HAPPINESS: Hedonic Happiness Versus Meaningful Happiness

I have long been interested in happiness and happiness research.  I recently stumbled across one of the most fascinating scientific articles of any kind that I have read in recent years: Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life.  This happiness research focused on the crucial differences between happiness attributed simply to one’s pleasurable experiences — hedonic happiness — and happiness attributable to experiencing meaning in life.

This particular happiness research peaked my interest because I have been accused of arrogance or hubris in claiming that some people with high levels of happiness may be missing out on substantial aspects or portions of happiness.  My alleged “second guessing” of peoples’ subjective state is substantially confirmed by this groundbreaking happiness research.

From the authors’ abstract:

“Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness.”

The pleasure of satisfying needs and wants (hedonic happiness) has little to do with leading a meaningful life.  Plus, worry, stress, and anxiety are linked to higher meaningfulness and lower (hedonic) happiness.  The developmental tasks of integrating meaning into and across one’s life can be stress-inducing.  Fortunately, to cut to the chase, leading a meaningful life contributes substantially to a happy life, often accounting for losses in hedonic happiness.  Though the stress of leading a very difficult but meaningful life may result in lower overall level of happiness.  From my perspective, risking or sacrificing hedonic pleasures for a life of increased meanings strikes me as, well…meaning full.

From the introduction:

“The wishes for happiness and for a meaningful life are two of the most widely held goals by which people measure and motivate themselves. A breathtakingly broad variety of other common goals and strivings — as examples, the desires to be healthy, to be loved, to succeed at work, to raise children, to serve one’s religion or country — can be subsumed under either or both of those broad wishes. The present article addresses the relationship between the two. Although undoubtedly happiness and a meaningful life have substantial overlap, our focus is on the differences. More precisely, we shall develop theory and provide data about what factors differentially predict happiness and meaningfulness.

Positive psychology took off in the 1990s as a corrective to psychology’s heavy emphasis on illness, suffering, and misfortune. It sought to enrich human life and enhance human functioning. The study of happiness has received a tremendous boost from the advent of positive psychology. Research on what makes life meaningful has increased as well, but perhaps not nearly as much. This special issue of the journal may be a useful corrective in that it undertakes to call the attention of positive psychologists (and other interested researchers) to issues of meaning and meaningfulness. The present investigation was intended partly to clarify some key differences between happiness and meaningfulness.

We shall argue that although happiness and meaning are important features of a desirable life and indeed are interrelated, they have different roots and implications (MacGregor & Little, 1998). Happiness may be rooted in having one’s needs and desires satisfied, including being largely free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness may be considerably more complex than happiness, because it requires interpretive construction of circumstances across time according to abstract values and other culturally mediated ideas.”

I deeply appreciate an integrated middle ground between the all-too-frequent pathologizing in modern psychology and a common superficial view in both research and everyday life of happiness as in essence simply pleasant emotional states.  This research seems to get at the heart of integrating our understanding of the interplay between “positive” emotional experience and the genuinely difficult search for experiencing meaning amidst the hardness in life.  Such an understanding seems critical to a more holistic view of happiness, fuller of our best shot at living amidst ultimate realities (objective realities?) than the surreal view of happiness potentially, perhaps even ideally, disconnected from and unmediated by objective reality, i.e., happiness as a purely subjective state.

In defining happiness:

“Happiness is generally defined as subjective well-being, which is to say, an experiential state that contains a globally positive affective tone. It may be narrowly or broadly focused: A person may claim to be happy to have found a lost shoe, happy that the war is over, or happy to be having a good life. Researchers have conceptualized and measured happiness in at least two quite different ways. One is affect balance, indicating having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states, and is thus essentially an aggregate of how one feels at different moments. The other, life satisfaction, goes beyond momentary feelings to invoke an integrative, evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole.

Meaning can be a purely symbolic or linguistic reality, as in the meaning of a word. The question of life’s meaning thus applies symbolic ideas to a biological reality. Meaningfulness is presumably both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value. People may feel that life is meaningful if they find it consistently rewarding in some way, even if they cannot articulate just what it all means. Our focus is on meaningfulness and the meaning of life.

Operationally, we let participants in our studies define happiness and a meaningful life in whatever way they chose, rather than imposing specific definitions on them. We also assumed (and found) that the two overlap substantially…In particular, it should be possible to have a highly meaningful life that is not necessarily a happy one (e.g., as religious missionary, political activist, or terrorist).”

