Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Thankful Agnostic

Every Thanksgiving season the last few years, I go through a predictable sequence of thoughts. First, I start thinking what a good idea it is to have a holiday devoted, at least in theory, to being thankful. Surely one of the keys to a happy life is appreciating what you already have? I've believed this for years, and it seems to work pretty well. Besides, I really do have an enormous list of things to be thankful for. But then I start to think, “Is 'thankful' really the right word?” For religious people, being thankful implies that they are actually giving thanks to God. But I'm not a religious person in any traditional sense, and I'm agnostic about the existence of God. So what does it mean for me to be thankful? Does the idea even make sense? I think it does.

I've believed for years that one of the most important things to achieve in life is to appreciate being alive. In fact, I think my science-centered, agnostic outlook makes me appreciate some things even more. When I think about the enormity of the universe, and how vanishingly, infinitesimally small the earth is (not to mention all of its inhabitants, however big their egos may be) it makes earth and life seem all the more fragile, rare, and precious. Then I think about how this tiny little speck we live on is thousands of millions of years old—one third the age of the universe, and hundreds of thousands of times as old as recorded history. This little speck is ancient. Venerable. Precious beyond imagining. Sure, it's a tough old world, and it's got its problems, but it truly is all we've got. Some things are cliches because they're true.

As for agnosticism, when I think that there could be no heaven or hell (and I doubt very much that they exist) then this short life we get becomes a tiny, priceless interlude between two enormous, painless nothings (funny how we spend so much more time thinking about the future nothing than the one we've already had). Just as the earth is like a jewel in the enormity of space and time, life is a jewel in the enormity of whatever comes before and after. Of course, you may think I'm wrong about heaven and hell, and you may be right. But I hope you'll agree with me that life—this life—is precious. If you believe this life is more or less expendable, because it's just a prelude to something greater, then I'd like to convince you to rethink that. Not necessarily the afterlife part, but certainly the this-life part. Still, I want to give credit where it's due. Religious people may actually be a little better at appreciating their blessings than secular types. They have rituals that remind them to stop and be thankful, and secular types would do well to follow their example.

But what does it mean to be thankful, if you're secular? I suppose it just means appreciating what you already have. It's true that I don't actually say “Thank you” to a supreme being, but I'm still appreciative and grateful for the things I have. “Thankful” may not be quite as precise as “appreciative”, but I figure it's close enough, and I'm going to keep using it. For me, being thankful relates to something I've always believed in: it's a lot better to be happy by learning to appreciate what you have than by pinning your happiness to what you can might gain in the future. Someone who can be thunderstruck with happiness when they see a gorgeous cloud formation, or hear a great song, is much richer than someone who thinks they won't really be happy until they trade their Porsche for a Ferrari. Not richer in a monetary sense, of course, just richer in the way that actually matters.

But appreciating what we already have is hard. Evolution wired us to strive and survive, not to be happy. It's hard to ever be satisfied. We let ourselves think, “If I just get that 4G phone, then...THEN I'll really be happy”. But we probably won't. We'll be thrilled with it for a few days, maybe, and then having it will just become the new daily routine. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” What this means is that happiness has a tendency to stay constant. Most people have a sort of set-point for happiness, like a thermostat. We live through windfalls and disasters, and it turns out that after a while, we're close to the same level we were before. That's why most of us keep getting on that treadmill and running after bigger and more expensive things to try to keep getting happier. When you have that Porsche, it will start to seem mundane, so you start thinking that Ferrari will really make you happy. But then you get it, and the thrill fades. Your thermostat returns to its set point, and you start thinking about what other acquisition might really do it this time.

The hedonic treadmill may help explain how there can be so many depressed people in a modern country, where things really are a whole lot better than they used to be in all kinds of ways. Compared to most people throughout human history, we're fabulously wealthy: we have indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, enough to eat, and the reasonable expectation of living into our 80's or 90's. Life has also progressed in morality and justice in lots of ways. While there's still far too much racial hatred, the days of “White” and “Colored” drinking fountains are gone. While women still need to gain equal representation in congress, and equal pay in the workplace, a hundred years ago they couldn't even vote. We have a long way to go, yes, but that doesn't mean we haven't come a long way. Some people seem to think that if you stop to appreciate how much you've gained, you'll lose the drive to achieve more. I think that's crazy. Why make the world a better place, if you're never going to stop and appreciate how nice you've already made it? It's not an either/or situation. We can appreciate what we have while working to make things even better. 

