Posts Tagged philosophy

We Are Bones, We Are Dust

This thing that I think that I am, sometimes, I am not.  Looking at an X-Ray of my right foot has twisted my mind into knots for the past few weeks.  It’s not that they found anything that disturbing. My doctor discovered a bone spur, which I was pretty sure that I had.  No surprise there.  I am having surgery tomorrow.  Again, not a surprise.  The thing that got in my head was the X-ray itself.  If I am what’s in that picture…what am i?

There was this picture of the bones in my foot staring at me.  The doctor was pointing to things and saying a bunch of words, but I was transfixed on the picture.  There I am?  There I AM!  There I am?!?!?!?  This picture is of the inside of me.  Underneath all of this skin and blood are a set of bones. These bones have been with me all of my life.  They were at my high school graduation, they were there when I got married, they attended the births of my two beautiful children, they have seen me laugh, they have seen me cry, they have been there when I thought I was alone.  I couldn’t process it. These bones are actually me!

The me that I think I am is the thing that experiences the world consciously.  I am aware of feelings and ideas.  I make plans and I remember experiences.  I see, I smell, I touch, I taste, I hear.  I have no problem associating these things with me.  Then, there are these bones. They are in me, they are part of me, but I can’t believe that they are me. This picture wasn’t some random x-ray they keep in the back and show everybody.  These were my bones!  Seeing them really sucked the magic out of everything.  I tend to think of myself as more than the sum of my parts, but maybe I am nothing more than my parts. Maybe, I am just bones and skin and blood with a few organs floating around.

There are parts of myself I have never seen.  I don’t know what my hip bone looks like.  I don’t know what my liver looks like.  My heart, my brain, my lungs…all highly valuable parts, but I couldn’t tell mine from my neighbors.  The me that I know seems so special, so unique.  My memories seem so important, as if they are part of some great mystery that I have a lifetime to solve.  My thoughts, my ideas, my identity all seem to be pieces in the great “who am I?” puzzle.  They all conspire to make me believe that I am an enigmatic character whose mythology is terribly important.  And then, there is this picture of the inside of my foot.  It is not special.  It is not unique.  It is simply mineralized osseous tissue housed in a pile of skin that is called “foot”.  There are somewhere in the range of 14 billion of them and they all pretty much look and act the same.  Sure, there are minor subtleties and nuances, but for the most part, what is the difference?

My foot does not find itself unique.  It pushes against surfaces over and over throughout a day.  It works, it rests.  It does not feel loneliness or claustrophobia if it is trapped in a shoe for too long.  It does not become jealous that I am favoring my other foot.  It does not make plans to meet with my spleen for coffee.  It does not become romantically involved with my esophagus.  It does not ponder the mysteries of the universe and wonder what will happen to it when it dies.  It is material and material has no time for enchantment.  It simply is.  When it ceases to work, it will waste away along with the rest of this thing that is me.

There is a part of me that cannot imagine that this is possible.  There must be something else, there must be something more.  I am more than that picture.  I am not just bones.  I am not just flesh.  I am something mystical.  I am more than those parts.  I am more than words on a page saying “healthy, well-developed 35 year old male suffering from Hallux rigidus“. Right?  Right?!?!?!

Maybe this identity of mine that I find so fascinating is just a bunch of electrical impulses.  Maybe we are just piles of material walking around among other piles of material, thinking that thoughts and memories and ideas make us more.  These self-important piles of material spend much of their time avoiding damage so that they can one day be part of creating new piles of material.  And on and on with no direction, no meaning and no end.  Thousands of them are created each day and thousands disintegrate. It does not matter…it is only matter.

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The Politics of Sneezing

I sneeze and people feel obligated to reply.  The more you think about that, the weirder it is.  You are on an elevator with ten complete strangers, you sneeze and all ten race to beat each other to say “God Bless You”.  You are on a subway, it is 3 o’clock in the morning and you are surrounded by several odd looking strangers who look like extras from The Warriors.  They are taking turns leering at you with a detached sense of malice.  You sneeze.  A cacophonous chorus of disinterested voices mumble something that sounds remotely like “GesundheitGoblessyou”.

This pervasive but odd little social custom seems to insert itself everywhere without regard to circumstance.  There are plenty of bizarre customs out there, but this one seems thoroughly inescapable.  I have allergies and live in Atlanta, which means I spend a good portion of the spring testing the politeness of strangers.  A sneeze never fails to draw some sort of reply.  No one knows particularly why we do this.  There are several old stories handed down about it.  One story says that it was created during the Black Plague to ward off the spread of the virus.  Another story claims that the custom began over the fear that the heart might stop during a sneeze.   Yet another tale claims that it was a way of forcing the soul to return to the body after a sneeze.

