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)