(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern

 

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(Copyright © 2010)

My daily routine includes going to the post office to get my mail. At some point along the way I anticipate what might be waiting behind the window of box 585. I expect some kind of assortment made up of bills, appeals for money, fliers, catalogs, magazines, announcements, and maybe an actual letter. Since I can’t know for sure what I will find, or even if I’ll find anything, my expectations tend to be vague and low key—that is, not very exciting.

Entering the door of the post office, I see my box straight ahead. Immediately I can tell if something’s in it or not. Sometimes it’s so crammed I can’t see through to the canvas carts. That means magazines or catalogs. Most days I can’t tell if it’s The New Yorker waiting for me or The Nation. More often a few envelopes slant at an angle upper left corner to lower right, probably bills. Maybe FairPoint bill or notice from the New England Fisheries Management Council. I dial my combination—then all is revealed. Today’s mail: One letter—oops! overdrawn at the bank; “Registered Documents Enclosed,” another dunning from the DNC; Christian Science Monitor—Send No Money subscription offer; 2009 Maine Resident Individual Income Tax Booklet; Ben Meadows field research catalog thicker than the phone book. That’s how today’s cautious expectations are fulfilled. My mailbox is a placeholder for such transactions.

This non-drama is fully funded by my personal consciousness. Expectancy is the key. To get me out the door, consciousness has to move me to set a goal and act decisively. It tells me my survival and contentment depend on making a trip to the post office. Anticipation just above the subliminal level keeps me going. Things pick up when I can tell something’s in my box. Then abstract motivation switches to concrete fulfillment as I shuffle through the pile. Sort, sort; toss, toss, stuff in pocket. This is how my loop of engagement works, me casting my abstract expectations on the world, the world giving me back today’s mail to riffle through at the post office. The trick is that my expectations are a kind of summary of such experiences in the past, so are necessarily conceptual more than sensory. But that changes when I open the little door to get my mail. Then hands-on sensory experience takes over, and my expectations are fulfilled more or less in the here and now of the post office lobby.

I think of myself as living in real time, but I seldom am. Often past experience takes over and I dwell in the twilight zone of memory. Or I extrapolate from that zone in trying to visualize what the future will bring. And briefly, as in the lobby, I match past concepts to sensory percepts in the present, categorizing the sensory now in terms of the conceptual past. Conscious-ness is the time machine that lets me do that—switch back and forth. And it is consciousness that fools me into thinking I’m aware of the world around me all the time when, in fact, I keep moving between abstract memories, concrete sensory traffic, and abstract projections into what I think of as the future but is really the state of my mind at the moment. The switching is done so fast—on a scale of milliseconds rather than minutes or hours—I don’t even notice the abrupt seams in what I believe to be my uninterrupted stream of consciousness.

Everyday consciousness is far more complicated than we often think. It is a herky-jerky paste-up job, a montage, not an even flow. In Reflection 159: Stop the Press!, I tried to show how an instant recollection of an empty milk bottle changed my life, or at least that one trip to the trash room. Characteristically, I move in and out of focus in relation to my immediate environment. It comes and it goes. Remembering some little thing puts my immediate plans in the shadows. And an overdose of sameness promotes a hunger for stimulation; I come, I see, I move on. And what surprises me is not so much the time travel as the ever-shifting level of attention to detail as it drifts between concrete sensory perception, abstracts from memory, and vague plans for some kind of future. The three time zones are rendered with varying degrees of detail—and I generally don’t even notice the difference.

When we switch too fast under stress, or rely too heavily on preconceived notions, we are apt to make category errors that misrepresent our pasts in the now, or distort current percep-tions in relation to what we can recall in the instant. The clip-art kitty I “saw” when a hinge squeaked and I jumped up to avoid stepping on the tail of a nonexistent cat (Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat) is an example of my confounding a hinge squeak in the present with an imaginary concept of a yeowling feline from the past—in a pastiche that seemed real at the time. This is an out-and-out category error, accounting for a sound by dredging up a preposterous fantasy. I was there and that’s exactly what I did.