Most of these stories are meant to explain the “God Bless You”, but there is less explanation for the “Gesundheit”.  Why would a room full of non-German speaking Americans suddenly nearly crawl over one another to shout a German expression at someone who has just fired a blitzkrieg of germs at them?  Politeness?….really?!?!?!  Occasionally when one sneezes they are given a “hatchoo” by someone near them.  Why on earth would someone imitate the sneezer?  I find this response to be quite demeaning.  To get how strange this is, imagine if a person burped and was greeted with a choir of fake burps in response?

I have only experienced this sort of weirdness in America, but apparently it is popular around the world.  Most cultures have some word that means “to your health” that is thrown at the offending germ cannon.  The oddest sneeze response I’ve come across are the Mongolians who say something that sounds like “burkhan urshoo”.  This translates to “May God forgive you”.  Not knowing much about the Mongolian culture, this leads me to believe that sneezing is serious business over there.  It must be some sort of crime or something.  God would be quite busy if he or she had to spend the better half of eternity forgiving sneezers.  In Iceland, they say something that translates into “May God help you!”  This sounds like a threat that is better suited to someone stealing your pet llama.  The Tamil language has a word that translates to “may you live for one hundred years”.  The sentiment of this is quite lovely, but the actual math becomes severely problematic.  If I were to sneeze five times a day for one year I would have added 182,500 years to my life.  Imagine the effects on the economy in many Southern Asian nations if they had to deal with taking care of scores of 2 million year old allergy sufferers?

No one particularly knows why we do it, but if your curious to see whether this custom is alive and breathing today, try sneezing in front of a room full of strangers.  If you cough, people barely notice.  If you blow your nose, most people simply go about their business.  Sneeze and the world stands up and takes interest.

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If You Don’t Believe There is a Meaning to Life, Why Don’t You Just Go Around Killing Other People?

I was asked this question recently during a discussion about morality with a friend of mine.  I do not believe that there is an objective meaning to life and this was his way of countering my argument.  At first, I didn’t really take the question seriously and I laughed it off as a weird reductio ad absurdum argument meant to link my lack of belief to the worst possible outcomes. It is not the first time I have been asked this question in this context and I began to wonder why I felt the question was ridiculous. For the purposes of this article, I really don’t want to debate my feelings on objective meaning. It is a much larger topic that I feel deserves considerably more explanation than I am ready to give. However, I feel there is a basic misunderstanding in this question that is worth addressing on it’s own.

The questions strikes me as a silly one because I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other.  I am not clear about how Proposition A (There is no meaning in life) leads one to Proposition B (I should go around killing people).  The argument makes about as much sense as saying “If you don’t believe there is any ice cream, why don’t you just go around killing people?” Why does the lack of basic meaning imply that people would commit violent acts towards one another? Where is the causal link between violence and the lack of meaning?  Proposition A is a stand alone idea.  It doesn’t lead to anything. It simply is.

The implication at the center of this idea is that the only thing that keeps human beings from running around causing severe harm to one another is the belief that there is some reason for everything.  The deeper idea in the point my friend made was that without meaning, humans are nothing more than bloodthirsty animals that will do whatever they want, whenever they want.  This is an extremely Hobbsean conception of what people are.  I have a hard time believing that humans without meaning would find nothing better to do with their time then kill other humans.  This view of humans, when held up to the light, seems quite vacant of truth.  There are many secular humanists, atheists and nihilists who live their lives not believing in objective meaning without causing significant harm to others around them.  Violence is something used by people of many different belief systems.  There have been Christian murderers, Muslim murderers, Atheist murderers and so on.

I think part of the problem with the question is the assumption of direct correlation between belief and action.  A person’s beliefs may help to define their actions, but we are never sure how.  A person may believe strongly in a universe with objective meaning and choose to manifest that belief in the form of violence against people who think differently (The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of this) or they may choose to take that belief and manifest it in the form of non-violent protest (Martin Luther King would be a good representative of this). I don’t think we know what drove these people to act as they did.  There is often an assumption that humans are basically machines.  If you input this belief into the machine a specific set of actions will be waiting on the other end of the conveyor belt.  The truth is that we have no idea what believing in certain things leads to.  We know that we believe them, that’s all.

