On Tolerance

No one ever anointed me with holy oils and pronounced me the Pope of Philosophy or deputized me to define anything, so by the authority granted me by curiosity and observation alone, I define the theme of our times to be tolerance.

Or, more to the point, the lack of it.

How am I using the term “tolerance”? I take the root of toleration to be the act of putting up with others who aren’t like me precisely because they are not the same as me.

I use the words “put up with” purposely. Toleration doesn’t necessarily involve my liking others or agreeing with them. In fact, to simply tolerate someone it seems an essential ingredient is that I don’t especially like or agree with those I’m tolerating, otherwise a more intimate term would be more appropriate to describe the activity.

By and large, one doesn’t “tolerate” friends or loved ones or people with whom one shares a real bond of belief or value — what I have in common with such people binds us. I may not like everything they say or do, but it is more proper to say I overlook those things than tolerate them.

Toleration binds us or allows us to have relationships with people we do not know in the least, or, if we do know them and have little to nothing in common with them, it is the act of letting them have a place in the family, community, town, city, nation or planet without our objecting to their very existence and making that existence extremely difficult. Or, taken to the limit, to make their existence impossible by killing them.

Tolerance involves not interfering with the other even though their appearance, beliefs, styles, and even activities, to a point, may strike me as alien, alienating, bizarre, wrong, repugnant. I decide that I will put up with the other because he is very much “other” than I am.

This need not mean I will associate with him, listen to him, communicate with him at all. It does mean I will recognize that, no matter how “other” he is, he and I still have at least one thing in common: our humanity. He is a person and I am a person. His inherent value as a human being, an autonomous agent that recognizes value, or is capable of it, that is creative, capable of some degree of rationality, a being capable of care and concern — this is what I must recognize and value in the other, even when he doesn’t recognize it in himself or in me (inasmuch as he is not actively hell-bent on my destruction).

I practice tolerance because the other has rights that flow from our shared humanity. He is not less of a human than I am, I am not more of a human than he is. One of us may be better at being human and living up to what being human means, but both of us were born possessing the standard against which we must measure ourselves and the ability to recognize it, even if to a small or slight degree, or in a warped way. We may fail to do that, but our inherent value as people does not go away and may not be ignored.

Tolerance is the decision to live at peace, insofar as this is possible, with the repugnant, irritating, and those we see as very wrong.

What and who must be tolerated varies from person to person as each of us has her beliefs about what is right and good, about race and culture, religion and disbelief, nations, relationships.

I am not saying everything and everyone are tolerable. Toleration is not an absolute thing. We have law precisely because some things are never to be put up with by any community. This is, or can be, a good thing.

In our personal lives, certain things we encounter are not tolerable but are also legal. Sometimes we must choose to remove ourselves from the presence of such things or to say what we will put up with and what we won’t or that we disagree.

But I fear that many people’s ability to tolerate one another now has diminished to the point of being practically non-existent. Why else would people be separating themselves into gated communities or seeking to overturn laws that desegregated the nation? Why are so many fearful to the point they now go armed with handguns everywhere and pass laws allowing them wide latitude in their use against another person? And this in a time when the violent crime rate in our country has fallen drastically for several years?

Why are white separatist groups experiencing a resurgence? Why are people terrified that teens in school might experiment with a different religion than the dominant one? Why protect and favor a community’s dominant religion to the point of intimidating any who believe differently?

Political differences now are enough to split families and destroy friendships. Religious differences are often terribly disruptive to the possibility of any sort of relationship: we even have terrorists motivated by right-wing Islamic fundamentalism killing the “infidels” here; we have right-wing Christian fundamentalists shooting abortion providers and blowing up clinics (and have for years) and using legislation to enforce their puritanical beliefs against all who believe otherwise; we have fundamentalists of all stripes attacking any organization or religion that teaches toleration, acceptance, fraternity, and peaceful coexistence between people with differing points of view.

Though I am being calm and measured in my wording, make no mistake: my personal belief is this nation is on the verge of unraveling like a cheap sweater. I think that, on crucial points and in many places, the will to live together in peace is fading, replaced by conspiracy theories, a desperate fear of this or that group of people, this or that belief, the government. Fear is the mother of hatred. Hatred spawns violence. Violence ushers in death and chaos and more fear. At the moment, people are held in check by social forces and the law; the hatred only erupts into violence in isolated incidents. However, the moment that respect for law is lost or the sway of social institutions fades, rest assured all bets will be off.

I think this is all I have to say for the moment. My thoughts on the subject end here — I provided the solution to the problem in the first half of the writing: tolerance. How one takes an intolerant person and gets them to examine their motives, the consequences of their actions, and change their mind in this paranoid atmosphere, I’ve no idea whatsoever. It’s the thing that escapes me completely.

(originally written 16 July 2013)

Richard Van Ingram

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SCUM OF THE EARTH

This is the way it is, my fellow Americans: You are likely descendants of the losers of history and that’s how you wound up born here and not elsewhere.

Irish? You were the slaves of the British, worked like dogs as canal diggers and farmers for your overlords and so starved during the Potato Famine you, by hook or by crook, came here where you were worked like slaves, discriminated against, and generally thought as welcome as lice because of your native religion and “race.” There’s a reason it’s called a “Paddy Wagon,” folks – they used to haul off the Irish to jail in it because they were thought the origin of crime and “Paddy” is a racial slur.