When it comes to material things, though, it's worth stopping to ask whether getting them will really make things better, or if they'll just make us work harder for something that will seem mundane anyway after a few weeks. Maybe what makes more sense is to cultivate a habit of appreciation, to try to raise the happiness set-point our minds tend to return to. Thinking we can raise that point by endlessly chasing after stuff won't work. In fact, it'll backfire, and the dial will drop because you can't figure out why it's not higher. It's not about getting the things you want so much as wanting the things you already have.

That's how I see things, anyway. I may not be thanking “the man upstairs”, but I'm still thankful. I'm thankful for my amazing family and wonderful friends. I'm thankful I can get up out of my nice, warm bed, turn up my heater if it's chilly, walk into the kitchen and turn a dial and get fresh water. I'm thankful for my refrigerator, and that I don't have to eat turnips, potatoes, and salt pork all winter long. I'm thankful for the four-wheeled machine in my garage, which will rocket me at breakneck speeds to places that would have taken days to get to in past ages. I'm thankful I can write a scathing letter to the editor about the government, and not only will they print it, but no secret police will come for me in the wee hours. Because I was sick at my stomach a few days ago, today I'm thankful that I can eat and enjoy it. I'm thankful for my dog, who makes me smile several times a day. I'm thankful for the medicine that keeps him from getting heartworms or rabies; and for the medicine that keeps me from getting smallpox or polio. I'm thankful for all the amazing ideas people have had over the centuries, and how I can turn on my computer and instantly learn about them. I'm thankful I can post this blog, and that millions of people could (could I said) read it. I'm thankful there are more wonders in this world than I will ever be able to learn about, no matter how much I try. 

It's not that there aren't some bad thinks in the world. There are plenty, and they need to be faced with open eyes. But there are so many great things about it, too. As far as I'm concerned, whether there's any intrinsic meaning in life or not, there's plenty of meaning to be found in trying to make it better, while appreciating what's great about it already.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dragons in my Back Yard

When I lived in Colorado, I was always looking out in the distance. I paid attention to big things there--geological formations, clouds deflecting off peaks, mountain ranges visible from eighty miles away.  Even the animals I watched tended to be big and showy, like elk, bighorn sheep, and the occasional black bear.  Now I live in Louisiana, where you don't see wide, craggy vistas or herds of elk.  So I've adjusted my focus downward, paying attention to small things--to tiny little swamp flowers, the geckos on my porch ceiling; the brawling, sex-crazed house sparrows that live under my eaves.  These things may not seem as dramatic as a snow-capped mountain range, but the difference in majesty is really more in our heads than out there in the world.  Compared to the gulf that separates the smallest subatomic particles from clusters of galaxies--each big enough that human history is not long enough for light to cross it--a sparrow and a mountain range are practically the same size.  Besides, while a mountain may have many moods, depending on the angle of light and the season, it doesn't behave.  It doesn't stand up and meet life head-on, the way the most miniscule insect does.  Small things have their own majesty, and we're all surrounded by their tiny, life-and-death dramas.

The other day, for example, I stepped out my back door and saw a green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) creeping across a windowsill.  It was hunting, moving its head back and forth to focus on something in a leafy vine about a foot away.  Then it leapt into the leaves, narrowly missing a wasp, which flew away hurriedly.  The anole missed that wasp, but I've seen them munch down others like popcorn.  I'm duly impressed.  A full-grown green anole is only about 7 inches long, tail and all, which means leaping a foot to catch a wasp is equivalent to me leaping ten feet to pounce on a rattlesnake.  Anoles are formidable beasts, I don't care how big they are.

Little Orphan Annie liked to exclaim, "Leaping lizards!" but I didn't actually know lizards leaped until I moved to Louisiana.  Arkansas has plenty of skinks and fence lizards, and while they can scamper away like a rifle shot, I don't ever remember them launching themselves through the air.  I was amazed the first time I saw an anole do it.  I was also amazed, sitting on my porch swing in Baton Rouge, to see a bright green anole climb out of some leaves onto a brown limb, and then fade into the limb by changing color.  Until then, I had assumed the brown ones and the green ones were two different species.

Some people call anoles chameleons, but the two aren't closely related. Both are predators who live in trees and bushes, but they have very different styles of hunting.  True chameleons creep along as motionlessly as they can, moving mainly their eyes--one eye scanning one direction, while the other goes its own way, as if it's connected to a different brain.  Anoles, by contrast, are stalkers. They move like cats, creeping sinuously down limbs and up walls.  True chameleons always have a look of  half-deranged melancholy on their faces, their eyes rolling like they're about to crack under life's pressures.  Anoles, by contrast, look focused, with a gaze that seems intelligent (though they're probably not terribly bright creatures). If you get close and watch them, they'll watch you back, fixing you with a look that seems to say, "I see you, primate--don't try anything."

