Friday, September 11, 2015

Making the World a Better Place

" there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Once, when I was coming down from an LSD trip, I looked around the stark room I was in above Habersham Street in Savannah. The house had a turret the interior of which was included in the apartment I was visiting. With the blink of an eye, I could make the room look lovely, cozy, its aesthetic including some posters and pretty pictures on the wall. Yet, blinking again, I could turn the room I was in into a dark cell, a shabby, dirty, dusty room inhabited no doubt by bugs and vermin. The contrast made me laugh at first, confirming John Lennon's song that "Nothing is real; and nothing to get hung about."

After a long day of strange experiences, one that gave me an understanding of idealism; that is, that all is mind and the mind's perceptions, I was too  fatigued to take the changing vision lightly for long. In an epiphany, I understood that I could see everything of importance in the same shutter of light and dark. The intimate relationship I had at the time I saw with the same duality: on one hand years of shared experience, sexual fulfillment, travels, mutual friends, even mutual lovers. Yet, on the other, there were fights, jealousies, frustrations, sexual and otherwise. I saw the dark at the end of the bright corridor.

Over the years, I have insisted on mindfulness, by which I mean that perceptions are more fundamental than matter or other constructs. Alfred North Whitehead called this revelation the awareness of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, namely, thinking such well worn ideas, concepts, and constructs are more real than what they explain. We assume the atoms we can't see are more real than the table we assume to be made up of atoms. This is a danger not only in science but also religion and other areas of thought and understanding.

Religion itself is a good model for seeing the duality of things. Like the simple room I was in, religion can be seen as a source of great good, giving us art, compassion, mystical ecstasy. Look at the humanitarian deeds of many religions, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, providing shelter and hope. Blink, and what appears are tortured women accused of witchcraft, so-called heretics burned alive, the wholesale destruction of civilizations and the rape and genocide performed by numerous religious sects and powerful, mainstream religions on non-believers or even people with a slightly different interpretation of this or that religion.

In 2015 it is shocking to me just how far the duality extends. Take President Obama. The litany of his misdeeds and horrific acts bringing death to innocents, turns into praise for his humanitarianism, his championing civil rights and efforts to improve the lives of the lower and middle economic classes. I suppose the monist would add up all the actions and achievements, weigh the pros and cons, and come up with a final judgment. For me that is not possible. There is no quantitative or qualitative scale to measure his actions, for I perceive Obama as a leader trying to make the world a better place, whatever his shortcomings and failures. I also perceive him as a man who wants to preserve capitalism, to maintain the status quo of our oligarchy in which the powerful few hold the most power and wealth. Unlike Aristotle, I can hold two contradictory viewpoints at the same time.

Yet, to act, we all must subjectively make decisions. I decided that night beneath the turret to see the room as comforting. The faces staring from the walls changed their grimaces into smiles.  That is what the optimist does, chooses to see the good side of life, the beauty in the world. At some point, however, this is not possible. Perhaps a Buddhist monk can achieve enlightenment and a subjectivity unbeaten by the woes of the world. Most of us cannot, and I'd say, should not. Indifference is its own kind of immorality, ultimately selfish and narrow-minded.

Since my perception is what is most real to me, it is easy to enjoy a fall day, look at leaves changing, take a walk, and forget the devastation being caused by global heating. I can choose not to read or watch the news reports, the scientists' warnings, the suffering elsewhere than my own colorful path. To be clear, I am a hedonist, one in the tradition not of Cyrene but of the Epicurean Garden, akin to the ethics of Bentham and Mill. I want the greatest happiness for the greatest number, including number one, myself. At times I am mystified that such happiness eludes us, that there is war, famine, hatred, and crime. The Earth could provide for all of us, if only we had the sense to stop overpopulating it with humans, if we worked to live in harmony with the rest of life on the planet, and ceased destroying each other and our habitat.

Thus I return to duality. Humanity itself I perceive is both good and bad. We are not so much Yin and Yang, as we are like Shiva and Vishnu. The latter creates and the former destroys, with other dazzling traits and treats.

As an intellectual hedonist, I have done little to make the world a better place. My teaching, with its accomplishments and failures, shares the duality. While I have opened the minds and hearts of students to new realms of experience, promoting the subversion needed to shift students from the path well worn to a more individually, self-made one, I have also been lazy and given up on those less creative or more inclined toward materialistic success. I have sought good perceptions and avoided unpleasant ones, as much as possible. I have seen my friends and family, lovers and colleagues in the same way I witnessed the duality of the room in Savannah. Every good and joyous set of perceptions gives birth to a negative, painful set of perceptions. The same with aging. There are advantages and benefits of being elderly; so too there are disadvantages and debts. My view of death is that it is similar to sleep, to being unconscious, as close to the perception of nothing at all as possible. Nothing, as Epicurus would have it, to fear.

Where does this view of reality lead  when it comes to person-hood? Is there an underlying identity, or are we nothing more than a bundle of sensations, an incoherent series of disconnected perceptions and ideas made from those perceptions? To what degree can we determine for ourselves what sort of person we are going to be? How many of us have set out to become the good person we admire and want to be? How many of us have become the bad person we didn't want to be?

Here our earliest perceptions come into play as our memory collects and imprints the most intense of those experiences upon our consciousness and our subconscious. The perceptions we have today are shaped by those of our childhood; in other words, the bundle of sensations, ideas, thoughts, feelings, and what we see is colored, conscious or subconscious, by the perceptions that came before. Our experience of love is shaped by the love we experienced from infancy on. Our ability to reshape or escape past experience is limited. Here imagination and empathy play a major role in  our ability to evolve and experience existence anew.

Have I strayed from my main theme? Have I not, in writing about the unconscious aspect of life, gone way beyond perceptions and the duality I find they embody? There is a thought, exploited by the Coca-Cola corporation, that positive thinking and expression makes the world a better place. Focus on the positive. Show photos of smiling faces. Feel love for your fellow man (and woman). My perception of all the smiles and expressions of love is that most of them are inauthentic. We cover what we suffer with pretense that all is well and that our lives are jolly. "Smile; and the world smiles with you." What nonsense. Does my smile make a pelican dying in oil sludge from an Exxon spill OK? When I stop to think about it, smiling in the face of such misery all over the planet becomes sadistic. Should I thank some god that I am having pleasure while most of the planet is in pain? How appalling it is to hear people who have survived some catastrophe thank god that they survived, oblivious to those who didn't; as if some god could favor this or that person to another that god lets die. As a hedonist, I love my pleasures when they come, but I do not want them at the price of the pain of others. Again, good old English utilitarianism strikes me as the just view.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote that Hell is other people. He showed how insidious that can be in his play Huis Clos. Heaven too is other people at the moment of ecstasy and in the arms of love. My perceptions of reality are inseparable from my perceptions of other people. Following the duality of the Savannah room, there are moments of unity, synchronicity, and enlightenment in perceptions; just as there are disharmony, confusion, and contradiction.

For now, I'll conclude with what I find to be a passionate, perceptive insight of James Salter,

"There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands. And yet, this pouring, this flood of encounters, struggles, dreams...”

Photograph I made of a fountain in
 San Miguel.