German? You ancestors likely stowed away to avoid military service in some stupid European war or left legally for a similar reason or for intellectual freedom – because you were considered dangerous elements of society.

Jewish? I’ll just mention the word “pogrom” and you know the story.

Black? Hell, most people of African origin didn’t even choose to make the trip — you were sold into slavery in tribal wars to British thugs who converted human beings into work animals by re-defining you as less-than-human… kind of like you might be Irish, except it was easier for the Irish to fit in after they lost the accents and fought their way into jobs no sane person wanted. Your ancestors had and have to fight for the right to be considered human beings with equal rights by your neighbors.

Asian? America imported you to work on railroads and do slave work in the mines. In return, we treated you lower than dirt until you finally won the right to be treated as equals… sort of. It depends on where you go.

Latino? America annexed your lands and then didn’t — and doesn’t — treat you as equal to “white” people, even though most of you have some Spanish ancestry, as European as anyone else. But your ancestors spoke Spanish. Maybe you do, too. English is the common tongue here and if you don’t speak English, somehow you are considered outcast. And you are now the Irish of the 21st century if you’re just arriving because you left Hell in Mexico or Central and South America for a half-peaceful life.

Scottish? Many of your ancestors were Presbyterians. And Presbyterians were a dissenting religion in Britain which meant you were socially unacceptable and politically dangerous. Plus the Scots had a reputation for going into revolt occasionally — like the Irish — and back in the day, that just made you all around unacceptable unless you were a hard-core Royalist.

English? Similar story to the Scots – most of you came from dissenting religions, unorthodox weirdos in those times; questioning the Divine Right of Kings and the King’s Church made you suspect and barred you from the full rights of citizenship. Your ancestors were probably poor and didn’t have the wherewithal to become money-loving Capitalists who exploited weaknesses in the system back in England to buy their way into society. So you left for the colonies to become workdogs for the crown and, at least, have some religious freedom.

Native American? White America walked all over you. Cherokee? You won your right to keep your own lands and Constitution in the Supreme Court, but President Jackson used the Army to steal your land anyway because there was gold on it. Other tribes were all but wiped out in a genocidal war as we expanded West until your ancestors mixed with whites and fit in or you were imprisoned on reservations in poverty.

And race, for that matter — it doesn’t exist. It’s a conceptual myth invented by culture to signify old hatreds and prejudices and systematize the “superiority” and rule by angry white people. Besides, most everyone in America, if your people have been here awhile and not located in just one geographical backwater, are “mixed.” In my genetic profile, I count no fewer than 8 identifiable nations or regions my ancestors came from. Eight. So which “race” am I? Or you?

I am of the refugee race, the mutts. The losers who came here to begin again — I have no pedigree to be proud of and neither do you, probably. What you have is a life and a community and a state and a nation to build. Together. With the other mutts and losers as equals among equals who want something better. If our ancestors hadn’t wanted better, they wouldn’t have come here or, in the case of African Americans, escaped slavery and Jim Crow and prejudice.

This place is an all of us or none of us place. We overcome our history together and transcend it to make better lives, laws, and encourage one another and help each other… or we sink. That’s your choice here and now. Where we came from is meaningless and judging others by where they came from is the height of foolishness. We descend from the scum of the Earth.

The question is, are we going to let that define how we act or are we going to do better by one another? If you choose the first, we’re going to wreck what’s left of our civilization and ethics and laws and roll the clock backwards 300 years or more. Maybe not technologically, but in terms of our barbarism. The kings, the monied aristocrats, and their theocracies will return to grind us down and play on our weakness, divisions, and ignorance. But if we choose the latter — we have a chance. A chance to help one another out of the mud to build a place for us all, together.

Richard Van Ingram
28 April 2015

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Sending Out a Message to the World

“World service bulletin from the nightshift D.J.
To all wavebands on earth
Reconnoitre on the killahertz

This tune is going out to Marconi
To all corners of the globe
There ain’t no hut in the Serengeti
Where my wavelengths do not probe
If a rocket went to Saturn
We sure hope a D.J. is on board
For some anti-gravity mixing
With two dub plates of U-Roy”

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, “Global A Go-Go”

My words are sent out into the world – I hope and pray that there is some point in them for whoever happens across them amongst the other detritus of the Net.  If my thoughts and reasoning could be more than trash and mindless entertainment – genuine expression from one human to another of values – then I will accomplish much.

If not, then I am static on the airwaves and as distracting.

My only regret up front is that I cannot speak in many tongues, talk in your language, and you are forced to deal with the limitations of my American English.

I work with what I have, as do we all.

Do we all bear the blame for the iniquity of our fathers – or the nations that gave us birth, for that matter?  My nation, the United States of America, is more of a work-in-progress towards, or away from as the case may be, certain Enlightenment Ideals: That all humans are of equal worth; that all have the same basic human rights worthy of protection; that we are not slaves and no person should be – to governments, monarchs, despots, or to the inner tyrants of ignorance, prejudice, hatred, moral disorientation, poverty, passions.

