Posts Tagged ‘social humans’

SERMON: “The Self” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

It’s an old saw about military boot camp: they have to break you down as a civilian before they can rebuild you as a soldier.  But what is it, exactly, that they are “breaking down”?

The stated purpose of military training is to develop in soldiers the capacity to act first and ask questions later.  It’s not unlike the way that a parent might hope to inculcate an immediate response to “no” in a child so that any number of potential dangers can be averted — touching a boiling pot on the stove, running into a busy street, annoying an unfamiliar dog.

And yet we also have the idea that one shouldn’t “break” a child’s spirit in the pursuit of this kind of obedience.

Clearly we carry a sense of what it means to have a “self”, and that it is a part of us that is both essential and — to some degree — subject to influence.

One of the things researchers look for in other animals is whether they have a “theory of mind” like we humans do (meaning, in short, that they understand on some level that the other animal that they are interacting with has a mind that is having its own equivalent thoughts).

We humans develop this “theory of mind” in spades, and the theory goes that we evolved such large brains in no small part because of the need to be able to read the minds of others.  Almost everything about our cognition (that isn’t geared to basic metabolic survival) can seem to be geared toward figuring out the intentions other people (and animals).  I think that this kind of thinking is so integral to us that we don’t even realize how important it is to our sense of self.

What am I really saying here?  Let me offer this example: There are many who sincerely believe that the basis of human morality is divine law, and that without the knowledge of good and evil that is given us by God, we would be cast adrift in a lawless universe, and that every individual would, in an instant, revert to rape, robbery, murder and mayhem.  Therefore, they rightfully (at least according to their world view) fear any suggestion that a) God may not exist, or; b) that morality is at all relative, or human-based.

As a young man, I joined the Coast Guard, and experienced the reshaping of self that is military boot camp.

Now what does the above example have to do with our highly complex social sense?  I use it as an example of how that social sense has been conceptually displaced from its actual location (in our psyche) and transferred to God as the focus of its activity.  We may, in practice, behave more morally in order to please the all-knowing God of our imagination, but what we are really doing is acting as a profoundly social animal could be expected to act (with or without divine supervision): engaging in only as much selfish behavior as one can get away with without damaging essential, personal relationships.  The only difference here is that we have personified (in an external way) that part of our consciousness that is our “conscience” — meaning the level of our brain with which we carry on a conversation when we “talk to ourselves” or pray out loud.

Let’s talk about the “self” that we converse with in this manner.  The dynamic is essentially the same as if we were interacting with another human being, and that is my point:  We are moral animals because we want — no — we need to get along with our fellow moral animals.  And we have come to understand (at some point in our distant past) that we will all be much better off if we behave ourselves in a civilized manner (meaning that we respect certain group-defined limits on our selfish behavior).

And this is where our sense of our “self” and the self-limiting conscience of the “social self” come together.

For our sense of self is, to a large degree, a collection of ideas about our own personality (and moral sense) that we have gathered to ourselves over the years of our maturation.  And where do most of those ideas come from?  From the way other people have responded to us.  Someone tells us that we’re pretty, or smart, or funny, and we take that to heart (our brains are hard-wired to believe what others in our social circle tell us first, and only question it later — hence the enormous potential power of the abuser that — in order to gain control of another — tells them they are ugly, stupid or unworthy in some way).

Those that are in the business (or hobby) of selling religion are really offering a balm to the wounds that a “self” is almost sure to pick up over time.  They also offer a ready absolution (or, at least, a path to atonement) for that nagging sense of selfishness that is inherent in an animal that — no matter the modern trappings — must still feed itself and see to its basic survival needs in a most primal (selfish?) manner.

(But since we are all in the same existential boat, we humans extend to each other the polite fictions and euphemisms with which we cloak the naked fact that in order to live we have to, for instance, physically consume other life, be it vegetable or animal).

But we humans need to do this for each other, as the other animals seem not to be troubled with self-awareness in the way that we are. ( Which is why — one can assume — ants don’t need religion).

All of this leads, I think, to a certain natural instability in our sense of self.  In order to be as responsive as it is to the nuances of the behavior of others, it must sacrifice a certain degree of solidity — like the narrow-bottomed canoe designed for maneuverability in white water will not be stable in placid lake waters like one designed for such use with a wide, flat bottom.

