Saturday, June 28, 2008

More On Tim Russert

I just read this wonderfully poignant comment about Tim Russert's recent passing:

Here's a man who made a handsome living following his passion. He loved his job and his family avidly and deliberately. He spent his last days with his family, sans any forecast of finality. What a luxury. He passed on immediately while doing what he loved. No villain, no tragedy, no undignified reduction of passion or power. He went out like God's Own Hero, an undramatic and sudden exit, scooping up life with both hands one moment and dead the next. He passed as angels pass. Well done, sir!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Reflections In Smoke

The air in Sacramento is a smoke-filled haze from wildfires ringing the area. The smoke does seem to bring the temperatures down a little, but it also causes a scratchy throat and is even causing worse problems for those with respiratory conditions.

I'm reminded by all this smoke of the recent torching of a local children's playground and of what I wrote and of what others commented about what I wrote recently. In short, I said that a part of me would like to kill the arsonist, but another part of me realized that this would be worse than the arson itself, and I wondered how best to deal with my angry and vengeful thoughts and emotions. Should I express them openly or keep them to myself? Should I accept them as a natural, albeit misguided, response to the arson, or should I try to find a wholesome way to dispel them?

One person, a psychoanalytic, spiritually-oriented clinical psychologist, commented that I should not only not hold back these feelings and my expression of them, but that I should actually "amplify" them. He suggested that these thoughts and feelings were the most "normal" and "noble" part of my otherwise abnormal psychological makeup (and, perhaps, ignoble character). Of course, he added, I shouldn't act out these feelings, but, as long as I didn't, it was good for me to nurture these homicidal thoughts and hate-filled emotions toward evil deeds and evildoers. This would help me to become psychologically healthier and, perhaps, even progress more rapidly and completely along the spiritual path.

But is this person right? Should we cultivate hatred toward those who harm or would harm us and "amplify" our desire to harm or kill them? Is this psychologically wholesome and spiritually uplifting?

I don't understand how it could be. I think I do understand how suppressing anger and violent thoughts toward evildoers could be harmful psychologically and spiritually. I think Ken Wilber and others are correct in pointing out that the insights of modern psychology can combine with those of traditional spirituality to create spiritual paths unobstructed by our "shadows."

Yet, it seems to me that there's a vast and much more wholesome middle ground between forceful suppression or repression of this kind on the one hand and trying to foster these violent reactions on the other. It seems to me that this desirable middle ground involves acknowledging one's reactive anger and hatred and even openly admitting them to others without either feeling ashamed of them or stoking them. One can then seek to understand why someone would or would even want to torch a children's playground or commit any other harmful act and then strive to feel empathy, compassion, and concern for that misguided individual while, at the same time, condemning the act he or she committed or wants to commit.

I suspect that the person who urged me to "amplify" my homicidal thoughts and hateful emotions would be inclined to shake his head at what I've just written and say, "Steve, you may well be a hopeless case."

And maybe I am. At least until someone can cogently explain to me how hating and wanting to kill evildoers stops them or us from doing evil or raises our minds, hearts, and souls to where we want them to be.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Political Importance of Being Open and Personable

In a recent column, Garrison Keillor writes about taking his young daughter to a children's playground and sitting next to a woman who was watching her own child play. Soon, the woman got up and walked away to check more closely on her child but then turned around and hastily came back to retrieve her purse, as though she were afraid that Keillor might steal it if she didn't.

Keillor confesses that, at first, he felt offended by this woman's actions. But then he thought about it and realized that, as a writer who tends to position himself at the social periphery and silently observe others rather than involve himself in friendly interaction with them, it was only natural that people would distrust this aloof and taciturn stranger in their midst.

Keillor contrasts himself with former Navy SEAL, professional wrestler, and governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura and with Barack Obama. Love or hate Ventura's opinions, people admire his willingness to put himself out there and unequivocally say what he means and mean what he says. People like and trust those who can do this. And this is a big part of Obama's appeal as well. Obama embodies the best of both worlds--detached observation able to astutely take in the whole picture and the ability to engage with any person or group by listening carefully and by saying what's on his gifted mind and in his warm, caring, and compassionate heart.

I think that Keillor may be right about this, and, if he is, I think this may give Obama a bigger edge over McCain than the polls currently show. McCain seems much more guarded, remote, and cantankerous as a person, and I suspect that this contrast will become even more evident when we start seeing Obama and McCain together in "town hall" meetings and "debates."

