Monday, December 22, 2014

Not Going to Heaven

Like most openminded atheists I don't argue that God can not possibly exist. The possibility that Jehovah and his heaven and his hell do exist is not the point, as far as I'm concerned. They might well exist for all I know. In the absence of evidence, who can say? I just can not force myself to believe in them any more than faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims can force themselves to believe in Thor, Asgard, the gods of Olympus, Visnu, and Shiva. Disbelief is not limited to us atheists. In fact, I disbelieve in only one more god than Pat Robertson disbelieves in (assuming Pat is sincere in his belief in a god).

I used to be one of those people who build their present lives on settled though unprovable concepts of an afterlife. Overall, the experience was not a positive one, and it took me years to get past the bad juju of force-feeding myself on the unfounded guilt, fear, and hope that came with such a belief system. I will admit that in my believing years I experienced a clearer sense of belonging than I do presently. Of course, back then I had youth going for me, as well as a simple faith that a blood sacrifice 2000 years ago was, despite contradictory evidence, making everything copacetic today. But the price of belonging was self-denial, unarguably a touchstone of the Christian faith, and self-humiliation (or humility, if you prefer). My acceptance at the churches I belonged to required acquiescence to the prejudices, politics, and even decorating tastes of my fellow church members, so I, the actual "I," never belonged even when I thought I did.

So how do I feel about not going to heaven? Not much, apparently. The few times over the past thirty years when I have felt close to death, the idea of my eternal destination did not occur to me even once. The only thought in my head, in the two experiences that I can clearly remember, was "Okay. This could be it." Nothing deeper, more profound, more poetic, philosophical, or life-changing than that. I was thinking "Okay I might be dying" on the same level as I think, once or twice a day, "I might be hungry." I figure that most atheists' responses to death must be deeper, more dynamic than mine, but this "meh" response to everlasting annihilation is all I got. I've had one night stands that have had more impact on my life than this.

The idea that the ME that I have come to love over the years will probably not live to see 2040 has no more effect on me than that this ME missed out on the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s. Of course, I would prefer not to miss the next Jessica Lange performance and I may never see Paris, but on the whole I am pleased with my life as it has been so far. (I'm told I was a self-satisfied baby too, never crying or throwing temper tantrums, so I was probably born with this sort of equanimity ... and, perhaps, lack of gumption.) I have more fear of outliving my usefulness to others or outliving significant others than fear of my cessation of being. Further, I am particularly pleased with my post-faith years, during which I have learned more about love, friendship, generosity, magnanimity, peace of heart, wisdom, and kindness than I ever learned as a fundamentalist Christian, when those words or ones like them were part of the requisite vocabulary, often repeated hourly with phony high spirits like the laugh tracks on 1960s sitcoms. 

Do I want to die right now? No. Definitely no. But if it happens, it happens, and I have enough leftover blind faith in providence (but WHOSE providence?) that I figure death will come at the right time, whatever "right time" means. I call this "blind faith" because everyone I know who has died has not died at any time I would call "right." Statistically, then, my death will likewise be poorly timed, inconvenient, and, in the larger scheme of things, insignificant. But why worry about that? Worry is the unpleasant side effect of hope and fear. And who has time for that?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Awake in an Interesting Manner

In "The Gay Science" (1888), Nietzsche writes, "We have no dreams at all or interesting ones. We should learn to be awake the same way--not at all or in an interesting manner.

This aphorism piques my interest because it touches on Nietzsche's idea that the awakening to knowledge should be experienced as pleasure (i.e. "the gay science")--as "cheerful," not "serious." 

How much that we hear, listen to, even memorize fails to awaken us to knowledge? How much that we hear, listen to, even memorize, even accept as "the truth," is like dreamless sleep? 

The awakening to knowledge that delights us is that which corresponds to our inner selves, our passion, that inchoate innerness that we are constantly in the process of discovering--if we bother to--like (to use Nietzsche's analogy in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals) bees ("honey-gatherers of the spirit") always on the lookout for something to bring back home to the hive.