A good lens to see this question through is David Hume’s Problem of Induction argument.  Hume argued that we can never convincingly prove that A will lead to B.  We may assume that every time we flip the light switch on the room will light up, but on some occasions (power outages, blown fuses, unexplained failure) the room will not become illuminated.  We may think that if a person has a certain set of values and beliefs they will turn out a certain way, but there are nearly limitless examples throughout history of times when that hasn’t happened.  There is no such thing as a sure thing. We never know in advance how a set of beliefs is going to effect a person’s actions.  We cannot accurately predict the future thus we never know what believing in certain things is going to lead to.

There is a troubling dynamic in this answer for those who are raising children.  If we can’t convincingly know what the beliefs we are teaching our children are going to lead to, how are we supposed to raise them?  My wife and I are currently raising two young children, so this question is a very serious one for me.  As a parent, one of the most difficult realities that you are faced with is the understanding that you may do a great job teaching your children to love and respect the people around them and they still may turn out to be humans who take actions that appear angry, violent and anti-social.  Humans are filled with complexities are impossible to completely understand.  We can read the all of the “right” books, make the “correct” sacrifices and do what we think are the right things and we are still given no assurances.  All we as parents can do is love our children no matter who they become.  I don’t want my children to learn right and wrong, I want them to learn that we live in a world that has extreme shades of grey.  I want them to learn to cause as little harm to others as possible (be it real harm or perceived harm).  We do what we can and we hope for the best whatever that may be.

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How Could Hell Be Any Worse?

From a distance, it really looks like Cleveland

Lately, I have found myself more and more interested in the Christian idea of hell. Maybe it’s the awful chill of winter.  Maybe I’ve been listening to a bit too much black metal.  I’m not quite clear what has put me on this mental course, but I have spent a good amount of time thinking about what it would actually be like to be in hell.  I don’t even really believe that hell exists.  I am not completely against the idea, but I accept that I have no way of possibly proving its existence or non-existence to myself, so I just figure I’ll find out after I die.  That is not the part that really interests me.  What I want to know is what, assuming that hell is real, would torment a human for eternity.

In the Book of Matthew, we are warned to “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  To be honest, I find this quote a bit odd.  This implies that we take our body with us to hell.  If this is true, one must wonder what that thing in the casket back there on earth is.  Is that a wax replica of us at the funeral while the real body goes to hell?  Is your body snatched out of the coffin and sent to hell the minute you enter the ground?  (But then, what happens if they dig you up?) Does God duplicate our body and send that one to hell while the real one is on earth?  Is the body I am currently in an illusion and my real body somewhere in the ethers waiting for judgment?  In that case, can I blame the illusion body for the sins committed on earth?  After all, the earth body did the things I am getting sent to hell for.  As the eloquent, renowned philosopher Silkk The Shocker once said, “It ain’t my fault!!!”

If it is just your soul in hell, that opens up another can of worms.  I can specifically tell you that the conditions of hell would be awful on my body, but I can’t predict what extreme heat would do to my soul.  No part of the Bible mentions the soul having nerves, so why should we expect that it would feel pain in the way the body does?  If it is physical, it is capable of feeling physical pain, but I have not often heard the soul described as a physical thing.  It is usually thought to be a spiritual entity independent of the flesh.  Most descriptions of the soul are of the ghost in the machine variety, where the soul is a non-physical being that steers our body around then hops out when the body is no longer sentient.

In order to move forward with this line of questioning, I’ll pick the most likely scenario, which is that the soul just recreates your body once you get to hell.  There is no reference to this happening in the Bible, but this explanation gets my body in hell, which for the purposes of this argument, is where I want it.  Then, we run into another problem.  Revelation says that you shall be tormented “forever and ever”.  If hell is supposed to be eternal, how can the body and soul be destroyed?  I mean, once you are destroyed isn’t that it for you?  If the torment of hell is supposed to be eternal, how can it be that you are destroyed?  Revelation refers to hell as “a second death”, but what happens after the second time you die.  Do you continue to go to new hell after new hell?  Do you die and wake up again?

Let’s assume that my body and soul are now in hell which is described in the book of Revelation as being “the lake of fire and brimstone”.  I think that would be really terrible…for a while.  The thought of an extended amount of time in extreme heat is an awful thought.  20, 30 years would be gruesomely terrible.  100, 200 years would be worse.  But, after some point, wouldn’t I just get used to it?  I mean, the thought of eternal fire is terrible, but eternity is a long time.  My immediate reaction would be a period of unbridled misery.  But, after a while, wouldn’t I forget what normal earth temperature felt like and become hardened to the torrid warmth? After a period of time, wouldn’t I get used to the pain?  I don’t think this would happen right away, but we are talking about eternity here! Even if time is different between hell and earth, there has to be some point where a person accepts their surroundings, no matter how miserable.

