This morning when I opened the refrigerator and pulled out at carton of soy milk, a large container of feta cheese jumped off the top shelf, hit on the bottom edge of the frig, and emptied itself in a large mucky pile at my feet. I wanted breakfast. I got to muck around in feta.
Stuff around my house seems to be making choices, and sometimes it is getting the better of me.
Yesterday, I snaked the hose over to the edge of the backyard to water some flowers. It wiggled under a patio chair leg and then it kinked up so the water wouldn’t come through. After some coaxing we got going again, but only a few minutes later the hose was hung up on a sprinkler head, stubbornly refusing to move with me over to the pond. Ridiculous!
I’m starting to get it. Things are animated, and I’m on to them. The evidence is overwhelming. Last week I saw my ink pen jump off the center console in my car and hide under my driver’s seat, by the seat track, in the hardest place possible to be retrieved. There is more. When I was going out the back door of my home, a loop on my jacket reached out and grabbed the knob and jerked me back in the house. Things are leading me to reconsider the merits of animism.I think they may be alive; I suspect they have even talked among themselves, have entered into a pact — to mess with me.
I’m not crazy. Respectable people understand this. In Piaget’s child psychology, he asserted that a child’s mind assumes all events are the product of intention or consciousness. I have always had a child’s mind. Really, we all do. The feta meant to jump. The garden hose is playing games. Disney has it right; tea pots can sing, and want to, loudly and with joy. The mop can dance.
I am in good company on this. David Hume, a very fine and respected mind, writes in his Natural History of Religion, “There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.”
I have made the transfer, and I’m wiser for it. You should too. If you know that the things in your house are just like you, you can manage them better. The TV wants to stay up at night; just like me. That’s why when I press the “off” button the TV stays on, because it has switched over to cable mode and must be returned to TV mode to be turned off. Tricky TV.
I put my coffee cup down the other day. When I went back to get it, it was gone. I later found it hiding in the microwave. I know what happened. It got cold and went for a warmup. I understand these things now. And I’m on to their strategies. Things are not always going to stay where I put them so I must sometimes go looking for them in different places than I left them so that they know that they aren’t the only ones thinking. Aha!
And yet with all my new-found awareness and vigilance, I still sometimes get caught unawares, surprised by the resistance or the playfulness or the downright stubbornness of things. I put the bike in the back of the SUV the other day and it jumped back out so that the door wouldn’t close. I had a horse like that once — didn’t want to leave the barn. I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to head out for the day either.
A contact lens jumped out of my fingers recently and took off for the floor. I trapped it in a corner and got it safely back into its case. It gave me a blue glare as I dropped it back into the soaking solution.
I’m in the game now, and I’m keeping score. This morning as I rounded up my breakfast, the Splenda took off into the air and got onto the counter top. But the bowl and the spoon minded their manners, and the Wheat Chex, awash in soy milk, stayed nicely between my teeth. At the end of breakfast it was four to one, my favor.
I think it was a pretty good morning’s play. I’m getting ready for the day soon, and I’m wondering if my socks will attempt that sideways thing they sometimes do, where they twist around and get the sole of sock on the top of my toes.
Good, I am ready, up for a fight, but there are other force at play. I’ve noticed recently that the game has tentacles that reach further than I first suspected. I have more to dread than flying buckets and dancing mops. I am beginning to think: fear the body.
The other day I was taking a shower when I suddenly caught sight of someone else’s midsection in the shower with me. I usually bathe alone, but here I was with another person, soaking up soap and water in my own shower. Upon a closer examination, I discovered that the girth was mine. Shocking! How did this happen? I don’t know. I didn’t notice things were going this way. I swear. But how could that be, for I am myself and this waist is mine. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I usually shower without my contact lenses in. Perhaps, or not, but most likely, when I was asleep, my stomach expanded, without my approval.
What to do? Not stop eating. In this game, the other sides’ moves can be countered, as most people know, and handled, by covering up, with the right clothes, with a shirt or a coat, for several years. And I have covered up, but it has come out anyway – on all sides. Too many bowls of Wheat Chex, at night, for a snack, and peanuts, popcorn and cookies, for a treat. Game on — in me!
How bad it it? “Ten pounds, I’d say.”
My family and friends protest, “Quit whining. You don’t even know.” But on me, with my skinny legs, and the room addition all on the front of the house, above the foundation, it shows. The slide, the sag, the wrinkling, the fold, the bulge, I can see it, in the shower, under my shirt — winning. Others can see it too. My daughters named it, ”loafy,” as in “He’s a cute little loafy.” How embarrassing! I have a body part, with a name. The toned, smooth, sculpted, skinny, young thing that used to be me, plus my amazing will-power and my youth – ”going, going, gone!” It’s a home run, for the other side, and me running after the ball, hopping over the fence (barely), and running fast over the hill (finally), and beyond the dale — permanently? Wow. Really?
