Small Comforts

For most of humankind’s history, being well-fed, warm, and secure was a blessing devoutly to be wished. We all appreciate the small happinesses of our lives, even if we argue about which of them are more important. There is no doubt that a personal philosophy rooted in satisifed happiness begins with an appreciation of those often unnoticed states.

Concentrating on the small enhances our feeling of control, but does limit our possibility. Nobody ever had grand accomplishments by staying safely in bed eating donuts. On the other hand, grand accomplishments always arrive wrapped in complexity and riddled with contradictions.

Equally, it is not fair to claim that small comforts lead to common good. Selfish personal preoccupations may be evil in the extreme to those around us or to society in general. There are historic examples enough of mass-murdering madmen who were kind to the children and cats they encountered locally. And of sadists who found joy in inflicting suffering on others.

Ah, but I do not consider myself such a madman. Anyway, I try to start each day being grateful for all the little things easily taken for granted. Such as eyesight, or electricity, or books, or just about anything nearby. Happy in such contemplations, I can minimize my annoyance at all the worrisome larger issues.

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. And that is at least a fine way to start each morning.

Wise

Wisdom is often portrayed as an old man sitting quietly in a silent subdued setting. Plato in his grove, a monk under a tree, a guru on a mountain top, a professor in a boring lecture hall. Somehow, also, when asked a question they always give exactly the same advice.

Life won’t cooperate. Sometimes we are calm, sometimes angry. If angry we can fight or walk away. Sometimes it is right to walk, sometimes best to fight. The truly wise know what is appropriate each time, but it is never the same.

Myths and holy books which endure contain massive contradictions: “love thy neighbor but sometimes you must kill them all”. Fanatics seize on one phrase, ignoring others. The wise seek to find which response is appropriate for current conditions.

The wise one maintains a massive set of mental templates. These are not simple and not singular, but complex and numerous. The wise select from a vast pallet of possibilities _ wisdom is being able to (usually) make the right choice.

So no easy simple command _ nor even 10 _ from a bearded prophet on a mountainside. Even there, always exceptions. And too often, different from Monday to Tuesday or hour to hour.

Is being truly wise impossible? Sometimes, I think so

Unborn

Right-to-life propaganda presents all stages of human fetal development from egg to live birth as a standard image of a cute innocent infant, cuddly as a puppy. The only thing missing is floppy ears.

Real gestation, of course, is a lot uglier, squishier, and fraught with issues. All of which are conveniently ignored. But I wish to ask, why are all “future people” sacred? Certainly real people never were in our species past, filled with slaves and war and murder and plague and famine.

The fact is all cute cuddly infants do not grow up to be cute cuddly adults, nor even happy robust supportive citizens. Most would agree that the world would have been better off had some old-time dictators, mass murderers, and evil geniuses never been born. Perhaps the less civil among us could do without a lot of current criminals, lying internet personalities, megalomaniac rulers, and scheming billionaires or politicians. And me, I’m not so sure about you…

Humans are not turtles or fish, laying millions of eggs in hopes that a few survive by chance. Babies require nurture or they may grow into monsters. And current civilization certainly has not yet figured out how to provide guaranteed nurture.

In spite of mythology, most poor people once used offspring as helpers and near slaves, most of the historic wealthy farmed progeny out to teachers and boarding schools. The middle class nurturing nest is a modern invention, and rarely achieved.

The unborn, in fact, are a lot more frightening than the undead.

Gym

For most of my adult life, I have avoided gyms. Never cared much about upper body building, would rather walk in nature. I prided myself on buying the clothing necessary to go out in any weather, and I was religious about getting outside on work lunch breaks.

But – well at 75 some indoor routines seem to work. The local Y is cheery, well lit, comfortable, nearby, convenient. Usable even in really bad weather. I can get there, through a short intense workout, and back in an hour or so.

Of course everyone says it is good to exercise. Our evolutionary origins demand it, studies prove it, just common sense.

Ah, but how much and what kind is enough? There, things become unglued, not only at the gym either. Walking a half hour or so can escalate into marathons. Weight workouts graduate toward tons. I see grim people, forcing more and more until they are stopped by body or mind. 

As in much of our culture, the evil is obsession. I use the gym but only to a point. I love to walk, but try to adjust to limits. I continue to believe that stretching and pushing towards the infinite perfect is ridiculous.

Sound mind in sound body. Period. Stop.

Luck

Two Italian scientists have just won a prize for proving with “vigorous statistical study” that luck is more important than hard work or talent in how successful a person is. To me this seems a lot like proving that people who urinate when they have a full bladder are more comfortable afterwards than those that don’t. We all know it – but has it been rigorously studied?

It would come as no surprise to classic Greeks who saw protagonists driven by fate, or to Calvinists who thought all was predestined by God, or to aristocrats and kings who believed the Mandate of Heaven let them justify anything they might do.

The real problem, of course, is that the modern world has swallowed the mythology of meritocracy hook line and sinker. Cream rises, the best rule, the most deserving become rich. And the less discussed other side of the coin, which is that any poverty or failures are entirely your own fault.

