That's when "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley came on. Don't worry/ about a thing. Because every little thing/ is gonna be all right. What's going on. Have you ever just have the exact right song come shuffle? And then it happens again? Fuck. Rock and roll is magic.
What I want is to sit on this train and say I love you to all these people and for us to be able to talk and laugh and hug like we do, or we can, like strangers literally can, but don't, because why would that do that, but still do it anyway and for that to not be some big deal, just an acknowledgement of universal truth, of the way it is to be human on this rock. But that's not the way the world is. That's not safe. We're too dangerous to each other like that. And so I can sit here in the private world of my headphones with Lou Reed wailing, "Oh it's such a perfect day in my ears," and I just want to say God bless you everybody. I love you. Which God? Who knows; who cares. It doesn't matter. Question for another time but seriously God bless you God dammit and I do love you, I do, but I have to protect myself as well. I only have so much. So I carry it around with my as a basic Utopic worldview, were all just living in Mr. Rogers neighborhood, we really are. But I don't want to live in that world, at least not most of the time, because while it does recognize the pain and trauma in balance with the beauty, even just focusing on us as human brethren still flattens us. Each of us are just so wide and deep, so chasmous, with trillions of brilliant refractions in the rock.
That's when "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley came on. Don't worry/ about a thing. Because every little thing/ is gonna be all right. What's going on. Have you ever just have the exact right song come shuffle? And then it happens again? Fuck. Rock and roll is magic.
So honored to have my short story, "The Magic Shuffling Machine," published in the Winter 2022 issue of Pulp Literature. Please pop on over and check them out. The whole issue's great and worth picking up a copy. Thanks Pulp Lit!
An introduction should be both a welcome and an overview. Attention-getting, yet indicative of what's to come. And if you can drop a joke in there too, well, all the better.
This website serves as a home base for my writing work. In the section titled Writing Services you'll find the areas in which I offer my freelance skills for hire, while the other sections house creative writing from through the years. My blog (scroll down) explores common symbols and themes in our daily life, looking for new meaning. On the whole, this varied collection of writing explores overlapping personal interests while adhering and aligning to particular virtues. I'll leave the unpacking to you.
Thanks for stopping by. Peace.
The last apartment my wife and I lived in was an old brick four-story building on Chicago’s north side. The kind of building where very different people live paper-thin walls away from each other without their lives hardly intersecting. Still, despite the lack of interaction, there’s no escaping the proximity of a sound community.
One day, walking up the back stairs to our apartment, we heard a woman’s voice coming from a single anonymous window somewhere on the block, and that voice said one sentence in a venom-laced shrill born out of what must have been years of frustration.
“Why don’t you ever LISTEN to me!!”
The memory of that noise is tattooed upon my consciousness, and repeating that line has provided me with far too much pleasure to feel proud of. It’s a great story to pull out at cocktail parties.
Schadenfreude aside, that woman we heard that day was expressing one of the most basic human needs, the need for non-physical connection. We are cognitive, emotional beings, and our social safety, validation, and comfort are partially dependent upon how well we are understood: how well others see us from the inside, not just the outside.
Many people have no problem talking about themselves, their interests, their worries, their medical problems, but to truly feel that connection—or more to the point, to be truly connected to someone—the speaker must be listened to, preferably in an open, attentive, non-judgmental way. (You know, as opposed to someone nodding, “Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh.”)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: there’s a difference between listening and hearing. That’s because you’re always hearing, but the thing you’re listening to is what you’re focusing on. So many tangents we could go on regarding this point, but I want to focus on the art of listening to another person. In a conversation, hearing someone is the BLAH BLAH BLAH of their words hitting your ears and making the bones in your ear vibrate in one of the most miraculous processes the Universe has woven into existence.
Not paying attention to another person’s spoken words is responsible for the game Telephone as well as the plot to about a hundred billion sitcom episodes. It also creates that phenomenon where you could hear a song a thousand times over ten years before you realize what the song is really about. And if you want to dive down that internet rabbit hole, thank Buzzfeed for these 16 examples.
A quick Googling will give you great articles and videos about how to develop listening skills, which is something that should probably be on everyone’s bucket list (assuming your socialization process did not make your empathic listening impeccable). I’ll post a few videos and links below because I’ll let some experts give that advice instead of me. But a ramshackle list of listening skills, just off the top of my head might include the following:
Listening, on a deeper level, is more than the practicality of communication; it’s about honoring another person. The gift of one’s attention is among the greatest gifts one person can give to another. Speaking well (i.e. appreciating that gift by crafting your speech to the person) is a separate skill than listening, and deserves a post of its own. Because listening is often overlooked; it is passive, and in that passivity there is great power.
I have done meditation exercises where two partners, usually strangers to each other, are given a question, such as “How do you manage stress?” One partner answers the question by speaking their answer to the partner, while the partner just sits and actively listens. Through this activity, you practice being present with another person, creating a space for them to express themselves, absorbing the truth of their life as they see it without judgement. Doing an exercise like that quickly makes you realize how little you pay attention to your listening practices, and, potentially, how much you can grow.
In a society of shouting and loud music, this exercise reminds of the power of passivity, of what it means to just be there for someone, of being open to truths beyond ourselves. At its core, the entire endeavor of listening reminds us that none of us are more important than another. All the drama in my life is exactly equal to anyone else’s, and even if it wasn’t, setting my life aside to listen understand another’s perspective—and giving space for that perspective to be verbalized and to change us both—is a powerful tool human beings have used for millennia to help build the world we live in today.
Because the legacy of human civilization has not just been determined by hammers and swords; it has been built by language. From the Library of Alexandria to the printing press, from the Declaration of Independence to “I Have a Dream,” words shape our minds. Indeed, words create the world. I am not a linguist, but I dabble when I can. Each word is a label, or, to oversimplify, it is either an idea with a correlate in the natural world or helps us structure our thoughts about the world. Words help us organize what we see. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein famously said (so famously I’m sure I’ve used this quote in other posts here), and when you start examining the lines between the signs and signifiers it is difficult to see how that isn’t so.
