Monday, November 23, 2015

Elusive Gratitude

Those who know me well will be aware of why I have to pay attention to gratitude. The remembrance of gratitude is an oft-repeated mantra and it was coincidental that I read a piece in the NYT on the eve of this year's Thanksgiving which set off a few parallel trains of thought. Firstly, do we actually have to feel grateful, thankful, or whatever, in order to actually be grateful? I stumble over this. On the one hand I think one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seems somehow dishonest or fake; a kind of bourgeois insincerity that one should reject. Surely it’s best to be emotionally authentic, Or, is it? Sincere fakery might achieve just the same result, if it does sound a bit oxymoronic. Doing the best for ourselves does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather, rebelling against them and taking a stand against negative impulses tends to cause us to act right even when we don’t feel like it. In brief, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.
For many people, including me, gratitude is difficult, because life can be difficult. Having said that, to accompanying snorts of disapproval, how could my life be so much more difficult than, say, a rickshaw driver in Mumbai, but even for me, days of endless azure thankfulness doesn't come easily to the melancholic personality. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude is elusive, an old fish that refuses to take the bait.  Focusing on tragedy dissolves a grateful heart, as one pundit put it. Watching beheadings does not make us feel good.
I have been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner - hence this post - and events like this can all too easily be ruined by a drunken relative who always has to share his political views, usually at bellicosely high volume. It's supposed to be a delightful, entertainingly warm fuzzy of a party, but...
Beyond rotten circumstances, or just a few too many "slings and arrows" having found their uncomfortable mark, some people are just naturally more grateful than others and there appears to be some science behind why this is so.
A variation in gene (CD38) seems to be associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know, the perpetually glass half full types, who seem grateful all the time may simply be, well, mutants.
But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practise gratitude — and that doing so makes us happier. This is not just the usual self-improvement hokey-pokey, much as it might appear. For example, research carried out over ten years ago randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed frustrations, hassles or even neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others - my first question being 'how was it measured'. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.
Acting happy, regardless of feelings, appears to coax one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi which create “crow’s feet”. They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions. If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a deranged psychopath isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead, again whether you feel like it or not. Tell someone something affirming, for example. It stimulates the hypothalamus which helps to regulate stress and the ventral tegmental area which is part of our reward circuitry that produces the sensation of pleasure. In so doing, we become conditioned to repeat it.
But what if we can't actually see anything that's worth being thankful for? This is harder because we have to to some extent make it up. The reason why people put pictures of cats on skateboards on Facebook is because they stimulate pleasurable emotions. If this is a bridge too far, as an exercise, write down five beautiful things. They could be objects, places, memories or people.
It’s common sense as well as being scientific: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Conscious Reality

Large Magellanic Cloud 30 billion stars, image 160, 000 years old
Today, I discovered that a wandering mind can lead into all kinds of curious byways. In light of the Paris massacres, I found myself thinking about the existence of the ‘soul’. Specifically in respect of the fact that when one visits the dead, they look the same, but ‘they’ are clearly not present. That which is ‘them’ has, as they say, left the building. Consciousness has not only departed, apparently, but can be seen to have done so, with no seeming scientific justification, except that the defining functions denoting being alive are no longer operational.
I’ve also been reading the first few chapters of Revelation, and realize how very little I know about how first century apocalyptic literature carries meaning, in the sense that the words become consciously understood. Not least, because I consider it with the overlay of twenty centuries, scientifically adept and to some extent poetically aware, but its conscious messages frequently elude me and I still find myself asking childish questions which are bounded by a static space-time continuum; like, “where is Heaven or Hell?”, as if knowing would make any difference.
For centuries, starting with the Renaissance, a single mindset about the construct of the cosmos has dominated our scientific thought.  We began to observe and make logical deductions about what we saw. Galileo’s muttered aside at his trial ‘yet, it doth move’ is distinct testimony to an emergent scientific mindset. The model which we call science has provided insights into the nature of the universe, and its countless applications that have transformed every aspect of our lives. But the new biology, leapfrogging physics is asking if perhaps it is reaching the end of its useful life.
The old model proposes that the universe is a collection of interacting particles obeying mysterious, predetermined rules. The universe is presented as a watch that somehow wound itself, and that, allowing for a degree of quantum randomness, will unwind or evolve as time passes in ways which we may, or may not, be able to predict. But the overarching problem involves life, since its initial arising is still an unknown process, even if the way it then changed forms can be apprehended using Darwinian mechanisms. The bigger problem is that life contains consciousness, and this is the part we don’t understand. There is nothing in modern physics that explains how a group of molecules in a brain creates consciousness. The beauty of a sunset, the appreciation of a flower, these are all mysteries. Tools exist to map the effect and the geography of the brain where the sensations arise, but not how and why there is any subjective personal experience to begin with. Also, nothing in science can explain how consciousness arose from matter. Our understanding of this  basic phenomenon is virtually nil - most seem to hope that as processing power and speed increase, some semblance of a solution will be on offer to satisfy the scientific community. Most physicists, however see this as an irrelevance.
It is the biological creature that makes the observations and creates the theories. Our entire education system in all disciplines, the construction of our language, revolve around a bottom-line mindset that assumes a separate universe “out there” nearly fourteen billion years old and came into existence with a ‘big bang’ – and we still don’t know everything about that  - into which we have each individually arrived on a very temporary basis. It is further assumed that we accurately perceive this external pre-existing reality and play little or no role in its appearance. However, experiments have shown just the opposite. The observer critically influences the outcome. An electron turns out to be both a particle and a wave but how and, more importantly, where such a particle will be located remains dependent upon the very act of observation. Nothing is real until we observe it. Thus, the observer may, in fact, create the reality. Science passes through the filter of consciousness in exactly the same way as an electron passes through one or other of two slits, and the outcomes may be equally unpredictable.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris Burning

