Friday, May 20, 2011

Why We Shoot Zombies

         Zombies, and their enthusiasts, have enjoyed quite the coming-out party over the past decade or so; from the success of the remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and the Resident Evil and 28 Days Later franchises, as well as AMC's excellent The Walking Dead, to the popularity of video games such as, again, the Resident Evil franchise and Valve's superb Left 4 Dead and it's even superior sequel. Zombies have even shuffled out of the dorm rooms and apartments of 20-somethings and shown their decaying, pustular mugs on the streets in increasingly popular "zombie walks." My hometown even hosts a "zombie kickball" game.

              Just this week, an official at the CDC put out a humorous, but well-intentioned, zombie preparedness guide in an attempt to get some hits on the site and get people to take precautions before the occurrence of a real emergency. In hard-copy form, one can find The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (yes, son of Mel) who also wrote the excellent World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

             We could speculate endlessly on the reasons behind the Zombie Renaissance, though I will only draw attention to a few here. A large part of it likely has to do with the normalization of geekdom. As my generation, the generation that grew up on Atari and Nintendo, Star Wars and Star Trek, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, hits adulthood, many of us have, proudly, refused to give up on our childhood enjoyments. Particularly, as our society has moved to a technology and information based economy, not only are nerds finding that they are the grown-ups, they are the grown-ups with the good-paying jobs. With money comes status, and with status comes the ability to dictate what's cool.

            I grew up a sci-fi/fantasy dweeb, and most of my adult friends the same. And although most of us have matured past 18-hour table-top gaming sessions, shelves of Star Wars novels and collectibles, being on a first name basis with the call-center guy at the Magic: The Gathering retail company and dropping more on cards in a week than a junkie would on a habit, that doesn't mean that on a weekend night we don't tuck our kids and spouses into bed, grab a beer, strap on the headphones and shoot zombies or aliens online with our friends until well past midnight.

             Why does the fantasy of being one of a small band of desperate survivors appeal so strongly to grown adults, particularly men? I know that many of my friend's wives and girlfriends would appreciate an answer, so I will attempt to give them one here. Ladies, the reason your husband/boyfriend is often way more into using an imaginary shotgun to shoot imaginary zombies/aliens/robots/stormtroopers/whatever in an imaginary world than he is interested in hearing how your day went is not because he doesn't care. He does. But shooting zombies is what he was designed to do.

            Much of the process of civilization is the process of emasculating men, for good or for ill. This is more complex than "men are designed by evolution to hunt animals and kill each other," although that is a part of this. Civilization has been fairly successful at conditioning out the male propensity for overt violence. (Just watch a few episodes of Starz's Spartacus if you need a reminder of how much more acceptable violence used to be.) But while individuals can be taught not to act on violent or destructive impulses, what has remained are many of the connected intellectual and psychological processes; specifically competitiveness and strategic and tactical thinking.

            This is why we are obsessed with criticizing the coaching decisions of our favorite NFL teams- "Well, I would have just run it up the middle again, instead of throwing a pass to the flat, they haven't been able to stop the run all game." Or baseball- "Why did he leave Martinez on the mound!? He's been getting shelled for the last inning and a half, and now they have two lefties coming up." This is why we need to tell you, when we are on the couch, watching Dawn of the Dead, safe and sound under the blankets and eating a bowl of ice cream, exactly what we would have done differently- "Doh! You never drop the crowbar! Especially for a croquet mallet. Always take the crowbar; it's indestructible, it is double-ended, you can stab and smash, you can pry open doors, it can be a hammer in a pinch, it can even be a walking stick if you sprain your ankle. Always take the crowbar."

            It is not just that we enjoy it, we need it. I can only speak for myself, but my lifetime of experience with games, gaming and gamers leads me to believe that what I am about to say is fairly universal. Our brains need to strategize, need to take a competitive situation against an equal opponent and study it, immerse ourselves in it, and put our best strategy on the line against theirs for all the marbles. When we don't have these things, our minds are like a dog on a short lead, or a tiger pacing a cage. And just as the canine or cat will never be satisfied with anything less than absolute freedom to run, nothing satisfies that need except the thing itself.

            Up until about a six months ago, my brother and I were obsessed with a game called Demigod. Demigod is a real-time strategy game where each player controls a single character, a demigod, in an arena-style team battle. (Just typing that sentence makes me wonder if I could find a game when I got online later tonight...) We played this game almost to the exclusion of all others for over a year and a half. I thought about it all the time. Literally. I thought about it more than I thought about food or sleep. I thought about it waaay more than I thought about sex. I thought about it when I would go on a run, or swam laps in the pool. I thought about it when I biked or drove to work. I thought about it while I was at work, and read strategy online during lunch breaks. At family gatherings, I would track my brother down so we could break down what had gone right, or wrong, in the previous night's games. I'd call him on my drive home from work to talk Demigod. We'd watch replays of world-class players and send them to each other. We read the strategy guides (check it out to see how serious these people are) put out by those players and tracked them down in games so we could learn from them. I typed up sheets with my character's information on it that I would carry in my back pocket so that if I had a eureka moment I could make sure it made sense and then write it down.

            This is more than just a case of incredible dorkiness (I hope). My brain needs that, and only strategy satisfies it, the way only food satisfies hunger, only drink satisfies thirst, only sex satisfies lust, and only human companionship satisfies loneliness. Without it, that very substantial part of my brain atrophies and, like a dog on a lead, I grow listless, bored and unmotivated and before too long, irritable. Leave that dog on the lead long enough, and even when you take the collar off, he'll just lay there and sigh.

             So when your husband or boyfriend* tells you they "just want to jump into a game with the guys for a little bit tonight," he's not just being a over-grown child. (*Not that women don't game, I just think the motivations are slightly different. Yes, I am stereotyping.) Instead of being peeved that he doesn't want to watch Dancing with the Stars with you, be grateful that he is finding a safe, non-violent, non-destructive outlet for a very primitive, and very powerful urge that we all share. Yes, the outlet game, whether it is on a tabletop or a screen, bears a great deal of resemblance to our childhood pleasures. Similarly, most of us have transitioned from spending our afternoons playing football or basketball to watching it on TV. Because yes, playing games is what we do. Strategy and competition are what we do. It's better than war.

           Because, ultimately, that what this is all about. Civilization has cut off the ultimate expression of men's strategic, violent and competitive instinct. Throughout history, a kingdom or city-state's declaration of war meant that nearly all of its able-bodied men would take to the field. While we still have plenty of wars, they are increasingly fought by a small class of professional soldiers, or in the last few years, drones. This is primarily a good thing, if you can say anything good about war at all.

            But we've evolved muscles and testosterone and strategy-minded brains to protect you, our wives and children, from threats that, in most parts of our society, no longer exist. But a few hundred years of civilization are not going to so quickly undo a few hundred thousand years of evolution. Culture is powerful, but not that powerful. So we play our games, yes, like wolf-pups at each others throats, honing our instincts and skills, because one day, maybe, just maybe, when you look out your window and see a shambling horde of undead former neighbors, flesh-hungry, coming across your lawn, you will be very grateful that your husband put in those long hours of gaming and keeps a crowbar by the bed. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Worry, Too?

            I had hoped to keep yesterday's post simple and easy, but I've gotten enough confused, yet predictable, feedback that I feel I may need to elucidate some of the finer points. I try to keep these posts straightforward and consumable in the 30 minutes between dinner and Jersey Shore, because I'm still rather shocked that people are interested in reading this stuff,  and so I try to make it as painless as possible. 

           That said, I knew that some of the claims I made in yesterday's post could be misread. So I'm going to try to take them one by one and hopefully make my point a little clearer.