It’s fun, going on like this, playing the game, surviving another round, taking up arms or against powerful enemies, fighting back, against things, with the body, like that. But really, all things considered; this is an issue, important and real, this thing about who or what is in control. It’s a philosophical issue, a scientific issue, a theological issue, a literary issue, long-debated, not agreed on, still-out-there issue. I’m trying to figure it out.
I remember in college, taking a class in psychology. I encountered a world view new to me – behaviorism. I bridled under the idea of life reduced to stimulus and response formulas, all behavior conditioned, no choices, just reactions. I argued with my professor and wrote a paper on the power of our choices in shaping our environment. Of course I wasn’t the only one arguing, and the cognitive revolution, with its interest in meaning-making process provided plenty of challenges to the behaviorist model.
But despite the opposition, of course behavioral mechanisms are at works, some of the time. This morning, my daughter Rosalind told me her throat hurt. I gave her a bit of post-Christmas candy cane to suck. “Why will that help?” she asked. “It will make you salivate,” I said, as I handed her a broken piece of stripes, “and the saliva will sooth your throat.” She put it in her mouth and salivated, just like all of us thus stimulated, Pavlov’s slobbering canines, simple responses to simple environmental stimuli. I’m a believer, in a qualified behaviorism. Sometimes, stuff around us rules us, but sometimes not, because our responses are often not simple, and we are not simple and the enviroment around us, not simple. Brains think, and make very important, self-actualizing choices.
Last year a friend of mine quit drinking. “You’re done,” a voice in his brain explained to him. He was, and he quit, and it was a very conscious choice, and highly unlikely. Nothing in his environment had changed. He had been drunk, downtown, homeless, for years, and he still was. It was a lifestyle. But he came to, as recovery people put it, “a moment of clarity,” and stopped. Yesterday, I was talking to another friend who quit drinking, probably ten years ago, and he explained it this way, “You have to want to.” I buy that; I respect that, the exercise of the will, to stop, and start,something new.
It comes down, really to how we see the world. Is it under our control, or is it out of control. Is it guided, or is it random, or is it under its own control, following its own rules, or perhaps someone elses, from the outside, so to speak?
My thoughts go off, fire alarms and siren in the night. I hear voices of researchers in laboratories; I hear the planets turning in orderly fashion; I hear kings commanding and armies rattling their shock and awe and slaughter, and I hear the medics bending over the wounded and asking them, “Can you raise your right hand for me? I need to see if you can lift your hand.”
Dan Ariely, in his book, Predictably Irrational explains a bit of it based on his research. We get stuck in“anchor decisions,” he claims, and our initial choices, for instance to buy or not at a certain cost, determine our later decisions. Once we go a way, for instance, we pay a certain price for something, that initial decision dominates our thinking. It becomes our anchor, one that we arbitrarily adhere to, and break away from only with great effort, by an intentional rethink.
Examples come to my mind easily, assuring me that Dan is onto something here. If we grew up on cars getting 15 miles per gallon, we may well think 28 mpg is good. If grew up on 28, then 40 mpg is good. Good is what we know. But when gas goes to $5 a gallon, then it might be wise to think this through again, and come to see 50 as the new anchor, the acceptable standard, or to come to the conclusion that no gas burned, ruining the earth, is the standard.
I like it, the rethinking things, being astute. By my own observations, I can clearly see that we all get stuck in arbitrary mindsets, at times, and I think we can rethink that think and then think a new, more rational thinking thought. I’m for rationality, and I’m for choice. I’m not a behaviorist; too pathetic, ”We are the products of our environments.” It doesn’t work for me. My environment is not in charge of me: ”En garde, marche, balestra, froissement!”
It’s a fight, against things, and to decide, how we view our world. Points of view, models of nature, our sense of objects – these have, as we can see in the past, operated as hugely powerful historical frameworks, dominating nations, cultures, an era, millions of minds. Consider the Elizabethan world view and the idea of the great chain of being. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare poetically summarizes the perspective of an era: “The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre/Observe degree priority and place/ Insisture course proportions season form/Office and custom, in all line of order.” The view here is that there is a hierarchical ordering of existence in the heavens, every thing in order and in place, in the heavens and on earth. The chain of being had the divine monarch at the head, like the sun, and men descending downward on the social ladder, like the planets, all in order, and meant to stay in order.
Scholar E. M. W. Tillyard explains further, “If the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order, animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong … to an Elizabethan [chaos] meant the cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the law of nature to cease functioning.”
We see this view in Macbeth. When the king is killed, nature is undone. After Duncan’s murder, Ross cries, “Ha, good father, Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,/Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,/And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp./ Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame/That darkness does the face of Earth entomb/When living light should kiss it?”
And more, ”Duncan’s horses—a thing most strange and certain—/ Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,/ Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,/ Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would/ Make war with mankind.”
