Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not Alone Being Bad

I think that it's rather common for people to take comfort in not being the only backslider: the person who tries to be good, but too often relapses into questionable behavior. Speaking for myself, I know all too well my tendency to fall short of some of my aspirations in life. I screw up and then feel regret for doing so, and vow to do better next time. And maybe I'll do better for a while, but soon I will backslide again. My conscience stabs me and I feel a pang of guilt, as I face my lapses.
I'm not referring here to major faults or sins—just those modest shortcomings in one's behavior that sometimes seem to persist, despite one's best intentions.
When we encounter another person who shares similar shortcomings, we are often likely to take some comfort in discovering that we're not alone. There's an old saying that speaks to this issue: “Misery likes company.” I think misery is too strong a word for what I'm addressing here. It's more a case of a gnawing conscience.
Can finding a fellow recidivist and then feeling a little better about it be considered to be a selfish reaction? It can be, if I use the occasion primarily to relieve my guilt and even to rationalize my shortcomings. It might seem selfish to think, “Well, he screwed up too, but seems to be a decent guy, so maybe I don't need to be concerned about my frailties.” Or to think, “We understand each other, so we'll forgive each other for backsliding.” It can be a case of one sinner absolving another.
But I think there can also be a beneficial side to discovering you're not alone at backsliding—as it can foster a feeling of compassion for your fellow sinner. And what's more, that feeling of compassion can then also be extended to encompass oneself. Furthermore, it can engender acceptance of the other's (as well as on'es own) minor faults, rather than condemnation.
Acceptance can open the way for us to change for the better. And again, that act of acceptance and change for the better can extend to oneself. When I discover frailties in another person, it can be very helpful to be able to say to her, “I understand; I've been there too. I understand your struggles and failures. Maybe we can together support each other to change for the better.”
There is a tendency—particularly in American culture—to focus on our individuality and sometimes to feel disconnected from others and thus to become lonely. We Americans prize individualism. What's more, we often possess a prudish response toward those who don't behave according to strict standards. This behavior can drive people apart and cause them to become quite judgmental. This just adds to one's feeling of being alone and isolated.
In contrast, when we admit our faults and feel a connection to others who exhibit those same faults, we can open ourselves to the reality that we're all linked together; we all share a common bond; we're all in the same boat. Yes, we are all sinners to some extent, but we can encourage each other to behave better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pileated Patter

By dint of living out in the woods for over 30 years, we have been able to enjoy many varieties of bird calls. Because we live in such a quiet place, we can hear birds calling from far off in the woods. Thus, we rarely see some birds who we long ago identified by their calls, because they are so shy. Sometimes, trying to get a glimpse of one of these bashful birds, I try to sneak up on them in the woods, but they always detect my advances and withdraw even deeper into the trees.
One bird that is unique in both its appearance and call is the pileated woodpecker (see photo below). We have about five species of woodpeckers hereabouts—from the tiny downy (7 inches or 18 cm long) up to the pileated (17 inches or 40 cm long). Woodpeckers forage for ants and other bugs inside live or dead trees, as they hop up and down the tree trunks—bracing themselves with their stiff tail feathers. Their call can be heard from far off in the woods, as they forcefully thump on tree trunks, bashing their long, hard beaks against the bark, as they excavate holes, seeking a buggy lunch.
Pileated woodpeckers have two other sounds that travel well through the woods. One is a call that sounds like a derisive laugh, as the bird flies to and fro, as if in paroxysms of guffaws, brought on by observing some hilarious event. Their merriment seems to last for several minutes, as they fly around, convulsed by their self-derived chortles. I like to think this loud display is simply a way to express their joy at being alive.
The other distinctive sound the pileated woodpecker emits is when he drums on a hollow tree trunk or limb. While the slower-paced pounding (for a meal) is heavy and thudding, the drumming is fast and loud. The bird is intending to send out a message, which is meant to travel a long distance. A woodpecker drums—not for food, but for communication. The hollow sound is intended either to attract a mate or to declare territory and warn off male rivals.
Over the several decades we have lived here we have often heard the large pileated woodpecker off in the woods—drumming away, as he signals others of its species. We've also watched their showy flight, as their brilliant black and white wings flash out, topped by their bright red head.
A pileated woodpecker recently offered me a first-time, long-sought view of it, as it drummed on a hollow snag. (A snag is a standing dead tree—usually broken off at some height, into which woodpeckers and other creatures drill holes and construct dens. Even though a snag may provide good, dry firewood for us, we like to leave them standing—as they offer a sort of high-rise critter hotel.)
This special evening was my first time to watch a pileated woodpecker, as he drummed on a hollow tree. Usually I hear them drum far off in the woods, and wonder what resonating limb or trunk they've chosen to beat upon. This time I could see. Excitedly, I watched this woodpecker hop up and down the tree trunk—looking as if he was seeking bugs, but his search this night was instead to locate a good drumming spot. (Woodpeckers, when they are after bugs, will forage much closer to the ground—as that is where their prey is more likely to be located.) This bird hopped around near the top of the snag, looking for a promising spot, where he rapidly banged away. It was very loud and very fast paced. I watched his head whap back and forth in a black/red blur.
I watched the bird drum, then pause, and move to a new spot, where he drummed again for a couple of seconds—as if seeking a louder spot. Seemingly satisfied with his performance, he finally flew back into the deep woods. I was thrilled to be able to watch the action!
Now, if I could someday watch a male deer rub his antlers against a tree, or an owl carry food to its babies, or a fox pounce on its prey, I'd feel just that much more privileged. With patience and persistence, I might just do so one day.

