Friday, April 15, 2011

Lulz Post: PAYBACK

Eight years I'd known Joey. We'd been roommates all through college, even stayed in touch afterward. Hell, I'd been considering inviting the guy to my wedding when I saw it in the obituaries last week: “Joseph Oglethorpe Grant, 1987-2011.” Cause of death was unlisted, the only information was a brief description of Joey's relations and hobbies (guy loved collecting pogs), and the date and time of the funeral. I canceled my appointments, asked Janice to record the match for me, and rushed out to be there in the only way I could for my closed-casket compadre.

Now I was looking at right at his grizzly mug.

“Hey, Terry,” he said before taking a bite out of his pizza. Grease rolled down his chin.

The call had come in this morning while I was in the shower. When I listened to the message I almost had to take another bath to clean myself up again: “I'm not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido's Pizzeria. Tell no one.” That was all it said, and I don't mind admitting that it scared the bejeezus out of me. I played the message back a few times, making sure I'd heard right. Yeah, I had, it was Joey.

“So, how's things?” Joey asked through a mouth full of cheese and pepperoni.
“Not too bad,” I answered, trying to sound as normal as possible. “Yourself?”
Joey chewed his food pensively for a moment. He sighed, wiped the grease from his face, and said, “I've been better.”
I nodded. A guy, reported dead, eating pizza. Circumstances could be better.
“How's that girl of yours, Janice?” he asked, resuming his eating.

Needless to say, Janice wasn't happy about me suddenly running out again. She gave me the third degree, and started complaining that my canceling plans on the fly was not good for a healthy relationship. I told her it was a family emergency, that my brother was in a jam and needed my help, that it was a male sibling thing, and that I'd make it up to her. She sighed, smiled, and let me off the hook. Janice is an angel. I hate lying, especially to angels, but when a guy who was supposed to be dead calls you and tells you not to tell anyone about your meet-up, you do it. Well-reasoned? No. Understandable? Yes.

“She's all right,” I answered. “How's...your mother?”
“Same crazy old hag as always,” Joey replied, finishing his last bite of pizza. He clumsily wiped his face one last time with the paper napkin, then balled it up and tossed it at the trash can. He missed, horribly. “Damn,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I never was too good at that.”
“Joey,” I interjected. I opened my mouth to ask the question, but no words came out.

I looked at Joey, who stared at me expectantly. It was the first time I'd really looked at him since meeting him in the place. He was the same old Joey I'd roomed with, but he was also different. I don't know what it was. Something about him. He looked paler, older than he used to be. Not that he'd ever taken care of himself, but he looked even worse than he had back in the day. Part of me held back, not quite wanting to ask for fear of what he was going to say, but the look in his eyes told me I should. Ask me, they said, ask me the question.

“What's the deal, man?” I exploded. “What's with me reading about...that in the paper last week, and now me seeing you here now? What gives?”
Joey sighed and looked down, nodding his head. “Yeah, I figured we'd get to that eventually,” he mumbled. Then, looking back up at me: “Terry...we're no strangers to love.”
“What?”
“You know the rules, and so do I.”
“You faked your own death just so you could finally 'Rick Roll' me?”

The music on the jukebox kicked in, as Rick Astley's voice filled the diner. I whipped around as all of the patrons jumped up, dancing and joining in the chorus: “Never gonna' give you up, never gonna' let you down...” I turned back to see Joey, grinning smugly at me. I sighed and nodded, a smile creeping its way up my own face. After eight years, he'd finally gotten me back.

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Downtime

Those who are able to go on and on about their tasks without ever stopping to rest are few.  Most people, even the most hearty, must occasionally take a moment to rest themselves between projects.  The Tarahumara break from their long expeditions; the zealous put down their pickets; the mother puts her babe in a crib or play pen.  This does not signify a lack of commitment but merely fatigue.  Such fatigue, being an inevitable part of the human condition, requires humans to rest themselves from time to time, forgoing their usual doings for a brief, self-indulgent respite.

Usually, such a respite takes on the form of a meal or a nap, for eating and sleeping are essential to maintain proper functioning.  Sometimes, however, the fatigue is of such a sort that merely filling the belly or shutting the eyes and ears are insufficient to provide the sort of rest that one needs.  Stress, monotony, and over-exertion are all causes of a special kind of fatigue that cannot be treated by the practices most animals use as therapy.  The human life is like that of a candle:  for certain, it will burn brightly when at work, but if it burns too brightly for too long, it will be extinguished.  If the candle never burns, it never functions as a candle; it may as well be a doorstop.  If the candle burns too hard without stopping, however, it will quickly run down wick and wax alike.

