BREAD AND SALT
In late amber
afternoon, the streets ascended
on the scent of fresh-baked bread.
Babcia brings a sun-round loaf.
Under the saw-toothed knife
the crust crackles, resists;
I beg for the “heel,” I eat
the moist, steaming, almost breathing
bread, like the flesh of the earth.
In the salt mine near Kraków,
I linger behind, trying to lick the walls.
A white, slippery Saint Barbara
blesses the underground chapel.
At the spa with the salt towers,
the fountain of Hansel and Gretel,
known to me as Jaś and Małgosia —
two lost children huddled
under a dripping stone umbrella.
The towers are wooden pyramids
dripping brine through a five-story
scaffolding of birch twigs.
We stroll around the towers,
inhaling the salt breeze.
“Breathe!” Grandmother reminds.
It’s meant to cure everything.
Once we watch a bride and groom
greeted at the door
with bread and salt —
the street dancing
the bride and her groom
lost in the lucky light.
~ Oriana © 2015
THE OPPOSITE OF ADDICTION IS NOT SOBRIETY. THE OPPOSITE OF ADDICTION IS CONNECTION.
In this powerful video, Johann Hari speaks about two experiments (one of them unplanned) that showed our current treatment of addicts is completely wrong. Rats isolated in cages will indeed get addicted to heroin-laced water and will eventually die of overdose; but rats placed in a “rat park” where they could socialize with the rats and exercise and simply had “things to do” did not take interest in heroin (nor do hospital patients who receive who is essentially heroin for pain relief become junkies). Twenty percent of US military in Vietnam were using heroin and other drugs; when they returned home, only 5% of those addicted continued their habit. The rest recovered without needing special treatment; simply being placed in a healthy environment removed the motivation to take the drug (this went against the accepted opinion that addiction was purely “chemical,” and the woman researcher who discovered the effect of the environment was vilified for years).
Hari argues that addicts need more connection; they need to receive the message that they are loved and can lead useful, fulfilled lives. They need job skills, not arrest records that will make it very difficult for them to get decent jobs. Individual recovery requires social recovery.
MENTAL ILLNESS AND SMOKING
It has long been noted that those suffering from schizophrenia and other mental illness also tend to be heavy smokers. The rate of smoking is 45% versus 17.8% in the U.S. population at large (and about 7% among American college graduates). Furthermore, those schizophrenic who smoke start smoking before the symptoms of mental illness become apparent (“More than half — 57% — of people arriving at mental health services with their first psychotic episode were smokers, which is nearly three times the normal occurrence in the population. Smokers experienced psychosis one year earlier than non-smokers”).
The prevalent theory is that smoking is a self-soothing behavior, a form of self-medication. But a few new studies propose that nicotine actually contributes to mental illness, and is itself one of the causal factor, albeit a minor one (obviously a vast majority of smokers don’t become schizophrenic).
“There are also genetic clues – a small number of DNA sequences (called SNPs) are known to be implicated in both schizophrenia and smoking.”
I don't think the self-medication theory is necessarily disproved by some link between addiction genes and schizophrenia genes. I've seen people (of all sorts, non-schizophrenic) get a soothing effect from the long exhale that is a frequent part of smoking. It's also typically a personal ritual, and there is something calming about rituals — the brain loves familiarity.
DIFFERENCES IN LIFE EXPECTANCY
“American life expectancy rose from 75.2 years in 1990 to 78.2 years in 2010. However, this improvement is undermined by two major problems. First, although women live longer than men, their life expectancy is rising more slowly. Secondly, both sexes have a lower life expectancy than their peers in other wealthy countries. The chasm between Americans’ health and other wealthy nations has been widening since the 1980s.
Dr. Murray and his colleagues report that the gap between life expectancies in the wealthiest and poorest countries has widened since 1985. In the richest counties in America—such as Marin County, California and Fairfax County, Virginia—the life expectancies rival those of Switzerland and Japan. However, at least one of every nine counties in America has a life expectancy lower than Nicaragua's. Parts of West Virginia and Mississippi fare worse than Bangladesh and Algeria.