            First of all, why I care about this. I don't. Some people want to argue with my premise that being happy is simple, and that worrying doesn't really make you unhappy. Fine. It doesn't really affect me one way or another. I'm just telling you what has worked for me. If you don't want to believe me, don't, because guess what? I'm not going to worry about it. : ) I'm just going to say what I can say and the rest is up to you. If you'd prefer to hold on to your worry, if you want to feel that your misery is justified and legitimate, if that makes you happy in some perverse way, that is entirely your prerogative. However, if you're sick of your answer to the question, "How was your day?" always being, "It was okay," "It was fine, I guess," or "Argh! My day sucked!" then you might want to try something else.

             The real problem here is that people hate being told that their unhappiness is their fault. Who wants to be responsible for their own misery? It is sooo  much easier if your happiness is the fault of your boss, or your job, or your being single, or your not being single, or a string of gray days, or your health, or your joint pain, or your bank account, or your looks, or your weight, or your teacher, or your students, or your sex life, or your lack thereof.

             So people get all up in arms and scream, "No! My problems are real! You don't understand!" No, it's true, I personally, can't understand what anyone else is going through. But at the same time, you can't understand the real suffering and misery happy people have overcome to get where they are. You are no more entitled than they are to say, "Well, your problems aren't that serious, of course you're happy."

              And I will admit, although this isn't in any way about me, I have been extraordinarily blessed.  I was born in America in the 20th century to an amazing and loving family. We always had enough to eat, I had supportive parents and wonderful siblings. I've been blessed with some small measure of intelligence, and passable looks. I had a fair amount of success in one career and am enjoying some in my current one. I am married to the most amazing, loving, beautiful and giving woman I have ever known, and have a frightfully perfect little girl. I am truly, truly blessed.

            I have no major complaints. But that doesn't mean I haven't had my share of problems. We all have, though I won't bore you with mine here. Because the point is not which problems you have. Even living a life relatively free of major complaints, I still had to learn to be happy. Which I am, probably 98% of the time. And when I am not? It's because I have let myself get wrapped up in something I can't do anything about. And then I work on letting it go, and find myself happy again.

            Because how many people do you know who have it all- the money, the looks, the spouse, the job- and yet still manage to complain about something, every single time you talk to them? We all know someone like that. Because happiness isn't in what you have or don't have, it is in how you appreciate what you do.

A Matter of Perspective

            My students and I just finished up a unit on Anne Frank, after which I showed them the mini-series starring Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank (superb, by the way, still powerful even though I watch it twice a year.) It is hard to imagine how even the most determined individual could find happiness in the bowels of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. There is some crap that life can throw at you that can make it pretty hard to keep your spirits up. But what most of us deal with every day, in the richest country in the history of the world, with more material comforts and security than any human beings before us could possibly imagine, is not among that crap.

           And there is no better reminder of this to me than my students. I work as an English as a Second Language Teacher in a public school. All of my students are refugees of the Somali civil war, and have spent some time in refugee camps. So when the movie was done, I asked them to write a paragraph in response, nothing in particular, just what the movie made them think about, reminded them of, or made them feel. 

           The responses I got were humbling- 

           "The movie reminded me of when we were moving from Kenya to a part of Africa. I was so dissapointed when I saw people getting hit with belts and sticks. Some soldiers were beating them. My mom told me not to look at them because it was too sad."

            "The concentration camps reminded me of the refugee camps. We slept in tents and it's surrounded by wires of metal, you can't escape anywhere. There's only a little food to eat and some people died because of the disease. When my family saw more people were dying we were all afraid, we had no hope. Every night we sleep of fears, hoping to come to America, without losing anybody."

            "I have a slight connection to the movie of Anne Frank. In the camp I went to there was not a lot of food, many people died of starvation and diseases with no treatment. The diseases would spread out and more people would die every week or somedays. I feel bad for the people that had to go through that in the concentration camps and I really hope it doesn't happen again."

             "Once I was in that kind of problem in Africa. The police were looking for our family and our aunty had to hide us. If the policemen had caught us they would have killed us and our father was dead and only our mom was going through all that dangerous with us. My mom was crying that we had to hide and move away at night and then this lady told the police we were at my aunty's house." 

              While it is gut-wrenching to read these stories and imagine my mostly cheerful, upbeat and positive students, who are now 14 or 15, going through these things at 7 or 8, I am fortunate to regularly get reminders like these to put my own "problems" in perspective. We humans are resilient creatures. And whatever seems like the end of the world today, can often be overcome by tomorrow.

Meet Your Maker

           The other response I get is, "Well, surely worry serves some purpose.  Evolution wouldn't have designed us to worry if it wasn't for a good reason." Absolutely, worry definitely serves a purpose- evolution's purpose. But evolution didn't design us to be happy. It designed us to survive, put ourselves in a position to reproduce, and then do that. We are rewarded by feelings of pleasure or satisfaction when we take small steps towards those goals; eating, gaining social standing, having sex, not being in pain, etc. But evolution designed us to be fairly unsatisfied most of the time so that we would live our lives in constant pursuit of the things that are best for the transmissions of our genes. Evolution designed us to worry, because it keeps us focused on it's objectives. Not ours. It is a cruel master.

             No, we're not designed for happiness. We're certainly are not designed for long-term peace and satisfaction. We are designed for seeking one fleeting pleasure after another. Anything else is hard work. 

           But it is simple work, which I tried to explain in yesterday's post. What we need to learn to do is not complicated, even if it can be difficult to master.

No Abdication of Responsibilities

            Another way yesterday's post was likely to get misinterpreted was to think that it implied the right to abdicate all your responsibilites and adopt a devil-may-care attitude. This is far from the case. I am not suggesting that you are any less responsible for the things you can control, just that there are fewer of them than you probably think. If anything, this makes you more responsible for the things you do have control over; your thoughts, your words, your deeds. With a domain this small, shouldn't you be master of it?

            I am not suggesting that you should look at yourself, perhaps heavier than you want to be, unemployed and mean-spirited and say, "Eh, whatever. I don't have to worry about any of that. Rob says so." Uh, no. You should be thinking about those things, reflecting on them, trying to determine a way to change them. What I am saying, all I am saying, is that worry itself, that one mental state, is useless, counter-productive and pretty much self-inflicted misery. Reflection and problem-solving are virtues. Worry just keeps you up at night.

            If anything, I am ruthless in my belief that people are responsible for their attitudes, words and deeds, possibly to a fault. I hold people to absurdly high standards, which is why I expect everyone to pony-up and admit that if they aren't happy it is their own goddamn fault.

The Babushka Dolls of Decision Making

           The final misinterpretation I will address here is similar to the last. It is the idea that once a decision has been made, you are free to wash your hands of it, and whatever will be, will be. Again, no. For inside every major life decision we make, are nested dozens, hundreds, even thousands of smaller decisions. 

            Let's say you decide to get married. You say your vows, move in together and then that's it, right? Whatever happens, happens, right?

             No. You still have to wake up next to this person every morning, decide what the first words out of your mouth are going to be, whether you are going to save the last bit of creamer for their coffee, what the last words out of your mouth are going to be before you leave for work, whether you are going to take the time to send them a randomly sweet or sexy text on your lunch break, whether you are going to let last night's tiff slide before you get home again in the evening, whether you are going to clean up when they cook, whether you are going to put the kid to bed so they can finish some work, whether you are going to let them decide what to watch tonight, and whether or not you are going to remind them how much they mean to you before you go to sleep.

             Every big decision is filled with countless little decisions. And each of these can be handled properly or improperly. Each one is an opportunity to inflict unhappiness on yourself if mishandled. You may greet your spouse cheerily when you both get home from work, and you might get a grunt in reply. What can you do? You could get mad at them, wish they had done something different. But they didn't. They did what they did and it is already in the past and far outside of anyone's control. So you could  dwell on it,  and allow their unhappiness and rudeness to ruin your own happiness. Your own unhappiness would very likely cause you to be rude to them at some point in the near future, and next thing you know, coffee mugs, lamps and the word "divorce" are getting slung around the room. Don't go there.

