Monthly Archives: April 2009

An experiment

Are you open for a quick thought experiment? For this experiment to be successful you need to be able to deconstruct some of your cultural conditioning. The topic of this experiment is often discussed in several forums including high and popular culture, religion, peer groups and families. For the experiment to be successful it is necessary to ignore what you have heard about this topic before. Please,  simply fulfill the request of the experiment without giving in to your immediate reactions clouded by your previous experiences or conditioning. Are you ready?

Now consider for one moment that you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Say you are to have approximately two to three weeks of lifetime left. How exactly would that change your life?

Now what were your first feelings reading the paragraph above? Perhaps repulsion – was this it? Is this all hanba had to write about today? I cannot be bothered to do this. Nevertheless, please, look beyond that repulsion. Dissect it. Whose lessons did the paragraph make you associate to? Whose programming have you been subjected to? The Dalai Lama, Edith Piaf, your grandmother, the Sopranos, Paulo Coelho?

My boyfriend tells me his dying grandfather regretted having watched too much television in his days. I am trying to think what it is that I would regret. This requires more thought than what is apparent at a first glance.

The first thought I have is to question whether so much needs to change after all. Who is to say that when death approaches I will undergo a deep transformation? Of course there are the practicalities, such as perhaps signing a will and saying goodbyes to friends and family, which would involve a change from what I do every day. However, regretting things and being thankful of others is an ongoing process that happens even when death is not imminent. Perhaps this ‘change before death’ is not something universal but rather, enforced on us by cultural programming. Many people in our culture believe that some kind of a holy spirit takes over the dying, making them see clearly and be more respectable than others. The imminence of death makes a person ‘rise beyond’ the normal everyday life in many people’s eyes.

Furthermore, several people have confessed sins to a priest or a nurse before death, hoping for absolution and peace.

While I am not trying to take away the sacrament of dying, I would like to question the hype around the phenomenon. Just like giving birth, death is an important part of life. Somehow, though, the metaphysics seem more challenging. I think the fear many people have of dying influences the attitude we have towards dying, making it less of a normal part of life. Our thoughts are diverted, we feel repulsion thinking about death. Quickly we make the dying possess a special ‘holy spirit’ in order for us not  have to identify with the dying. ‘He is not one of us any more, he is marked by death.’ The viewer is purified from having to think of their own mortality, labeling the dying as part holy. Absolution is a part of this process, as if a person would be any more or less free from their sins on their last hours of life.

Hanba is just a regular everyday normal guy and does not give metaphysical advice. However, hanba recommends you to continue this thought experiment through the rest of the day. Take this memento mori with you and consider whether you would do anything differently if you knew you were dying next week. Try to overcome the repulsion towards thinking about your mortality, if only for a day.

What is it that Hanba believes to regret? Simple things, such as not spending enough time with family and not writing enough. As for absolution, I am going to try to fix the two issues mentioned above so I do not need to worry about it when I peg out.

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Did this day already go by?

Reading this makes your eyes move from left to right in a series of small, jumpy little motions – all the while time keeps passing.

How fast a day goes by changes according to what happened to you during the day. True, eh? Some days you get lots done and perceive the day as long and productive. Other days just fly past without you ever having a chance to do anything. According to a theory I once heard, us people appreciate the passage of time by evaluating temporal difference between two ‘events’.

Now what is an event? An event is something that strikes out from the normal buzz of the nerve cells – an unexpected situation, danger, startlement, new learning experience. According to this hypothesis, children perceive time as going past slower, since they experience several ‘events’ in a given day. Just think about it, if you have never seen a chair or a milk carton before, how fast can you gain new experiences? Similarly, it is possible to make a lot fit into a weekend getaway, vs dilly -dallying at home for two days. The difference is the density of events, making us perceive the same amount of seconds in a different light.

So – the key to a long life? Arrange events in your day.

How much is enough?

When to stop? How far to push the limits? When does a habit turn into an obsession? How many helpings of a tasty stew is it okay to take? How many beers is too much?

Travelling in Nepal I came across liters and liters of tasty tea. In Nepal it is common to drink a cup a few times a day. When a cup is enjoyed, however, it is custom not to ask for more. A tea pause lasts as long as one cup of tea lasts. That’s it. One cup each is enough for everybody.