It’s impossible to know what is in anothers mind, though we know enough to know that there is certainly something going on in there.  I figure that we all live somewhere on a continuum of psychic stability, from those that have a more simple cognitive framework that is resistant to self doubt, to those that have troubled minds that make the maintenance of a stable sense of self rather tricky.  We all have friends or family that are troubled my mental or physical illness, which can also challenge the strongest sense of self.

The journey of discovering my own self has been an interesting one.  Like many, I tried on the self of the Christian believer.  I even took a stab at being one of those re-shaped by military boot camp.  But in my quest to dig down to some existential bedrock upon which to stand as my self, I have, instead, come to an increasing realization that there is no bedrock to us at all.  How can there be when we are these temporal physical beings whose entire experience of the world is mediated through an organ of flesh and electrical impulses?

It’s a troubling thought, that.  And troubling thoughts are kryponite to a coherent sense of self.  For no matter what sins we commit (or what sins are done to us), we humans have a deep, abiding, and survival-level need to maintain a coherent sense of ourselves (just notice how hard we work to restore our preferred sense of ourselves as decent people when we have behaved badly or wronged another person in our social circle).  And this is why it matters so much what the other humans we live around think of us.  They are, in fact, the only mirrors that give us glimpses of how we come across from the outside.

There are those who say they don’t care what other people think of them.  We all nod in agreement and envy them, even if we don’t quite believe them.  The reality is that a certain amount of social power or financial success can seem to insulate the self from the power of the bad opinions of others.  But fortunes can change very quickly, and our dramas are full of stories of the suddenly rich “nice guy” that then becomes an asshole, but then loses everything and has to win back all the friends that he pissed off in his hubris (and who he now needs again).

In my case I’ve come to the conclusion that the inherent sensitivities and instabilities in my own temperament are part of what enables my creativity and artistry to be so delightfully responsive and acute — just as the most aerobatic of aircraft are the most inherently unstable in straight and level flight.  (There is a reason, after all, that artists are naturally seen as living on the social margins).

But we are all vulnerable creatures.  It is only a question of degree (just as I think that artistic talent is simply our natural problem-solving ability cranked up a few notches, and not some otherworldly ability).

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, everything we do contains an almost automatic, quiet calculation of the social cost or benefit of that particular action.  To admit this seems crass, but it is the reality that underlies the smooth social functioning of a bunch of social animals like ourselves.

And that is why I don’t think that we would stop behaving morally if God were to suddenly pack up his tents and ride off across the cosmic desert.  Sure, there would be a bunch of former uptight believers who might cut loose a bit, but they would instantly discover that it was never really God who was keeping them in line at all, but their own precious sense of self, and the very real humans who would very quickly let it be known that an asshole is an asshole, whether God is in his Heaven or not.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Naked Christmas” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Whenever I write a sermon like I did last week, I have second thoughts.

There is something about attacking belief that feels, in the end, unkind.  As if it’s something I don’t really have a right to do.  After all, the majority of my friends participate actively in belief systems (though most of them would qualify as moderate believers, not fanatics or fundamentalist).  Still, I recognize that I am among a minority that take that extra step from skepticism to a proclamation of non-belief.

So what is the source of my regret?  Is it a sense that I’ve over-stated my case?  No, not really.  When I think about the arguments I’ve made, they continue to make sense to me (or, more to the point, the counter-arguments continue to make less and less sense).  And having been a believer for so many years, I feel that I know of that which I speak.

Then what’s the problem?  Is it that I am a social animal among other social animals whose views might make the other animals uncomfortable which, in turn, could lead to me being shut out of the herd?

This brings up the apparent choice of being true to my own conscious or soft-peddling my ideas to stay within the circle of community.  This seems an obvious case of integrity over submission.  But this is what animals do all the time.  We are constantly weighing whether we are in situations that allow us free reign, or whether we have to moderate — or modulate — our behavior for the maximum success in reaching our ultimate goals (which may or may not be expressed openly).

There is a part of my mental process dedicated to weighing the benefits and risks of honest expression.  I recognize that, in some circles, such expression is honored even when (or precisely because) one is expressing an unpopular opinion.  On the other hand, one can risk actual physical harm by blurting out an impulsive comment to the wrong person or group.

As among our primate cousins (and numerous other animals, for that matter) power or status are highly desirable for us in no small part because they offer autonomy and ever higher degrees of freedom of expression.  But there is always a larger fish in the pond.

"Oh Santa!" Arranged kitsch. Photo by Bob Diven.