            What could you do differently? You can control what you do. You cannot change what they did, or how they feel. You can try to influence their actions and attitude by not taking offense, offering sympathy or giving them some space. But allowing their unhappiness to become yours is foolish. If you too are miserable, you're not going to be able to help your spouse out their own funk, you're just going to make it worse.

What is Ours

            We are never free of our responsibilty for our thoughts, our words or our actions. People's unhappiness lies in the way they often try to abdicate their responsibilty for these things which they do control, and try to impose their will on things which stand far outside it. So as their world looks less and less like what they want it to, they scream and cry and throw things, wondering why the vast, senseless world refuses to respond to their implorations. And all the while, we ignore those few things which are within our purview, the only things which we can expect to control; what we say, what we do, and how we respond to all the rest.

Finding Happiness

            Is there more to happiness than simply learning not to be unhappy? I wouldn't think so. Perhaps for some people. But in a world with lawns to lay on, children to chase, burgers to grill, Cormac McCarthy to read, Bill Wither's Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone, mountains to climb,  beautiful people to make love to, Manchego cheese, Geary's ales, the Red Sox sweeping the Yankees, volleyball to play, lakes to swim, books to write, songs to compose, photographs to take, the Uffizi, the Louvre, Florence, London, Paris... I don't know what makes you happy, but these are a few of my favorite things (along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens). So long as we're not inflicting misery on ourselves, what else do we need? Eternal bliss infused in us through a ray of golden god-light because we can't find it ourselves?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why Worry?

            I started this blog with the assertion that I find I have great doubts about many of the things people take for granted. Today I am going to express another of these doubts: I seriously doubt the assertion that most people make that they want to be happy. Bullcrap.

            If people wanted to be happy, they would be. It is a simple as that. Happiness is not something that you earn, or that happens to you, or that has to be chased down with lust or gluttony or greed. Happiness is something that you either decide to possess or decide to forgo. Period.

            All of the great sages of the world's philosophies and religions agreed on pretty much two things, the only two things that any of them ever taught that are worth a damn; treat people how you want them to treat you and stop worrying about stuff you can't control. That's it. That's really all there is. There are no great mysteries out there, no secret wisdom that requires meditation or prayer or study or drugs to achieve, just two simple suggestions. Everything you ever needed to know about life and happiness is right there.

              We all know we could always use some improvement in the first one, and most of us are conscientious enough to always be trying to get a little better at that, day by day, so I will will leave that one for another time. But it is the second one that most people epic fail, and although I recognize this is a practice easier said than done, I'm going to spend a little bit of time saying something about it.

              There are several problems with worry. One, it's useless. Two, it's counter-productive. Three, it is pretty much the definition of unhappiness. Let's take these in order.

             Worry is useless. Worry is different than reflection. Reflecting is going over a problem you are faced with, determining your options, weighing the consequences of choosing those options, coming to a decision, and moving on to thinking about something else. The problem with worry is that right up until that last part, it looks a lot like reflection. But instead of putting the issue to rest, you start right back at the beginning, and go right back over the same problem, the same options, the same consequences, and the same decision. Over and over and over again. For what? Unless you've been presented with new knowledge, nothing has changed, so going over it again and again does nothing but conflate a simple decision into an all-consuming stress monster. Don't do it.

               Worry is counter-productive. By the time you have cycled through the same thoughts three or fourteen times, you have probably managed to make very small things into very big things. This happens because when your mind dwells on one thing for an extended period of time that thing becomes the whole world. It is no different than looking at something through a microscope. When all you see is the world trapped under the lens, of course every little thing seems huge. And when you have a distorted view of the value of things, you make poor judgments. So not only is worry useless, it is counter-productive, since it actually makes you less likely to come to the most sensible decision about a problem you are faced with. Don't do it.

            Worry is unhappiness. Think about it. What is unhappiness other than worry? Think about all the things that make people unhappy; worrying about what other people think, worrying about death, worrying about money, worrying about their spouse fooling around on them, worrying about what trouble their kids are getting into, worrying about whether or not they are going to get that job, worrying about whether or not they are going to pass that test, worrying about their weight, worrying about their health...

              It is not just that I have framed these things in terms of "worrying about" them. It is only when you put the term "worrying about" in front of any of these things that they actually invoke unhappiness. Some people don't care what other people think, some people aren't afraid of death, some people don't give a crap about money, some people don't care if their spouse sleeps with other people, some people don't care what trouble their kids get into... (Okay, I have a problem with that last one. Worrying about your kids is pretty much part of being a parent, but even then it can be done sanely or insanely.) In other words, none of these things, in and of themselves, automatically constitutes unhappiness. Only worrying about them makes it so. It is not just that worrying about things is part of what makes you unhappy. Worrying is the definition of unhappiness. Don't do it.

             So the question then, if you wish to be happy, is: Why Worry?

             There are times to worry, like when you see a grease fire spreading across your stove. Being "worried" about this is useful because you actually can do something about this. Worrying about death is not useful, because no matter how much time and energy you devote to thinking about it, agonizing over it, crying about it, being frustrated by it, you will never, ever change the very simple fact that you, like everyone else, is going to die. So what good did all of that do you? None at all. All it did was make you miserable about something that you have no control over, and spoiled some of the precious moments you have of not being dead.

            So the first step in learning not to worry is identifying things you don't have control over and things you do. Worrying about anything in the first category is useless, counter-productive and dooms you to unhappiness. Since the second category is made up of things you control, "worrying" would be an improper term here. We don't "worry" about whether or not we are going to step on the brake when we come upon a bunch of cars stopped at a light. However, we might worry that the brakes might fail. So as the example shows, by definition, "worry" only applies to the things we can't control.

              So this is the hilarious part. Let's look at these two definitions together.
  • Worrying is unhappiness. Thus, unhappiness is worrying.
  • Worrying is devoting time and energy to things you cannot control.
             So if we were to use the tautology of the first definition we arrive at:
  • Unhappiness is devoting time and energy to things you cannot control.
             So this is why I called bullcrap on most people's assertion that they want to be happy. We decide what we devote our time and energy to. If people want to be happy, the choice is simple- don't devote your time and energy to things you cannot control. But many people find themselves utterly incapable of this simple feat.

             Because deciding you are no longer going to worry is easy. Actually doing it is much harder. I'm going to try to help.

             There are two important aspects of learning not to worry about things over which you have no control. The first is identifying them. So I am going try to give the reader the beginning of a list of things over which they actually do, and which things they definitely do not, have control. I am going to try to focus on the things that people generally seem to waste their time worrying about. And since this is such a simple idea, I am going to list them simply. Some people might take issue with the placement of an item on either list, but I will be surprised if upon further reflection the reader does not acknowledge their correct placement.

Things We Do Not Control
             Death, the weather, taxes, other people's opinion of us, our pets, our children, the amount of money in our bank account, what people say about us, people cutting in front of us without using a turn signal, someone walking really slowly in front of you at the mall, the past, the future, the existence or non-existence of god, our looks, our weight, our health, our spouse's eye wandering to a 22 year-old's behind, our spouse's infidelity, our friends, our family, anyone else period...

Things We Do Control

             Our thoughts, our words, our deeds.

             The first list is incomplete. The second is as complete as it will ever be. Anything else you can think of, anything at all in the entire universe, add it to the first list. There is nothing else you can add to the second list, because there is nothing else in the universe that you control. Just you.

              The items from the second list are yours. Nothing else is. You can attempt to influence some of the items on the first list. Your words and deeds can influence the way other people think of you. But you can never control the way they think of you. So devote your time and energy to reflecting on your own words and deeds, and let them worry about what they think of you.

