Philosophy Tuesday

“Aside from the animals, there are nearly a thousand abstract signs and shapes we cannot interpret and also several negative hand stencils, as they are known by art historians. These are the paintings that most interest me. They were created by pressing one hand with fingers splayed against the wall of the cave and then blowing pigment, leaving the area around the hand painted. Similar hand stencils have been found in caves around the world from Indonesia to Spain to Australia to the Americas to Africa. We have found these memories of hands from 15,000 or 30,000, or even 40,000 years ago.

These hand stencils remind us of how different life was in the distant past. Amputations, likely from frostbite, are common in Europe and so you often see negative hand stencils with three or four fingers. And life was short and difficult. As many as a quarter of women died in childbirth. Around 50% of children died before the age of five.

But they also remind us that the humans of the past were as human as we are, their hands indistinguishable from ours. These communities hunted and gathered and there were no large caloric surpluses so every healthy person would’ve had to contribute to the acquisition of food and water.

And yet somehow, they still made time to create art, almost as if art isn’t optional for humans.”

John Green

(from this episode of his great podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed)

(which was animated into this amazing video by Kurzgesagt)

Philosophy Tuesday

We are always piercing things together to form a reality.  Everything we experience, whether personally or through stories or through both passive and active observation becomes fodder for our automatic, unconscious, reality-deducing machinery.  We piece together all these bits of information and draw inferences, see cause and effect* and craft a strong sense of what things are.

This includes things that people can be or can become.  Even if we are not it right now, or don’t use it right now, and maybe don’t even see ourselves ever becoming it, we know it and know how it operates.

So that in that moment when we become it, all that ‘knowing’ comes to the fore, because our mind grabs what it already ‘knows’ as a predictor for how to behave and, thus, as the way to succeed.

And there are many moments like that in our life, where we weren’t something and suddenly now we are:  student, employee, citizen, on our own, driver, homeowner, significant other, spouse, parent… if it can be a label, it can be an it.

When that proverbial light switch flips and we find ourselves – suddenly! – in that new situation with that new label, being that it, we end up acting out just like things were done before.

Even if they’re not productive.  Even if they’re not helpful.  Even if they don’t represent the best expression of who we can be.

But we do it because that’s realityIt is how it is.

And then we laugh (or recoil) and say, “I’m just like my parents,” or we later say, “I understand what they were saying now.”

Except that it’s not really that way at all.  Instead, it is just that we’ve fallen into it by the virtue of not being aware of not being aware.  Instead we’re asleep with no agency, just repeating the past, ad nauseum.**

Bringing mindfulness to the situation (even years later) lets us interrupt that cycle and interject ourselves into the now of our it so that we regain our agency and choice.  We allow ourselves to be informed by what came before without needing to become it.  We get to think about things complexly, rope in our other experiences, and create.

By bringing our central selves to the fore, we can truly make it our own.

 

* I’m sure it goes without saying that we see cause and effect supremely often where no such relationship exists… yet we form our realities as though it is so.

** It’s important to get how insidiously powerful and prevalent this is, how much we become subsumed into that already always knowing to become the thing, that it, forever being perpetuated into the future.  We don’t even get to have our own experiences.  The experiences of others we’ve gleaned over the years are instantly our moment-by-moment experience of that it, shaping our behavior, actions, and experience going forward in a cycle.

Wonder Saturday

Wow, it turns out that the Kurt Vonnegut quote I posted on last Tuesday’s philosophy post was, indeed, an actual quote by Kurt Vonnegut!  (There’s so many miss-attributed or just plain fabricated quotes out there, one never can quite be sure…)  Even better, here’s a reading of the whole letter in which it was contained by none other than Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen!

 

Philosophy Tuesday

“When I was 15 I spent a month working on an archeological dig.  I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports?  What’s your favorite subject?   And I told him, no I don’t play any sports.  I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.  

And he went, “WOW.  That’s amazing! “

And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.” 

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them.  I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”

And that honestly changed my life.  Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them.  I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them. “

 — Three Rings

(I love this.  Pair it with some previous thoughts I shared on on art and self-expression, which also references the myth of Talent (or as I put it, the Tyranny of Talent).

The blog post by Three Rings also quoted a letter purportedly written by Kurt Vonnegut, which contained this lovely gem in it:

“Here’s an assignment for tonight… Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

Now that’s an assignment!)

Philosophy Tuesday

In conversation with a friend recently, I said, out of the blue, “Identity sure is one hell of a drug.”  It was meant as a throwaway line and as a bit of a joke… but as I thought more about it, it’s not really a bad model to use.  Identity isn’t exactly like a drug, but in many ways we are indeed kinda addicted to it.  We believe it to be us, we want it to be us, and we do all we can to keep on it and to keep feeling that identity high.  When we’re deep in it, there’s a certainty there. (Strangely, that’s true even when it’s unproductive!).  When it’s threatened to be taken away, we fight back hard.  (Indeed, as noted before, our brains can’t tell the difference between a threat against the body and a threat against the identity – defend with equal vigour.)  We organize our lives to reinforce that identity so we get more of it, and we avoid things that would cut us off from it.  And in that way, much like an addiction, it leads us around by the nose while distorting our views and stifling our freedom.

