Saturday, July 24, 2010

1000 Incidents of Beauty Every Day

In some of the heart’s business there is really no net gain.
Richard Ford, The Sportswriter

[Zeus] swore to be revenged, on mankind first and then on mankind's friend. He
made a great evil for men, a sweet and lovely thing to look upon, in the
likeness of a shy maiden, and all the gods gave her gifts, silvery raiment and
a broidered veil, a wonder to behold, and bright garlands of blooming flowers
and a crown of gold--great beauty shone out from it. ...When this beautiful
disaster had been made, Zeus brought her out and wonder took hold of gods and
men when they beheld her. From her, the first woman, comes the race of women,
who are an evil to men, with a nature to do evil.
Edith Hamilton, Mythology

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.—Marianne Williamson

I felt that at some time or other I had passed through the valley of diamonds, but I could convince no one—not even myself, when I looked at them more closely,—that the specimens I had brought back were not mere pieces of gravel.—Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams & Reflections

The train hurtled through towns where cars waited at the crossing and a collie peered down its long nose at an alley cat and the sun found over there a single small window to dazzle—just as I imagined God, if He existed, might find in a whole crowd only one soul turned at the right angle to reflect His glory. —Edmund White, The Beautiful Room is Empty

To get away from the tragedy—and the talk—some of his friends had moved to places like Phoenix and Charlottesville, but Michael couldn’t see the point of it. The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else.

There was beauty here and conspicuous bravery and civilized straight people who were doing their best to help. It was also his home, when all was said and done. He loved this place with a deep and unreasoning passion; the choice was no longer his. —Armistead Maupin, Significant Others

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Tyranny of Ideas

We often get riled up over issues and causes that are not our own, that we can do nothing whatever about. This unfortunate tendency is portrayed with refreshing clarity in Susan Wise Bauer's book, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. During the medieval period, four of the world's five major religions codified their doctrines. We know a lot about how this happened, but few people bother to find out about it. 

I was raised to consider religious ideas on their own, as if they were the result of people wondering about life, suggesting answers. Medieval history proves that religion did not develop this way. All the major religions owe their existence to rulers, men who designed or re-tooled the doctrines to preserve the rulers' power. We only have these ideas to argue about because they once served someone's earthly ambitions.

I find this fascinating. It's possible for people to burn with passion, thinking they are caring for their own needs, when in fact they are serving someone else's desire for power. And the person served may have died several centuries ago, but the practice survived. The ensuing arguments sound especially futile, from a distance. I like this example from Bauer's book:

[During the Byzantine Empire] Arguments about the Arian take on the divinity of Christ, as opposed to the Nicene understanding, had spread to the lowest levels of society. 

"Everywhere throughout the city is full of such things," complained bishop Gregory of Nyssa, in a sermon preached at Constantinople, "the alleys, the squares, the thoroughfares, the residential quarters; among cloak salesmen, those in charge of moneychanging tables, those who sell us our food. For if you ask about change, they philosophise to you about the Begotten and the Unbegotten. And if you ask about the price of bread, the reply is, 'The Father is greater, and the Son is subject to him.' If you say, 'Is the bath ready?', they declare the Son has his being from the non-existent. I am not sure what this evil should be called—inflammation of the brain or madness or some sort of epidemic disease which contrives the derangement of reasoning."

This slice of urban life is familiar to me. In my beloved city of San Francisco, it is impossible to talk to anyone or transact any business without the requisite professions of faith. During the early years of the 21st century, an exchange at Starbucks went like this:

"Good morning, I hate George Bush."
"Yes, it would be a good morning, if only he weren't the president, what can I get you?"
"Bush stole the election. One decaf latte, please. Bush should be impeached."
"That'll be $2.50. Bush should be castrated."
"Here you go. Try to endure, until we kill Bush."
"You too, and don't even ask me about Reagan because we'll never recover from the destruction he wrought."

Ideas don't come with labels. We don't know where they came from unless we trouble ourselves to investigate. It's easier to unpack them when you get older, just because you've seen them come and go over time. The young are easily knocked down without warning. Did someone ask you to sign a petition today, to save the world? How old were they? 

Several years ago, I read an essay by an alert young woman who wasn't sure if she wanted a boyfriend or not. She assigned a new name to herself and others like her, Quirkyalone, and proceeded to sing an entertaining song about single life. I enjoyed the article, but I was somewhat embarrassed for her. This girl wrote as if she were the first person ever troubled by mixed feelings about connections with other people. Apparently, she was in good company, as she appeared on television interviews and published a book on the subject. Inspired by her audacity, I marched down to the patent office and applied for a service mark on my invention, which I call The Wheel.