To understand this phenomenon, imagine a thought experiment where from the age of 15 to the age of 100 a person named Bob was awakened by a right hook to the face thrown by Mike Tyson.  Day after day, Bob is waylaid by a vicious shot the skull from the former champ.  The first 10 or 20 years of this would be awful, but after some period of time wouldn’t Bob simply adjust and accept the beating as the way things are supposed to be.  Bob would be able to brace himself and would build up a tolerance to this sort of abuse.  Any brief survey of history would lead one to believe that humans have the miraculous ability to adjust to nearly any set of awful circumstances.

Another problem with hell as it’s currently constituted is that going to hell actually removes one of the most dreadful aspects of being alive…. death.  In hell, one doesn’t really seem to have a rational reason to fear death.  The terror that humans feel from never knowing for certain what the afterlife is has been removed.  Dying in hell would be a relief to many who are stuck there.  Endless, painless silence would seem to be a good deal better than eternal torture.

There are some basic structural problems with the idea of hell that I cannot quite reconcile.  I’d like to believe that whole thing is just an idea created by humans to scare people into doing good, but maybe that is not true.  However, if it is real, you have to question its effectiveness. I really have to wonder if it is the most efficient possible use of a sinner’s afterlife.

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Buggin’ Out: The Paranoid Style in American Motel Rooms

Few films capture the spirit of modern American paranoia better than William Friedkin‘s 2006 film “Bug“.  It is a bleak, disturbing picture of two people consumed by sadness and connected through a shared feeling of conspiratorial persecution. Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is a drifter who wanders into the life of Agnes White (Ashley Judd).  They quickly find themselves embroiled in one of the more unhealthy relationships in recent film history.  Agnes has barely survived a horrifically abusive marriage and the kidnapping of her young son.  Peter has just finished a stretch some sort of shadowy psychiatric hospital where, depending on who you believe, he was either a severely disturbed escaped patient or a survivor of a series of Operation MK-Ultra meets The Manchurian Candidate type experiments.  Together, they become the proverbial Bogey and Bacall of the Black Helicopter set.  It would be easy to dismiss their ideas as the demented imaginings of two troubled people, but the narrative they construct about the meaning of lives and their relationship to the world is a powerful statement about modern mass hysteria.

Peter gets the paranoia party started by insisting that a mysterious THEY have put bugs in his blood.  He is deeply committed to this idea, to the point of yanking some of his own teeth out in order to remove the egg sacs that are in his mouth.  Quickly, things spiral out of control.  They cover the walls of the room in tin foil, buy up half the bug zappers in Oklahoma and embark on a wild spree of shared psychosis and Dionysian self destruction that eventually annihilates them.  The logic that gets them to this point is nothing short of amazing.  They come to believe that everything that is happening to them is somehow connected to a greater plan.  Peter connects his own experience to sixty years of back room schemes created by a mysterious unnamed cabal bent on completely enslaving the entire human race.  In an amazing monologue, Peter manages to link the bugs he believes to be carrying to The People’s Temple in Jonestown, the Bilderberg Group and their secret meetings from 1954 until the present and even Timothy McVeigh (who was apparently the other lab rat who was given these bugs).  Agnes soon links her own experiences to his and comes to realize that her abusive ex-husband and missing child are also products of the exact same treachery.  It is the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy writ larger than life.  All of these random, non-intersecting parts mean something.  Each person’s life is a giant puzzle where all the pieces fit.  It’s just a matter of collecting them all together and putting them in the correct places and then it will all make sense.  This is the sort of thinking that Kurt Vonnegut lays bare in his book “The Sirens of Titan“.  In that book, the entire arc of human history has been measured and calibrated in order create a replacement part for an alien space ship which will one day have the important task of placing a “greeting” message on a far away planet.  We all have a purpose and that purpose happens to be completely absurd.

“Bug” takes this theme and runs wild with it.  The characters have created meaning for their lives out of a mess of half-baked theories. Peter and Agnes really believe that this crazy composite of events was created for them.  They see themselves as the protagonists of human history.  They don’t simply pick one story as their narrative; they pick every single one that they have ever heard.  The world really does revolve around them.