The surprise lies in the size of the difference. In Marin County, California life expectancy for women is 85.02. In Perry County, Kentucky, it’s 72.65. Men in Fairfax County, VA, have a life expectancy of 81.67 (Marin County: 81.44). In Mcdowell, West Virginia, the male life expectancy is 63.9.”
PEOPLE AGE AT WIDELY DIFFERENT RATES
“A study of people born within a year of each other has uncovered a huge gulf in the speed at which their bodies age.
The report, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked traits such as weight, kidney function and gum health.
Some of the 38-year-olds were aging so badly that their "biological age" was on the cusp of retirement.
The international research group followed 954 people from the same town in New Zealand who were all born in 1972-73.
The scientists looked at 18 different aging-related traits when the group turned 26, 32 and 38 years old.
The analysis showed that at the age of 38, the people's biological ages ranged from the late-20s to those who were nearly 60.”
So the discrepancy between slowest and fastest agers was almost 30 years — and let me remind you that the participants were all the same chronological age. Another study is planned to try to find out the reasons for the different rates of aging. As with most things related to health and longevity, we simply don’t know.
We do know that Nobel Prize winners and Oscar winners tend to live longer. Positive emotions?
High IQ is also a good predictor of longevity.
MORE MAMMOGRAMS DOESN’T MEAN FEWER CANCER DEATHS
Yet another study showed that more mammograms don’t decrease the death rate from breasts cancer. But they increase over-diagnosis and over-treatment, causing harm. But no matter how many studies show that, those mammograph machines are expensive, and hospitals need to get their investment back.
That was the biggest part of my doubt once it arose . . . Especially after I learned about Zeus, Wotan, and other gods. Whatever happened to them? How come all the thousands of other gods were "false," and only the Christian god was the true god? This "monotruthism" (as Matt called it), the one and only true god revealed only to a tiny nation in the ancient Near East, aroused an ever-growing suspicion that ALL gods were human creations. And besides, Yahweh did seem so human: he walked (preferring the cool of the day) and talked, had fits of anger, regrets, was afraid of the power of humans if they could communicate or become immortal . . .
I didn't know about Garibaldi's position until now. My guess would have been that, like other nationalist leaders, he used religion to increase the zeal to kill the enemy. But Garibaldi rejected all creeds, and was an effective leader in spite of his open atheism. Given the times, this is a sweet surprise.
One of the things that aroused my suspicion was that god, instead of being perfect, had human faults. Not just jealousy, petty favoritism, regrets and temper tantrums, but also a deep insecurity about his own power and an actual fear of humanity as potential rivals: what if Adam and Eve also eat the fruit of the Tree of Life? What if people, speaking one language, are able to communicate to work together on great projects? Let's "confound" their languages! That just didn't seem to be worthy of a being truly superior to even the best and wisest of men.
I’d also add that god was created for the sake of man, not man for the sake of god. We should ask about any religion, “Does it serve humanity?” Or at least, “Does it serve some people without at the same time harming them, and harming others?” Offhand, it's hard for me to think of harmless religions.
Matt: HOW DARE GOD NOT EXIST AFTER ALL THE ADVERTISING AND PROMOTION?
ORIANA: And in the Catholic church the promotion was quite extreme: the many holidays, all the statues, icons, candles and luxurious flowers, sprinklings with holy water, special blessings, processions, the priests' splendid robes and vessels, the bishop's huge hat and crosier. The choir singing hundreds of people singing and praying out loud. Vatican 2 was a disaster, but the old liturgy had all the ceremony it could contain. Advent, Lent, the Five Wounds, Our Lady of the Flowers (in May) and Our Lady of the Sorrows. The riot of angels. The church was an ongoing spectacular opera.
Old-style Catholicism could easily be the center of a person's life. Some old women seemed to practically live in churches, in the pews, on their knees. My grandmother still referenced time in terms of the holidays: I last saw X just before Trinity Sunday (Corpus Christi, Michelmass, Candlemass, St. Martin’s — each week was holy in some way). The nuns in their outrageous headgear and loud black shoes. The priests swinging censors, filling the already dusky air with serpentine smoke of heavy incense. In retrospect all that richness and busyness seem a perfect cover-up for god's absence. You wouldn't need all the icons and ceremonies if there happened to be an actual sign of god's existence. The more frightening the emptiness, the more elaborate the façade.
