Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Monday, December 27, 2010
(Today I'll be taking a short break from my series of essays to write a more personal journal entry.)
While I've been traveling, I keep thinking back to Austin as not simply a home, but a sort of paradise. Rationally, I've known that it has faults, but I've glossed over them so readily that it's almost like I've forgotten Austin is anything short of heaven. Last night, though, I thought more seriously about what troubled me when I was home and how some of these same things were not an issue while away.
Perhaps the thing that bothered me the most was the desire to attain status. The groups amongst which I'd do this varied over the course of my ten years there, but the impulse never changed. In a similar fashion, I pretty much always have a crush on somebody, and the only way I can get over one woman is to fall for another. Well, the only way I could stop wanting to impress one group of people was to “fall” for a different one.
In some ways, I'd argue that this is a good and natural desire. By wanting to impress and belong, I'll more readily conform to group norms which, in turn, strengthens the group by improving cohesion. It's important for all members of a group to feel this way, as it encourages the group to work together. Beyond this, though, it has been a harmful desire for me. It has compelled me to do things I didn't entirely want to do, to assume values I didn't entirely believe in, and to ultimately disappoint people when my desire to belong in their group didn't fuel me enough persist with their values and projects. Perhaps beyond all of this, it was a distraction from doing the things I truly enjoy doing as well as from thinking with a clear mind. Maybe it would be possible to find a group of like-minded individuals, and then I could belong without the distraction of conforming. If this is possible, I have yet to find such a group.
While I've been away, this desire has entirely disappeared. There are no groups abroad, at least not amongst Westerners. We leave too quickly to form sub-cultures and little societies. Instead, all relationships are between individuals, and this I can handle without losing myself. So, while I've been away, I've had a break from this desire, which in turn has let me see it and the way it's affected my life. I'm unsure if I'll fall right back into doing this once I return to Austin, or if what I've seen while away will give me the buffer I've long needed to avoid losing myself in a group.
The second thing has to do with the uncertainty of dreams. There are people in Austin that lead so many different types of life, none of which seem too faraway from my own. There are people who play music and constantly travel across the country. There are people who live in the forest in homes they built themselves. There are people who live in the suburbs, work conventional jobs, and support conventional families. I don't do any of these things, but if I spend time around people who do, then I start to dream about doing them myself. This distracts me from my own dreams and also discourages me from putting down stronger roots. A part of me always wants to be ready to pick and go on a music tour, even though this is an absurd dream for somebody who can't play any music.
Third, crushes are a big deal in Austin. While abroad, there hasn't been a real chance to settle down with somebody, but in Austin this chance always exists. When I'm not on the path of settling down, then I feel like I should be. I pretty much always have a crush on somebody, and just as my desire to impress can steer me away from my true course, so can feelings towards an individual woman. Beyond that, there's also this lingering sense of “What the hell is wrong with me?” which has compelled me to make a lot of bad decisions, such as quitting jobs or distancing myself from friends. When I return to Austin, will I fall right back into this cycle?
I hope that perspective will give me strength.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
I have a number of friends who get riled up when I distinguish between nature and humanity. They insist that people are a part and product of nature, and because of this, distinguishing one from the other is deceptive. I argue back that that the terms “natural” and “artificial” still have a role in our vocabulary, as they help us distinguish between those things that we create—such as roads, office towers, and movies—and those things which we don't create. Beyond this distinction, I agree with them, though. Humanity is a part of nature. We were produced by the same evolutionary process and we are dependent upon the same systems of nourishment. We cannot separate ourselves from nature without dying.
Even as a part of nature, though, our intelligence and capacity for cultural learning distinguish us from the other animal species. This is an important distinction because it has left its mark all across the planet. Our intelligence has allowed us to dramatically change the landscape and the cycles of nature. We build dams which bring order to the flow of water. We mine, extracting rare metals from their prison within the Earth. We farm and through this practice dramatically change ecosystems one acre at a time. All of these practices bring order to nature. For the most part, they are intended solely to help help humanity, though other species benefit, as well. Corn has benefited greatly from our dependence on it, and now it dominates large swaths of the American Midwest. Similarly, birds and insects thrive off the refuse found in human cities. Go into a forest and you'll find considerably less life than along the edges of an urban sidewalk. There are fewer calories in the wilderness, and although urban landscapes don't produce many on their own, human efforts still concentrate calories within their cities.
At the moment, this capacity for humanity to order its environment has proven devastating. We've got global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain on our growing checklist of unintended consequences. Even so, there are movements meant to counter-balance this capacity for devastation, such as the resurgence of public transportation and the growing emphasis on local and organic foods. This is society learning, and perhaps in future generations, we'll order the environment in ways that are less devastating and perhaps even beneficial. The point is, whether or not we're doing a good job of it, we have the capacity and the proclivity to shape the world around us. Other species can do this, too, but none do so with the same high level of adaptivity that people can. A beaver and ant might be able to change the way they shape their environment, but doing so will require generations of genetic evolution. People just need to accept societal evolutions, which are considerably faster and more intentional. They can be undergone intelligently, rather than through the haphazard process of genetic selection.