These researchers anchor their theory of happiness to the idea that happiness is natural and meaning is cultural.  Of course, these two constructs overlap and interrelate.  How they are related was the purpose of their research.

“We assume the simpler form of happiness (i.e., affect balance rather than life satisfaction), at least, is rooted in nature. All living creatures have biological needs, which consist of things they must obtain from their environment in order to survive and reproduce. Among creatures with brains and central nervous systems, these basic motivations impel them to pursue and enjoy those needed things, and the satisfaction of those needs generally produces positive feeling states. Conversely, negative feelings arise when those needs are thwarted. Hence affect balance depends to some degree on whether basic needs are being satisfied. Possibly life satisfaction too could be swayed by whether, in general, one is getting the things one wants and needs. Human beings are animals, and their global happiness therefore may depend on whether they generally get what they want and need.

If happiness is natural, meaningfulness may depend on culture. All known cultures use language, which enables them to use meanings and communicate them. There is a large set of concepts underlying language, and these concepts are embedded in interconnected networks of meaning. These are built up over many generations, and each new person comes to learn most of these meanings from the group. Appraising the meaningfulness of one’s life thus uses culturally transmitted symbols (via language) to evaluate one’s life in relation to purposes, values, and other meanings that also are mostly learned from the culture. Meaning is thus more linked to one’s cultural identity than is happiness.

Although this special issue is devoted to “personal meaning,” meaning itself is not personal but rather cultural. It is like a large map or web, gradually filled in by the cooperative work of countless generations. An individual’s meaningfulness may be a personally relevant section of that giant, culturally created and culturally transmitted map.

One crucial advantage of meaning is that it is not limited to the immediately present stimulus environment. Meaningful thought allows people to think about past, future, and spatially distant realities (and indeed even possibilities). Related to that, meaning can integrate events across time. Purpose, one important component of meaningfulness, entails that present events draw meaning from future ones. The examples listed above of meaningful but not happy lives (e.g., oppressed political activist) all involve working toward some future goal or outcome, such that the future outcome is highly desirable even though the present activities may be unpleasant. Meaningfulness may therefore often involve understanding one’s life beyond the here and now, integrating future and past. In contrast, happiness, as a subjective feeling state, exists essentially in the present moment. At most, happiness in the form of life satisfaction may integrate some degree of the past into the present — but even so, it evaluates the past from the point of view of the present. Most people would probably not report high life satisfaction on the basis of having had a good past but while being currently miserable.

Consistent with that view that meaning integrates across time, Vallacher and Wegner (1985, 1987) found that higher levels of meaning were consistently marked by longer time frames. As people shifted toward more concrete and less meaningful ways of thinking about their actions, they became more focused on the here and now. Thus, a wedding can be described both as “making a lifelong commitment to love” and as “saying some words in a church.” The former invokes a longer time span and is more meaningful than the latter.

Indeed, Baumeister (1991) observed that life is in constant change but strives for stability, and meaning is an important tool for imposing stability on the flux of life. For example, the feelings and behaviors that two mates have toward each other will fluctuate from day to day, sometimes even momentarily, but culturally mandated meanings such as marriage define the relationship as something constant and stable. (And marriage does in fact help to stabilize relationships, such as by making it more difficult for the partners to dissolve the relationship.) Such ongoing involvements undoubtedly contribute to the degree of meaningfulness a life has. Put another way, the pursuit of goals and fulfillments through ongoing involvements and activities that are interlinked but spread across time may be central to meaningfulness.

Again, we assume there is substantial overlap between meaningfulness and happiness. Humans are social beings, and participation in social groups is a vital means by which people satisfy their basic needs in order to survive and reproduce. Hence interpersonal involvement, among other things, is surely vital for both meaning and happiness. We do not intend to dwell on such things as interpersonal belongingness, because our focus is on the differences between meaningfulness and happiness, but we acknowledge their importance. Although both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they may differ in how one relates to others. Insofar as happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied, interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should improve happiness. In contrast, meaningfulness may come instead from making positive contributions to other people.

