Friday, November 29, 2013

Meditations IV, 3

I've been reading and rereading a verse from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations lately. I might have written about it sooner except for two points: one, I really wanted to find a place I could copy-paste from since it's looong and I didn't feel like typing it, and two, some events and conversations of the past few weeks have really gotten me thinking about it again.

I never did find a place to copy-paste from since although there are plenty of versions on the internet, I like none as much as the translation in my copy. The language is sparser and more direct in the way that I think MA would have intended it. Also, I always make my students copy something I really want them to internalize, rather than photocopy it and give them handouts. The act of writing is another path towards memory. Anyway, Meditations IV, 3:

Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains- a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he only need contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind- the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. Make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals; recurrence to them will then suffice to remove all vexation, and send you back without fretting to the duties to which you must return.
 After all, what is it that frets you? The vices of humanity? Remember the doctrine that all rational beings are created for one another; that toleration is a part of justice; and that men are not intentional evildoers. Think of the myriad enmities, suspicions, animosities, and conflicts that are now vanished with the dust and ashes of the men who knew them; and fret no more.
Or is it your allotted portion in the universe that chafes you? Recall once again the dilemma, 'if not a wise providence, then a mere jumble of atoms,' and consider the profusion of evidence that this world is as it were a city. Do the ills of the body afflict you? Reflect that the mind has but to detach itself and apprehend its own powers, to be no longer involved with the movements of the breath, whether they be smooth or rough. In short, recollect all that you have learnt and accepted regarding pain and pleasure.
Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and discerning the judgements of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame. For the entire earth is but a point, and the place of our habitation but a minute corner of it; and how many therein who will praise you, and what sort of men are they?
Remember then to withdraw into the little field of self. Above all, never struggle or strain; but be master of yourself, and view life as a man, as a human being, as a citizen and as a mortal. Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can only arise from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and you will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part. The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.

I don't intend to write on the entire verse, though I certainly could find lots to say about all of it, but I decided to include it all rather than edit it to my purpose, as others might find value in parts I don't intend to touch on. However, the parts to wish to examine I will do in order. 

Most of the beauty of the Meditations is in Aurelius' ability to condense a lifetime's wisdom into a single sentence. It is rarer that I find myself returning to the more actively contemplative passages, where one can envision him in his tent on campaign, strained with the duties of rule and war, sorting his thoughts only as pen strikes paper. This passage, however, contains so much of value, on such a wide variety of topics, while yet maintaining a central theme, that it has managed to draw me back again and again.

Further, there is nothing truly profound in this passage; nothing he doesn't say elsewhere in the Meditations, or that a thinking person couldn't formulate on their own, if they paused for a moment. But that's the beauty of Stoicism. It doesn't seek profundity. Just earnest truth.

But on to the passage. When I think about this passage, it is the first paragraph that I am most often reflecting on, as it is this that has the most personal meaning for me on a daily basis. This is something I have striven for my whole (thinking) life. When I was young, I envisioned for myself a cabin in the woods where I could escape from the hustle of the world and finally realize the peace of being alone with my own thoughts without the demands for time and attention that others make. Many have felt this pull, from before Isaiah through Thoreau and beyond. Many think, "If only I could be in this time, or this place, or this circumstance, I would find peace."

Fortunately, they are all, as I was, wrong. Peace that requires time, place or circumstance is merely an illusion. If you can't carry peace with you, of what use is it? If you can't find that single, quiet spot in your own (metaphorical) soul, then where will it be when you genuinely need it? If you need to live in a certain place, surrounded by certain people or circumstances, have you achieved anything at all? If you can't find peace in a room full of screaming children, or a department store during the holidays, or a packed dance club, or a social event where every single person present screams to be the center of attention, or, you know, something that really demands your attention, like a war zone, what good is it?

(Or if you need to be listening to this while writing, and not Shrek 3. Amazing.)