Wow and wow again! They had it all figured out, with God and king on top, and nature troubled when men upset this order, nature responding, disordering and attacking. And yet, this mindset didn’t work out all that well for the Elizabethans, the great chain became a bit of a chain for the monarchs and the people, not so great, more chain. Think the War of the Roses. Think Charles the I, beheaded.
And yet such ideas, the sense that nature responds to the world of men, was not new to the English people. Consider Isaiah, the ancient Jewish prophet writings: “You will go out in joy/and be led forth in peace;/the mountains and hills/will burst into song before you,/ and all the trees of the field/will clap their hands.” It sounds like Shakespeare, and game on, with a positive twist. Those Hebrews, so fun! How cool is that, singing mountains, clapping trees, all that wild-nature, joyful clapping and singing for us. Sounds like the trees are on the move, shades of Tolkein and The Lord of the Rings. What? Is this anthropomorphism, or reality; is it poetic device, or, what?
Jesus, the Jewish prophet, was schooled in the Hebrew line of thinking. When the crowds of miracle followers called him “king,” the legal experts told his disciples to shut them up. Jesus responded, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Hyperbole? Maybe not. Really? Perhaps, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
We have our philosophical anchors, every age does, and our traditional, of the first order, main stream, educated mind-sets dominate, and then change, with the passing of an era and our passing from the scene. Think the geocentric view of the universe. Gone.
So what is it? J. D. Watson, Shakespeare, Jesus, Ariely, nature, God, me? Is it what we think it is or what it is, is, is and then is again, despite what we think? Is it game on or game off or just game?
I find it arrogant of folks to act like they can give a final answer to such questions on how it all works, the nature of reality, our relationship to the environment, although I understand the impulse to babble on like one has an inside track; I’ve done it. But it’s a humbug and its quackery, too confident; we don’t know yet, the deep structure of reality, how it all works. Who knows very much at all? I don’t.
I love science, and theology, and I read both, but I don’t have to choose between them as if one knows, the other doesn’t. Each one knows part of what there is to know. I respect validity of the scientific process. I respect the position that there is more here than science has charted and modeled. I believe our responses are conditioned, and I believe we make choices that break free from powerful influencing factors, and I perceive, in the universe, the presence of motivating factors, unseen and powerful. The truth is that, just like the Elizabethans or the ancient Hebrews, we live with a mindset, and it doesn’t have a final corner on the truth, and it is really smart to be open, to change, to rethink our current think. I’ve never heard the rocks cry out, or seen the sun darken when a king died, but it is reported that it got dark in the daytime when Jesus died.
About ten years ago I had a surgery that didn’t turn out well; a nerve was damaged, and I ended up in chronic, daily, mind crushing pain. Under stress from that, and just by coincidence, I’d say, other things unfortunate things went down. My ears began to ring; a nerve in my foot became pinched; part of my foot went permanently tingley and numb. I developed a severe rash, that resisted all treatment.That was crazy hard. My shoulder began to ache horribly from a pinched nerve in my neck. Then it froze, through lack of use, so that I couldn’t lift it above my chest. My stomach began to swell up when I ate, which acutally is normal, I;ve now discovered, “poor loafy,” but not acceptable. Then mother-in-law died, that hurt, and my wife and I inherited a estate with a whole new set of responsibilities; anxiety set in, and depression. I was comprehensively sick.
Game on! And I was knocked off my game. “Wow, it was a bad spell there, buddy. I’m sorry.” Yeah. I didn’t kill King Duncan, but the natural order of things was upset — my stomach and all the rest of me.
“I’m sorry this happened to you.”
“Thanks, but, I’m not, very much.”
I am more given to say “I’m glad it happened,” although I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and to add, “I’m changed.” Unlike the Elizabethans, I’m good with mutablity, on pretty much every level of reality. As a result of that tough season, “It’s not so much that I know something different; I am something different,” and I’m really grateful for that, and I have chosen to use what happended to me as a new anchor by which I measure difficulty. I also use what happened as nuclear fuel, because it is, and I’m energized by it now.
“Is it a coincidence that all this happened at once?”
“I’m not sure on that one.” I do think somethings are planned for us. It seems to me, that the game was on, and plays were being made, to prepare me for something that was to come later, or for someone, other people who have come to me lately. I look them in the eyes and say, “I know.” And I do. And that helps our conversations go well, very well.
I have recovered from being sick, pretty much, or not. We all eventually live with some stuff, but now I think differently about a lot of things. And I think, that we can rethink, pretty much everything and should from time to time, as the game moves on.
Perhaps –just perhaps — more is going on than sometimes suspected, our sense of this anchored in our past decisions and their attendant mindsets, but then, that is for us to figure out today.
I say, game, and, on, and I can hardly wait to observe, the next move.