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The Beautiful Gem of Clear Understanding

When my friend Jim wanted to get clear understanding of his life he went and apprenticed himself with a guy at the DMV named Oscar. “What is your problem?”  “I’m in a constant state of panic.” said Jim.   Oscar said look you cannot constantly be worrying about things you have no control over so you are going to have to leave your house, and Jim said okay.

Jim got a job carrying copies down to the lower level to be stored and Oscar helped him figure out certain basic things to help him master his mental habits — boredom, anger, and so on.

It was hard for Jim because part of what made him so panicky was worry that his parents would become ill.  Jim’s father had tension head aches cause he worked as a defense attorney for poor clients getting chewed up by the system and Jim’s mother had come from a repressive religious household and carried the mental trauma with her in her body.  It made Jim panicky and it made him panic that he would lose them.  What I’m trying to say is having his parents in his life gave him panic and the thought he would lose them also made him panic.

Jim worked hard with Oscar to deal with the panic.  His parents did become ill.  Oscar said it’s time.  I think it would be very helpful if you wrote down what you have to say. Jim started writing at night when he was done with work and then he got up at four thirty every morning so he could write for a couple more hours before he got to work.  His parents died.

Jim finished the book which you know now as The Beautiful Gem of Clear Understanding.

When I read it the moments open up like grapes and deposit nectar on my tongue.  The Sky Horse and Moon Beam antelope come and eat from my hands.  The magic ki-rin and wonderful wo-wo frolic at my feet.  Joy and love are my companions wherever I go and I set my table in the house of freedom.

Thank you, Jim!  Thank you Oscar! Thank you Jim’s parents Marvin and Louise.   Your gift has made my life so much more beautiful, so much easier to understand, and very, very happy.

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Research Study: Is it Better to Exist or Never to Have Existed?

Hard data is difficult to come by as those who have never existed failed to respond to a survey even after repeated phone calls and mailings.

As a proxy population we instead investigated a population of hypothetical individuals: those who if they had existed would respond to a survey.  This population broke down into two subpopulations — those who if they existed would say it is better to exist than not, and those who said the opposite.  Extremely robust results supported the conclusion that

i)those who if they had existed would have preferred to exist prefer to exist

ii)those who had they not existed would not have have preferred to exist prefer not to exist.

Although the impact of this data on the policy issue of serving the underserved population of those who do not exist deserves further study a preliminary result that suggests itself is to divert resources from those who if they did exist wouldn’t like it to those who if they did exist would like it a lot.  For this underserved population of non-existing people an immediate emergency measure would be to bring them into existence; either by sexual intercourse or carving them out of wood or whale blubber.

 

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Bananas on Bananas, Hat on a Hat

There’s a comedy writing bit of trade-speak called, depending upon what room you work in “bananas on bananas” or a “hat on a hat”.  It’s a bad thing.  If you do it, you’ve made a mistake.  The idea is that sometimes a joke works but if you add something extra, you will make it worse less well.

It’s counter-intuitive. Hats are funny, why wouldn’t more hats be funnier?  Bananas are funnier, why wouldn’t an extra hat be funnier?

To see why, imagine a joke that works really well.  For example at the end of “Some Like it Hot” a character who has been pretending to be a woman (in order to escape the Mafia — he is a musician who witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago)  has been pursued by an older man who thinks he really is a woman.  Frustrated at trying to get the old guy to leave him alone he removes his wig and says more or less “I’m a man.”   The old man responds “Nobody’s perfect.”

It’s a funny joke. It would be less funny if the two of them or either of them was on a pogo stick, or slipping on a banana.

I think hat on a hat is an interesting phenomenon because in a certain sense humor is non cognitive.  You can’t exactly summarize the message of the joke “Nobody’s perfect”.  But on the other hand hat-on-a-hat demonstrates that jokes need to set up thoughts very precisely.  If they set up the wrong thoughts or too many, they don’t work.

I think attempts to convey mystical experience have a similar structure.  Take the Angel Silesius’s aphorism

“A rose blooms as it blooms without a why.”

It’s not so easy to summarize.  But if you add the wrong thing to it, you ruin it.

“A rose blooms as it blooms without a why like a door nobody walks through.”