Sometimes, in the spring, they'll position themselves in a prominent spot and unfurl the dewlap under their chin, trying to impress the opposite sex. The females have white dewlaps, but the males have striking pink ones, specked with little white spots.  Male anoles are tough guys, who guard their territories like prospectors watching for claim jumpers. When two males meet, it's on: they raise an otherwise-invisible crest down their neck and back, puff out their throats, and gape at each other like tiny alligators.  This transforms them into bigger, more formidable creatures; like little dragons, with patches of black warpaint appearing behind each eye.  They circle each other, turning sideways to look as big as possible, pausing to do little pushups of machismo.  As with many other territorial animals, they're better off settling disputes by bluffing and posturing, rather than fighting and risking injury.  So, some of these encounters end when the combatants decide they've established the boundaries of their territory, or when one decides it had better back down. But the scars on their noses shows that real fights do happen, and they can be vicious.  They lock jaws and try to wrench each other's heads around, while their sides heave with the effort.  Eventually, the loser retreats, and the winner expands his territory a across a little more of the yard.

Big or small, it's a rough world.  Back in Colorado, I would go camping in the fall and listen to the elk bugle at each other all night.  At first I was shocked at how primal--how mortal--the sound is.  Here are animals weighing well over a thousand pounds, bellowing at each other across the darkness, just like they did when my ancestors were stalking mammoths across some glacial plain. Those elk have never known anything but wilderness, and they're not playing around. At first I thought of that sound as otherworldly, because it's so foreign and eerie.  But that's wrong. It's very much of this world--the real world out there in the wilderness, a world without police or laws.  Our world is the more artificial one.  While I'm all for that contrived layer of law and safety we've built for ourselves, living in it can make you go a little numb.  It's good to look back into that wilderness.  It's good to feel, at least secondhand, the real weight of that fierce, ancient world.

Now, you may be thinking, "Wait, weren't we talking about lizards here?"  Well, sure, it does seem a little silly to use such language to describe a backyard lizard rumble, but for them the stakes are every bit as high as for those elk in the mountains.  The distinction is a matter of my perspective, not theirs.  To them, my backyard is the wilderness.  Even in the most urban settings, if you shift your focus down to the small things, you realize you're surrounded by wild country.  If you don't see its majesty, that's just human bias--a sort of bigotry of scale. You can find natural grandeur anywhere, if you look close enough.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stepping Out of the Theater

"You quit your seat in a darkened movie theater, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms—not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke—but this solid air, the blood pumping up your thighs again, your fingers alive. And on the way home you drive exhilarated, energized, under scented, silhouetted trees."      - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I just got out of a movie. I'm not going to say which one, because I want to talk about how I feel sometimes after movies, without linking that feeling to any particular one.  The fact is, it wasn't a great movie, but it was visually enthralling enough to make me lose myself in another world for 2 1/2 hours. I'm not a very harsh critic of movies, and one of the main reasons I go to the theater is to walk out at the end with that wide-eyed post-movie feeling.  You know that feeling, right? You walk out feeling like a layer of scales has fallen from your eyes.  You see the world un-jaded for a while.  It's quite indescribable, and I'm not going to capture it with words. A true genius like Annie Dillard can come miles closer than I can, but even she can't describe the feeling well enough to make you literally feel like you do as you're walking out of that theater.*  In fact, I'm almost betraying that feeling by trying, but I'm going to do it anyway this time, with the caveat that I'm just scribbling, and at best pointing and saying, "Look!"  I'm no more capturing the sensation itself with these strings of symbols than I can describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it.  The words won't make them taste it--not even close.  Even now I look at the written word c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, and seeing how weak it really is.   I have tasted chocolate, of course, but I'm not doing so now,  so that word can only give me the vaguest of bleached-out recollections.  That will soon be true of the words I'm writing now, which will only give me a pale recollection of how I feel as I write them.

In a way, I'm sacrificing the post--movie sensation to words, because I'm going to sit down and focus on something other than that sensation: writing about the sensation.  That's a very different thing, and the act of doing it will help kill the sensation itself.  But it's worth it.  I'm old enough to have seen many enthralling movies, and to have driven from the theater with this feeling, knowing it will fade.  So, I really want to use words here against themselves, to talk about just how powerless they are to capture the sensation.  If you read these lines, you will think some of my thoughts, perhaps, but you won't really feel my feelings as I sit here.  Even if I read these lines in a few days, I may have a vague recollection of the feeling, but that's all.  Words can't give it back to me whole, any more than they can make me taste chocolate that isn't there. 