We allegedly have a living faith in justice, in freedom of speech, movement, conscience, in the inviolable value of the individual human being, in protecting a good, flourishing society that fosters a life worth living.

Where did it all go wrong… because, my friends, it all went wrong at many points in history, recent and far away.  Our leaders have chosen, on all our behalfs, to support or install bloody-handed dictators in “our national interest.”  We have attacked countries now that never attacked us though they were not allies – Iraq, for example.  But people forget the CIA installed the Ba’ath Party to begin with and Saddam Hussein was once an American-paid assassin — as we feared “communism” to such a degree once we would do anything to counter it.

And, even now, the terror of anything not far-right and near fascist in our country is labeled “statist,” “socialist,” “leftist” — all, here, code-words for “communist.”  Dissent and desire for progress are now not merely unpopular, but seen as dangers.  We have become a security state; after 9/11/2001, all devotion to Enlightenment Ideals became window dressing for too many people, an excuse for suppression, domestic and foreign spying.

“The ends justify the means” – a restatement in modern terms of Thrasymachus’ philosophy of “The strong should rule the weak” – is now America’s national faith.  We are in danger of swinging as far from our Ideals, the hope and project that is America, as is possible and replacing it with genuine iniquities and idols of money and power.

I did not grow up in that America — many of us hoped for better and expected it; some of us have worked for it, stood up for it in our own station in life, quietly or loudly.  But I am no optimist.  My heart, in spite of intellectual hope and expectations, always feared that we would eventually slide off into the abyss of fascistic Nothingness.

Most of my writing has been an expression of an individual living in that sliding world, my witness, from my place and time.  Perhaps you see things more deeply or suspect better or worse.  Perhaps not — it would take a dialogue for us to arrive at that.  Only dialogue will spread better beliefs and shift things in a better cultural direction.  And dialogue is not our style, now — just monologue, exhibitionism, propaganda.

Where will the world go from here?  Yes, I am an American and I stand for those beautiful humanistic Ideals of the Enlightenment.  But the work of my nation in especially the last 35 years and more have increasingly made me an alien in my own land.  Like Diogenes the Cynic, I have become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the wider world of all humans — no land and no people are strangers to me and I mean them no harm and wish them nothing but goodness and justice and mercy unless they are unjust, wicked, and merciless.

So it is.

Much is to be said later should I live long enough to say it.

Richard Van Ingram

27 April 2015

 

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Notes from Underground: Perspective

“This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was, is, and will be: an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.” Or so Heraclitus said in his moment here: All is Fire, all is aflame, coming to be and flashing by in instants, some seeming faster to us, others slower. But everything here is Change, pure change; not matter, not soul, not perception, not substance, and not simple appearances, but brighter or darker energetic waves in… nothingness. Fire and sparks from the Fire that return after their mission is completed for that Divine Logos, the Ineffable Name, the Unknowable One whom we call God or some other title.

“The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.” More Heraclitus.

Why this is on my mind tonight, I do not know. Why not? What other pressing affairs does one have at 4:15 AM on a cold, cloudy night in Texas?

Sleep? That rarely comes easy for me this side of exhaustion. As with so many other things, it’s a skill I never mastered.

The other things I want to say and that strain to come rushing out in a torrent — those I think I’ll restrain. There’s a connection: there’s always, in some round about way, a connection in me among the things I talk about. But why would I have the need to say them? Aren’t they just as connected within me as they would be expressed in the binary code world of the Internet? Maybe they don’t reach completion until they see light of day and are shared. I’ve tried it both ways and feel just as… empty? No. Disappointed? Yes. I think that’s closer to it.

When one shares something one finds important and instantiates it in some vessel, some work, even if just words thrown out into the void of Net, it’s a sort of gift. In my case, the gift is never adequate, like showing up at a beautiful woman’s party, each guest giving a gift to her more dazzling than the next until it’s your turn… and you, shame-faced, present a pair of old work boots you’ve painted on, some bizarre scene out of a nightmare. You can see the jaws drop on the faces of the guests: your hostess is polite and kind and thankful… but you know all that work is going straight into the garbage as soon as you slink off into the night where you belong.

Yet we are all living sparks of the living Fire, creative sparks, all with something to accomplish, each with her own point of view, irreplaceable, necessary. My vocation, my role in the unfolding of the world, though, seems to be to disappoint and baffle, sometimes. Perhaps because I find my world — not my personal world, but the larger one — disappointing and baffling. I react too strongly, maybe.

And because the world is what it is and each person interprets things from where they stand and where they wish to go, I am a different person for each I encounter: To some I am an impediment that brings out hostility and disdain; to some I am a bridge that helps them cross over from one stage of life to another; to some I am a temporary destination of some sort, entertaining enough while passing through; to others I am just strange scenery and part of the set in the play that is their lives; to some I am not even a person, but something to be used as a means to some end; to some I am a friend or an enemy to some degree; but to most I am a stranger and they miss encountering me at all, a shadow on a wall they take for many people that are not… me.

And on different days, different years, it all shifts around: Because all is Fire, coming to be and passing away constantly, and stability is an abstraction, a fantasy we create in our minds, creatively; a work of art to fix down reality enough so that we can do things within it, map it out, plan.

