Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Recently, I attended a talk in Hancock, Maine given by William Crain, professor of psychology at CCNY. He spoke on reclaiming childhood, which has been depleted if not lost due to inroads by modern media and demands of modern education, so-called. We are depriving our children, he said, of many of the fundamental benefits of childhood on which their subsequent maturity will depend. Crain touched on childhood arts, play, and sensitivity to nature. A spirited discussion ensued, addressing issues in modern parenting and early education. At one point I found myself saying something to this effect:

What unsupervised outdoor play and exploration stimulates in young children—beyond adventure and discovery—is a sense of personal ease in being one’s self. Confidence and self-assurance flow from owning your own self-directed experience. That is, from pleasing yourself. Which is very different from what happens in schools where teachers dole out praise for desired performance, and children become fully dependent on someone else deciding when they are doing the correct thing the proper way in the right spirit. Pleasing others makes you socially acceptable; pleasing yourself makes you a real person. The two are not the same, and lead to wholly different personalities later in life.

I am reminded of what happened after the Russians lofted Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As a nation we were aghast that the Ruskies had gotten so far ahead of us in space technology. Educators panicked and vowed that the elementary school curriculum had to be juiced up with more math and more science. Set theory became the thing, along with exercises in concept formation. Grade school was given a shot of grad school ideas, and childhood itself was sloughed off as . . . well . . . childish. The result is homework and burdensome backpacks in grade one, but not children who are smarter or any more competent.

Crain’s slides took me back to Depression era days in Hamilton, New York, where I roamed springtime hills in search of runoff flowing from rainfall and melting snow. Using twigs and pebbles, I built canals and dams and boats for hours on end. I suppose it was play, but it was my job at the time—what I did for a living—for I was actively building my life by developing an intuitive sense of flow, gravity, energy, and progression of the seasons. Yes, I came home sopping and muddy—but wiser and more accomplished than when I set out. Happier, too, in being intimately engaged with my native habitat, my particular place on this Earth. My folks had no idea where I’d gone, and didn’t worry about my coming to harm. My father had grown up in rural Vermont, mother in coastal Maine. After-school surveillance wasn’t an issue. True, they didn’t know where I was, but they understood nonetheless.

As I got a little older, my experiential approach to hydrology soon led to major discoveries in paleontology. It made sense to go home by following the intermittent streams I played in as they joined other streams coming off the slopes, growing larger, cutting channels then gullies into the local bedrock, rushing toward the valley where I lived. From time to time I’d pick up a rock from the stream, turn it over, and find the shallow form or impression of a creature looking like a giant sow bug. My eyes turned from the streambed to the black walls of the gullies, which were built up in layers of shale. On Saturdays, when I had more time than I did after school, I’d pack hammer and stone chisel with me, and go at those walls of shale, and the secret life forms they held—shells, sea lilies, trilobites! My friend Norman’s father was a biologist who knew about such things.

My real schooling in those days took place outdoors, not in closed rooms with blackboards, flags, clocks that had Roman numerals, and cloakrooms in back. Earth was my classroom and teacher, aided by anybody who could put what I’d found into some kind of perspective. Sixty-five years later, I’m still the same kid in hot pursuit of horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, wildflowers. Now I think more in terms of watersheds than small streams, the progression of the seasons than fixed days of the week, but I’m the same child whose consciousness has grown large in the never-ending flood of personal adventure and experience that is my life and no other’s.

What a difference it makes to follow your own course of study instead of having to fulfill others’ ideas of what you should be doing with your life. Whatever I am, I am my own person, so respond my own way as best I can. Schools fill your head with what other people want you to know, so you become an agent for a sector of society that henceforth has dibs on your body. It’s like a credit-card debt you will never be free of because you unwittingly took it on when you were too young to realize what you were doing. Graduation is the beginning of payback time when you are expected to perform at the job for which you’ve been trained. Getting a job and supporting the economy have become so routine in our culture that we have come to believe that’s how life is meant to be lived. You are made to feel selfish and unpatriotic if you even dream of plotting your own course. To be a good citizen is to devote your life’s energy to fulfilling the dreams others lay upon you. Forget your own bliss and get on with what you have been programmed to do. It’s that simple. And that crazy.

Sanity lies in taking your own consciousness back from those who have stolen it from you. In being your own person in your own life in the place where you are. The price you pay is in being responsible for your own actions because you can’t blame your boss, your folks, your spouse, or your kids for your being who you are in doing what you do. If you aren’t comfortable with what consciousness presents to you, you can always change your ways—it’s your call, as long as you do it without inflicting harm on others in the process. This is the opposite of the jihadist way based on such a narrow under-standing that all blame for things going wrong can be cast on designated enemies you are entitled to blow up in self-righteous fury. No one in his right mind would fight in a war if he didn’t believe those he killed were lesser beings than himself, deserving of slaughter like so many ants. This requires adjusting consciousness to think in terms of the good and the evil, those deserving to live and those begging for death.

But if you are on good terms with your own mind, you know that others are striving to be on good term with theirs as well, and all face the same struggle in achieving a life that is considerate, fair, just, and the equal of all others. No one can hand you such a life, you must earn it on your own, and support others in striving to earn theirs. Do they teach that in school? They pay lip service to fair play, but the hidden agenda is always the home team’s got to win. If the umpire calls a foul against your side, he is clearly blind. The other side is always at fault—it’s their nature. But by being on your own, you realize others are too. If you take advantage of them, they will return the favor fourfold. If you treat them fairly as equals, ditto because they identify with you, as you have shown you do with them.

Give and take is the nature of a mutually beneficial society. Fixed minds and ideologies are a curse upon the collective consciousness of the whole. Schooled as a group to believe the same doctrine, we lose sight of truth itself. Educated (led out) as individuals each on our own, we share our respective excitements and learn from one another as equal participants in the adventure of life. Individuals contribute to society as they are uniquely qualified to do, enriching it by giving the gift of one self to all, which the all will reciprocate, each in his or her manner.

Reclaiming childhood means taking the risk of reclaiming consciousness for each individual. That encourages each one to be his or her unique self all the way. It means giving up the myth that under the skin all are identical. We are valuable one to another precisely because we are unique and have something to offer that no one else has. Genetically we are distinct, as we are situationally, experientially, and existentially. No one is more essential than another, all are equally valuable.

That is where this riff on reclaiming childhood for ourselves has taken me. Equality itself is attainable through our diversity, as are fair treatment and true social justice. In thinking all must be educated the same to be treated the same is a fundamental error because it cannot be true. No two of us are alike; each is unique. A true education would address our personal constellation of interests and abilities, and nurture them to find where they lead. An education that closes a person down for the sake of group unity is no education at all. We all need encouragement to open ourselves up so we can blossom in youth and come to fruition in maturity. As our individual if imperfect selves, not clones of some perfect—and wholly fictitious—ideal.

We’ve tried no child left behind and it hasn’t worked. How about moving every child to the fore of his own life and see how that goes? Children are unique individuals when they are born, and are such in school. Respecting and nurturing that individuality just may be the key to facing the growing number of problems our numbers and lifestyles are causing in today’s world. It’s time for a new take on education. I suggest we place our trust in the expansion and development of individual consciousness and see where it takes us. That is, base education on who and where our children are at the time of learning and not impose lessons despite who and where they are as we so often do now. The sandbox, playground, back yard, and stream gully are all places of learning. How about retiring the school board and trusting our children to show us what they can do on their own as their budding consciousness means them to do?

Herring in a Bucket