According to some, language itself has created new cosmic realities and potentials, and we aren’t just talking about storytelling here. In the 1920s, Vladimir Vernadsky positied the idea of the noosphere, or the realm of language and ideas. Later, a French Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin took up this idea and contrasted it with the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Each sphere grows out of another, with the geosphere giving way to the biosphere giving way to the noosphere in increasing complexity, in just the same way dirt begat life begat humans begat reality television. There has been a tremendous amount written about this, and if you'd like to start, check out these Wikipedia articles on Noogenesis (what?) and the Anthropocene (uh huh). Upon these ideas, Teilhard de Chardin built a cosmology in books such as The Phenomenon of Man, a cosmology that, in my view, elevates the importance of listening.
If we conceive of the noosphere as a separate realm of reality, then we can see the tools needed to tend it. Just as ecology, science, medicine, and animal rights are some of the tools we employ to care for the geosphere and the biosphere, the tools we use to cares for the geosphere and animal rights cares for the biosphere, the tools we use to tend the noosphere are ethics, law, education, and, yes, listening. Listening develops relationships through creating connection. I know that when someone is actively listening to me, through eye contact and body language and verbal cues, and when they make me feel really understood, I am just so grateful. Grateful to them for letting me open up, for validating me by thinking what I have to say is important simply because I want to say it, but also grateful to them for letting my words in, for letting my words change them. Every microinteraction or microthought, no matter how small, changes us in some little way. Some change us big time. Being open to the magic of another’s words--and not taking that magic for granted—is a pleasurable phenomenon nearly beyond language.
Listening is opening the door. It’s opening the windows to let in the birds’ song. Listening is being present, being actively passive, offering your attention to another. Listening is sacrifice; it is vulnerability. Listening waters the garden of friendship; it tills the soil of compromise and progress. Listening is lowering the drawbridge and prying open the gate. It is sitting in your boss’s office with a straight spine not knowing if you’ll get fired. It’s awaiting what the doctor has to say. It’s setting yourself aside and getting to know someone for who they are. Listening is acknowledging the impossibility of solipsism; it is acknowledging that we and our experiences are not the only things that exist, that there is so much reality and truth outside of us, and therefore listening is offering space to the universe by offering breath to someone else. To me, there are times when there’s nothing as important. But you probably already know I feel that way because you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying.
Here are some excellent videos and articles I found about how to develop listening skills and why, but all the capillaries of the internet are sure to hold more.
"10 Steps to Effective Listening" at Forbes.com
Going Past Empathy: The Four Levels of Listening and How You Can Listen Yor Way to Innovation from TheDesignGym.com
"Listening Skills" at SkillsYouNeed.com
"True Listening" by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in the Shambhala Times
Star. The word itself is very short, one syllable of four common letters. This makes it rife with anagramatical flexibility. It can become “rats” or “tars” or “tsar” or “arts,” but, frustratingly, not “sart” or “tasr” or “astr”. Nonetheless, there is so much density packed into those two pairs of letters that it’s like, well, insert-black-hole-joke here.
As with a few of the other blogs on this here site, like the one on the letter X or the color red, I’m choosing to write about what a star is and what it means because it is a symbol so ubiquitous to be almost without meaning anymore, making it worth taking a few minutes to contemplate. In other words, twinkle twinkle, cute little star. How I do wonder what you truly are...
You might be thinking that this is just some lame deconstruct-the-homonym game. It’s not. The truth is there is a lot of connection between the different things named with the word “star”: a word just as sharp, bright, and elegant as the many things it signifies.
These are all pictures of stars. Wait...what?
Gina Rodriguez photo credit: Dominick D
First, let’s acknowledge that there are billions upon billions (obligatory Carl Sagan reference) of burning balls of gas out there in the universe, and one of them, our Sun, is lucky enough to have this beautiful blue marble whirling around it. In I Heart Huckabees, Dustin Hoffman's character says, "There's not an atom in our bodies that has not been forged in the furnace of the sun." Not only is that assertion difficult to dispute, but it certainly rings us all together with one great big metaphysical lasso.
Wikipedia says a star is “a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity.” I could figure out what that means, but instead I’d rather focus on what we see when we’re in the middle of an Illinois hayfield at night: perfect pinhole points of light, as Sagan might say, poking through the black cloak of oblivion. Stars have long been considered symbols of the divine, sparkling above our heads from distances too big to understand, massive objects far beyond our lifetimes. Fulfilling the dream of travelling among them would be the among the greatest of human accomplishments. (Whoops…there’s my Sagan again.)
But the word “star” can just as easily conjure up a different image in our head, depending on the context. You all know it: the five-line symbol that can be made without lifting the pen from the paper. Every time my grade school teachers made that thing, the ball-point pen snapping across the top of my homework, I was amazed. I wanted to learn how to do it. It looked so cool, and that’s perhaps why it sat at the top of every well-done multiplication worksheet. This is my attempt at it in MS Paint:
Sometimes we would even get a sticker on our worksheets—a gold star—which was even better, for it combined that intriguing symbol with the best, most expensive, most beautiful color. Hard to beat a gold star. Turns out they motivate seven-year-olds and career generals alike. They also rate hotels, restaurants, movies, Amazon products, and Netflix shows and adorn the flags of nations, logos of sports teams and businesses, iconography of religions, and shapes of glitter. Or if you want to see stars in your eyes, go get into a fight and take one right in the kisser. (Please don’t.)
The same symbol reaches across domains, professions, uses, and cultures.
Stephen Colbert photo credit to Cliff.