The little naked angels are always photogenic and upstage everything else. I wonder: is that the Inca gold by any chance?
WHY IS GOD HIDING?
This I could never understand: why is god hiding? Why doesn't he communicate? Couldn't he at least make a brief announcement from the clouds once a year? Why were saints and miracles common in the Middle Ages, but now virtually absent, or not very compelling? Why does the Pope keep changing the doctrine? And on and on . . .
But mainly I craved a brief announcement. Preferably a public one, from the clouds. But if not, then a private one made to me and to someone trustworthy. Not just obviously one’s own thoughts, but a voice from the outside — or some clear sign, like a book suddenly opening itself to a particular page. Pebbles and twigs spelling out a word — but not a hiker’s mark of direction. I scanned the world carefully for possible messages. I listened intently for even the quietest whisper.
Alas. Or perhaps — no news is good news. After all, that means no hell, no Last Judgment. Nothing supernatural, so we just have to cope with whatever life throws at us, grief or splendor. Mystery? I welcome it. Let's enjoy it not having all the answers so life and the world are forever interesting.
A KNOCK ON THE DOOR
They ask me if I’ve ever thought about the end of
the world, and I say, “Come in, come in, let me
give you some lunch, for God's sake.” After a few
bites it’s the afterlife they want to talk about.
“Ouch,” I say, “did you see that grape leaf
skeletonizer?” Then they're talking about
redemption and the chosen few sitting right by
His side. “Doing what?” I ask. “Just sitting?” I
am surrounded by burned up zombies. “Let's
have some lemon chiffon pie I bought yesterday
at the 3 Dog Bakery.” But they want to talk about
my soul. I’m getting drowsy and see butterflies
everywhere. “Would you gentlemen like to take a
nap, I know I would.” They stand and back away
from me, out the door, walking toward my
neighbors, a black cloud over their heads and
they see nothing without end.
~ James Tate
Then they're talking about
redemption and the chosen few sitting right by
His side. “Doing what?” I ask. “Just sitting?”
~ that’s the problem with the Christian heaven, so the only incentive is avoiding hell.
FEELING ANGER AT THE GOD YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN
The last time I had the experience was actually most interesting. I was invited to feel myself surrounded by divine love, and I thought, OK, that would be something new, something the church never suggested -- I'll try. Instantly I was seized by enormous rage. It was so intense that it took me minutes to calm down. After that experience, and after thinking through the irrationality of it, but also of the causal factors, I never had the experience again. God wasn't sufficiently real after that to provoke any emotion. Btw, I described the experience to the woman who'd invited me, and she admitted her first attempts had exactly the same effect: the feeling of enormous rage. Because of a severe health problem, she apparently had a need for a parent in the sky, so she kept trying, with more than one religion.
The gist of my analysis was that the source of my rage was the stored resentment over the bad things that happened in my life, some of which were due simply to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So much of what happens to us is mere accident, circumstances, in no way “sin” or a “character defect.” As long as god still exists in the neural circuits — or is revived through an “exercise” — and his benevolence is again exposed as a sham, the feeling of rage is understandable. Understandable and forgivable, but there is no excuse for having it linger. The problem is resentment at the fact that bad things happened. That resentment is irrational; it assumes that we have a right to special protection from suffering. We don’t. Time and chance really do happen to all. And yes, we are the victims of victims. To resent circumstances — or even the ignorant and themselves formerly abused people who victimized us — is not going to accomplish anything. Letting go of god here means letting go of the resentment at circumstances.
Photo: Oliver Sacks
PROPHECY AND ETHYLENE; OMPHALOS, THE NAVEL OF THE WORLD, AT DELPHI
“This egg-shaped stone—the very stone described by the Greek writer Pausanias, who visited Delphi in the second century A.D.—represents the omphalos, or “navel of the world.” According to Greek legend, Delphi was fixed as the center of the world when Zeus released two eagles, one from the west and the other from the east, which met in the sky above Delphi. The original omphalos stone, now lost, was probably an archaic cult object that supplicants draped with wreaths, resembling the wreaths carved in relief on this stone.”