            You can't control how much money you have. You can't just give yourself money. (Unless you are the Chair of the Fed.) You can speak the right words at an interview, you can sign up for that overtime shift. But you might not get the job, or the shift might go to someone else. You did what you could, and now your mind should turn towards your next option. Worrying about what did not come to pass is simply deliberate unhappiness.

             And then there are things that no matter what you say, think or do, they are going to be what they are: death, taxes, the weather, the past, the future... Spending your precious time and energy on these is worse than foolish, its masochistic.

             The second part of learning not to worry is more challenging; learning to let go of these things. Learning to let go is something you have to teach yourself, I cannot help you. No one is inside your head but you. The only suggestions I can give are these; Learn to reflect on your own thoughts. When you find that you are angry, frustrated, annoyed or sad, stop, breathe, and ask yourself, "Why am I unhappy? Is it because of something I said, did or thought?" If it is, decide to speak, think or act differently next time. And then move on, because that is all you can do, until you are presented with the next challenge. But if that is not why you are upset, if you are unhappy about something you can't control, then ask yourself, "Why? What good is this doing me? Why am I choosing to be unhappy in this moment?" And then don't be.

             It's as simple as that. Be Happy.

(I should add a note here: I worry, ahem... I think that I might have unconsciously stolen some of the examples I use from my friend Brian Smith, whose book on similar themes I have had the pleasure of editing the early editions of. If that is the case I offer him my apologies, deliberate theft was not intended. Which is more than I can say for him bogarting my pulled pork recipe, so we'll call it good. : )


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I Write This

            I'm going to take some time today to address an issue that have covered in brief before, when I first began writing the blog, but which I have come to understand in a different light in the time between now and then.

              I am referring to my motivation for devoting so much time in this space to writing on the subject of religion and faith. I feel this needs addressing because I would have to be fairly thick to not realize that these are very touchy subjects, and that I have probably already done a decent job of offending some people, including some near and dear to me.

             I wouldn't blame the reader who thought I devoted so much time and energy to raising criticisms of religion simply because I enjoy pissing people off. Readers who know me in real life might be even more inclined to think that, because I can be a bit of a contrarian. However, this is very much not the case. I've spent much of my life in silence on these issues, and have felt no differently about them at any time during the past 15 years than I do now. So let me try to clarify just a bit why I do take the time to do this, and hopefully readers who are put off by the whole project might be slightly less so.

             First of all, this blog is in no way an attempt to deconvert the faithful. While I will admit that I sincerly believe a world free of the twin scourges of faith and religion would be in many ways superior to the one we currently inhabit, it is not my mission to make it so. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that I am aware of how utterly pointless it is to argue with faith.

              As I have gone over at length in these pages, faith, by definition, is belief in something in the absence of evidence, often even in spite of the evidence. Since evidence is the means by which two subjective beings can come to an objective, mutual conclusion about something, the very prospect of a productive discussion with someone who chooses to use faith as a means of making truth-judgments about the world is doomed from the start.

             Lest the reader think my perspective here is biased, I will share some of my own experience with faith. I was raised in the Christian faith, by two devout but far from oppresive parents, who regularly encouraged me to read the Bible and interpret my faith for myself. (This was ultimately their mistake, if their goal was that I remain Christian.) I followed their advice, and before I left high school had read the book through twice, and spent many more hundreds of hours in the study of my favorite passages. I took my faith extremely seriously, and by the time I was applying to colleges, my intention was to go to school for a theology degree and become a priest.

             This goal changed for me over the course of the year before and that first year in college, and I eventually switched to studying physics and philosophy. But I recall my years of faith very well. Specifically, I recall the discussions I had with those who thought otherwise, and how little anything they had to say affected me. Even when what they said made a lot of sense, I was always able to return to my Bible, return to my faith, and dismiss all other ways of thinking as simply being temptations meant to drive me from my true faith. 

             Now, looking at faith from the outside in, I am keenly aware of the pointlessness of addressing those who hold it, because I myself held it very dear at a time not too long ago. So I say it again; My objective with these posts is not to deconvert the faithful, because I realize the utter pointlessness of this venture.

              At the same time, even if something I could say would make a chink in the impenetrable mental armor that is faith, I'm not necessarily sure that I would want to. For many of the people in my life for whom faith plays a central role, I don't honestly think they would be better off without it, particularly those who are at later stages of their lives. Life without faith is not easy, despite some suggestions of the faithful to the contrary. Trying to find meaning and happiness rooted in the sometimes blind and arbitrary world we actually live in is much more challenging than having it handed to you in a host of elaborate (and unverifiable) promises. So when someone has lived their entire life planning on eternity, pulling that rug out from under them is arbitrary and cruel. Many people seem to need the idea of angels watching over them when they drive to work, or apply for a job or get on a plane. Whatever. It really doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to me.

              So if you are a person of faith, and for some reason you regularly return here to read what I have to say (why?), take heart. I intend no harm to your faith. You are as free to feel and believe what you wish as you have always been. Enjoy. At the same time, if you truly believe you have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe, surely nothing a mere human might say could possibly affect or offend you in anyway, right?

             So why do I write this? Originally, it was my means of taking a stand against an assumption. For someone who thinks the God hypothesis to be extremely unlikely, living in a world chock-full of faith and its adherents can get quite tiresome. Whether it is the countess references to "God's will" in congenial discussion, the religion-themed books one gets at the holidays, being expected to say "Under God," in our nation's pledge of allegiance, the expectation that you care about mythology-based holidays, or the nearly constant "spiritual messages" I see cycled through Facebook, it all gets very, very old.

            But that is the harmless stuff, and although it is mildly irritating, it is relatively easy to ignore. What is harder to ignore is the endless history of violence, murder and oppression, both physical and intellectual, that is the historical and contemporary fact of religion's existence. I have explored these topics at length, and don't believe they need any more attention here.

            But the thing about religion and faith is this; not matter what your complaint against them, you're not supposed to say anything. "How dare you question someone's faith?" "That's their religion, and it's none of your business." "What do you know about their relationship with God?" It doesn't matter what horrible aspect of religion you are objecting to, if you criticize religion or faith you are the one at fault, you are being horrible and insensitive, you are being close-minded for raising concerns that the perpetuation of another's beliefs might be doing the rest of us an awful lot of harm.

             I've spent a good deal of time being immersed in, studying, reading and thinking about religion and faith. And I have come to the conclusion, fairly well-informed, I would argue, that religion and faith are the two most harmful artifacts of human society, excepting war itself (although the three have long been conjoined triplets). But raising this concern invariably paints me as a heartless jerk, simply out to ruin people's happiness.

             Many people have issues they feel are of pressing concern, each possibly threatening to bring an end to the world as we know it; inflation, taxes, abortion, cruelty to animals, climate change, violence against women, war, poverty, famine, pornography, homosexuality, single-parent families, conservatism, liberalism, whatever your cup of tea. And it is pretty much fair-game to voice concerns with any of these... except religion and faith. Not okay. Now you've crossed the line, buddy.

              So most people whose eyes are opened to the endless folly that is belief in things that neither you nor anyone else has ever seen, and using that guess as your moral compass, simply keep their mouths shut. Which is where this blog comes in. Many others, and many more talented, have come before me, but not everyone out there has chanced to come across the works of Paine or Dawkins or  Dennett or Hitchens or Harris. And very few people seem to know someone in their own lives who is willing to rock the boat to such a degree. But, what I have discovered, is that a great many of them appreciate it.

            For every negative comment I get on the blog (there have been surprisingly few, which is a disappointment) or on Facebook (more there) I get at least half a dozen that are gushingly positive. But still, even when it is my name attached to the posts, and it is my work, people who find that they agree with what I have to say are still too cautious to even put a positive comment on a controversial idea in the public space like that. So they come in emails, text messages, private Facebook messages, or in conversations over a glass of scotch. And the refrain is this: "I am so glad you are saying what you are saying on your blog. I completely agree with you. I just never dare to say anything when people bring it up, and you articulate it in a way I never could." (I add the last part not to boast, but because it is relevant to a point I will make in a minute.)