As I was watching this film I began to wonder if this was an accurate portrayal of the condition of the paranoia that exists in the minds of most Americans?  Since I have never been in the minds of most Americans, I am not really able to say for sure. However, things are getting pretty weird out here in the real world and I have to wonder whether some of this isn’t the product of the same ideas that drove Peter and Agnes into mental oblivion.  After all, there are a good number of people who will tell you that our President was born in Kenya, the National Security Council masterminded the 9/11 attacks, or the Federal Reserve killed John F. Kennedy.  I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the ideas, I personally don’t believe them, but if you do that is really fine with me.   I have a few pretty bizarre ideas about human history myself.  What I find interesting about these theories is that how they illustrate the Woodward and Bernstein fantasy that some people are living.  We are the investigators of some great cosmic puzzle whose pieces are scattered willy-nilly through a series of cultural and political markers.  We are Sherlock Holmes turning our collective magnifying glass on everything.  Media events are not things unto themselves; they are clues that connect us all to a larger picture.

Marshall McLuhan argued in his book “Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man” that modern technology had “extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace”.  In “Bug”, Peter and Agnes disappear as individuals and instead try to take on the narrative of the human race as their new identity.  McLuhan saw this loss of identity as a dangerous thing.  He ominously noted that “the loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful”  (Canadian Forum, 1976)  This quote is “Bug” in a nutshell.  Two beings entirely destroyed (first as individuals, next as physical beings) by the electric connection to the rest of the world.  If violence is a necessary and eventual component of this search for identity then maybe we do have a great deal to be paranoid of.

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Resolving Standards of Decency


Words are powerful and elusive things.  We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans.  They are not perfect tools.  They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity.  TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!”  We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing.  However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean.

One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty.  I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means.  This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture.  It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live.  The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment.  But what does it really mean?

When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide.  The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways.  For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare.  If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual.  If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time.  The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel.  The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.

The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable.  It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel.  However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted.  This holding is extremely confusing.  Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel.  It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing.  What is the distinction?

In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments.  In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment.  This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country.  Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that.  These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted.  Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated.  The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape.  The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002).  The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).  All of these punishments are considered cruel.

The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not.  This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre.  Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”

Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court.  It is everywhere you look.  In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not.  Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars?  Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?

The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war.  Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?

During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way.

Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals.  According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year.  Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant.  Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals?  Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?

Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?

I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel.  Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it.  However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved.  We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior.

How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty?  I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it.  Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.

A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature.  This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are.  When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure.  It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is.

This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade.  If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless.  Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another.  I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.

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Notes and Existential Ramblings from a Basketball Coaching Clinic in Tunica, Mississippi

Coach Churchill and the War on Loserdom

Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica.  The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby).  Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes.  Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point  followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak.  By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated.  The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the  hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.

I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible.  This worked for the first 5 or so hours.  I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block.  After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought.  Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic.  The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads.  Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years.  They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports.  If you are a good coach, your team wins.  If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character.  You cannot win without discipline or character.  You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show.  The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character.  Blah, blah, blah.  My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean.  We are just supposed to know.

My mind was spiraling out of control.  I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan.  These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind.  They had begun to merge with my notes.  Here is the mental chaos that ensued:

(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)

1.  What is character and discipline but the denial of the self?  Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well?  Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?

2.  Does the self even exist?  How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body?  Are there two of us in here?  Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do?  Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?

3.  So…does the self exist?  It must because we are asked to deny it.  Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self.  It must be the self.  It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”.  There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self.  The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself?  That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.

4.  What is discipline?  The self wants, the self says no.  Why would it deny what it wants?  Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment.  Losing the self in the team.  But why would we want to lose the self?

5.  Why does the self imagine?  What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?

6.  Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:

Career gain

Victory over other selves

Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory

War

Self-defense

Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly

Greed as long as it stays unadmitted

Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:

Rest

Comfort

Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)

Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you

Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly

Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly

Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)

7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:

A.  Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)

B.  Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field.  How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?

C.  Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self.  Pope Jordan the Ascetic.

D.  In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.

E.  Terminology is the coin of the realm.  Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy.  It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self.  If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense.  My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”.  The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them.  The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.

F.  Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards.  The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up.  A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.

G.  Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse.  One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves.  When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.

8.  The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter.  Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self.  The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.

9.  “Deny!  Deny!  Deny!”  -a coach stressing the importance of defense.

10.  If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself.  This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.

11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self?  The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth.  Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat.  So, an Arbiter is created.  The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time).  We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.).  Who even knows who conquered whom?

12.  Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves.  We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away.  We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.

13.  The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed.  Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.

14.  Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.

15.  “Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?”  Great point, coach!  Better than you even know.

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