The trance-inducing gas that made the Pythia pronounce prophecies was most likely ethylene, the sweet-smelling “ripening gas” produced by some fruit. If the name reminds you of ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol or simply “alcohol,” you are on the right track: ethanol is the hydrate of ethylene
C2H4 + H2O → CH3CH2OH
Occasionally the Pythia inhaled too much ethylene and developed convulsions. She’d usually die within days, and a new Pythia had to be found. The oracle declined after an earthquake greatly diminished the release of ethylene from a tectonic fault that ran under the temple. Eventually the gas ceased to seep out, and the profitable religious business was over for good.
DID HISTORICAL JESUS EXIST?
Some New Testament scholars (Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan) lean to “mythicized historical Jesus,” while others, the “mythicists,” claim that the myth came first and became “historicized.” Here is a good review of the mythicist position, which has been gaining popularity:
For the mythicists, “Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.”
Bishop Shelby Spong tactfully refers to the Gospels as “faith narratives,” clarifying that those were not eyewitness accounts, but writings meant to spread the faith.
THE SMALLER LIES WERE A BIGGER SHOCK
After realizing that the Judeo-Christian god, like all the other gods, had been invented by humans and did not exist outside of the believers’ minds, I had no trouble seeing it all as mythology — both the stories of the Old Testament and events like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. It was only natural to conclude the virgin birth was absurd, the resurrection never happened, and Jesus is never coming back.
Likewise, it was terribly unlikely that a Jew would tell anyone to drink his blood, given the huge taboo . . . so the Last Supper with its symbolic cannibalism never happened. Nor did Jesus die for anyone's sins like a sacrificial animal. That was just disgusting, archaic on the face of it.
When it comes to those big inventions, my attitude was soon, “How could I have ever believed this shit?” And I have to remind myself that it’s easy to brainwash a child, with her immature brain. You just repeat certain things, no matter how impossible they sound.
The shock was the small things. Scholars like Bart Ehrman publicized the historical findings that there was no census requiring anyone to go to the town of one’s birth (a bizarre idea; that’s not how census is done), no slaughter of the innocents, no flight into Egypt, no reading of a non-actual (conflated) passage of scripture at the synagogue in Nazareth (there was no synagogue in Nazareth, which wasn’t a functional town in the first century). Nazareth may be a Greek misreading of Nazarene, which referred to men so consecrated to piety that they were not allowed to cut their hair. Oddly enough, it’s those relatively minor confabulations that shocked me at first — not the “big stuff.”
No resurrection, no second coming — that was easy. But — the slaughter of the innocents never happened? — I was in a state of shock for hours. Reader, I can't begin to tell you how deeply shocked I was after reading that the slaughter of the innocents never happened. All those paintings, and of course my horror at the story when I was a child . . . What a web of lies had to be invented.
Bart Ehrman also made sense of the apocalyptic preaching, gradually de-emphasized in the later gospels — there were many apocalyptic preachers during that era. Ehrman assumes that there was a historical Jesus and he was one of those end-of-the-world nuts. (If there was a historical Jesus, he meant the end days literally, clouds of glory and all. Later I was able to see this metaphorically, as applying to the last decades of a human life — there just isn’t time for a lot of things that may have been fine in youth.)
Still, the biggest lie — that the afterlife exists, and especially that hell exists — that’s taken years of wrestling to shake off. I like the statement Dostoyevski's "ridiculous man" makes -- in loose paraphrase, if hell exists, then no torment could be so great as my contempt for the deity who devised this torment.
Dostoyevski really dreamed of the world where everyone would be kind. I think if people had more access to giving and getting affection and doing creative work and useful service work, we could have such world. Remnant aggression could go into sports. And that would be as close to heaven as we can get. When life is fulfilling, we don’t need the lie of a paradise in the beyond, that “pie in the sky after you die.”
HISTORY OF IDEAS
WERE THE MIDDLE AGES ACTUALLY THE FIRST “AGE OF REASON”?
“The development of rationality is the theme of Johannes Fried’s book, The Middle Ages, and it is traced through the application of Aristotle’s logic in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century schools to the spread of its influence in ways that make it possible for Fried to postulate a “thought collective” among educated Western Europeans by the end of the period.
