The Search for Inspiration
In my never-ending struggle to keep things rolling here in the Dry Slot I've found that there are two ways to proceed. One is to sit by the keyboard and think. The other is to get up and go.
By now I have accumulated experience with both approaches. The first method is harder. It might not seem so at first. All you have to do is sit there and wait for inspiration to strike. Then with the hot idea burning a hole in your head, type it up, and Bob's your uncle. Only, what if inspiration takes a holiday? That's called writer's block. It can last for days on end. It's a bit of a misnomer, actually. You can write just fine. The problem is figuring out what to write. Typing random characters won't work. It has to mean something.
Often I have better luck leaving the keyboard behind to go participate in some kind of real (as opposed to virtual) experience. That demands more physical effort and, possibly, entails greater expense, but there are compensations. It can be more fun. Sometimes it's possible to document the experience with photographs. The key difference is that interesting experiences can provide the necessary inspiration. You don't have to supply it entirely from within yourself.
Last weekend Wife and I drove thirty miles to Durham to take in a show at the Performing Arts Center (DPAC). The evening's entertainment was provided by Robin Williams and David Steinberg working as a team. Steinberg reprised his role as part-time Tonight Show host interviewing Williams. Williams was his usual raucous, irreverent, larger-than-life self, a cast of thousands in one body.
Williams stole most of the limelight, but it was Steinberg who provided the inspiration for this entry. He reminded the audience that he played a key role in the demise of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969. Steinberg told a joke that garnered more hate mail than any performance in history. Click here to hear the story on National Public Radio.
Steinberg's tale resonated with me, because I was a fan of the Smothers Brothers show. I laughed at the joke. To me, religion is as much fair game for poking fun as any other subject. I mean, you have to have a sense of humor about religion, right? Religions claim to explain the inexplicable, know the unknowable, eff the ineffable... It's pretty hard to take that seriously, especially when they all say different things, yet they all claim to be right at the same time.
Here in America, where we have a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, religion is a conversation stopper. People get all bent out of shape over religion, as if someone had libeled their grandmother. Land of the free, home of the brave, self-styled greatest country in the world, yet we can't handle a religion joke.
But set aside, for the moment, what this says about the faithful in America. What does it say about religions? Do they teach intolerance? Do they annihilate people's sense of humor?
Suppose Consumer Reports rated major religions. How would yours stack up?
Islam gives us the notion of jihad, a holy war. Nope, sorry, have to rate you down for that. 'Holy' and 'war' don't belong in the same sentence together. Personally I would never give credence to any belief system that requires coercion to recruit or maintain its membership. Threats of death, torture or dismemberment constitute very effective negative advertising. It's hard to argue moral superiority with gross physical threats as your starting point.
Christianity, viewed over its long history, is not much better. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the New World by Bible toting zealots... Christians have a lot to answer for. The old church may have benefited from the Protestant Reformation. One can point to a certain amount of consciousness-raising over the last few centuries. Heretics are no longer burned at the stake. Still, there are a few holdouts who don't appear to have spotted the trend. You have to wonder about Christians who spend most of their time thumping the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the Before picture.
Which brings us to Judaism. Oldest of all the three major Semitic faiths, Judaism keeps hanging in there. That's characteristic of religions in general, I suppose. They may evolve, but they don't go away. They ramify into a profusion of sects. How do you decide which is best? How do you even find them all? Consumer Reports could provide a valuable service here.
Ultimately religion is a personal matter. How does your religion affect you? Does it make you more civilized? Does it equip you to deal with the Isness of Being? I'm thinking that Consumer Reports would probably rate a religion more highly if it were demonstrably capable of producing a better human.
Islamic fundamentalists blow up American embassies. Christian fundamentalists blow up abortion clinics. Jewish fundamentalists blow up Palestinians. These sorts of activities do not speak well for their respective religions. Being willing to kill or die for a cause demonstrates commitment, but it is hardly a sign of morality — or even of good sense. Typically it betokens anger. One does not need religion to be angry, not even righteously angry. Nor, by the way, does one need religion to be moral. Here I am moralizing at you, and I'm doing it outside the bounds of any organized creed.
