone to revel in their success without encouraging them to act like an ass. How exactly do you enjoy success other than thinking about or telling people how awesome you are? I would challenge people to go a step further and not even focus on enjoying the success. Focus on what happens before. Focus on the struggle to make incremental improvements towards your goal. Focus on the, well, focus of your mind and/or body it takes to work on your goals. Revel in the fact that you are actually doing something with your life, when you could literally just sit around for 82 years and then die.

It’s not just the obsession with success that causes this problem for people, but our culture’s failure-phobia. Americans love inspirational quotes about never giving up and persevering against all odds. This culture is useful in much the same way teaching everyone to be a leader is useful (spoiler alert: it’s not). If you teach everyone to be a leader, you end up with a bunch of loud people who think they should all be giving orders while no one can listen their way out of a cardboard box. If you teach everyone to incessantly pursue their goals until an endpoint, because “failure” is not an option, you end up with a bunch of people killing themselves to finish things with very little benefit to themselves or society (and probably not enjoying it along the way).

Sometimes you just have to give up. But I would argue that giving up is synonymous with failure only in rare cases. To me, the word failure only applies when you actually eroded yourself in the attempt. Quitting rehab and relegating yourself to being a crack addict would be considered a failure. Letting your friendships atrophy when you move away to a new city would, in most cases, be considered a failure (unless your friends really sucked). In most situations though, the only things “lost” by a supposed “failure” are time and/or money. As I’ve previously stated, money is inherently meaningless and while I can’t say the same for time, chances are if you were wasting it before you quit you sure as hell would have been wasting it if you hadn’t. Payouts at the end of a struggle don’t give you back any of your time, they only serve to make you feel as if you haven’t wasted it.

Unless your goals are really out there, you probably have to do some learning and personal growth to attempt to achieve them. This doesn’t all evaporate when you end the pursuit. My experience working in a startup wasn’t erased from my brain the second I left. Sure, quitting a job you hate after two months doesn’t really look good on a resumé. But people often delude themselves into thinking career prospects are their only reasons for staying, when in reality it’s pure failure-phobia.

Next time you find yourself struggling to finish something you hate, do an experiment and try quitting. See if the universe implodes. Obviously, don’t be a dick. You should probably finish writing that birthday card for your mom and scooping your cat’s litter box. But quitting things that don’t affect anyone other than yourself can be shockingly empowering. Accomplishing things can often feel like taking charge, but really you may just be stumbling downhill, gaining speed as you go but loosing the ability to stop or change course. Choosing to withhold your time, energy, and attention can bring back a sense of control and serve as a reminder that you’re driving this fucked up train called life.

Categories: Advice, Culture, Humanity, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Woke AF (But Still Not Happy)

(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)

It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.

The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?

In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.

The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.

My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.

In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.

Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.

Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.

In other words…

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Louie always says it better.

Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.

What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.

Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.

I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.

The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.

Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.

I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.

Categories: Humanity, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Insufferable Practice of Gifting

Common adages of gift-giving tend to center around the idea that nothing should be expected in return. True gifts are given to elevate the happiness of both the gifter and the giftee, not to further personal agendas. But the Darwinian concept of altruism leads me to believe this is, to put it bluntly, a lot of horseshit. Most who have taken any kind of animal behavior or evolution class may recall that instances of “altruism” in the animal world aren’t so warm and fuzzy. Most “selfless” acts of animals are indeed selfish on the genetic level, as Richard Dawkins has so thoroughly pointed out. Altruistic deeds such as sharing food or grooming a friend have been linked mostly to one of two explanations: kin selection or expectation of return on investment, so to speak.

Adult male birds of some species may forgo having their own “family” in favor of helping mom raise the next generation of chicks. This occurs because the male somehow recognizes better odds in passing on his genes by aiding the survival of his (likely half) brothers and sisters than by trolling for bitches (passing along his genes directly). Why does this happen? Maybe that bird is fugly. Maybe he’s really directionally challenged. Or maybe he’s just more of a grey-ace. Whatever the reason, his nanny-like role in this weird Brady bunch bird family is for his genes’ gain, not charity. This is referred to as kin selection.