As if that weren’t enough, the star symbol shows up in a variety of other places. The symbol itself, whether in five-point version or with more vertices, has been a sacred symbol for ages, and books have been written on this topic alone. Most notably, the six-pointed Star of David is a symbol of Judiasm. The mystical 5-pointed star is referred to as a pentagram or a pentacle, and many people associate it with Satanism and dark magic. Ooooh. Although it is widely employed in scores of other religions, this nefarious stigma has nonetheless made it an emblem of heavy metal and horror movies.
But this white male millennial also chooses to see stars in an iconic in a not-so-sinister video game franchise, for it is a star that grants Mario temporary invincibility with which he can kick goombas and pirhana plants without shrinking all with a big smile under his ridiculous mustache. The comment is not subtle: just as many spiritualists have used the star symbol as a ward against malicious spirits, so it has become the primary ward in the most iconic western video game franchise to date.
We also have stars in human form, celebrities, people with public personas and the keys to the city. We call these people “stars” who experience “stardom”, or better yet, “superstars” basking in “superstardom”, living the life that 99.9% of us only dream about: fast cars, beautiful men and women, crazy parties, giant houses, exotic locations, trashing hotel rooms, never showing our faces in public.
But why do they call celebrities “stars”? Perhaps because they are as far away from us as stars are, beyond the reach of our hands or social standing. They are beautiful, stunning in appearance and action, leaving us in awe at their power and presence. And when each actor makes it big enough, what do they get? A star on the lauded “Walk of Fame” in Hollywood. Funny how those stars are flat on the ground.
Right now in your head compare this single walk of fame star to a bright burning ball of gas in the sky larger than you could ever comprehend. What’s the similarity there, other than the word? Other than those four letters which could easily be “arts” or “rats” or “tars”.
Because, in the end, a star is both a symbol of—and agent of—the purest ideal of potential. Potential for what one can accomplish. Potential for what one can stretch to. Potential for awe. Potential for beauty and goodness. And, as in the case of our Sun, potential to create worlds. The potential to create all our human lives. And plenty of other lives as well.
Go forth, bright shining stars. May the universe be your playground.
I’m writing this blog post about a week after President Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the climate agreement. That whole episode is, at least to me, too banal and asinine for me to want to blather about. But, I just want it noted that the topic and planning for this blog post began long before that debacle. Global consciousness is the idea of considering both the lives of strangers and the justice of structures when making decisions. It's a heady idea that deserves more attention than I think it receives.
The climate agreement debacle has crystallized in my mind the number one criteria I use to judge a political leader: is this person thinking about the needs of all their people in a fair and just way? This means not just their own needs or the needs of their family or bank account or the needs of the their political friends or the needs of the people who live by them or look like them or live like them. It means everybody. No matter what. Every one of their constituents, and really, everyone else too. More than some of them, more than most of them. Everybody.
Global consciousness can be looked at in a couple ways. First and obviously it means thinking globally, thinking outside our immediate selves or families or communities, thinking outside one’s own individual or familial needs to the needs of individuals we do not necessarily know or interact with on a regular basis. If self-love is in the first person and philial or erotic love is in the second person, then global consciousness challenges us to a third-person love, a love for strangers, a love we don’t immediately benefit from, a love for the universe and a faith in its mechanisms.
This type of thinking obviously didn’t thrive in the early tribal communities. Isolated bands of humans needed to defend themselves from other isolated bands of humans. This idea persisted even with the formation of nation states and nations, with various developments in the art of diplomacy coming along the way. For what once were roads thousands of miles long became wires with electricity and telephone signals and those became televisions and radios and the internet, and now you can talk to someone sitting a diameter of the globe away from you at instant speed. Crazy. (Also crazy: Quantum Physics.) It wasn't always that way. It took a few millennia to get going.
But thinking in a third-person bigger picture isn’t easy. It’s not a light switch you flip on; it’s a skill you develop. And just as in grade school, each grade builds upon the previous one.
There are many maps and systems available for understanding global consciousness, and the elaborate mechanism that we have for understanding those systems is called Developmental Psychology, which studies the full range of human growth and development and every sub-range between. Some famous dealers of the craft you may have heard of are Piaget, Erikson, Maslow, Gilligan, Kohlberg, and Loevinger, but the one that elucidates global consciousness to me is Ken Wilber, who wrote a few too many books synthesizing the ideas of those in that list with a bunch of spiritual stuff and philosophy and maps for practical living. For a primer, I’ll link here his book, A Theory of Everything, which I consider a great book with a sometimes maddening title.
The way I understand it, Ken Wilber’s stages of ego development are basically rephrasings of Carol Gilligan’s stages of care. It should also be sidenoted that systems like this are ways to organize and understand ideas, not some eternal dicta etched in bedrock. (“The map is not the territory,” now and forever.) But I’m a total nerd for stuff like this. So here we go, with Ken Wilber’s idea of development.
Egocentric: Care for oneself. I care about me, stuff that has to do with me, and stuff I like. I’m responsible for my personal biology and actions, and I, as an independent individual, am also the basis of my morality, which means it’s really easy for me to have no morality if this is the only kind of care I'm capable of. We see egocentrism in two-year-olds, professional wrestlers, petty Greek dieties, and wannabe dictators of formerly democratic countries. First-person care. (Wilber also does this list thing too in his book. Let's say I'm borrowing it.)
Everyone starts out at egocentric. As babies, we are not yet developed enough to care about ourselves as individuals, and that’s why we need parents to care for us and keep us in check. Though I’ve been challenged on this point by a sociology professor who says studies have shown that babies can empathize. Again, this isn't the end-all-be-all of how humans should be measured and these aren't rigid categories, just concepts for understanding.
Quoted in Wilber (page 18), psychologist Howard Gardner states, “The young child is totally egocentric…unable to differentiate himself from the rest of the world,” which, perhaps, is the basis for child empathy. If nothing else, it is a clue into the egocentric psychology. We say that selfish people thinks the world revolves around them (like, they’re the Sun? Why would they want to be the Sun? There’s no life there…whatever…), but what would be more accurate is that selfish people think they are the world, that there nothing important outside of them. They see the world this way, and that can be an unpleasant thing to deal with.
