Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Doorman

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" - Mahatma Ghandi

People are agents of change, either by making something happen or by allowing natural forces to make it happen. Change comes in at least four varieties:

1) Change in movement: from being at rest to being in motion, being here vs being there, etc.
2) Change in quality: from greenness to ripeness, youngness to oldness, etc.
3) Change in quantity: from being scarce to being abundant in something, size, etc.
4) The Instantaneous Extra Special Change, from being not alive to being alive, from being one thing to being something new, etc.

The following is the story of a doorman:

"I watch who comes in, goes out. If I see a stranger, I stop him and find out where he's going. We call upstairs, we have to announce him. In the nighttime now, twelve o'clock, you have the door locked. The old days, we had the doors open. I didn't have to stop nobody. Then it was opened twenty four hours a day...

When the house was high class, the tenants look down on me. When they used to see me on the street they'd make believe they didn't know me There was a restaurant in here. I used to go there once in a while, they'd make believe they didn't see you. But it didn't bother me. Because I don't give a damn if they speak to me or not. Because I did my job a hundred percent. Even to this day, the old-timers, sometime they see you somewhere and they make believe you're not there. It's the truth. They think they're better. Years ago, sure they did..." - Fritz Ritter (from Studs Terkel, "Working" pg 126-7)

I think one of the most human qualities of this man is how he claims not to care about what others do.  Maybe he really is happy just for having the face-to-face interactions in the first place.  Most of us today "shop at home, we surf the Web, and at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history." (Contact)

I think that the world is full of people like this doorman, and that many people are lonely even in the company of others. They watch other people come and go, seldom stopping to have a closer look.  Their believe their efforts are good in spite of being inadequately rewarded, unnoticed or even ignored.  Time and experience wears on them who once considered themselves trusting and caring, so they close the door to their hearts earlier and guard their house more securely. However, the doorman in all his lowliness stands in a position of great power.  He stands as a guardian between two states of being: being outside and being inside.  We could say that by standing present he is facilitating or allowing a change to happen, either by actively introducing people into the building or by allowing them freely to go in.  In most cases where change occurs there is a catalyzing force involved.  Something has to get the ball to move, the negotiations to start, or the chicken to roast.  In the most important cases, it is clear what that force is:

"..Love is more than just a paper heart. It is the very essence of life. It is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But it is not at the end of a rainbow; it is at the beginning, and from it springs the beauty that arches across the sky on a stormy day. It is the security for which children weep, the meat and drink of youth, the adhesive that binds marriage and the lubricant that prevents devastating friction in the home; it is the peace of old age, the sunlight of hope shining through death. How impoverished are those who lack it, and how rich those who have it!" - Gordon B. Hinckley

"The balance and perspective which come from caring about others and allowing others to care for us form the essence of life itself. We need the inspired help of others to avoid deceiving ourselves." - Robert D. Hales

I think love is a good thing.  It is measured in the acts of those who love, and its scarcity or abundance determines how we will secure our house. If good things produce more good things, could that ultimate "good" be love, an efficient cause which facilitates and produces all good change? Good parents open the door for their children in ways that are motivated by great love.  Good teachers open the gates of opportunity and discovery for their students, increasing their knowledge and improving the quality of their lives. Many good people think that their efforts are wasted because they don't see the results, they don't get to see the fruit ripen.  I believe that in most cases the magnitude, direction, and quality of the changes, and in turn the rewards, depends on how much love they put into their work.  The good doorman knows his job and does it one hundred percent.

If you're not feeling the love, or feel it is not very abundant right now, what can you do to get some? Intentional change begins with a plan, and it could be as simple as a thought.  By thinking that you want more of something, or to move something from point A to point B you've already created a goal.  Remember that there are at least four ways to make a change, and only one of those is extra special and instantaneous. Every other change requires time. You could always ask someone to show you how to speed things along. There's a hard-working doorman somewhere who knows.

Plato offers further insight:

"And who will deny that the creative power by which all living things are begotten and brought forth is the very genius of Love? Do we not, moreover, recognize that in every art and craft the artist and the craftsman who work under the direction of this same god achieve the brightest fame, while those that lack his influence grow old in the shadow of oblivion?

"Such is the great and mighty, or rather omnipotent force of love in general. And the love, more especially, which is concerned with the good, and which is perfected in company with temperance and justice, whether among gods or men, has the greatest power, and is the source of all our happiness and harmony, and makes us friends with the gods who are above us, and with one another."