Although needs can be satisfied in a selfish fashion, the expression and development of selfhood tends to invoke symbolic relations and is therefore more a matter of meaning than happiness. MacGregor and Little (1998) found that the meaningfulness of individuals’ personal projects depended on how consistent they were with core aspects of self and identity. Many animals have the same basic needs as humans, but the human self is far more elaborate and complex than what other animals exhibit. Part of the reason is that the human self is created and structured on the basis of the cultural system (see Baumeister, 2011). On that basis, we predicted that selfhood would have different relationships to happiness and meaningfulness. Happiness would mainly be linked to whether the self’s needs are being satisfied. Meaningfulness would be far more broadly related to what activities express and reflect the symbolic self, some of which would involve contributing to the welfare of others (individually or in general) or other culturally valued activities.”

In more simple term, culture is what separates humans from other animals.  Much pre-existing happiness research focused too closely on the animal (natural) aspects of humans and not adequately accounting for meaning (cultural) aspects.  I can’t help but notice that modern science, with its mechanistic models, often leaves the heart and soul — meaning — of humanity unasccounted for, and therefore devalued.

To conclude and integrate these happiness researchers’ findings:

“Meaningfulness and happiness are positively correlated, so they have much in common. Many factors, such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contribute similarly to both. Yet the two are distinct, and the focus of this investigation has been to identify the major differences in correlates of happiness (corrected for meaning) and meaningfulness (corrected for happiness). Correcting highly correlated variables for each other can reverse effects, which may contribute to some inconsistency in the literature. Future research should distinguish happiness from meaningfulness, because many ostensible contributors to happiness are in fact mainly associated with meaning and have little or no direct contribution to happiness except by way of increasing meaning. For example, helping others may actually increase happiness because it increases meaningfulness, which in turn contributes to happiness, but when we corrected for the effect on meaningfulness, the pure effect of helping others was if anything the opposite: a reduced level of happiness.

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.

The Highly Meaningful But Unhappy Life

Our data enable us to construct a statistical portrait of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low in happiness, which illuminates the differences between happiness and meaningfulness. This sort of life has received relatively little attention and even less respect. But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions. Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.

Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.

Although these individuals may be relatively unhappy, several signs suggest they could make positive contributions to society. High meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a giver rather than a taker. These people were likely to say that taking care of children reflected them, as did buying gifts for others. Such people may self-regulate well, as indicated by their reflecting on past struggles and imagining the future, and also in their tendency to reward themselves.

One can also use our findings to depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life. People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future. These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

I am so delighted, even happy, that I stumbled across this happiness research.  May the deepest harmonies of nature and human culture conspire to bring about profound happiness for us all.

FREE POLITICAL POSTER [Anti-Trump, Anti-Hillary]: PRICE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY — Billionaires For Billionaires VERSUS Billionaires For Millionaires — You Know You Will Pay To See That!

This Anti-Trump, Anti-Hillary, Anti-Oligarchy poster spells out clearly who will pay for this spectacle of billionaires and millionaires fighting it out to see who will rule over US.  The fight bill is exorbitantly clear!  PRICE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY — Billionaires For Billionaires VERSUS Billionaires For Millionaires — You Know You Will Pay To See That!Anti-Trump, Anti-Hillary Free POSTER: Billionaires For Billionaires VERSUS Billionaires For Millionaires -- You Know You Will Pay To See That

As a bonus, if you look closely, next to Donald Trump’s one hand clapping, you will note that his over-sized button reads, “Billionaire FOR Billionaire,” as a singularity of selfishness and megalomania.  As a woman of great distinction, Hillary Clinton has proven over and over again that she will fight for mere millionaires, and a few friendly billionaires*.  If you happen to be less than the least of these, just remember: you’re paying for it, so at least enjoy the show…

*Warren Buffet, the folksy billionaire, has just endorsed Hillary Clinton, so you can wrest assured that regular Americans are behind her.

POEM: The Taoist Dowager

The Taoist dowager
Bends gently to that before her
Inclined to bless
Those below
Indivisible
To the high and mighty
Wholly touched
Braille beyond the see
Maid of tender harmonies
Composed
Of one, a chord
The maladies of life joyfully singing
Farming the music of our years
Covered by perfect lines
Of what may be
Momentarily forgotten
Only later recalled
By progeny
And prodigy
And even those
Occupying there posterity
Like some kind of bum
Or a baggy lady
Udderly fool of it
From cradle to grave
Fully pampered
Content
To cede generations
For a moment
For hour
A muse meant
This consummate ode lady
Siren from beyond hear
A thirst only quenched
By water on the rocks
Having strung out
Countless improbable moments
A mist
An impossible life
Beyond contemplation
Not getting bent
On 100% proof
With a taste that smacks of grace
A singular savor
Unpalletable to sum
Treated like a fragrant
Bye others
Having
Perfected that groovy hide
From a rash
Of uncommon sense
Fore hers
Such an inconceivable vehicle
As chary it
Like the wind borne
In quiet the mine
A sentience unabridged
Having awe ready arrived
A slow motion ninja
Only to be
In what will be
Carried away
In eternity

