The animate and the inanimate

Aion and Genius in Greek

As living beings we naturally gravitate to other animate things, like plants and pets that become companions in our homes and lives. The feelings we have for inanimate objects can become strong as well; possessions gain value–sentimental, economic, historic–and we protect and ensure their safety. It appears that human beings prize existence itself in all its forms, animate and inanimate, which is not surprising since we ourselves are comprised of and dependent upon varied ingredients, organic and inorganic.

Take iron, for example. The Eiffel Tower is built of iron, an inorganic mineral generally derived from ore but also found in meteorites. We use iron in the manufacture of steel, and iron plays a featured role in human history. Moreover, our bodies require iron, which is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, a component of human blood that transports oxygen to all the living cells in our bodies. And iron is not the only mineral we need; many other minerals are essential to human health. Calcium, magnesium, chromium, and a wide range of other minerals play critical roles in metabolism, energy production, bone growth, and the healthy functioning of the body.

Another of the inanimate elements we absolutely need is oxygen. And of course, water, the very stuff of life itself, is nothing more than hydrogen and oxygen. When you get right down to it, living organisms are essentially comprised of non-living matter. At our deepest, sub-atomic level, we are comprised of the same components as everything else: various “flavors” of quarks, gluons, electrons and the atoms of which they are part. Those atoms, look very much like other atoms, whether from animate, living things or things we consider to be inanimate, not-living. This raises the question, what exactly is life?

How inanimate, non-living matter coalesces into animate, living organisms remains a mystery. Whether it is a function of chemical complexity, unique emergent conditions or the expression of an underlying universal force of consciousness is unknown. The ancient Greeks believed human life was a combination of two components: a life force, which they called “aion,” and the inspiration of a divine entity they called “genius.” One’s genius entered the animated living body, took up residence, provided willful inspiration and upon death would depart. This conception of “genius” somewhat parallels the contemporary notion of “soul”, a divine or sacred entity within each of us.

Somewhere along the way, modern human beings lost touch with sacredness. We began to treat the world of inanimate objects as if it were garbage rather than the foundation of life itself, to mistreat the soul and the body of the world, to degrade, poison and despoil instead of to value, nourish and treasure. We callously designated our living world “natural resources,” as if its purpose was purely mercantile, available simply for material pleasure and profit. Today, we are facing the results of our foolish stupidity as the earth adjusts to our selfishness with non-linear feedback loops rapidly altering climate and ecological balance.

The earth will abide, as it has for billions of years, but as naturalist Sir David Attenborough recently noted, human society may not last terribly long, which is pitiable, for we are capable of great realizations, fine accomplishments, beauty, compassion and creativity. To have squandered our genius and the divine spark of life for the sake of mere money is pathetic.

Dimples in Space-Time

The distortion of space time shown in two dimensions

Now that the election is over, we can attend to other matters of gravity. Literally.

Gravity is so ever-present in our lives we rarely think about it, except perhaps, when we slip and fall. The effects of gravity are well understood, beginnings with Newton’s apple and now extending to our observation of gravity waves propagating across space and time. Despite such observations, however, gravity itself remains largely a mystery.

What is known is that every object in the universe has gravity, at least those objects large enough to actually be observed, such as galaxies, stars, planets and the like. The tiniest of “objects” may not actually be objects at all, merely vibrating fields or “strings” of energy of no solidity whatsoever–harmonic chimes of being. Reconciling the force of gravity–one of the four fundamental forces governing matter–with what happens at the very smallest, quantum level of existence continues to elude us. Physicist Steven Hawking sought to establish a Grand Unified Theory precisely to provide that reconciliation, but it eluded even his remarkable genius.

Setting aside that lofty pursuit, understanding the gravity we know–the force which holds us to the ground and defies attempts to float above it–itself provides rather remarkable imaginings. Many people misunderstand; gravity is not magnetic, though it is convenient to think of it in that fashion. The force of gravity is interpenetrating, non-obstructed and pervades all of space time, acting on every object in the universe at varying degrees based upon mass and distance. Gravity, as Einstein taught, is the space-time distortion caused by the mass of an object: dimples in space-time.