I'm not a terribly patient person. I fail at this regularly. To make up for that, I try to practice this in moments when finding that quiet center seems the least likely, such as circumstances like those above. I'll deliberately seek them out, from time to time, because I find it to be good practice. And because, as with anything else, the greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction. When one can remove oneself completely from a packed dance club, with the untz-untz-untz vibrating through your chest, surrounded by a sea of writhing, barely-clad bodies desperately seeking not to have to be alone with themselves for a few fleeting moments, it affords a truly unique experience, one that simply can't be described here, or anywhere. (Not that there isn't value in being part of that mass, from time to time. I just find the experience at the other end of the spectrum infinitely more valuable. To me, anyway.)

I could go on, but I'm merely reiterating what Aurelius says, just less eloquently. The second paragraph touches on ideas I've written about numerous times before, and don't feel the need to rehash. The third however, ties in very neatly to the first, and I'd like to spend a moment there.

Life is a constant series of demands on our attention. For many people this is, at least on the surface, a blessing, as this affords distraction from the looming fact of our mortality (which Aurelius takes on directly later in the passage), a distraction from the immediate need to find meaning in our thoughts, words and actions; in short a distraction from being alone with ourselves. Yet, as persistent as are the demands of duty, accident and other people, they are nothing next to the demands of our own bodies.

There are few things harder to get away from than pain and pleasure (while few rarely seek to escape the later as it occurs, the occasional effort is not lacking in merit.) Illness and injury often manage to creep into our most serene thoughts, even with deliberate effort to keep them out. And thus, I've found practice in this arena of equal value to that of the social or circumstantial. Seeking pain (or pleasure), not in a masochistic (or hedonistic) sense, but as a measure to test one's will against, to strengthen one's ability to remove oneself from any and all circumstances, can be very instructive. 

Up until this point, I've tried to comment on Aurelius in a purely one-dimensional way, using the terms "remove oneself" as if what he was speaking of was akin to being able to achieve deep mediation at the drop of a hat. However, I don't think that is truly what he meant. I think, rather, that what he is defining is an ability to be fully present in a moment, a moment of pain, pleasure or distraction, and yet simultaneously be at peace within it. I've avoided speaking of both sides of this coin for clarity's sake. But at this point, I need to be clearer. Thus, I could elaborate further, or I could simply refer you to Tyler Durden:

Aurelius and Durden are asking the same thing of their audiences; know, don't fear, but know that someday you are going to die. (Aside from Durden's stoner-theologizing here, the two are making many of the same points.) Pain is the body's alarm of incremental death. When your legs burn after miles of running, or your stomach growls after hours empty, or your flesh screams as it melts away, all are warnings, "If this continues, buddy... eh, kaput." Facing pain, truly facing it, not going to your cave, is one of the closest approximations we have to facing death.

Aurelius, though, touches on "the swift onset of oblivion," not in the context of pain, but in much the same context he typically does, that of fame, praise and admiration. As emperor of the longest-enduring empire of such immense size, ruler of nearly his entire known world, and (unknowingly) a writer whose words would be read at least two millenia later, he had more reason to rest his satisfaction on fame and legacy than nearly all others, before and since. And yet he recognizes its utter and complete irrelevance. 

As a person whose ego, "knows no limits," (edit: "unrivaled" he says he said) as my brother recently and accurately said, this has been something I, personally, have had to work hard to come to terms with. I still think, "Well, no, I don't need to be famous, I just want to be that guy that writes that book that makes people stop reading Ulysses." Ambition is a great motivator. Much good has been accomplished due to ambition, as has much ill. What I believe Aurelius would have us do is what is right and what is honest, regardless of who's watching. All the rest, let come what will.

I've pulled merely a draught from that passage, but I hardly needed to pull any at all, since Aurelius says what he intends so clearly. So I'll leave it to you. Besides, I've been hammered for about nine paragraphs, and I've got some LoL to get to.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seriously Latvia?

Warning: This is not a real blog post.

I was just sitting here bored and... wait, scratch that. I'm not bored. I'm never bored. As I tell my students, who are 12 and thus perpetually "bored," despite not having the vaguest notion of what true, bored-at-the-idea-of-even-being-for-another-second bored, bored because they haven't had, in the words of Louis CK, "colors and anger" flashed in their face in the last 12 seconds, I tell them, "Only boring people are ever bored." Which hopefully makes groaning, "I'm boooooaaarrrd..."a little less cool. 