Perhaps there was such a collective. In Fried’s work its rise and achievement are given a priority that leaves not enough room for contrary cultural developments. One that is noted in his book is the almost universal expectation of the imminent end of all things, of the Last Days and Final Judgment predicted by Jesus and accepted throughout the early church. About every thirty years from the tenth century onward, this fear took possession of various, sometimes large bodies of men and women and inspired them to form mass movements. Collective penance, pentecostal enthusiasm, irregular crusades, unauthorized pilgrimages, messianic mobbing—all these engaged Christians who feared it might soon be too late.
This was a recurrent electrical charge both in politics and in religion, and Fried does it justice although it sits ill with his insistence on the period as an Age of Reason. He seems reluctant to concede that hysteria kept pace and outstripped the achievement of the thought collective. By 1500 art, printing, theater, and song had enriched the West with a vivid backdrop on which the presence of Antichrist, the Last Judgment, the Devil, Hell’s Mouth, and torments were made clearer than ever before. Individual consciousness of sin was so intense that the attempted reformation of the church would turn into hell on earth.”
I incline more to the "hell on earth" view of the Middle Ages: filth, disease, cruelty, constant warfare and other violence, theocracy (including the burning of "witches" and heretics), illiteracy, lack of privacy, child abuse as standard child rearing. Sure, over so many centuries there are bound to be positive developments as well, but what with outbreaks of religious-apocalyptic hysteria (and no wonder, life being so horrible it could easily make one think those were the Last Days), it's amazing Europe survived . . .
Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen
JOHN CAGE ON THE “MEANING OF LIFE”
No why. Just here.
CHARISMATIC ORGANIZATIONS AMD THE HUNGER FOR THE HEROIC IDEAL (THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE “LENINIST EXTINCTION”)
“The Catholic church and the Communist party in formal terms are very much alike. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church said outside the church there was no salvation. The Communist party said the exact same thing. In Solidarity you didn't have one group against another group, you had an association of individual citizens, and ironically enough for a Marxist system, they were workers in effect saying, we don't need the tutelage of this group, we don't need you for salvation. And I think that was the undoing of communism, its inability to recognize in moral terms and in political terms the individual.”
(This reminded me of a self-made Chinese woman billionaire who was used to work in Western high finance, but decided to go back to China: “I missed the idealism.” I also love the way that Jowitt sees an essential similarity between St. Augustine and Stalin, and Aquinas and Khrushchev. The Catholic church is a perfect example of a totalitarian institution that used to be charismatic but then went into decline.)
Ken Jowitt, author of New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, argues that Lenin created a charismatic political party that gave people a heroic ideal. He compared it to monastic orders: the Benedictines and the Jesuits. I think the Marines are another charismatic organization, looking for “superior” men capable of total dedication. No one joins the Marines to get rich. It’s about being a hero.
That’s also why fundamentalist religions that make extreme demands keep attracting followers while the toothless, non-demanding churches lose membership. Charismatic organizations actually negate the individual: the group is everything. Forget your inner life, your individualism. You get your identity from the group to which you give yourself totally: “Totus tuus.” Idealism pushed to an extreme (being willing to die and kill for the cause) results in evil, but I don’t think we can ever rid human nature of the longing to live for a great cause and be a hero.
Renunciation, asceticism, total dedication, the heroic ethos — nothing could be more opposite of consumerism.
Jowitt also makes a point that sooner or later a charismatic organization loses its charisma. This is reflected in attempts to reform the system (Vatican II comes to my mind), but the more you reform, the less you demand of the faithful, the lesser the opportunity to be a hero and the greater the loss of the organization’s charisma. It doesn’t matter if it’s a right-wing or left-wing organization: both kinds feed the emotional hunger for heroism.
Jowitt: “I think in every ideology you'll find an Augustine and an Aquinas. The Augustines are those who argue that they represent the superior and that the rest of the world is inferior; you have to attack the inferior, maintain the cohesiveness and the bounded quality of the superior. The city of God versus the city of man. Now, I'm not arguing Stalin was a Roman Catholic or an Augustinian, but in analogous terms they were the same.