In a different example, unrelated primates who live together in troops often groom one another or share food. Now, sometimes the primate in question happens to be one of those adventurous foodie types that like to eat bugs. In this case his grooming is of a bit more symbiotic nature, not altruistic. But in many other cases, the debris removed from the back hair of a comrade are not valued, and the job is being done as a sort of friendly service. How altruistic! Except no…well, sort of. Most biologists and behaviorists would probably agree that primates engage in these activities to strengthen social bonds and up the chance that a friend will come to their aid in the future. In short, they expect a return on their friendly investment someday. Primate friends that are always on the receiving end of these good deeds are more likely to be ignored by their so-called friends, and eventually even expelled from the group.

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“If you find anything good in there Steven, let me know. I don’t know what to get Clarice for Christmas, she has everything.”

If anywhere near thousands of people read my blog (hahaha), hundreds of those people would now be clamoring to say “well yeah, animals are selfish because they aren’t evolved like us, and don’t understand love in the dimension we humans do.” And I would say, that’s a fine argument and a notable possibility. But it’s just a possibility; I’d argue a small one at that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant to the roll so-called “gifts” play in human social record keeping. Folks in business and politics exchange money, goods, and services every day in the hopes of getting closer to a desired outcome, loosely camouflaging their contributions as “gifts.” Most people seem to accept this fact yet refuse to entertain the idea that almost all gift giving might be tainted with similar intentions of self-service. As above, so below.

To me, the question is simply whether these intentions are conscious or not. You may not think you’re giving someone a gift to strengthen a social bond and increase your chance of receiving something (either tangible or intangible) from that person later one, but it’s still entirely possible this motive is buried in your subconscious. If you’ve read anything in this blog before this post, you’re probably aware I’m not of the opinion that humans are a chosen species existing in a moral and emotional realm head and shoulders above all other life on Earth. I recognize that our cognitive capabilities have developed to a level so as to serve as our primary survival mechanism and have thus surpassed those of other species. But I do not believe we have extracted ourselves entirely from survival-oriented mental processes.

My understanding of the biological function of altruism coupled with what I would characterize as moderate to severe introversion have led me to hate the practice of gift giving. I find myself continually searching for exchange rates. If this person gave me an unexpected gift, what is an appropriate gesture to exchange for this at some point down the road? Regardless of whether or not that person “thinks” they want something in return, the imbalance of social cues that has been created in my brain becomes at best an irritant, at worst a source of stress and shame. Sure this can occur in other ways besides gift-giving. Maybe a friend has helped you through an emotional crisis, or helped you out financially and you haven’t had an opportunity to return the favor. This creates and imbalance of social exchange as well. However, nothing seems so direct and superfluous as gift-giving. The imbalance is created for silly, arbitrary reasons and the course of action to even the score is not always clear.

Occasions hardly make the situation better. Those who know me well are probably familiar with my distaste for Christmas. They may also know it arises almost entirely from the practice of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. To me, Christmas time is a social minefield of opportunities to be ambushed by surprise gifts. I take almost no joy in receiving gifts unless I have an equivalent one to give. This explanation of why I hate gifts does not even touch on my hatred of “stuff.” That’s a separate rant though. See this post from 2015 if you’d like that angle.

I don’t really have an agenda here. I’m not advocating we abolish all gift giving in the name of science. Nor am I trying to call bullshit on people who insist they just really like giving gifts and never hope to receive anything in return. If you’re one of those people, I appreciate your intentions and commend your kindness. Mostly I just find it interesting to dissect things that most people find normal but I find odd or uncomfortable and look at why this might be. Furthermore I know there are other people who feel this way. The more validity I can add to our viewpoint on the subject, the more likely people are to start listening to us when we say we don’t want gifts. However, if you’d like a concrete take-home message from this rant let it be this: the greatest gift you can give me is not giving me gifts. Happy holidays or something.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why is Socialism So Scary?

