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ATTENDING TO LIES – THE ORIGINAL DARK WEB

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I confess there’s been a gap in my postings as an attending metaphysician, because one of my dearest friends took issue with my previous post, stating that she voted for Trump and did not wish to discuss politics with me in any way, ever. She did not explain why she voted for him, because that would have meant breaking her newly made rule not to discuss politics. All I could do was wonder why she, a deeply religious person and close reader of Scripture, could have made such a decision. Out of respect for her new prohibition, I did not ask. But I gave it much thought.

That said, I believe this admirable friend put aside some of the essential values of her faith to vote for Trump. The following thoughts are not meant to debate her decision, rather to identify some aspects of what might lead to her regret it. Then I will offer a personal experience of a pathological lier less charismatic than Trump but still charming .

The Book of Wisdom, strangely, remarks that wisdom never makes its way into a crafty soul (Wis.1:14). Why would being crafty, which requires intelligence, prevent anyone from becoming wise? This attending metaphysician guesses it has to do with deceiving or obstructing those who pay sincere attention to what others says or do, and other matters of importance.

Why do we pay close attention to anything? It is said that curiosity may be our strongest human impulse, more powerful than hunger or sex. That may be a survival mechanism given to us by evolution. One thing seems clear: paying close attention may be the only way we acquire wisdom. For sure it’s how we learn anything that sticks. Close attention includes studying a subject, practicing a skill, observing others who’ve mastered skills or know more about things we want to know. And always, like the proverbial devil in the details, any process of close attention is obstructed or made futile by the insertion of false or unverified information.

In the world of education it is a grave offense to provide unverified or unattributed  information, misleading others in their quest for knowledge. This applies, without being formally stated, to any field taken seriously—be it farming, sewing, nuclear physics, plumbing, medicine, local or national government, beekeeping, whatever. In Scripture there is a commandment against bearing false witness—an ancient rule initially applied to legal testimony—whose implications remain strong for practically all aspects of human interaction.

After the 2016 Presidential election much of our country, and the world at large, got a taste of what can go wrong when distorted attention–by false information, anger, fear, and a sense felt by segments of the population of their innate superiority to others–can lead to dangerous choices in a country’s leadership. Fear, in response to genuine threats, is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger at clear moral wrongs. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance—enemies of clear, focused attention—are factors that can derail whatever is civilized and life-affirming in our shared culture and democracy.

At time people have to lie to survive, to avoid being captured or killed. In personal relationships we sometimes lie to spare others the pain of unpleasant truths. We also lie to be well liked by others, the so-called white lies—compliments on hairdos, clothing, people looking younger than ever when they’ve clearly aged, and the like. Too often we lie (exaggerate, stretch the truth, make unproven claims) to succeed: to make a sale, close a deal, get a job, impress someone we’re attracted to. And nowadays it’s becoming disturbingly obvious that people who crave attention enjoy inventing lies that insult, mock and demean those they dislike.  They intentionally break the bounds of civil discourse to establish their presence as powerful outliers, determined to undermine social norms—a.k.a. political correctness and general civility. Such practices have moved in from the fringes to become dire threats to our system of laws and democratic government.

The power of attention has enabled our species to develop a formidable capacity for wiliness and deception.  It creates a dark web that rivals our use of focused attention to seek truth and wisdom. Now the world must contend with the growing use of artificial intelligence, not only to scan scientific journals for ways to combat disease, but also to create “bots” that pretend to be human, acting as social media trolls and manufacturers of fake news, and the algorithms by which hackers steal our most private and valuable information. All aspects of the play of attention, and what we choose to do with it.

Our sitting President tells falsehoods, according to recent tallies, in 70 to 95 percent of his public statements. Because of this trait, plus his lack of interest in the process of government and his apparent willingness to take this nation into war, many Americans and people in other countries sense impending doom unless he is removed from office. Many feel unspeakable horror when others defend him right or wrong, brush aside his lies, and continue to believe he will make our country somehow “great again”–that ill-defined and ominous goal–when we and most of the world find him untrustworthy, an affront to our national integrity, and a live danger to world peace.

