Politics From Two Sides, Part 3

V.

I’ve never concerned myself much about things like demographics and target audiences, but in sending this out, I’d like to dedicate it to the cynical, the indifferent, those who are skeptical of whether any good can come out of political involvement—at least, through human design rather than chance, which, after all, operates equally well under all governments and leaders. Whether you are a disillusioned idealist or disenchanted with a system you are not yet qualified to participate in, whether you feel like you ought to care or just feel that you have better things to do, I think that there are good reasons to consider the matter from a new perspective.

Hang on, I think my soapbox is a little crooked. Give me a second—okay, that’s better. Where was I?

Perspectives are what I do here. It’s right in the title. Politics usually fall outside my purview, but this is something that affects all of us who are citizens of the United States. Life will go on after the election—life already has gone on. It always does. The initial disbelief, anger and panic have faded, and that’s for the best, but it would be a shame if people conclude from this that they don’t have to do anything now.

Doing nothing isn’t a position of neutrality:  it’s a form of acquiescence with the status quo. If we acquiesce in the way we live our lives, we lose our right to speak out against it. Life may always go on, but something important often gets lost in the process, even more so when an entire society has to start taking terrible things for granted to make life going on possible. We may not think of ourselves as political individuals, but if living authentic lives matters to us, then we cannot remain indifferent to politics.

Those who are already inclined to get involved should also consider this point. There are many forms of hypocrisy in the world, and in the political realm, the most common one is to excuse yourself for the same practices you berate your opponents for. Many people feel like they can’t be convincing advocates unless they make extravagant promises and sweeping generalizations and use every little slip-up on the other side to their own advantage—that if they don’t, they can’t compete with their opponents, and are hurting their cause. Or perhaps they believe that faith in a cause is incompatible with self-criticism—which is really the same issue at bottom. If you’re dealing with people who are certain, then you may feel like uncertainty on your part is likely to be taken for a sign of weakness rather than a recognition of ambiguity and the need for moving the discussion onto a deeper level.

These are reasons people may give when they do it themselves. But when their opponent does it, it’s because they’re liars, they’re sneaky and underhanded, they’re too stupid to know better, their followers are too stupid to apply even a tiny bit of scrutiny. But if their own were to start asking difficult questions, would they themselves start to wonder whether these people are really on their side?

The results of this are debates in which reality and the words being exchanged no longer bear any natural relation to each other—which is possibly why so many people choose not to say anything. To them, politics has become synonymous with hypocrisy. The extent to which “the media”—a much-used but rather odd collective designation—is guilty of this hypocrisy as well is probably the reason for much of the criticism it’s now receiving—usually from other bits of “the media,” oddly enough.

And as for those followers:  who knows how many of them are letting themselves get duped as a way of proving to the world what a great leader so-and-so is, thus earning more supporters on account of so-and-so being so popular? And the more polarized the dialogue becomes, the easier it becomes to take positions that, if you considered them candidly, you’d have admit weren’t chosen with much care. When the people on one side are obviously and demonstrably wrong, that makes the choice easier, right?

No, it doesn’t. And if you want proof of it, just watch them using the same logic over on their side. It will probably look a little different on the surface, and probably a lot more egregious. But as long as the people on one side can say “Why should I play fair when they’re not doing it over there?” then the people on the other side will be able to say it as well. And at that point, the question of who started it becomes irrelevant. The question you should be asking is “Who’s keeping it going?”

And it’s almost never a question that has only one answer.

But to be honest, I am not a purely neutral party regarding the current political situation. I believe that when considered dispassionately, one side of the scale dips significantly lower than the other. I’m willing to believe that “the media” is not wholly honest, that perhaps some sneaky things going on behind closed doors are not receiving the attention they deserve—but not when the accusations are coming from people whose dishonesty is apparent even on the surface, and who have thoroughly discredited themselves through their rejection of courtesy, responsibility and logic. Put less diplomatically:  I find Donald Trump an appalling human being. He is a narcissist, he is crazy—and not the good kind of crazy, let me add.

