Are you married to an Idea?

So many things (shorthand, common use, in this case meaning ideas) to think about…and perhaps it makes sense to start with our relationship to ideas and to things.

We live in and among many paradoxes…and recognize only a few of them, in part because they reside and emerge out of our culture: they are the water we, like fish, swim in it.

Ideas are verbal things. What I am writing right now is the result of my having collected a variety of them over the years.
It would be fair to say this work is an exhibition of that collection, or at least some of it. The ones left out don’t fit the theme.

If these words and phrases could be transformed into glorious paintings they might hang in a gallery, or at least, in my living room. Perhaps that is what visual artists are doing when they paint. Are they transforming their experiences in life beyond any wordy attempt at explaining and instead, demonstrating the results of those experiences with paint and canvass?

And are composers doing the same kind of thing? Are they too, transforming their experiences into music to let the world hear their life?

And in the artistic doing of this, of course they are deepening the experiences, and making new ones out of the old. In that sense, isn’t life a continual transformative experience, one that we recognize only when a particular experience feels overwhelming?

But ideas expressed verbally are different. They summon us beyond themselves into what becomes a definitional attachment.

Like the things we put in our homes and on our bodies, we could after a time discard them. But since we bungled our behavior in that old ancient Garden of Paradise by opening our minds to the abstractions language offers us, and initially embraced the Ideas of Good and Evil, we can no longer walk naked with no clothes on our bodies, and no ideas in our heads.

That is the paradox: in order to live in the world as human beings, we need things, and devote out lives to getting and using them; and we also need ideas to guide us in the “best” way to get those things and to make sense of our experiences in living.

Functionally, by reading what I have just written, whether you believe it or not, you have invited it to join the rest of the ideas in your mind, and you will have to make a mental adjustment over time to discard it, or re-shape it to fit into one of the many themes that guide your behavior. You cannot undo the experience, you can not avoid thinking and feeling in response it.

Forgetting about it removes it only from your conscious deliberations. Pick a metaphor that seems to fit: you are ingesting something that will make you healthier, or something that will make you sick. Or, perhaps something, like a toy or a game to amuse yourself with.

Why do I say this? One source that motivates that statement is the current neurolinguistic research that says when we encounter ideas that are in opposition to what we believe our tendency is to defend against them, and to “buckle down” on what we think, and to hold on to those ideas even more strongly than before.

Why do we do this? because we have learned to identify ourselves with what we think. We have married our ideas, and merged them into our lives to give us meaning and direction. And to confirm ourselves in our identity.

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Marry the Idea

Marry the Idea
And live with and Through it Till Death do you part

Perhaps, in certain unexplainable ways, our ideas are like mental toys that keep us from feeling lonely. After that initial meeting and getting to know you process I talked about earlier, and the “falling in love” with an idea experience, it only makes sense to marry the idea, to exchange un-losable rings symbolizing the merger of the self into and with the idea.

Within that merging experience could the idea find physical life? Could the words that give it intellectual shape become, in a functional sense, flesh? Does that experience, thus described, help us to understand those people willing to die, and in some cases, kill, as an act of faithfulness to the idea? Is that what thinkers in the Western Middle Ages meant by being possessed?

Or, perhaps, the better question is, can we avoid living out what we believe? What else governs our choices…and what else can confuse us but a struggle between conflicting ideas?

After all, our history is full of stories that point to that experience. Saints in the Catholic tradition follow Jesus to their own cross. Buddha leaves his long meditation to walk with those who follow him; who want to model their lives after him.
Moses takes guidance from a burning bush and Mohammed is directed to find a new Faith.

And what about the rest of us? Isn’t finding “our calling” a combination personal mission and goal that promises us our true fulfillment?

We applaud that experience when it fits into our culturally common experience, when it brings an individual to the kind of life we all admire.

When it manifests itself as a criminal, or worse, a terrorist we react with complex clusters of fear, anger, rage, despair, helpless, and perhaps most pervasive, a sense of incomprehension. We cannot make any sense of it; it doesn’t fit our understanding of how we are supposed to be; it is not the way real human beings act.

We are never surprised at our surprise….we never question our own confusion. This is our common reaction, despite our knowing, cognitively, that our human history is replete with similar stories of mayhem and madness dressed in the uniform of promised glory and salvation.