I think “a rose is a door nobody walks through” is actually pretty good, but if you put the two mystical statements together — mine and Angel Silesius’s — you get a hash.  The mystical equivalent of bananas on bananas — rose on a rose.

Which is odd.  I thought mystical thoughts were ineffable.

Guess not!

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The Pleasure of Self-Righteousness

People sometimes think that pleasure-seeking is a matter of eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex but this takes too narrow a view of pleasure.  Suddenly learning that we have won the lottery is pleasant.  Getting away from a lion is pleasant.  Giving vent to our anger is a rich pleasure.  And feeling better than our fellow human beings is a rich pleasure that motivates many of our actions.

There are many ways of feeling better than others, just as there are many kinds of tasty desserts.  We can feel that they are less refined than we are, or less beautiful, or less accomplished.  Many of these ways for modern people have a mixture of pain in them because we know that we are not supposed to glory in our superiority.  We feel a little guilty for being snobs or jerks.

One brand of pleasure that avoids this admixture of pain is the pleasure of self-righteousness.  We enjoy the feeling that we are morally better than other people.  This plays out in politics.   Consider for example the issue of immigration.  Those who want to liberalize immigration enjoy the feeling that they are more compassionate than their mean opponents.  Those who want to restrict immigration enjoy the feeling that they are courageous enough to take an unpopular stand.

If both sides are hedonists, how do we decide between them?  By determining which sort of hedonism is more likely to bring about a longer lasting pleasure.

The restrictionists pleasure, of indulging in nationalism is inherently self-limiting.  A nation state brings the pleasure of belonging but carries with it the pain of fear of those who are different from us.  Since we are always worried about the different people coming over and taking our stuff, it is not a very forward thinking form of hedonism.

The most hedonistic proposal is to enjoy the success of everyone.  It allows us to enjoy the feeling of being good people and thus better than those who are not on the side of justice.  And it lets us enjoy the vicarious pleasure of seeing our friends and brothers and sisters flourish.

The only worry I have with it is that it seems to force us to forego the pleasure of feeling that of all people we are the best of all.  If we strive towards a world in which everyone is both doing well and doing good, don’t we lose that particularly delicious sensation, of feeling that the very finest person of all is our own self?

We do.

And is that acceptable?

It is not.

That is why I propose that the institution of romantic love be preserved.  Within the secrecy of the bedroom we get to indulge our aptitude for pleasures, including the sublimest pleasure of infinite self-righteousness and absolute smugness.Of course the price for that is to somehow think our way through to acknowledging that the person we are sharing the bed with is great too. It’s a tricky thing to manage, I know, but I recommend giving it a try.  One tip is to reflect that anybody who acknowledges how uniquely great I am cannot be all bad him or herself.

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Swift and the Butler

Leo Damrosch reports the following anecdote about Jonathan Swift when he had fallen from power and had moved to Dublin to “die in a rage like a poisoned rat in a hole.”

Swift called his butler to bring ale to himself and his guests.  He observed through looking at a mirror that the butler first drank a glass of ale himself before serving them.  He said “Aha, don’t be so sharp, friend!  I saw you do that and am docking you two shillings from your board wages.”

Damrosch suggests three possible interpretations of the incident:

  1. Swift was a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying on his servants and punished them for minor infractions.
  2. Swift was generous — he didn’t have to pay them board wages at all because he gave them free food.  The butler was very well compensated.  Damrosch doesn’t draw this out but you could almost believe that Swift only gave board wages as a way of giving his servants feedback.
  3. Swift and the butler planned the whole thing to impress his guests.  Damrosch argues that the butler would have known that his employer observed him through the mirror, and would not have done something so presumptuous as to drink a glass of ale when he could be observed.

We don’t know which of these is true.  I believe though that (3) is either true or false, although we will never know.   My argument is that I could do something similar today, and even if three hundred years from now people don’t know that I did it, I still did it. (Or didn’t do it.)

(1) and (2) seem more like matters of interpretation but are not entirely subjective.  We could for example discover a diary entry from Swift where he revealed that he was or wasn’t a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying.  We could learn that his servants felt well (or ill) compensated by their board wages.

History happened. It’s not up to us if Swift connived with his butler or didn’t, lthough we may never know the truth.

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