"Awake ... in an interesting manner"--this involves the moments, the dreams, the insights we do remember because that forever-under-construction, never-finished sense of self finds something there with which to connect, thus discovering and defining a part of oneself ... for oneself.

To live interestingly is to remain, as much as possible, in a state of wanting to "find out"--also an interesting phrase because it suggests that knowledge, wisdom, meaning, whatever, is to be "found," pulled in from the "outside" and then, perhaps, turned into honey.

To be awake uninterestingly is, perhaps, not to be awake at all?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shine, Perishing Republic

One of my favorite poems, much on my mind these last few weeks.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity
Heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the Molten Mass, pops
And sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
Fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
Ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
Is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
Mountains: shine perishing republic

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance
From the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the
Monster's feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.
A clever servant, insufferable master.
There is a trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught
 they say ­ God, when he walked on Earth.

--Robinson Jeffers (1925)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ten Sweet Things in Life

  1. To laugh unreservedly with your friends
  2. To hold somebody's hand ... preferably where nobody sees and it's a secret for the two of you
  3. To warm yourself against an old dog
  4. To receive high praise from the people you respect
  5. To know you have enough money in your pocket for anything you might want to do today
  6. To raise your hands high over your head and dance
  7. To feel the first light-as-air buzz of liquor
  8. To stand up to your neck in water and look up at the sky
  9. To see stars
  10. To touch a favorite poem in a book with your fingertips

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I got email this afternoon from an old friend's sister, telling me he was dead. The message began with "Please forgive this crude and cruel method of notifying you." He died "probably" on Saturday. I liked the bluntness and self-awareness of the message. The sister, whom I never met, contacted me through a series of group emails my friend used to send out, usually concerning problems in American education or politics. My last email to him concerned the sorry state of education and politics in North Carolina these days. He didn't respond. He was a forwarder. 

He died alone. He had been ill for quite some time, seriously so since about the time his wife died. That must have been about ten years ago, maybe more. He came to visit me in the apartment I lived in back then, shortly after he had had serious surgery, was no longer employed, and had time on his hands. He, his wife, and I used to go to movies together every Friday afternoon in Pensacola, and we'd get together on Sunday evenings to eat pizza and tabbouleh while watching movies we rented on VHS. That long ago.

He used to work for General Electric, I think, and then changed careers to teach English where I taught English back then. He taught on a different campus. We met because he took a film class I taught--twice, because he liked it. The second time he brought a friend, who for a short time was my friend too, who then stopped being friends with either one of us, for reasons known to neither of us. This friend of a friend who briefly was my friend too liked to complain about people using the expression "bad weather." The point was that there's no such thing as bad weather because weather has no moral quality to it. It exists apart from our ethics. It is indifferent to our needs and wants. We call it bad when it's inconvenient for us. But storms are simply the way nature works. Nature needs storms, plants need the rain, we need the plants. I appreciated the stoicism of the complaint. It's one of those things I have taken to heart and made part of my life philosophy.

It had been years since Don's name sprang to mind whenever conversation turned to the subject of people I considered my friends. But he used to be my friend, somebody I saw at least twice a week, usually three times a week. And he sent me articles by Robert Reich and other moderate lefties every couple of months since I last saw him. When we saw movies on Friday afternoons, we always went someplace for pie or a sandwich afterwards. To discuss. To analyze. To critique. If we all hated the movie, he inevitably asked what might have been done to make the movie a better one. A different cast? a change of ending? more sex? less exposition? He was big on discussing things, and he was a very good discusser, pragmatic, reasonable, affable, except now and then when we were drinking and his face went red, and then he went to some pretty dark places.

Now he's dead. "Crude and cruel" are the only methods of expressing such an inconvenient fact honestly, from a human perspective. But nothing is really "crude" and "cruel" in nature. A thing like that is just what it is. But sometimes it's good to think about what might have been done to make it better.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Well, There You Are

I've been down lately, "lately" being measurable in decades, but more pointedly and more recently in months. It's a continuous state with me, neither alarming nor unnoticed in my experience of it. Actual circumstances influence it, along with internal chemistry those circumstances trigger, I suppose. Mood shifts, surges, wanes, and halts like weather patterns. My ways of cajoling myself into "pulling through" seem piss-poor to most people, I guess, but they do the job well enough.

