Like a lot of my friends, I read newspapers and magazines and listen to TV a lot, and I find myself making piles of clippings and notes around a given subject. Every now and then, I figure out a way to amalgamate these into a column for Impakter.Com.
Here is the latest, about the way that progressive environmental interests and businesses are beginning to work together.
I belong to a little group of friends who meet every month to check in with each other’s lives and discuss a topic like “silence” or “hospitality” or “compassion.” This January, it was “Paradigm Changes.” Wouldn’t you know it, we decided that each of us would select a way we were doing things and change it, for which purpose we used a “30 Day Challenge” chart with “Every Day I Will…” at the top and 30 little squares to record our progress. Does it sound like New Year’s Resolutions to you? It did to me, so I resolved to choose something light-hearted – to cultivate a (child-like) beginner’s mind.
It’s a core teaching of Buddhism, having to do with being entirely present in each moment the way we used to get so caught up in our play that everything else vanished from our minds. One of Buddhism’s ways of cultivating this state is to look at everything you encounter through the bandbox fresh, brand-new eyes of a child.
The trouble is, this winter proved a hard time to be light-hearted. It turned out to be one of those grim, grey Januarys we often have in Michigan, with no sun whatsoever plus sheets and sheets of cold, hard rain – a challengingly bleak time to cultivate childhood joy. Or, “if there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?”
So I did little things, like bet myself I wouldn’t see a single patch of blue driving home through the murk, and then click my mental heels when I saw one. (It turns out that this isn’t a very smart thing to do with your foot on the accelerator, so I resolved to have my moments of hilarity when I wasn’t driving.) When I heard a lovely flute piece on the living room radio I would attempt a jig; when a Tufted Titmouse alit on my feeder I stopped and stared, and jumped with joy when children tore whooping around the playground. There was a huge snowfall, delightful in its dazzle (until tree branches started falling all over my yard); I got excited in a blissfully child-like way the next morning when I saw determined little possum tracks etched in the new snow, punctuated by a tail dragging along between them.
In spite of my friends still catching covid and my being in a high-risk group, I resolved to return to a few small local museums to experience the joy of finding something that delights me – most often a blazingly bright minimalist abstraction – before which to stand and stare. Look what I found!
I Sometimes stumble upon things at an art show that are just plain funny. There was an hilarious juxtaposition of installations where I laughed and laughed and took this picture:
After I posted it on our neighborhood newsletter, I got a furious repost demanding how could I be so insensitive as to promulgate a rape scene? Gentle reader, look again: the stuffed people are facing upward after apparently falling over backwards on top of each other, and that’s why the little boy from the other installation finds the whole thing (like I do) hilarious.
Cultivating one’s (long-lost) inner child involves returning, after years and years of heavily responsible adulthood, to a “beginner’s mind.” I tried to think of something I could get up to that was beginnerish in that way ? When I was seven years old I hit a mischievous streak in my otherwise rule-abiding life: I founded a Mischief Club with my best friend. to startle people – like jumping over their jump ropes in the middle of a game or moving their belongings to somebody else’s locker.
When a childhood friend (who had witnessed my Mischief Club phase ) turned up in town and asked me to stop by her motel, I decided it would be fun to engage in some mild social mischief. Although Lilybet comes from a family of rather reserved folks, she has a raucous sense of humor and a flair for writing and reciting limericks.
So I put of a couple of limericks in my pocket and drove to her hotel, where I found her on a sofa in the foyer flanked by relatives. Determined to carry out my resolution to be as silly as possible, I sat down with her and, instead of having the organ-recital about our ailments my crowd usually indulge in, I read her one of my limericks:
Way back in the 1940s
We were told it was always naughty
If we ever blew our noses
Anywhere on our own clotheses.
Nice girls in the 1950s
Always used our handkerchiefties
That is why I think it’s not
Nice to fill your sleeves with snot.
We hugged and jiggled and simply howled with laughter while, would you believe it, the relatives laughed right along with us!
People wrote down questions and voted on which to discuss. Th questions were:
What is consciousness; are animals conscious?
Can animals be people?
What is wisdom?
What is death?
and Why does Suffering Exist, which was the winner.
The conversation moves all around the table, with me as facilitator, calling on people when a turn opens up and interjecting my own comments here and there. Here’s how it went:
The word “why” appears in the question – this suggests that there a reason for pain?
Existentialists don’t think so – to them, it’s all random happenstance.
How about evolution? You learn what to avoid if you feel pain, so you survive to reproduce. But what if you can tolerate more pain than other people: isn’t that an evolutionary advantage too? On the one hand, you need to know what to avoid. On the other hand, Stoic endurance might have some genetic usefulness if it is passed on.
Is pain physical- of the body- or can it be emotional, or both? When you are in emotional pain does it take the form of bodily sensations (stomach aches, headaches?) What emotions are engendered by physical pain?
How about people who are perpetually consumed by their victimhood, even when the emotional or physical trauma occurred way back in their lives?
Can pain be transcended by thinking and talking about it? What role does conscious acceptance that suffering is part of life play, given that so many people think that life is supposed to be easy? How about talk therapy for emotional pain?
Do religious systems “rationalize” pain? How about Buddhism, with its belief that pain is a given if we exist, and Christianity with its teaching that suffering is redemptive? Is “rationalizing” in the sense of explaining pain and suffering as part of an overall “why” useful? Does it lessen pain to give it this kind of meaning? Does experiencing pain within a system of meaning mitigate it?