I don’t mean this as an expression of how appalling I find him, but as a statement of fact. I would not be discourteous enough to say it myself it if hadn’t become everyone’s business. Yes, he has been successful in the corporate world. Being insane doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ineffective— if your society is insane in the same way you are, you might be very effective within certain limits. The trouble only becomes clear when you try to step outside them, and unfortunately, one of the consequences of crazy is that you are no longer capable of seeing where those limits are. Someday, at some critical juncture, Trump is going to have to choose between ego-bolstering and the good of the country. That’s what I’m afraid of. There are worse things that might happen, but this is the one that is going to happen just because of who he is and the position he holds.

We might wonder:  why do people like Trump?  Some of his supporters, I know, are glad to see him in office because they think he’ll make decisions that will increase their material well-being or because it upsets people they think of as enemies. But the main reason he’s got fanatics on his side, the people who will follow him no matter what he does or says, is simply because he isn’t a politician. He’s honest, they might say. He says things like they are. And that’s completely wrong:  he’s not honest. He’s even more of a showman than the rest of them. It’s just a different kind of show, and I’m betting that many of them know this, at least on some level.

But there is a kernel of truth to the claim:  people who try not to cause offense, who try to make themselves appealing to groups of people who find very different things appealing often end up appearing colorless, generic and lacking in integrity. And while that does keep them from being effective policy makers, it makes sincerity impossible—it makes hypocrisy habitual.

Trump isn’t being honest, but he is being himself. That’s what people like about him; that’s what people hate about him. That’s character. Bernie has it too, and he had integrity as well, which is why I would have liked to see him in office, even though I’d probably be a conservative if conservativism hadn’t developed into such a toxic culture by the time I reached voting age. But since Trump is what we have, all we can do at this point is try for a response that’s constructive rather than the next step on the downward spiral.

I’d like to see a more open, thoughtful atmosphere within parties and between parties; I’d like to see a political atmosphere where the word “personal” is not invariably followed by “attack,” where politicians can take it for granted that they and their opponents are both doing what they think is right for the whole, and that the disagreement is simply over what that might be. These are cultural problems and not political problems as such, which suggests that it will have to arise outside the system before the system itself becomes healthier. I’d personally like to see the arts help to foster such a culture, but that’s a story that will have to wait for another occasion.

And as far as practical measures go, I’d like to see basic logic made a standard part of school curricula—at least as early as high school, maybe even earlier. Faulty logic isn’t the cause of hypocrisy, but it’s invariably the way that hypocrisy expresses itself, and once recognized as such, it loses all its persuasiveness. For everyone, and not only those who are specialists, to be able to spot when people are using bad arguments and put a name to them that the people around them will understand would be no small improvement.

So what is the cause of hypocrisy, then? There are many ways one could answer that, and I don’t think it ultimately boils down to just one thing anyway, but a major aspect of it is failing to recognize that your own life and your own destiny are inextricably bound with those of others, mostly in ways that you will never know. Faulty logic is one expression of it, but most kinds of partisanship are expressions as well. The world is complicated enough without trying to arrange the order of things so that certain people are hurt and certain others receive a little extra benefit. This is exactly the kind of political wrangling that will turn out results due to chance—or whatever you’d like to call it. We have to keep the good of the whole in mind—that’s the only way that makes sense.

So yes, I think that, in general, we should try to involve ourselves. But as a final note: I also think that there are also times in our lives when it’s better to step back from involvement with politics. These are the times where we take a step back from active involvement in many areas of life to figure out what kinds of lives we want to lead, to distinguish what matters to us from what we’re doing out of habit or a misplaced sense of duty. This is also necessary to leading an authentic life, and it’s hard to manage it when you’re constantly in the thick of it. There may also be people whose other commitments are so compelling that they genuinely can’t afford to spare the time and attention to politics, and even those who take such a wide view of things that they can accept whatever happens without falling into hypocrisy. But I don’t think there are many people like this, and they already know who they are. If you don’t, it’s not you.

There may be whole eras when most people can afford to avoid politics, but I feel confident in predicting that the one we’re entering will not be one of them. We will be challenged; we will have to make difficult choices. Hope is a nice game to play sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether what we’re looking forward to actually becomes reality:  the important thing is to keep looking forward so that we can face the challenge that’s already facing us head-on.

VI.

“I had an interesting dream last night,” my mother says. We’re in the car together, on the way back from a visit to some relatives—for me, a visit-within-a-visit. “I was at a party, and Draco Malfoy was there. I was talking to him and thinking that he didn’t seem like such a bad person after all.”