One is that I remember (and try to heed) the admonition of a college history professor I had, a retired military man who used to invite a few of us students, dorm residents, to his home, his wife feeding us butters, jams, and bread made from scratch (before that practice became fashionable) and him showing off myriad antiques he had personally restored. (I learned more from this man's offhand opinions and quirks of character than I learned from his subject content--aromatic mimeographed pages of dates and battles in blurry purple print. To this day, I believe "characters" make the best teachers. A lot about me is explained within these parentheses.) The professor's admonition was 
"Never complain about anything. Eighty percent of the people you complain to do not care, and the other twenty percent think you're getting exactly what you deserve."
The other things I take into mind ("take comfort in" would not be the correct words) are that 
  • Most things in life can't be helped.
  • I do what I can do.
  • I accept "good enough" in lieu of "perfect."
  • I do not worry or hope too much about what is (1) out of my control and (2) not presently occurring. 
  • What will matter to me most, in future memories, are the things that now seem insignificant, not the shit that causes panic, ecstasy, or other excitements.
  • Only one thing will ever happen to me in life that I won't get through somehow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I respect but seldom follow, wrote, "What does not benefit the hive is no benefit to the bee" (6.54, A.S.L. Farquharson translation). The message here is not that the individual bee has no integrity or value, but rather that the individual's integrity or value derives from the well-being (albeit not always the approval or respect) of the larger society. 

As many Greek and Roman philosophers noted (as well as the book of Job in the Hebrew bible), human beings are less equipped for survival in nature than most beasts--lacking the strength of the tiger, the camouflage of chameleons, the hard shell of tortoises, the speed of gazelles, or the eyesight of eagles. Humankind has survived through reason, technology, and the establishment of civilizations. Without the benefits of manmade order and society, an individual human being is further down the food chain than most (if not all) animals his size. Cooperation, compassion, and the pursuit of science (knowledge) have ensured human survival up till now.

The earliest human cultures regarded virtues as the qualities that enable people to get things done, for the good of self and others, not as the avoidance of certain disreputable actions, as so many moderns interpret "virtue." Ask people today if they're good and virtuous, and they may tell you they are because they do not steal, do not cheat, and do not murder, but ask them what positive good they personally bring to anybody else, and many of them will be stumped for an answer.

What's interesting to me is that those who have most benefited society--Socrates, Galileo, Alan Turing, just three examples that spring immediately to mind--have often been victims of their respective societies. Societies have been known to view their greatest benefactors as their biggest threats. I'm not sure why that should be the case, except to say that it's not an easy thing to see who most benefits the human hive except in looking backwards, at history--another feature of human civilization that's helped ensure its survival.

Those who seek to annihilate social order (rather than to revise or revolutionize it) are ultimately self-destructive, like the guy (Burgess Meredith) in the Twilight Zone episode who wished that he could be alone in the world so he could read the great books in peace. When his wish is granted and he is the last man alive on earth, he almost immediately steps on his reading glasses by accident and shatters them. Many hands give, one hand takes--but the ideal pattern of society is circular--individual diversity benefits society, which in turn protects and improves its diverse individuals, who are the builders of culture and technology.

As Marcus Aurelius points out repeatedly, the benefits of connectivity are not limited to human beings. We humans are connected to each other for survival, but we are also connected to the non-human world around us--the one mirroring and interacting with the other. The bees are vanishing from our world now, at a time when humans are becoming more alienated, more drastically individualistic, and less diligent in seeking the common good.  The disappearance of bees, as a recent Salon article suggests, may ultimately cripple agriculture, one of the first things humans developed to ensure their survival in a natural world indifferent to human survivability. We must "cultivate our garden," most definitely, but we must add value to the hive as well.


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