Sunday, December 26, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 235: Biomythography - Note 12, Purpose

A Biomythography - Note 12
by Secret Hippie

Deciding on a Purpose

You have to have a cause.

If you don't have one, you will be swayed in every direction. You might spend your efforts on many goals without giving enough to achieve a single one. Also, you won't understand one of the most important parts of life. Stoics understand. Daoists, too. There is a special experience that is available to people who are driven to fulfill their calling.

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
Some people: oh no, my good shirt

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
People with a calling: that has nothing to do with why I'm here

If your cause is Buddhism, Stoicism, Daoism, or a similar set of beliefs that emphasizes non-attachment, it's even easier to not have setbacks. You can let events slide away when they don't matter. You simply re-focus on your goal.

When I was fourteen, I read a book on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It was supposed to be a psychology text, I think, but it read like philosophy. That is, it relied less on the pseudo-science common in most psychology texts of the period. (There were a whole lot of assertions about human brains back then that were untrue but if you complained, especially in high school, you were told that you didn't really understand because you weren't an expert.) Maslow had some ideas that I liked, including "self-actualization," which sounded close to many ideas I had then about enlightenment.
  1. In the first stage, take care of your physical needs.
  2. In the second, stop worrying about your future or your safety.
  3. Third, fulfill your senses of love and belonging.
  4. Fourth, achieve some goals. Those will lead to a sense of esteem.
  5. Fifth, reach a level where the first four stages seem insignificant.
Stories about self-actualized people seemed compelling to me. Historically, everyone knew about individuals who could be kind to others beyond all reason, who would give away their food when everyone was starving, run into a battle to rescue the wounded, help victims imprisoned with them in a concentration camp, or who could tend to the sick during a pandemic. Those people had become self-actualized. They could and did ignore their physical desperation, their safety, and the harsh opinions of others in order to better the situation of humanity.

(Maslow came up with his hierarchy due to his visits with the Blackfoot tribe, apparently, and he left off stages that the Blackfoot members considered vital:

Sixth, grow a community in which tribe members help one another self-actualize.
Seventh, expand the self-actualized community.

Maslow possibly thought of these last stages as bordering on sociology. Therefore, they were not fit for him to write about in the field of psychology.)

The concepts of self-actualization, sainthood, and enlightenment all seemed to point to what kind of causes a person might have that would allow for transcendence. They are not mundane ones. For instance, a passion for collecting model cars is not the best type of cause. Neither is making paperclip art, even though it may be very good art. However, making paperclip art that makes people laugh, cry, or inspires them with fantastic ideas, passions, and compassion - now we're getting somewhere. That's close to the sort of cause necessary. Intent matters. The whole process matters.

After testing ideas about transcendence against the historical anecdotes, I guessed there were basically two requirements for a driving cause that is fulfilling. They are,

1) It has to represent something bigger than an individual
2) It has to help others

There might be a third quality that's important as well. Personally, I chose a huge cause as a teenager: help everyone. But I found myself often implementing it by writing articles or stories as well as creating nice things for my friends. For many years, writing was closely connected to my primary cause. In retrospect, I wonder if the creative element led to a different result. For instance, when you decide to start a soup kitchen, you are making something. You may not think of it as inventive but, if you pay attention to the details like a sculptor, engineer, dress designer, or painter, it may give you (and the people around you) the same sort of benefit.

3) It should be creative

Adding this third aspect to the chosen cause requires the person choosing it to understand that they are being creative - that if you are arranging special trips for terminal cancer patients or repairing appliances for people who have no money to pay, you are still creating things (even if they do pay something, I suppose). At the very least, you are touching the hearts of people with a uniquely prepared moment like any other artist.

Intent is always key to the results, as there is no real separation between them.

What happens if you change your cause? That seems possibly dangerous to self-actualization but, whether for good or ill, I found myself doing it. My first cause was great for me but I had to adjust it when I started a family.

Technically, devoting yourself to a family meets all three requirements above. But, as you can immediately see, there is a fragility to having a smaller, less overarching cause. When things go bad in your smaller cause, it affects your world more strongly in proportion. Fortunately, the re-focusing was a natural process for me. It's not like I gave up on helping humanity in general. All of my choices, even when guiding my employment to provide for my family, were informed by the grander humanitarian purpose. I did pay more and more attention to my immediate relatives; young children have a way of forcing that to happen; but I was not too far thrown off by the death of a pet or a family member or a dear friend. When you expand your spirit and reach out to humanity itself as a cause, it keeps your world from being too small and your perspective too narrow.

