The Best Way Out

Robert Frost famously included, in a long piece entitled ” A Servant to Servants,” the bit that

…the best way out is always through.

The most useful thing I’ve learned from meditation is to see how much of life I end up tossing out or avoiding because of a moment of pain. One little jolt of disapproval from even a relative stranger, and I might go spinning off into some drawn out dance of fix-it-fast-to-keep-everybody-feeling-comfy-most-especially-ME. This is avoidance, and to spin into that path is to just spin and spin, going nowhere. The trick to going “through” is to stick right with the jab of nausea and the fake smile, and to know these as simply momentary off-ness and reactive artifacts. These discomforts last practically no time, send up a little flurry of thought-based falsehoods, which when allowed to clear themselves lead to a perfectly fine follow-up moment that contains all manner of viable possibilities.

As a meditation teacher, I most often find myself simply offering people invitations to see what they don’t like. The face burn of shame, the throat-fist of anger, the heaviness of despair…If you can see it, you can tend to it. If you tend to it, then it gets handled, without unnecessary drama. Soon enough, then, you and it make peace and/or go on your merry ways. If you spend your life doing everything but see it, you and it’ll be stuck together for the duration.

What is it you’re working so hard not to see your way through?

~ Margaret


The Bastard Muses

A quarter of a century ago, Cleanth Brooks, an avid student of all things literary warned Americans about the deceptive powers of the “bastard muses”. We think of a muse as a spirit that inspires us and gives us insight. The opposite would be a spirit that sucks the life out of us and blinds us to the truth. Brooks listed three such muses: propaganda, sentimentality and pornography. His words bear repeating.

  • Propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth.
  • Sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion.
  • Pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.

All three share the capacity to portray any subject out of context. The most artful propaganda relies not on outright lies but lies of omission; ignoring facts that are relevant but contrary to the advocate’s position. Sentimentality gives us emotional satisfaction but ultimately is just a diversion. Pornography, whether sexual or violent, is a more raw form of sentimentality and has the same effect.

It is the recurring theme of this blog that we need to be thoughtful and aware of the external and internal forces that work upon us. I think Brooks did a nice job of summing up three of the prevailing factors that lead to tunnel vision. You might want to do as I did when I read them — tally up just a few examples of the propaganda, sentimentality and pornography that surrounds us. It’s not a cheery activity but it will keep you on your toes. And unfortunately, you will find it easy to do.

Many thanks to my friend Tom Stites, who is spearheading a drive to save local journalism through the Banyan Project, for bringing Brooks’s words to my attention.


When the ‘Better’ Story Isn’t

In my last post, I laid out the case from The Life of Pi that given the choice between two explanatory stories – neither of which we can prove conclusively to be correct — we should choose the better story. We should choose the one that inspires us and sustains us through times of hardship and promotes kindness.

There’s a counter argument. I came across it on and it’s a critique of imagination, which might be thought of as the well spring of better stories. It was written by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli

Many say today that, after all, there are no “good ideas” and “bad ideas”. All ideas can be good. I hear this in philosophy departments, from very smart colleagues:  “every idea is right in its own context”; or “everything is better than lack of creativity”. …

To a large extent, we live in narrations we weave ourselves. So, why not just go for the sweetest of these? After we have freed ourselves from the close-mindedness of the past, why not feel free? We can create enchanting explanations, images of ourselves, of our own great country, of our great society. We can be fascinated by our own dreams.

Vimal R. photo of the sun seen through a piece of glass

A shard of glass can capture the sun (but don’t step on it) Courtesy of Vimal R. via Flickr

But something tells me we should worry. We live inside a real world, where not all the stories are equally good, equally effective. One dream out of many is the good one. Few explanations are the correct ones. …

Scientific intelligence met the triumphs that have lead us here by positing theories and by being extraordinarily suspicious about its own products. My worry is that we are going overboard with our contemporary fascination with imagination, and, in so doing, we risk losing track of the harsh independence of the world from the weakness of our minds.

Does Rovelli have a point? Is imagination too much in vogue these days? Is it the opiate of intellectuals that fills them with warm feelings at the price of seeing what is in front their noses?


The Life of Pi, Considered

On the eve of the Oscars, let us consider the book behind the “Life of Pi”, nominated for 11 academy awards. The make-believe forward to the book relates a random but portentous conversation between the author and an elderly man he meets in a coffee house in India. As they talk, the man says “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The conversation leads the author to a man called Pi and his fantastic story of survival for over 200 days at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger.  Whether the novel and the invented forward, is an affirmation of God is debatable.

It is more likely a tribute to the power of imagination and our ability to convert our worldly experiences into stories that can rise above the limits of pure reality.

Life of PiYes, the main character so loves the concept of God that he is simultaneously a devout Christian, Hindu and Moslem. Yes, at the moment he is cast into the sea, he cries “What is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities — the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers?”

Some reviewers see in the film the triumph of religion, but jump to the end of the tale when Pi is on dry land, telling his story to two insurance investigators looking into the shipwreck that set Pi adrift. When he tells them the story with the tiger, they don’t believe it. So he gives them a different story, one that has people instead of animals, and they seem more comfortable.

But he presses on. “Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

A wonderful essay by Florence Stratton gets to the heart of the book — to her, it’s all about the “better story”. Stratton reminds us that the idea of the “better story” shows up elsewhere in the book.