Why is everyone so afraid to be called a socialist?

A lot of the knee-jerk, frothy-mouthed repulsion to socialism can still be attributed to fallout from the red scare. Americans have been programmed to worship the virtue of capitalism and lump socialism in with communism, fascism, and other “scary” political systems that are incompatible with capitalistic ideals. But even Americans who aren’t completely brain washed and dried by past propaganda and fear-mongering media outlets often still cringe at the mention of the “s” word. So what’s the deal?

With the rising popularity of self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders comes a debate about what his ideas mean for the United States. Although the U.S. is a country with social safety nets on paper, these programs often fall far short of lifting citizens out of poverty and homelessness. In a country where the minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, housing prices continue to climb, and universal healthcare is in its troubled, complicated infancy, more people than ever struggle to make ends meet.

Yet voices from the right call for further constriction of the social safety net. Welfare encourages people to live on the taxpayers’ dollar they say. Hardworking people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, and escape poverty with that good old-fashioned American ingenuity, not help from Uncle Sam.

In stark contrast, there exists the Nordic model of government. Scandinavian countries, often cited as some of the most statistically happy in the world, have much more robust welfare programs. They have a free-market, capitalist economy like the United States, but tax rates between 30-50% (some of the highest in the world) that support healthcare, education, public housing, and other social services. Wikipedia calls Scandinavian countries “welfare states.” While to many Americans this may sound like an insult, it’s actually just a highly logical and intelligent way to ensure citizens in a society have their basic needs met.

I could spend years writing about what socialism actually means to me philosophically or what Bernie Sanders does and does not stand for. I could also delve into the facts that show Denmark’s form of capitalism to be more successful than ours. But in the interest of brevity and relevance to everyday conversations, I’m going to focus on the main arguments I hear from people who hate the idea of socialism or welfare states, and how I might verbally (but in most cases mentally) respond.

 

  1. The Robin Hood Economy

Why should we take one person’s hard-earned money and give it to another? In the words of every 4-year-old ever, “That’s not fair.” People with large incomes generally work very hard to bring in that money and forcing them to pay higher taxes to support those who don’t work as hard is wrong.

 

This objection is based on the flawed assumption that people who earn less do so because they work less. It ignores the existence of privilege, institutional racism, cycles of poverty, and education inequality. It conveniently forgets that college tuition in this country has increased 1,120 percent (for comparison, food prices have only risen about 244 percent due to inflation). Overwhelmingly, those with advanced degrees, thus greater opportunity and earning power, are those who could afford to go to school; not those who worked the hardest to. It also forgets that if everyone had the ingenuity or risk-taking personality to be a entrepreneur, we’d have a bit of trouble functioning as a society.

Those who did overcome all odds and adversity to succeed often don’t help the situation. People who pulled themselves out of poverty by working four jobs, starving, or abandoning the idea of sleep throughout college in order to be successful and debt free are shockingly not the first to speak up for social safety nets. In fact, they’re often some of the strongest opponents. “Well I worked hard for my success, why should someone just get it for free?” They miss the point completely that they shouldn’t have had to jeopardized their health or sanity just to ensure they didn’t spend their life in government housing while their peers’ parents simply paid for tuition. They also seem to suffer from the delusion that if things get better or a little easier for people around them, or in the generations below them, it somehow invalidates their success. It doesn’t. And their insecurity over their own self-worth is hurting people.

 

  1. Competition is King

Natural selection dude. Some people succeed, others don’t. It’s “natural” to have poverty, homelessness, and income inequality.