Therefore, humans must occasionally pause their daily toils and simply allow themselves to "be", without becoming totally and perpetually inert, for inertness is as much a way to end one's existence as burning out.  How do humans cope with this problem?  How is a balance struck?  The answer is what we call leisure or "downtime".

Downtime is the period that most humans undergo when they have exerted themselves beyond what is tolerable and need to break from the tedium and strain of that which they have previously engaged in.  The human that sits writing all day leaves its dwelling to walk the outdoors; the human working in the hot sun all day retires to its domicile to enjoy less taxing activities; school children have recess; even the academic has sport.  These are all instances of undertaking leisurely activities to prevent one's self from burning out while also not becoming rigidly inert.

Why are such activities necessary, though?  Why is it insufficient to simply eat or sleep like other animals?  For some, these things are sufficient; for many, they are not.  To spend the whole of one's life ceaselessly toiling away at a single project is not what is normally possible; humans usually desire to do many things rather than one thing.  Sometimes it is necessary to follow these other desires to fulfill one's needs; to not follow them will lead to un-health.  Humans cannot simply ignore their needs, no matter how complex or artificial they may be.

The problem is that sometimes humans are unable to discern when downtime is needed and for how long, or what desires to follow in the downtime.  This is not a dilemma easily resolved, and it often requires different advice for different people in different situations.  The dedicated writer who never leaves his room or scrawling can almost certainly benefit from more time outdoors than the school boy who takes a daily recess; the soldier who has served a long time abroad almost definitely needs more relaxation and assistance upon returning home than the trader who easily goes to and from the marketplace daily.

These distinctions of needs must be made carefully and with great consideration.  Too much leisure breeds inertness; too little does not resolve the fatigue.  This is a matter of discipline.  The judgments of discipline are not impossible, but they require the utmost of one's power, and the greatest form of discipline is self-discipline, when one is able to accurately make the judgments for one's self.  Self-discipline is difficult, however, because even the self can deceive one into taking too much or too little.  Accordingly, awareness is always necessary.

Yet this should not be the object of worry, as worry causes stress and stress causes fatigue.  If one worries, one will be unable to relax and truly take the much-needed downtime.  Therefore, every day should be enjoyed and lived to the fullest, and this includes the waxing and waning of one's efforts.  Put yourself wholly into your engagements and delight in them, as if reaching into a cool pool on a hot day, but do not stretch too far and fall in.  If you do fall in, dry yourself on the warm, soft grass, but do not sit too long or you will burn.  Being wet, one can easily be dried; being burned, one must go through more difficult therapies to heal.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On Peer Editing

Hello, colleagues!  Today's post is not a philosophical rambling but, rather, a potential request.  As some of my followers know, I have been engaged in research and writing for a master's degree in philosophy for about eight months now.  As of the moment, I am coming into the home stretch of completing a full draft of my thesis and I have been blessed to have several friends provide me with feedback on the work so far (especially since my supervisor has been slow to give me any criticism on the first ten pages I sent him back in February).

This brings me to today's request:  I am looking for more possible proofreaders, critics, and interested thinkers to give my thesis a look-over starting in the next month or so.  Specifically, I am looking for readers who have any or all of the following:

-A background in philosophy, political science, psychology, anthropology, pre-Qin Chinese culture, and/or ethics in general
-A background in literary analysis and criticism (I need structure as much as I need content)
-A background in formatting academic papers (if you have written a thesis that was accepted, you qualify)
-An interest in the topics of classical Confucianism and how cultural practices structure ethical dimensions
-An understanding that using anything from my manuscript (published or not) constitutes plagiarism (not saying any of you will do that, but I want this to be stated explicitly)
-The ability to give feedback in a timely manner

If you are interested, feel free to let me know and we can discuss the subject.  I cannot afford to pay anyone; this would be strictly volunteer work.  The only rewards you would receive would be my gratitude and some (hopefully) interesting, new ideas.  I am not expecting any replies to this post, and I am grateful to those who are already assisting me with this project (you will be cited in the acknowledgments :) ).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Reality

One asks:  What is reality?

I say:  Reality, never being clearly defined, can be many things.  The skeptic believes it is a personal space where there may or may not be genuine things; the non-skeptic believes it is the meeting place of genuine things.  Yet even if there are things in the meeting place that are not genuine, this does not mean that there are no genuine things in the meeting place.  Likewise, just because there are genuine things in the meeting place does not mean it is not a personal space.  Personal and shared, genuine and ingenuine - these things may share the same space and yet be no less real in and of themselves.