So, yeah… in a lot of ways, as an analogy, it works.  And often looking at something through a different lens can give us new insights on it and, even better, give us new access to gaining agency over it.  And when the analogy starts to break down, not a problem, we can set it aside and carry our newfound freedom and peace of mind forward into the next stage of self-cultivation.

Philosophy Tuesday

One of the things that we learn* in our kung fu training is this:

Not everything that feels powerful actually is.

Just because we put in a lot of effort, or engage a lot of tension, or become super fierce, or stoke the fires in our belly…  and just because it feels so much like we should be able to resist a mountain and even be able to split it in two… despite all that… when actually test the move we collapse like a house of cards, with nary an ounce of power there.

And then we get angry!  And we double down on it!  AAAAARRRRGH!  Which only ever serves to make it even worse. **

Fortunately, we also (eventually) learn to not force the point*** and to let it go, delve deeper, and adjust our form such that, remarkably and suddenly, it not only works but it works without almost any effort at all.

Like so many things in kung fu, so too does this apply with our ways of being and in the way we live our lives:

Not every emotion or attitude that, again, feels strong is actually strong.

As we interact with the many areas of our lives, we have so many ingrained and automatic responses and views and ways of being, and we often go forth thinking that they are strong, that they are necessary, that this is the way, and that anger and harshness and hostility and posturing and fierceness and downright hostility to the world and everything around it is the way to make our way and, more importantly, to get what we want.  We think they make us strong.  And wow does it ever feel strong!  And right!

And yet, it isn’t.  And we aren’t.  All that acerbic-ness ends up being unproductive.  We expend a lot of effort, and we may move the ball a smidge, but it takes a supreme toll on ourselves and others, and the results rarely stick.

Like with kung fu, we can let it be for a moment,**** set it aside, and bring to it a new level of mindfulness.  Within that clearing we can adjust and create a new context, choosing other ways of being that will bring forth what we want with velocity and without effort.

And that there is true power.

 

* And re-learn and re-discover over and over and over and over again…

** Which, like the above, we do it again and again even though we know it never works…

*** Also fortunately we learn to laugh at our stubborn silliness….

**** And laugh!

***** One corollary to all this is that when we see someone who is all fire and aggression and sees the world through metaphors of attack and destruction and always seems upset by everything, it’s the same thing:  It is not strength, they are not powerful people, and they are not paragons to laud.  They are all bluster and performance, with little to show for it, no peace of mind, and continually having a lousy experience of life to boot.

Philosophy Tuesday

Wise tiger, that Hobbes!  Our actions are always perfectly correlated with who we are being, and our being arises from who we have created ourselves to be (whether by choice or by defaultic happenstance).

When we let ourselves be present to our own actions, we gain insight into who we are being as a person, no matter what we may say or insist.

When we see with eyes unvarnished our actions in the collective, we gain insight to who we are being as a group/community/nation, no matter what our slogans may be.

by Bill Watterson

Philosophy Tuesday

I assert that it is time we ceased using the term “unskilled labour.”

For one, I don’t think such a thing really exists in any great capacity.  While there may be certain trades and tasks that take more or less time to grasp and to be able to perform at a bare minimum level, every undertaking done well takes skill.  If you’ve seen a toilet cleaned to the minimum versus a toilet cleaned with skill, you know the difference.  And the same holds all over, be it in service, carpentry, line work, farming, cooking, or any of the like.  In addition, there are things such as communication, attentiveness, or even just being a team player, all of which are skills, developed over time, and which really muck things up when they’re not there.

For two, the term is generally used only to denigrate, equated with unintelligent, unsophisticated, or of lessor importance.  More importantly, the term is used as an excuse, an excuse to treat others poorly in all sorts of ways:  poorly in value, respect, and appreciation; poorly in attention and care; poorly in attitude and politeness; poorly in compensation and wages.  Unappreciated and seen as a cog, whether in the home or in the workforce, the “unskilled” are paid a pittance (be it in terms of regard, respect, and appreciation or be it in terms of actual wages) and regarded as though they should be happy for their miserly sum.

It is a crappy way to treat others.  And one that belies both the value of what they take on and accomplish as well as the skill and hard work it takes to do it well.*

Everything is a skill.  Everything can be learned and improved.  Even seemingly simple things can take a lifetime to master – including the very art of living.

Let’s honour it all.

 

* For the briefest of moments this year we called them what they are:  essential workers.**

** The term “frontline” has now replaced “essential” and it is another obfuscation and denigration: frontline allows the vested interests (who wield the term unskilled like a club) to believe they are the generals, doing the actual important work by leading the incapable masses.  It’s a falsehood and a farce, and I recommend not falling into that trap.

*** Oddly, Walt Disney, who harboured a lot of a type of skilled/unskilled contempt, actually recognized this on some level.  One story in particular can be used as a guide for ourselves:  When Lillian Disney heard Walt wanted to open an amusement park, she said “Why would you want to do that?  They’re so dirty.”  To which Walt replied, “Mine won’t be.”  There it is: the (typically denigrated, ignored, and maltreated) janitors are the key to Disneyland’s success.