We often do not see one another at all, just imaginary images we create as tolerable or intolerable substitutes to avoid the terrifyingly beautiful reality of another human. And we present imaginary images to keep one another at bay, away from our creative spark in fear… it will be rejected, hated, something similarly unbearable.

Creativity can reveal our perspective, allow others to see it from where we stand, atop our own hard-won histories, or it can conceal, misdirect, camouflage. It can include the perspectives of others or exclude them. And it usually, unavoidably does both.

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Towards a New Faith

It begins with dissatisfaction…

I’m in a mood and have been in one for weeks. My thoughts are still in creative flux as to what will emerge as a result. Matters such as this, for me, are weighty and, just as much, unpredictable. So, I am in a state of existential discomfort and dissatisfaction with many, many things in this world: the growing disdain for science; the developing hatred for democracy; the tensions between human rights and those who want an unregulated absolutist capitalism… or absolutist anything, without nuance, without any mind for history and circumstance, humanity, mercy.

There is a loss of anything akin to real ethics on a broad scale — decisions being made piecemeal, ad hoc, all for the sake of pure selfishness and desperation, a country of starving dogs fighting over scraps while pigs wallow in the excess of terrified canine labor.

Jesus — and the man did teach things that are meaningful, even if you are not inclined toward the religion allegedly founded on his teachings — Jesus, when faced with overly legalistic people, once said something of immense value: “Man was not created for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was created for man.” We create things of value or serve things of value because they benefit us — that is the spirit of the law or any cultural item or interpretation.

The letter of the law is of no use to us and tends to kill us, enslave us to it, and that is not the reason we invent these things or find them. The economy exists to benefit us, all of us, to some meaningful degree: it does not exist to be served as a false deity or as something more important than any one of the people who must live within its influence.

It does not exist to benefit just a few, but it is a tool, like a hammer, like a paintbrush, and it exists to benefit all. We have become slaves to the money, to the requirements of a barely regulated and out of control economic system that is seen as an end in itself. It is as if a carpenter saw herself as existing to allow the hammer to function and sacrificed most of the rest of her life in order to serve the needs of the hammer. And this is beyond insanity: it is actual evil, the destruction of the possibility of real creativity and a truly human life.

Hammers, economic systems, theories, even gold have no intrinsic value whatsoever. That’s why we designate them “things” and not “people.” People are the source of value and come equipped with it — no one makes you valuable: you simply are valuable. Hammers, economic systems, theories, gold, without us, are nothing meaningful. They have no value except as meaningful to and for us and our needs or desires or to expand our possibilities. Gold is a rock. Just a rock. No more valuable in itself than the rest of the rocks and common dirt out in your yard. We consider it valuable because of history and culture, because of beliefs we accepted without thinking about them. And that is all.

Dollars, paper dollars, function the same way. They have value for no other reason than because we have a belief, a faith, they have value. If we lost faith in them, they would be literally de-valued. In fact, dollars represent nothing except a bundle of ones and zeroes being shuffled around in the computers of banks. That’s what you really have faith in: ones and zeroes. Which is no more or less meaningful in itself than having faith in moving around a bunch of shiny yellow rocks between bank vaults. It should only make sense to us to have faith in any of this and the system it supports IF it makes our lives more convenient, creative, fuller, and allows us to be better people — not de facto servants of the ones and zeroes and shiny rocks and people who lust after them as if they are more important than human beings.

Because such people, in their selfishness, truly have no self, no “I” to speak of — they are not creative, they do not create good lives for themselves, their communities, the future we are all implicitly entrusted with. They do not instantiate real values — justice, mercy, truthfulness, caring, courage, temperance, prudence and so forth — in this world through their actions and lives (which is the only way such things enter the world at all). No, they fill the hole that is themselves with things, the things they serve, their false gods, and that black depth in them is unquenchable: there is never such as thing as “enough.” And they will use anyone — and I employ the word “use” on purpose here — to achieve their singular goal to accumulate things to feed the emptiness and power to extend their ability to manipulate and more easily use.

Such people, in our country, have become the power money junkies that control every aspect of your life. In the world, their hands are in every mess, turning it to their favor. Not by some sort of conspiracy. No, not at all: because of bad ideas, upside-down interpretations of reality that spread through our culture long ago like a virus. And you can’t kill a virus with a gun. It takes a revolution of belief, a new faith, something that expands the horizon for what humans can be and do, that allows us to have and live our private destinies while supporting and encouraging others in theirs and all cooperating to take care of common needs. The “isms” of the past, especially those of the 19th c., are dead — they took us as far as they could in their experimentation for better and, often, for worse. And this includes laissez-faire capitalism. Especially *that*.

No, I am unsure what ought to replace this, hence my consternation. My philosophical work is in ethics and it is minor, very, very minor and nearly insignificant. It will take more people with better minds and hearts than my own to begin the work of real change in belief… I’m just Johnny Appleseed or someone crying “make straight the ways” for a better belief than what holds the Earth in an iron grip at the moment. I am no one.

Richard Van Ingram 2012
Pope Paul Ryan, Richard Van Ingram
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God and Them That Know God’s Mind

I have much on my mind which means there’s no telling what’s about to come from my fingers. Read it or ignore it, as usual.