What's interesting about the feeling is that it's very much like I would get if I meditated for a while (I don't meditate regularly, but I have gotten a similar feeling that way--it's a lot harder than going to a movie). My muscles have relaxed in my face and throughout my body.  I haven't been thinking about my body, so it's at ease, like news anchors when the cameras aren't rolling. There's also a feeling of openness, because for the last couple of hours I've been giving my attention to something that doesn't come from me.  I go around most of the time with a mind full of abstract thoughts--representations and recollections that emerge (at that moment, anyway) from inside my brain, not from perceptions of the world around me.  The abstract thoughts crowd out the perceptions.  The way I understand this process, as someone who's read a lot of psychology, is that we can only pay attention to a few things at once.  We have a limited window of conscious attention.  So, if I fill my attention with abstract thoughts, other sensations and emotions will have to fade into the background.  Space is limited.  It's easy, especially for a cerebral type like me, to fill your consciousness with thoughts and then forget what it feels like to simply be awake and alive.  When you learn to meditate, or get engrossed in a movie, those thoughts recede and lose their stranglehold on your consciousness.

Here's the funny thing.  When you clear your mind of most of those thoughts, and let the other stuff in, what you feel can be strangely ennobling.  You feel appreciative, for one thing.  You realize just how vivid and present reality is, and how numb you can be so much of the time.  I also feel more kindly and less self-absorbed.**  Why is this?  Of course, I don't know if everyone feels this way, but I suspect many of them do.  If so, it's an amazing thing that if you wipe away some of your daydreams and preoccupations, a feeling of kindness and heightened sense of compassion is what you find underneath.  I don't know why that is (or even if it is, for most people) but it certainly is interesting, and rather encouraging.  I think it's partly because the sense of self is to some extent a learned mental construct, and self-consciousness is only one kind of consciousness.  And it can be an intrusive one.  When you form an image of yourself in your consciousness, that takes up space within your consciousness.  Sensations and emotions that aren't about self are pushed into the background.  So, when we focus on something outside ourselves for a long time, perhaps that pushy, elbowy self-image shrinks and fades, leaving more room for thoughts and feelings that aren't about us.  I think it makes more room for shared or mirrored emotions--for empathy.  It's not something I understand well, but it's powerful, and would probably be good for us all to cultivate.  That's why I'm writing this, to remind myself that even though these anemic words won't capture how I feel right now, that feeling is a big deal, and worth pursuing.

I need that reminder, personally.  I'm one of those types who's always thinking about some abstract problem, and therefore not noticing feelings and connections with others; not as well as many other people do.  To some extent I think that's justified.  I spend a lot of time on this blog grappling with questions about how people think, and how we could think better, more clearly, and more honestly.  There's a whole lot of really shaky thinking out there, so the topic of improving it is worth spending some time on. The more people think critically about claims and motives of politicians, spin-doctors, snake-oil salesmen, and fortune tellers, the less hospitable the world will be to harmful nonsense and dishonest rhetoric.

Still, I have no illusions that I have I've figured out very much.  I especially have no illusions at time like this, when something wipes all this analysis from my mind for a while, when I see how much I have to learn, and how much more there is to being alive than just cold cogitation.  Times like this are when I glimpse this feeling that I'm part of something bigger, and that I'm connected to other people in some profound way.  Sometimes I even feel like we're all part of some bigger consciousness--like we are all different ways the universe is perceiving itself.  I don't mean this in some supernatural way, or in the sense that the universe somehow cares about how my life goes.  I'm just allowing for the possibility that nature could be more subtle than we realize. Maybe consciousness is some kind of universal feature of nature, like gravity?  Maybe it's a sort of groundwater of the universe, which brains of a certain level of complexity are able to tap into and share?  And maybe not, but who knows?  I may be a skeptic, but for me that means being open-minded as well as questioning. I think those things are two sides of a single coin, which is: not thinking you know what you don't know.  One thing I don't know is why, when we succeed in forgetting ourselves for a while, we can feel more alive, more connected with others, and even more selfless.  But I think it's worth looking into.


* Reading whole chapters in that book can give you that feeling, because she describes her awe at the world so well you start to share it a little, and because you get so engrossed in her brilliance that you forget yourself.  But the point remains that a description and a sensation are two very different things. 

** Of course, the makers of the movie may have just successfully strummed you heartstrings with cleverly-chosen sights and sounds and words.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Even just meditating for a while, and forgetting yourself that way, without the manipulation of emotions you get in a movie, can give me that selfless, kindly feeling.  But I don't get that feeling from meditating very much, because, as I said, that's a lot harder than just going to the movies.  Cheaper though.