Each of us is fascinated by him- or herself, which is only natural. We tend to see the whole world as if it were focused on us alone—quirky or not. If we don't try to get an outside, historical perspective once in a while, it's easy to think we're acting independently, when in fact we are playing a script we dug out of a dumpster.

What we find in that dumpster can be planted, in the expectation we will find it. In ancient Israel, King Josiah had trouble leading the stubborn Hebrews. He sent his priests and officials into the depths of the Temple, to perform an exhaustive inventory. In a stroke of good luck, they uncovered the Book of Deuteronomy, God's own law book. Deuteronomy just happened to endorse every measure of reform Josiah wanted. In China, Emperor Wang Mang needed a unifying inspiration for his people, and the ideas they most valued were those of Confucius. Unfortunately, a previous emperor had ordered all Confucian writing burnt. Wang Mang sent men to dig under the house Confucius had lived in. Imagine their rejoicing when they found un-burnt books by Confucius! And do you think those books contained anything in opposition to Wang Mang?   

I'm not sure we can escape any of this. We can be aware of it, and gain instruction from the drama of human ideas, struggling to survive. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explored this idea many years ago in his book, The Selfish Gene. He coined the term meme to stand for an idea that has characteristics favorable to its survival and reproduction. In Dawkins's conception, the meme lives like a virus. It doesn't have an agenda; it doesn't care about reproducing, but does so by the accident of being well-fitted [Malcolm Gladwell calls this property stickiness]. It does not care about the long-term health or well-being of its host. Dawkins doesn't take it this far, but I observe that because of their nature, the properties of memes can destroy those infected, just as viruses can destroy their host organisms. 

The ending of Ms. Bauer's book sums up Emperor Constantine's use of—and remaking of—Christianity to serve his ends:  
The founding of the military orders [in the 12th century] was the closing act in the drama begun by Constantine at the Milvian Bridge. Marching into Rome under the banner of the cross, he had taken a powerful and mysterious theology and bent it to his own purposes. It had promised unity. He needed unification. It had promised ultimate victory. He needed earthly victory at once. It had promised an identity that transcended nationality and language. He had needed to overcome nationalism. Most of all, he needed to convince his soldiers, the people of Rome, and the enemies who threatened him, that he was driven by something higher and more noble than simple ambition. Probably he needed to convince himself, as well. Christianity gave Constantine freedom from guilt over his conquests, at the same time that it lent him the zeal he needed to pursue them. Seven hundred years later, the military orders did exactly the same things for the men who joined them, and gave them a rule, to spell out precisely what they would gain. That marriage of spiritual gain and political power would shape the next five centuries, and the painful and protracted divorce between the two, the centuries after that. 


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Way Forward

These times of change suit big enterprises. — Tacitus, Histories, 105 CE

We live in disturbing times. All around us, our support systems appear to break down. Banks fail, governments falter. Values we held to be universal are challenged or ignored. Our unease over these events is made more painful by news outlets that relay them in the most alarming terms. 

Despite our fear, we are fortunate to live in troubled times. Change brings opportunity, where stability does not. The Italian Renaissance produced giant leaps in human achievement, and it cannot be an accident that these leaps took place amid dizzying political and social change. Life during the Renaissance was dangerous, much more so than in our time. In that era, if you whispered any disagreement with the governor of your city, you risked immediate execution, by horrible means. If, on the other hand, you were too courteous and obedient, you could easily be executed the following week, when the governor was murdered and replaced.  

Brother Savonarola suggested that the Church get back to its roots. In this picture, the Church gently corrected Savonarola [center left, in flames].

People with power lost it. People formerly powerless gained it, and the cycle repeated. Because of this dispersion of power, different ideas and tastes were fulfilled in art, science and literature. More voices were heard, and the level of discourse rose through expanded references. 

No matter how much we may want to run away from the present, be assured that someone else will recognize the opportunities. Right now nimble minds are opening new businesses, retooling old ones, or replacing their old identities, becoming new people. 

Author Robert Greene tackles this subject in an e-Book, containing material from his public lectures. His title is The Descent of Power—Thoughts on The Great Transformation and How to Master It. 

Greene says: What is really changing in the world is not technology, or the globalization of capital, but the relationships between people—relationships that were once hierarchical and based on the force of authority. This has been radically flattened. What matters most now are the connections between people, the interdependencies and networks that can be formed and the unimpeded flow of information. Any kind of obstruction to that flow will be seen as something from the past, someone or some group trying to halt the course of an historic fatality. 

Take heart, fellow soldiers. Seize this moment. As Greene says in his conclusion, it is likely we will look back on this time as one of enormous opportunity. Let's not miss a minute of it.