Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crosses To Bear

The acme of ignorance is to feel that your beliefs are beyond reproach. Nowhere is that represented more fully than in organized religion.

Now, before I am crucified and told what a bad human I am for spouting my blasphemies, let me say that I have nothing against religion and religious conviction, save where such conviction is twisted toward purposes that are against the greater good of humanity. There is a great deal to be said for having faith in something, and I have struggled for many years with my own Catholicism, accepting and rejecting it at various times. I have studied many of the world's major religions, most recently having the good fortune to listen to the Dalai Lama speak of the path of faith in Tibetan Buddhism last summer. I think I got the most from his talks, because he emphasized that Buddhism shares so many commonalities with other religions of the world, and to find the true path, one must start with one's own faith. In other words, the Dalai Lama is not out to make everyone a Buddhist.

My belief is that you must have faith in something. Being a man of science, I have delved into the workings of the universe, from the tiniest atom to the most distant quasar. Einstein's equations have spoken to me of a universe governed by a set of unalterable yet malleable principles, that allow it to function, separated from the need for oversight. Set in motion, the grand cavalcade that is the march of the galaxies has been going on for billions of years, guided by simple equations and knowable forms. My core faith tells me that the universe will continue to work as intended, without the machinations of its creator. Who that creator is, and by that I mean I believe there was one, remains a mystery. The signs are there in the stars.

If you find the strictures of an organized religion more palatable, there is nothing inherently wrong with that... unless you are unwilling to question the tenets the religion is founded on. If the universe teaches us anything, it is that nothing remains static. So too it should be with our beliefs. When the evidence of our senses and our cognition tell us that the tenets of our faith are misaligned with the way of the universe, we must be willing to alter those beliefs. Strict adherence to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is anathema. Science teaches us that lesson ever day; in fact, it tells us that no matter what we think, we must be able to subject our beliefs to critical testing in order for them to remain strong.

And while the average person can see clear to believe what they need to, in order to live a harmonious life, altering core beliefs to better fit their view of the world, it is the zealotry of some which unfortunately tinges religion with an unsightly pallor. Blind adherence to beliefs, whether religious or scientific, creates the illusion of power over the world. In science, it is too often the case that someone will try to make the universe fit their theory, rather make their theory fir the universe. The course of science is marked with ideas (Terracentrism, the ether, perpetual motion, constant creation, etc.) which held on far longer than they should have, given that scientists were sure they were right, and could not adjust their thinking until the preponderance of evidence made it folly to maintain the belief. Even then, some went to the grave certain their ideas were not incorrect, merely misinterpreted.

Religion, dealing more directly with personal faith in ideas, finds it harder to yield to fact or even to the idea that one faith is not necessarily the faith. While the adherents of a religion are often able to navigate the schisms caused by differences between daily life and religious teaching, far too many people are trying to force daily life to fit their religious beliefs, not just for themselves, but others. The friction caused by this is seen in much of the political debate in the United States over issues such as abortion, sex education, and school prayer. While it is good to see people take their faith seriously, it is disturbing when they take it so seriously that it blinds them to fact or causes them to feel that they must force others to fall in line (either through law or deed).

Now, my beliefs have been shaped over the many years of my life, and while in youth they changed frequently, as I have become older I find them becoming more set, less malleable. I am still able to change them, do not get me wrong, but the level of evidence and discourse required is much greater, and I put a greater premium on how someone approaches me in an attempt to change my mind. I find that a knee-jerk reaction is very off-putting; when I voice a contrary opinion, it is not an attempt to denigrate what someone else is saying, only to stake out the grounds for discussion. Those who cannot stand to hear a contrary view, who leap immediately to an offensive mindset rather than engage in discourse, very rarely will hold any sway with me. I do sometimes wonder if my views of the world have become too rigid, to the point of limiting my flexibility, but finding it hard to step outside myself as I once could, and forced to take my queues from others, I tell myself that I am being as scrupulous in that regard as I can manage. I would like to think my view is right most of the time, but I am the first to admit when I am wrong. Or so I would like to think.

It is my desire to see harmony in the world, and that cannot be approached until we are willing to set aside our differences. There is room enough on this planet for every type of belief (or non-belief), without the need to exhort against any one system, or to attempt to legislate them away. For whatever you or I might feel about any group's beliefs, at the core we owe them the respect that we wish to be accorded for ours. We will disagree, we will see others as perhaps misguided, but in the end we will extend the hand of friendship and goodwill, because it is for the greater good.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pretty's Pervasive Evil

If it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the society's eyesight must be atrocious. I say this as the father of a 4-year-old daughter, who is frightened by the idea that society will be the arbiter of my daughter's worth, the self-same society which cannot avoid the perils of war, poverty, and disease, despite the wherewithal it possesses.

My daughter is beautiful to me, just as any child is beautiful to a parent. I daresay others have found her attractive since her birth, as people never fail to remark on it when we are out in public. And while, when she was a baby, that a source of pride for me, as she grows older, I wonder what these people are really driving at. I'm sure they see her and apply their standard of "beauty" and it concurs with mine to some degree. Yet, at what point does this go beyond the good-natured acknowledgement of "beauty" and enter the realm of impropriety? When, as she grows older, will what is said or not said impact her self-worth? When will she begin to see her father's adoration of her beauty as just "Daddy being Daddy" and place more importance on the opinions of strangers?