I don’t have a recipe for dealing with President Trump. But I offer this firsthand account of someone like him on a much smaller scale:

When I was in my twenties I was showing my mother around the city when a well dressed, well mannered young man offered to help her up a long flight of stairs and mentioned that he was a doctor trained in Brazil. My mother, a retired nurse, was instantly charmed. After he’d chatted with us further, she smiled approvingly when he asked if he could have my number. After she returned home I began dating him, eventually trusting him with personal information such as where I kept a $20 bill for emergencies. There were no ATMs in those days, and $20 could get you through the weekend when all the banks were closed. One Friday I came home from work having forgotten to get cash, and discovered my spare $20 missing. Only one person knew where I’d kept it, so I called him. No one answered at his home so I tried the work number he’d told me not to call, claiming he’d be too busy to speak to me there. I explained to the person who answered that I was trying to reach Dr. so-and-so, politely using my boyfriend’s last name. After a strange pause, the voice replied that a man with that name worked there but was not a doctor and could not come to the phone. I was stunned, enraged, and felt played for a fool. When we finally spoke he said he’d planned to return the money he’d “borrowed” before I would find it gone. Sensing there was no way I would ever trust him again, he confessed that he’d always found it terribly easy, like a sickness, to make up stories about himself. He’d told me he was a doctor when actually he’d been expelled from medical school in his final year (not saying where that was, but probably not Brazil, given his accent), due to a problem (my guess: pregnancy) with a woman on the staff. He did not say what his real job was, where he’d grown up, or how he’d ended up in the States. But he did have feelings for me, he said, enough to warn me not to be so trusting in the future.

The most memorable part of this breakup was the genuine distress I saw on his face when he described how terribly easy it was for him to lie to people. Like a sickness.

There was real pain behind his confession, because he knew it was the end of our relationship, during which we’d shared some happy times and enjoyed each other’s company. He was losing the trust and friendship he’d had from me, and on some level he knew that if he hadn’t tried to deceive me he wouldn’t be going through that pain. On the other hand, if he hadn’t lied about being a doctor, would he have charmed my mother and convinced me he was respectable enough to have my telephone number after so brief an acquaintance?

After an experience like that, can you blame me for hoping our President—before he does greater harm to this country—will find himself in a personally painful situation where he admits to the truth about himself—that he has lied about his motives and many other things, falsely maligning his opponent in the election, promising jobs and health benefits he could not deliver—and is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of our nation’s highest office? Or is that too much to hope for in a crafty soul?

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIAT LUX – Impressionist Painting in Light of Trump

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An art historian friend convinced this attending metaphysician to take a boat tour down the Seine to visit some Impressionist painters’ hangouts in northern France, plus a few days in Paris to squeeze through the city’s Impressionist exhibitions. The group consisted mostly of retirees pursuing long-postponed avocations— travel, painting, writing, reading, and, if possible, becoming more active citizens.

For ten days in May we enjoyed the glories of crisp sunny weather in Montmartre, Auvers-sur-Oise, Etretat, Honfleur (where sunshine morphed into dark clouds, flash rain and back in under an hour), Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), Monet’s magnificent pond and garden at Giverny, and back to Paris for a cruise of the city’s magical nightlights. Throughout, we tried to retain scraps of the vast knowledge of art, doused with sly wit by our unforgettable guide, Jennifer Burdon, whose presence was worth the price of the trip.

Footsore and awestruck from tromping through so many sites made historic by the Impressionists’ depictions of them, we sat down to wine-soaked—this was France, after all—and waistline expanding gourmet meals. Alas, lunch and dinner conversations seemed to drag themselves helplessly toward the elephant in the room. Those willing to reveal their views had grave fears that President Trump would undermine or destroy our democracy. This was before he revoked U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord.