So I guess I said, "I was sitting here bored and..." because that's some kind of way of justifying that I was looking at the stats on this blog, I guess because I didn't want to appear...what, narcissistic? Yeah, right. I think that ship sailed a looong time ago.

Anyway. I was looking at the stats on this blog because I wanted to stroke my own ego. I guess that's why someone would do that... But some of the things that I saw were really interesting. To me anyway. Here's the breakdown of the pageviews for this blog, all time, by country:

United States- 6,682
Russia- 489
Nepal- 434
Latvia- 390
Germany- 346
United Kingdom- 200
Australia- 145
Canada- 128
Ukraine- 70

Obviously, no surprise to see the US at number one. Russia at 2 means, largely, that Fromzy is doing is job, as Nepal at 3 means Brian is doing his, (despite me being a poorass follower of either of their blogs lately, though Brian's in now defunct.)

But Lativa, number 4? Really? Hello Latvia! Thank you very much, whoever you are! 

390 views from Latvia means that someone there is actually reading this. 3 views from Latvia, or even 39, would just be clicking the wrong link on Google. But 390 is some serious business. I also have one friend in Australia, but she is only putting up 145 views, to give you an idea. And that's not all her, according to the map. (I don't blame her for not being up there, since I did spend a fair number of words making fun of her religion's dietary laws- I'm honestly a little surprised she still reads it at all.) 

But Latvia, seriously? Nice work. I really thought that 99% of the views came from the 14 people I know on Facebook that read it, and that maybe their cat kept stepping on their mouse, causing the page to refresh and the tracker to kick up another page view. The other 1% I assumed were just lost on the internet.

So anyway. Go Latvia! 

Germany, nice work, really, but this is the country that produced Copernicus, Kepler, Leibniz, Gutenberg, Neitzche, Goethe, Born, Heisenberg, Plank, Einstein and Ludwig Van... and you're behind smelly little Latvia? Really? C'mon. (Don't tell Latvia I said that, btw. I just spent a lot of time pumping them up. You know how they are. A little insecure. It's not easy being a tiny European, what, principality? That most people couldn't locate on a map. Of Latvia.)

United Kingdom! You still owe me like thirty bucks from that time I was in London and saw Layer Cake with Daniel Craig and two tickets was 20 pounds, which at the time was, I believe, $39 US. Screw you for that. It's a movie, London. Not live theater. Loved the bangers and mashed though, keep it up. And being called "hun" by cute waitresses with a British accent. That works too. Go with that.

Whose next? Australia? Dealt with her... Canada! Canada, I think you know how I feel about you. But no, it's not all bad. Round bacon is good. And maple syrup. And... flannel? Seriously though, we could have much worse neighbors. Like...

France. Again, France, it's not that I don't like you. Paris is probably the most beautiful, extended man-made spectacle I have ever seen. I get it. You're proud of it and you should be. It's just that you're so... France. Hey, do you remember that time back in like '97 when we were all playing Diablo, and Brian and I used to come into your chatrooms and troll you about World War II and you'd fire back by calling us fat, stupid Americans who eat hamburgers all day? Remember that? Well, up yours. Hamburgers still rule. (And by the way, thanks for being kind enough to switch over to English back then so we could taunt each other freely. Yeah, I only speak one language. Yeah, it's a fat, stupid American thing.)

And last, and definitely least, Ukraine. Ukraine, go back to having the hottest head-of-state in the world and I'll give a crap about you again. No Yulia, no likey.

Who's winning now, by the way? Does anyone know? Are there any hot heads-of-state these days? I kinda had a thing for that Aussie lady, but it was mostly just because she was awesome. Though, I don't know. If you do a Google image search for Julia Gillard (and when it suggests Julia Gillard hot, click on that), she's got something going on. For a head-of-state, anyway. But Julia with a J is just no match for Yulia with a Y. (That seems to be a general rule of thumb anyway, I've found. As I'm sure Fromzy would agree. And Wootsy.)

So yeah. That's whose out there. Kinda weird to think about. I mean, Latvia? Really?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do you know what a duvet is?