              Of course, there are those few who have no problem commenting, my oldest friend, my wife, and it is no coincidence that they have these places in my life. And I don't blame those who don't. There is a huge stigma attached to not buying into the universal myth, and there can be real-life consequences. (Atheists regularly poll as the least-trusted minority in the US, behind even homosexuals and Satanists. I'm not kidding. Satanists.) Not only are you different than most everyone else you know, your lack of belief is a direct affront to theirs. If they buy-in, why don't you? Do you think you are smarter than everyone else? That you know something the rest of us don't know? Why don't you go mind your own business?

            Sigh. And so it goes. But those who know me know that public opinion is not very high on my list of concerns. (Probably not the best attitude for a public-school teacher, but despite my best efforts, I still can't bring myself to give a crap.) So, for now, I don't mind leading the charge, at least within the small circle of my life. And I understand that a great deal of this has more to do with personality than conviction. I know many who feel as strongly as I do about these issues, some more so, but who are far less likely to voice their opinion because it really isn't in their personality to make waves. I, however, have never had a problem with that, whether it is on this topic, or many others. To these people I will say; I understand your concerns, but know that silence affects no change. Your opinions and beliefs are never going to find more acceptance if some people don't take the risk of opening their mouths. At some point I would think that one might feel guilty if it were always someone else taking the hits.

             There are others who have precisely the type of personality that has no problem making waves on issues they feel strongly about, but have not had the time, background or experience to articulate their beliefs in a succinct and lucid way. To these people I would say; Have at it. I have no problem with others using or recycling anything I say here. If it helps you make the world even a slightly saner place, please, please do.

             So while I have grown tired of this particular topic, I have come to realize that there are many out there that find these posts useful. And so I plod on. Because I know the frustration of being part of a society, a community, a family where faith is a given, and those who don't accept it had better keep their goddamn mouths shut. We are expected to hold hands and bow our heads at family meals, listen politely when people discuss the way they "just knew" that God helped them get a job that 18 other people were denied, remain silent when their assertion that those who don't accept Jesus are all doomed to an eternity of torment, and nod in agreement when they snicker about how much God hates "them queers."

             And I'm sure there are some out there who are questioning their faith. If you are among these, I hope I am able to give you some idea what a life without faith, superstition or magic entails, what you might use to guide your moral life, what might still hold value, what might not, and what might take on new meaning.

            The decision to pursue this thread on this blog has strained some of my relationships with people who I respect and love very much. While this has not reached the point of animosity, I would not have wished even the slightest bit of ill-will between myself and those I care about. But such are the casualties of the war for the future, and I firmly believe that my daughter's life will be better if she inherits a world with a little less faith, superstition and magic in it than I was born into. And, ultimately, that's all I give a damn about.

              But I hope those who remain silent will eventually have the courage to open their mouths. I have taken on this role, and I make no complaint, but know that a burden shared is a burden more easily borne.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who We Can Thank

            I return to the subject of religion and faith and their role in the world with some reluctance. The subject is a bit like beating a long dead horse, and if it weren't for the fact that an overwhelming majority of the world thinks this zombie equine still capable of pulling society's cart, I would certainly long ago have left well enough alone.

            But alas, we do not yet live in a world free from the chains of faith, and it is unlikely that we will in my lifetime, nor my daughter's, and although I do have hope for her children's world, even that is likely too optimistic. And thus I feel that this subject still needs some treatment, and this post intends to examine the reasons why religion and faith are not a valid explanation for any good we find in the world today.

            As I'm sure I have said countless times, much of the human folly can be attributed to an ignorance of history. By ignorance I refer not simply to those who can't tell you when the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean, or think of China's growing prominence as a historical first, when in fact, their diminished hegemony over the past two centuries is the anomaly. Understanding history is not just a knowledge of dates and places, facts and faces, but is instead the ability to think critically about where our society has come from, how it got here, what factors shaped its development, and so forth. If we do not use the past as a tool to instruct the present, then the study of history becomes yet another  pointless academic exercise.

            But let us begin in the present. We live in a world where slavery has been abolished (although sex-slavery is a lingering, even growing, concern around the world, including the US); where women have more autonomy and power than they have since the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago; where childhood is devoted to education and growth, not menial labor; where lifespans are positively Methuselean (except not made-up); where the idea that human beings have a right to determine the fibre of their lives is approaching universality. How did this come to pass?

            Before we address this question, let me yoke another to it, although we will first need some justification for this decision. Whenever I, or other anti-theists, bring up the the immeasurable amount of suffering religion and faith have caused across the centuries, and continue to cause today, we are invariably met with the same tired and insufficient argument. It goes something like this: Religion and faith can't be that bad, look at all the good and honest people who practice religion, who have faith, and  who support freedom and equality, who stand up for the rights of others, who oppose oppression, who are genuinely good people. Doesn't this prove that religion and faith are forces for good?

            No, it doesn't, and here's the problem with that- Yes, the existence of many, many good and decent people who practice religion is indisputable. However, it is false logic to say that it is because of religion that they are good people. That statement will immediately cause the faithful to jump to the defense of their beliefs, since one of the most powerfully self-reinforcing aspects of religion is that its practice makes you a better person, and given religion's embarrassingly poor track record of predicting and describing the natural world, its ability to make one a better person is really the only claim to legitimacy it has left.

            However, history fails to support this claim of the faithful, and it is people's dogged ignorance of history that makes the perpetuation of this faulty claim possible. So my goal here will be to elucidate some of those misconceptions, and try to give the reader a better sense of exactly where the humane “goodness” of most modern citizens actually comes from. And religion is not its source.

            The distinction between individuals and societies in this argument should be briefly noted. I do not think it necessary to point out the obvious fact that there have been many good people throughout the years who were not religious, and that there have also been many, many not-very-good people throughout the years who have been religious. So we cannot get caught up in the waste of time that is saying, “Well, yes, those societies did some evil things, but not everyone agreed with them.” There were numerous abolitionists in the United States since the colonial period, but until the evil of slavery was cast off, its existence remained a blemish on the character of the entire nation. A society is only as good as the greatest evil its citizens will tolerate.

            And so I intend to build a case that the influence of religion on society is almost entirely negative. There are many ways that this case can be made, and indeed, I have made some of them in previous posts. However, one of the most powerful, and I believe indisputable, is the argument from history. Taking a 21st century, modern, Western, capitalist, liberal-democratic, scientific society, where religion is prevalent, like the United States, and claiming that the “goodness” of its citizens stems from merely one of those several factors should immediately cause the discerning thinker to take pause. Yet how can we determine which factors are contributing, and which merely incidental?

            Fortunately, Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, two of the most important books ever written) has given us a methodology. The problem with the study of history, he noted, is that  the world does not bend to the will of the historian in the way scraps of nature are isolated and bent to the will of the scientist in the laboratory. So how can history be studied objectively? How can the absolutely unparalleled success of the scientific method be applied to the study of history, of cultures, ideas and peoples? Diamond's methodology involved considering history in isolated “experiments” where several factors had been controlled for by history itself, leaving only the desired factor under the historian's proverbial microscope.

            I intend to do something similar, in very abbreviated form, with religion. Starting with our modern, capitalist, liberal democratic, scientific, religious society, let us see how many of these factors can be peeled away, like the skin of an onion, until only religion remains. Fortunately, we do not have to retreat very far through the centuries before we are presented with a society, unimaginably different  from our own, yet constituted of our very own ancestors (for many readers anyway), which is not capitalist, not liberal-democratic, not scientific, but very much religious. I am speaking, of course, of the European Middle Ages.