You can see mammals evolving out of egocentrism from reptilian thinking to communal thinking, and civilization developed in this way by moving from isolated tribes to nation-states to a smaller globalized world. The problem is, if you only care about yourself, you’re not going to get very far in the world. (Probably.) Which leads us to the second stage.
Ethnocentric: care for someone else. Ahhh yes. The problem of other people. “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of existence,” writes psychologist Erich Fromm in his landmark work, The Art of Loving, a book in which he navigates roadmaps through the caverns of the psyche to posit ways we can love actively, selflessly, and whole-ly. This could be called second-person care.
Ethnocentric care starts as reciprocated care for the parents, and then we learn to care for our family members, people around us, people at school and work. We identify with members of all sorts of groups we belong to, or people who share our worldviews or motivations, and we build relationships based on those shared identities. We create communities and languages, and we laugh with each other. It’s pretty great. Examples include families, sports teams, religions, nations, and all the people on Sesame Street.
Unfortunately, sometimes these identities and relationships cause conflict with people from other groups, and long story short, history is rife with examples of how human rights have been disregarded in the name of one group or another. I’ll allow you to perform that exercise on your own. Relationships are messy. Friendships form but not all of them last. They take effort and appreciation. Which leads us to our third-person care.
Worldcentric: Care for all others (or as many as you can wrap your heart around). Individuals with a worldcentric morality show concern for, and act on behalf of, a concern for the welfare of those outside an identity or group connected to them. Worldcentric thinking begets things like universal human rights, animal rights, care for the planet, love thy neighbor, and good-old-fashioned generosity. Amazing things that have come from the widespread dissemination and growth of worldcentric morality include public education, socialized health care, and environmental protections (I know, I know…).
Taking the third-person into account isn’t always easy, and many people just neglect to do it altogether. (Then they think up great rationalizations for neglecting it.) Depending on the decision or problem or life event, you have to take different outside groups of people into account. A win/win negotiation would be ethnocentric, but I have seen discussed a win/win/win scenario where not only do both parties win in the negotiation, but the greater (local or global) communities also win. Here’s an example.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey asserts that win/win or win/win/win solutions require both the most consideration and the most courage. Again, sounds like worldcentric thinking. Sometimes you have to give up some pleasure you enjoy for the sake of the greater good. We negotiate these things all the time. Maybe I can’t afford an electric car, so I drive less. I buy cage-free eggs when I can afford them, but some weeks I can’t. Worldcentric thinking is at the heart of charity and good will, and I have to remind myself it’s okay to not do it all the time. Or, rephrased, it’s NOT okay to beat yourself up all the time for not giving 100% of your money to charity.
Wilber actually has a fourth stage. What could be bigger than worldcentric care, you ask? The answer is that all three stages—egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric—are crucially important. One isn’t objectively better than the other. We have to care for ourselves (ultimately, who else is going to?), we have to care for others (or risk being visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts…), and we have to care for all people and animals on the planet and the planet itself (as stewards of the planet, it is our heavily-weighted responsibility). But there’s a time and place for each of these types of care, and even a skill at knowing when and how and to what degrees to employ them. Therefore, Wilber’s fourth stage is an integration of the three.
Kosmocentric care: care for all types, stratas, and evolutions of being. Kosmocentric care is basically a pragmatic integration of the three other stages with a new-agey name. The first three types of care can be considered tools in a toolbox and this the plan for whatever your trying to build. All three of the other stages are important: we need to care for ourselves, we have to care for others, and we have to care for the world. But we also should be conscious and conscientious about who we care for and how.
But applying a discernment of these levels of care is not without pitfalls. Sometimes people use worldcentric or ethnocentric causes to actually further egocentric means, like approving construction of an oil pipeline by saying it will create jobs when really it will just make the wealthy wealthier. Some people sacrifice worldcentric needs (like care for the climate) for ethnocentric needs (like the national economy), while some people sacrifice ethnocentric (like caring for their family) for worldcentric (like volunteering at a homeless shelter). Indeed, much great storytelling is about pitting individual, interpersonal, and communal needs against each other. Again, it takes wisdom and discernment to know when to act for what level of care, or, as Covey says, consideration and courage. I'd also like to say plenty of hard work and some grit as well. It requires a lot of character and integrity to set aside one's own first-person needs for the good of someone else or the community as a whole, but sometimes it is unequivocally the right thing to do. The ability to do just that is, in the end, the sign of a true and honorable person.
So, that said, what I’ve presented in this post is merely a framework for starting to understand global consciousness and not an end-all-be-all. These concepts are rife for unpacking, and, unfortunately, for manipulation. Politicians are masters at using worldcentric needs as talking points when they are really trying to further ethnocentric or egocentric aims. Sometimes people just have the wrong bottom line and they value money or power or influence (all egocentric) for the sake of the greater good, like well-managed social programs that benefit millions of people, or even ideals like truth, honor, and liberty.
So I want to work toward acting on first-, second-, and third-person are in all my decisions: personal, local, and global. The universe is far bigger than me. I am not it’s only inhabitant. Time ripples out endlessly. Our words and actions matter. They are the artistry we impose on the fabric of reality, and that reality is therefore a reflection of who we are. It just takes plenty of work to be the people we want to be, or the people we know we can become.
I don’t know all the things I don’t know. I try to know those things, but there are so many of them to know that I know I will not be able to fully know. At least not all of them. I don’t know. But on top of that, I also don’t know all the ways I am—as an organism of biological, psychological, and sociological dimension—that prevent me from knowing certain things. This post, therefore, is about the limits of perspective. What are they? Who knows. Let's see.
First, a quote. This is from an anonymous reddit user whose beautiful words have made their way around the internet. He or she actually employed this quote as a defense of the purpose of literature, but the first two paragraphs greatly serve our purposes here. The whole thing is good, but what’s most important to us is the way this person describes the limits of such a small, singular perspective. Here we go.