I'm not necessarily saying that we should choose our presidents according to how forthcoming and personable they seem to be; I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't underestimate the importance of this factor for the voting public.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Of Work and Towel Dispensers

Yesterday at work, my supervisor asked me to use the computer to call out the numbers of medical charts we needed to pull from the shelves in our area to bundle and deliver to their appropriate destinations. A clerk in my department should know how to do this. But when I tried to learn it before, I, not surprisingly, had big problems understanding the logic behind what I was doing and learning the sequences of keystrokes and mouse-clicks to perform the necessary operations. It was no different yesterday. I felt utterly befuddled by most of what my co-workers had me doing.

Yet, it looks like I won't be able to avoid the task any longer. I'll be expected to learn it with minimal additional training and start doing it regularly or, at least, when needed. I don't know what to do about this except try my best to learn and do what I'm supposed to learn and do, and talk with my supervisor if I continue to have difficulty and this becomes an issue. It will also help if I can stay focused on my task instead of worrying about looking stupid or about slowing down my co-workers who are trying to train me or work with me after I've supposedly been trained.

On another note, I see that we have a new kind of paper towel dispenser in our bathroom at work. It's motion activated. The Jetsons are coming ever closer to reality. Or reality is coming closer to The Jetsons. But I wonder if this new towel dispenser is really an improvement, or a waste of money and energy. What was wrong with the old towel dispenser?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Texting Instead of Talking

My wife and I went out to lunch yesterday. I noticed a young couple sitting at opposite sides of a table near us completely ignoring each other while thumbing out text messages on their cellphones as they waited for their food to arrive, and then resuming this activity while waiting for the check after they had eaten.

My first impression was that there was something very wrong about this. Why weren't they looking at each other and talking to each other face-to-face instead of writing to other people miles away whom they couldn't even see or hear? Was their relationship that lousy? Was this bizarre but increasingly common scene unpleasantly symptomatic of the age in which we live where face-to-face human contact and interaction has given way to iPods and text messaging that is destroying social connectedness and cohesiveness? Or am I just an old fogey out of step with the times and unable to appreciate the new dimensions of personal enrichment and social interaction opened to us by the electronic wizardry of our mp3 players and smartphones?

Maybe I'm not that much of a fogey. For I do appreciate, probably as much as any younger person, how deep and rich written communication can be via computer and the Internet, and, perhaps, if I were more adept at texting, I'd understand that the same can be achieved and enjoyed with a cellphone.

Yet, I can't see myself ever sitting at a restaurant table with my wife while both of us ignore each other as we text message other people. Something about that still seems wrong. I'm not sure I can explain precisely what it is. For instance, what if this couple had been talking to people instead of texting them on their cellphones? Wouldn't that have seemed more acceptable, and, if so, why? And how would my wife and I ignoring each other in the restaurant while we text messaged others be all that different from our ignoring each other at home while, as is taking place right now, my wife sits at the desktop computer in the computer room and I sit here in the living room composing this entry on my laptop?

Still, I hope that my wife and I never end up doing what I saw that couple doing yesterday, and, if we do, I hope that we immediately put down our cellphones, look each other in the eye, and talk to each other.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Buridan's Ass and Free Will

My friend Tom and I were discussing free will last weekend. Tom believes in free will; I don't. In other words, Tom believes that, in at least some cases, people could have chosen, at the same point in time and under the same exact exterior and interior circumstances, to do other than what they ended up doing. I, on the other hand, believe that they could not have acted other than how they did.

I explained to Tom something I've posted here previously. I said I believe that all choices we make are more or less complicated versions of the following scenario: You must choose between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, you love chocolate and hate vanilla, and you have no overriding reason to choose against your strong preference. Under those exact circumstances, you could only choose chocolate; you could not choose vanilla.

But Tom wasn't buying this, and he came up with the following hypothetical: Suppose you have an absolutely equal liking for chocolate and vanilla ice cream and no conscious or unconscious inclination of any kind to choose one over the other. Wouldn't a person in that situation be free to choose either alternative? That is, no matter which choice he made, wouldn't he have been able, at that time and under those same circumstances, to choose the other flavor instead?

I told Tom about Buridan's Ass--a hypothetical mule that starves to death because he can't choose between two equidistant and equally appealing bundles of hay. But Tom says that in my scenario, one must make a choice between alternatives. I replied that I'd have to think about his hypothetical addition to my scenario.

I have thought about it, and I tentatively conclude that it's virtually impossible to actually choose one course of action over alternatives without that choice being the inevitable effect of some cause the existence of which makes the effect or choice inevitable. Otherwise, I believe that a person would, like Buridan's hapless mule, be paralyzed with indecision.