My dog, Layla, I went for a long walk the other night, and I ended up thinking thoughts that became the previous post. But on the way home, I noticed something else that spun my mind off in another direction. Not too far from my house, I walked by an open garage in which sat two older men, leather jackets and handlebar mustaches, drinking beers while leaning on their Harleys. It was dark, and the garage was well lit, so I could see inside with detail. There was one of those red and black, 5ft. Black and Decker tool cases, with the two dozen drawers, both a US and Confederate flag, a beer fridge and Harley Davidson paraphernalia everywhere. There was also a sign that said, "Man Cave."

It was the sign that got me thinking. This garage, these men, this scene were a thing out of place on this quiet suburban street, the garage itself attached to a well-kept, off-white house with pretty shutters, a manicured lawn between my dog and I and them. But here, back-lit, was something a sign purchased at Home Depot declared a "Man Cave."

How is it that a man like that lives on a street like that in a home like that? How is it that everything is clearly most important to him is relegated to a garage warded with a store-bought sign? He probably even knows what a duvet is...


There are a lot of ways to look at history. Traditionally, history was looked at as being the tale of Great Men doing Great Things, which usually involved conquering and subjugating other peoples. Since most of what was written down concerned these individuals and events, even trying to read history for a broader sense of what life was like for the other 99.9999% of humans can be challenging. But a lot of work has been done and it is possible to get a sense of what life was like for a typical individual. 

But one narrative of history that is almost universally accepted is that throughout it, women have been subjugated by men. Certainly, some aspects of this complaint are legitimate and inarguable- women have, at various times and in various places, been unable to work outside the home, get an education or own property. They have been treated as property. There is no doubt that women and girls have gotten a raw deal throughout history. (What is often left unsaid, of course, is that for 49% of the population to subjugate 51% of the population, it takes a whole helluva lot of complicity, even taking physical size and propensity to violence into account. But that's for another day...)

However, there is another way to look at it. And what I am proposing is just that- another way to look at it- not a better, and not the right way, just another. 

In Second Samuel 11, we read, "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbath. But David remained in Jerusalem." (To seduce Bathsheba... you know the rest.)

"In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war..." We see similar ideas in First Kings 20:26 and other places in the Bible as well. The point is that for the Biblical authors, it was clearly self evident that their audience understood that, of course, in the spring, men went off to war. They don't even bother to give a reason or justification for the wholesale slaughter of the Ammonites, or the starvation of the Rabbathians. None is needed. It is spring, and in the spring, men make war. 

Now, of course, the line actually reads, "when kings go off to war," but the distinction is trivial. No king goes to war spring after spring after spring without the consent and will of his soldiers, which, at that time, was the majority of the able-bodied male population. 

We can see a similar pattern in ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War for 27 years, as well as many others. As in the Levant, wars in ancient Greece were fought by almost the entirety of the able-bodied male population. Even Socrates, one of the greatest minds of all time, was a hoplite in the Athenian army. 

China's worse. In what is known as the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, spanning 294 years, the Chinese principalities fought 1,211 wars. In that entire period, there were 38 years of peace. 

I could go on. And on. Getting into prehistorical eras, or looking at pre-state societies does get trickier, but there does seem to be quite a bit of evidence that among certain types of pre-state societies, i.e. those that claim territory, usually, as opposed to wandering foragers, warfare is as common a part of life as hunting and childbirth. It's just something that happens. All the time.

But the point is not that men used to go off to war just about every year. The point is that we don't anymore. What changed?

Another way of looking at history is to see it as the slow containment and redirection of natural, innate male impulses. (And no, just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's good. That's just how they trick you into paying $4 more for your shampoo.) Look around you. What do you see men doing?

I see my father, a varsity high school football coach. He spends, probably, 80% of his waking minutes thinking about his team, their strengths and weakness, his opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and how best to lead his team to victory on Friday night. 

I see myself, my brother and many of my friends (all but one of whom are male, and that one... idk ;-) obsessed with an online game that is essentially a large scale strategic arena battle. Many of us spend several hours a night playing, and some of us put in hours reading strategy and watching the pros on YouTube (yes, we're huge dorks). It's pretty much all we talk about when we get together. Last night's games, changes to the game, strategies to improve for next game...