When early scientists did not understand the nature of fire, they concocted the concept of phlogiston to account for the source of a flame. It was thought to be the (fictional) impurity phlogiston that burned when released. People didn’t know any better, so a mythical conceptual category had to be custom fitted to the sensory facts. A concept is a placeholder for the sorts of sensory experiences having relevance to our particular outlooks, motives, and values. In a given situation, concepts guide and shape our expectancy until they are fulfilled by specific details provided by the occasion. Concepts are what we look for; percepts are what we actually get. We no longer look for signs of phlogiston. We’ve learned to look for rapid oxidation instead.

Humor operates on a similar plan: it sets up a pregnant situation, creating a kind of expectant tension, which is fulfilled by a punch line that sidesteps our anticipation. Humor depends on category errors or misconceptions leading us astray, only to be set right by the surprising but non-threatening solution to a situation or riddle—like the magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The punch line of a joke fulfills the humorous situation with a novel flourish. We didn’t see it coming, so laugh with glee, a sure sign of relaxed tension. When we take matters seriously, surprise endings are heresy, so are not allowed.

It is written: God created the universe.

The universe currently exists.

Therefore, God must also exist,

Making whatever happens, happen.

That is basically Osama bin Laden’s point regarding Allah in his “Letter to America” I referred to in my last post. True believers will win against the infidels because they are agents of Allah, who will see that it happen. If you don’t see the humor or irony in the initial assumption’s cropping up in the conclusion as if derived from the evidence, this blog probably isn’t for you. That’s the kind of trouble consciousness gets us into by not distinguishing between the level of detail in concepts and percepts. As my mailbox stands ready to receive its contents on any given day, concepts are mental boxes waiting to be filled by specific sensory details, fleshed-out or embodied, as it were, mythically if not factually. However you put it, concepts are empty containers until given sensory content to substantiate or fulfill them on particular occasions. To mismatch the two is to create category errors, which we mortals are prone to doing all the time.

To take such convenient fictions as entropy, inertia, gravity, evil, sin, Satan, phlogiston, probability, or God herself as explanations for specific events is to switch from one level of consciousness to another midstream without knowing. Resident in the human mind, God is a category error waiting to happen again and again. We have the word; it must label something out there in the world, or so we believe. When concepts in set minds forcefully drive experience, the world is remade according to ideology, as if personal belief could be mapped onto the outer world of sensory events, taming it, cutting it down to the size of the mind rather than allowing the mind to grow by accommodating to actual experience. Creationism and theocracies are ample proof that we are prone to forcing ourselves on the Earth rather than attending to what the master teacher has to show us.

Consciousness is given us so we can learn from experience and act appropriately in a world full of pitfalls and dangers. But we have increasingly come to put that process in reverse, using consciousness to adjust the world to our preferences. If the world doesn’t conform to our idea of what it should be, we whip it into shape by changing the world to our liking, rearranging it so incoming percepts conform to conceptual expectations we already have in mind. Instead of immersing our wild bodies in the flow of wild events—instead of learning the ways of the world—we domesticate the world by breaking it to our beliefs, forcing it to live up to our expectations and specifications. Beyond hubris, that leads to the end of the world as our ancestors once knew it. In the instance of my post office box, it leads to junk mail and endless solicitations for money.

Concepts and percepts can only complement or complete one another; they are not causally related. They arise from different sources of experience, much as my mailbox cannot account for the mail it contains. It gives that mail a place where I can get at it, but there is no causal agency or relationship between them. Such mental slight of hand would be a category error, no matter how much I might want it to explain why things happen as they do. But I can’t blame my mailbox for the bills it contains. The causal agent is the hand of the postal employee who sorts the mail and inserts it into my box, and behind her, those who pay postage to have access to my mind and bank account.