But I said this was my "tentative conclusion," for I want to give the matter more thought. So, Tom, if you're reading this, stay tuned for further developments.

Upside Down World

Baba Rum Raisin comments that he likes to read my blog because it shows him "what the world looks like upside down."If this is how I see the world, I wonder how I might come to see it right side up, and what it would look like and what I would be like if I did.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tiger's Monstrous Mental Focus

As I’ve been trying to write this column, I’ve toggled over to check my e-mail a few times. I’ve looked out the window. I’ve jotted down random thoughts for the paragraphs ahead. But Woods seems able to mute the chatter that normal people have in their heads and build a tunnel of focused attention.
--David Brooks

This entry was written yesterday and posted today.

When I was a kid, I used to fantasize that I was so good at basketball or bowling that no one could ever beat me. But I knew even then that not only would I never be that good at any sport but also that no one else would be either.

I guess I was right about that. No one, at least at the highest level of any major individual sport, never loses. I take that back. I guess some boxers have gone undefeated in their professional careers, and the same may be true of athletes in certain other individual sports as well. But in individual professional sports such as tennis, golf, or bowling where one typically competes in a tournament against a large field of the best of the best, no one, so far as I know, always wins or is even in contention for the championship right down to the end of the tournament.

Yet, Tiger Woods comes awfully darn close. He won the U.S. Open today with a dramatic long putt for par on the first hole of a sudden death playoff following an eighteen hole one-on-one playoff match tie with Rocco Mediate after making a must-have long birdie putt on the final hole of regulation play yesterday to force the playoff today.

What was amazing about Tiger's championship today is that he had just come off knee surgery and a two-month layoff from the game to compete in one of the most prestigious and demanding golf tournaments in the world against the best of the best, and it was evident from the outset that his knee was hurting terribly at times after hard swings. But he was somehow able to shake off the rust and the pain to bury most of his competition, including the redoubtable Phil Mickelson, with spectacular shots, including three eagles, when he desperately needed them.

And what's so amazing about Tiger's play in in general is that he, unlike any other top golfer I've ever seen, is almost always a serious threat, right down to the final few holes, to win every tournament in which he competes, and, on those rare occasions when he doesn't win the championship, he seldom finishes below third or fourth place. That kind of consistency in top-tier professional golf tournaments under the enormous pressure of overwhelming media coverage and stratospheric public expectations is beyond remarkable. As Rocco Mediate said, "He's a monster."

What makes Tiger so monstrously good? I suspect that it's a unique combination of training and supreme physical and psychological talent. But one element in this combination that is undoubtedly paramount is revealed by an absolutely wonderful Nike commercial that ran repeatedly during the U.S. Open. This commercial gives me goosebumps and coaxes tears to my eyes. It is one of the best commercials I've ever seen, and it's also one of the most inspiring. In it, there is home video of Tiger playing golf with his late father Earl, with Earl doing a voiceover explaining that he would do everything he could to break Tiger's concentration out on the course including dropping his golf bag in the middle of Tiger's swing. But Tiger would simply stop mid-swing, grit his teeth, and then crush a perfect drive and look back at his father with a triumphant expression that said, "Take that!" Earl Woods concludes by saying that he told Tiger: "I promise you that you'll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn't. And he never will."

Mental toughness. Focus. Mindful purposiveness. How many of us have this to a degree that even comes within light years of Tiger's? What would happen, how much would our lives change if we did have it? How different would my life be if I did?

I wonder if there's any to find out.

Nike's awe-inspiring commercial featuring Tiger and his dad.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Our Cosmic Eyeblink

I wrote this entry yesterday during my work break and am posting it today.

Tim Russert died today. He was only 58. Preliminary reports say he collapsed at work when his heart stopped beating, and he couldn't be revived.

Russert's sudden death sent shock waves through the American news media. Russert was widely considered to be one of the best political interviewers and reporters in the business, and he was also renowned for his infectiously enthusiastic and friendly personality. Nobody expected him to die when or how he did.

I'm only three years younger than he was, and I have a heart condition for which I take medication to prevent cardiac arrhythmia. My condition is relatively benign, but it does carry with it a higher than normal risk of the same kind of sudden cardiac arrest and death that struck down Tim Russert.

As deaths go, Russert's was probably about as easy as they come. Conscious one moment...unconscious the next. Dead soon after. Probably little or no warning or pain. Out...out brief candle.