My mother seems to spend a great many of her dreams attending parties, often in the company of the fictional and famous—or maybe those are just the most enjoyable ones to talk about. Once, she even met the grim reaper at one and had a nice round on the dance floor with him.

“Mine was interesting, too,” I say. “I was planning out a story.” We’re all the actors, script writers and directors of our dreams as well as the audience, but it probably says a lot about me that not even my dreams always make it to the production stage. “It was about a man who had once been the president of a country. Most people there felt that he had been a good leader, but years later, a radical group came to power, and they were stirring up bad feeling towards this man—so much that his life was in danger. I was thinking that I had to protect him—that you can’t judge the actions of people in the past by standards that didn’t even exist at the time.”

My mother, always the historian, agrees wholeheartedly. My father, who’s driving, doesn’t say anything. I wonder if he understands. Probably not—it’s a tricky one. I didn’t understand it myself until just now. But just maybe, something important will still make it across.

This is the last time I’ll be seeing either of them for a while.  I’ll be out of the country for the next few months—something I had planned long before the election, though not without an eye towards the future. So many times, I’ve come back to the States and found everything just the same as when I left it, but that’s something I no longer feel safe counting on. I’m not counting on anything at this point.

I’m glad I could come here first, but it did mean missing the lutherie’s first political meeting, and my trip will mean not being able to attend any of them for a while. The lutherie is an interesting place— part workshop, part concert venue, and now set to become a sort of community center as well. It’s technically not my community—where I’ve been living, there’s no community in the proper sense of the word unless you can speak Korean—but I’ve been spending more and more time around that town lately. It’s a place that lost its purpose when industry moved out and is currently trying its hardest to become like the neighborhood where I’m usually found on Friday nights—but not really like it, you understand.

“You may be aware that we lean towards the left,” the owner had said at intermission when he announced the upcoming meeting last week, “but we welcome all opinions.” The week after the election, he had come out at intermission to give a speech about smashing capitalism, so yes, I’d say they lean a little towards the left here. But I’m also sure he meant it when he said that all opinions were welcome. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former philosophy student, and he and his son are among the most open, welcoming people I’ve known. If the typical philosophical debate is like a duel, and the typical political debate is like a street brawl, then there—well, maybe it will be a little like a dance. It would have been the perfect place to start, but maybe I’ll have something to contribute myself by the time I get back.

But maybe I’m selling myself short– a person who sees the world differently always has something to contribute. There’s a saying I once heard from a judge at a conference—a saying that she learned from her grandmother:  “No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.” Normally, I just write things down and forget them, but some things have a way of staying around.

Every question has two sides—but there are many ways of cutting them, and for me, even the political ones don’t have a right and a left, but an outside and an inside.

 

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(Image Source)

Politics From Two Sides, Part 2

III.

But that night, it became clear that simply being open wasn’t enough.

In the dream, I’m in a room like the living room of my old house in M—, lying on the floor. A man is outside the window—it’s a large one, taking up almost the entire wall— trying to get my attention. I pretend to be asleep, but he still seems to know I can hear him. He’s insulting me, challenging me to a duel with him, which has some connection with events in the past. Damn. If that’s the way it’s going to go, I don’t have a choice.

I get up to arrange things with him. Tomorrow morning, maybe, so it’ll be over before my class at 11:00. That works for him too, although I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t. I know this is a fight I’m unlikely to come out the better in, especially after having gone through the surgery. But this man isn’t an enemy—he seems to be a sympathetic person, although a little dangerous, too. He also seems familiar in a way I can’t place. When I think of him later, after waking up, I find that he reminds me a little of a couple people, but I can’t put my finger on why… (November, 2016)

The thing about arguing with yourself is that you always know which buttons to press.

In the past, I’ve thought that there’s no practical reason to be up on politics if you’re not directly involved with them. The only reasons to do so are because being well-informed is considered a social virtue nowadays and for the sake of winning arguments, and I don’t seek arguments out—but my opinion is out there now, and that’s something that does tend to invite them. And now I’ve got to do something.

I’m right to think I’m unlikely to make a difference by doing so—nobody can promise success to me or to any cause I choose to champion— but that’s not the point. You choose the side you think is right, not the one you think is going to win, even if it means standing alone. Yes, I’ve insulted him, but it’s an insult to all reasonable people for him to be sitting up there issuing executive orders. And I’m not going to take that lying down like some kind of goddamn consequentialist.