 

Wow, there are just so many things wrong with this one. Where do I even start? First, as I’ve already said several times in this blog, just because something is “natural” does not mean it is right, desirable, or appropriate. Infectious diseases are natural, yet we generally try to stave those off. Reproduction is natural, yet most (sane) people support the use of birth control. The provision of a social safety net is meant to ensure that all people enjoy basic human rights. It’s not so someone can afford a new video game console, it’s so they don’t have to sleep in a tent under an overpass every night. To me this is an ethical no-brainer.

 

  1. But won’t everyone just become lazy?

Giving people stuff for free will just discourage them from getting a job. We’d be encouraging people to sit around all day.

 

Who cares? Take a second to think about all the people you know. Now think about their occupations. How many of them are actually engaged in maintaining or bettering society? Are they working in healthcare or public service? Are they generating products or services people actually need? Are they working for the common good in politics or research? Or perhaps creating beautiful works of art? On the flip side, how many are just busy? Busy pushing paper around in an office, doing a job a robot could do, or hocking stuff no one needs.

Chances are, many of the busy people would choose to leave their soul-sucking jobs if their basic needs were met. Could they choose to then pursue more worthwhile careers that benefit society? Yes! Could they also choose to sit around on their asses all day, living on food stamps and jerking off? Probably! However, I would bet both my kidneys the number of healthy, functional people who would choose option B would be comparatively very low. The number of people who would choose to pursue more worthwhile careers would more than make up for the “tax burden” of the few who chose to live on government money.

Furthermore, needing to work more than full-time just to stay alive creates a desperate populace that falls right into the hands of unscrupulous and socially irresponsible businesses. Personally, I’d rather someone stay home than spend their time selling sweatshop-made items at Wal-Mart* or convincing customers to upgrade their Comcast plan.

*The three largest private employers in the U.S. are Wal-Mart, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC), and McDonalds. Still glad everyone’s employed?

 

When you really take some time to look at it, you can grind this whole issue down to a very simple dichotomy. There are those who believe life should be a lottery, and if you’re unlucky enough to draw a shit number (for example by being born poor or disabled), you should have to work harder your entire life to get the same things others obtain easily. Then, there are those who believe the playing field should be leveled to the best of our ability, and all people should be given relatively the same chance to succeed.

I’d like to reiterate again that arguing the first option is right because it’s natural is absolute, unrefined bullshit. Society itself is not “natural.” Nothing humans do in 2016 meshes with the normal order of the world. The economy does not exist, country borders are imaginary, and your job is made up. But even at a fundamental “natural” level, the whole point of animal social structures are to benefit the various members of the group. If we are going to insist society function in a dog-eat-dog fashion, I’d prefer to just not have one frankly.

The hilarious thing to me is that proponents of the first model consider themselves to be “anti-entitlement” and “against handouts.” Yet, for some reason, they ignore the fact that life is just one big handout for those who were lucky enough to be born into a privileged setting.

“Well, rich people don’t cost anything to support, while government handouts cost the taxpayers money,” they say.

Wrong again. The tendency of rich people to soak up more resources than most other human beings absolutely costs something. The very wealthy can afford to consume more, produce more waste, accrue more land, and even pay off pollution disincentives. Our modern economic system places an infinite growth model on a planet with finite resources. The result is that anyone who can save up enough intrinsically worthless paper currency can buy unlimited amounts of the most precious substances, such as water, land, and food. Make no mistake, concentrating large portions of the resources needed by all of humanity into the hands of just a few people costs a great deal on a much larger scale. Mitigating the water crisis in Flint will now cost millions in state and federal government assistance; investing in insuring all citizens had access to safe water from the beginning would have cost far less.

To me, there are really only two reasons why someone might be vehemently against social safety nets. The first option is pure ignorance. People don’t understand where our tax money actually goes, what privilege and institutional racism are, or what degree luck has played in their success. Or, perhaps, they really just don’t understand the scope of the problem in the first place. If you’ve never lived in a big city and seen the struggle homeless and impoverished people face, you may never truly understand.