“The universe is huge. Time is impossibly vast. Trillions of creatures crawl and swim and fly through our planet. Billions of people live, billions came before us, and billions will come after. We cannot count, cannot even properly imagine, the number of perspectives and variety of experiences offered by existence.
We sip all of this richness through the very narrowest of straws: one lifetime, one consciousness, one perspective, one set of experiences. Of all the universe has, has had, and will have to offer, we can know only the tiniest fraction. We are alone and minuscule and our lives are over in a blink.”
What I want to look at is that narrow straw. See the straw. Be the straw. Oh wait, you are already? Great.
If we take the pantheon of applicable experience, say like, every living creature that has lived on the planet and experienced something since the planet formed, you can say they each had a perspective, right? Cool. Now, for pragmatic purposes, let’s shrink that sample size to every person ever. Every human that has ever lived. Each one has had his or her own individual perspective on reality, on the universe, on the purpose or meaning of life, etc. etc. etc. Some are similar, sure, but every one is unique. We could also say they each have their own story, but let’s save that for another post. (Read: the rest of the quote above.) So here, so I don't go into some superfluous diatribe, let’s focus on the idea of each person having a unique perspective.
Well, what are the things that make up that unique perspective? There are plenty of lists out there that explore this question, but many of those lists frame the conversation in terms of identity. This is important: your identity, in a way, creates your perspective. For example, an ultra-simplified description of my perspective might read something like this: white male, mid-thirties, writer, educator, gamer, rocker. Sounds like a police description of me crossed with a bad dating profile.
The next step, then, is to understand that those identity traits actually compose my perspective, my narrow straw my individual, unique way of experiencing the natural phenomena of the universe. That phenomena might be biological, natural, interpersonal, or sociological, but whatever it is, you experience it uniquely, through your own unique straw, from your own unique location in space and time. Pure, immutable uniqueness. That’s pretty cool, right?
Again, this is different from agreeing about a movie or political point or paint color. No two people can truly see the exact same shade of red. Of course we say or think we do for practical purposes, but if you want to be totally honest, AND you want to then think of all the other uncountable phenomena AND ways to experience it, well, you're back to induplicable uniqueness again.
So let’s talk about what some of the aspects of perspective are. We already said our standard identity markers, like age, gender, and race. Worth noting here that many phenomena that people experience by virtue of interactions at school or work, events in the news, or social structures are experienced differently by a ten-year old or a thirty-year-old or a sixty-year-old, by a man or a woman or a transgender individual, or by a black person or brown person or white person or native person or eastern Asian person or central Asian person or Middle Eastern person or or or or...whew. Even our words for this identity stuff can get complicated.
I'm well aware that there are libraries worth of political considerations and anthropological implications and stand-up comedy jokes in that last paragraph, but I’m going to steer clear of those here. I want to stay focused on perspective. Is your straw still pointing at perspective? Good.
Some other aspects of our perspective are not often considered. Our biology: the shape and movement and ability of our bodies, the induplicable fingerprints that are our sensory organs, the number of neurons we have firing at any given moment. Our history: our individual history, but also our placement on the timeline of human history, or the history of our nation, region, city, or family. Our political leanings shape our perspective, our religion, our education, our income, our class, our culture, our politics, our conditioning, our expectations for how people should act and how well we believe we should hold ourselves to those standards or even how well we actually can. All of these do not just affect, but actually create, the ways we see the world because they are the shape of the straw, and they are the filters and lenses we put on the straw.
Then there are even tricks and pitfalls to managing your straw. Observation bias means that something changes when you are observing it. Does the teacher think that the students are all that well behaved when he leaves the room? Nope. Or how about confirmation bias, where you see what you want to see. The fridge might be full of vegetables, but it looks empty to me. Or how about language bias, where your language shapes what you can and can't understand, or as Wittgenstein famously put it, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Some native peoples have far more words for "snow" than you find in English. I'd wager, with more linguistic tools for it in their toolbox, they understand the stuff better. And don't even think this is an exhaustive list of biases. Don't let your bias think I'm telling you everything.
Author, skeptic, and proud miscreant Robert Anton Wilson refers to the unique perspective straw as one’s “reality tunnel.” And once you learn or understand that you have a reality tunnel, it’s a difficult idea to unlearn.
Are you asking yourself if you should watch like four Robert Anton Wilson videos in a row right now?
Of course you should. Duh.
But while identity categories create our perspective (aka our “reality tunnel” aka the straw), the yang to this yin is that those categories also limit that perspective. As a white male, I can’t experience Chicago as a black woman. Just not possible. No one can or should assume their perspective is the end-all-be-all of what reality is; it's just what reality is to them. If I want to know what someone else's experience is, I shouldn't assume, I should listen with open ears. A sixty-year-old can try to imagine life as a ten-year-old, but it’s much harder the other way around. No human perspective is omnipotent, and therefore there must inherently be limits to the understanding and knowledge of any perspective. I can’t know everything. I can’t always know what I don’t know or why I don’t know it, and you know what? I shouldn’t always be invited to the party either. The ocean is for the fish; the sky for the birds. Humans have our own range of experience. Our antennae only gets certain channels, and even then, each of us won’t ever get every human channel.
The cool thing is you can add channels here or there, or at least clarify the reception on some of them. How’s that? You know plenty of ways already. Reading, especially literature, or about people vastly different from you. Other media works. Travel. Talk to people. Imagine what other people’s lives are like. Even (maybe especially) if it’s uncomfortable. Explore a new culture or group. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they’re good. Ask them what they think. Practice empathy. Just be open.