She writes, “Agnostics, Pi tells us, ‘lack imagination and miss the better story’ God’s existence, in other words, is a matter neither of fact nor of faith, but rather is a better story than the one told by those who doubt or deny God’s existence.”

A better story is one that inspires us, keeps us alive in the face of unbearable adversity, shows us how to be moral creatures. If it achieves all that, does it matter whether it comes from inside us or comes from some higher sentient being? If we, like the two insurance investigators, can’t know which is true, does the story lose power because it springs from human imagination rather than an outside force?

~ Jon

3 frameworks for the end of life: two I buy and one I don’t

My nearly 90-year-old mother has been faced with some tough situations regarding her 94-year-old sister. These situations have been tough enough that they’ve caused my mother to ask “What’s it all for. What’s the point of carrying on?” I accept these questions. They are reasonable ones to raise when both the need for care and the family tensions of how to move forward rise exponentially.

In several intense conversations, three frameworks for reaching answers have presented themselves. The first is rooted in the logic that drives most of us during our working lives and in my opinion ought to have no bearing during our waning years and is likely flawed all the time. The second and third lead in opposite directions and yet are equally valid.

The first could be paraphrased as “So long as I contribute and produce something of value to the world at large, then I have worth and have a claim to life. But absent that, I have neither.” It would be easy to dismiss this as a bit of Calvinist claptrap except that many of us implicitly live by it when we are well and healthy. Few of us would not want to work in the outside world in some way. That work reassures us of our purpose and meaning on this earth. But I don’t buy it, at least not entirely. As a yardstick of personal value, it is more of a trap for the unwary, than a carrot to inspire us to greater effort.

Courtesy of Jukka Vuokko via Flickr Creative Commons

Courtesy of Jukka Vuokko via Flickr Creative Commons

The second holds that we have the right to die with dignity and that when we decide we’ve lived long enough and have had a good run, it is fine to check out on our own schedule. I can not argue with this. So long as it comes from long reflection and ideally conversations with those closest to us, it seems noble, respectful and rational.

The third framework says that even when we can no longer care for ourselves and might not even recognize those who love us, we still have value because we become the vessel and focal point for that quality that makes us human above all others — our capacity for caring relationships. In a slightly different way, I’ve written on this before. If we weren’t hardwired for complex supporting relationships, we wouldn’t be human. It’s in our DNA. When we allow others to show their compassion for us, we fulfill our role as a species. It’s hard to argue that that isn’t worth a lot.

I leave it to you to suss out your own responses to these frameworks. If you agree with me that numbers 2 and 3 are equally valid, then you might want to consider why they lead to opposite conclusions.  Happy thinking.


Our Bodies, Our Colds

Those of you familiar with the women’s health guide of the early 1970s will recognize my admittedly cheeky reference. I take no exception with Our Bodies, Ourselves’ s premise but it is a useful pivot point for asking a separate question, when are our bodies not our own?

We are free to treat our body as a temple or to defile it. We can tattoo it, exercise it, engage in consensual acts between two adults with it, overfeed it, exhaust it, scent it, pamper it, dose it with foreign chemicals (recreationally or medically), and so on. For the most part, anything we do with our bodies is our own business, but I bet it would not take you long to come up with times when the way we treat ourselves is not simply a matter of personal choice.

I’m not thinking here of how our choices affect our immediate family or friends. The pain caused by alcoholism for example is not on my agenda. But the cost to others of our choice, as a hit on their pocketbooks or their health, is a different matter.

Take the case of the common cold. If you have it, you might feel well enough to go to the office, but should you and risk spreading the misery to others? At the very least, you warn your colleagues, avoid shaking hands, and cough into the crook of your arm. This seems to be only common sense.

Now consider vaccinations, a touchier subject. A recent article in Harper’s makes a good case that diseases like tuberculosis and small pox were only beaten back when vaccination programs got to two groups of people — those who were at high risk of getting the disease and those who were at low risk.

Courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr Creative Commons

Courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr Creative Commons

Not surprisingly, those with high risk tended to be lower class and those with less tended to be well to do. The more affluent group would have liked to believe they were above it all but in fact, they were key to solving a problem that touched the entire society.

You might also look at the business of motorcycle helmets. Here, a matter of personal choice can gin up medical costs that everyone has to share. The hospital either charges an insurance company which passes the costs on to other customers, or it absorbs the costs itself but passes them on in the form of higher fees to other patients.

What’s interesting is that with both vaccinations and motorcycle helmets we get caught up in the Western limits of individual rights. Your rights end where they infringe on my rights. It’s sort of a negative view of the world where the primary right is the right to be left alone. When the way you treat your body affects the happiness my body wants to enjoy, then we have a problem.

Of course, with vaccinations and helmets, not everyone sees it that way.


What’s your preference: do-overs or eternity?

Hindus and Buddhists, I’m told, believe in reincarnation. Christians, many of them at least, believe in a final judgment that leaves one in heaven or hell for eternity.

Which would you prefer? With reincarnation, you have multiple chances to get right with the universe. With Christianity, the pressure is on to get it right in this world, this time.

If you don’t care for this simple view, add whatever wrinkles you like to the question.