In the realm of the conscious mind, expectation, wishful thinking, and knowing about things share a similar low level of specificity, that is, abstraction. Which is very different from the level on which sensory events actually happen, the level of immediate sensory experience. Even the concept of the color red is colorless until exemplified. Just as my having a mailbox does not imply there is any mail in it, the concept “red” is a kind of code that acknowledges that red exists without providing an example or explaining how the eye sees it. It is more a particular wavelength or energy level, an idea in the mind. The concept of a circle is not a circle; it is more the recipe for generating a circle if you have a compass or a stake in the ground and piece of string. The concept of an automobile is neither Honda nor Chevrolet, though such brands may exemplify the concept. The concept honey cannot elicit the taste—that takes molecules on the tongue. The concept peace cannot calm a battlefield. Ideas are built from concepts in memory; things are built from sensory phenomena in perception. Joined together, related, or balanced as a conscious proposition, memorial concept with existential percept, we can eat strawberry shortcake (sensory fulfillment) for dessert (anticipatory concept), or design a mousetrap perhaps better than the ones we are familiar with. I can even reach into my mailbox and get my mail. But uncoupled and apart, one remains an empty idea, the other an uncategorized percept about which almost nothing is known.

Jokes come in categories: men, women, sex, lawyers, sports, animals, religion, ethnic/national, elevators, etc., or simple challenges such as who?, what?, when?, where?, how?, why? A conceptual situation is set up, creating tension, which the punch line resolves in a specific yet surprising sensory payoff, the release of tension eliciting a smile or laugh, usually from an audience of a particular age or level of experience:

Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night? That was no gentleman, that was my husband.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Snowflakes.

Where do snowmen keep their money? In a snow bank.

You know you’re from New York when you think the major food groups are Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Indian.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

Why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

Real life situation: Yesterday I came across a group of eight people in a knot trying to figure out how to move a woman in a wheelchair from an icy sidewalk into the passenger seat of a car at the curb. A voice apologized for blocking the sidewalk. Stepping into the street to get around, I asked: “How many people does it take . . . ?” Everybody laughed, the tension eased. They saw I wasn’t put out.

The only mailbox joke I know is from a ten-year-old, so I’ll leave you with that: What do you call a man who sits in your mailbox? Bill.

PO Box 96

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In my view, we are conscious within situations and act within situations, so to change the world, we must create new situations inviting us to further the changes we want to achieve. Situations are domains in which consciousness and action are joined in an ongoing loop of feedforward and feedback. All action is tentative because we aren’t sure of the results until we experience them. We operate through successive approximations guided by feedback, approaching our goal through jumps and starts, then evaluating the results, modifying our aim, and trying again. In the end, we may achieve our goal—or not. But if we don’t make the effort, and pay close attention, we are sure to stay stuck where we are.

 

When nineteen Islamic terrorists brought down the Twin Towers with a death toll of almost three thousand, they created a situation in which the U.S. government felt the need to make a fast, bold, decisive response. The people responded variously, some wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, others turning their hurt and anger into a rage for revenge. The military sent high altitude bombers against targets in Afghanistan, then set about invading Iraq. Eight years later, both wars are still going on, the missions of the two campaigns—after many revisions—still unachieved.

 

When Jews sought a homeland in Palestine in 1947-1949, they sought to gather themselves from around the world after being dispossessed for almost two thousand years, into a state of their own where they could recover their spirit and identity after the horrors of World War II—the most recent insult to their personhood. The situation of the Diaspora led to situations of ghettoization led to a situation of scapegoating and the Holocaust led to a feeling of “never again” led to a situation of banding together for protection led to invasion and reoccupation of the former homeland, and resulting war and Palestinian exodus. The hope for peaceful coexistence, prosperity, and security is yet unachieved, creating a situation in which the energies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples are being drained day-by-day through mutual antagonism.

 

The Germans created a situation of global instability and insecurity by invading Poland in 1939. The Japanese compounded the situation by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. First the French, then the Americans failed to recognize the failure of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia, misreading the disintegrating situation in Vietnam in terms of the perceived spread of Communism, distorting the situation by creating yet another tragic, unwinnable war.

 

As I have written (Reflection 88: To-Do Lists, posted April 10, 2009), consolidating a variety of tasks into a single list creates a situation within which tasks can be prioritized and dealt with more easily than when treated separately. Credit card companies use a similar strategy in inviting you to consolidate your various debts with them so you’ll have only one payment to make, even if it goes on forever at a high rate of interest.