And appreciate your straw. It’s awesome, isn’t it? It's your life. It's you're identity. You’re awesome. No? Of course you are. Don't tell me you have a kink you need to work out of your tunnel. Every moment can alter your tunnel in some way, so protect it. It’s yours to take care of. You’re the only one who has it. Stretch it out. Work it out. Test out new lenses, but remember to give them a good polish from time to time. I imagine you want to see as clearly as possible. It's breathtaking when the light catches it just right.
The other day I received a text message from my sister. “What was that quote you told me the other day?” She asked. “It was about being a good person and not caring what other people thing.” While I was reading this text message, and I’m not making this up, my wife asked me, “What was that quote you said the other day? It was really good.”
Apparently. But I still can’t remember what quote it was. A tragedy. Maybe we’ll get back to this later.
But it is like me to spout quotes. I’m a quote spouter. They make you look smart. People like them. It always puts that kind of “Huh” look on their faces, which they seem to appreciate. But collecting and reciting quotes is more than cocktail party tricks. Quotes help us by crystallizing a piece of knowledge or wisdom for us. They tell us something maybe we already knew but had forgotten or couldn’t really articulate, or they offer us a new way of looking at something, whether ourselves or other people or our world. Often they’re witty, and though they don’t have to be, it helps. Most importantly, though, a quote is incisive: you feel that little catch of breath when your read it. Almost as though your soul senses its truth before you even process the quote.
I have a 28-page document on my computer with quotes from over the years, along with plenty tacked up here and there around the apartment for inspiration, enjoyment, or just to keep our butts in check. Among these quotes you can find people who have become eminently quotable, people whose words are heavier on the page when put between quotation marks. Everyone has their own list, but for me, I think of Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, and Bruce Lee, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. (Yogi Berra should be mentioned for different reasons.) The quotes of each of these three individuals, among others, are mentionable because they fit the criteria that we, the general populous, wants in a good quote: 1) small pieces of wisdom that 2) are able to be committed to memory (for pragmatic employment in life’s myriad situations) and that 3) are also examples of aesthetically pleasing prose. Some quick examples:
“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
“If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.”
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
These quotes (and it took me less than two minutes to find them) are compact and powerful to the point that explanation is not necessary. That is what a quote is supposed to do.
Now, for a brief detour, let’s compare that with a few quotes I found on the internet that do not, as far as I’m concerned, fit our three criteria above nearly as well.
“When you invest your time, you make a goal and a decision of something that you want to accomplish. Whether it's make good grades in school, be a good athlete, be a good person, go down and do some community service and help somebody who's in need, whatever it is you choose to do, you're investing your time in that.”
“If everyone were a good person, it'd obviously be a better world.”
Now nothing against these two gentlemen, who are extremely talented and good at what they do. But hopefully you can see what I mean. I wish these were pithier, more compact, more incisive. In short, I want more magic. You know it when you see it. You read a quote and instantly think, “Dang,” because its truth is that powerful. Its breadth is that wide.
And that’s really what good quotes are about: truth. And the wisdom needed to express that truth. Quotes keep those words alive, forever crystallizing them as living words of a timeless truth, living words once spoken or written by people that at this moment may or may not be living. Quotation marks themselves are a symbol of that vitality. There are two on each side—partners, never alone—reverently framing those words like a painting. They have a dynamic shape, with a wide end tapering to a narrow end, and they have a dynamic form: a curve, a turn, a change in course, a moving toward something new.
Because human wisdom is a living thing. It is not just timeless; it stretches through the ages, touching all people and societies, all category of human and culture. And whether that quote, that nugget of wisdom, is embedded in an article or magneted to a refrigerator, those living words are brought back to life in the instant a person reads the quote, speaks the quote, honors the quote by understanding how it’s wisdom can be applied to his or her life, immortalizes the quote by allowing it to change them.
And so, I thought I would end this post by honoring a few quotes that have changed me. A few notes. First, I regret that most of the people quoted here are white men, but I cannot argue with the wisdom in these words. In a way, it is the quote that matters far more than its creator. That said, I realize it is incumbent upon me to seek out diverse emanations of wisdom. Truth demands it. Second, a couple of these quotes have been deemed apocryphal or misattributed, and the explorations of that phenomenon could be a blog post (or dissertation) all its own. For the time being, though, I want to focus on the words within the quote. If one truly speaks to you, I encourage you to research. Once again, truth.
“Don’t write so that you can be understood; write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”
--William Howard Taft
“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
"The map is not the territory."
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
"Long live the child. Long live the mother and father. Long live man. Long live this wounded planet. Long live the good milk of the air. Long live the spawning rivers and the mothering oceans. Long live the juice of the grass and all the determined greenery of the globe. Long live the surviving animals. Long live the Earth, deeper than all our thinking. We have done enough killing. Long live the man, long live the woman who use both courage and compassion. Long live their children."
--From the film "The Body"
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
--Maya Angelou (possibly apocryphal)
"Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence."
"Let your own presence be something that convinces the world."
And no, I never did remember that quote from up above. And I’m okay with that. “Thoughts are circular,” a friend of mine says. “It will come back to you.” But it’s fine if it doesn’t. The well is bottomless.
Let’s start this one with a few quotes: the Buddha once said, “Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” To which Camus, the bad boy of French existentialism, could have replied, “I know myself too well to believe in true virtue.” Shakespeare, in the end, may have punctuated this conversation in Measure for Measure: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”
Virtue is commonly characterized by the standard boring dictionaries as goodness, righteousness, and upstanding moral creed. In a poststructuralist world, however, we know the definitions of what is “good” and what is “right” can vary widely. It is like saying a mirror is the same thing for every person that stands in front of it: it is and, as a result of its nature, it isn’t. Or, as Heraclitus’s oft-repeated maxim goes, “You could not step twice into the same river.” Both you have changed and the river has changed. Virtue is different for everyone.