This poem emanated from the title phrase, Taoist dowager, that emerged from one of my many ruminations.  As is often the case, a phrase that is too good to pass up grows into a complete poem.  I am drawn to Taoist philosophy and Eastern thought in that it seems to quite reliably offer balance to Western modes of thought and being.  The dowager metaphor is apropos in that it is typically a feminine sensibility that is the antidote to afford balance to dominant and domineering Western male culture.  Plus, wisdom is often rightly associated with increasing age and experience, not the least of which is experiencing and reflecting on the vulnerability inherent in senescence.  Buddhists make a practice of meditating on their own inevitable death, not as popular a practice among the young and seemingly invulnerable.  Nonetheless, Taoism claims the ever-present and eternal as accessible in the now, a certain holy equality, a pathless path, perpetually wooing us with enlightenment experiences that cannot be grasped but hold the key to living in harmony with reality and all living beings.  The folly of every age is to try to reduce such knowledge and wisdom to some type of elixir that can be bought, or more to the point, sold.  Even after being taken countless times, the allure of the latest snake oil quite reliably rouses our more base instincts.  The basest instinct blocking our experience of the Tao, the Way, is to take, for our self to acquire something from an other.

Clearly, in the Way of things, things come our way.  However, being given, to receive something, and taking, claiming something as one’s own private possession, are opposite perspectives.  Being given, receiving, is an attitude of gratitude and selflessness.  Taking is an attitude of greed and selfishness.  Now, Taoism is lauded for its mastery of complimentariness, the understanding that opposites interpenetrate each other and are only conceivable in contrast to one another; e.g., you can’t conceive of light without dark, or tall without short.  There is little doubt that a deep appreciation for the complimentary nature of reality is a powerful tool to keep us honest and on track in perceiving and aligning our life with reality.  Still, there are clues within each opposite to their relationship to the Whole, the Tao.  Its conceivable to me that people could live in perfect harmony, without contradiction, with an attitude of gratitude. It is inconceivable to me that people can live as greedy takers without contradictory and irreconcilable selves.  In the mysterious light of the Whole, gratitude is more consonant with reality.  Further, taking, claiming something as one’s own private possession, without any claim upon it from elsewhere is simply self-assertion.

There seems to be a consensus among philosophers and theologians of all stripes and perspectives that human beings cannot be the ground of their own being.  On one end of the spectrum this was most famously articulated by John Paul Sartre in his book, nay tome, Being and Nothingness, which built the intellectual foundation of modern existentialism.  On the other end of the spectrum, most human beings throughout human history have claimed life to be a gift from God (or gods).  Sartre and some others are content to contend that human freedom is condemned to naked self-assertions, however well-clothed in rationalizations.  God-seeking humans have sought a source of life, a ground for their being, a giver who is also a subject, not a happenstance collection of stardust within a serendipitously profoundly ordered universe.  The harshest and most minimalist existentialists settle for an existence where subjects cannot truly meet, or, if taken most strictly, cannot even be confident that other subjects even exist.  Such a bizarre assertion is welcomed by God skeptics who cannot fathom a Subject, but the corollary laughable denial of other human subjects’ existence is kept conveniently and shamefully out of public consciousness.  Taoists and many philosophers of consciousness posit something akin to a Consciousness that all consciousnesses partake in, a whole in which each part is inescapably in relationship with, even if well-clothed in ignorance and plausible deniability.  Christians speak of being made in the image of God.  Taoists, perhaps the least literal in their claims, allude to a dynamic Whole that informs our being of the Way.