30 July 2014, I watched a piece on The Rachel Maddow Show depicting anti-abortion protesters who showed up – invaded – a worship service at a Unitarian Church in New Orleans. The church did something the protesters disagreed with, so they came to a Sunday service disguised as visitors, then, during the moment of meditation and remembrance for deceased love ones, the protesters stood up, yelling hateful things, and pulled off their shirts to reveal t-shirts bearing the name of their organization.

That organization, something like Operation Save America or some other asinine thing, used to be known as Operation Rescue. They changed their name because a few of their members did a few questionable things like shoot and murder people they disagreed with, bombed clinics and maimed people there, and generally acted in a threatening manner whenever they pleased to get their way. Because… they value “life.”

As with so many now, they know exactly what God wants. God, in fact, is speaking directly, if not audibly to a few of them and they’re spreading His commands to the rest of the followers. And God, very strangely, always seems to be commanding things that tend to keep the powerful and rich powerful and rich and the weak and oppressed weak and oppressed.

Strange “God” this. He is a politician and a laissez-faire capitalist and as merciless as any human tyrant.

Unless, of course, these messages are not coming from God at all.

Atheists and agnostics would simply say, “Of course not; there are no gods doing such things,” but that response isn’t going to be heard by a religious believer of any sort.

Too many believers have drifted into literalism and fundamentalism. These are people who see precious little symbolism or historical development in their own scriptures, religions, or cultures. These are people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old – because that’s the way the numbers add up in a literal reading of scriptures. People lived to be hundreds and hundreds of years old. Noah took a couple of hundred years to build an ark that held either 2 or 7 of every type of animal in the world. Joshua stopped the sun in the sky during a battle – even though the sun doesn’t move:the Earth does. God has a giant Hand and a Body, and a Beard, and rests His tremendous frame on a very large chair in a place called Heaven that you can point to by raising your finger upwards.

And you can point downwards to Hell where people’s literal bodies burn physically forever with fallen angels, who also have bodies, because God is so angry at them for a near infinite list of things they might have violated they must writhe in indescribable agony forever.

For Christian fundamentalists, this includes “not accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” Which means you didn’t pray the right magical words, didn’t recite John 3:16 like a mantra, and you didn’t believe Jesus, who was a Jewish rabbi, not a Christian, was The Literal Son of God Born of a Virgin – and not just that, Jesus was ALSO God Almighty in the flesh come to Earth. Even though nothing less Jewish could be conceived, no prophet in the Tanakh ever spoke of such, no priest or rabbi had ever predicted or believed the possibility the Ineffable, Unknowable God could be also human and have a limited body… and Jesus was orthodox, Jewish, a rabbi, probably a Pharisee, and probably never claimed to be either God or any more His literal son than anyone else is except, perhaps, in a symbolic way — we all being the Children of Deity.

Those ideas about Jesus being a god-man are all Greek notions, Greek notions married to Jewish beliefs about a coming Messiah. The Messiah, though, as a Jewish belief, does not predict God becoming man, but a human leader bringing the Jewish people out of trouble and closer to God. There have been, in fact, many messiahs or candidates for being called such. A messiah is not a Christos, or Christ.

Christ: That’s a Greek conception – a divine human; and Greek mythos is full of legends of such beings well before Paul, preaching to Greeks, converted those Greek-speakers to his version of Jesus’ teachings by making him more of a Divine Being – or capable of being interpreted as being a Divine Being, God visiting Earth in human form or some highly created Being sent directly by God on God’s behalf as His representative.

The varieties of things calling themselves “Christianity” for the first three centuries are unbelievably diverse, most opposed to one another, and all vying to be thought of as “the right interpretation.” There were the Jewish followers in Jerusalem who remained Jews, went to synagogue, practiced their religion, and met for a shared meal that included the breaking of bread and sharing wine in what we now call the “eucharist,” the good gift, the hope the messiah Jesus would come again. They were mostly wiped out in the Diaspora after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in the first century.

There were Greek followers who worked out many diverse theologies, some of which survived and became the established religion called Orthodox and its offshoot, Roman Catholicism. There were Gnostics who took a purely mystical approach and further married the Pauline teachings to other Greek, pagan, and hermetic teachings or went off on other paths entirely.

The point of this brief historical survey: All of these groups thought they had some grasp on what Deity desired of them. And they all considered themselves Christian. Even to the point they fought with one another in arguments, mutual excommunications, and eventually in violence. And some of them – The Montanists, for example – believed God spoke through them, gave them messages, told them what to do, and even that these new revelations superseded the teachings of Jesus or “explained what they really meant.” They were holy and everyone else was carnal.

That takes us through about two or three centuries of Christian development — it only gets more complex and even confusing from there, down to the point there are now hundreds of sects of Christianity, many of which have little to do with one another aside from the word “Christianity.”

America was founded, in part, on a new idea: religious people don’t run the government or get special privileges by way of making laws. Religions can’t even agree amongst themselves what they believe and what is true and false about divine matters or the best way to worship. Even less are they equipped to provide the foundations for secular laws applying to everyone, believer or not. Secular law is to be made, ideally, on the basis of reasoning and moral principles inasmuch as these can be shown by reasonable arguments not appealing to revelations in scriptures or unbelievably vague terms such as “nature.”