It’s hard to take up anew something that you thought you’d given up, I think as I look over my notes. It’s hard to pursue such an unappealing subject when you already have a lifetime’s work ahead of you waiting to be realized, and all you lack is time. It’s hard not to turn away in disgust after the first glance. But once I start, it shouldn’t be difficult. I have a good foundation to build on—and it’s precisely because I chose to ignore things like politics for so long.

And after all, my interest in philosophy was first sparked by a work of political philosophy—Plato’s Republic. I remember being fascinated by that metaphor of his—that a person is like a city-state on a smaller scale, with different drives like the various groups of citizens working together to create a harmonious whole—and that’s what justice is.

Republic
Politeia

And I know all that’s still in there somewhere. My dreams have used the metaphor many times since then. It seems to be common for people to use houses to represent themselves in dreams, but ironically, I seem to be more civically minded than most in that respect. There have been times when I was practically using political analysis to understand myself—and if it got me as far as it did, then maybe it’ll work in reverse, too. Maybe spending all that time in the smoky back-rooms of consciousness where the decisions get made will prove useful in ways I never imagined.

That evening, I receive a text message from my father—the first one this month. He wants to know how the Liberal contingent in the household is handling the election results. Following his inquiry are seven crying emoticons and a broken heart.

I understand that all cats are libertarians, I type, and so the majority of the household is presumably quite content. We’re celebrating by replacing every litterbox in the house.

IV.

Of course, any major endeavor will have to wait until the semester is over. But that won’t be long now. It’s already December, finals are just a couple weeks away.

On the third night, I had another dream which seemed relevant, though not as dramatic as the ones preceding it. I was taking a test, written in German. It was the second test I had to take that class period—everybody had done the first one, but I had to make this one up from some previous occasion when I had been gone. I was tired out and could hardly focus, but I had just one question left to answer—something to do with Hermann Hesse.

And certainly, the question I’m dealing with now is one that most of my peers have already dealt with long ago, with more or less satisfactory results. And it may not be a coincidence that the test concerns someone who was more interested in his inner life than in combatting the political abuses that characterized his time. He felt accomplishments in that realm were far more enduring than those in the ephemeral world of politics. And it’s true that his have proven enduring—but his silence has earned him criticism from later generations.

Is it fair to implicitly compare the current trends to the ones preceding the Nazi era like that? It would be nice if I could dismiss it as exaggeration, but if so, it hasn’t been earning me any subconscious criticism. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is fair. Maybe I’ve just spent so much time among philosophers that even the deep-down parts of me care more about being consistent than being correct. But my dreams are so consistent in discouraging me from taking an overly negative view of things that it would be odd for them to let it pass without comment now. This may be a case where the pessimistic forecast is the realistic one.

In any case, that seemed to be the end of that particular exchange. It has now been a week since it began:  it’s Friday night again, and I’ve just finished making a more successful attempt on the metaphysics of color.

But as I walk down the street, I don’t sense so much anger the way I did last time. Something else is in the air—something much harder to define.

Some teenage girls wave goodbye to one another, each heading off in a different direction. Two women are selling hot chocolate by the street corner next to the ice cream shop, which even on this cold December night has a line so long that some people have to stand outside. A group of children is comparing the Christmas ornaments they must have purchased in one of the shops that’s still open. I catch scraps of conversation as the people go by.

“You’re not allowed to step on the cracks, Mommy.”

“Someone farted in yoga today.”

“People realize, but, like—it’s just—it’s just—“

But I’m past before I get to hear what it is.

Two men are walking a few steps ahead, but one turns and walks back the other way. The other mutters to himself, makes gestures—he’s clearly under the influence of something. After a little while, he turns to me. “I try to hold myself back, like I used to, but it irritates me,” he explains. I nod as sympathetically as I can without committing myself to a social interaction. I stop at the street corner as the light turns red, but he keeps going and is soon out of sight.

On a porch, a homeless man is sleeping, a pizza box lying beside his head. Did someone buy him a pizza, I wonder?

I turn off onto the street where my car is parked. It is much quieter here—just two men walking in front of me and another man standing some distance off. When they reach him, they stop. But I don’t hear any conversation as I walk past—only the jingle of coins.