If the skeptic is correct, then reality is almost a pointless construct - we are unable to know if what we perceive is real, for it could all just be an illusion.  Therefore, we should always be skeptical toward what we take to be knowledge; toward what we take to be reality.

If the non-skeptic is correct, then although we may perceive illusions, these illusions are merely mis-perceptions of the genuine things in the meeting place.  All that we perceive is genuinely so, even if we do not perceive correctly.  Therefore, there is a reality and we must be careful to discern it.

One asks:  Who is right, the skeptic or the non-skeptic?

I say:  Both have good views and, if they genuinely hold their views, there is no reason to say that one is "right" and the other is "wrong".  The true skeptic has good reason to be wary of what may or may not be reality.  The true non-skeptic is well-grounded in claiming that there is a reality that we share.

Both of these views have problems, though, because neither can prove that the other is wrong.  The skeptic cannot lay claim to knowledge, and therefore cannot weaponize it against the non-skeptic.  Likewise, the non-skeptic cannot challenge the skeptic without delving into the realm of skepticism to raise doubts.  It would be like trying to create land from air or air from land - the necessary resources and abilities are deficient in both.

One asks:  If neither the skeptic nor the non-skeptic can triumph, then is it so that we are lost?

I say:  This need not be so.  There are some who sit on the sidelines and wait for the eternal stalemate to end, and there are even some who join the battle themselves, hurrying only to wait.  By and large, however, many are able to go on about their lives without worrying over the matter of reality; their concern only flares when the topic is forced upon them.

One asks:  How can this be done?

I say:  There is no single way to alleviate the anxiety over reality, but many ways to match the many people.  There are, however, some ways that work better than others.  You have asked, so I will tell you my way.

It is my way to take reality as the sum of my perceptions and relations, both external and internal, and hold them as genuinely so.  What do I mean by this?  What I mean is that one's reality is what one makes it out to be.  If one genuinely perceives a dragonfly, but I do not, then is that dragonfly any less a part of that person's reality?  Certainly not!  The dragonfly has been perceived, and is therefore part of the person's reality.  This is not skepticism, for knowledge can be claimed; this is not non-skepticism, for there is a personal space in the meeting place.

One asks:  If there is a personal space within the meeting place, then how can there be genuine things?

I say:  What makes a thing genuine?  Is it because it exists for everyone?  This cannot be right, because there are some things that exist only for a single person or limited numbers of people.  Is anger not genuine?  Is fear not genuine?  Is joy not genuine?  Is love not genuine?  Certainly, we want to say that all of these things are genuine, yet they are not shared objectively and universally.  Therefore, it is possible to have personal things be genuinely so within the meeting place.  Furthermore, it is possible to share these personal things and make them shared things in the meeting place.  Of course, when one does so they are not totally shared, for others cannot have the exact same thing as what one has in one's personal space.  What others receive, at best, is something that is "close enough" that the connection can be made.  Still, these are cases of things that are genuinely so from a personal space being brought to the meeting place.  Likewise, one can take share things from the meeting place into the personal space.  There is no conflict here.

One asks:  If things are neither purely personal or purely shared, then how can any knowledge ever be genuinely and completely shared?

I say:  Knowledge cannot be completely shared, as knowledge is a thing shared from the personal space.  It can, however, be genuinely shared and take as a "close enough" thing.  This is because one cannot be another, and another cannot be one's self.  This is simply the logic of things, but it is also my logic of things.  Therefore I may be wrong, but I accept this as true if for no other purpose than to make sense of the world.  Is this not sufficient to comprehend reality?

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Acceptance

Nowadays, there are a number of ailments that harass and harangue our population:  plague, war, famine, bad government, depression, poverty...the list could continue for pages.  There are two afflictions, however, that are among the most bizarre to beset humans.  These two illnesses produce entirely different and seemingly contrary complications for the human life, and affect almost every member of the human population world-wide, often with the apparent effect of dividing the species.  Despite the dichotomy that derives from the disease, however, there remains the curious fact that the characteristic symptoms of each sickness seem to surface from the presence of a particular point:  acceptance.  

When I speak of acceptance, I am speaking of it in the broad sense.  That is to say, the reception and approval of some thing, be it an event, idea, person, place, you name it.  It is the very thing that lies at the heart of all of our understandings, all of our perceptions, and all of our judgments.  This fact is what makes acceptance so ubiquitous and so potentially deadly for, as with most things in life, acceptance should be taken with care and balance:  too much or too little can be fatal.