Once I followed belief to its logical end, there was nothing further to explore.  I had seen the face of God, and He was me (or, more precisely, a part of my own functioning consciousness).  So there was nothing to be done but turn around, come back, and get on with living.  After all, we are not configured to continue wasting energy on empty pursuits.  (That’s why it’s so hard to learn a second language, for example, when it’s one we aren’t called upon to actually use in our day-to-day life, or why we no longer grow tails).

I’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about the loss of belief (not just in God, but the deconstruction of irrational belief in total) is that nothing really changes.  Life goes on.  We still make moral choices pretty much the way we always have, we just recognize the real reasons we make those choices: not for God, but because our decisions affect our relationships with the humans we have to live with.  And this is what unbelief has really changed in my life: it has laid bare just how profoundly social an animal I am.  Suddenly I can see that our entire lives are built around our relationships with those around us.  There is nothing else but the architecture of human connection.  Projections of power onto outside gods and spirits are just a diversion from the unsettling awareness of just how vulnerable we are to the opinions and actions of other actual living, breathing humans.

In this Christmas season, it’s not difficult to take a step back into a wider perspective and wonder why I am being so sensitive about questioning beliefs that so many others don’t think twice about foisting on the rest of us.  Christmas, in fact, seems to serve as a sort of open season for the most religious to wrap up nationalism, fundamentalism and their seeming strength of numbers with the bow of state recognition into a sort of tinselly cudgel to beat non-believers back into the outer darkness (where they must surely belong).

Two things stand out to me in this: one, the insecurity that infuses the bullying nature of religious evangelism, and two; the delightful resilience of pagan symbolism that is embedded within even the most “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” event.  The religious cry “foul” whenever anyone actually expends any effort to push back against their aggression, but they are seemingly unable to see themselves as aggressors with candy canes.

But then, those last two paragraphs above are a perfect example of the personal dilemma:  I clearly don’t mind attacking belief in general, but no matter how strongly I feel about my argument, it is always followed by a tinge of regret.  Why?  Because though I want to throw my wooden shoe into the machinery of oppressive religion, I don’t want to hurt my relationships with believing friends or associates.  Like many things in life, there just may not be a perfect solution to my not-uncommon dilemma.

By criticizing belief, I feel like I pee in a pool that a lot of my friends swim in.  That, it turns out, is the actual issue.  On the one hand I feel free to undermine “belief” in a broader sense (as my “unbelief” is clearly fair game for others to attack), but like all things human, things are different on a personal level.

For most of us Christmas is a rich blend of traditions, old and new, that reflect the deepest social traits of us humans: a recognition of our vulnerability to the ravages of Winter, a thankfulness for plenty in the darkest months, a delight in our innate sense of magic and wonder, and a certain extravagance in finding and creating beauty in the things of nature that carry their living greenness into December.  There is so much that is so achingly and beautifully human about the celebrations of the season that the fundamentalist cries of “put Christ back into Christmas” can feel like a crass, reductionist affront to the celebration, like the gangs of zealots throughout our history that continue to find any frivolity an abomination in the eyes of their pissed-off god.

I see Christmas for what it is, and enjoy it all the more for its glorious mix of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the pagan.  Heaven and earth, if you will.  It is probably one of the best windows into the human mind and heart.  I don’t believe we ever will (or can) take “Christ” out of Christmas, and I’m not certain we need to.  He is, after all, a part of the history of the holiday.  I just like to recognize that he was a later arrival to a party that we’d been throwing for a long time.  And, after all, we humans like a good party, and no-one likes a party-pooper.

So Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Winter Fest.  May this holiday be a joy to you in the ways that mean the most…to you.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Great Cosmic Elephant” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

There is the old saw about two blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling it with their hands — one standing in the front, the other at the rear end —  and how by their descriptions both would think they were examining a completely different animal!  To stretch that analogy, I think that each of us, in a very real way, are only able to describe the part of the “elephant” of life that we are touching, in that each of our lives is so very specific in circumstance, opportunity, and geography that our perception of reality is destined to be incomplete: we can never hope to have the complete picture, as it were.  And yet the blind men at different ends of the elephant — though one may be feeling a trunk and another a…tail — will still be describing some elements that are common to both ends of a single animal.  This is why we can, for instance, enjoy art and literature from people who are living lives very different from our own: we are each having our own unique experience of a universal experience: life.

I’ll stretch the analogy a bit further, and describe science as the attempt to “see” every part of the “elephant” by examining the tiniest bits of it — and then adding all of those bits together with the most distant perspectives we can get — to form a complete picture.  I think this is a noble thing.  I think the problem comes in when people who are touching only their square inches of the great cosmic pachyderm think that they are touching the entire thing, and dismiss the very idea that there are different perspectives.