I find our culture to be characterized by a lack of framework, lack of scale, lack of socially accepted norms as to the concept of enough. Just take coffee shops for an example. A decade ago a regular cup of 2 dl of coffee was the standard. Now, however, ordering a cup of coffee will get you half a liter of hot and tasty beverage! Similarly, a person finding out ways to get more and more money or bigger and bigger houses is appreciated. The culture seems to reward people who do not know when to say, “this is enough.”

Saying “this is enough” is a sign of being content. There seem to be forces in our culture acting against being content. Being content means being average, having given up.  You should be the smartest, most successful or most beautiful. What we are looking at here is essentially a battle between hedonism and stoicism. I would like to lift the stoic values out of the disgrace they have fallen into.  Stoicism is not only for the disillusionized average performers. It is great wisdom to say how much is enough. Be it tea, coffee, stew or money.

The secularists’ holiday calendar

What kind of holidays do you celebrate?  Take Easter, for instance, a holiday that just passed. Did it perhaps mean something special to you? Or could you not have cared less?

I remember reading the introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover by the author D. H. Lawrence. In the introduction Lawrence describes how life is built around the turning of seasons, around the union between a man and a woman and traditions that follow each other in a cyclical order. The winter solstice is followed by the vernal equinox an so on. The crucial concept is rhythm. Celebrating the different holidays of the calendar give a rhythm to existence. (I can warmly recommend the introduction as well as the whole novel itself.)

For many secularists, however,  the holidays of the year do not mean much else than a break from work.  To mark the season, a secularist may eat chocolate eggs or chocolate santas. The chocolate provides oral pleasure, and it is nice to have a few days off from the hectic stress of the workplace. The question is, can a secularist appreciate the rhythm of life without traditions that mean something deeper?

It must be wonderful to be able to join the cycle of generations who have celebrated the vernal equinox regardless of religion or race. I, like many other secularists, just do not know how to do this. Pagan rituals or church prayers seem equally distant. Buying decorations? Consuming my way through the holiday? Having easter eggs all over the house must mean I am in unison with life’s rhythm?

Personally, I think a break from work, some candy and lying on the sofa is not a “drumbeat” substantial enough to mark the rhythm of life. Have to figure out something different come midsummer.

Whose idea was it to give every child a trophy?

I remember the days when only the best of us got trophies. In junior high, swimming well was rewarded, as was skiing fast. Skill was appreciated. Nowadays, however, it is common to give a kid a trophy regardless of how they have performed. This is common in sports, music, and even in academic subjects.

While it is a good idea to encourage the kids’ self-esteem and make them feel accepted as they are, is it not good to give the winners any additional gratification? Society today seems to say no. One could argue that it has become almost a taboo to “judge the children according to their performance”. The postmodern parental thesis seems to be: “a child has inner value as herself and this inner core should be encouraged, not the outer shell of performances.” While part of this is arguably true, is this behavior not giving the children false hope concerning their abilities? Maybe an averagely gifted child honestly thinks she is good at singing and plans a career in the opera, because she has heard multitude of encouraging words by peers and grown-ups around her. Maybe the child even thinks she already is a great singer and needs not to push herself further.

The interesting part, in my opinion, is to determine whose needs this system serves. Is giving every child a trophy good for the kids or for the parents? It may very well be in the best interest of the children to have parents profiling themselves as supportive and encouraging. However, giving every child a trophy also serves to make the parents’ duty more pleasant. After all, who wants to have  a crying kid at home on a saturday night, sad about losing a contest? A parent may be tired after a long work week and just wants the kid to behave pleasantly.  Furthermore, a parent may feel good about their own parenting when they have provided the child with a positive feeling of achievement. Doing so, the parents may want to encourage false hopes today, at the expense of a future letdown. This is an example of instant vs. delayed gratification.

Also, the parents often have a huge peer pressure around them. Who would want to tell their kid that she is not good at sports when everybody around them boosts their kids’ egoes. It is easier for the parents to conform than to stick out.

One could take a step further and argue that these two principles, that of instant gratification and peer pressure, are core factors in our postmodern consumerist society. Is it not these two principles that have led the children’s parents into economic doom? Buying things on the credit card, favouring the immediate satisfaction of buying new shoes over that of saving for the future? Keeping up successful appearances, keeping up with the Jones’?

It will be interesting to see the future of the  “trophy generation” will form. It will take some decades before these children are in the leading positions of society. Who will then get the praises and raises in workplaces?  How will this generation raise its own children? Furthermore, it has been suggested that the financial crisis will make people live more modestly. Will the financial crisis challenge the “trophy behavior”?