Pileated Woodpecker

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Three Ancient Teachers—Part 2

The second message: Democritus' atomistic and natural teachings interestingly connect directly into my second point: death is not what people fear or say that it is. This second idea was promulgated primarily by my second Greek teacher, Epicurus. Starting with the concept of atoms and how that led to the idea that our world can be understood by natural events, he came to the conclusion that previous beliefs that the world was governed by supernatural forces were wrong. In his time, supernatural meant that the gods were the driving force in the world—the gods decided (often in their capricious manner) how things were constructed and how they behaved. Later (in the West) the Greek and Roman gods were replaced by the sole Abrahamic God.
If the gods are in charge of our existence, then we are susceptible to their will. Our lives are literally controlled by their whims and wishes... and there wishes are often whimsical. Epicurus said, however, that there are natural explanations for it all; it's not the gods stringing us along, thus our lives are really in our own hands. We are in control and are responsible for ourselves. This is a very liberating idea! 
Those who believed that the gods ruled, believed that their lives—and their deaths—were dictated supernaturally. More to the point, what happened to you after your death, was also in the hands of the gods. If they wished, they could torment you forever, and you had little alternative, except to try your best to curry their favor in this life. Epicurus saw that the anxiety over this belief caused people a lot of torment and filled them with fear.
A more modern expression of this concept has recently been offered by Yuval Harari, the Israeli author of a recent groundbreaking book, Sapiens. He makes the point that, in recent centuries, modern interpretations no longer see death as the fundamental source of meaning of life. Previous beliefs—from Christians all the way back to the Romans and Greeks—held that the meaning of life comes from what happens to you after death. Instead, he maintains that modern ideologies—such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, and communism—teach us that life has meaning on its own; we don't need death for meaning. It is interesting that my three favorite philosophers reached this modern conclusion millennia ago. It's yet another way that shows they were far ahead of their time.
Epicurus felt that he had—through his natural explanations of the world—shown that belief in an afterlife was unfounded. There are no supernatural events—in this world or the hereafter. You live and then you die. Quit fearing what will happen after you die, since there will be no you. Put your attention to what you're doing while you are alive. I don't think he actually said it, but one message I take from his teaching is, regardless of what happens after I die, if I put attention toward living a moral life, I'll be OK. The main point: I can take comfort in the fact that I will not be tricked by the gods. Epicurus in fact never denied the existence of the gods—he simply maintained that they have their own affairs to attend to, so why should they waste time tormenting humans? In today's monotheistic worldview, I feel the same. I neither believe in nor deny the existence of God. If there is a God, I can't see why God would bother with my trivial life. It's my responsibility to use it wisely and morally, or lose it. Why would God interfere?
The third message: Live simply, rather than pursue money or power. This idea follows quite closely from the first two propositions. If we're all made of atoms and thus are all united (are all made of the same stuff), what does that tell me about how to treat my world and my fellow humans? If I abuse my world, am I not abusing myself? Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius all reached the same conclusion: that treating our world with respect means that we should live a frugal life. To exploit the world in search of wealth is simply selfish and wrong.
We are part of the natural world. We live and die, as all creatures do. We need not fear death or the gods. So how do I fit most sensibly into this incredible world? I do so by having regard for it; by nurturing it and my fellow creatures. These three masters realized that this truth of our being an integral part of the natural world meant that we share the same aims all creatures do: to seek happiness and contentment, while avoiding pain and suffering. Living simply and frugally is an excellent way to achieve those aims.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Not a Bug