A beloved metaphor often employed by Taoists is water, with all of its life-giving and unusual properties yet part of daily, seemingly-mundane experience.  The one who lives fluidly like water moves easily around that which is hardened.  Yet water, given time (an equally mysterious aspect of life), wears down mountains [see patience as the mother of all virtues!].  This poem gives a tip of the hat to this water metaphor with the lines: A thirst only quenched/By water on the rocks.  Thirst cannot even be conceived without quenching — unless perhaps you have the brutally masochistic tendencies of an orthodox atheist existentialist who braves permanent and absolute alienation (from even one’s self).  The line, Siren from beyond hear, intimates the dangerous half of thirst.  The water on the rocks alludes to the sober attention needed to recognize that water and ice (on the rocks) are fundamentally the same stuff, just in a different form.  Having strung out/Countless improbable moments/A mist/An impossible life/Beyond contemplation.  When faced with conundrums and uncertainties, there is a common tendency to hear beguiling Sirens and throw ourselves against the rocks.  Sober minds recognize this as A mist/An impossible life/Beyond contemplation/Not getting bent/On 100% proof.  In embodying an attitude of gratitude and selflessness connected to the One, one can quiet the mine/A sentience unabridged/Having awe ready arrived/A slow motion ninja/Only to be/In what will be/Carried away
In eternity.  May it be so.

 

POEM: Dead Precedents

The whirled is full of dollereds
Strewing up our future
With dead precedents
And we no where
Greed takes us

This short poem addresses the persistence of greed, even though its poor outcomes are well documented and embedded in human experience.  The temptation to game the system and cheat reality by stirring up greed can only be explained by bad thinking or a shortage of moral fiber.  Of course, greed begets greed.  How could it be otherwise?  The moral compass we follow — or don’t follow — sets in motion a cascade of like results.  Greed and selfishness produces a shaky foundation and towering houses of cards and sharp objects as a testament to the denial of the gravity of the situation.  Life presents inescapable moral choices.  We may not like the choices available, but reality has a profound persistence and deep order.  It strikes me that a fundamental orientation or choice in life is whether to game the existing set of circumstances to one’s own marginal advantage and the whole’s marginal disadvantage, OR to commit one’s self to understanding and accepting the facts of human existence and devoting your existential force to participating in the good of the whole.  Saying “NO” to greed is a good start and landmark for the journey.  We know where greed takes us — to an unending chain of dead precedents; a world replete with moral dullards.  Disciplined compassion, joyful curiosity, and ebullient hope take us places better than we can even imagine, where we can be joyous and free in harmony with humanity and the created world.  May it be so.

POEM: Changing Kings

When I was a child
I crapped in my pants
Today I am a king in the world
Now I make others crap in their pants
This is the indigestible truth
Of too much power
That cannot be changed
Even by changing kings

Few people disagree that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Still, most people will gladly accept a little corruption, if it is backed by a little power swinging their way.  Of course, corruption seems much worse if we are on the short end of it!  Power is not distributed equally among humans, and those privileged to possess it, routinely wield it for their own advantage.  Whether through unconscious bias and egocentricity or just plain selfishness, imbalances of power in human relationships leads to corruption.  Even with good intentions, those with greater power end up molding the world into their image, at the expense of the reality of other people’s lives which are disproportionately discounted.  Who of us would not want the magic wand of power to mold the world to fit our ways?

Relinquishing power is not common, and might even be considered foolish by conventional wisdom.  The point is not to relinquish any and all power.  The point is not to have substantially more power than others.  This is rooted in recognizing that power differentials lead to human corruption; or, perhaps better put, lead to a corruption of human community.  In fact, relinquishing power in order to help establish a more healthy balance of power in human relationships is a form of exercising power.  This form of exercising power witnesses to an understanding of a higher power present in reality, that more egalitarian balances or power produces better humans and human community.  The sad truth is that most people have more faith in fascism or other forms of concentrated power than they do in egalitarian human relationships.  This is almost universally true when those with lots of power are aligned with our own particular interests. Even better yet if I am the benevolent dictator!

Large power imbalances typically result from and are maintained by violence.  A relative surplus of power quite predictably leads to a lazy humanity perpetuated by force, routinely re-“making” humanity in the mold of those wielding the power.  The purview of power is expediency, playing into our bias for our own ease rather than than often difficult work of building healthy human community.  The natural ascendency of the masses rooted in their common and democratic (in the sense of majoritarian) everyday reality can only be put down by large power differentials driven by elites.  Historically, there have been numerous rationalizations by elites to justify their minority rule over the masses.  None of these rationalizations can stand as they are founded on the bankruptcy of violence.  Violence is not persuasion; it is overwhelming force.  Violence is what people rely on when reasonable persuasion fails.  Of course, violence is persuasive in the sense that any human act carries with it the power of modeling how humans should act.  However, violence does not lend itself to reasonable human relationships.  Violence is the lowest form of community.  It should be no surprise that violence leads to more violence.  I actually like surprises!  If we meet violence with non-violence, there can be some really cool surprises made possible.  If we want something more than violence, the inevitable outcome of large power differentials, then we need to do something else.  We can do better.