The rest of the street is deserted and silent. This is a residential street— the only place people have to park their cars is along the street in front of their houses, and the competition is fierce. I once saw a man here get out of his car and set an orange traffic cone in the spot where it had been parked before driving off. But I’ve found that there’s always space down at the other end, in front of the cemetery.

The line rises up out of memory: “You had such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands….” T.S. Eliot. A conservative in politics—which meant something rather different in his time—and a steadfast opponent of simplistic ideologies of every sort. And he understood better than anyone how it is that you can catch only fragments and end up feeling like you’ve grasped so much more—perhaps even the whole thing.

-To Be Continued-

Politics From Two Sides

I.

It’s another Friday night down at the neighborhood bar, but there’s something that isn’t right about the atmosphere this time. There’s an undercurrent of fear and anger running through the conversations at the neighboring tables, and every single one of them is a political conversation.

It’s been like that all day. The lawyers at their conference couldn’t talk about anything else either. It wasn’t just a forecast of legal changes, the way you might expect in the weeks following a presidential election:  it was preparing for a storm. Even the traffic this morning seemed angrier than usual.

I am listening to the conversations—just listening, and thinking things over. I’ve been able to get by with ignoring politics up until now, but I wonder whether that’s still going to be possible. It isn’t that a piece of legislation has never affected me personally—the Affordable Care Act did, and especially the period of uncertainty in the months before its passage. If it had been passed a few months sooner, there’s no saying what kind of a life I’d now be living.

That would have been the time to take up advocacy, I suppose, but I was tired of having my future tossed around by forces outside my control. I surveyed the forces that for all I knew held my life in balance—it had taken many of them, working at cross-purposes, to get me into a mess that big—and thumbed my nose at them. I chose instead to focus on what I knew I could change—myself. If I only live fully, I thought, and pursue my ambitions wholeheartedly, and be happy in spite of everything, then I am the one in control—not the political system, not the health care system, not any system. That was a strange, chaotic time. It was as if I were standing on a sinking ship, having to cast things overboard, and political engagement was one of the things that went.

I hadn’t missed it, either. In the time that followed, there were entire months when I had to walk 10 Kilometers for an internet connection, when I only picked up newspapers in order to line birdcages with them—and when I finally did catch up with the world, I found that I hadn’t missed a thing. The same old arguments, exaggerations and misinformation were still being bandied about. And all of it just confirmed what my studies had already brought home to me. In music, when we shift around in a predictable way, repeat ourselves a few times and end up exactly where we began, we call it progress—and that seems to be the way it happens in history, too.

But I really should be focusing on my studies right now. The book is lying open in front of me on the table next to my glass of cider. It’s a book on the metaphysics of color, possibly the most pointless branch of philosophy there is. Actually, the author himself would agree—he’s writing in the tradition of Wittgenstein, he doesn’t even think it’s possible to practice metaphysics. The book is quite good for what it is, but right now it’s a little hard to care. Where else but philosophy do you find people writing books on subjects they don’t believe it’s possible to know anything about?

I think back to class a couple weeks ago. That afternoon, the professor had announced to us that we would get out early because he had a conference to attend. But, he added, color might be a sore spot today anyway. We knew what he meant. All of us had seen the solid wave of red sweeping the maps from east to west last night. Not our state, of course—it was never contentious the way we were going to go.

But even in a decidedly blue state, in our tiny, four-person class—I can’t imagine why so few people wanted to take a course on the metaphysics of color—there was dissent. I got into an argument after class with a fellow student. He seemed to think that since neither of us found either candidate appealing, we were mostly in agreement, but I didn’t see it that way at all. For him, Trump represented the lesser of two evils. As for me—well, perhaps you could find a candidate who represents the greater of two evils when set beside Donald Trump, but I’m not sure where you’d have to go to look. Maybe in Innsmouth. All the rest are just politicians—nothing better, nothing worse—but he’s something far worse. The night before election day, I dreamed about Hitler. Hitler with a bullwhip. I may not be a political person, but I am concerned with the way things are looking.

And my father was there, too—I had hoped that having his lifelong dream fulfilled would have halted his transformation into a reactionary, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Everybody who doesn’t hold conservative views is now an enemy, including me, even though I’m not actually a liberal either. I’m not anything. If there were an award for being the least political human being within a thousand miles of Washington, D.C., I would be a good candidate for it, and every time I see him he still tries to pick fights over politics. I saw real hatred there behind his words—which is why it’s so alarming to see so much anger here now, on the other side. Everywhere around me, people are trying to make themselves into strawmen.