Dimples are easy to visualize; we’ve all known people whose dimples appear when they smile. Dimples can be diagrammed topologically as a type of distortion in a two-dimensional surface. If we imagine space of two dimensions as a flat rubber surface upon which we place a heavy round object, the form of a puckered dimple is easy to visualize. This get’s harder when we imagine space in three dimensions.

A heavy round object placed in three dimensional space also creates a dimple, but that dimple does not look the same as one on a flat cheek. A three dimensional dimple is a point puckered on all sides, which for a round object means all the surrounding space. Just as lighter objects placed on the rubber sheet on which our heavy round ball sits will fall towards that round ball due to the dimple it creates in two dimensional space, so too will objects fall towards the heavy round ball in three dimensional space. This is the gravity we know; the response of objects in the distortion of space-time created by the mass of large objects.

Space-time is so-called because gravity not only distorts space, but also time. This was at the heart of Einstein’s discoveries, and transformed the way we think about time. The greater the mass of an object, the greater the distortion of space-time. Really big dimples, like super-massive black holes, provide the gravitational glue which holds galaxies together. Yet here’s a paradox; the gravity of black holes is so great that the matter comprising a black hole is itself crushed into a infinitely small, massive dense point called a singularity–the ultimate dimple. The nature of matter, time and space within a black hole, at present, is unknown and all but unimaginable.

My life as a sheep

There are those who believe there are two types of people, wolves and sheep. According to this view, we are divided into two camps: predators and prey.

In the animal world, this commonly is true, populations of prey vastly outnumbering predators. These large populations support progressively smaller populations of predators, who themselves in turn are vulnerable as prey to apex predators at the very top of the food chain. We humans, animals after all, have modeled society in similar terms, and never more so than now in our age of consumerism. In this context, “consumer” can be translated as “prey.”

The wolves among us are trolling for victims constantly; we call this activity “advertising.” In this way, consumers are sheep, prey for packs of predators seeking to feed on the economic lifeblood of humanity by plying irresistible lures and traps of desire. Ceaselessly stalking, dangling images and ideas about happiness and fulfillment through the acquisition of material goods and entertainment, the wolves among us mercilessly work their trade through methods ranging from shockingly crude to ultra-sophisticated.

In the world of business, refining such methods is known as “knowing your customer.” An effective predator carefully selects victims, gauging vulnerability and carefully studying habits before striking. For modern predators, such “market research” involves convening focus groups comprised of typical prey during which objections and points of escape are identified so that they may later be overcome. Once this victim research is completed, the predation phase begins.

At their worst, crazed predators so thoroughly exhaust the economic lifeblood of prey that huge numbers of new victims must constantly be cultivated and exploited. We call this type of predation “capitalism.” This fleecing of masses of people is necessary to support the small cohort at the top. That cohort includes the CEOs and top executives of multi-national corporations and the institutional shareholders who receive regular dividends and enjoy capital gains. Comprising less than 1% of the total population, such apex predators have accumulated the lion’s share of the worlds wealth.

My home is chock-filled with evidence that I’m a sheep. In fact, my home itself supports a corporate wolf feeding on my checking account every month through a mortgage. Cable TV, phone service, insurance policies, a variety of pharmaceuticals, chocolate bars, cell phones, utilities, dish soap…I’ve been sold and fed upon by wolves over and over again. Now the predators are assiduously tracking me online, watching everything I do, recording what interests me and then dangling ads and sales offers to me no matter where online I roam. There’s no hiding in the weeds or long grass, getting lost in the trees, or trying to run away; once the wolf pack picks up my scent it relentlessly pursues me.