 

Getting married creates a wholly new situation by legally joining two separate lives—and bank accounts, the true complexity of the situation often underappreciated until the parties decide to separate and go their own ways.

 

Humor flows from situations that generate expectations fulfilled in unsuspected ways. Take Fred and Myrtle, for example. Married for some 65 years, they’d become fixtures on the Maine coast. Fred was a fisherman, first going out for cod and haddock in the groundfishery, then when that failed in 1993, going out for lobster. Fred knew everybody, and everybody felt they’d known Fred forever. Myrtle, meantime, picked crabmeat from crabs Fred brought home, baked her famous strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry pies, donuts, whoopie-pies, and hung clothes on the line to dry in the breeze from offshore. But one day in his late eighties, Fred went to his reward. The editor of the local newspaper got wind of it and called Myrtle to ask her to provide an obituary. “No need for that,” said Myrtle, “everybody knows Fred. I couldn’t add a thing they don’t know.” The editor pressed her, saying he couldn’t let Fred’s passing go unnoticed. Myrtle said she’d give it a try. She sat in the kitchen and thought about it, but nothing came. Fred was a fixture, there was nothing more to be said. She sent the editor what she came up with. He called her and told her Fred deserved more than the two words she’d sent in: “Fred died,” was just too short for a man of his years. Couldn’t she stretch it out with more personal details? Myrtle said she’d try. She sat some more over two cups of coffee, then sent in her expanded obituary: “Fred died; boat for sale.”

 

Situations play our expectations against our experience in an enduring exchange that builds over time. We are gripped by the process, contributing our bit, waiting to find out what happens. The playoffs and World Series create situations of national sporting interest. Think Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and all the other contests we give ourselves to so we can get through the year. We devote our lives to supporting our favored teams, doing all we can to make sure that they win. The spring madness of statewide high school basketball playoffs creates situations tapping into the same energy stream.

 

I remember when clove gum was introduced in the 1940s. I was walking across the street in Hamilton, New York, and met a young blonde in a flouncy, clove-colored skirt who handed me a stick of gum as she smiled and passed by. Free gum! Such a thing had never happened to me. Manufacturers know the personal touch is a good way to get word of a new product spread around, so they hold focus groups to test the waters. I have often thought of what that woman’s day was like, spreading the word about clove gum through small towns in upstate New York, creating a firestorm in the hearts of young boys.

 

If consciousness embedded in old situations has gotten us into the mess we are in today, then what kind of situations might set us on a new course? What sort of situation would alter my personal consciousness so that I would act in my own small sphere to heal the many things we’ve been doing wrong all this time?

 

Survey the situation as it is, list pros and cons, prioritize, visualize an improved situation, then act accordingly. Groups are going through this process all over the world. Women in Nigeria protest oil exploitation by banging pots and pans in the streets. Women in Liberia go on strike and sit by the roadside for the sake of peace. Groups are urging the development of and switch to alternative sources of energy. I went to a four-hour Pachamama Alliance symposium—Awakening The Dreamer, Changing The Dream—this past Sunday, and signed the pledge: “I am committed to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet as the guiding principle of our times.” Videos presented concrete images of the status quo, activists told of their strategies and accomplishments, we locals discussed how we could direct our energies toward shaping our culture by finding better ways of eating, consuming, traveling, and generally being on the Earth.

 

Traveling alone, the burden seems huge. Traveling together, we can all share the load. Combining our separate experience, consciousness, and effort, we begin to picture a new world. There is no substitute for becoming the change we seek. Others will follow our example. If nobody goes first, everybody is stuck in last place—where we don’t want to be.

 

The main thing is to join others in working together toward similar goals. Think of the new situation as a nest with new life streaming out in every direction from that energy source in our local territory. Taking in radiant energy from the sun, we can put it to more effective use in everyday life than our forebears have been able to do. The new situation is called “the future.” That’s where we’re headed. With pot bangers linked to street sitters linked to seminar goers linked to activists of every stripe in every locale linked to me linked to you, all creating a new situation that is really a new world.

 

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