I was in Paris yesterday. The plan was to go see a movie, perhaps, then join friends at home. The movie schedules meant that had we stayed, we would have returned home after dark, so, we left town early. For once, transport ran smoothly. A peaceful dinner with friends visiting from Montreal and Geneva. Then, the news broke and everyone drifted to the TV room to watch news of the carnage unfold in the 10th and 11th and the Stade de France.

This is France's 9/11.

What happened in Paris last night is exactly what Europe's security services have long feared, and tried to second guess. Determined, well-organized simultaneously rolling attacks, with automatic weapons and suicide bombers in the heart of a major European city, targeting multiple, crowded public locations. These tactics have been used before in Mumbai and elsewhere. Once shock and outrage have abated, there are many questions which will have to be answered, and the answers had better be right. How has such a well-organized sleeper group found its way undetected into the heart of Europe? Were the attackers French citizens, if so, how they were radicalised, armed and organised? In France, perhaps, or the Schengen zone, or further afield, perhaps in Syria, and by whom? Why weren't they detected by the intelligence services? Is France, after two major attacks this year, uniquely vulnerable? Or does the carnage in Paris mean all of Europe faces new threats to our public places and events? And if a Syrian link is proven, will France's instinct be to back off  or will it redouble its commitment to the fight against radical groups there? Today, François Hollande used the words 'act of war'. It might be good to remember that wars brew slowly - the First World War was a tragedy of incompetent leadership, pride and brinkmanship for the preceding twenty years and the relatively unimportant assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that lit the powder keg that set Europe ablaze.

I have written before about the idolatry of ISIL, making mention of the fact that the severest punishments in the Old Testament are reserved for those who sacrifice their children to Moloch. The perpetrators and the ideology that drives them are transparently guilty of this very act and, this time, it's personal. It can no longer be denied that radical Islam is a dark, malevolent and powerful force with a thirst for conquest and an appetite for retribution on a scale not seen for centuries. As I write, an audio communiqué from ISIL has just been released online, in fluent, Arab-accented French, claiming responsibility, indicating the targets were meticulously chosen for maximum impact.  If this is, as Jeb Bush put it last night, 'the war of our time', then we had better get ready.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Fear Not Trembling

Men fear change as children fear the dark, to misquote Francis Bacon. To a child, the dark is full of hobgoblins, werewolves and nameless monsters who would do him harm, which is why I have always felt uncomfortable about the current sanitised and irreligious expressions of Hallowe'en which have slipped, like Disney, into popular culture. The dark is not merely a comforting absence of light, or the expectation of comfort where there currently is none.
We live in dark times - the world is a less predictable place. Changes, especially those which happen fast, cause our balance to falter as familiar patterns of behaviour seem to us be be becoming less secure. When balance falters, errors are made. We hear a great deal now about the drift of America and Europe away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline - as in fact there always is - the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they "ought" to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we are unable to establish an appropriate timeline? If we begin to pay attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of Western culture at present and thus identify its sources, we are some way towards dealing with the problem. Evidence of such fearfulness is ubiquitous, from erecting razor wire at Hungarian borders, to the torching of immigrant accommodation in Sweden, to police responses to recalcitrance in schools.
In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God, or, loyalty to foundational principles: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.” Has Europe and the US lost sight of the laws and traditions from which the solid bulwarks of their democracies were first forged?  If so, if Leviticus is to be believed, irrational responses will be made to irrational fears. With the rise of homicidal, religiously inspired and heavily armed forces in the Middle East, intent on propagating a version of Islam which has surfaced, like a Babylonian river over the centuries, indeed from its blood-soaked inception, we do well to fear, but not to lose our reason. Fear alone, the flight of the adrenalin-fuelled prey, will not be enough to save us. Neither will a soothing call to 'peace and safety' because the images of black flags on the streets of Washington or Paris or in little rural villages in Germany or Belgium, is too distant and far-fetched to even contemplate.
Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. One response to the latter is to arm ourselves to the teeth and just wait. During the First World War, waiting for action was one of the most mind-shattering processes to endure which of itself, generated a fear which could rapidly be used as a weapon, the same kind of fear that the suicide bomber so effectively uses against his enemy.
Let us, prejudice notwithstanding, assume for a moment that a God of justice really exists, separate from the states and institutions who proclaim his authority. If so, his wrath is turned to the devastation and horrors wreaked in his name by people who walk into schools with semiautomatic weapons and who rally behind fundamentalist, closed-minded and blood-drenched ideologies seeking to replace his justice and mercy with the flawed fascism which is Shari'a. Few actions are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was presenting living children to be consumed in offertory fire to Moloch - a perfect metaphor for the suicide bomber or the Palestinian driven to murderous attacks against Israelis whose inevitable outcome will be his death. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture and in essence is at the heart of ISIS, Hamas and all the other proponents of terror. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage because children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented him as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

"First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol."

(Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

If we must make war, let there be reason. Let there be an understanding of the enemy against whom we are called to fight and a measured clarity from whence we have come. Moloch has only one weapon, fear, but, 'the righteous are bold as a lion'. (Proverbs 28:1)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Classic Books

“ Omnia mutantur, nihil interit (everything changes, nothing perishes). ” Ovid, Metamorphoses.

"A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic.
A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core partly because they integrate themes that are understood by people from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses."

A classic has the ability to engage the reader as part of the narrative. I have to confess - and indeed it feels confessional to say so - that modern literature is frequently depressing since its focus is either on caustic satire or lamentable weakness and affairs about which few of us can be proud. The sequel to "Tom Brown's Schooldays"  relates Tom's experiences when he becomes a student at Oxford and struggles to balance the temptations of university life at the time with his innate sense of decency. Hughes preaches relentlessly at us, Tom develops Chartist leanings and old friends from Rugby turn up in unexpected places. It takes a more outward-looking view, no longer from a boy in the closed cocoon of his school, describing manners and customs long forgotten, but underlying motives about who we are as people and how we interact with each other is a universal theme, seen through the Victorian lens of a rigid class system. Perhaps we have lost sight a little of how heroism and unselfishness works, how faith ought to drive our actions and our contribution to the world means that we leave it a better place than we found it.

Retirement seems to have had the effect of developing a longer, broader view. It becomes easier to contextualise one's being at this particular time within the perspective of a much longer timeframe. As we are more honest with ourselves, we see more clearly from whence we have come and how we have arrived at where we are, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. I can't help wondering if this is what a spark of wisdom actually looks like. 
The world is made up of two kinds of people, first are those who love classics, the second are those who have not yet read a classic. 
Oscar Wilde once wrote that 'if one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all'. I'm looking forward to revisiting many of my old friends in their pages.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

arma virumque cano*

Single shot, breech loading circa 1800

Once again. A young man with a grudge and guns. Ten students dead this time. Second Amendment? Just because it was set in place in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War doesn't mean that it is set in stone, nor can its fundamental ideology be questioned. In the light of the fact that people without proper training or experience can acquire not just a hunting rifle but in certain states a semiautomatic assault rifle more usually seen on the battlefield, and remembering that when the Amendment was written, all that was available was a single shot, breech loading device that could, in very experienced hands, fire between three and four rounds a minute, it is time for a review, gun lobby or not since the Amendment as written is no longer fit for purpose.
It would be counterintuitive – as well as anti-historical – to believe that the landowning aristocracy like Madison and Washington wanted to arm the population so that a crowd of malcontents could resist the constitutionally elected government. In reality, the Framers of the Constitution wanted to arm the people – at least the white males – so uprisings, whether economic clashes like Shays’ Rebellion, anti-tax protests like the Whiskey Rebellion, attacks by Native Americans or slave revolts, could be dealt with by a locally raised militia. They were the local Government agents, guarantors of economic tranquility and were never given a mandate for wanton destruction, neither was such ever envisaged as a possibility at the time.
What about other places? People carry in Israel, for example. The primary difference is that most Israelis are weapons-trained, having served in the IDF, and many Americans are not; no proof of competence seems to be required. In Israel, getting a license is gruelling and can often involve months of security vetting, weapons licensing checks, serial number matching, condition of the weapon, range certification, plus a barrage of awareness-raising information to be given verbally to the prospective owner – “When can I shoot in self-defence?” “You had better be certain that you had no other recourse, that you did what you could to warn the attacker, and that had you not taken action, at least one innocent life could have been lost. And you may still expect to do jail time.” A fair disincentive for shooting someone in a fit of pique. Soldiers with weapons and private citizens who openly carry are everywhere in Jerusalem but it is hardly surprising that unprovoked discharge of a firearm is almost unheard of.  
It should be made much more difficult - in the US and elsewhere - for a civilian, especially without proper training, to acquire and keep any kind of weapon. We have an old hunting rifle, which I don't use because I am not licensed to do so and if I wanted to buy a gun here in France, I'd have to pass a written and practical test then join a gun club and/or buy a safe and finally buy the annual license. I would not be allowed to carry it on the streets under any circumstances on penalty of extreme prosecution.

The statistics are overwhelming. I wonder which of Washington’s successors will have the courage to do the right thing.

* I sing of arms and the man.. Virgil: Aeneid