That leads me to another important aspect.

Practice Letting Go

Periodically, you have to let go of your cause.

When I was twenty-one and very much a true believer in the process of enlightenment, a friend of mine, Richard, gave me a book by 'The True Believer' and told me I needed to read it. I did.

He was right.

Although it feels good to have a purpose and to let it give your life and other lives a direction that makes things better, that's not enough. In order to avoid the traps of being a 'true believer' you have to stop, occasionally, as if letting go of thoughts while meditating, and live without your cause for a while. Even if your chosen purpose is a religion or a philosophy, you have to let go of it. I'm sure devotees of Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism will see the irony. Still, it's true. You need to back away and gain some perspective.

Let your life sway freely from event to event. Look back on your cause and judge it. If it's not worthy, pick another. More likely, of course, your previous goal is still fine. But you may use your perspective to adjust your grip as you re-attach to the world in this way. This is a deliberate step, an emotional and mental and nearly physical skill. You should be able to repeat it, from time to time. Let go and pick a spot in the flow of life where you want to grab on again.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 234: Biomythography - Note 11, Families: Do They Exist?

A Biomythography - Note 11
by Secret Hippie

On the Existence of Families

Sometimes my father, a philosophy major, raised the question explicitly: do societies exist? Or families and other groups? Or are there only individuals?

When I was a teen the obvious answer was that only individuals exist. In some ways, it was a very American response. But it was also due to how my father hadn't grown up with access to a big, extended family. His mother had been raised in an orphanage, far away from most of her blood relations. His father died when he was two. The result was that, except for his sister and an uncle, Jack, my father's family connections didn't exist.

For my part, I had also read about cultures in which entire families were punished for the transgression of a single member of their bloodline. That seemed immoral and it still does. So I came down hard on the side of individuals mattering, never groups.

Years ago a limousine convoy of Orthodox Jews in New York City hit and killed an African-American toddler. They fled the scene, which made their conduct unjust not only because of the moral crime during the accident but also after, from their evasion of personal responsibility.

When a gang of teens later that day isolated and beat to death an Orthodox Jewish boy in retribution, that was an immoral example of group justice. They killed an innocent as if the murder were equivalent to killing the person responsible for the toddler. It was group justice - traditional between tribes but not allowable in a system of laws primarily recognizing only individual moral actions. 

When the police responded to the incident by arresting African-American teenagers, they tried to assure the public that they had found the people responsible. That is, they needed to assert that they were not perpetuating injustices to individuals in the name of justice for groups of people.

Every step of this process seems like an example of how justice needs to be determined at the level of individuals. Yet a series of books and examples from my life led me to understand how group identities endure regardless. They are persistent and will always cause problems for perceptions of justice. What seems like a weak, almost tenuous, level of existence-by-agreement is actually tough to eradicate and it may be unwise to do so. Shared imaginations like "I'm part of a religious tribe" or "I belong to this corporation" are harder to end, in fact, than the people who compose them.

As everyone knows, when a worker in a corporation dies, the corporation hardly notices. That's even if we're talking about the death of the most influential leader of the organization. Many corporations, religions, fraternal organizations, and even hobby groups survive such events. Families do, too.

On one hand: our country exists in our shared imagination, so if everyone woke up thinking that it didn't exist, it wouldn't.

On the other hand: our country is going to outlast everyone reading this. Just because something is a shared imagination doesn't mean it isn't robust. That's a weird thought to many teenagers, I know.

Our families are smaller, more fragile organizations than countries. Unless you are the final branch of a narrow line, though, your little clan is going to outlast you. Even if you feel that you are the last, someone else counts you as part of their tree of relatives. Others have adopted you, mentally, even when you don't know it. The existence of your family is stronger than you. Really. And always.

Siddhartha - Nothing Exists

When I was twelve, I read a short novel by Herman Hesse based loosely on the life of Siddhartha Gautama. It's fiction, not biography, and it tells a story of enlightenment within the context of rebellion against state religions. Moreover, it describes a belief that nothing exists and shows how that idea can change meaning when seen from different viewpoints.

“How deaf and stupid have I been!" Siddhartha thought, walking swiftly along.

"When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and a worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters. I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened.”