"I am convinced that mankind has never had any conception of the power of Love, for if we had known him as he really is, surely we should have raised the mightiest temples and altars, and offered the most splendid sacrifices, in his honor, and not- as in fact we do--have utterly neglected him.  Yet he of all the gods has the best title to our service, for he, more than all the rest, is the friend of man; he is our great ally, and it is he that cures us of those ills whose relief opens the way to man's highest happiness." (Symposium)

Love is the doorman.  But are there at least four kinds of love... good grief...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Material Matters

"The finest clothing made is a person's own skin but of course society demands more than this." - Mark Twain

It was Mark Twain who said that clothing makes the man, lamenting how society cares little for nakedness. I would ponder that statement given how the popularity of pornography seems to contradict it. We could at least take the above quote to mean that what we see of this outer shell of flesh, although it conceals a pile of organs, is more revealing about what's inside a person than any article of vestment they could wear over it. Perhaps Mark Twain was secretly an anatomist and aware of the wonder that is the skin.

What do artists, scientists, and philosophers say that man is made of? In a memorable episode of AMC's Breaking Bad, Walter White and his former research partner Gretchen give the following breakdown:

63% hydrogen,
26% oxygen,
9% carbon, 
1.25% nitrogen, 
.25% calcium,
.00004% iron, 
.04% sodium
.19% phosphorous.

That leaves .111958% unaccounted for. “What about the soul?” Gretchen asks. Walt has no answer for this 

Of course we generally accept that the remainder consists of a handful of trace elements, but we must thank the writers of the show for providing this fine moment of philosophical reflection.  Is it reasonable to believe that any part of what makes a man is "invisible"?  If it is real and made out of something rather than nothing, should we be able to measure it?

Currently, most people accept that atoms are the basic building blocks of matter, and anything we can touch, see, smell, taste, and weigh is made of atoms. In reality, however, what we know about atoms is that the meatiest part is far distant from the electrons that connect it with other atoms, therefore even objects that appear to be solid to the naked eye consist mostly of empty space!  It is interesting to note how by sound one does not directly detect matter considering the following passage from the bible:

"The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and wither it goeth.  So is everyone that is born of the Spirit."  John 3:8

We also know that atoms themselves are made up of particles so small that even the most precise instruments are only able to measure them using indirect means.  It will take more than a blog post to begin to treat the subject of whether or not we should believe in an immortal spirit housed inside a mortal human body, but as I said my intent is just to get the can open. My final suggestion for why you may want to believe comes from a video that I saw recently saying you can jump-start a car after you have taken it completely apart and put together again but you can't jump-start a dog after doing the same.

I want to do one more thing for this discussion: take a somewhat comprehensive look at the trite phrase "You are what you eat."

Most people nourish their bodies from the bio-molecules they obtain from eating plants and animals, so that can't be right in the literal sense... I haven't yet seen anyone grow wings from eating a lot of chicken...then again if we all evolved from a common ancestor then we could be dining on our former "selves"... Various meanings can be gleaned from such a phrase, not all of them important or useful. I find it most useful to think of it in terms of how people satisfy their hunger. In case you're not confused about what not to wear or what to eat yet, you should think about what kind of hunger you are experiencing. According to another philosopher,William G. Jordan, there are at least four:

1. Body hunger - concerned with basic biological needs.  I think that may include sex.
2. Mind hunger - a craving for knowledge and the things of the earthly intellectual realm
3. Heart hunger - a yearning for understanding from others, love, sympathy, appreciation
4. Soul hunger- a desire to know the things of a higher realm and commune with the Divine

The image invoked by the above is that of a vast, insatiable vortex inside every person. Whether or not you believe that the soul is responsible for this, every person feels when they are deficient in any of these categories. It does seem reasonable to believe that there is enough empty space inside of us that chicken salad molecules can't be enough to fill it.  A wise man once said:

"Our mind, which is like a tremendous reservoir itself, is capable of taking in whatever it may be fed--good and bad, trash and garbage, as well as righteous thoughts and experiences. As we go through life, we may be exposed to stories, pictures, books, jokes, and language that are filthy and vulgar, or to television shows and movies that are not right for us to see or hear. Our mind will take it all in. It has a capacity to store whatever we will give it. Unfortunately, what our mind takes in, it keeps--sometimes forever. It’s a long, long process to cleanse a mind that has been polluted by unclean thoughts." - H. Burke Peterson

There may be at least one more thing that makes the man: the experiences that form the fabric of his life. Just as wearing bright colors might indicate that we are feeling happy, and our appearance in general can say much about our inward condition, the situations we immerse ourselves in and what we do in them say much about the composition of our inner being. Martin Luther King said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  A poet wrote about how adversity is one of those basic elements that feeds and builds up the rings of a strong tree in the same way that it thickens the skin of a strong man:

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,

Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.