I see the toll that the modern concept of "beauty" takes on women every day. The physical "ideal" of womanhood shrinks further as seasons pass, forcing women into making compromises in order to keep up with what society deems appropriate for a "beautiful" woman. Such is the constant cacophony and clamoring, that a woman cannot know from one second to the next if she is beautiful. Advertisements and fashion magazine covers tell her that she is not good enough as she is, but must become thinner, taller, more voluptuous. She is told that she must go beyond the physical gifts she was born with if she is ever to be society's ideal woman.

How else to explain a disease where a woman allows herself to waste away to a condition which a concentration camp survivor would consider svelte? That she would eat food willingly, only to vomit it back up, as if it were poison? Or worse, simply not eat at all? How does a society that rails at the idea of innocents dying in wars, children going malnourished, or babies not being born justify the undue pressure it places squarely upon the shoulders of women, telling them they need to "be more beautiful?"

Worse yet, the messages this idiotic roller coaster ride imparts on young girls, who are inculcated with the same weird and twisted ideas at an age where they should be allowed to be free from the weight of the world. Instead, they too are made to feel they are inadequate, and not just academically or socially. The evil is incubated and bred in the teenage girl, to be borne by the woman she becomes, who feels she cannot fulfill each person's expectations adequately, and seeks solace in driving herself to the knife's edge of health, determined to be "beautiful." The ride careens toward self-destruction, and only a unguarded moment or the love of others can drag her back from the precipice. Too often, it is too late.

Vanity is not the sole province of the woman though, for Narcissus was a man who thought himself so beautiful that he could not tear himself away from his reflection. Unlike a woman, a man is driven to be taller, stronger, beefier. He must build himself into a mass of chiseled flesh, to do combat with his fellow men on any field called for. Modern Samson's, men are rendered impotent should their heads not be covered in a thick mane of hair. And so men are just as easily poisoned by society's ruinous conception of beauty.

We will not truly evolve until we can put aside the outmoded belief that there is a template to desirability, a pattern that states unequivocally that a person is worthy of our affection. Until we do, we are no better than many of our animal brethren, who put on elaborate displays for the sole purpose of mating. We must look past the beauty without, which is ephemeral, and look to the beauty within, which is ageless.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ghost Dance

You awake with a start
Your hand shoots out
Only to find...


And yet she's there
A scent that lingers
A whisper like the rustle of fabric...


The quiet of the morning
Raises your senses
And for a moment a...


Your own
Pounding in your chest
As it has every day since...


The ache comes
Weaker now but still
Surging through you, seeking...


Each day comes anew
Not so different than any other
And you still wish she were not...


Yet the heart knows
That while thought of her remains
And your sons grow up strong, she can never really...


She will stand beside you
And in the quietest moments
Your skin will tingle with her...



Written for Liam Neeson, as an elegy to his dear, departed wife. We wish him, and his sons, all the peace, tranquility, and love it is ours to give.

Friday, March 6, 2009

We, Who Sit In Judgement

I've come to the realization that blogging and commenting on blogs/community sites has exposed my own hypocrisy. I thought myself incapable of it, somehow above the fray, but it is part-and-parcel of the hubris all humans carry. We would have no one sit in judgement of us and our actions, but we would judge others according to our own personal, moral and ethical codes.

Every time I point my finger at a topic, every time I sit before a keyboard and deliberately type out these missives, I am looking at someone or something and applying my own standards, my own templates, to them. I call into question a person's motives, based only upon what I have read and/or what I know. I comment on the efficacy or propriety of a situation based on these same things. I apply what I have learned over the decades to an imperfect picture, and see fit to pronounce what I feel to be the "truth of the matter."

Yet I have lived my life not particularly caring what people have thought of me, my actions, my words. I want to think I have something to contribute to the human narrative, and thus I write and discuss, but in the end, the individual decides whether what I have said has merit or worth. This is true of all our lives -- we make decisions based on the information we have at hand, oft times lacking or imperfect, and make the best we can of it. Human nature causes us to permanently operate by the maxim "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Only time tells us whether the decision we made is in fact the right one for us. Many around us form judgements based on what they know and decide what we should have done, based on what they know and what we tell them. Maybe they would agree we did what was best; often people are quick to criticize and point out alternatives, many of which we considered as well, before choosing our final course of action.

So this is the by-play of humanity, now writ upon a stage which is global in scope and nigh permanent. The words I write and push out to the Internet will live on the server where they are stored, as well as servers all over the planet, recorded as the magnetic flux of particles too small to be seen. Barring the unforeseen destruction of the planet, these words may very well exist a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years from now, when our species will have taken leaps only barely imaginable. And what will they make of these words? What will they think of me? Of us? How will mere words portray us in a thousand generations?

For we judge those who came before us, and we will be judged by those who come after us, based on standards we can only anticipate, and at that, only fleetingly. If we use our own judgement of those who wrote a thousand years ago, we would come to realize that perhaps future society will look down on us and laugh at our follies and foibles, just as we now scorn those who believed in a world driven by mysticism and fear. Our progeny may have eclipsed us so much, that our talk of quantum mechanics and global warming and the fashions of the famous will look quaint and backward through the long lens of history.

I do not write this as an epiphany, a sudden dawning comprehension that causes me to see the error of my ways and refrain from speaking my mind. Instead, it makes me more cognizant of what words I will choose to use in the future and how I will make my point regarding any topic. For while my arsenal of commentary is well-stocked, it is knowing how to use it that matters. Mine is but one voice in the fugue, my ideas but a fraction of the sum of humanity's knowledge, and it is not that I should use my voice to shout above the din, but add it to the chorus that is the song of the human spirit. For it is only in harmony that the song of humanity can be heard.