One is tempted to say at such a time: "The sudden death of Tim Russert serves as a powerful reminder that death spares no one, and that it can come without warning at any time. Therefore, we must live life to the fullest and not waste a single moment that remains."

Yet, I wonder what real difference it makes how we live, how long we live, or what we accomplish during our lives. Whether we live one year or a hundred, it's still a cosmic eyeblink of time. And whether we die in total obscurity or are known by every human being on Earth, we can't, so far as I know, take our fame with us to the nothingness beyond this life. So, what's the point of it all?

There is no point, that I can see, other than what we create for ourselves from our imaginations. No one and no thing outside ourselves bindingly commands us to be or do anything. But if we choose for ourselves what meaning and purpose pervades our lives and what we're going to be and do with our cosmic eyeblink, I suppose that we can do worse than to hold up models such as Tim Russert to emulate in our own way. And we can follow the advice of the great sages. Not because of who said it, but because it resonates with our deepest being. Some of the best advice I've ever heard came from St. Augustine when he said, "Love, and do what you will."

That's what I hope to do more of during what's left of my cosmic eyeblink.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ESP or Mere Coincidence?

I've always been agnostic when it comes to ESP and psychic phenomena in general. For not only have I never had any definitive psychic experiences of my own, but it's also always seemed to me that if if there were people with psychic abilities, some of them would be strong enough in those abilities to unequivocally demonstrate that they exist. So far as I know, such proof has never been offered. Thus, I remain skeptical.

Yet, something happened at work last week that has shaken that skepticism a little. As I headed back to work after my dinner break, I saw my supervisor sitting in his office in front of his computer monitor. However, he didn't appear to be looking at it. I had the impression that he was staring into space thinking about something. And the peculiar thing is, even though I've seen him do this countless times and never thought for a moment that he was thinking about me, it was different this time. I had the strong sense that he was contemplating what he was going to say to me.

Of course, my rational mind dismissed this as nonsense, but it had no sooner done this when my supervisor walked up to me and said he wanted to talk with me in his office. I was stunned by this and followed him to his office wondering not only if I'd just had a genuinely psychic precognition, but also if he was going to give me bad news of some kind.

Fortunately, he was calling me in for a review that turned out to be very positive. But what I wondered then and now is why I'd had such a powerful sense, for no discernible reason, that he was going to call me into his office for a private talk when that was exactly what ended up happening.

If I frequently had this impression and/or he frequently did this with me or others, it wouldn't be so difficult to explain. But this is one of the very few times he called me into his office to talk with me, and the only time out of literally hundreds when I've seen him staring at his monitor and/or into space and thought, much less had a powerful sense, that he was getting ready to call me (or anyone else) into his office for a private chat.

This experience isn't enough to convince me that ESP is real. But it is enough to open my mind a little more to the possibility that it is.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How Nakedly Should I Reflect?

I recently posted an entry about how "part of me" would have liked to kill the person(s) who burned down a local children's playground and thereby "utterly and irrevocably obliterate the evil in our midst." Although I acknowledged that this would be even worse than the act of arson for which it was a response, I still felt reluctant to express my violent thoughts toward the perpetrator, and when I learned that my entry was being considered for publication in the Blogwatch column of the local Sunday paper, I seriously considered modifying my homicidal remarks if not striking them altogether. However, I decided to let them remain as they were because, after all, they nakedly reflected how part of me felt during a brief, not-so-shining moment in the aftermath of the fire.

Yet, this raises two questions. First, is there something wrong with me for briefly experiencing these violent feelings toward the perpetrator? Second, should I refrain from expressing these feelings openly in my blog (or anywhere else) because when I don't, I may reinforce and strengthen them?

Actually, my sense is that when I'm able to admit to these feelings, not only to myself but also to others, I'm further weakening their already tenuous hold on my heart and mind. But is my perception accurate?

I wonder if I should go on nakedly reflecting my thoughts and feelings as openly as I sometimes do here, or if I should put some clothes on them.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

New Outdoor Smoking Ban

Soon, smoking will no longer be allowed anywhere on the grounds of the large medical center where I work. Smoking is currently allowed outside as long as it isn't too close to building entrances. I don't know what visitors and staff who smoke are going to do when the new prohibition goes into effect.

Perhaps I shouldn't care. After all, I abhor cigarettes and cigarette smoke. I still remember the old Steve Martin comedy routine where he steps into an elevator and someone who's about to light up asks, "Do you mind if I smoke?," and Martin says, "Do you mind if I fart?" Except to my mind, a fart would be vastly preferable.

