THINGS

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Sometimes I’m amazed at how out of touch I am with popular culture. Where I work there’s a TV set across from the nurse’s station. It doesn’t show programs, but bits of news and quizzes on still screens. Amazing numbers of actors, movies and TV programs I’ve never heard of, or heard of but never seen, as far as I know.

There’s TV in my house, but that’s for my stepdaughter and her family. I rarely ever watch it. Since I work nights and weekends I can’t watch sports very often, and there’s really not much else on that interests me. I think that sets me apart from the majority in this country, though I’m not sure how important that is.

My parents never had TV in our house when I was growing up, though I saw it sometimes elsewhere. I was interested in it, and when I could buy my own I spent several years watching it a LOT. But I also went through periods of watching little.

I used to go to movies too, when I was much younger. That no longer attracts me much either. There may be movies I’d like to see, but I’m not willing to make the effort very often.

I’m also not that interested in buying things, unless they mean something to me. When I started working for a living I was more interested in buying books and music than anything else. Those meant something to me that more material things didn’t seem to. They seemed to have an emotional or spiritual dimension. Was that really true?

I was surprised, some years later, when I lived in a meditation school, to hear one of the women there say that the place felt like home to her, even though we didn’t have NICE THINGS. The “nice things” concept was alien to me. As I recall, it was explained as more a female than male thing, at the time. I’m not sure how true that is. I don’t think men are particularly less lustful after things than women, though the different genders tend to prefer different things.

In any case, music no longer has as much attraction for me, for reasons not entirely clear. Different music formats started coming out. I put most of my LPs on cassette, and still have a great many of those, though I rarely listen to them anymore. I also reluctantly changed to CDs after they displaced cassettes, but that’s as far as I’m going. No MP3 for me. I don’t listen to music as often anymore, and I don’t have the money to buy such things.

It’s not that I totally dislike technology. Computers have replaced TVs in my life, and I like them, though I’m uneasy about their ecological impact, as I am with many aspects of our current society. There are other reasons to worry about their effects too. We use them, and other media, to create private worlds that often have little connection to what is real. That makes it more difficult for us to deal with reality. Many people, maybe especially younger people, know how to entertain themselves, but little else. That can be a gigantic handicap.

Books have captivated me since I was very young and my mother used to read to us at bedtime. As soon as I learned to read I began exploring whatever was available . Some things didn’t mean much to me at the time I tried to read them– Jane Austen, for instance. Dostoievsky is another writer much more comprehensible now than when I was young.

But books too can make an artificial world. They certainly have their positive aspects, but can be addicting as well, like many other things. Probably eyesight is the sense I would most hate to lose.

In a recent email a friend quoted (more or less) Victor Frankl talking about depression. Frankl survived Nazi concentration camps, so he must have been quite familiar with that experience. Frankl, if I remember what my friend said correctly, said that depression is our way of understanding that we’re not meeting life’s demands. I think this must be a very basic reason for depression, though not the only one. It may possibly be the most fundamental, though.

When I recently wrote about depression I thought that guilt was probably the common denominator of the condition, but hadn’t carried that thought far enough. Why do we feel guilt? Of course guilt may be irrational or undeserved, but what is the emotion about? The feeling that we’ve done wrong, are doing wrong, or more precisely, are not meeting life’s demands.

There may be many reasons for feeling that way, and let me emphasize again that not all are very rational. But when we see that depression has become a big business, supporting not only psychiatrists, but also drug companies, we can’t help but be aware that it’s a massive problem in our society, intimately connected to other problems.

A bumper-sticker my mother had on her car for a number of years was, “Live simply, so others may simply live.”  That’s not us. Living simply is not what our civilization urges us to do. Instead it commands us to buy more things, and often things that aren’t very good for us. Fast food, sodas, cigarettes and too many other things to name. We destroy our environment to produce and sell these things, including high technology like computers. And destroy it further to obtain the energy to run that technology. Without a huge change in perception and practice we could possibly commit racial suicide, taking a large amount of living species with us.

Dinosaurs never had the intelligence to ruin their environment in the way we do, and if current scientific opinion is correct, their demise was not their fault. An asteroid landing on earth changed their environment so radically that they couldn’t adjust or survive. The change seems to have been radical enough that it’s hard to see how ANY species survived, but some apparently did. We seem to be in the process of doing the same thing, but in our case, it WILL be our fault. In our lust for money, power, and THINGS, we are changing this world into an environment we’ll have more and more trouble adjusting to and surviving in.

Ants are one species that did survive the cataclysm that destroyed the dinosaurs, and are particularly interesting because they’re a social species in a way that few others are. Of course mammals have herds, but few other species are as specialized as ants, or divide labor as they do. Humans do divide labor, but aren’t GENETICALLY specialized as ants are. Most of us DO specialize in one area or another, which is often not a great idea. In a cataclysm many skills will be useless, and the skills needed may well be ones that few have.