How could we apply what we were learning about art to said elephant? Our hearts were touched by reminders of the near-starvation poverty of Vincent Van Gogh, supported whenever possible by his brother Theo, and the sight of the brothers’ graves, side by side, symbolically united by a thick cover of ivy. We heard about Armand Guillaumin, a lesser-known but influential painter who won a lottery, was able to leave his job and devote himself to painting, sharing his breakfast rolls with less fortunate artists out painting with him. Under the roiling coastal skies of Normandy, birthplace of Impressionism, we learned how the emphasis on the play of light and color on myriad subjects—including just clouds—gradually transformed traditional standards of beauty and artistry.

Jennifer informed us that not all Impressionists accepted the term, as it once implied sloppy workmanship. But they might have agreed with commentators who claimed that, because of them, the painting itself became the subject, rather than what was being painted. –With that insight, against our will, we were brought back to Trump.

It was hard not to notice that this President tries to make whatever he paints—in words, at least—more important than the actual subject, which is the reality of facts. He got elected by promising what he is unable to deliver in terms of jobs and health care, playing upon people’s fears and stirring up misogynistic hatred of his opponent in the presidential campaign. Now that a slim lead in the Electoral College has given him the Presidency—when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a decisive margin—his self-portrait is becoming one of a willfully ignorant winner of a campaign based on his own lies, fake news, and widespread tampering with social media by right-wing extremists and a foreign, anti-democratic government. What kind of impression does that make on those paying attention to his abuse of light and color? The lineaments emerge as a very real and dangerous paradox: a legitimately elected, but morally and ethically illegitimate President.

What chance does our country have to not be dragged down into less than reliable—even former—status as the world’s indispensable nation? Those of us who have no handle on political power can only rely on our powers of attention. In particular, the motivation to protest dishonest leadership and to support responsible media and nonprofit organizations willing to expose this administration’s threat to our democracy, our health, environment, economy, and our responsibility to help others here and around the world.

The Impressionists started out in poverty, their works rejected by those in power in the art world, the French Academy. But gradually, after great effort and the undeniable genius of a new form of art, their achievements (if not the artists personally) prevailed. Let’s hope that what made America great will prevail—being a nation of immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice, helping win two world wars, assisting war-torn nations to rebuild after those wars, providing moral leadership during the Cold War and in matters of human rights, and an economy based on freedom to innovate.

Let us also hope that our nation’s mistakes, yet uncorrected—failing to bypass the Electoral College, which enabled a previous loser of the popular vote to preside over major disasters such as the invasion of Iraq, the ruthless speculations of Wall Street investors and banks that caused the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession—will also be overcome, so that the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs does not prevail.

Even it means removing President Trump and his cronies from leadership.

Let there be light. And hope. And attention to activism.

WHAT HAPPENS TO ATTENTION IN THE POST-TRUTH ERA??

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This problem is so vast—close to overwhelming—that we’ll try to creep up to it on a personal level. In this non-fake case, half a dozen older adults recently got together for a holiday lunch sponsored by the charity for which they work as volunteers. In this group, a friend of mine we’ll call Lynn found herself seated next to a man we’ll call Ben, known to be active in his church. In their three years serving as volunteers Lynn and Ben had developed a friendly working relationship. What emerged in their lunch conversation, however, was that they’d voted on opposite sides of the 2016 Presidential election. Ben, who earns his living renting and selling apartments in New York, was elated that Donald Trump had won the election. Lynn voted for Hillary Clinton, and thought it was unfair that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, yet was kept from winning the presidency by the unrepresentative tallies of the Electoral College.

“You’re in real estate,” Lynn said to Ben. “How could you vote for a realtor who took out huge loans, declared bankruptcy six times, and stiffed his contractors for the work they’d already done, putting many of them out of business?”

“Yes, I am in real estate,” Ben responded confidently, “and in Trump’s position I’d have done the same thing.”

“But what about all the lies he’s told,” Lynn asked, “all those insults against immigrants, stirring up hatred for Hillary, calling her a criminal and threatening to put her behind bars?”

“Oh, he’d say anything to get elected,” Ben said in an admiring, dismissive tone. “What matters is, he won.”  By that time, the rest of the table was listening, so Ben announced that instead of quibbling over the election everyone should support the new President in their prayers.