 

POEM: Mental Health Café

In the mental health café
Most of us just order the usual
The anxiety du jour
A small mixed salad of worries
With a little resentment on the side

For many, anxiety is the norm.  Anxiety seems to propel life forward, a basic energy in life.  This may be true to an extent, but it is likely rooted in fear avoidance.  I have heard it said that anxiety is the truest form of atheism.  If it’s all up to me and I have no reliable authority from which to gird my accountability for my actions, where oughts are arbitrary, then existential anxiety must be the norm (see John Paul Sartre in various conundrums of being condemned to be free).  If God is love, and love casts out fear, then we can let go of our anxieties and live freely into any passion which is in accord with love.  The difference between love and fear may be as subtle as the difference between creating as a process and gaining as an outcome.  If creating is de-linked from personal gain, then gain happens for all.  If our creating is enmeshed in personal gain or loss avoidance, the goodness doesn’t grow, and, at best, it is merely maintained.  The seed metaphor is perhaps the most apt in grasping this process in that a seed must die to its current state of existence to grow into something more, some potential in the seed actualized, a crop yielding many-fold.  Greed and selfishness leads us to consume our seed, or even better for the selfish, to consume others’ seed.  The worst fruit of such selfish behavior is tempting others to pay undue attention to merely protecting what they have versus creating anew.  Let us not be overly wrought with the selfishness of others and continue following our good passions yielding good fruits for all.

POEM: A Ghastly Alchemy

For just
Some
Dam
Weepin’s permit
I protect and serve
Up my enemies
Like
Cold
Turkey
Shoot
Only to rifle
But growing ode
In a ghastly alchemy
Silver bullets turning to lead
Down the wrong path
Instantly poisoned
Hearts and minds
In the cruelest democracy
Community going
For broke
The simplest solution
Drunk
With wons
Britches down
In a flash
A bad moon rising
Eclipsing gumption
In the forced
And bye-ways
Camouflaging knights
And daze
Seeing evil
Through darkness
And narrow sites
Seeing in for red
Aimed for more heat than light
As mirror man
Shutters a mist
The in side out
As awe the rage
For their own
Good
I mean
Bad

Here is yet another poem against gun violence.  When it comes to ballads not bullets, I have plenty of ammunition.  Besides just being cruel, violence is inherently anti-democratic.  There are inescapable conundrums in eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, other people as a form of building community.  Of coarse, many people are willing to sacrifice another than do the hard work of making high ideals manifest.  Even the concept of “self” defense razes issues of human rights, inclusiveness, and the sacredness of life.  There is little doubt that practicing nonviolence takes great discipline and sacrifice.  This is in sharp contrast to the so-called “last-resort” of violence that so lazily creeps up to number one.

At what price do we give up our freedom to practice nonviolence?  The Faustian bargain of violence offers an escape from the rigors of morality and authentic community by claiming, “They made me do it,” a convenient denial of one’s freedom — and another’s!  Of course, the enforcement of might makes right extracts the bulk of the price from others, the opposite of self-discipline and sacrifice.  Creating community is costly, just as destroying community is costly.  The real question is: Who pays the cost and who reaps the benefits (in the case of destruction, of what remains)?  As in the dysfunction of capitalism, where greed and selfishness are raised up as virtues necessary to “progress”, violence is about getting the most benefit for oneself (and one’s kin) at the lowest cost to oneself.  Not surprisingly, when the lowest common denominator is oneself, and greed is a virtue, community, which prospers on the common good, suffers. The fundamental problem is that the destruction of violence extracts a cost from the whole (community) that can only be rationalized in piecemeal, selfish fashion.  Violence is an attempt to shift a cost to others.  This works in part when you force others to experience loss due to your violence, and the cost of this is disproportionately shared by your victims.  However, there is no substitute for your own moral agency.  Your responsibility cannot be “cost shifted” to others (only the effects of your irresponsibility can).  This is the irrevocable loss of moral failings. Morality is simply exercising your freedom in a responsible way.  Saying you don’t have a choice, e.g, “They made me do it,” is a cop out.  Morality isn’t easy; if it was, everybody would be doing it!  In short, wielding lethal weapons is perhaps the worst way to demonstrate personal responsibility.  Guns are the lowest form of community.  Even if guns are the last resort, this is not a resort in which I want to live.