The maladies that follow from exposure to acceptance, as you may or may not have guessed from my writing so far, are apathy, in which the human accepts all things unquestioningly, and obsession, in which the human rejects points with would-be dogma for the sake of finding the "true truth".  The former is often called "Sheeple Syndrome," whilst the latter has come to be known as the "Philosopher's Disease".  Let us examine the two infirmities.

Sheeple Syndrome is characterized by a seemingly radical acceptance of any and all events and ideas entering a subject's life so long as they fit within a preset paradigm that has also been enculturated and accepted by the subject.  This inevitably leads to a disinterest in critical thinking or reflection upon pre-established and accepted principles that govern one's life, ultimately devolving into complete apathy toward the world.  Additionally, those afflicted with SS tend to group together in a flock or herd-like mentality, seemingly operating on some sort of hive-mind dynamic.  SS is believed to be the single foremost cause of the U.S. Republican party's rise to power.  Common symptoms include group-think, lack of personal opinion, mass conformity, an inability to think critically (in worst cases, all analytical ability is lost), and a tendency to go out on Friday nights while getting totally smashed with "your boyz" only to return to your apartment for further partying and numerous awkward and embarrassing situations that may or may not end up on Failblog.

The Philosopher's Disease, on the other hand, is caused by what appears to be an aversion or allergy to acceptance.  Although harmless enough in its incubation phase, which usually accompanies a reading of Socrates's / Plato's comments on how the unexamined life is not worth living, PD can kick into high gear if one is exposed to Descartes's Meditations (particularly the "Cogito Argument") and is not supplied with a significant source of mental grounding to balance out the radical skepticism that may follow.  This, in turn, leads to the subject developing an obsessive need to critically evaluate any and all ideas he or she comes into contact with, including those already possessed.  Such a condition, if left unchecked, will lead to an inability to accept anything without sufficient valid, sound argumentation (which, in the most critical stages of PD, is impossible to supply).  At its worst, PD can result in paranoid solipsism that will utterly ruin a person's work, relationships, and destroy any ability to simply enjoy life.

Both SS and PD can be absolutely devastating complications for both the sufferer and loved ones of the sufferer (who inevitably suffer themselves).  SS makes it impossible for one to live a genuinely thinking, feeling life; PD makes it impossible for one to genuinely live such a life with connection to anything that may or may not be real (at best, it will be unverified contingency).  SS and PD are two of the most dangerous viruses in the world today and, although not always fatal, should be watched with great scrutiny to protect the health of the human population.

Fortunately, there is hope for those who already suffer from either disease.  Education and stimulation are both practical and effective treatments for SS, and the earlier they are administered the better the chances of recovery.  PD can be assuaged simply by pointing out to sufferers that there are infinitely complex solutions to problems of causality in Existence and, accordingly, it is impossible for the human mind to run all possible scenarios; inevitably, we must sometimes simply accept things if we are to carry on.  This is an argument the sufferer will (hopefully) comprehend.

Most of us suffer from these diseases from time to time and, as with most diseases, they do come in varying intensities.  Usually we carry the germs of both around in us, and sometimes one flares up when acceptance is presented and pounds on us for a while.  A healthy body is able to return to homeostasis, but not all bodies are equally capable of reaching the harmonious state.  We need to be ever vigilant of apathy and obsession, meaning we need to accept acceptance for what it is.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Competitiveness

I am a gamer or, as the Germans would say, "Ich bin ein Spieler" which, fortunately, does not sound like  "I am a jelly doughnut" in any way.  I digress.  Let me start anew.

I am a gamer.  I was born in the United States of America, one of the most competitive cultures on the planet, and I grew up playing all sorts of games.  From Monopoly to Trivial Pursuit to Scrabble to Pictionary (yes, even Pictionary), I was reared playing them all.  When I was old enough (age three), I received a Super Nintendo Entertainment system and spent a good chunk of my time, the time not spent playing board games, playing games like Super Mario World, Star Fox, and F-Zero.  When I was not gaming, I preoccupied myself with building things from Lego or Brio, always attempting to construct bigger and better works.  As I had learned quite well by then, it was always important to try to improve on your skill and creations; that was the key to winning.

When I grew even older (age five), my parents began enrolling me in different sports, starting with T-ball and football (or, as we say in the States, soccer).  I never have been, and never will be, very good at any sport involving a bat and a ball, so it should come as no surprise that within a few years I had stopped playing T-ball and was only playing football.  I was not very good at that sport either, as I lacked the technical skill and coordination to handle the ball very well, but I was more impassioned about running up and down the field and playing a good game than I was about standing around waiting to catch a ball that conked me on the head quite a few times...but I am digressing again.