What's curious is that, to an extent, the desire to shape our environment is a part of our nature. The joy people take in gardening is as natural as the joy they take in making friends or eating. When I'm going on a walk and I see a broken twig on a tree, I snap it off without even thinking. A lot of other people do the same thing. Perhaps you can think of a time you did this, too. This action helps the tree, because the broken twig is consuming resources but will no longer be able to produce resources on its own. By removing the twig, we help the tree flourish. Why do we do this so naturally? Why do we take such genuine pleasure in a healthy lawn or a field of wildflowers, and at the same time we're repulsed by polluted water and litter? Some part of our nature is hard-wired to appreciate a healthy environment as well as to cultivate this health within the world.
At the moment, our ability to do this is both limited and misinformed, but we're also learning. Perhaps the old belief that we are the “stewards of the Earth” isn't so arrogant. We have a unique capacity for this, and even if we're incompetent at the moment, we might some day help nature become more than it once was. Life is order. If a cell reaches equilibrium (that is, a state of chaos), then it will die. It must constantly work to maintain disproportionate levels of chemicals. By bringing order to Earth, perhaps we are also bringing life. Of course, other animals also bring order to the Earth, but we have the capacity to do so consciously. In effect, we have the capacity to bring consciousness to the Earth.
We are two organisms. There is our body, which includes our brain and its genetic predisposition, and there are our beliefs. From our perspective, it can seem like beliefs, values, and cultures are ephemeral and unreal, as they are also incorporeal. Yet at the same time, they behave very much like living organisms. They breed with each other, they mutate and evolve, and they via over territory, be it individual human minds or an entire national ethos. In medieval Europe, the Catholic Church referred to heresies as contagions, as though they were like a disease—a virus—of the mind. Ideas were also thought of as independent spirits which could possess people. In way, this is just a colorful way of describing a real process. People do become very much possessed by their beliefs, and these beliefs dictate their behavior as surely as their genetics do.
Humanity evolved for this. We are not creatures ruled solely by instinct, but instead the rulership of our behavior is shared with culture. This has given us an edge over other species, as a culture can evolve more rapidly than a genetic pool. When we are young, we eagerly model ourselves after our parents and the other people in our lives. We not only walk like them and learn their language, we also assume their beliefs. For a while, we share many things with them, including morals and religion. In time, these might be challenges by other beliefs, but this American notion that it's the “individual” challenging the norm is deceptive. How many of us, when we lost our faith in Christianity, did it because we came to that conclusion entirely on our own? Almost all of us had already been exposed to the possibility of religion being flaws. A quick glimpse at movies, literature, and music over the last thirty years reveals a growing distrust for religion. In our young minds, a war took place between the belief in religion and the belief in no-religion. In the end, one side won. One set of beliefs claimed us as surely as a wolf claims a swath of forest for himself.
This phenomenon can also be used to describe the development of personality, not just of belief. I tend to be analytical and sceptically, but these attitudes were not an inherent part of my personality. I remember in high school as I first began to develop these traits. I pushed myself to be more like the heroes of my imagination, the Socrates and Kants. Had I not pushed myself to become like these people, I would be somebody very different today. Now, I can't shake this attitude, at least not easily. Sometimes I just want to relax, to stop analyzing people and society so much, but doing so requires concentrated effort. I am so thoroughly possessed by this spirit that I cannot shake it. In way, we have bonded and become a single organism.
Similar ideas spread through culture, especially with the aid of mass media. Movies and literature portray a violent world and perpetuate feelings of fear in the populace. I know people who have succumbed fully to these cultural beliefs in a violent world and it makes them shut-ins. They rarely leave their homes or routines out of fear. Perhaps they think they'll inadvertently trespass upon gang territory, or maybe they'll cross the path of a psycho killer. My first year in Austin, I was terrified of West Campus, because I thought it was the ghetto and that I'd get shot if I wandered around there at night. It was a fear completely unfounded on my own experience, but rather cultivated through a childhood of media consumption. Although many of us may mitigate these cultural misconceptions through real-life experience, doing so is like removing a tumor. Often just enough of the cancer remains that it grows back in time.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Economics is a means to artificially recreate on a large scale what people naturally do in small groups. In a household, we organize ourselves to wash dishes, cook meals, sweep floors, and whatever other tasks are necessary to lead a life up to our standards. Groups of friends will similarly do favors for one another. One friend may be an experienced mechanic and repair their friends' broken bicycles, cars, and appliances; another might be a talented musician who plays for their friends' amusement; still another might spend hours in their garden only to share the bounty when it's time to harvest. As long as addictive and distracting forces like crack or television do not impede us, people naturally gravitate towards creating, maintaining, and collaborating.