Some east Asian religions (or philosophies — one can argue definitions) seem to produce peaceable humans. It's hard to imagine a dedicated Confucian or Buddhist or Jain blowing stuff up. Rather than seeking absolutes, they seek harmony and balance. They teach reverence for life. Let's rate those up.
Sadly, most religions invite people to indulge in fanciful thinking and behavior. This leads to potentially dangerous mass delusion. We would not tolerate such irrationality in any other context. We do (usually) put up with it in the name of religious freedom. That ongoing daily toleration seems to sap our reserves of forbearance, though.
Why do religions have to be so dogmatic? Why can't they be adaptive, eclectic, heuristic? Presumably they all were at some point in time, but then they ossified. We are enjoined to defend "the faith of our fathers". Can't we invent our own? After all, we have tons more data, more science, more bitter experience measured in man-hours than our ancestors hundreds or thousands of years ago. Wouldn't it make sense to incorporate the latest findings in, say, biology, psychology and anthropology? Wouldn't it be better in the long run to work with evolution rather than against it?
Despite all their claims to knowledge, power or righteousness, none of the major religions can produce miracles on demand. The faithful rely on ordinary methods to obtain weapons and food. Their agents are, without exception, flesh and blood human beings. To the extent that religions have any redeeming social value, it is when they attempt to teach charity, morality and tolerance, to bring people closer together. What does history teach us about religion and world peace? MASSIVE FAIL.
Okay, so maybe religion is not so funny after all. I'm sorry I brought it up.
Updated: 6:03 PM GMT on January 31, 2013
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The other day I sat down to write a new blog for the new year. I had a plan, but something happened. I had to get up and walk away from the computer. Now I have no idea what I was going to say.
Probably something about cessation and continuity, pausing for reflection, resolving to do better et cetera. You know, the usual suspects. The odometer rolled over.
Did you ever notice how years always begin with January? What's up with that? Obviously the fix is in. If I were one of the other months, such as February, I would file a class action suit against January for unfair competition. Seems to me that in a fair and equitable system all the months should get a shot at introducing a year. Can you imagine how it would change things if the year started in, say, April? Blogger BriarCraft recently posted an entry about optimism. I'm thinking that optimism would be a lot easier in April than in the dark, dreary dead of winter. January is a good time of year for moping.
Not that I recommend moping, you know, as a way of life. But if you're going to mope, you might as well get it out of the way right up front, so that by the time April rolls around you'll be ready for some serious optimism.
However you define the schedule, it's hard to maintain the same affect year round. We poor mortal creatures are condemned to cycle up and down. I've heard people talk about physical, emotional and intellectual cycles. There may be more. We've got all these cycles running, each with its own amplitude, wavelength and phase. Some days you're strong, happy and smart. Some days it's hard to get out of bed. You can't just be optimistic all the time. Sometimes you end up moping.
Life is like that. We tend to remember the rosier bits, but the grungy stuff belongs in there, too. It's all part of the deal. Even Paris Hilton probably has bad days, when she gets, you know, a broken nail or something.
When those bad days happen, wise men exhort us to buck up and soldier on. I suppose that advice helps us to muddle through. Try as I may, though, I can't think of any a priori reason why one would necessarily have to soldier on. I mean, it would be technically possible to simply sit around and mope. Indeed, thousands of years probably passed, before the first aphorisms were laid down, when it was not unusual for lots of people to sit around moping. In the dim days before television, what else were you going to do?
Imagine the grim Neanderthal man: "No bowl games? Rats! I guess I'll just sit around the cave and mope." Perhaps that's how the Lascaux cave paintings originated, when the sad Neanderthaler imagined us.
Updated: 4:49 PM GMT on January 05, 2013
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