Thus, from this perspective, the naturally primitive way of the world–life feeding on life–forms the dominant underlying structure of modern human society. As such, it’s not terribly removed from the most ancient of our animal inclinations. Despite our best efforts to cultivate a society that’s predator-free, one where principles of sharing and cooperation replace predation, global consumerism inclines and perpetuates the wolves-and-sheep dynamic.

In nature, when a population of prey becomes exhausted and collapses, so too does the population of predators collapse. In this way, apex predators become extinct. Baa, baa, baa.

The Beauty – The Horror

The soaring melody of a mockingbird’s song, the terrible cries of a small child being separated from parents seeking asylum; is it possible to reconcile experiences of such beauty and horror? Openness to and awareness of the world that surrounds us simultaneously exhilarates and wounds; to avoid those feelings means cutting ourselves off from others and ourselves–through denial, distraction and delusion. My father used to say “you have to take the bitter with the better,” but that’s easier said than done.

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy; the world presents itself to us whole, without explanation, and we impart meaning and our own explanation by fragmenting that wholeness into separate parts from which we pick and choose. Having done that, we discriminate, seeking the parts we like and avoiding those we don’t. But when those discrimination-filters come off and we take the world in all at once, it’s overwhelming–heartbreakingly beautiful and heart-breakingly painful. Such is the human condition.

This mirrors the biological dichotomy of the human brain, divided between left and right hemispheres, each of which process our human experience of the world differently. Communicating with each other across the Corpus Callosum–a dense rope of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres–our hemispheres seek to resolve their differences. In some sense, they compete for mind’s conception of things. But to illustrate, “things” is an imaginative left-hemisphere word in English used to describe that which has been separated from the whole, a mental fabrication not reflecting the right-hemisphere’s experience of unity. Thus, our minds oscillate between hemispheric realities of whole and parts, beauty and horror, accepting and rejecting, good and bad, right and wrong, and so forth and so on. My father’s advice did not include “it’s all very exhausting, by the way.”

Be awake or go to sleep? A lot of attention is being paid to the “awake” side of this question lately. Mindfulness meditation is all the rage right now, a right-hemisphere activity of observational experience without judgment. Ironically, a study reported in The NY Times indicates that mindfulness meditation lowers work initiative and productivity; meditators are not as inclined to feelings of competition, a left hemisphere concoction popular in the dog-eat-dog business environment. Meditation increases an experience of right hemisphere belonging, appreciation, and cooperation. Corporate America, however, needs workers who know how to put their right-hemispheres to sleep. Ah, well.

Society reflects brain dichotomy, also; as the demands for left hemispheric domination of the right-brain have increased, we observe modern human culture reenforcing “scientific” left-brain experience as the only legitimate reality. The holistic, intuitive, feelings-based sensory expression of the right hemisphere has been effectively subordinated to fragmented, rule-based left hemisphere social structures. Even art, music, poetry and such–the natural outpourings of the right hemisphere–have been relegated to the monetized and objectified world of “things” the left hemisphere prefers. Yet the right hemisphere will not fully surrender its passionate creativity; it leaks out everywhere.

Dreams are an obvious example of right hemisphere activity, but we needn’t be asleep to see it at work. Billions of personal thoughts and images are shared online, a torrent of right hemisphere activity the harried left hemisphere (creator of online technology itself) cannot control. We can’t avoid the wholeness of the world–it’s beauty and it’s horror–no matter how desperately we try.

The dogma of no dogma

Is truth real? What truth do we know, and how do we know it? Humankind has been asking these questions for a very long time and, big surprise, we’re no closer than ever on agreeing on answers.

If anything, our scientific age inclines us not towards confidence in what we know, but awareness of how much we don’t. The entire scientific enterprise is predicated on assuming that what we know will be replaced with greater knowledge in the future. Thus, the scientific answer to the questions of truth is that all truth is provisional and that which we consider truth today will appear as falsehood tomorrow.