The little boy in me might find this joke funny, but there's nothing funny about obnoxious cigarette smoke. How I used to hate going to public places such as bowling alleys and restaurants and sneezing, suffering a runny nose, watery eyes, and a headache from the concentrated smoke, and coming home with my clothes and hair reeking of cigarettes. I was so happy when indoor smoking in virtually all public places was banned.

I suppose that libertarians would argue that people should be free to smoke indoors, at least in private business establishments that permit it, and that those who don't wish to be exposed to secondhand smoke are free not to patronize these establishments. However, I disagree. I like to eat out, and I love to bowl. I don't think I should have to choose between forsaking these activities and suffering the considerable discomforts and health hazards of secondhand smoke.

Yet, having said this, I think the new smoking prohibition about to go into effect in my workplace is too restrictive. There's no need to prevent people from smoking everywhere outdoors on the medical center campus in order to spare the rest of us the unpleasantness of their smoke.

If I were to express my stance on this issue as a moral and legal principle, I suppose I'd say something like, "Adults should be free to do what they wish, including smoke cigarettes, so long as it doesn't unreasonably infringe on other adults' right to do what they wish, including avoiding secondhand smoke without having to take unreasonable measures to do so, and smoking in outdoor places currently allowed by campus policy does not constitute such an infringement."

Smoking may be stupid, but it shouldn't be a crime to smoke outdoors in places readily avoidable by the public without posing a significant inconvenience.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Comforting Falsehood vs Discomforting Belief

A Raccoon would much prefer to live and struggle in the light of Truth than in the realized darkness of a false illumination.
--Gagdad Bob

Gagdad Bob says (or implies) that he'd rather know a bleak truth than believe and embrace a bright falsehood, no matter how happy he might be with the latter and depressed with the former. I'd like to say I agree, and, in principle, I do. But when principle runs smack dab against hard reality, it doesn't always remain intact, and I'm not even sure it always should.

For suppose the truth, or what you take to be the truth if you let yourself, is so bleak that, if you believed it, you'd be a miserable wreck for the rest of your life. And suppose you could believe, instead, in a glorious falsehood that made you joyful to be alive each and every day. Which would really be better, and which would you prefer?

To take one extreme example, suppose the truth, or what you took to be the truth, were that the universe was made by a monstrously malevolent god and that when we die, each and every one of us will suffer unspeakable agony forever, and there's absolutely nothing we can do in this life to prevent it. Would it be better to accept this horrible and terrifying truth than to believe the comforting falsehood that a supremely good and loving god made this universe and wants us all to join him in his blissful abode for all eternity after we die? It's difficult to see how it would be, Gagdad's idealism notwithstanding.

And, when you come right down to it, how many of us would really choose discomforting truth over comforting falsehood or, at least, comforting unjustified belief? Take Gagdad, for instance. I'm not sure what he actually believes about god and our relation to god, but he does appear to believe in some kind of divine being or reality that is supremely intelligent and good, the existence of which we (or, at least, some of us) can know with absolute certainty. Does he believe this because he has ample grounds for doing so, or does he believe it because he finds it more comforting to believe it than not to?

I'm not suggesting that he consciously chooses comforting belief in something he knows to be false or dubious over discomforting acknowledgment that there truly is no god, or, at least, no solid justification for believing that there is. Yet, he claims to know with absolute certainty that there is a such a god, and I think maybe this is because he subconsciously chooses to value comfort more than truth.

I suspect that most of us, including yours truly, do the same, even though we don't know we're doing it. We want to think that we're pursuing truth and that the truth we've found or think we've found just happens to be more comforting than alternative falsehoods. But is this because reality is actually as comforting as we believe it to be, or is it because we won't allow ourselves to see it any other way, even if it is another way?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

One Diagnosis for Humankind

I'm a psychologist. I carry a badge. I diagnose individuals. But it is said that a prophet diagnoses mankind. Thus, if you look at the DSM, there are, I don’t know, a couple of hundred different diagnoses. But if you look at the Bible, or the Upanishads, or the Tao Te Ching, there is only one diagnosis, which is that human beings live in falsehood, alienated from the Real. They habitually confuse what is ephemeral and valueless with what is transcendent and of eternal value. With his consciousness either compacted and "frozen" or exteriorized and dissipated, the spiritually untutored man is hypnotized by appearances and wanders from sensation to sensation until falling into the abyss at the end of his daze, wishes to ashes, lust to dust.
--Gagdad Bob