What I see, largely, when I look around at what men enjoy spending their time doing, is that just about everything can be seen as a safer, tamer, less-deadly form of conflict than warfare, but all bearing a resemblance of some kind. (I mean, really enjoy, like get geeked up about. Yes, of course they love spending time with your mother... No, no, that's not what I meant...) Of course, it's not that there aren't exceptions, and it is certainly true that women enjoy many of the same things. But I think the generalization is fairly safe. 

In short, the history of civilization can be seen, additionally or alternatively, as the cordoning off of a large part of what makes men men, into safe, domesticated, docile little hobbies. Drinking beer in a "Man Cave" attached to a perfectly bourgeoisie little home. Practicing and planning for 60 (or 48) minutes of padded, rule-bound conflict. Talking pixelated strategy.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. I certainly don't have any interest in going to war every spring. I'd much rather spend that time watching my dad's games, or talking nerd-sports with my friends. That scratches my itch plenty, and it's a lot more comfortable than a spear in the chest. 

But there is a sad side to it. "Man Caves" are pathetic. Own your space. There is nothing wrong with enjoying sports, or beer, or darts, or pool, or videogames, or cards, or any other damn thing you please. But put it out there. Don't hide it in the basement or the garage. Our culture often denigrates these pursuits, and others like them, as "childish." How can they be "childish" if it's adults that want to do them? That's just code for, "I'm incapable of enjoying myself and thus you should be too."

And remind them: It's a hell of a lot better than getting raped, pillaged and murdered every spring...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ya can't get der fum heah...

I've been reading a lot of physics lately, which is something I haven't really done in earnest since my later high school and college years. At the time, I had reached the saturation point for what my adolescent brain was capable of absorbing in abstraction, and to dig any deeper would require mathematical training beyond my patience or capacity. 

My math is most certainly even weaker now than it was then, but fortunately, the nearly two decades that have passed have opened up other ways of thinking about some of these fundamental laws of time and space, matter and energy, chaos and order. Not in anyway relevant to the fields of physics, mathematics or information, but in how I think about the world I experience. But to get there, we will need a quick, non-mathematical, primer on the relevant physics...

The universe is way, way, WAY weirder than most people think. It is also far more interesting, far more elegant and far more beautiful than anything dreamed up in the minds of men and women. But most people are unaware of the true depths of strangeness that the universe reaches, because most people are still at least a hundred years behind the times, living in a clockwork Newtonian universe where everything is neat, orderly and mostly fits in with what we call "common sense." (Actually, many people are closer to five hundred years behind the times, stuck in an Aristotelian conception of the universe in which bowling balls fall faster than tennis balls because they are heavier, which is not the case.)

But the universe we inhabit is much, much stranger than all that. While I could give many examples, only one is relevant here, and the rest would get us off track. Take a photon. Photons are, as most people know, the smallest reducible "bit" of light. (As soon as you start talking quantum or relativistic physics, you have to hedge all of your definitions, since a photon is simultaneously both a wave and a particle. And that's not even the weirdest thing about it.) You are able to see the world because millions and billions of photons are striking your retina every moment your eyes are open. 

But the strange thing about photons is that they don't actually "travel" from point A, say a light bulb, to point B, your retina. What modern physics has learned, quantum mechanics in particular, is that we can't ever say that an individual photon took such-and-such a path to get from point A to point B. All we can say is, "Here are all the possible paths the photon could have taken from A to B, and here are the probabilities that it took each of those paths." 

Let me repeat this. A photon leaving light bulb A, is nowhere to be found until it strikes your retina B (or some other thing it interacts with along the way). It "leaves" the bulb A, "chooses" one of an infinite number of possible routes, "travels" that route, though without actually travelling the route, and "arrives" at your eye, causing you to be able to see whatever it is you are looking at (it'd have to actually bounce off whatever you're looking at, of course, but that isn't really relevant here, because we aren't concerned with how vision works). All we can do is calculate the likelihood that it took each (infinite) potential path and, taking all of these probabilities together, use this sum to describe the "route" the photon took.

Whew. Now if that sounds like cockamamie horseshit (and it should), slow down for a second, and consider two relevant factors. Number one, all of the truly weird aspects of quantum mechanics, this being one, have been experimentally verified to something along the lines of a factor of one in a billion billion. That means that experiments have verified the theoretical predictions to roughly the 18th decimal place. That's pretty good. That would be like launching a rocket from earth and hitting a dime on the moon. Every time. That doesn't happen by accident. 