After even more years (age fourteen...or was it thirteen?  Too many baseballs to the head have loosened my memory) I was in high school after skipping the seventh grade and finishing second in my class in middle school (a "short-coming" some have never allowed me to forget).  After repeatedly failing to make any impression on the school's football team and being kicked off of every competitive league team I was on, I was left with the only two options for my competitive urges:  wrestling or track and field.  Since I have never been a fan of spandex, and because I had much more experience running than wrestling, I opted for track and field and, by the end of my time in high school, I was the ninth-fastest mid-distance runner in the state.  For the record, that is not impressive:  North Carolina does not breed mid-distance runners, and the number one runner only managed a 1:53 800 meter run.  I ran 1:59.

Never the less, I continued with this competitive streak through my first two years at Duke University, running mid-distance for the varsity team and continuing to push myself to the limit, and even almost four years after leaving the team, I have continued to push myself to the limit.  My 5k is now consistently between fifteen and sixteen minutes, with my unofficial record time being 14:47.  My 800 meter time is now averaging 1:52 when taking it easy; my unofficial record is 1:49.  I am twenty-two years old.

As you may have guessed, it was not that the venue of my gaming was shifted so much as expanded:  I still played my games throughout all of this (both digital and analogue), and the competitiveness seeped into my academic life quite nicely.  I became a warrior seeking champion status, cutting down any obstacle in my path and raging against any impediment until I could overcome it.  This was how I lived my life physically, academically, and recreationally.

Rewind a few years back, though:  Note that I only ran for Duke two years.  An undergraduate degree takes four years to complete on average, granting an athlete four years of eligibility.  What happened those last two years?  Answer:  I had a revelation.  Part sad, part sweet, but it was a revelation that helped me and has continued to help me to this day.

My mother passed away in my junior year of college.  Before that, she was suffering a great deal and it was hard for me to keep my thoughts straight on anything.  My class work suffered, my body suffered, and my relationships suffered.  One day I realized why I was suffering so much:  It was not because of my mother's illness; that was something that broke my heart, but sadness and loss are things we all deal with.  What was causing my suffering were my futile attempts to hold together this particular lifestyle, this particular image, that I had been practicing since, well, the beginning.  Every day, however, had become a struggle for me to be the best.  Not just the best I could be, but the best.  That meant doing things a certain way and never letting myself relax or letting my guard down...and I detested it all.  Yes, I loved to come out on top and win, but at what cost?  The cost of my body?  The cost of my family?

I quit the Duke track team shortly after my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I just could not hold it all together and, frankly, I had no interest to do so.  Living became my new passion, living for myself, my family, and my people, all people.  Life is too short and precious to be spent wasting it on achievements that may or may not mean anything in the end, whenever that may be.  Mind you, I have obviously retained my competitive edge and instincts.  I still run every morning and push myself to the limit every day; I am trying to perfect my thesis; I still play games and hunt for achievements in them.  The important thing, however, is that I am turning away from doing these things for the sake of competition and beating others.  No, now I do these things with the spirit of humanity and passion for what I do.  Why do I train so hard?  I train so hard because I want my body to reach its full potential, be able to use it to its fullest extent, and be in a condition that I can help others if need be.  Why do I work so hard on my profession?  I work so hard because I love what I do and genuinely believe I can help my people by doing my work, by doing my part.  Why do I game?  I answer:  because I have fun, and when it is no longer fun, I let it go.  After all, it is just a game.

Why do I write all of these things?  Every day, I hear about people starving, living in poverty, and being beaten down within their own communities.  I think it a tragedy that people cannot even find compassion in their own homes, and I know that a good deal of this stems from competition.  Sibling rivalry pits brother against brother, social cliques are exclusive and petty, political parties pit neighbor against neighbor, and economic competition ruins entire nations.  It is fine to compete, but it must be done in a respectful, understanding manner.  One of the reasons I quit my pre-medical school studies was that I was sick of the way many of the students viewed their course track as just being about beating others ("exclusive study groups" for the sake of beating the curve come to mind).  If it is this bad among students who have no real influence, how bad do you think it is among those who wield influence but have never reached maturity?

What I suggest instead is as follows:  Put yourself wholly into your undertakings, but never forget the community in which you dwell.  If you can profit from your ventures, feel free to do so, but always be aware of the impact your actions have on others.  Is it worth the life of one man to make a fortune?  What about ten?  What about one thousand?  Many would say that life is priceless, that you cannot put a price tag on it.  If this is so, then why do so many continue to impoverish and inflict great harms on those beneath them?  This seems counter-intuitive to me, but what do I know?  I am just a man who has almost been destroyed by competition.