(About a nine minute read)
It’s becoming evident to me that our personalities are in some ways like ecosystems. One thing affects another, and if we aren’t careful when we go about improving things, we can run into unintended consequences.
Back when I was in business, I became obsessed –there’s no other word for it — obsessed with time management and achieving or exceeding my goals. For some years, I worked hard to improve myself along those lines, and it paid off quite well at first.
Each day, I would, while eating a quick breakfast, review all my goals, both business and personal, both short and long-term. By the time I got to the office, I was so focused that very little could completely distract me from what I intended to accomplish for the remainder of the day.
But I took it too far. One day, I was sitting at a stoplight when it turned green while a pedestrian — an woman perhaps seventy or even eighty years old — was still in the crosswalk. She was using a walker, you see, and quite a bit slower than I wished.
I didn’t honk at her, creep my car forward — nothing like that. I had plenty of time that morning. Besides, it had of course happened many times before that I’d had to wait on a pedestrian.
But this time I became aware, as I never had before, just how harsh were my thoughts towards her. I was basically treating her in my head like a treat a fierce business competitor. She was between me and what I wanted to accomplish, and with a bit of genuine shock, I realized what it really meant that I was not seeing her as fully human.
Of course, after that, I began to see other unintended ways my assiduously cultivated ability to focus my efforts had altered me.
Have you noticed how felt gratitude possesses in some much smaller measure the power of unconditional love to renew us, to make us born again?
How to save money on a first date…
GLORIA (At Door): Hello! You must be Paul, yes? Well, here I am, Gloria!
SUNSTONE: Welcome, Gloria! I’m so pleased to meet you! Did you have a hard time finding my place?
GLORIA: Not at all, but I must admit, I was a bit taken back at first that you wanted to meet up at your cottage. That’s quite unusual you know, for an online date. But then you explained you don’t own a car.
SUNSTONE: What convinced you to come anyway?
GLORIA: I was reassured when you said you wouldn’t insist I came in. Nothing personal, you know, but you can’t be too cautious on a first date.
SUNSTONE: Thank you so much for coming. I’ll be ready in just a moment, Gloria. I have to make a quick phone call to animal control. My cat has escaped and I’m sure she’s in the neighborhood somewhere.
GLORIA: Of course please make your phone call. I’ll wait here. What does your cat look like, in case I spot one while I’m waiting.
SUNSTONE: She’s got green eyes, short tawny fur, big paws, and weights about 300 lbs. You might actually spot her: She never goes much further when she gets loose than the first pedestrian she spots.
GLORIA: Three..hundred…pounds? I can see in your eyes, you’re not joking, or are you?
SUNSTONE: Oh no, she’s quite the mountain lion. I raised her from a kitten.
GLORIA: Oh My God!
SUNSTONE: You’re welcome to wait inside if you’d like.
GLORIA: Yes, yes, I think that would be a good idea.
SUNSTONE: By the way, I have Netflix and, even though I’m not much of a cook, it won’t take long to make some of my deep-fried mac and cheese….
GLORIA: I cannot believe this is happening!
A petite homeless woman knocked on my door one night last winter, the day of the first snow of the season. She had about twenty reasonable requests of me, not more than one of them that I granted her. Five dollars for cigarettes was all I gave.
“Uncharacteristic of me”, I thought after I’d sent her away. But while she still was there, the thought had crossed my mind, “She might steal from me if I let her in, and turn my back”.
It wasn’t much more than a mild self-caution, but it had been enough.
I have long been uncomfortable with the notion that a god — if one or more exist — thinks. To be sure the notion is an anthropomorphism: That much is granted. But it seems to me an especially preposterous anthropomorphism — much on the same level as believing a god had a beard.
For one thing, what we humans mean by “thought” is essentially symbolism. That is, our thoughts bear much the same relationship to reality that a map does to its terrain. When we think of a house, we’re not doing anything greatly different in principle from what a cartographer does when he or she places a small dot, a star, or a square on a map to represent that house.