So what is virtue? My goodness. That’s a box thinkers with more neural connections than this writer have been trying to unpack forever. It’s so easy for us to melodramatically talk about good and evil, but even the fiction that we ingest that follows those tropes never seems as satisfying as stories that wade into moral gray areas. Everyone thinks they’re the good guy; everyone thinks they’re right. So in this post I’m just going sidestep the irreconcilable conversation about the subjectivity of morality to make the point I want to make: maybe we can’t have a universal morality, but we should, at least, have an ongoing conversation about virtue.
Virtue, essentially, is a sum of values, and our national conversation is not usually discussing what is right and why. American culture doesn’t encourage people to measure themselves against the seven deadly sins or platonic ideals. We don’t speak about and define values in a national or global terms; we usually leave those conversations to religious institutions (the phrase “family values", now oft-used into obsolescence...), which makes sense because values and goodness have historically been thought of as God-given or divinely decreed. But we have many religions, and many nonreligious people, and because of that difference I think our culture should have more public conversations about what right is, what values are. About what values we cherish and how we express those values.
It’s so easy to throw around words like honesty and trust and respect and integrity that they can lose all meaning after a while. Brings to mind the phenomenon of saying a word over and over until it just feels like putty in your mouth: kitchen. Kitchen. Kitchen. Kitchen kitchen kitchen kitchen kitchen. Except that a kitchen is a real thing and values are intangible guides about how to live. Values like honor or leadership or service or generosity are more difficult to pin down. They don’t have refrigerators or ovens, so their interpretations are much more subjective, or at least more open to political manipulation. Leadership and honor and integrity are going to look much different from the perspectives of a banker, a fundamentalist, a gang leader, a senator, a teacher, a comic book scholar, a mother. Because values are abstract nouns, there are countless ways to interpret them and apply them, leaving them nearly devoid of meaning when, tragically, they should be infused with meaning—no, overflowing with meaning—in order to help guide people toward right action and good living.
A few years ago there were advertisements on public transportation for a nonprofit named The Foundation for A Better Life. Their mission, from their website, “is to offer inspirational messages to people everywhere as a contribution toward promoting good values, good role models and a better life.” Maybe there are other organizations like this out there, but this is the only one I’ve seen, and they’ve got a good marketing angle, with a URL of www.Values.com and a catchy slogan: Pass it on. Check out their list of values here: http://www.values.com/teaching-values. Most of their values have their own website. How cool is that? Here’s one of their commercials.
The thing about values though is that they have to be guides through different situations, ideas-as-tools implemented at times of need and to varying degrees. Every situation is a balancing act. Moral situations where characters need to negotiate one value against another precipitate drama. One person’s noble cause (for generosity, achievement, idealism, justice, honesty, etc.) might be righteous pretention to another. Or misguidedness. Or immaturity. Or doofistry. Let the situation dictate who’s right.
So sometimes we compromise our values depending on the situation. Unfortunate that they are so malleable. Some people prop up values in front of them like cardboard cutouts of soldiers and then go do whatever they want behind the curtain. We can hear words like charity and industry and appreciation and be swayed by them not knowing that they had no weight to the speaker. Too often, values are tools of political and financial manipulation. This denigration poisons the language we need in order to be the best versions of ourselves.
And in that vain, a task of the self-developing individual is to identify which values are most important to him or her. Faith and honesty? Service and loyalty? Friendship and empathy and self-improvement? For a good blueprint of how to do this, look no further than the idol of intellect himself.
“I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed empty to me. The trite objects of human efforts -- possessions, outward success, luxury -- have always seemed to me contemptible.” Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (This quote can be found in a couple different forms on the Internet. Fortunately consistency isn’t one of his core virtues.)
Or, instead of having a trio of virtues, those of the boldest disposition may prefer to name, define, and follow but one, as does this human being of towering character.
So let’s talk about virtue. Let’s talk about values. Alongside the hard work of infrastructure building and community building and all the political policy debates and character wars on TV must be a discussion of the guiding principles that we actually use to pursue our goals, to judge our persons and our societies, to measure who we are. We can claim someone is dishonest or selfish or crazy, but what are honesty and selflessness and sanity? If these words are simply subjective markers, then the collective must come together, discuss them, unpack them, deepen our understanding of them, and then, after a thorough examination, redefine them. Until then, we’ll continue to be using deep words in superficial ways to describe enigmatic patterns of behavior. And guiding principles are more important than that. Heck, they’re worth more than that. That’s why their called values.
Virtue, as the purest ideal, is not an end that is attainable. Perhaps the Buddha, Camus, and Shakespeare would have agreed. But I think they would all like thinking of virtue as not an end, but a road you travel on your journey. Values are the road signs. Praise be to those who stay true to the path.
There’s a particular psychological phenomenon that we experience many times a day: that of completely losing oneself in an experience such that there is nothing else in your consciousness at that particular moment. What does this look like? Imagine riding a bicycle with a completely clear mind and finding yourself in that moment when you aren’t thinking about where to turn or stop, you’re just doing it. You’re playing catch or washing dishes or watching a movie or writing and, for all intents and purposes, nothing else in the world exists to you in that particular moment.
Many people now refer to this as the flow state after the 1990 book Flow by University of Chicago psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi. But it doesn’t take a book or a fancy theory for you to know what I’m talking about: this is merely the sensation of being fully engrossed. Of your consciousness paying zero (or next to zero) attention to anything but the task immediately in front of you. In fact, this is the opposite of not paying attention, whether of the music in the background while cooking or of the road in front of you while driving. You are so sucked in you don’t even know it. You have been seduced. Whether its running, doing math, or reading a book, you and the thing have become one.
Unfortunately, we can’t be in the flow zone all the time. Here’s Csikszentmihaly’s roadmap to it.
It makes sense to me that the point(s) at which your level of skill meets the challenge perfectly matched for it requires your entire conscious awareness. Or rather, it consumes your conscious awareness through necessity, or maybe even than in that moment you temporarily experience complete ego-obliteration as you cease to exist and the activity ceases to exist and there is nothing but what maybe Heidegger would call “being-the-thingness.”