In a key transition point, Siddhartha moves from despising the impermanence of the world to adoring it, from hating the impurity in himself and others to realizing that love is the main thing.

Maybe it was due to growing up in a house full of philosophy texts but I read often about the impermanence of material things. In many Buddhist books, the authors assert that nothing exists at all. The sensual world is completely an illusion. Our bonds of friendship and family are parts of a dangerous snare. Such attachments to other people lead us into having even more desires and heavier sorrows.

Siddhartha, though, doesn't trust the lack of sorrow that has been promised by emotional detachment. Raising a son brings him frustration and unhappiness, as he had foreseen when younger, yet it brings him greater understanding of people and a stronger love for them.

Friends Exist

Unlike families, societies, countries, and other organizations, I never had any doubt about friendships. They are the most powerful influence in my life and probably most other lives. Unlike families and nations, though, friendships can't outlast the lifetimes of the participants. At most, they are part of a human web of friendships and pass on part of their spirit.

Also, love does not need to be returned so there are no people who need to be my friend in order for me to be theirs. Often enough, there's a bond of affection from both sides anyway. If it's not zen to be so attached, then it's not. We can give up part of our joy and freedom to love one another in our impermanent relationships in our imperfect ways.

Friends in Theory

Since I've mentioned how literature affected my perception of organizations, including families, I think it's worth mentioning the smaller influence of literature on my concept of friendship.

Most books demonstrate the basic rules of our affinities with others by focusing on the practical aspects. For instance, friends share adventures together. Or they sit in silence, happy. Or they give gifts to one other. They might come to the rescue. They might suffer together. In A Wrinkle in Time, the three main characters do all of these. In adventure books, friends protect one another more or less constantly like in the Hardy Boys, The Lost World, The Forgotten Door, and the Chronicles of Amber. When I think about friendships in story form, though, I keep returning to The Lord of the Rings.

Meriadoc says,

"You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends."

He blurts out this sentiment at the beginning of their terrible adventure. Then he holds true to his words. The story he lives is informed by war. Tolkien wrote to this mindset because, after two world wars, he accepted it as natural: never abandon a friend; never leave anyone behind. Although in real wars we do sometimes leave behind dying friends or dead bodies, humans try to stand by the members of their tribes. Because they are our friends. And we are theirs.

Le Morte D’Arthur - How Brothers Exist

Brotherhood is more troublesome than friendship but only because siblings are raised together and are more defined by one another than friends, especially friends who meet after childhood. But my brothers are how I developed an intuitive sense of family. The are the reason I kept thinking more and more about what family means.

"Meanwhile Sir Launcelot watched from his ambush and just as they were leading the queen to the fire, shouted the word of command, charged with his followers through the spectators, and assaulted the guards.

In the tumult that followed, many of the guards were killed ... lastly Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, both of them unarmed, and whom Sir Launcelot killed without recognizing."

Before this part of the book, Sir Gawain had been the character that made the most sense. Unlike many others portrayed by Malory, he was fully human. That is, Gawain was not particularly virtuous but he tried to be. He made peace with King Arthur, his uncle, despite Arthur killing Gawain's father in battle. He aimed to be a responsible older brother and set a good example for Arthur's knighthood. When his younger brothers surpassed him in their achievements, he cheered them on. This was a character I understood. He seemed to live in a type of family I knew.

Everything about the revenge of Sir Gawain upon Launcelot and about his care for his brothers rang true thereafter. Brotherhood demands loyalty. It is bigger than individuals. It is bigger, perhaps, than families. It extends across political and religious tribes to even murderers like Launcelot, whom Gawain forgave as he lay dying from wounds inflicted by his brother knight.

It was my brothers who first taught me about families despite my father's lack of family tradition and despite his opposition to close-knit clans.

The Godfather - How Families Exist

Close-knit clans took some reading and living to understand, for me.

Even though I had grown up with glimpses of family structures, I didn't really comprehend the gulf between growing up without them, as my father had done, and living in them the way my mother had. In a stable clan, the cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, and upward and outward for multiple generations, can take one another for granted. They can even be annoyances to one another. When I talk to people who have grown up in normal, reasonably close families, they never grasp all of the small interactions that would go missing without their relations.

All the friendships before, all the books, all the examples of families in my life led up to this book, The Godfather. It must seem odd that a book, not a family reunion, not a text about Chinese history, not a genetics class, nor a discussion in sociology but instead a particular piece of crime fiction gave me the emotional clues I needed. That's because, to me, The Godfather was a story about families.