The social arrangements of ants are fascinating because they seem to arise entirely out of instinct, without thought being involved. At least one teacher said that human institutions also involved very little thought. He said that we are all asleep, and can’t see the terror of the situation we’re in. I think we often feel it, though, which doesn’t seem to increase our rationality.

Another author suggested that ants may once have been an intelligent species that failed. Perhaps their social structure was sometime in the distant past rationally planned. But something went wrong and ants are stuck with their social structure, which works well enough, but is limited. If ants have individual intelligence it’s hard to see. Their system is totalitarian, but works better than such human systems, because they seem to have no individuality to get in the way, and by their nature can’t be pluralistic.

Humans, on the other hand, seem to constantly be struggling with freedom and despotism. Adherents of each side think theirs is obviously admirable. But humans, with their wide range of behaviors, can easily be corrupted. There are obvious sources of corruption, and maybe some less obvious. Money and luxury are obvious sources. Their source may be less obvious. One author makes it the struggle between physical pleasure and duty. The latter may make more sense if we see the universe as altogether material, but with many materials so far undetectable to western science.

Some, the endorphins and enkephalins, have been detected. These are the endogenous pleasure drugs, which mimic opioids, and are the source of all our feelings of pleasure, many of which can turn into addiction. And what is addiction but a turning away from responsibility? The cause of addiction in any specific case is almost beside the point.

So Black Friday comes, and the desperate crowds come out to buy almost anything that will stimulate their endorphins. They really ARE desperate about it too, almost willing to run over anyone who might get something THEY want.

And that may be the archetypal picture of our civilization. Desperate to acquire THINGS that we’ve been told to worship, and unwilling to allow ANYTHING to interfere with that. The attitude that could bring us to Hobbe’s “war of all against all” in which life is “brutish and short.”

It’s almost funny to look back a hundred years ago when all the world was optimistic that the technological advances were going to bring paradise on earth. They reckoned without the human ability to destroy good things. At the very same time humans were itching for war. Apparently things had gotten TOO good.

They seem to have gotten too good again, at least in this country. With one of the highest standards of living in the world, we’re scared. All the things in the world won’t protect us from THE FEAR. Suppose our things are taken away? What then?

Our ancestors wouldn’t care, since most of them never had much to begin with. But we can’t stand the thought. So we continue our destructive political, military and commercial games (to name only some of the most obvious) to practice “war without blood” that will become bloody soon enough if we don’t change our ways.

In some ways I’d hate for our way of life to change. It’s comfortable and familiar. But I’m afraid it HAS to change for us to survive. We can’t go on destroying the web of life we also depend on. Our dependence may not be obvious, unless we bring it down again to basics: air, water and food. We may not understand just how pollutants work, but it’s obvious that ice is melting around the world, plastic is cluttering up the ocean (and I doubt just the ocean), and we’re less healthy than we used to be. Things have to change for very many of us to survive.

So we reach the holidays at the end of the year, which are supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but really celebrate a time to eat a lot and acquire a lot of THINGS. Some underline this absurdity by getting offended at being wished, “Happy Holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas”, and insisting that Santa Claus is white. I guess their conception of Jesus is of someone who wants us to buy lots of THINGS.

But as I recall, Jesus’s statement that it would be easier for a poor man to enter the Kingdom of God than a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle was a reference to a gate (probably into Jerusalem) which was so narrow that packs had to be removed from camels before they could enter. The significance of that ought to be clear. But it doesn’t seem to be what official Christianity is about now. Or most official Christianity.

Pope Francis has surprised a great many people, and delighted perhaps somewhat fewer with his views about the politics of wealth and poverty, which are quite consistent with those of the saint whose name he took. He isn’t against wealth per se; no one with any sense is. He is against greedy wealth, acquired and augmented by fraud and unsafe practices, and by the wealthy who refuse to share.

 Some people love to be self-righteous, and condemn poor people, because of the narratives about them they’ve accepted. Some of those narratives are sometimes true, but they’re not true only about poor people. People of any social class may be manipulative, dependent and undeserving of what they’v obtained. Of course it’s easier to generalize about whole classes of people than to actually understand that individual stories may differ wildly, and that justice requires a society to do its best for ALL its members, rather than just one particular group. Justice tends not to be too important to many of us, though, unless injustice directly affects us. But if we’re indifferent, injustice is quite likely to touch us too.

So at the end of this rather rambling piece of writing, let me wish anyone who cares to read this a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or any variant that you may prefer). I hope for a better year for all of us, whatever that may entail, leading us to better health, deeper happiness, and freedom from both THINGS as (attractive as they are), and the mentality that idolizes them. I hope we all have enough to survive happily, and that we won’t vainly desire more.

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One thought on “THINGS

  1. Hi Allen, I agree with everything that you’ve written. Our family didn’t have television until 1954. Then, we had only one station. I’ve never gotten into the habit of either, reading newspapers, or watching television news. I prefer to wait until all the facts are in, then read the book. I too, am not overly concerned with things. Merry Christmas. ~ Dennis

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