On Collective Grief

Context: Extravagant mourning for celebrity musicians is a way to confront our own mortality

No individual human being’s life (or death) is ultimately more important than any other’s. All life is precious; of necessity, those closer to us whom we actually know and love are inevitably more subjectively important to us. Celebrity death appears to allow many people to contextualise death, to understand it in a shared way, in a way that grounds the meaning of our lives in this shared narrative of culture and collective experience. We take our cues on grief and norms of behaviour from the collective narrative of culture. This is a function that the remembrance of the death (and celebration of the life) of a Saint or other religious figure may once have fulfilled for a larger demographic than it currently does in a largely secular global media and information culture. We lose a little of ourselves whenever someone we know dies. Whenever a celebrity dies, we all lose a little of our collective narrative and meaning-making cultural self-identity. Life remains altogether far too short; our shared mythologies allow us some modicum of comfort in the stark light of the existential emptiness we all must face alone.

There is more than one Truth

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I have my Truth and you have yours. We both have our reasons for believing what we do and the sooner we both agree that there is more than one Truth, the sooner we will stop bickering and fighting about it all. Truth has a history, as do facts. Facts are somewhat more immutable than are truths but truths are nevertheless derived to at least some extent from facts: the fact of our existence in the world, the facts of the existence of the world and other people, the facts of space and time, the facts of birth and death. Our interpretation of these facts leads us to formulate our world-views, our paradigms and systems of thought – like rationalism, empiricism, humanism, conservatism, liberalism and so many other “-isms”. Our world-views are the filters through which we see the world and from which we derive our own models and conceptions of truth. Our world-view shapes the imaginary space in which we structure and build our own model of Truth.  Our personal and cultural biases skew our views and conceptual vocabulary in ways which tend to lead us to see our own beliefs and contingent Truth as self-evident, necessary and foundational. Our world-view defines the architecture of a Truth which then privileges and presupposes the position of our world-view as a fact. Our world-view is not a fact, it is an interpretation of the facts of our existence and the Truth we build upon our world-view is entirely contingent upon a transient, ephemeral moment in history.

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We have different Truths, different world-views and each one is just as valid as the other. Like two parallel lines which both remain straight and flawless, extending endlessly towards infinity and inhabiting the same conceptual space — both truths (or as many truths as you care to consider) can exist alongside one another. Those places and spaces where contradictory political, cultural and religious truths might cross paths (where two parallel lines for instance on the surface of a sphere or an otherwise curved space remain no less straight and flawless but may still encounter one another) are not necessarily places of conflict or friction. We can agree to disagree, to experience the existence of other architectures of belief without a need to feel threatened about our own. If we are secure in our own belief there is absolutely no reason to feel threatened by an alternative system with axioms we do not hold to be self-evident, with alien or strange-seeming ways and concepts. Encountering an alternate reality and world-view allows us the freedom to creatively explore the reasons and axioms underlying why we hold our own belief; it is not a threat and never has been.

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Christmas: Festive Stress

Disclaimer: Christmas can be a great time for spending time with family and friends and for just generally doing nothing (i.e. relaxing).  This post is a reflection on the stress of over-commercialised, hyper-competitive, shopping-intensive Christmas chaos.

Another year of work is over.  Office Christmas parties have been had, the last rush of work has been successfully negotiated and the time has come to just chill out, put your legs up and do pretty much nothing for a while and enjoy the Christmas break, oblivious to the world, it’s multitudinous worries and all the norms to which you need to conform all year long.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

Now that you have entered the Holiday Season a different kind of KPI is upon you.  Keeping up with social and family expectations, pursuing the horde to the twinkling lights and holiday-shopping-crowdsover-priced food and beverages of yuletide commercialism, and internalising all of that stress you needed to release after a difficult year in the office, factory or farm as you drag your exhausted body through throngs of feverish shoppers and revelers, drunks and .  The requirement to traipse all over your city, country or hemisphere enjoying packaged slices of twinkling happiness served on plastic platters is upon you.

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Wherever you may be on a spectrum of the suspension of disbelief to embrace the Christian cosmology and message, the spectacularly misinformed commercial association of property, possession and purchases with the celebration of the apparent arrival of a Person-of-Peace to the planet some 2,000 or so years ago seems to be something which is never widely acknowledged.  The frenzy of frantic shoppers, grimacing smiles and screaming toddlers, bickering frenzy, jostling and pushing, side-stepping and barging, wielding credit cards like sharpened shuriken in annual non-lethal battles prophesied in television and internet commercials to find the One True Wrapped Present of Destiny.  It is all too much.

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I am not certain if it is just me that experiences this stress.  I acknowledge the pivotal role of Christmas in culture and the economy but I can’t get past the fact that all of the associated hassles and anxiety, negotiating crowded malls and motorways, maintaining social appearances, navigating intrusive personalities and frenetic events – I do not find this relaxing or truly and deeply pleasant in the ways I feel (or have been led to believe) that I perhaps should.  This appears to be one KPI of happiness-metrics and blind joyful enthusiasm that I regularly (or at least – annually) fail.  I am genuinely beginning to suspect that I may have been born on the wrong planet.

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Reference: The Christmas holiday effect – more fatal heart attacks

Deconstructing Self in Zen

Context: reflections on Self and Zen/Ch’an in art and literature

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When the narrative, the meaning, the semantic architecture of the text or the image is fundamentally ambiguous – the semantic locus or source of meaning becomes the interpreter; the meaning-maker themselves become the focus and in this dissolves that perspective and projected reality through which their own existence, consciouness, intelligence and subjectivity is reflexively defined.