Yet all these small scale favors are done amongst people who know each other and are limited by distance and social networks. An individual may have many friends within a 20 mile radius, but only a smattering outside of that distance. In order to bridge the miles and impersonality, we introduce trade and money. Commerce. This isn't what people naturally do, but it's similar enough that it works without excessive stress. But we still grumble about it, without always knowing why, because it's not what we were made for. Ultimately, this type of exchange of labor leaves many of us feeling empty. And beyond all of that, it inhibits a sort of collective human potential. We will do best what we do naturally, just as a screwdriver is better used to screw screws than to hammer nails. And collectively, humanity isn't reaching its greatest potential, because our parts are being misused.
The same can be said of government. It is a means to artificially recreate on a large scale the order that small groups enforce amongst themselves. Within a group of Christian friends, for instance, members will keep each other in check if their behavior starts to diverge from accepted norms. The same can be said of anarchists, cowboys, and socialites. All groups have shared values and beliefs about what they consider a successful and socially acceptable life, and they enforce these values amongst themselves by giving status to those who embody their values and by dismissing, ridiculing, and in extreme cases rejecting those who fail to live up to them. Governments, in turn, enforce values on a large scale through more overt means of coercion, namely fines and jail time. This is done because governments reign over many different groups with distinct values. The rules of the government become the common-ground behavior, the values that must never be broken, even if they are not enforced by an individual's particular group. And once again, this behavioral control inhibits collective human potential, because it is both rigid and prone to corruption, while our natural settings are dynamic with evolving rule-sets.
The challenge is to find a means of large-scale organizing that is also natural. The closest example of this are cultural movements, which are cellular in nature but scattered throughout the world. For instance, a group of cowboys in Loredo could travel 200 miles to another small town in Texas and meet cowboys there who shared their values. This is because they share the same culture, which evolves naturally with them. Ideas and values are transmitted by members of the culture who travel between towns. Periodically, there are large gatherings, such as Burning Man, in which members of these cultures can get together and resynchronize their values after time apart. Art, music, and literature also are a means for a culture to share its values across a great distance and to a potentially massive audience. This is particularly true of movies, though other music and literature still play a significant role, especially amongst subcultures.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
A while back I went on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Admittedly, I didn't go with the most open mind—or, rather, my mind was too open and it frightened me. Either way, I left early and with a long list of complaints about the Buddhist doctrine. In the end, the crux of it lies in the title of this essay. Tibetan Buddhism is an effort to create an enlightening society. That is, a society that uplifts all its members to a state of enlightenment through years of meditation and dedication. In the end, they will all have a perfect understanding of their own nature, and through this understanding they'll be able to overcome those impulses which degrade society, such as jealousy and lust. Although this vision is beautiful, there's a potentially insurmountable obstacle in its way. In order for an enlightening society to fulfill its goal, all its citizens must willingly participate. Not only will many be too busy farming, building, and otherwise running society to meditate, otherwise will simply refuse. Because of this, an enlightening society can achieve part of its goal, but it will likely never get completely there. Workers and rebels will remain unenlightened.
In contrast, an enlightened society does not attempt to bring each of its citizens to a state of self-knowledge. Rather, the society itself has a perfect understanding of human nature and is structured in such a way as to account for it. In this way, it doesn't matter if a farmer understands his desire for sex. Rather, within an enlightened society, he'll be able to pursue this desire without it harming those around him. How exactly this would work is still unclear, because we have yet to attain a perfect understanding of human nature. Perhaps what some psychologists say is true, and it is not in our nature to couple for more than five years at a time. If this is the case, than the institution of marriage would have to be reworked. Perhaps, instead, life-long love does exist but its nature changes over the course of years. If that's the case, then once again marriage would have to be reworked to account for these stages.
The way I'm describing an enlightened society, it sounds like the kind of place that would engineered by psychologists. Perhaps, now that we've distanced ourselves so much from our roots, that exactly what it will take. What I'm proposing isn't inherently unnatural, though. In fact, it is the very essence of human nature. All of our instincts and impulses, though they might be out of place in a modern setting, were once essential survival skills. Anger, greed, gluttony, pride. All these things we so vehemently suppress today did once before help our ancestors survive. For over 100,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer societies. Over those 100,000 years, our social instincts evolved. For that kind of society, human nature is perfectly adapted, just as thousands of years of evolution have perfectly adapted a fennec fox to its Saharan environment. Modern man is a species taken out of its environment, and this is causing both dissatisfaction and conflict with our own nature. An enlightened society acknowledges that we're better suited to another way of life and it attempts to recreate the setting in which we evolved, so that we can once again be natural.
This is not to say that an enlightened society must be a society of small hunter-gatherer tribes. Rather, it's a society that—through a comprehensive understanding of human nature—can satisfy and account for our instincts as effectively as possible without reducing the scope of today's civilization.