I’ve noticed that when I write opinion pieces for the local newspaper, I write to a different audience.  I write more like a missionary — as if I’m talking to the uninformed.  Here, I write more like I’m writing to colleagues, companions on this journey that have joined themselves into a loosely-organized caravan headed in roughly the same direction.  When I write for the paper, I get a load of comments from those that think their square inch of elephant is the whole thing.  They are clearly annoyed at me for wanting them to think otherwise.

But i happen to be the kind of person that derives pleasure from the way I’ve grown to think about things.  I enjoy ideas, and the way my brain has turned out to be a curious one, moving from thought to thought like a bumble bee from flower to flower, gathering pollen as it goes.

For instance, while eating some strawberries, my mind wandered to the following subjects: a recognition that the golf ball sized berries I was eating were most certainly the product of unnatural selection by human breeders; that there were millions of people on this earth who would give just about anything to be able to sit and eat the berries I was eating in quiet and safety; a pang of guilt over my excesses of consumption (treating myself to an entire pint of strawberries); a musing over the question of human compassion, all while still managing to fully enjoy those berries.

I am an extremely lucky human, by any historical measure.  I may be low-income by contemporary American standards, but the fact that I have a comfortable place to lay my head in peace each night and a pretty high degree of freedom from fear instantly separates me from most of my ancestors and many humans alive today.

My Ice Age brain struggles with the demands of modern knowledge.  How do I adjust my naturally-evolved sense of blood-relation compassion to an entire human family?  How do I satisfy my social-animal need to see myself as a good person when that is always in tension with my inherently selfish survival instinct?  How do I enjoy the ripe strawberry in front of me knowing that I could give up some of what I own and make lives much worse than mine exponentially better, or — to take it further — give up everything I own and not put a dent in the human suffering on the planet?  How do I pay attention to the part of the elephant I can touch without being overwhelmed by the other parts of the vast animal that I hear about, but can never completely explore myself?

This is the condition of the modern human, complicated by the technology and science-aided awareness of our time.

Is that my goat? Click image for Heifer International.

There is no complete answer to it.  I donate a enough money Heifer International (it’s not much) to buy a goat a year for someone I’ll never meet.   Why?  To lessen feelings of selfishness generated by my sense of good fortune and abiding happiness.  And I endeavor to blend the work that satisfies me with work that brings pleasure and solace to my fellow humans.  In short, I practice a sort of reciprocal altruism that we humans have developed over the millennia.  I don’t give because I expect something back from those to whom I give (such as a shipment of home-made goat cheese from Indonesia or wherever), but I do give because I know that it will make me a happier person.  For we learn from experience that the satisfying of a craving or lust is not what creates a state of happiness (for the consummation of a craving is much more about alleviating the extreme discomfort of the craving).  No: we learn that the more abiding sense of happiness comes from what we call “generous” or “kind” behavior, in that it waters the seeds of warm social relationships (and we humans are wired to be all about social relationships).

In practical terms, to be quite honest, I find myself testing the limits of how far I can go in getting what I want while maintaining my cherished place in my social family —  my community.  The paradox being that if I give more than others, I am held in higher esteem, and may then have more opportunity for getting what I want.  But if I want something that carries a high social risk, I am faced with getting right back to where I started if I actually take advantage of my opportunities.  Interesting this (and, it turns out, one of the main arguments against human morality being a Heavenly mandate — the entire dynamic that keeps the non-sociopathic in line is right here in our human troop).

This is what life is like: a mix of competing needs, desires, pressures and satisfactions that takes a massive, calorie-consuming brain such as ours to keep track of.  But there I am again, talking about the whole elephant.

There is a certain comfort in recognizing the reality that we live in.  At least to me there is (even if understanding just how complex our social interactions are does nothing to make them less complicated!)

Thanks to science, we now understand a great deal about how our individual lives fit within the scheme of the larger life that surrounds us (the elephant).  We also understand a great deal more about our individual minds, bodies and personalities (the part of the elephant we touch, taste, smell, hear and see).  This bounty of information challenges the comprehensive power of our primate brains, even as it challenges our evolved blood-kin centered compassion.  Accepting this reality may not make things less challenging or complex, but it can help us enjoy the sweet strawberries that life sets before us as we keep exploring our bit of the cosmic elephant.

t.n.s.r. bob