By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.

And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life. 

- Douglas Malloch

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Just Cause

"The important thing is that men should have a purpose in life. It should be something useful, something good" - Dalai Lama

If anyone is still reading this, I thank you for your continued interest.  The following ideas should sound familiar but could potentially melt your brain.  I highly recommend picking up a copy of Mortimer Adler's "Aristotle for Everybody" from your local library or on Amazon if you want more background knowledge.  So as to not become as the learned men of Socrates' time whose ignorance was quickly uncovered by the master, I readily acknowledge my own ignorance.  At least I hope I can offer a few good things to think about.

Some important questions have multiple yet contradictory answers, not unlike the dilemma of the chicken and the egg.  This applies to especially to humans, our current subject of interest. Although variations exist, the most persistent and powerful stories about how humans came to exist on the earth and why can be summarized as follows:

1. The first person evolved from an uncreated primitive life form on the earth
2. The first person was created on the earth

Each of these stories attempts to answer the "how" of mankind's origin but doesn't seem to bother with the "why".  Let's further examine the how, or in other words, how this grand thing we call a person was caused.  Generally the assumption is that there is a cause.  Aristotle suggested that each thing should have four. Since he was such a great guy we'll go with that and apply them as follows:

1. Material cause - out of what was the thing made?
2. Efficient cause - who caused the thing to be made?
3. Formal cause - what were the initial materials made into, in other words, what is it?
4. Final cause - why/for what purpose was the thing created?

We're getting closer to the "why" now and as you can hopefully see it is connected to the how.  How now brown cow.  The next question we should ask ourselves is whether or not we should bother with anything unless there is a purpose behind it, perhaps a real compelling one, but for now we will briefly look at each of the stories and what they say about causation and such:

Story #1 - Through a series of accidents and mutations over an indefinite yet lengthy period of time, freely floating inorganic elements on the formed earth combined, rearranged and multiplied to form a single, primitive organic life form which itself mutated and developed through a series of accidents...into what we now know as a person.

Story #2 - An intelligent being necessarily at a distance from the earth (because it was unformed) went on to combine the inorganic elements to form the earth and then from the materials of the earth formed a variety of life forms of which the human person is a distinct class.

Think through each of these and ask yourself what answers they give to the following questions: What materials is a human made of? Who made him if anyone? What is a human? For what purpose does a human exist?

Aristotle said that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it, but it is difficult to entertain contradictory thoughts without being colored by them.  It was Jesus who said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, a sentiment echoed by Abraham Lincoln, the American president who led the country through a devastating civil war.  If society mirrors what goes on inside the mind in this way, and if seeing a purpose in life is important to us, it seems imperative that we take a firm stance one way or another on this issue for our own sake.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Being Normal

"God must love the common man, he made so many of them." - Abraham Lincoln

I don't think I'm too far off when I say that today there is an obsession with being an individual, of making yourself stand out from the common crowd. Being normal means being boring, and nobody likes to bore or be bored.  Worms do that.  They are satisfied with boring through and digesting dirt their entire lives.  It simply does not enter the mind that partaking of the best of what life has to offer has anything to do with boring.   So, paradoxically, I'm now looking high and low for information about what people have said concerning normal people and see if there is any reason to actually want to be normal.  I'm not the best writer or anyone really qualified to lead any sort of philosophical discussion, but I like to explore things like this. I'll do my best to give you a reason to care by sharing some of what I've found.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace prize winner, author and holocaust survivor once said:

We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.

Another important guy, C.S. Lewis, said this:

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit” 

Immortals? Zombies. I think I definitely would be in awe to learn suddenly that I work with or married a zombie. I'm not married so I'm okay there I think. Unless I'm a zombie.

Well, if there are no ordinary people, should we fall down and worship everyone we meet at the grocery store or the gas station? Should we strain our eyesight trying to see people in that glorious, immortal sense?. Worms don't have eyes do they? But they do eat dead things...

The idea is that all people are somehow extraordinary to the point that we should be in awe of each other. Should we ask the CDC to issue some sort of pamphlet on how to check for undead-ness?