How many times does Don Corelone talk about family? He talks about it even when he's playing up the idea of strong friendship. He says to his godson, Johnny Fontane, a singer who is losing his career,

"Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendship you wouldn't have to ask me to help."

He emphasizes the importance of fatherhood even to an enemy,

“Tell me. Do you spend time with your family?”
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

When his adopted son asks why he has to be the one to say 'no' to members of the family so often, not the great Don Corleone, Don reveals,

"You cannot say 'no' to the people you love, not often. That's the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a 'yes'. Or you have to make them say 'no.' You have to take time and trouble.”

Most of all to his sons, he emphasizes the need for togetherness. It's not just something that makes people feel comforted. Or rather, it is that but it is more. Unity in a family is a practical thing. It can be a life or death advantage over others.

"We are a family, and the loyalty of the family must come before anything and everyone else. For if we honor that commitment, we will never be vanquished - but if we falter in that loyalty we will all be condemned.”

So Don Corelone understands that it is all about family. Later, his son Michael comes to the same understanding. As he ages, he sees more of the uncaring world and compares it to the loving attention it takes to raise his household.

“Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity, but he, as a powerful and prudent parent, would most certainly keep a wary eye on that general family.”

Michael comes to an understanding of a family loyalty that is separate from but nearly the same as the loyalty of friends. He sees that families can be defended like brothers. Naturally, he intends to grow his clan and to keep safeguarding it from harm.

Years after reading about it, I found myself entertaining the idea that it was possible - that I could nurture and grow a family.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 233: Biomythography - Note 10, Learn Enjoyment

A Biomythography - Note 10
by Secret Hippie

Enjoy Your Work

"What are you doing?" I asked Tucker in disbelief. A stack of split wood lay tumbled to his right. Ten feet further, he had made a neat, long stack of firewood. It was his second row. The back row, already enough for two years at the rate they burned, stood as high as my head. He was adding depth to the family stockpile.

Tucker took another swing of his axe and finished splitting the log.

"Doing what I have to do," he replied.

Tucker's father had commanded him to split wood as a preemptive punishment. The order hadn't made sense. Tuck hadn't done anything wrong even according to his parents' strict standards. His family had already laid in too much wood. Some of it would rot. Even though I'd been mad at his father for the capriciousness of the command and the insulting manner of it, I hadn't taken it seriously for those reasons. It failed to occur to me that my best friend would, as always, serve his punishment because he'd been told. That's how he worked.

In a continuous manner, I had failed to understand for two years. Now it was the summer when I was sixteen and taking an order seriously simply wasn't what I would have done, not when it made no sense. I was struggling to understand Tucker's family dynamics.

"You were so mad," I said. I had seen Tucker protest the command, which of course led to his father yelling, which eventually led to Tucker telling me I should go. His father had lowered his voice to agree that I should leave and that I would be welcome back when Tucker was done, a small politeness.

"I guess I was," Tucker allowed with a smile.

He picked up another half-log. Then he turned his back, took aim at the center ring, and swung. For a minute, I watched him work. Tucker returned to his singing. That was a habit I think he had picked up from me. He was making it his own, though. Instead of a mournful chant like the ones I used for manual labor, Tucker sounded almost joyful. No, there was no 'almost.' He was happy. Distinctly so.

"Why are you suddenly pleased with yourself?" I asked.

He paused, gave the matter a bit of thought, and replied, "It's not that sudden."

"You're being punished. For nothing. How can you be happy?"

"Hey, man." He took another swing. The log split. One side fell over. The other, smaller piece traveled six feet before bouncing to a stop. "I know I'm going to have to do it anyway. Why should I let him spoil my day?"

I put my fists on my hips and I thought about it. I'd never heard anyone tell me anything like those words before. For my part, I stayed angry even while doing things that were my decision. I had recently fasted for two days, satisfied with myself spiritually but angry at my life. I had gutted through extra workouts recently, too, determined to reach my arbitrary goals. There were a lot of things I did as joylessly as possible.

"Haven't you noticed that he only gives me this chore when I'm happy? This is my punishment for smiling or, worse, for laughing. He always punishes me when I laugh at something."

"Yeah." The observation was straight on target. His father's instinctive anger at seeing his son being happy was part of what made the relationship seem abusive.