Even less by people who believe The Divine is a literal Big Old Man sitting on a Big Chair angry at us all day for being fallible and human, who created the world 6,000 years ago, and who know the exact moment a fully human soul is present in a zygote. And they believe things like this so strongly they want to overturn the American idea that religious people shouldn’t be making laws based on their purely religious beliefs, that they should allow one another to believe as their conscience leads them in peace, and that they should never, never invade the sanctuaries of other religions in their self-righteous anger to impose their beliefs by force.

Next come the guns, people. Next come the return to the religious wars and pogroms our ancestors ran like Hell from to come to this half-sane haven where each person could be herself and believe as she wished unmolested. Look at that mess in the Middle East: do you want that here? Fundamentalist at the throat of fundamentalist and all others shot to pieces and scattered to the winds in explosions.

Is this the America you desire? A country controlled by guns and gang hatreds? A place where people peacefully worshipping can be invaded by angry all-knowing people, certain of their revelations from “God”?

As Paul often said, “God forbid.”

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Depression and Talent and Robin Williams

The state of the world is such that I am befuddled by any aware and thinking person who isn’t depressed. But that sort of depression comes and goes – it’s circumstantial, one can distract oneself from it. But the deeper sort, clinical depression, isn’t so easy to throw off if you can throw it off at all. If you’re lucky, you can use it — when one isn’t completely disabled by it — to fuel creative activity.

Yet the creativity is a sort of mask, akin to wearing a symbol: we look at it and mistake it for literal reality about that person suffering behind the creative persona. Which it never is. The mask may smile or it may frown by turns, and it may even entertain and instruct and inspire. But does it relieve the depths of suffering it covers?

No. It doesn’t. Not at all.

The horrible thoughts and feelings, the overriding guilt, self-judgment, the obliterated fragments of momentary peace wash around in leaden waves of worthlessness, powerlessness, regret, futility, meaninglessness, anxious anticipation of certain, inevitable doom. It is all darker than there are words to capture: a term such as “Depression” doesn’t do the real beast justice if it has ever had you… or won’t ever wholly let you go.

Each day is more death postponed than escaped. “Not today,” you say, knowing, though, that tomorrow might be a different, more final story if you don’t manage to fight the Black Dog down from your throat and find some reason, something meaningful to pursue.

It wears you down. You weaken. Death sounds better than suffering on and off and you toy with ways to do it, even make detailed plans, think about quietly setting your affairs in order and quietly exiting stage left at the first convenient moment. Go take up your case with Deity face to face: no more of this silent struggle and one-sided argument.

I’ve been depressed since about the age of 10, increasingly worse until I also picked up an occasional manic episode at age 19. Severe depression with moderate, intermittent manias – Bipolar I D/O. I’ve seriously attempted to kill myself three times if you don’t count the drunk driving up and down mountain roads as fast as I could go in the early hours of the morning, I never had access to a pistol or drugs and liquor when these impulses hit me or I wouldn’t be here.

I wound up hospitalized in 1995 – 28 August. First ex-wife initiated divorce proceedings and we were all done 30 October 1995. I was homeless, had a bag full of small change I still keep, no idea what do, brains scrambled on Lithium and Depakote and several other fine medications, Lots of talk therapy and a strict medication regimen and 19 years later, and the mania is in remission… but the depression is still there. Except for 9 months when one med relieved it completely and I felt better than I ever had in my life before ceasing to work at all anymore, I’ve dealt with the Black Dog snarling at me.

Have some mercy on Robin Williams. Don’t be fast to condemn him. You have no idea whatsoever went on behind the face you saw on stage, television, or screen. I wouldn’t dare dishonor him by attempting to explain it beyond reporting my own experiences and wondering how close his life was to that… or worse.

If you’re a praying person, quietly ask that he find the place of eternal peace and light he so desperately must have longed for here.

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Ethics from Within (Part Two)

Chapter 2 of my book on ethics, “Meditations on Ethics from Within.” A bite-sized excerpt. More to come:

Chapter Two: Ethics as a Healing Art

“The idea of practical and compassionate philosophy—a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing—this idea makes the [study] of Hellenistic ethics riveting for a philosopher who wonders what philosophy has to do with the world. The writer and teacher of philosophy is a lucky person to be able to spend her life expressing her most serious thoughts and feelings about the problems that have moved and fascinated most. But [t]his exhilarating and wonderful life is also part of the world as a whole, a world in which hunger, illiteracy, and disease are the daily lot of a large proportion of the human beings who still exist, as well as causes of death for many who do not still exist.

“The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome—Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics—all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life. They saw the philosopher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. In these ways Hellenistic ethics is unlike the more detached and academic moral philosophy that has sometimes been practiced in the Western tradition.”

Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 3–4. Brackets mine.