“I wouldn’t wish the man on anybody,” I had said towards the end of our conversation, “but perhaps this will help us all figure out what’s important.” In every ordeal, there’s an opportunity to grow stronger, to remake ourselves. It’s something I learned myself, back when things were bad. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be applicable on a national level, too.

And yet—what can I do? Self-conscious group affiliation of any kind is a concept that’s never made emotional sense to me, which is one reason I don’t have a political affiliation. I never felt like I belonged to something larger than myself until I became a Buddhist—which, being based on a shared sense of non-identity, doesn’t help me much there.

And in spite of having spent the years often referred to as formative here in the States*, very little of the culture rubbed off—or, rather, any of the cultures. None of the standard political positions makes sense—all the lines that I see others defend so vehemently seem to be drawn in strange and arbitrary places. And what’s good for one person is always bad for another—how are you supposed to choose? Self-interest? But no, that’s one thing I am sure of—the sum total of people’s self-interest will never add up to something that’s good for everyone.

And to top it all off, there’s nothing that annoys me more than having people try to convince me to adopt their views, unless it’s having them try to do it in sneaky, subliminal ways. Debates are okay in philosophy, where people are trained not to identify themselves with their arguments and nobody changes anyone else’s mind anyway. It’s all okay if there’s some actual state of affairs to be discovered that’s one way and not another. But goals, values, how others should live their lives—that’s another matter. I’d make a lousy advocate because I’d be doing it with a bad conscience.

Am I a fatalist? Probably. But it really seems like there’s nothing I can do here, and if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to feel bad about it. Maybe just trying to keep hold of a comprehensive, unaggressive perspective and living from it in the midst of a difficult time is the best I can manage.

It’s clear that I’ve done all the studying I’m going to do for the night. I pack up my book and notebook—the latest page of which has far more musings over politics than metaphysics— put the tip on the table and leave. Instead of heading straight for my car, I take a walk along the street—the poster child of revitalized downtown areas for miles around, although you don’t have to go far to find the streets it’s better not to walk down.

I recall another dream from the week after the election. In that one, I was in a classroom for some kind of math course, and sitting next to me was none other than the president-elect. I asked him a couple questions. He paused, trying to figure out whether I’d just insulted him. He determined—correctly—that I had, but he just laughed, brushed it off.

Then I’m in another room, with a couple classmates. They’re having a conversation in German about the election, and I join in. “Guess who was sitting next to me in class today?” I ask. “It was like a bad dream…”

-To Be Continued-

Vestigia

I.

Two men stand by the cliff’s edge. Ahead of them and down, the most desolate of landscapes, a stark, dry wasteland continuing unbroken on either side as far as the eye can see. But on the other side—a few hundred meters away, perhaps—it ends abruptly in another cliff face, this one too tall and sheer to be believed. They are looking into a canyon.

It would be better not to have to do this—but there aren’t many options left at this point.

It has been decided. Something is precipitating, taking a more definite form—a boulder now stands beside the men. One is holding a large hammer. With a powerful swing, he sends the boulder tumbling down into the canyon below. It picks up speed as it barrels across and slams against the opposing wall with a blow that can be felt throughout the whole landscape.

The wall reverberates, dust falls—but something more is happening. A column of dust-filled air is separating itself from the cliff face, from the bottom all the way to the distant top. It is a long, thin tornado, but more than a tornado. It is a snake—a cobra with its hood spread, standing and watching. Waiting.

To challenge a god to a contest of skill, I know, is hubris; to challenge one to a game of chance is merely disreputable. Unless, of course, you happen to share monsieur Pascal’s opinion.

Below the serpent lies the boulder. It has become pocked and sharp-edged from its rough journey—practically cubical. It is, in fact, a six. That was its roll, and it means there’s about an even chance of doing better. The scene fades out—elsewhere, the world is in chaos, and I’m out there somewhere, fighting, gathering people together, trying to figure out what’s important. Things look bad—and yet there’s something I did back in the very beginning, before any of this started, that will soon prove very helpful.

I can’t remember what it is after I wake up, but the feeling is still there. Confidence—happiness, even. Deep down, I know something that keeps this drama from being as terrible as it appears. Maybe I was witnessing something that has already been played out to the end; maybe it’s just that I never had anything to lose. Maybe it’s because, one way or another, a chance is all anyone ever gets—or at least anyone who’s made an enemy of fate.  But one way or another, I know there’s nothing to be afraid of.