            They say that when you really want to see someone's true character, put them in a position of power and watch what they do. I believe that the same could be said for an ideology. Communism sounded great, until some people, some na├»ve, some power-hungry, actually tried it, and imposed it on hundreds of millions of others. So if we really want to see the true character of religion, let us remind ourselves of what it looked like, how it comported itself, when it was the only show in town.

             It is hardly worth mentioning the role religion played in people's lives during the Middle Ages. I should think that even the reader with the sparsest knowledge of history would know that religion wasn't just a part of life during the Middle Ages, it pretty much was life. Nearly every day was devoted to one saint or another, and food, work, sex, leisure, marriage and even thought, as much as possible, was regulated by the church. So when we discuss life during this period, we really are discussing life as it was lived when Religion was King.

            Although what I am attempting to do here would not fall under the purview of history as it is conceived of and taught in public and secondary schools, the memorization of dates of battles, monarchs and discoveries, some dates will be highly relevant here, as they will help give us a sense of what changes in society's ideals actually brought about concrete changes in people's lives. Thus, we will use two dates as our yardstick. Both are slightly arbitrary, but since they both fall well within an acceptable margin of era for our purposes, and because they are separated by such a large expanse of time, they will suffice. The first date we will use is the 312 CE, the year the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship in the empire, and put it on the quick path to its eventual ascendancy and domination as the official state religion of the empire. The second date we will use is 1690 CE, the year Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which had been preceded only three years prior by Newton's Principia Mathematica, the publication of these two seminal works marking the (loose) beginnings of the democratic and scientific revolutions, also known as the Enlightenment, respectively.

            What was it like to live in those one thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight years in between? What was it like to live under religion's thumb when there was no market, no liberal-democratic ideals, no scientific method, to keep it in check? Well, for the vast majority of people, particularly the traditionally disenfranchised, it was horribly unpleasant.

            Since a society's treatment of its women is always an excellent measure of its sense of equality and justice, let us begin there. In the Middle Ages, women were expected to be obedient to men, and if they were not, could expect to be beaten for it. Women could own property, but upon marriage, all property was turned over to her husband, who could dispose of it how he saw fit. Women who were of suspicious character or were suspected of sexual licentiousness would often find themselves marked as witches, the punishment for which was being burned alive or crushed beneath stones, among other lovely things conceived in the minds of the church fathers. All told, around 35,000 women were executed for a fictitious crime over the course of just 300 years, an astonishing number considering the population of the entire continent numbered only 70 million, or less than one-quarter the current population of the US. Of course, the church forbid women access to the channels of power within itself, forbidding female priests, a practice which continues to this day in certain sects, not the least of which is Roman Catholicism, which can still boast the largest number of faithful in the world.

           When did things begin to change for women? Women fought long and hard for their concessions, originally opposed by the establishments of religion, and then, increasingly, with the support of some of them. Religious apologists love to pull out old sermons and church paraphernalia demonstrating the support of some sects and leaders for women's rights. But this begs the original question. Where did this, very new-found, support for women's rights originate? In Christianity? As we've seen, the church had a horrible record on women's rights, stretched across sixteen centuries. What had changed in the West in the years before women were granted, say, suffrage? The Enlightenment had happened, marked by the ideas of thinkers such as Locke and Newton. The first “western” country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893; 203 years after Locke and Newton, 1,581 years after the ascendancy of Christianity. If the major contributing factor here was the inherent “goodness” of religion, it seemed awfully slow in manifesting itself.

            It should be fairly obvious to all but the most determinedly close-minded that religion was not in the least way a contributing factor in women winning just and equal treatment. While many who were religious, including representatives of the churches themselves, valiantly supported women in their struggle, it is apparent that the mindset of individuals and society was changing not because of religion, but in spite of it. The ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty, equality, justice, were gaining greater and greater traction within the population and were increasingly displacing the ideals of authoritarianism, elitism, patriarchy, obedience and guilt which had long been the cornerstones of the Christian church. Many individuals held on to their faith while adopting Enlightenment thinking. But what gave women the courage to take to the streets for the right to be represented? Not the idea that they were daughters of the Original Sinner, the cause of all Man's woes, inferior in body, intellect and morality, not worthy of holding positions of church or state, or any of the other shameful garbage the church had been spouting for a millennium and a half. They had come to realize that they deserved equal rights because of the incredibly simple idea, put forth by a human being without recourse to magic, guilt or superstition, that all people should be treated equally.

            My argument is made in the example above. I would not burden the reader with a pointless repetition of the same. However, it is important to demonstrate the universality of the argument through further example, which should suffice without belaboring the same points.
  • Slavery- In the Middle Ages, between 10-20% of the population was kept as slaves, although this practice slowly gave way to serfdom, which was hardly better, and which continued through the 19th century in some Eastern European countries, most notably Russia. Of course slavery was originally a legacy of Rome, as well as the Germanic tribes, but the practices of keeping slaves of one's own nationality or tribe gave way to the marginally more stomachable practice of only keeping slaves who didn't look quite so much like your kin. The church did take an early stand against the enslavement of Christians, but was never terribly concerned with the enslavement of those who hadn't found Jesus. The African slave trade began in 1441, the economic value of which caused the church to reverse it position and again condone slavery, and the practice continued in the United States till the end of the civil war in 1865.

          Years Christianity had a chance to do something about slavery: 1,553
          Years it took Enlightenment ideals to actually put an end to this horrid practice:175
  • Child Abuse- Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Puritan period of US history, children had no rights under the law and were considered the property of their parents. A child could be killed by his or her father for disobedience without the parent receiving any punishment under the law. Children were married to whoever their parents chose for them, and again, disobedience could mean death. Children in the Middle Ages, except for those of the elite, received no education, and were expected to begin contributing to the household duties at the age of 5 or 6. By their teens, children were expected to be full-fledged income earners, either assisting their parents in their own occupation or by renting themselves out as servants to a wealthier household. One of the greatest stains on our history is, of course, the use of children as indentured workers on the factory floors of the Industrial Revolution. If we mark the end of this horrific practice in the US with Roosevelt's passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we can see:
          Number of years Christianity had to stop conceiving of children as “property”: 1,626
          Years it took to get Enlightenment ideals through the thick skulls of a religious society: 248
  • Capital Punishment and Torture- When religion ruled the West, capital punishment and torture were arguably the most popular forms of entertainment, something which was enjoyed as a spectator sport by young and old, rich and poor and men, women and children. Many crimes were then punishable by death, including; murder, treason, highway robbery, theft of more than a shilling, rioting, forgery and arson. All of these crimes were considered felonies, and being accused (yes, just accused) of a felony denied you the right to legal representation. Courts were heavily tilted in favor of the prosecution, because, of course, the people, the good Christian people, wanted to see blood. Means of execution were horrific, including being hung, drawn and quartered- i.e. hung almost to death, emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded and chopped into four pieces- being ripped apart on the Rack, being burnt alive, etc., etc. always in front of a cheering throng of believers. The most horrific punishments were those handed out by the church against those who disagreed with their guesses as to the will of the creator of the universe.

         Years Christianity had to realize the very simple fact that, um, Jesus Christ was never all that       big into killing people, you know, turn the other cheek and all that, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, revenge not yourselves, leave it to God, to Me belongs vengeance and requital, all that fun stuff: Well, 1,699 and counting, since many religious sects still support capital punishment and in the US, Christians are its biggest proponents (they are the biggest proponents of “enhanced interrogation,” too). Maybe someday they'll get around to reading that little book they are always going on about.
          Years it took Enlightenment ideals to begin to put an end to the dominion of the State over the    lives of its citizens with the 1972 moratorium: 282

            I could continue, but I believe the point has been made. (I've left out all sorts of great stuff, not the least of which would be the Crusades and the Inquisition.) I have focused here entirely on the history of the West, because there is a certain sense of superiority Westerners have when they survey those “backwards” societies where girls are still executed for being raped, or have their clitoris and labia removed as young women, where adultery is punishable (for women, chiefly) by being stuffed in a sack and bludgeoned to death with stones by your neighbors, or any of the other vile things that continue to occur in parts of the world where Religion still reigns supreme. The point is this: Our society was no different, or better, not so long ago. The consciences we use to judge those societies are not the product of any superior religious heritage. Oh no. They are the result of the West's early discovery of liberal-democratic values and the scientific method, one to argue for human liberty, justice and equality, the other to keep in check those who would wield magic and superstition as instruments of oppression.