Philosophy must be encountered, inside my autobiography – in part, it is the art and outline by which I construct myself in detail. And inasmuch as I create myself, part of the warp and woof of the tapestry will be the morality I take up – well or poorly, consistently or inconsistently. It is that framework which will make me resilient or allow me to unravel at the moment of trial.
Through my understanding, my theories, convictions, my activities I become myself over a lifetime. Meditating upon the possibilities history presents me and circumstance allows, I choose the destiny that is both mine and me and throw myself into its demands – Pindar, the poet, wrote, “Become who you are,” the motto of both Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset. Here is the core meaning: Once your mission is recognized from the repertoire available, it is your task to live up to it, to instantiate and make it real, make it new, make it your own.

Make it your deepest self.

Again, this is no simple task. To say it requires effort is an understatement: My life will be something of an ordeal because circumstances tend to resist the arrival of a new character on the world’s stage. Even a minor one.
Circumstances, remember, involve every force, every person, every interest that is not “I.” Even “body” and “soul” are not “I” – I cannot count on them to remain transparent to my desires and not to also resist the strain I will put them under in my task. They may even break under the stress from my effort from “within” and from the resistance of the world pressing against me.

So, as Martha Nussbaum says, ethics in its best form must be greatly concerned with the “worldly art of grappling with misery.” Pain is that which lets us know we are living, remember, and the greater our destiny within its own ambit, the more likely we will undergo misery – not from weakness, but from exactly how much courage is required to dare and be creative, to practice rationality while the world too often makes unreason its price for illusory “success.”

But what special properties does ethics – a rational morality – have to offer to one involved in a form of worldly combat? What power does it have to allow us to minimize damage and to pick ourselves up when we have failed or when our plans come to nothing? And, really, why would someone want to continue fighting against the movement of something as unstoppable as history in any form, personal or universal? Isn’t that perverse? Ease and comfort come from resting in the arms of the flow of things as they are, not in attempting to make anything become “what it ought to be.”

Of course this depends on one accepting the theory that ease and comfort are adequate goals for a decent human life or, ultimately, something we can hold onto and accomplish. Is it any sort of accomplishment to be just as most other people are satisfied with being – doing as they are told without examination, acting as they are ordered, obeying others they put their faith in, whether that person is one’s physician, a scientist, a technologist, a religious leader, or a political figure? Immanuel Kant, in his powerful essay, “What is Enlightenment?” argued that this sort of faith artificially puts humankind into a state akin to children, undeveloped, unable and unwilling to think for ourselves.

And there is no need for it. “Sapere aude!” he shouted – Dare to think for oneself. Or to put it another way, dare to develop oneself, dare to become an independent adult. Ease and comfort, while fitting states for sleeping children and those who have earned it after long work, is no normal state for someone trying to live well. They are not to be expected and the moments like this, when they arrive, are to be savored because they are not permanent… and ought not to be. Nothing meaningful is accomplished by the sleeping, either lying down or walking.

Why should I care if I live meaningfully?

Rather, argue with me that a life wasted and meaningless to oneself or anyone else is superior to one that made the effort, even minimally, to achieve, create, and share meaning. It really doesn’t matter if the former held power and lived in a palace and the latter was severely limited by poverty and died disastrously and forgotten. The quality of the person in search of meaning is superior to one who could care less. Her life itself is a palace and was powerful in a way for which worldly influence and a mansion alone can’t substitute.

What “quality” does the wastrel have and who are they when all is said and done but a nuisance? What example did they set? What good did they do themselves or anyone else? Were the people in their lives treated more justly, more mercifully, more generously? What courage did they show by avoiding the responsibility to become themselves or even wonder about it?

Why would anyone genuinely wish to become like them? Better to live in poverty and die forgotten, yet just, merciful, decent, generous, and courageous.

Aristotle once said, echoing Socrates, I think, that it is better to deserve honors than receive them. The hard fact of this world is that it mostly bestows honor and privilege to those who hardly deserve it – the vain, the selfish, the self-promoter, the mediocre talent who pleases the crowd, the loud, the outrageous, the bully, the inheritor of wealth and a proper pedigree.

But such honors are empty, signifying nothing. Perhaps, worse, they signify our culture’s love affair with injustice….

Richard Van Ingram
10 March 2015

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Ethics from Within (Part One)

I’ve had this project on the back burner for years. It became obvious to me today at my night job as assistant librarian that, should I not begin it, it will never happen, even in a sloppy rough draft. So I wrote chapter one and will share it here and keep doing so until I finish this thing. So:
“An Approach to Ethics” by Richard Van Ingram

Chapter One: Pain and its Value to Life

We come into this world surrounded by that which is not us — “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia”: I am I plus my circumstances. This was the thesis of the philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, who announced his insight in the “Meditations on Quixote” one bright Spanish day in 1914. From this recognition, he built a series of contemplations on what it meant to live as a human being in this world: a transcendent “I” locked in mutual encounter, dance-like, with an equally transcendent “circumstance,” both immanent within the fundamental reality and activity that is “my life.”

I live my encounters with the world; I am primarily a verb, an activity, just as the world is a verb, an activity, something which happens to me, acts upon me, cooperates with or resists me.

Yet, because of this, my circumstances provide me with creative opportunities from which to choose, even while limiting my choices and strategies. I am that being which chooses who to be, must always be choosing who to be, discovers who I *must* be at all costs; and the world resists or assists.