The other option however is much more depressing. If you understand how unlevel the playing field really is and how much a country, as a whole, can benefit from evening this playing field, yet you still don’t think people should pay into a system that supports others when they fall, you might just be an ass hole.

There, I said it.

You might just be the kind of person who thinks so lowly of your fellow human beings, that you’d rather believe they’re lazy than misfortuned. You might be the kind of person who attributes all your success to yourself and ignores those who helped you along the way.

Regardless of the genetic, developmental, and environmental factors that led to you feeling this way, I can’t help but see you as someone I do not like.

At the end of the day, if you can look at another human being and say “you should be homeless while I should be warm and well-fed,” I just honestly don’t know what to do with you.

 

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Judge Me: Why Judgement is Both Unavoidable and Healthy

Judge me. No really, seriously, judge away. And don’t keep those thoughts to yourself, please share what it is about me that bothers you in some way. These phrases may sound like snarky text messages from your 13-year-old sister, but I actually expect them to be read as literally as possible. I am almost 100% in favor of judging.

Of course, to explain an opinion like this I need to do a bit of refining of terms and meanings. To me, being judgmental and being an ass hole are not the same. However, passing judgment where it is neither constructive nor warranted can turn you into an ass hole quite speedily. Furthermore, using judgment as a pretext for malice will seal the deal. I’d like to pull a quote from a book I just started reading, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This is my first foray into the ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy developed in Ancient Greece and popular in Rome that bears some similarity to Buddhism. Although I’ve only read a few pages, and thus have gained only minimal insight into the inner workings of the late Roman Emperor’s mind, I am already stumbling upon useful ideas:

 

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it is in the same intelligence and the same potion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are all made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 
 

Taking a second to ascertain the meaning behind ancient Rome’s longest run-on sentence, I sensed within it the same opinion I’ve harbored for years: It is not inherently wrong to judge someone. This is a rather unpopular stance in modern culture, where the phrase “don’t judge me” is a favorite mantra among the overly defensive, the ill advised, and guests of Maury. Yet as Aurelius hints at the beginning of this “meditation”, we all go through life each day encountering people whose beliefs and actions do not align with our personal code of conduct. We judge them against this code. To call for a society in which no individual passes judgment on another is not only impossible, it’s actually just a terrible idea. The goal is not to abstain from judgement, but to abstain from irritation, anger, and cruelty. Having said that, are there still millions of petty circumstances in which a person has no business sharing their opinion of another’s choices? Certainly. But are there also circumstances in which a healthy dose of judgment is not only warranted, but desperately needed? I say hell yes.

I judge the person who refuses to acknowledge their privilege, the person who thinks animals are ours to torment, or the person who lives upon the planet with no regard for the greater Earthly community just as Aurelius judges the ungrateful, the arrogant, and the deceitful. Simultaneously I judge myself for being “unsocial”, for being quick to anger, and for being overly concerned with self image. Without judgment there is no reflection; without reflection there is no progress. Do those who announce that no one has the right to judge another still reserve the right for a person to judge his or herself? If so, why is your own person so vile that you would do unto yourself what you should never, ever do to another? And if not, then how do they expect individuals to grow and mature? Loving yourself really does lead to loving others, but loving yourself so much that you never question your own beliefs is a recipe for disaster.

The problem is not judgment, but dickishness. The personal codes of ethics that exist (hopefully) within each of the 7.something billion human beings on this planet will never “synch up”. There will not come a day when we all collectively wake up and realize hitting your kids is wrong or that mayonnaise is just gross. Barring some terrifying, Brave New World-esque overall in which humans become standardized from birth, difference in developmental pressures, culture, and perception will always produce individuals with different neural maps, thus opinions. To decide someone is less deserving of your kindness based on your judgment of his or her behavior is the folly. Ideally, I should judge people in much the same way I judge myself. I should see the ways in which a man’s actions negatively affect himself, those around him, or the planet and think to myself that he is wrong for those things. Yet just as I do not berate myself, I should not go over and push the man in dirt.