           If you believe that women are not the property of their fathers and then husbands, and children not the property of their parents, if you believe a human life worth more than a shilling, and that it should not be bought and sold, even if the purchaser has a different skin tone, then you have the Enlightenment to thank. You may very well be a person of faith, but I have yet to see an argument that would explain how any of us today, had we been born in the midst of Christianity's long dominion over the West, would not be there before the scaffold, elbow to elbow with hundreds of other faithful, clamoring for vengeance and bloody retribution, cheering the suffering and agony of our fellow human beings.

            The finely tuned consciences we can be so grateful for today are not the result of anyone's faith, for Religion had its run, for fifteen long, dark centuries. Religion had the opportunity to bring humanity to the West for a millennium and a half, and it utterly failed to do so. If we can be grateful that the horrific practices of Religion's heyday are no more, we owe our gratitude not to the institutions, both political and intellectual, that perpetuated these tyrannies. Instead, we owe our gratitude to those Enlightenment thinkers who were brave enough to challenge these abhorrent practices and bring some measure of liberty, equality and justice to our short, mortal lives.

            Society's cart is currently hitched to two horses; the Horse of Reason, strong and vital, carrying us away from the darkness, violence and oppression of our past towards a society whose ideals are increasingly those of knowledge and justice; and the Horse of Faith, a long-dead corpse, whose weight does nothing but burden the cart, and threaten to keep us in the dark.

            It is long past time to cut one of these loose.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Sound Body

            I've had this post in my head for quite awhile, but it seemed too presumptuous and too preachy to write. I must have gotten over that, or must have just run out of other things to say, while still feeling the need to write.

            In the same way that I find the way people relate to death fascinating, I find the way people relate to their own bodies equally so. And obviously, there is much relation between the two. The way people relate to their own bodies- how they think about them, how they take care of them, what they use them for, what they expect out of them- says much about how they think of themselves, their life and their mortality.

            I am struggling to come up with a way to say what I want to say about this without spending too much time talking about myself, and I'm not sure I can. So bear with me as I share more about my own personal experiences than I usually do, because I feel it will help illuminate my ultimate point. Further, I think it will demonstrate that I am not naturally inclined towards exercise or fitness, lest some think that make it easier for me to advocate for them now.

            Growing up, I was the fat kid. Not the fattest kid on the block, but definitely in the running. And I was painfully lazy. I hated exercise, I hated pain and I especially hated where the twain met. Not that I didn't spend most of my childhood playing football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tag in the woods, going swimming,  etc., but I did these in the least strenuous way possible. As an adult I learned I have a chest condition that fairly substantially diminishes my lung capacity, which explained much of why running in particular was so painful for me, but it wasn't insurmountable, since I still live with it, and do just fine... though I do wonder what life would be like being able to draw a full breath.

            I also grew up playing organized baseball and football, through all the usual programs. Through much of this, my father was my coach, and although being the coach's son has its own drawbacks, I couldn't have been luckier to have a father who was an excellent coach, an excellent mentor, but not the way-too-intense stereotypical father-coach. However, despite my good fortune in this department, by my sophomore year of high school I had shed all of my athletic obligations. Without even seasonal organized sports to get me off the couch, I quickly got into the worst shape of my life. Only then, when I saw myself getting softer by the day, did I start to realize that I needed a new outlook. There were several things that helped push me towards this, but I will restrict myself to two brief retellings here.

            In high school I took Latin with an old school grammar-and-translate style teacher, and we spent much of our time memorizing famous Latin quotations. For some reason, one of the few that struck me then was: Mens sana in corpore sano- or, A sound mind in a sound body. I had always been a precocious little terd, and certainly thought my mind sounder than most, but the idea that a sound body might be as equally important struck me, resonated, and stuck.

            I think it resonated with me because I realized that this was an ideal I admired in all of my heroes, real or fictitious. Whether it was Skywalker, Lancelot or Aragorn, all of my boyhood heroes were individuals of both cunning and strength, knowledge and endurance. What I also realized was that it was hypocritical of me to admire them, without making any attempt to emulate them. Ultimately, it was this desire to not just admire something but to attempt to live something I admired that gave me the means to rethink exercise as not just a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs, but one of the means by which I could live ideals that were important to me and my delusions-of-grandeur adolescent brain.

           Fortunately, the years have granted me slightly more wisdom than my adolescent self possessed (again, slightly) and I have been able to mold that vision into something more realistic.  And it is this view of what exercise means and why it is important that has allowed me to stay more consistent than the average person. However, I want to be clear, I don't put forth this view as being somehow superior to others, I simply find that it has been helpful for me in maintaining a steady, and I would say, healthy exercise routine, while I regularly watch many people I know struggle with the same. So if you are someone who has always wanted to find a way to make a more regular commitment to exercise and fitness, but find it difficult, hopefully something in what I have to say may be helpful.

           I've discovered over the years, as I've said, that many people have different reasons for trying to stay fit. Some do it to stay healthy, hoping that with good health will come long life. Some do it to look good, because for many people their ego is tied up in how attractive other people find them. Others don't care as much about their ego, but recognize on some level that looking good helps you get what you want in this world. Others exercise because they enjoy eating, but don't wish to gain weight. For many people it is a combination of all of these. 

            And each of the above apply to some degree to both men and women, although often in different balances. So I should say that while I will do my best to keep what I have to say relevant to both sexes, I recognize that it is to some degree a male perspective, although I do not think exclusively so. I also recognize that the relationship women have with their bodies is exceedingly complex, and that as a man, I have much more hope of fully understanding general relativity than I do that relationship. Nevertheless, I will boldly ignore these complications and press on.

          I am far from the most fit or active person I know. I have god-brothers who are triathletes and a friend who regularly hikes in the Himalayas. I have a brother who is my superior at every sport, and a friend who puts me to shame in the water. What I do have, however, is consistency. Since those teenage realizations, I have, in the 18 years since, not gone more than a week or so without some planned and rigorous exercise. My routine has changed over the years; I've gone from running 5 miles and lifting weights both 5 nights a week, to only running twice a week but running 10-12 miles, to running flights of 300 stone stairs in hilly Seattle, to now, where if I can get an hour in the weight room, a ten mile bike ride, a mile in the pool and two 5k runs in during a week, I'm doing really well.

          I've come to realize, in talking with others about why they exercise, that the most significant difference between myself and people who adopt very ambitious but ultimately doomed routines, is not any natural affinity I have for fitness, because I have none, but simply a matter of perspective. Yes, I hope that regular exercise will keep me healthy. Yes, I appreciate it if staying fit helps me look better.  And yes, I love eating. But these are not the primary reason I stick to it. Because doing it for those reasons would make it about me. Yes, being healthy is nice, but I'm 33, and heart attacks are a ways down the road. Aren't they? Yes, looking good is nice, but I'm already married to the most beautiful woman I've ever known, and she's not going to leave me over  a few extra pounds in the middle. Is she?

           Pardon my waxing philosophical, but I exercise because my body is one of the means by which my will is enacted in the world. My body is how I do things my mind sets upon. And my mind sets upon much. But to put this in more colloquial terms, I decided that I never wanted to be presented with something which my mind wished but my body was unable to execute. Of course, there are limits to this. I'm not a Navy SEAL, and have too many other things I enjoy and feel are worth devoting time to to pay such exclusive attention to one aspect of life. (Not that I begrudge anyone who does.)