The resistance of the world is often painful in all the myriad ways pain can be lived through:

— My beloved does not echo my love in return. Inwardly, I am pierced, broken. To say I ache is an understatement as I watch choices close off in front of me, a future obliterated, that future containing my beloved as a partner. That possibility becomes an impossibility, a ghost of a future that will never be consummated and realized.

— My desire to be a physicist is stunted by my mind’s lack of plasticity and early training in higher mathematics. At best, I could be a mediocrity as a physicist… and this does not match my vision of what it means to be a physicist. Another future that can never be, not adequately. I cannot become what I thought was my destiny and this can be a horrific wound, one difficult from which to begin again and recover.

— My pancreas swells suddenly: Pancreatitis. My life, which was progressing along its usual circuits, grinds to a halt. Worse, my choices are narrowed to the minimum after I ask to be taken to the emergency room, vomiting violently, unable to urinate or defecate, abdomen swollen, feeling as if a white hot poker has been rammed through my body. Rapidly, my body is shutting down.

All water is feeding the pancreas. My blood sugar is out of control, triglycerides absurdly high, and my kidneys are failing. It is a matter of minutes before dialysis begins or I die in the ICU unless I force myself to urinate. Only the morphine makes the pain bearable, but it throws me into an opiate haze each time I ride its roller coaster and the poppy blossoms hit me in the back of the neck.

It is barely within my power to will to live or die in this state — both alternatives appear equally preferable under the influence of the medications and bomb ticking hot in my guts. My fate is largely in the hands of the doctors and nurses who may — or may not — care or be competent to the task.

In another, earlier, age, I would surely die a miserable death.

In a future world, who can say?

But in the world I am given, I have a chance because of centuries of scientific advances and medical understanding. In another place in the world, who can say? It is my fate to be here, now, in this place to undergo the world as it is. I can give assent or resist, but I cannot make the reality of my damaged pancreas, my genetics, or hospital, or insurance be any different than they happen to find me.

— And so, I suffer, and in the midst of suffering, I recall I am here, I am alive, and that living involves others and realities that are manifestly not me, not “I” but “circumstances.”

Some people’s lives are reduced to little more than oppression: a woman on her death bed eaten alive with terminal cancer; an infant with a fatal birth defect; a child trapped in a barbarous war zone; a girl forbidden to read, forced into marriage at a too young age, treated as chattel by men; a heroin addict who cannot find the resources to escape or the will to enforce the desire to quit. They, too, live, if just barely and not for long.

All of us, at the end of living, have choice removed by circumstances. Death is the end of life in the deepest most ontological sense — but with the end of my life, my circumstances end as well. No more “I” = no more “my circumstances.” We depend upon one another in a symbiotic relationship. Death is the end of pain, presumably, but also the end of worldly choice, as far as we know.

Death is the end of me as I know anything of myself here and as others might know me.

Should there be an afterlife, a world beyond death, I will have to be translated into it and the form of life appropriate to that way of being. Something of myself might remain in the process, but, largely, I will no longer be the “I” I am in this world. For better or worse, my autobiography as authored in this life — for it is my life here in this world — will have to be left behind. Another volume will have to begin with another circumstance and a different form of life. I cannot simply go on living as I live here.

Some religions promise a state of affairs in which there will, one day, be no more pain or sorrow. Equally, there will be no more striving, creating, laboring, voluntary bearing of burdens, all of which are part of living as an activity. For these bring sorrow and pain as surely as the other things I listed earlier. Life means choosing one path over another, building oneself in one way and not another, and all of this involves loss, loss of possibilities, even companions. These things and people do not leave our lives easily if we are full, feeling people.

The loss of my beloved would mean little to me if I did not value her, the preferred picture my life requiring her. If being a physicist was merely one job among several open to me, leaving it off would be next to nothing, a bother, not a crisis. If I did not care to have a body that functioned more or less transparently allowing me to pursue my vocation, dying in the ICU of pancreatitis would just be a minor inconvenience.

The mystical view of the afterlife leaves little for the philosopher to comment upon. Passing from philosophical metaphysics to mysticism would require me to act as a theologian and I am not a theologian. But the religious vision does serve as a striking distinction between the life you are living here and now and imagined circumstances where one’s choices are not as limited or limiting.

We find at once a stark difference between philosophical ethics, which is about living here and now, and religious ethics which often portrays this life as something we are enduring and passing through on the way to something better.

Perhaps the religious attitude has much to offer in some of its versions, but should it lead to a de-valuation of this life, here, now, it does you no favors. There is no good reason to avoid seeking how to live a philosophically good life even if you believe this life is not final. More than that, one of my ongoing arguments in this book will be that there is every good reason to learn, to think about and apply what one learns, to live a good human life, here and now. One must learn what it means to live up to the privilege of human life, one must exert the effort to become fully human, to acquire the skills to become good at the task of living as a human being.

We learn by beginning to wonder, said Aristotle, and wonder arises from the recognition we are impoverished: faced with our circumstances and ourselves, once the standard, habitual answers are stripped away, we realize we are standing in the face of a mystery. We either run back to our inherited answers and prejudices and hide in fear or we desire to do all we can to grasp something true about this mystery to relieve our impoverishment, if just a little.

We stand disoriented and, yet, are dissatisfied — we need to know so that we know who to be and where we stand.

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