“Cognitively”, is the key word. When we have a cognitive understanding we know the meanings of the words that describe a situation. When the understanding moves to a visceral one, our emotions become a more active participant in our response. If what we are grappling with is too repugnant we feel sick, and push it back to a cognitive closet. A head ache is bad, but a stomach ache is worse.

next time: our relationship to ideas and things

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We look for truth, and how to live by it

In my first or second year in college, I put two little would be poems on paper, that as I think about them now, have a certain kind of compass like relationship to each other, and to the process that I call myself. They were these two, first:

A man is a blind mass of wood
In evening he glimpses the night, stars and God.
In daylight, he carves of himself.

and, the other

I let my mind go wander in the park
It promised to return by dark
But it’s not here.
I wonder,
Did it cut itself on a piece of broken truth?

Perhaps, in our search for meaning we are misdirected. We are always learning something new, whether or not we recognized that as it is happening. At the moment I am reminded of myself at about seven or eight swinging in the back yard, and noticing a scab where the bleeding scrape on my knee had been. I remember thinking, “Wow, that healed so quick.”

I may have thought about healing before that time. Like all children I’d been sick with colds and fevers from time to time. When I was bedridden my mother always placed a bell on the table next to the bed so I could ring it if I needed her for anything.

But the notion of healing quickly that came to me that afternoon seemed new, and had something enlightening about it. Even if I bleed, I can heal.

Bleeding and healing has meta-morphed itself into part of my adult cognitive structure over the years. It takes a place near the carving of my self, and the cuts from broken truths.

We can be understood as walking ideas, or, perhaps more fittingly as limping ideas, the truths learned at one stage of life, broken and re-shaped by our experiences into something simultaneously the same and different from when we first encountered them.

While I was in the Army, I read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I must have been reading it when I lost my father’s ring, my ring, our ring. Its a very long, perhaps seven volume, book and it may be time for me to take another look at it.

As I have been writing this, my own remembrance, it suddenly dawns over the horizon where memory, like the sun, seems to suddenly appear, that perhaps his style has been guiding this effort of mine, and that is the “why and what” that keeps “re-minding” me.

A moment ago I could no longer avoid looking up the title to be sure I would be correct in citing it, and discovered that it now appears to have another title as well as the one I remembered. That is a new title, I am quite sure, one that did not exist when I was reading his masterpiece. Scholarship must have advanced and produced the need for this new title.

Will the new name affect the reader? Will it change the meaning of the book? That question requires a ‘yes and no’, and an ‘of course’ and ‘of course not’ kind of answer. What is certain, that when I find the time to re-read some of it, I will be both the same and a new reader…and thus the book itself will also be both.

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Ownership is a Delusion

Many, many years ago, when I was an adolescent, my father gave me the ring he received when he completed the 8th grade. He went no further; economics on a family level made going to work what he needed to do.

I cherished the ring as I cherished very few things. Some years later, trying to recover from a disastrous academic failure in my first two years of college, I joined the army on a two year tour.

I was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to work as an attendant on the psychiatric ward of the Army Hospital. I took the late night shift, which gave me my day time hours off, to wander, and to go to the beach.

Sorting out what kind of a “me” I was going to be, and whether or not I had much control over that process was a major mental preoccupation. The army was in charge of me and given the situation that I found myself in, that seemed to be fine, and certainly better than I had been doing at that job.

It didn’t occur to me that wearing my ring into the ocean didn’t make sense. Not until I returned to the beach did I notice it was gone. In its place was a self-inflicted wound so deep that it forced me into a brief despair.

That early encounter with loss was so specific and so particular that it triggered a profound reconstruction of what I thought I believed about a whole lot of things. The first idea to crumble was the idea of ownership.

Here is the puzzle I was trying to solve. If something is mine, if I own it, then how can it be gone before I decide to get rid of it? If I can lose it, or it can be taken from me in any way, than what is the difference between owning and renting or borrowing?

Paying for it is meaningless. I pay for my food and we all know what happens to that. I pay for a ticket to a movie, or boat trip, and yes, the experience goes into my memory bank, but to say I own that memory makes no sense. Do I own my memory cells? Do I own my body fed by the food I cook, and the food of experience? If I own a house, do I own it after I die?

Day dawns and night yawns. I live in both, but I own neither, nor do I own the map of that day nor the map of my nighttime dreams.
Ownership is an illusion. That’s what I came to understand. And out of that understanding emerged a desire, and a need to write.