Number two, think about where your brain comes from. Your brain evolved over the last few million years largely on the African savannah to be pretty good at communicating, problem-solving, tool-crafting, mating, politics, etc. Nowhere in there was it ever critical to our survival to appreciate the deepest workings of nature on unfathomably small (or large) scales. In fact, it is a testament to our great fortune that some of our savannah-useful skills happen to translate into something useful for probing the fundamental depths of the universe. (I mean, we could have been born dolphins. Dolphins are wicked smart. Dolphins have names. Dolphins have good taste in music (oh wait, that's killer whales- whatever). But dolphins will never build a Large Hadron Collider.)

Now, here is where it gets really weird. (No, like, really, really weird.) Physicists have been working for the last century or so to explain what this, the weird travel habits of photons (and every other particle in the universe), actually mean. Only one of the possible explanations is relevant here, but trust me when I say, the explanations are even more counter-intuitive than the phenomena itself. 

The one explanation that we will consider, not because it is the most right (in fact, it is probably the most wrong), but because it is foundational to what I actually want to talk about, is the Many Worlds Interpretation. The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics posits that, essentially, everything that can happen, does happen, albeit in an infinitely branching series of increasingly different universes. In other words, for every possible path the photon could take, it does take, but it only takes one in any particular universe. 

Now, for the most part, physicists hate this interpretation, for obvious reasons. It leaves reality a convoluted, messy, insane place. But, it does make the math work, and as has been shown time and time again, when the math talks, it is usually worth listening. Mostly, however, Many Worlds is acknowledged as a possible explanation for the weirdness of the universe we find ourselves in, but since it is, in principle, completely untestable, it is largely swept under the rug while a more satisfactory explanation is sought.

What I want to do today, though, is to imagine for a moment that the universe does work like that, but I want to scale up from the "choices" photons make to the ones that we do. Going through a major life change, as I recently have, has left me spending lots of time wondering, "What if?" Even more so, I have had numerous conversations with other people wondering, often more feverishly, "What if? What if this? What if that? Whatifwhatifwhatif?"

Our lives are full of choices; what friends to keep, what college to go to, what to study, what job to take, what girl to ask out, who to marry, where to live, whether to have children, whether to stay married, whether to change careers, and on and on... Each of these choices, in a very simplistic sense, represents a single branch on the tree above, let's call it The Tree of Potentiality. Each of these choices, once made, precludes us from making a host of other choices that were previously open to us. (In fact, this is just another way of explaining mid-life crisises. Do you remember being 18? That feeling that you could do anything, absolutely anything with your life? Chances are, if you're 28, or 35, or 50, or 80, this feeling has progressively dimmed. At some point along the way, when people realize this, they throw a little tantrum for a bit.)

The thing about the Tree though, is you can only move in one direction along it. You can only travel from the base, or the trunk, to stick with the metaphor, up through the limbs, down the branches, out to the twigs. We all get this, at least intellectually. You can't be 18 again. You can't travel back in time, or undo the past. 

But what a lot of people don't seem to get, at least on an emotional level, is that you can't travel parallel, either. You can't hop from one branch to another. But when people ask, obsess, over whatifwhatifwhatif? that's precisely what they are hoping, wishing, to do. 

Again, let's play Many World's for a minute. We can use my life. Under these presumptions...

There's a universe (a whole bunch, actually) where I never climbed onto the roof of that elementary school, never got arrested and never solidified my relationship with the kid that turned out to be my longest and best friend. (Those would all be sucky universes.)

There are universes where I took applying to college seriously, and didn't end up at a place where I really didn't belong...

But then I wouldn't have ended up in the universes where I met other great friends, and never would have moved years later to Seattle to visit one of them...

And wouldn't have met a whole host of wonderful people there...

And there are universes where I stick around there for the woman who was, at the time, the love of my life...

But then I wouldn't have moved back to Maine, continued cooking, met the woman who would become my wife, and who would give me my incredible daughter...

And, of course, there are universes where that woman is still my wife, and we are still happily married.