POEM: If I Were King

If I were king of the world
My first official act
Would be to resign as king

It is a common fantasy to be a powerful ruler so that you could enact your will over others.  This short poem is a simple, straightforward, and absolute condemnation of such “Lording over” others.  This is a variant on the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The temptation to use such great power is strong, even if for just a little while, to get a few very important things done.  The essential problem is that any monarchical will over others cannot escape the larger reality that a mass veto of the masses’ will is inherently anti-democratic, even if done with perfect motives.  Surely a beneficent king is better than a cruel and selfish king.  Nonetheless, monarchical power is inherently illegitimate; that is if you ascribe to democracy and power of the people.  The point is not to have monarchical rule!

I suspect that I will never have to deal directly with the temptation of being king.  Still, the sin of “Lording over” others exists at both large and small scales, and we all confront such temptations.  For Christians, even the “Lord” Jesus didn’t “Lord over” others.  Instead, Jesus was a servant leader, leading by example as a servant.  Though this seems to be a lesson oft forgotten by many Christians.

Jesus incarnated God’s nature as a host ever-inviting others into fuller and more mature relationships, which are dynamic and respectful (reverent).  God’s edicts, as contained in the rules of creation, are a framework within which to experience these relationships, and these rules are “subjects” to God’s will and character.  Legalisms, which make easy prey of any ideological system, are not the end of “good governance.”  Whether mistaking the sum total of reality as the laws of nature discernible through science, or the legalisms of political or religious elites, we should not make the mistake of worshiping the created over the creator.  Reducing God to a set of rules is deeply pathetic, imprisoning the Creator in a box and pinning ourselves to design specs falling far short of our full capabilities.  God is more, and so are we.  May you experience the “moreness” of God and yourself, in an ever-deeper and maturing way.

POEM: Near Life Experience

A few years back he had a near life experience
It might as well have been
A disaster movie
Stream of consciousness meets tsunami of denial

This funny little poem addresses a sort of reverse polarity of near death experiences.  People that are alive and have a near death experience are typically glad to return to life and are often powerfully reinvigorated by the experience.  On the other hand, people who are just cruising on autopilot, barely alive, may find a true life experience overwhelming or threatening.  Seeded by a minimum of real life experiences, some people may find denial the best coping mechanism to extinct such pesky life experiences, never really allowing them to take root or lead them to places anew.  Of course, most of us live somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of full consciousness.  Paying attention takes energy and focus.  Most of us are lazy enough to travel in well-worn grooves that demand less mindfulness.  Certainly, even habitual behaviors can be experienced mindfully, but the energy and focus needed to see seemingly familiar situations with a high degree of freshness and openness can be daunting.  If you had a thousand people go through the motions of a “regular” day of yours, they would each experience it differently.  This is because any situation can be viewed from a vast array of perspectives.  So, what would be the different perspective of your experiences from the point of view of the other people with whom you interact?  What of people from a different country or culture?  a different planet?!  Our built-in egocentricity makes looking at everything only from our own perspective a default mode.  Of course, the care-taking of our own selfish interests reinforces this tendency.  It is no surprise that I am more interested in my own desires and interests than others.  Nonetheless, a key characteristic of life is change and growth.  To grow, to evolve, we must develop competencies to view our life and the life of others from an ever-growing array of perspectives. To be a competent human being we must be able to see life from a variety of perspectives.  May you experience the vast richness of perspectives, seeing the depth of your own experiences and the depth of others’ experiences.

POEM: Their Undoing

They control the levers
Of a vast machinery
Of business, politics, education
They know no equals
Fusing work and ploy
Blind to their match
Game and set
Unable even to follow their own ruse
Our future
Remains
Incalculable
Though we be out numbered
What we have they can not possess
That which we share freely
Will be their undoing

The powers that be is simply a term for what levers exist at any given time to control worldly power.  These rules of the game, like any other set of physical rules, has inertia, a predisposition to continue of the path it is headed.  Without human volition or choice outside these rules, these rules will continue on their present course.  With human choice, these rules can be changed.  Unfortunately, making choices outside the reward system present at any given time comes with costs that are not incurred by just going and getting along with the status quo.  Of course, some courses, some cultural conditions, are less stable than others, and just like a physical object running into some natural limit, cultural realities will shift even without human volition.  The widespread hypocrisy in politics and business, making one set of rules for oneself and other rules for others, make such a culture less stable, less sustainable.  In every case, the rules farther from reality will be disciplined by natural limits, even if not met with particular courage and effort from humans.  Human choice is about shaping ourselves and our culture into a desired state.  Stability and sustainability are about harmonizing ourselves and human culture with natural limits, which is basically reality.  The hypocrisy of trying to maintain or manipulate two separate realities, one to your own selfish advantage, and another reality for others, is both inherently dangerous and stupid.