This is what happens when a fine rain falls on a spider web. It traps water drops, rather than bugs. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Three Ancient Teachers—Part 1

I have written before on this blog about how several ancient philosophers (mostly from Greece) came to influence my outlook on life. In each case I was already leaning in the direction of their messages, so when I came upon them I was quite ready to absorb their lessons. I think this is a common experience for many of us. I'm not referring to what happens when we are cruising through life and suddenly become a convert to a completely new (to us) idea; one that immediately transforms our views and even turns us into a devoted disciple.
Instead, I'm describing how we might already be thinking along certain lines, but with a limited understanding of the subject we are pondering... we're just muddling along, but with some sense of direction. Then one day we encounter a teacher who clearly describes this same issue, and suddenly the fog lifts and we see the bigger picture. Our former simple and limited understanding thus becomes far more complete and convincing. We're not taking a radically new direction at all, but getting confirmation that the direction we were going in is OK, and now we get a boost that urges us farther along that path. I love those kinds of discoveries.
The three ancient teachers I'm writing about here are Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. The first two lived in the 5th century BCE in Greece. Lucretius came along about 400 years later, and was a resident of Rome. The two earlier Greeks were familiar with each other and taught similar things, but their message later got shunted aside by competing Greek philosophers. A few centuries later Lucretius revived their teachings in a beautiful epic poem, On the Nature of Things. His message was also sidelined and his poem was repressed—this time mostly by the Catholic Church.
I will delve into their stories only briefly here—just to sketch the overview. My main objective is to offer a three-part, connective summary of the aspect of their teachings that has had a strong influence on me. As I wrote above, I was already inclined to be thinking along these lines, and when I discovered their philosophies, they gave me the courage to have more confidence in my thoughts and to rededicate myself to the philosophical and moral paths that they laid out.
The three messages are: (1) the composition of all matter is explainable by the existence of atoms, (2) death is not what we think it is, and (3) live simply, rather than pursue money and power. While these three lessons may seem to be a bit dissociated, they are in fact tightly interwoven, I think, and form a broad and coherent philosophy of life and how to live it. I'll try to explain.
The first message: Everything is made of atoms; in other words, it's atoms all the way down. The Greeks of Democritus' time (the first true scientists) were pondering the fundamental reality of the world. A central question they pondered: What are things made of? There were several competing arguments at the time, and most of them perceived matter as a continuum. Epicurus took another tack and put forth the proposition that matter was not continuous, but really was granular—being constituted of tiny building blocks that he called "atoms" (from the Greek word atomos, meaning indivisible).
What is extraordinary, is that Democritus arrived at his theory of atoms, without any chance of proving their existence; it was just a mental construct. The necessary proof of his insight had to wait for some 2500 years, until powerful microscopes could be invented. His insight essentially founded the science of physics. It was an elegant and prescient concept. He wrote that every kind of matter is made up of similar kinds of elementary building blocks... thus everything in the world is related. (More on that later.) This fundamental insight led to a completely new way of looking at the world: that the composition and nature of everything is both natural and explainable—thus, things and events are neither supernatural nor magical.
More on ancient teachers next time...

Sunday, April 30, 2017