As soon as you dissolve the tension between that superior group and the society, unless the group is willing to allow those people in society to be equal as individuals, there's only one thing that can happen to that group: it becomes corrupt. Aquinas, in effect, tried to revise the church to deal with the fact that the society had become more Christian. Khrushchev was Communism's Aquinas, but neither Aquinas nor Khrushchev allowed for the individual to become the major figure. Rather, the church stayed superior, even under Aquinas; the party stayed superior. What happened in the church? You got a Luther. What happened in the Communist Party? You got a Lech Walesa and an Adam Michnik. And what did they stand for? They stood for the appearance of the individual against the domination of that group.”
There is also a need for an enemy: “You have to have a combat quality, there has to an enemy to sustain your need to convert the world. If you've converted the world, charismatics go out of business.”
Jowitt says that Gorbachev really thought he could reform the system; he didn’t realize he was dismantling the Soviet Union.
Currently the most charismatic organization seems to be ISIS, alas.
One can argue that the early communists exhibited a perverted version of heroism, in the wrong cause, but they were heroic nevertheless. Aleksander Watt, a Polish poet and an ex-Communist ("My Century" is his fascinating tale of Soviet prisons, which cured him of both Communism and dadaist poetry) remarked that the most attractive individuals he'd ever attracted were pre-war Polish Communists, a fairly small and persecuted group. Their courage and devotion were total. When the party was embattled it was not corrupt. It took coming into power to corrupt it. Just one more variation on the eternal theme.
“MARRIAGE IS A DISAGREEMENT MACHINE”
"NOTHING HAS PRODUCED MORE UNHAPPINESS THAN THE CONCEPT OF THE SOUL MATE," says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman. “A real relationship is the collision of my humanity and yours.”
"There is a mythology of 'the wrong person,'" agrees Pittman. "All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things.”
This reminded me of a statement by D.H. Lawrence: “Marriage is about disillusionment.” But of course it’s also about real estate, which this article does mention in the guise of “assets.” And it’s about the division of labor, I’d add. “These are the times when we miss our husbands,” a neighbor of mine said when I came to borrow her jump-start cables.
“The pragmatic benefits of partnership used to be foremost in our minds. The idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness is relatively new, says Paul Amato, professor of sociology, demography and family studies at Penn State University. Surveys of high school and college students 50 or 60 years ago found that most wanted to get married in order to have children or own a home. Now, most report that they plan to get married for love. This increased emphasis on emotional fulfillment within marriage leaves couples ill-prepared for the realities they will probably face.
In fact, argue psychologists and marital advocates, there's no such thing as true compatibility. "Marriage is a disagreement machine," says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. "All couples disagree about all the same things. We have a highly romanticized notion that if we were with the right person, we wouldn't fight." Discord springs eternal over money, kids, sex and leisure time, but psychologist John Gottman has shown that long-term, happily married couples disagree about these things just as much as couples who divorce.
"There is a mythology of 'the wrong person,'" agrees Pittman. "All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things. The magic is to develop binocular vision, to see life through your partner's eyes as well as through your own.”
Too many choices have been shown to stymie consumers, and an array of alternative mates is no exception. In an era when marriages were difficult to dissolve, couples rated their marriages as more satisfying than do today's couples, for whom divorce is a clear option, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
A committed relationship allows you to drop pretenses and seductions, expose your weaknesses, be yourself—and know that you will be loved, warts and all. "A real relationship is the collision of my humanity and yours, in all its joy and limitations," says Real. "How partners handle that collision is what determines the quality of their relationship.”
PROCRASTINATION AND THE POWER OF PRESENCE: EMBRACE THE TEDIUM
I learned this already in childhood: avoiding a small displeasure NOW often leads to a much greater distress later. Implementing this piece of wisdom, however, has turned out to be the work of a lifetime.
“Avoiding doing what needs to be done. Putting off till tomorrow what can and should be accomplished today. One aspect of procrastination is what I call the Sisyphus syndrome. As punishment by the gods for trying to eradicate and evade death, Sisyphus was fated to eternally roll a massive rock up a hill each day, only to have it roll back down just as he neared the top. We all share a similar existential fate. We are each required to routinely roll our metaphorical rock — whatever that may be — uphill every day, only to do it all over again tomorrow. It is arduous, difficult, tedious, boring and laborious work. But Sisyphus must do it. And so must we.