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Falling in Love

“Falling in love” is an interesting phrase. It speaks clearly to losing our balance, to becoming weak kneed, tripping and stumbling into another state of being. One moment we understand ourselves as independent operators with goals, and skills to reach them. The next moment those goals become back-up to the one focused discovery of another person; someone to share a life with.
Every romance story or song repeats that theme. But they never talk about it as a “conversion” process, which of course it is. That is as true when the object of our love is a person as it is when it is an idea.
At the moment we concede that we love someone, we recognize that we are now different from what we were. The love takes hold of us, fills us with the heady combination of possibility and promise; we dress for a journey of discovery.
That is also what happens when we fall in love with an idea. A review of every successful person will tell us about how they discovered their purpose, their direction, a sense of the promise of meaning that discovery offered.
All religions share that experience in their founding, and in their discipleship. The aim of the rituals that come later is to re-create for the newcomers the same kind of experiential discovery of a new self that filled the original group with their mission.
But loving ideas is not confined to religious practice. Every subject, or, as meaningfully identified, every discipline, from economics to physics, from literary criticism to psychiatry offers “schools of thought” that define, elaborate, and explain the way that discipline works, and why it works, and why, if you choose to study that subject, why it is an important subject, and why that particular way of thinking about it is the right way.
A long sentence. Deliberately.
For a variety of complex and questionable reasons we link loving with ownership, and ownership with identity. In my mind, a very unholy trinity of beliefs. Which I consider leads to an even longer sentence; too often a life time sentence in which we suffer the consequences of trying to make reality conform to what we believe it should be.

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Belief Systems

Some years ago I read about a Supreme Court justice responding with disbelief to a report about Nazi concentration camps. When challenged by a colleague who said, “are you suggesting that the man is lying?”, the Justice replied, “No, I am not saying that; I am saying I cannot believe what he is telling me.”
An odd recognition, we should all remember: the truth is not always believable. On the other hand, lies, and distortions often are.
So what are we to do? We cannot function without some set of beliefs, organized or not, true or not, even if what we believe is that we don’t believe anything.
Somewhere, as a kid, I bumped into the phrase, “learn how to entertain an idea.” I have since discovered that it is conceptually attributed to Aristotle. My recollection is that my bumping into experience was certainly before I knew that name.
What I do remember clearly,is what my imagination did with it. It was like a scene from a one act play. The idea came to my home to visit. It was a winter evening, a fire was burning in the fire place. I put out the cheese and crackers, we had some hot chocolate to drink, and our conversation began.
The idea explained itself to me. It answered my questions, asked me a few in return, and the evening ran it course. If we liked each other, I would offer it the opportunity to move in, and meet my other ideas. If there was no real attraction, I understood that,and we said good night.
I was too young to think about Believing. If something seemed true, that was good enough for me. It was a lot easier deciding what didn’t seem to be true.
I have since learned that children fall in love with their ideas, and claim them, own them, make them into pieces of personal identity.

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We Are What We Believe

My e-mail signature line says: we are verbs, dressed as nouns. And within that sense of myself, and everyone else as more flow than fixed, I return often to my story line discovery. We are protagonists in the drama/comedy of our life. And we are, simultaneously supporting actors for everyone else we encounter….everyone, from our lovers to the kid bagging our food at the supermarket.

That kid is, without articulation of it, complicit in the complexity of this simultaneity. Our failure to recognize and value that reality allows us to diminish the value of life as it is made manifest by everything and everyone that lives.

Of course we each have a unique personality, a combination of genetics and experience that, like our physical body, gives us a certain recognizable shape. And of course that means we are different in the particulars of our lives, while similar in the general outline of birth, family, school, and friends.

Each of us is limited in what we find easy to believe or to understand. Those limitations give our belief systems their own shape and those belief systems give direction to our behavior. What we learn via our experiences is, to the extent possible, translated into whatever verbal and non-verbal languages we use.

Music, dance, and visual art are commonly understood as expressions of our experience, of “who we are”.  Gymnastics, athletics, games of all sorts are also ways we express our selves, our talents and our weaknesses. And our emotions, from the tenderness of rocking an infant to the murderous rage that fills our T.V. news are all ways we  demonstrate who we are.

But it is with our verbal language that we most often try to explain ourselves, and to question, probe, and sometimes argue into and out of understanding each other. It seems fair to say that in many ways, the words we ingest do become our flesh…from the praise of successes to the damnation of indifference we do what we do because we think it is the right thing to do at the time we do it.

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