This has a corrosive effect on social relations. Those who have done well feel they have worked harder or smarter than everyone else and smugly congratulate themselves while insulating their lives from the rest of society. Those who have not succeeded in spite of hard work and talent feel that someone somewhere has cheated them of their legitimate triumph.

Can a study change this? Of course not. But one should always be willing to consider that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Normal

In the long run nothing is normal. Even in the moment it is only a pleasant useful illusion that allows us to smooth out the chaotic flow of infinite events.

I am as guilty as anyone, of course. And in the short run it is often applicable and helpful. But I know how things change. When I was much younger I needed diapers and could not speak. In the future I may be so again. But right now it is normal for me to use bathrooms and talk too much.

Trying to apply normal to concepts is even more tenuous. What is normal climate or geological drift, or species distribution? What is normal hawk behavior? Most of the time such uses of normal become so encrusted with exceptions that they hardly serve a valid purpose. I do know it is absolutely insane to set any normal as a goal. We can never “get back to normal.” We can never “make things more normal.” It is a vapid politicized slogan promising fog and smoke.

Most people crave a certain level of security and stability, especially in routine daily life. Finding that things tend to repeat in certain ways most of the time becomes what we consider normal. And we are often upset when that inevitably changes.

Normal in our frantic existence is never normal for long.

Past Present

We can remember the past to help us modify present behavior to control results in the future. This is obviously a successful survival tool, very well developed in human brains. But it can also be used wrongly.

If I ate something that made me sick, I should have enough sense not to eat the same thing again. And so on for many events which occur repetitively throughout our lives. Useful and no problem except that sometimes our memories and evaluations may be incorrect.

But another type of memory is more destructive if used too much. I will label this the “Helen of Troy” memory, well documented in classic Greek drama. “Gee,” says Priam gazing at the ruins of Troy, “if I had never abducted Helen none of this would have happened.” In American terms, of course, it is the coulda woulda shoulda syndrome. All this does is fuel an often destructive narrative as a victim of circumstance about failures in the present. And it is relatively useless in any objective way, although it might help our mental state.

The past is gone. I may be offered the same food again. But Priam will never again be a rich young prince tempted to abduct a beautiful young bride from a vengeful old husband.

You may claim “”well at least we can learn from his error” which is of course the purpose of literature. But from our own memories, rarely if ever is this very useful.

Nibbles

An out-of-the-box reading would be that Socrates nibbles away at problems, while Plato goes for grand all-encompassing solutions. I much prefer nibbles, not only aesthetically, but also because they apply in real life and all conditions.

Questioning every little thing can be paralyzing, of course, but it is often useful. “Why should I do this?” “Why are things this way?” Honest questions with honest answers allow us to deal with all the unique and contradictory problems of life, messy though they may be

But questioning everything as part of a forced logical trail to a predetermined ideal answer is fatiguing and often useless. “Why_because” ends up in a swamp of exceptions _ “nobody should be killed _ except…” is typical. And the answer is often wrong and useless except for reinforcing obsessive unthinking behavior and standards

Much better to take small bites. The universe and its ways and the future itself are unknowable and mostly obscure. Much of the vast sweep of such issues are irrelevant to how I eat breakfast. But it is also always useful to question what you are having for breakfast and why, even if only for a moment.

So hooray for nibbles, which, unfortunately, have fallen out of favor in this era of grand internet conspiracy theories.

Stuck

The caste system reasonably explains that you are what you are as a result of how you lived a previous life. Christianity claimed God granted divine right to kings and protected the virtuous and meek with rewards or punishments to follow death. Other cultures relied on bloodlines or race to explain social position.

An overwhelming number of people at all times and everywhere remain mired in exactly the social stratum into which they are born. Philosophy and religion seek to explain why. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but by actual count they are few and far between. And movement is restricted _ the old Chinese proverb about “peasant, landlord, businessman, artist, peasant” has a ring of normal truth.

No matter the mythology, such ideas provide a degree of comfort to the vast majority of us stuck with being who we are and were. Only a peculiarly depressing American credo _ born of immigrants and empty land _ declares that one is completely responsible for social position: anyone could have been anything with enough properly applied hard work.

That is laughably false when examined closely. But it is a great comfort to the wealthy elite, just as the divine right of kings and aristocratic blue blood were in the old days. Grants them a freedom to be smugly cruel to everyone else

Sports

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire was falling for over 400 years, and the eastern part ruled by Constantinople for over almost a thousand years after that. Western Europe endured centuries of warfare and chaos from the Middle Ages through _ well, to be honest _ now.

In all those times of decline, apparently sports were always important. Constantinople was consumed with horse racing at the Hippodrome until the very end, Rome had its bread and circuses. The Middle Ages had jousting. And minor games like dice and hand fights have been popular everywhen and everywhere.

The thing is that sports are an extension of philosophy, basic components of the universe made manifest. Rules and how to break them, referees and bribery, training, fair play, cheating and the role of luck. All these are demonstrated in sports in a less destructive way than they are in warfare or life itself.  And outcomes are nicely temporary.

For some fanatics, in all ages, sports may become a consuming religion. For others it provides a gateway into tribal initiation. Spectators can be as obsessed as participants.

Philosophy, in fact, can learn a lot from sports. The role of reality intervening in goals often has only passing acquaintance with pure logic and reason. Something to remember.