This tedious aspect of life is something many people try to avoid via procrastination. Like children, we would much rather play games than: do our math or history homework, or clean up our room. Who wants to wash dishes? Vacuum? Clean the bathroom? Do their taxes? Study for exams? Write their dissertation? We refuse to accept the difficult, dirty, tedious tasks in life, distracting ourselves instead with more amusing activities so as to avoid them. We resist and avoid shouldering the boulder.
But it should be remembered that for philosopher Albert Camus, in his famous little book The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Sisyphus found meaning, contentment and even happiness in accepting his fate. As must we all. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it : amor fati. Love your fate. Tedium is an inescapable part of our fate. And part of becoming an adult, of growing up, is accepting that life will at times be tedious.
One secret to accepting the existential fact of tedium is to assert depth psychologist Otto Rank's therapeutic mental maneuver he referred to as “the willing affirmation of the must.” We cannot totally eliminate tedium from our lives, but we can consciously will it by choosing to actively engage it. To throw ourselves into the tedious task fully and wholeheartedly, rather than resisting it. This shift in attitude toward tedium can, paradoxically, transform it.
The secret is to savor each moment as though it will be our last. Like it is all we have. Because, existentially speaking, it may be. Death is an ever-present possibility. There are a thousand ways to die. But we can also learn from the monk the importance of remaining as present as possible in the face of life's constant distractions, demands and crises. Being mindful of what we are doing and how we are feeling or thinking at all times. Cooking. Eating. Exercising. Driving. Making love. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Mindfulness, like meditation, is a skill. And like any other skill, it must be practiced in order to get good at it. So don’t expect instant results. Stay with it, however, and soon you too will be savoring strawberries. And doing that next thing that needs to be done. No matter what it may be.” ~ Stephen Diamond
Pondering when it’s easier to deal with tedious tasks, I’ve discovered that on days I feel quite happy those chores aren’t as hellish. In fact they are hardly a burden. It’s the days deficient in pleasure that also tend to make chores seem almost insufferable. But in fact, as this article points out, to avoid displeasure it’s enough to simply change one’s attitude: embrace the “awful” task as if it were delightful. Do it whole-heartedly. “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might” is my favorite sentence in The Ecclesiastes.
Photo of the week:
New York, July 1925: mother cat stops traffic
IF I KNEW MY LIFE WERE TO END A YEAR FROM NOW
If my life would be over in a year, this is what I would want:
“... simply take in as much beauty as we can from the world that offers it in such astounding abundance.”
~ while holding hands with the person I love.
Love the image of lightning and thunder and your comment is perfect for the picture.
Donald Trump is a perfect example of frontal lobes deteriorating.
I’m surprised that the art class was better than doing puzzles or cardiovascular exercise. I do all three so I should live very long….I hope, but you never know.
Interesting about the early plethora of gods and now with the expansion of secularism we have three standing, The God of the Hebrews, Christ and Allah.
IN BLACKBERRY WOODS is a beautiful way to end the blog.
This is definitely one of my favorite blogs.
I’d amend the sentence you quote to include holding hands as well. Freud said that the most important things in life are “love and work.” I’d amend that to “love and work and beauty.” And should the ability to work end, as may happen, love and beauty would be enough.
Surprised that you are surprised about the effectiveness of an art class on cognitive function! Creating art is challenging to the brain, and socializing is involved as well — lots of brain areas light up when we socialize.
The vanishing gods . . . The main Hindu gods are holding up pretty well. But I wonder if they’ll survive an increase in prosperity. It’s poor people who need religion most, and who seem to get the most out of religious festivals, which in India include an ecstatic element such as dancing. That part of religion I’d actually love to see surviving rather than being displaced by sports bars.
That particular Saturday’s Child has already had 94 views. This is a lazy way to do a blog, but right now it suits me particularly well. I just wonder if I’ll get too spoiled to return to longer original essays. And for those who may be wondering why this particular development: I happened to read a study that concluded that my type of post gets the fewest “likes” on Facebook and is the least read (since it actually requires reading). I realized that choosing the best posts for the blog, with some commentary, was a way of making my best finds available to readers who really do read, and of archiving this content. It’s part of my “harvesting” project.