Are We Nice?

Just 200 years ago, slavery was legal and widespread in the US. Even more recently, women were considered inferior and were not allowed to vote. Unfair discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or race, was acceptable and normal

On top of all that, violent crime has been decreasing in recent decades, and there has not been a world war in 70 years.

Obviously humanity has been improving morally. Obvious to some, that is, but is it really true? And if it is true, what is the real cause?

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist who believes humanity is improving, and he believes it is because of modern scientific education and secular humanism. Among other things, but mostly he credits advanced, rational, “enlightened” thinking.

If Pinker is correct, then we would expect people who are less educated and sophisticated and “enlightened” to be more prone to acts of cruelty and violence. We would expect other animals, who are not educated of course, to be less moral and compassionate than humans.

Pinker’s views are shared by many other atheist secular humanists.

If you think carefully about those ideas, which may seem obviously true, can you find any logical holes in the reasoning?

Teddy Ballgame Buddhism

“You pick your nose, you scratch your ass….and the world goes by.” wrote Ted Williams in his book My Turn At Bat.  It’s been one of those days for me.  If I could make “Contemplative Laconic” a paint color, I’d be in the mood to do a lot of painting.

Yeah, I did get some things done, grocery shopping, a LOT of reading.  I’ve been loving all the thoughtful comments in the post previous to this one.  Huh!  I just thought how rarely I refer to a post as “previous”, even though it does make some sense.

The phone!  Be right back…..and here I am.  Was it a long call for you?  I hope not!

On this Mothers Day, I am thinking about my mom, but I’m also thinking of a friend whose relationship to her parents was close to my own.  This has been a big bonding point with us ever since.  It’s funny that we often have family conversations that many of our mutual friends don’t understand.  This bond means even more to her than I, and we share confidences about other things because of that relationship.  On her mother’s deathbed, her mother asked my friend to take care of her siblings who struggle more than she does.  I had a “deathbed scene” with my mother too….which was just trauma topped with sadness.  I still suppress remembering it; I’ve got enough other reasons for trauma and sadness.

I sat out on the lawn drinking Watermelon Cucumber Cooler (thank you, Trader Joe’s!) watching traffic go by.  I’ve always loved watching traffic; spotting car models was the Detroit equivalent of identifying animal tracks for outdoors types.  There are a couple of car magazines here and you’ll see an exotic or two because of that.  A gold Lamborghini Aventador!  There’s a rare bird….but the rain drove me back indoors.

I could talk about life….but why not just live it and let the chips fall where they may?

And you?

 

 

 

On joining the ranks of the old

This, by Alessandra Stanley, who has gotten herself in trouble before (h/t Tom Strong), got me going:

People who complain about aging sound old. But “Grace and Frankie” is a senior angst comedy that somehow doesn’t seem fusty and out of date. . . . Together, [Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin] pull this comedy about 70-somethings back from the brink of ridicule. . . . This series covers a later phase in life, somewhere between late-blooming love and assisted living.

And it’s been a while since a series was so intently centered on the early-bird-special set.

Television shows tend to reflect the preoccupations of their creators, and ageism is a fact of Hollywood life. It’s not just older actresses who feel discarded. [It’s e]ven [the] people behind the camera . . .

Reviews reflect the preoccupations of their creators, too. Stanley is reportedly 60 herself, and every line of this screams, “I am NOT one of THEM!!!” Ageism is also a fact of New York media life—hell, of American life. And milking that fact for bittersweet laughs (after all, there’s a large, retiring demographic coming along, the death-diminished bulge in the python, with lots of TV-watching time on its hands) is what this sitcom is all about. Toward the review’s end, Stanley stops sneeringly editorializing with every phrase and simply describes a scene from the sitcom:

Grace and Frankie find that without important husbands, they vanish. Old friends don’t call and strangers don’t even acknowledge them. In one scene, the normally poised Grace is incensed when a male supermarket cashier doesn’t turn to serve them or even acknowledge their waves, pleas and yoo-hoos. He has eyes and time only for a pretty young woman who saunters up asking for lottery tickets.

Grace has a screaming meltdown, and Frankie ushers her back to the car and reveals an upside: She stole a pack of cigarettes. “We have a superpower,” Frankie says slyly. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Grace and Frankie feel invisible, but here they stand out.

So this has made me think about the perennial subject of age and ageism: how getting old really sucks, and how it actually doesn’t; why our culture dismisses, derides, and despises the old, and what it misses thereby. (Disclaimer: I don’t think this is all or even the main thing we should be talking about, in some last baby-boomer bid to monopolize the cultural conversation.)

How getting old sucks is perfectly obvious: your body starts to fall off. And sometimes, and therefore, your mind too. And it’s simultaneously happening to all your friends. Nature is through with you and starts looking for a way to kill you. And it is perfectly clear to you that it is not a matter of if, but when, and how, and how bad. From now on you’ll be occupied with tossing parts of yourself you can live without to Captain Hook’s crocodile to postpone the inevitable; then, you’ll be smashing the crocodile in the snout with your rifle butt as its bad breath engulfs you. It’s the price of life. And it’s amazing to arrive at the threshold of old age and discover how very little of a dent the triumphs of science have made in it. Okay, more of us now make it to our three score and ten. And then, if not before, the shit starts hitting the fan, right on schedule. Knees are replaced, stents put in, breasts and bladders turn cancerous . . .

What’s more amazing to discover, though, is that it isn’t all loss and fear. If you have your mind. If you have your mind, it becomes like a study glowing with burnishing lamplight, with a deep, comfortable chair, with shelves of books on all sides receding into the darkness of the infinite. As you sit in that chair you have a magical arm that can reach out past Alpha Cygni in a languid gesture and pluck just the right apple from the farthest twig of the great tree.

Of course there’s more — the detachment and perspective we call “wisdom,” which feels like rising to stratospheric heights above the busy surface of the globe and taking it all in with an eagle’s-eye sweep—the patterns, the vanishing tininess—on the way to leaving it all behind. And if thinking has new, powerful pleasures, so does stopping thinking—paradoxically recognizing how futile, inadequate, and disconnected from actual life are all efforts to systematize and understand. You know so much more about what you don’t know—the pinnacle of education!

Why doesn’t our culture find any value in this? I think mainly because it’s invisible, or hidden in homely vessels. We’re an almost exclusively visual culture, obsessed with the charm of surfaces. We’re also obsessed with marketing, which goes for the lowest biological common denominator, locus of the strongest impulses and the broadest base—therefore the surest profits. (Profits über prophets!) Sophisticated presentations of the most basic drives and arousals are our entirely worldly focus. In the heat of the prime of life, the insights of wisdom are impotent cobwebs, or snowflakes, to be shouldered off.  Only loss reveals them to be weighty anchors and deep wells.

It’s holding on that makes age ridiculous. If you’re too busy fighting the loss, you can miss the gain.