Although I see the righteousness of Aurelius’ Philosophy, I still struggle to live true to it. A couple weeks ago I beckoned to any of my Facebook friends who supported Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration” act to promptly lose my number. “Anyone who believes it is ok to treat a fellow human being this way has absolutely no place in my life!” I internet-screamed to the masses. I felt it was necessary to both judge and act against those who had acted against others in such a grotesque way. Simplified: I was being a dick to the dicks. This is the kind of behavior I have trouble avoiding. The better approach is obviously to judge silently, forgive ignorance, and should the issue ever come up in a civil environment, do my best to explain why their behavior is unacceptable to me. However, I am just not a big enough person yet. I feel compelled to be a dick to dicks. In this case, fundamentalists hating on gays irritates me in and of itself, but I am able to stay respectful and silent until something they do actually affects people.

I recognize that in order for us humans to have the type of beautiful world we’d like, we must learn to love and accept each other unconditionally. However this is the definition of “easier said than done”. Just how do you love the racist, the homophobic, the animal abuser, or the misogynist? I haven’t figured it out yet and am open to suggestions. Perhaps getting through the rest of Meditations will give me the tools I need to bridge the gap…but it’s an awfully short book.

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My Beef With Humanity

Have a Coke

I took the above photo while hiking on the most breathtakingly gorgeous beach I’ve ever seen, Playa Llorona in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

This seemingly lonely Coke bottle was actually found just meters from a giant trash heap on the beach that contained a myriad of man-made items, chiefly plastics. If you’d like to see the photos I took of this scene click here and click through to the right. Although our guides weren’t entirely certain of the origin of all the trash, they were nearly positive it was not a dump, as the national park is miles away from any residential areas. What was apparently going on was ocean currents occurring a certain way that a lot of the crap that gets put into the ocean, in Costa Rica or elsewhere, ended up here. I even hypothesized that some of the trash may have migrated there from the great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Needless to say, I found the scene disturbing. I continued the rest of my hike with a lump in my throat and a feeling of dark hopelessness creeping up my spine. Here I was what felt like a lightyear from civilization, taking a 10 hour hike…*ahem* I’ll say that again, a TEN HOUR hike out into the wilderness to see a corner of the earth not yet subject to human “progress”. What do I find? Trash. And it wasn’t just in the heap. I saw discarded containers every so often as we walked. I saw small fragments of plastic among oystercatcher (a bird similar to a sandpiper) eggs. I saw man-made debris just feet from a sea turtle nest. To say I was shocked would be dishonest because I have long known how far the problem of human wastefulness has stretched. However to be physically confronted with it was something I was just not emotionally prepared for.

So this is my beef with humanity. Waste. Not just any waste, but casual, pervasive, even encouraged waste. In our industrial era we have “progressed” so far yet taken care of so few of the problems that come with growth. Our culture of consumerism constantly encourages new purchases, while offering limited to no constructive options for what to do with the old “stuff”. To use the words of the director at the lodge I volunteered at, “I buy something, I enjoy the contents of this package, this thing I have purchased. But when I am done with the packaging or the item it becomes society’s problem, not mine”. Here is the underlying problem. Every thing that is produced, every thing that is purchased has externalities. These go all the way from enabling childhood labor to fossil fuel depletion (in the case of plastics for example) to the creation of trash when the item is no longer needed. Currently, these externalities are factored into neither the cost nor the decision to buy such a product, for most people at least. Because there is no personal ill effect of this waste, people go on purchasing until their heart’s content (hint: which is never) and there are oceanic garbage islands the size of large states.