           But more than even being a tool for executing my will, I've spent some time reflecting on what that will might be. We keep a fire ladder under our bed- what good is it if I can't climb down it one-armed, carrying my daughter or dog? We go boating in the summer on the lake- what good is my daughter's life jacket if no one can swim both themselves and her to shore? My father and I hunt in the fall, or at least we used to- what good am I to him if he is accidentally shot in the foot and I can't double-time the five miles out to the road? If someone tries to assault my wife?

             I might be old-fashioned, but I can't shake the notion that we have certain duties to those around us, particularly those we love. As a parent, I've found that this sentiment has only grown. I personally could never forgive myself if something tragic happened to someone I care about, something that could have been prevented with a little less sloth on my part. This is what keeps me going when I don't want to finish those last three laps in the pool, or that last set on the bench, or the last mile of the run. This is what sticks with me when the desire to stay "healthy" or "good-looking" is no longer worth the pain of pushing on.
             Mens sana in corpore sano embodied an old world ideal that a complete life was one lived in both a fit and prepared mind as well as a fit and prepared body. Life is unpredictable, so preparation is often all we have. Our society, culture and economy have become almost exclusively driven by our mental lives. The result of this has pushed our relationship with our bodies in one of two directions. Either we regard them as sacred temples, and we retch at the thought of poisoning them with salt, fat, animal products, high-fructose corn syrup or red dye #6. This extreme is nonsensical because it fails to recognize our bodies for what they are- the same decaying organic matter as everything else, part of the same compost pile. At the other extreme we treat our bodies simply as the means by which we feed our brains salt, fat, sugar, drugs, orgasms. This extreme is pathetic because it degrades our bodies to mere hedonistic vehicles of pleasure, ignoring the unique role they have in enacting our will in the world. We can have a much healthier relationship with our bodies if we recapture the perspective of the ancient world; Our bodies are the limited extension of our will.

            So the next time you are in a losing battle with yourself over putting on the sneakers or helmet or goggles, it may be helpful to think not just about how you look, or feel, or the guilt you have over what you ate the night before. Because, ultimately, these are weak motivators, since the only person you betray is yourself, and you can't be that disappointed in yourself. Instead, it may be helpful to think of what you and your body are capable of, what you would like them to be capable of, and what that might mean someday to someone you love.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Excess in Moderation

           First of all, sorry to have been away for so long. RL intruded, albeit not in unpleasant ways.

            I find the way people live their lives fascinating. And what I find most fascinating about the way people live their lives is how they live them in relation to death. It is a tired truism to say that the lives of most contemporary westerners are far removed from the reality that is death. Barring unforeseen tragedy, we enjoy lifespans longer than any generation that has come before us. We fight wars, but they are conducted far away from our shores. Our meat comes in styrofoam and plastic wrap. If you live in Maine, as I do, and look forward to lobster season, as I do, you know that when it comes time to put the bugs in the pot, most of the room, including the people planning on eating lobster, clear out.

             Since I have spent much of this blog staking out a position that does not think it very likely (at all) that we can expect much after the death of everything that currently makes us "us"- our bodies and brains, I should address the differences inherent in believing in life after death and not. One would expect that an individual who claims to fully believe that they will be resurrected to eternal bliss would live with less fear of death, but, at least in my own personal experience, this seems not to be the case. In fact, all of the people I know who are most terrified of death, are simultaneously the same people who claim to be most assured of their place in eternity. This may simply be, however, that the promise of eternal life is most attractive in the first place to those who are inherently the most terrified of their own mortality. On the other hand, not thinking eternal life very likely forces one to constantly reckon (at least on some level) with the idea that, "This is it." Perhaps expecting to live forever, but never being absolutely, unquestionably sure makes death harder to deal with, because you have much bigger hopes to fear being dashed.

            So let's call it a wash, and acknowledge that everyone of us, whether we believe in eternal life or not, struggles, on some level, with the idea of our own mortality. However, whether death comes slowly and expectedly, as from cancer, or quickly and unexpectedly, like from a bus,* it comes in the absolute, final sense in but a single moment of our lives. So how we relate to death is less about how we expect to think or feel or act in those final moments, and more about how we live every other moment of our lives with the knowledge of the inevitability of that one, final moment, coming somewhere down the line.

            And how do most of us relate to the inevitability of that moment? We ignore it.

            We do this in one of two ways, and this is the behavior that I find fascinating. Some ignore it by pretending that nothing they do could possibly hasten its arrival, whether that is eating too much, drinking too much, drugging too much, sitting too much, worrying too much. Others ignore it by pretending it will never happen and so put off the things they enjoy for another day, always another day. Surely there is another way?

            There is much wisdom in the ancient saying: Everything in moderation, and our society has long considered moderation a virtue. There is however, an oft-overlooked logical twist here, which can be made plain by adding the twist to the original formula: Everything in moderation, including moderation. When one pauses to think that the logical conclusion to Everything in moderation would necessarily include moderation, we have to ask ourselves what moderate moderation would look like.

            But first we need to ask, what do we moderate? When most people think of "moderation" they think of the things we find pleasurable; food, drink, sex. But we moderate much more than that. We moderate risk. We moderate our ideas. We moderate our beliefs, our opinions. We moderate our speech. We moderate our feelings, our emotions. And most of the time, a majority of the time, this is the wise thing to do, the sensible thing to do.

            But is "sensible" all you really want? If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, how much of the next 24 hours would be spent doing "sensible" things? Would you eat oatmeal with skim milk for breakfast? Would you clean the house? Would you go to bed at 9pm? Would you say goodbye to a friend you have always found attractive without giving them a good, solid kiss?

           The tricky part of living life is striking a balance, moderating, between the long and the short positions. Putting a $3k flat-screen TV on a credit card when you have nothing in the bank is idiotic; but so is stopping after two drinks cause you have work in the morning when sitting with a friend you haven't seen in a year. It is a tad foolish to live everyday as if we expect to die tomorrow, but it is equally as foolish to pretend that it isn't a possibility.

            Hence the title of this post, Excess in Moderation. Because, yes, everything in moderation also allows for excess, albeit in moderation. What I find fascinating, when observing people's behavior, is the people who can never let go, even when the time is right. People who stay at the safe job they know, rather than going for the one the want. People who put off having kids, because they "aren't in the right place financially," even though they want them. (My mom was great about helping me get over this, reminding me that I spent the first year of my life living in a warehouse, literally, and I turned out okay. Relatively speaking.) People who never speak their minds, even on issues that matter to them. People who work hard to not fall in love, for fear of getting their heart broken.

            Asking someone what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow is rather pointless, because most of us would do almost anything, since we would have to deal with almost no consequences. A better question to ask is; What would you do differently if you knew you were going to die in five years? Which things would then become worth the social or emotional risk they come with?

           Would you visit a country you've always wanted to visit? Would you speak more openly about what you believe, or don't believe? Would you admit to yourself that you are in love with a close friend who isn't available? Would you admit it to them? Would have some good friends over and drink too much, stay up too late, on (gasp!) a Wednesday? Would you sleep with more than one person at the same time? Would you roll down a grassy hill with your daughter in your good shirt? Would you take a day of from your exercise routine to see the family you see but once a year? Would you start writing that book you've had in your head for years, even if you can't write for shit? Would you start that band? Would you go back to school for something you, you know, actually enjoy?

            There are few things more commendable than self-control. But when you no longer have control over your self-control, is it self-control at all?

* I was reminded that I owe my usage of the death-coming-suddenly-by-bus idea to a certain M. Phoenix, a friend and former more-than-that who employed it regularly. She also happens to make incredible art with glass, which you can see by following the link here.