How about the question “How Could a Good God Let There Be So Much Pain in the World?” A Judeo-Christian answer is that life in the material world consists of random happenings and that God so values our decision-making capacities and wouldn’t want to govern our fates as if we were puppets. God grieves for our bad decisions and delights in our good ones. A Buddhist answer might be that pain is the way the world goes but we can control our responses to it through meditation and compassion for each other.
Victor Frankl wrote that he found meaning during the holocaust by thinking about what it would be like outside the concentration camp if he survived for a future after it, and by taking day to day actions helping other inmates. His take suggests that “hopelessness” is what makes pain unbearable and that hope for the future, plus present-time compassion for his fellow prisoners, is what got him through.
Here’s a little bit of light in our darkness, with wishes for tranquility at Holiday time for all of my subscribers.
At this time of year, we think a lot about food, but then we think of all the people who go hungry or suffer from poor nutrition. I learned recently that “hunger” is that raw feeling in your tummy but “food insecurity” is the stressful attempt to pay for all of life’s necessities when you haven’t got the means to do so.
Meanwhile, here in Detroit, communities are finding creative ways to provide their own food in a soul-heartening example of self-determination and empowerment.
When we look at the new Congress we see little possibility of meaningful legislation, given the very thin margin between the parties in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. I have felt cheered up, lately, by accounts of solutions to our most serious problems – like hunger and nutrition – that people are getting together to solve at the local level.
Here is my take on some really great programs addressing child hunger in Michigan, along with some good news about innovative indigenous farming practice:
I am usually positive and forward-looking about the political scene in America; even in the worst of the Trump years I found that taking action mitigated my dread of the evident fascist evils stalking our land. But, this year, everything is up for grabs: both democracy and the fate of our beloved planet.
With two weeks before the midterm election, here is a little civics lesson and a diary about how my days are going during this particularly perilous political season.
Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook. Boston: Godine, 2021
It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today. My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship. And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning are to be trusted.
The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older. Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other.
In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b),Most people are pleased to think things through, although I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.
In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions. “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”
In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion. Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them. They just keep asking questions. They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”
I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!
When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia. “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today
* * *
Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:
G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.
Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?
G. What do you mean?
Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?
G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker
Q. What did the map tell you?
G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.
Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?
G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.
Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?
G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.
Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?
Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?
G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.
Q. Who does those weather reports?
G. The news, tv shows
Q. Where do they get their facts.
G. They get them from meteorologists.
Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?
Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?
G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.
Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?
G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves last spring.
Q. Was your house okay?
G. Yes, though the porch floated away.
Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?
G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!
Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience. On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming. I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?
* * *
What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not? And then what? Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?
In this world full of ponderous pundits and people who take everything far too seriously, have you noticed how relieved you feel when someone comes along who takes things lightly?
I was dreadfully serious in my 20s, as many of us are at an age when we need to convince everybody – especially ourselves – that, having passed the age of 21, we are really adult (that was the age of adulthood in the fifties and sixties – it seems to be somewhere over 30 these days). My great passion was poetry then – reading it but, also (ponderously) writing it – and I took modern poets like T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats very seriously.
But then, there was e.e. cummings. We had not “studied” him in our seminars; I first encountered him in unusually joyous circumstances, when I was leaning over the rail of a student ocean liner with the love of my life whom I had just kissed for the first time.
I was (ostentatiously) carrying a little poetry collection around with me. Henry leafed through it and then read out loud:
“when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having –
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
it’s April (yes, April; my darling) it’s spring
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)”
It fit the moment and the mood, it was light-footed to read, cheerfully anti-authoritarian in its lowercase lettering, and lacking the gloom and doom that had shadowed my life until I met my completely joyous, radically optimistic, guilelessly enthusiastic Henry boarding in Rotterdam two days before.
Yonks later, I am growing less and less serious and more and more fond of pure unmitigated silliness. (No, this is not a second childhood, just an renewed appreciation of fun):
“o by the by
has anybody seen
who stood on a green
hill and threw
her wish at blue”
Tthe other day I encountered a serious young mother reproving her little girl for splashing in a mud puddle;
I just had to lean down and whisper to her:
Isn’t “the world mud-luscious…and puddle wonderful!”
We don’t expect anyone to advise us to become more shallow, but there is a lot to be said for trying not to be so boringly deep in order to walk more lightly on the earth. That was e.e. cummings’ idiosyncratic genius, like when he thanks God
“for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is
infinite which is yes.
(i who have died and will live again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and love and wings:
Here’s Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer celebrating one of the many pieces of Democratic Party legislation that have gone through Congress during Biden’s first term. And there we all were in the middle of a very good political summer, flushed with triumph from getting the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law. Why were our newspapers and media full of doom and gloom about Biden’s low popularity and about huge setbacks expected for the November midterms? So, I hauled myself out of the river once again, setting my swim noodle aside to write an Impakter.com column about this odd discrepancy. Here’s what I came up with:
What did I do this summer? Although I was determined to lollygag as much as possible, Washington went into high gear on climate change legislation, which I have been working on with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for years. Now, it all came to a head! As folks in Europe seem to want to know what is going on in American politics, here was my blow by blow description of this exciting summer rush to save our beloved planet that I wrote for Impakter.com.