This poem refers to several forms of undoing.  The cowardly choice to follow a culture’s existing rules despite evidence that it is a vote for a lesser reality, is a danger to stability and sustainability.  This sort of default non-choice is actually the easiest (laziest) to justify based on present cultural conditions, demanding no changes.  This is the first form of undoing, the sheepish version.  Of course, many actively work for their own selfish advantage, an evil which puts us all at risk for the retribution or push-back from natural limits overrun, the undoing of evil.

The positively human form of undoing is actually an intentional undoing of dangerous “unrealities” in a culture.  This involves persons freely accepting a cost or sanction (or forgone reward) to better harmonize oneself and one’s culture with natural limits, to undo the status quo.  This is in tandem with other natural limits molding lesser realities into a more harmonious whole.

Freedom is not free.  Reality is perpetually shifting, in a a dynamism that can never be fully pinned down.  Exercising freedom demands effort to assess the changing conditions of outer reality, as well as disciplined self-awareness and courage to nurture peace and harmony from within.  The powers that be has a negative connotation because it reflects an all-too-common, lazy, and biased mode of being: using inequalities in our culture simply for our own advantage, not the advantage of all, which requires much more effort and work.  Our freedom has a purpose: to harmonize ourselves and our culture with ever larger realities or natural limits.  We are free to choose to get real, in a harmonious shared reality, or fight reality for some narrower, short-term gain, selfishly carving out lesser realities as our own little fiefdoms.

As cause for hope, reality will have its way!  The higher powers present in reality are powerful allies with which to align oneself.  History is full of the high and mighty forces of any given day lining the dustbins of history.  The struggle continues but has the promise of a more sustainable and stable future built on a foundation of higher and deeper realities.

What Are Conservatives Conserving?

What Exactly Are Conservatives Conserving (Earth) POLITICAL BUTTON

What Exactly Are Conservatives Conserving (Earth) POLITICAL BUTTON

What Exactly Are Conservatives Conserving (Earth) POLITICAL BUTTON

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What exactly are conservatives conserving?  This is a great question!  Of course, I love the play on the similar root of the words conservative and conserving.  Conservatives love talking about freedom.  However it seems that if we listen to conservatives we would be free to live in a world that is being consumed by all of its so-called free human beings, and all these human beings would be competing to no end against one another.  Sounds like a crappy version of freedom to me.   Freedom without understanding and honoring the limits of the natural world seems to me to be simply a license to ignorantly destroy the planet and all of its inhabitants.  Of course, the shared reality of the natural world, if it is going to be protected for the benefit of humanity, must put demands and limitations on human freedom.  Human beings, though seen as the pinnacle of reality by many, are certainly not exempt from the feedback or karma that the rest of reality causes in response to our actions.  Oftentimes, when I hear conservative speaking of freedom, it sounds to me like some immature fantasy of being free from anything and everything (or anyone).  However, I believe that true human wisdom lies in discerning what we should do, not simply what we can do (or get away with).  Reality gives plenty of good feedback about what we actually can’t do, so the obsession with freedom seems to me to be a sort of moot question.  Like the existentialist philosopher John Paul Sartre says, “we are condemned to be free.”  Freedom actually isn’t even a choice; we are born free.  Certainly, living in community with other human beings is a complicated and difficult thing.  However, it strikes me as foolish to ignore or greatly discount all the great things that we get from community as somehow too fuzzy or somehow reducible to some  individualistic form of math (the whole equals the sum of the parts, not more) that need rely only on some “invisible hand” to do the difficult and messy work of creating and maintaining a healthy and functional community.  In the end, it seems to me that what conservatives are conserving is the right to be selfish – more of an excuse than a human right.  Then, to get out of this amoral or evil conundrum, they claim that selfishness is the highest form of selflessness or benefit to the common good.  I suppose it’s very difficult to argue against an ideology that creates both its central tenet in its exact opposite.  Let them eat cake and keep their cake to.  What could be more conserving than that?