II.

Any comprehensive discussion of dreams will have to turn to their religious significance sooner or later—even if you’d rather it didn’t.

Religion is an awkward topic in today’s multicultural society. It isn’t just that it requires people to admit to someone’s face that the most fundamental thing in their life means nothing to you—or, perhaps, requires you to speak of the most fundamental thing in your life to an indifferent audience. The very words we have available to us practically guarantee misunderstandings. They all implicitly endorse one viewpoint or obscure others, and their inadequacy  is not often acknowledged, possibly because it requires admitting that some of the disagreements between viewpoints are not only real but incommensurate. It doesn’t mean we can’t all still get along—that’s a matter of good will and tolerance, not agreement—but it does mean that we need to be aware of the language we use and what it hides before we do anything important with it.

Consider:  if you look at the population of people who are interested in dream-interpretation, you’ll quickly discover that they are not representative of the population at large. If you wanted to put a name to the differences, you might say that they tend to be introverted, conscientious, sensitive, imaginative, emotionally-oriented, spiritual people. And the ‘spiritual’ does not seem to be an independent trait so much as an umbrella term implying the rest of them to some degree. It’s a nebulous sort of word that doesn’t respond well to conceptual poking and prodding. Even in context, it’s often difficult to tell whether it describes a person’s beliefs or their temperament.

This seems to suit most people fine—not making distinctions seems to be a big part of the spiritual attitude—but the dark side of that is that the temperament, the easier of the two to observe, often seems to be taken as shorthand for the rest. And if it’s absent, you are stuck with the antonyms of “spiritual,” which are without exception words that you would never choose yourself.

And consider the word “religion.” It’s not much better. It may look okay in the dictionary, but it too is an umbrella term, and it is often unclear how far the umbrella extends. A religious studies class will probably cover at least a few, but a religious bookshop will probably cover only one—the religion that, prior to the last 100-some years of Euro-American life, was synonymous with “religion.” When William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, nobody would have found it curious that a book promising variety should step outside a Judeo-Christian context so rarely.

But the real trouble is that “religion” often extends so much farther than the person using it knows that it ends up meaning “Christianity, those other monotheisms, and whatever it is you other people do.” If we can talk about them all using the same word, they can’t be too different, right? They’re all the same kind of thing—maybe even identical at some level (say the spiritual folks).

And actually, many rational, scientific folks seem to believe that, too. How else could you justify trying to disprove all of them in one swoop? But “I have an argument against religion” usually means “I have an argument against Christianity that also works pretty well against the other monotheisms, and all you other people can consider yourselves refuted as well.”

It is also problematic in that the people who are “spiritual but not religious” are so laissez-faire about definitions that nobody has figured out what the Venn diagram looks like. Does spirituality encompass religion, or overlap with it, or represent something distinct? I don’t think anyone who identified himself this way would, if asked, deny that religious people can be spiritual—but nevertheless, the word in its actual use often seems to imply a hard distinction.

Perhaps that is why people now like to talk about faiths instead of religions. “Faith” does not imply that one belongs to an established religion, but it clearly applies to those who do, and it also has a generally nice feel to it. But this one also has a downside:  faith isn’t actually a big part of some religions. And, surprise, the only ones for which faith is central, the only ones for which it makes sense to be used as a synonym for religion are—Christianity and those other monotheisms.

Okay, then. What about truths? Everybody has truths—some of them are religious, some of them are spiritual, some of them are neither. The word doesn’t imply whether you hold them from faith or experience or habit—it doesn’t imply that you hold them in common with anyone or that you don’t—it doesn’t even imply that you personally think they’re true when you attribute them to another. This is so clearly inconsistent with its customary usage that there’s no mistaking what is meant by it, even if the dictionaries haven’t quite caught on yet.

But this is also the problem. It implies a relativism that does, in fact, alienate those who belong to a religion of truth—which is another way of saying a religion of faith, which is—well, you know the drill by now. If you imply that the truths they put their faith in are relative, subjective truths, then you’re calling them lies, which is presumably something you went out of your way to avoid by using this particular term.