I mean, it could happen.
However you want to interpret it, the experience of total immersion is worth studying and momentarily focusing our attention on because it highlights a couple important concepts.
First, it’s a way to activate the undermentioned skill of metacognition, or thinking about our own thinking. Metacognition is the way by which we step outside of our normal thought processes in order to analyze them. For example, if I’m always spending money on little extravagances like eating out, going to the movies, and buying stuff that get me in trouble come rent time, then it would help me to identify the thought pattern behind that behavior: rationalizing a little purchase as not a big deal instead of seeing that all that fun adds up. And that’s only one example of the countless thought patterns in our cerebral CPUs that let us function in daily life.
Metacognition is important because it allows us to step back from our thought projects to critique and tweak them for health and productivity. Recognizing when you are or aren’t in the flow state is a way of practicing metacognition, as would be thinking about times when you’re in those other regions of the graph above. Solid metacognitive questions include: Why did I think about that in the way that I did? What logical steps did my thinking just take? Was I trying to rationalize a decision I emotionally wanted to make anyway? What are other ways of thinking about this, and why? What am I thinking right now?
No doubt you’ve asked yourself questions like this some time or another. (And now we have just become metacognitive about metacognition.) Just be careful about being metacognitive while actually in the flow state, because it’s liable to pull your attention away from the activity and snap you out of it.
Which is the second reason flow is worth recognizing (as in re-cognizing, or re-admitting to cognizance): the flow state is the optimal state for growth. You are using your skills at their highest levels by maximizing the challenge they can address. It requires every ounce of your awareness to the point that you aren’t even aware that you’re not aware of anything else (then your metacognition steps in and ruins the moment…). Point being, flow-state=growth, and on this blog we fiercely advocate continuous growth.
Wait, have you just become totally immersed in the idea of being totally immersed in something? Didja just get a little blip of egolessness there?
Maybe I’m being heady or cheeky but if you’re not into the self-referentialism let’s continue linearly to an example of flow that doesn’t take any thought and is pretty universal, and that is the idea of transcendence.
Transcendence penetrates you to your core. As with flow, there is egolessness, but it isn’t because you are lost in an activity, it’s because you’ve just been shocked into it by the immensity of the experience before you. Seeing Starry Night in person, or visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, or standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: these experiences will overpower you with the grandeur and mystery of creation (whether you want to interpret that through God or not). But we aren’t even necessarily talking about the majestic or spectacular, for transcendence can occur in a moment of seeming mundanity: an empty summer street at night, a flash of existentialism while in line at the store, that moment of silence where, unexpectedly, you notice the inextricable connectedness of every single thing. Joseph Campbell speaks of both the beautiful and the sublime, which can both take our breath away and make us experience the enormity of it all (and our relative insignificance in the soup) for different reasons:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive. Prodigious expanse of space is sublime. This is a thing that the Buddhists know how to achieve in their temples. Particularly when I was in Kyoto, I was there for seven glorious months.
BILL MOYERS: In Japan.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, visiting some of the temple gardens. They are so designed that you’re experiencing something here, and then you break past a screen and a whole new horizon opens out. And somehow with the diminishment of your own ego, the consciousness expands. This is the experience of the sublime. Another experience of the sublime is not of tremendous space, but of tremendous energy and power. And I have known a couple of people who were in central Europe during the saturation bombings that were conducted over those cities, and there was the…you just have the experience of the sublime there.
BILL MOYERS: I once interviewed a veteran of the Second World War, and I was talking to him about his experience at the Battle of the Bulge, with the assault of the Germans about to succeed. And I said, “Well, as you look back on it, what was it?” And he said, “It was sublime.”
Transcendence is an experience beyond ourselves. It is the intersection of all possible eons, the weaving of all fabrics of matter. Transcendence is the experience of the everything, the mystery, the cosmos, the Divine, wrapped up in whatever neat package of physical and metaphysical phenomena that experience entails. Those phenomena are the words being used to communicate the idea: the oldest idea there is, an idea without limitation or necessity or explanation.
Transcendence is so powerful and recognized that it has its own philosophy. The old school Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, institutionalized these ideas into system focusing on the goodness of humanity and the harmony of nature. They valued intellect and adventure, but above all they valued direct experience, whether that be a couple of pints, a good book, an engrossing conversation, a wind-sucking hike, or a few months out in the woods.
The few times recently that I have experienced transcendence have been varied, but the two that inspired this blog come quickly to mind. The first is a movie that I saw recently, the title of which I’ll omit because I do not want your opinion of it to adulterate my point in any way, and it really doesn’t matter the movie, for any movie can be a transcendent experience if it is the proper key to fit into your person’s ethereal keyhole. Suffice it to say that this movie, like the best, contained human conflicts as old as the Earth, a varied collection of scenes that grab your chest with a warm or cold or sopping wet hand, and enough vitality and truth and mystery that it felt like it was bulging with it, like it extended into eternity before the title screen and after the ending credits.
Whew. The second experience is one I’ve mentioned earlier, one I have had often throughout my life, and that is of an empty, silent, clean, orange-lit summer street. This thing, so often covered with the hectic chaos of our obligation-driven days, becomes unburdened, unfettered, yet still so unyielding, so impenetrable, so permanent. And it’s just the two of you. It is like having a wordless conversation with a statue when the birds have flown away.
As egoless states of consciousness go, flow is more personal, individual, and local; transcendence is about enormity of scope and grandeur. If you’re interested in egolessness, there are many forms of meditation and levels of consciousness, and you can find roadmaps to those in books like The Meditative Mind by Daniel Goleman. And a last note on flow and transcendence: the gestalt is important. Without the everyday, clunky, fun-loving, attachment-obsessed, ego-driven consciousness we all know and love, we wouldn’t be able to recognize how special these alternatives are.
All work on this website © 2004-2023 Derek Salinas-Lazarski. All rights reserved.