It's those last universes that some people in my life, at least right now, keep wanting to leap to, when they ask whatifwhatifwhatif?

But we can't. The universe doesn't work that way. We "make" our choices (nod to the free-will discussion that we clearly don't have time for here), we travel down the branches of the Tree, and we come, every moment of our lives, with every thought, word and gesture, to yet another intersection that opens up new possibilities while precluding others. And all we can do is make the best choices we can, with the information we have, between the branches in front of us. 

We can't go back. We can't even go sideways.

All we can do, and thus all we should ever want to do, is move forward. All the rest is futility.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Never let them do it

Yes, yes. It's been a long time. I have no excuses. Well, no good ones, since there really is no such thing...


Today's post is going to be a bit personal, as I'm going to try to answer a question I have been asked a lot lately. The question, though never expressed precisely this way, is essentially: How do you stay happy in the midst of such unfortunate events?

For those reading this who don't know me, a minimal background is needed. I recently went through an unexpected and undesired, initially, divorce. The details are irrelevant, but the essential facts are these: I was happy in my marriage, happy with my wife, happy with my family, happy with my life. Then that changed. 

And now? Now, in many, many, ways, though not all, I am much, much happier. Of course, I am heartbroken that my daughter lost the family structure that was all she had ever known. I am immeasurably sad about that, and will be for a very long time. 

Unfortunately, however, this sad fact is reality, and though I wish it hadn't come to pass, there was very little I could do about it, and there is certainly nothing I can do about it now.

So, the question that I keep getting asked: How are you doing? When I say, "Really, really well," people are almost always taken a bit aback. Some seem genuinely confused, annoyed, or, even, offended. "But you're not supposed to be happy for, like, at least 15 years. Your wife just left you, dude."

Yes, that happened. And dealing with it was not the easiest thing I have ever done. But I came through it alright, and I hope, in the next few paragraphs, to shed some small light on how that was possible...

As I write this, one of the great men of history, Nelson Mandela, lies in a coma, unlikely to ever recover. The recent flurry of coverage of his illness resurfaced one of my all-time favorite quotes of his (or anyone's). Once, shortly after being released from serving 29 years in solitary confinement, he was asked how he survived, and more so, how he survived without emerging broken and bitter. He replied, "I was never in prison. I never let them do it."

I never let them do it. 

We have much in life that we value: our health, our wealth, our friends and family, our lives and liberty. All of these can be taken away. They can be taken away through the machinations of others, through our own choices, or simply through the twists and turns of fate. The substantial loss of any of these things can certainly make adjusting to our new conditions difficult (unless of course, it is your life you've lost, in which case there is no adjusting to be done...) 

But, it can be done. It can be done because while each of the things above are immensely valuable, they are not infinitely so. Unfortunately, the illusion that they are is part of the human condition, and the root of nearly all human misery. 

What Mandela realized was that while they could take a great deal away from him, virtually everything short of his life, there were things they couldn't take away. For him, as he said in the same conversation, it was his dreams and aspirations. For Socrates, when they handed him the hemlock, it was his wisdom and understanding. For Thomas Paine, sitting in a French prison writing the second part of The Age of Reason, waiting to be guillotined for writing the first, it was reason, honesty and truth. 

There is much we can acquire outside of ourselves that can bring us varying degrees of joy and contentment: wealth, power, fame, sex, family, friends, health and fitness. But as easily as these things can be acquired, they can even more easily be taken away. 

But there are other things that can be acquired: knowledge, wisdom, reason, compassion, honesty, truth, a sense of justice, that cannot truly ever be taken away. These things are as close to infinitely valuable as anything can be. When someone chooses to hold these things in the highest esteem, higher than all the other comforts and joys that life can offer, they are unbreakable. 

I do not mean to suggest that some of the exterior joys of life, especially our health and liberty, or our friends and family, should be taken lightly, or are not valuable. But we cannot do justice to any of them, or ourselves, if the threat or the loss of another weighs so heavily on us that we cannot still hold our head up. Instead, if we are able to find our source of joy in things that cannot ever be taken from us, then we can be strong in the midst of struggle for those that need us, whether it be a nation or a daughter.

Never let them do it.