Now I’m no idiot. I do not expect people to see images of trash heaps and lonely Coke bottles on beaches and suddenly develop a bleeding heart like mine and vow to overhaul their lifestyle. Not only is this a lot to ask of an animal, considering we are more or less programmed to think in terms of our own personal success, not that of our surrounding environment, but it’s also just not a practical means of changing an entire culture. The problem is not necessarily that people suck and I hate them (this is still up for debate), it’s that the evolution of our culture has completely ran away with the idea that material wealth equals success and happiness.

On a separate outing during my volunteer time in Costa Rica, I visited a coworker’s home. He was, by American standards, quite poor. His house consisted of two small bedrooms and an open-air front room and his shower was a bucket of water with a bowl to dip inside and pour over your head. He is also one of the most genuinely pleasant and seemingly happy people I have ever met. I say seemingly happy because I believe it would be inappropriate for me to decide whether someone is truly happy or not, but this guy sure acted like it. To avoid sounding cliché, I’ll assume you get the picture here. No, most people who live in abject poverty are probably not happy. But I tend to believe that once a certain standard of living is attained, more wealth and more stuff isn’t really going to do that much for your actual well-being.

The bottom line here is something big needs to change in the next few decades about how we as human beings view happiness and our place in the world. Before it’s too late. To me, finding a plastic graveyard on Playa Llorona convinced me for some time it’s already too late. In the interest of preserving my own will to live however I reserve a bit of hope that we may still have a chance to turn this around. I’m starting with my own life because really that’s all I can do right now. How will you be a drop in the bucket for positive cultural change?

Categories: About me, Environment, Humanity, Sustainability, Waste | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On Not Being a Dick

A post with this title could easily be one sentence or an entire book to rival the page count of Atlas Shrugged.

The fact that there’s so much debate surrounding how not to be a dick is pretty amazing, considering most people are pretty apt at discerning who is a dick in a crowded bar.

I’d like to believe most people strive not to be dicks, so with that in mind lets take a look at some simple ways to avoid it.

Personally, I believe not being a dick can be broken down into a handful of categories:

1. Don’t be a dick to other people.

The golden rule, right? This one is pretty straightforward yet people mess it up all the time. I’m not going to go very far into this here but how about if something you do physically or emotionally hurts someone else, try your hardest no to do that thing because it’s dickish, ok? Ok.

2. Don’t be a dick to other beings.

I think we’re far past the point in history where we think animals don’t feel pain, suffering, fear, etc. I’m aware of the circle of life and that some animals eat other animals or use them for beneficial purposes that may not be so beneficial to the later animal. But how about we just try to minimize the degree to which we make other beings suffer? Perhaps by not cramming them in cages roughly the size of their bodies for their entire lives or chaining them to a tree in our backyard and never feeding them. Just a thought.

3. Don’t be a dick to the environment.

I honestly kind of hate the phrase “the environment” because it gives the impression it is something existing outside the context of human civilization. I use it however because it’s easy, useful, and recognizable. “The environment” however would be better served if we all just admitted that the entire planet is “the environment” and it happens to be the only one we live on. It also so happens that the earth does not care whether we as a species live or die, so although I do love trees, birds, and other nice things like that I mostly care about our prolonged existence on this planet. I like this one and Mars looks kind of shitty to be honest.

4. Don’t be a dick to yourself.

This one can get dicey because when you start telling someone never to be hard on his or herself you start leading them to believe they shit gold. I think people need to judge their own actions and change where appropriate and no I do not believe everyone is a unique, beautiful, and special butterfly. I do however believe that judging yourself based on the ridiculous standards society outlines and generally hating yourself can lead to unhappiness not just for you but for those around you. So stop being unnecessarily dickish to yourself.

I tend to stick to these principles when I’m trying to decide what to do with my obnoxiously self-aware being and also when people ask me why I do something the way I do.

For example,

“why are you mostly vegetarian?”

“Well inquisitive someone, I’m fairly certain eating conventionally-produced meat is being a pretty big dick to both the environment and sentient beings!”

Nifty, right?

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