And for those of us for whom truth is relative, whether we’re religious or not, it’s a little strange to give it the centrality the expression implies. The word may pick something out, but not what it’s supposed to. For that matter, I’ve also heard the expression roundly criticized by a room full of philosophy students— possibly because for them, truth is something you search for rather than something you have.

Whatever you want to call it, we as a culture clearly don’t have a good way of talking about it yet. It’s only a small minority who actually try to offend people in a different camp (although the military connotations of the word may surreptitiously imply otherwise). But even mutual good will doesn’t stop every attempt to inquire about others’ religion from being as awkward as when Gretchen posed the question to Faust. Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, there are real differences between viewpoints. This is something that’s especially clear when you come at the question from a Buddhist perspective—when you’re a practitioner rather than a believer, and when all the language in common currency was never meant to convey what you’d like to say with it. Of course, the most important things aren’t the ones you talk about most, but communication and compassion are too closely intertwined for you to simply give up and leave the misconceptions unchecked.

And because there are real differences, there are also real choices. This is something I’d especially like to stress to those coming from the “spiritual but not religious” camp. I’m really coming from somewhere different than you. Yes, it is possible. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m going to be offending just about everybody by the time this is done.

But this is an essay about dreams—and here too, sooner or later, you have to make choices. You can only work with dreams for so long before you find yourself with a practical question that can only be resolved through adopting a definite metaphysical stance. Depending on your religious, spiritual and philosophical background, it may be the first time such a question presents itself to you this way—a practical question, a question of how to act rather than a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” kind of question.

Our culture disposes us to view such questions as matters of truth. This implies that a satisfactory answer can be reached through the testimony of an appropriate authority, or faith, or rational inquiry. But your dreams are uncharted territory. The familiar landmarks aren’t there. The familiar logics don’t seem to apply. You are going to come up against situations—possibly important ones— where you don’t know but still have to make a choice.

But there are better ways to explain—ways that don’t rely on questionable concepts that were never meant to communicate what I have to say. Instead, I’m going to tell a story.

 

sidewinder
(Image Source)

 

To Be Continued (someday)

The Quest for Normality

A friend of mine who is knowledgeable about neuroscience once told me that only one person in 1,000 has a normal brain. In a purely statistical sense, that means that normal is actually weirder than weird: mostly, it just serves as a useful reference point so that all the weird people can articulate the ways in which they’re weird to one another.

But even if you were to find a normal person and ask them what their dreams were like, I doubt they could tell you what a normal dream is. To do that, they would have to be a normal person with normal concerns playing a normal role in a normal society with a normal view on dreams—and at that point, normality becomes totally meaningless. No wonder researchers prefer just taking the average. Does it really matter so much if your ‘normal’ has a little ‘weird’ in it?

This is why the concept of a default, normal dream is such a questionable one: dreams exist in a dynamic relationship with the dreamer’s life, and normality in life is not an easy concept to measure. It is probably also why there is no universally accepted definition of what a dream is: there are many styles of dreaming, potentially as many as there are dreamers.

‘Style’ is a good word to use here: in writing, too, there is no such thing as a normal style, and efforts to define one start to look outdated pretty quickly. As with writing, dreaming style tends to become more pronounced as people take an interest in their dreams. If you tried to determine the average writing style in a society that devalued literacy the way mainstream Western society devalues dreaming, you would probably discover that it was muddled, confused, and not communicating anything worth knowing. If you then created a theory on the nature of writing based on your results—well, I guess you’d end up with the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis of literature.

Devaluing dreams is typically Western; so is the view of dreaming as an inward-looking state, which is what makes dreaming one of those conversation topics. Everybody knows that other people’s dreams are boring—or else a little too interesting. As private affairs, it is unreasonable to expect strangers or casual acquaintances to take an interest in them.

But the society where the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” was formulated probably took a very different view of dreams. I say ‘probably’ because I haven’t done the research, but I know that the Western view is unusual, possibly even unique. Traditionally, dreaming has been a community affair.

For dreamers to have individual styles—at least, those who care enough about their dreams to pay attention to them— is also characteristic of the westernized world rather than characteristic of dreams in general. Here, too, there is a parallel in art: Western artists tend to have individual styles, but if you look at ancient Egyptian art, or Aztec art, you only see one style.*

This gives a poignancy to the quest for normality, which is also typically Western. We are the weird ones—all together, and each of us alone.

*With exceptions, of course.