But suppose that’s the same as what it means for a god to think. Wouldn’t that place god at least partly outside nature — outside the natural universe — in much the same sense a map is separate from its terrain? I think so, and that rather alarms me. I’m not a theist, but if I were one, I would believe in a deity that was co-extensive with the natural universe, rather than in any way outside of it.
Yet my preference for a pantheistic deity is merely personal. There’s no reason to hold that view other than for one’s own reasons. To me, a more serious criticism of the notion that deity thinks begins with the recognition that thinking takes time.
The thought, “I’ll go to the store, buy some milk, lace it with Colorado weed, and sneak it back onto the shelf — fun, fun, fun!”, doesn’t normally present itself in our minds all at once unless we’ve previously come up with it. Rather, it takes time for those thoughts to unfold.
But what would that mean to a deity? Would it not mean the deity was subject to time? Subject to past, present, and future thoughts? Or if Einstein was correct in suggesting that time is an illusion, then for the deity to think like a human, it too much suffer from the same illusion.
Moreover, if it is the case that deity is subject to time, then doesn’t that imply the deity is at any given moment (except, perhaps during the very last moment of its existence) not omniscient, not all knowing? For it would not know what it’s next thought would be. And if is not all knowing, how can it completely know what it itself is? As an example, if it was external, it would not know it — being subject to thinking within time.
There are many implications besides those, but I think you might see the point now: To say deity thinks like we think is at least to say that deity is limited in knowledge and perhaps subject to at least one illusion.
Then beyond all that, you would have the problem that humans have cognitive biases, are notoriously imperfect at predicting the future, entwine thought with emotion, and can’t keep their minds off the studly guy or beautiful gal next door, etc, etc, etc.
Fragment of a poem in progress:
How many souls would we need
If we needed one for each soul
Stolen or lost by us
On the way?
And what sum of souls is tallied
By thirty years without loving —
Without loving freely?
Tonight, it strikes me as curious morality and wisdom are not the same thing. I often hear people defend the practices of distant ages by saying something along the lines of, “Well, given the morals of that time and place…”. Perhaps. But have some things always been wise?
In a novel written in the 1920s, a woman is planning a dinner party she’s giving for about a dozen guests. Carefully, very carefully, she considers each of several seating arrangements, imagining as best she can the conversations the different arrangements will prompt. She pays little attention to who has the honor of sitting next to who: It’s the conversations she’s focused on. And she goes further than that.
She plans how she will prompt each guest at key moments through-out the evening with questions she’s selecting just for them.
My father was born in 1900. In the early 50s, he noticed the conversations among his circle of friends had begun to shift away from a wide range of (probably pre-selected) topics and towards talking about the high points of the past night’s or past week’s television shows.
“The art of conversation is dying”, he told my mother, “It will be buried soon.”
“There are no boring speakers. Only bored audiences.” — Speaker forgotten, but an English lord, circa 1890s.
One day, an old couple in their 70s came into the restaurant where I had just begun waiting tables. It was my first day, and I didn’t yet know who the regulars were, but it didn’t matter in their case, because they very quickly told me they’d been coming to that restaurant for lunch almost every weekday for the past forty-two years — ever since the day or so after they’d gotten back in town from their honeymoon.
Before I had time to fully digest that incredible news, the woman pleasantly instructed me, “Just tell Amie” — she was the cook — “we’ll have our usual sunny-sides-ups today. And, young man, I’ll need the jar of salsa you’ll find on a shelf in the mini-refrigerator at your waiter station, please.”
It wasn’t until after my shift, and I had time to reflect, that it fully sank in how odd anyone would spend forty-two years going for lunch to the very same restaurant!
As the days turned into weeks and months, they certainly did come in nearly every weekday, excepting only the weekends. I noticed they had almost no conversation between them. They would more or less routinely invite others — usually semi-regulars — over to their table and then they might chat lively enough. But on those occasions when they sat alone, they were almost totally silent.
Sometimes it seems quite curious to me we get bored with the people we love the most. After all, isn’t boredom so often a form of turning away, of withdrawing from people in practice, if perhaps not actually in principle?
Was it television that did in the art of conversation during the 1950s? Or was it the decimation during the war of the upper classes — the people mostly responsible for sustaining the art?