Religion has dogmatically attempted to proclaim the truth, but it too has faced problems. Religious dogma varies religion to religion, presenting a difficulty of genocidal proportion. The proclamation of religious truth provides a stable framework for those who are adherents within a religious tradition, but yields an unstable framework between religions. Even within single religions, disagreements arise which divide the faith; the conflict between Catholic and Protestant Christians fueled lengthy conflicts resulting in the deaths of millions.

Non-theistic religions like Buddhism or Taoism have promoted “the dogma of no dogma.” Such an approach has the benefit of not having to prove the truth of anything; “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao”, for example, provides plenty of wiggle room, while Zen Koans create semantic paradoxes pointing to our essential inability to proclaim absolute truth. Yet, the dogma of no dogma is also self-negating, leaving us back where the question began.

Political systems proclaim dogmatic truth, resulting in episodes of lethal of conflicts. Capitalism versus Fascism versus Communism fueled a 20th century military-industrial arms race–still fully-funded–devoted to nuclear weapons capable of wiping out all life on planet earth. “Better Dead Than Red” was a popular expression while I was growing up. Dogma doesn’t get much more dogmatic than that.

Greek philosophers such as Plato grappled with the question in a metaphoric discourse about mistaking the nature of shadows cast upon the wall of a cave and accepting falsehood for truth. Post modern philosophy embraces a relativistic criteria, placing truth within the framework of contextual perspective. Your truth, post modernists declare, is as valid as my truth, and attempts to prove otherwise require rigidly imposing a power-differentiated frame-of-reference of inherent bias. Yikes.

Psychology, a hybrid of science and religion, attempts to address the question of truth as well. Freudians describe a vast and powerful subconscious realm and the projection of that inner world upon the outer. Jungians adhere to the central role of the collective unconscious, another shadowy repository from which human interactions are drawn. Behaviorists view truth locked behind a veil of well-conditioned and habitual responses. Occult practices, astrology, Tarot and the like are all ways in which we seek truth; long before any of these, the Aztecs conducted massive human sacrifice to satisfy the truth of their dogma about the regeneration of human life.

Seeking truth is about wondering “why?” Mathematics seems exceptionally capable of answering the question “how” but has not yet provided the answer to “why.” Study of the universe has not yet yielded a complete operating manual or explanation. For now, the only workable answer to the question of “why?”–and which gratefully requires no elaboration–is “because.”

The future is certain

Martin Sheen in the film “The Dead Zone”

The 1978 film “The Dead Zone,” an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, stars a young Christopher Walken in the role of an accident victim who awakens from a year’s long coma with powers of clairvoyance. Physical contact with another person generates a sudden flash of vision and insight into that person’s future, always accurate, causing Walken’s character great distress.

One of the characters Walken happens to meet is an ambitious politician played by Martin Sheen. While shaking Sheen’s hand at a political rally, Walken is hit with a staggering vision: A corrupt and messianic Sheen will be elected President of the United States, and in the midst of a psychopathic episode, launch America’s missiles and start a nuclear war.

Sheen’s right-hand man is named Sonny. Sonny is Sheen’s fixer; a low-life, murderous thug with unnatural loyalty to Sheen allowing the two of them to commit otherwise unthinkable acts. This same formula appeared in early seasons of House of Cards, where Frank Underwood, the psychopathic President of the United States played by Kevin Spacey, employed an equally loyal and murderous fix-it guy to solve his problems. Who could have ever imagined that real life would make these melodramatic Hollywood visions look predictive?

The New York Times just published a lengthy article on its investigation of Donald Trump’s fix-it guy, attorney Michael Cohen. Tracing the trajectory of Cohen’s career, the account at times sounds like the casting call for 1990’s episodes of Law and Order, filled with mobsters, scammers, Russian and Ukrainian “business men”, insurance fraudsters, cash-only real estate deals, suspected money-laundering, and overseas shenanigans. While the Times article does not overtly accuse Cohen of committing crimes, it carefully documents the arrest and convictions of Cohen’s partners and clients and notes that Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other prosecutors are investigating Cohen. By implication, this means they are also investigating Trump, who hired Cohen as his “personal attorney” and fix-it guy.