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We are defined to ourselves and to each other through that external and shared all-too-human narrative and logic that we have projected upon (and mistaken for) the world and through internalising this, have mistaken for a pre-existing Reality or Order/Logic. We internalise the projected structure and logical matrix of the world, of our understanding and when that narrative is no longer anchored in any concrete sense in the world, in perception or belief, we are ourselves cast adrift. Dissolving the logic and machinery of the Self, we return to an uncomplicated condition of acting, moving, being; without the endless layers of doubt or hesitation instilled by our rationalising, discerning intellect. This is particularly well portrayed in Takuan Soho’s letters to the sword masters recorded in “The Unfettered Mind“.  This is also the essential beauty and power of traditional painting in the Zen and Ch’an traditions

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The mirror of the Void reflects nothing in particular.

“Truth” or Reality ?

This is a discussion of psychological, subjective beliefs and ideological assertions.  The realm of scientific and objectively falsifiable theories and physical “laws” is a different domain of discussion altogether.  Scientific theories and their multiplicity of interpretations and applications are as liable to subjective and emotional errors and projections as much as any other discourse in the public domain.

There are different interpretations, different little-“t” truths. It is when people mistake their little-“t”, subjective and contingent truth for big-“T”, objective and necessary Truth that the trouble really starts. Big-“T” Truths (and particularly in the generally amorphous cacophony of shared or consensus reality) are really only just opinions or interpretations writ large.  By virtue of the insecurities and uncertainties of those who hold them, these opinions and interpretations of reality become (somewhat defensively) enshrined in Grand Opinions and Systems of Belief.

Bruce Lee is interesting because, among other things, he saw the ways people bury the creative essence of a good idea in repetition and blind formality. In the end it is not even about martial arts – it is about human psychology and our inability to let go of things, our constant emotional and intellectual investment in transient ideas and things. To see things as they really are we perhaps need to see ourselves first, even if that means unravelling the tangles and knots which have accumulated and been sedimented over time and through which we have attributed a tangible and objective external reality to what are really just our inner beliefs and opinions.

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Bruce Lee: keeping it real.

The Value of a Complex Text

I was recently reading some of David Hume‘s opinions on the values of keeping philosophical explanations as brief and to the point as possible. He criticises overly convoluted and unnecessarily esoteric language as demonstrating poor mastery of the topic being communicated. Hume believes it possible to explain essential truths and philosophical revelations without resorting to complex, compound statements in language.

This is a compelling point and certainly contains some significant truth when applied to teaching and education: the more completely a person understands an idea, the greater likelihood they can convey that concept with relative simplicity. An artful use of metaphor can usually capture and convey the essence of even the most diabolically complex theories or concepts.

There is however a certain art to the construction and analysis of a complex narrative or text. Some realities and concepts are so very complex that their communication should not unsurprisingly also become convoluted, multidimensional and deeply layered. Complex narrative communications may themselves be the most appropriate way to convey some subtle and esoteric ideas. Complex narratives may become difficult in some instances to follow but the act of intellectual effort required to follow the semantic thread is both a method of training the mind and an act of active reception of a powerful way of communicating potentially difficult concepts.

Complex ideas and concepts should certainly be amenable to simple explanation through straightforward language.  I agree that if someone can not explain a complex idea in simple terms they very likely do not understand it fully.  An issue which arises is that a simpler, narrower and shallower vocabulary tends to expand the size of the required explanatory text.  Complex terminology, although certainly something not to be embraced for its own sake, allows for the compression of information.  Complex words, concepts and vocabularies when used effectively and with a fair degree of tasteful restraint are tools which allow for complex ideas to be communicated without an excessive amount of written or spoken words being required to convey the message.  If the author of a complex text assumes a certain base-level education or aptitude of their audience, this is likely either targeted to a specific audience or is hoping to instill some creative rumination and self-education in a potential audience.  In a world where almost all of humanity’s collected history and knowledge is available to any one of us through a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a screen, claiming ignorance of a concept or word in an attempt to invalidate a complex argument is a poor defence for intellectual laziness.

The various narrative methods, the wordplay and logical suspensions of a complex text may inform and educate us in ways that both simulate and stimulate neural plasticity and intellectual creativity.

Complexity, Chaos, Creativity and Open Systems

The natural world around us is creative, complex, chaotic, dynamic and fundamentally self-organising. Any response to the world which hopes to successfully manage human beings and our many little worlds into anything resembling a sane organisational structure requires us to whole-heartedly embrace this complexity and chaos. Repetition and rote-learned, blindly regurgitative behaviours lead largely to stagnancy and demise. Systems which are notionally closed, regardless of the logical and ontological impossibility of such systemic “closure”, tend to rot internally from the inevitable self-destruction borne of decay and proliferating entropy. Systems which are intrinsically open and dynamic can creatively harness the physical properties of entropy and much like life itself, successfully surf the wave-front chaotically defined through the inevitability of change and time. An open system thrives on the change, complexity and creativity that chaos and entropy can bring. A closed system, eventually, dies.

Everything in space and time is subject to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: Entropy in a closed system tends to increase. Dust accumulates, wrinkles develop, engines rust, mountains erode, galaxies slowly fade; all systems are subject to this dissolution. A truly closed system does not exist in nature in this a creative secret dwells. Entropy is inevitable but death and decay is not.

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Decay can also be regenerative.

A relevant quote from a book I recently read:

The overripe hierarchies of the world, from corporations to nation states, are in trouble and are calling, however reluctantly, on their people for more creativity, commitment, and innovation. But this all comes at the same time that the closed, hierarchical, competitively organized and linearly planned structure of organizations are hell-bent on preventing those creative qualities from ever self-organizing within corporate walls.”

Source: “Seven Life Lessons of Chaos”, John Briggs and F. David Peat, HarperPerennial, 1999, p. 70