"Honestly, I think it drives him crazy to see me having fun chopping the logs for the woodpile. It's supposed to be my punishment. But I sort of like it. Come on, I know you like chopping wood. You said so."

"But that's me." It was accurate but something about it seemed unfair. "You said you hated it."

"I don't know how it is for you. But I take this attitude whenever I can with my chores now. You just find the part, whatever little part there is, that you like. Then concentrate on that part and let it make you happy. Man, you can be happy about any damn thing."

It had not occurred to me that I didn't have to be miserable just because someone else was making me miserable.

Tucker returned to chopping wood. After a while, he radiated so much joy that I started to smile. I stood there for five minutes, watching him finish. While I did, I tried out the idea of being happy about a chore that I had to do. It seemed to work for Tucker. I helped him lift the last log into place.

When he got down to the last quarter-log, Tucker stopped singing. He seemed sad that his punishment chore was almost over. I returned, mentally, to the idea of finding some part of a job to like - any job, any likable part - and I tried to imagine what it might do for me. And I hummed a mournful tune to myself as he took another swing.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 232: Biomythography - Note 9, Maulball

A Biomythography - Note 9
by Secret Hippie

Normal Punch and Tumble

When you grow up in a neighborhood with older kids, mostly boys, you're going to get knocked around a bit in the maulball games.  At least, that was how it went for me in Maryland in the late 1960s and 1970s.  If you're bowled over in good spirit, though, in a game where your opponent picks you up and says, "Nice try, kid" the physical sting disappears. 

In fact, a lot of rough-housing in our neighborhood was like that.  Bigger kids could be mean, of course.  One kid in school had his eye cut out by an older boy with a knife.  Mostly, though, bullies used their fists.  If they lived in the neighborhood, they couldn't go too far with their aggressive behavior.  There were factors that held everyone back, namely 1) basic morality of a sort, 2) enforcement from older brothers who would take revenge against the bullying of their younger siblings, 3) parents, and 4) a hidden factor: practicality.  

The practical aspect was felt by bullies who picked on smaller kids but then needed those same kids to play in football, baseball, or kickball games.  They would end up begging from house to house.

"Why doesn't anyone want to play with me?" was the whine from a handful of boys, most of whom eventually figured out the answer.

In the midst of this comparatively weak level of childhood roughness (compared to earlier generations), my parents raised me in a mostly gentle way.  Theirs may have been the first generation to begin to break away from the "all stick, no carrot" approach of molding behavior.  Still, my father believed in corporeal punishment.  My mother suspected that it mostly wasn't necessary but of course it was an option. 

In my family, as in many others, the order of events in a conflict usually was:


This wasn’t a matter of philosophy. It was simply how things evolved. A level of communication took place through slapping and hitting.  Shouting, both with friends and in the family, was for emergencies.  Therefore, raised voices were treated more seriously and as a more violent gesture than a gentle "don't touch my knitting" slap on the wrist; that was nothing.  

Still, don't touch the knitting.

This was why I found it difficult to deal with people who skipped from talking about a problem to shouting about it. That felt like cheating plus it raised the issue, whatever it was, into emergency status, an elevation it never deserved.

I've got the same reaction nowadays to political fighting and other sorts of name calling.  As a child, I learned that those things were ungentlemanly.  It was better to fight and lose than to resort to cowardly tactics.  Yet all of the currently acceptable tactics now are cowardly ones (as seen from a viewpoint in the not-too-distant past).  Cowardly name calling is extolled, in its way, because physical fights are unacceptable.  Or just difficult across the Internet and across cultures.

Violence, except in self-defense or defense of others, really is unacceptable all over the world and in all or nearly all societies.  The definition of violence, though, seems to have gone astray.  For some people currently, violence could mean any sort of physical contact.  That seems unhealthy to me although I'm out of the mainstream now.  There is a moral difference between poking the cat away from the dog's food, which is really a form of communication, and an action that does serious or lasting harm.  

I think there's more harm caused by the name-calling than people realize. Demeaning others may be a form of violence that is more destructive than most rough-and-tumble contact. In a maulball game, you can lose and be hurt but never dehumanized.  Nice try, kid.

In a name-calling game, all sides can come to be seen as caricatures, not people.  That's how real human beings could seem unworthy of respect and reverence.  That's the harm; that's the excuse for destructive violence.