In “The Dead Zone,” Walken’s character discovers that his visions of the future do not mean that the future cannot be changed. To the contrary, over time he learns that he can influence events and change the future. He hatches a plot to foil Sheen, and this becomes the primary focus of the film. All of this is to say that although events seem to be spinning out of control in Washington D.C. and in the White House, none of us can absolutely predict the future. Would any of us have predicted that the #MeToo movement would unseat Kevin Spacey from his role as the sleazy President Frank Underwood?

American democracy is under attack and that attack is emanating from the office of the Presidency. The question is what can prevent Donald Trump and his gang of thugs from hijacking American democracy? Voting is important, but our computerized voting machines are generally old, unreliable, and too easily hacked. Claims of illegal voting now regularly follow elections. The reliability of numerical facts and truth itself are under siege by domestic and international forces. The world is suddenly tilting towards chaos; undermining the established order reveals it as a thin veneer covering deep layers of suspicion and resentment, neither of which help build a good society.

Unlike Hollywood, this plot is writing itself. In the words of David Byrne, “The future is certain, give us time to work it out.”

Are you being too hard on yourself?

I’m struck by how many people feel badly about themselves: thinking they’re failures for not “doing enough,” faulting themselves for not having accomplished anything, walking around feeling guilty. Feeling self-critical is not necessarily unhealthy, but like any activity of mind, it can move into unhealthy territory.

I find it particularly ironic that many of my contemporaries feel this way, people who are nearing or are well into their seventies. Many members of my generation came of age during a period of social unrest and change; the war in Vietnam, the use of psychedelics and pot, the women’s and civil rights’ movements all supplied ample energy for social engagement. In one way or another, most of us had to take a stand for what we believed in, and if we had children, we passed some of those beliefs on to the next generation.

The twenty-first century looks to be no less challenging than the twentieth, which is to say the world remains deeply troubled. Those troubles are not exactly the same as those in the past, though issues of poverty, population growth, military conflict, feel eerily familiar. Added to that list are climate change, corporate globalization, and the dominance of digital technology, each of which pose daunting challenges. It doesn’t help that we know more about what’s happening half-way across the globe than ever before.

When confronted with problems we cannot solve as individuals, the sense of powerless or even helplessness can turn inward, and manifest as self-denigration. When that happens, we question our worth as people, lose confidence in ourselves and others and sink into bouts of anxiety and depression. The anger we might feel becomes self-directed.

In a society such as ours which elevates “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency to its highest ideals, feelings of worthlessness come more easily. When the Tibetan Buddhist Lama, the venerable Chogyam Trungpa came to America after escaping from the Chinese invaders of Tibet, he was struck by the persistently high level of self-loathing he found among his western students; this, he felt, would be the greatest impediment in their spiritual lives. His pith teaching became focused on helping his students and society gain confidence in their own worthiness as human beings.

For those of us now in our seventies, what used to be considered “old,” I suggest giving ourselves a break from the pressure for “performance” makes sense. It’s not that there’s nothing that can be done, or shouldn’t be done; work aplenty to help improve the lot of others is all around us. But an honest appraisal of what we actually can do is fair and appropriate. Energy levels vary, as do cognitive and physical skills. In many cases, children have been raised and grandchildren cared for. Working careers are over, gratefully, for many. These remaining years deserve positive attention; for many of us the end of life will be challenge enough. There’s no need to pile on self-doubt and recrimination at precisely the point in life when it’s most difficult to change.

So to my friends and associates who deem themselves unworthy, who wake up feeling lousy about themselves and their lives, I say give yourself a break. You’ve put in your time, made your efforts, “done your thing.” Do what you can to pass on the values you admire, treat others kindly, and let yourself relax.