Lynn, offended by Ben’s evasive move, said she’d pray for President Trump to stop lying and act like a responsible leader of the free world rather than a demagogue. The group fell silent, gradually finding things to say about the dishes they’d ordered, the relative merits of diet soda, etc.  Afterward, Lynn confided that she no longer trusted Ben as a businessman or a friend, and would have to pretend to be on positive terms with him as a volunteer.

What, I asked, troubled her the most about Ben? “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she replied defensively. “People lie all the time. It’s just that now we’ve had an election where lies carried the day.” She believed that an oddly charismatic but far less capable person had become President by means of hate-mongering, falsehoods, and fake news that maligned the far more qualified candidate. She was frustrated and more than a little frightened.

“What if everyone lied as a means to an end? We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Our whole legal system would crumble if people were not required to tell the truth, and punished for perjury.” It wasn’t that Ben’s guy won the election, Lynn explained, it was how he won it—by deliberate distortions of the truth, he and his supporters brushing aside facts and fact-checkers as irrelevant. The result of this disrespect for truth-telling and facts seemed to be that our country was now led by a poorly informed narcissist who generates fake news as ceaselessly as he complains about it.  Lynn mentioned her deep forebodings that the brains behind Trump’s win was the former head of a white supremacist fake news organization, who might assume the role of shadow president. She did not express those concerns to Ben, though, as she was began to feel it was hopeless trying to communicate with him. “He’s supposed to be religious. Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness? Isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?”

According to voter interviews, many said they’d overlooked Trump’s unethical track record, in business as well as molesting women, and set their hopes on him out of anger and desperation. A large chunk, who probably gave him his margin of victory in the Electoral College, were on the losing end of an economy that favors the rich and leaves middle and working class people behind. For them a vote for Trump was a Hail Mary pass that entailed discounting a multitude of falsehoods, bad behavior, and fear tactics that generated hatred and distrust. Such methods, others feared, could ultimately destroy the democracy—or what was left of it after the gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dark money poured into elections by the superrich.

Of course, I only heard Lynn’s version of this troubling encounter, but I’m sure she relayed the gist of it. I do share her concern for our democracy and legal system, but as an attending metaphysician I am concerned for other reasons. When we are giving our best attention to someone or something, are we not seeking—and/or appreciating—truth in some way? There is something deeply jarring about being conned or misled by someone who is using their intelligence to conceal truths they don’t want us to know. Human beings pay attention (as do other animals) in a fluid interactive relationship with feelings. It’s one thing to pause and admire a beautiful sunset; another to scrutinize an inflated cable TV bill; yet another to notice the dark circles under our eyes and realize how unhealthy and old they make us look.

Metaphysical attention is the calmest and deepest kind, based on the richest substrate of care, honesty, and appreciation for the integrity and importance of others. It is the only kind that produces what Pope Francis calls discernment, especially that of right and wrong, good and evil. Throughout history philosophers have warned that strong emotions distort reason, but recent research indicates that even rational decisions are influenced by emotions. The question then becomes, What kind of emotions underlie the calculations and our rational minds—ones tied to respect and concern for others, or feelings colored by fear, enmity and disrespect? The Pope makes a powerful point: that in times of crisis, when people are taken in by populist leaders who stir up fear, anger, scapegoating and hysteria, “discernment doesn’t work.” Wow. In a nutshell, such emotions prevent people from perceiving good and evil. Francis has referred to the hysteria of Nazism and Hitler, which won the votes of the German nation and ended up destroying it.

Could President Trump’s chaotic scapegoating, false accusations, and animosity toward Muslim immigrants and minorities destroy the U.S.A.? Let’s not forget that pre-Nazi Germany was considered a highly civilized nation, full of scholars, artists, and scientists who, surely, would not be fooled by a demagogue.  Precious few, who were paying serious attention, resisted. But as we know, far too many succumbed to his charismatic rants. Their country, and the world, paid a terrible price. Attention to truth obligates us to defend it, to insist upon truth and justice.  The survival of our democracy and our integrity as a nation is at stake.

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.

THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.