Emergent properties

Popularity is meaningless

I came across the following video from a blog post by Derek Sivers:

 

Firstly, I’m not really sure that’s at all a “new” way to think about creativity.  Secondly, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that she makes.  Not just her, actually, but I think the audience is making it too.  In fact, I think most people in general make it because it’s a natural way of thinking.  That assumption is: a good product will be met with praise, fame, and acclaim, while a bad product will fail.  In other words, if you write a book, or a piece of music, or whatever, you yourself don’t know how “good” it is until it either succeeds (by becoming popular) or fails.  If it succeeds, congrats!  You done good!  If it fails, you failed.

But I disagree with that assumption.  I believe how “good” something is (well, in the world of art at least) is entirely subjective.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book may have been very popular, but to me that doesn’t imply that it’s any good.  I might think it’s terrible!  What does the success of her book mean?  Nothing!  And it really shouldn’t mean anything to anyone else either (except perhaps it means a good amount of money for her and the publisher).  And I believe there is a ton of brilliant work out there that’s not popular.  And I might love it if only I could find it.  I tend to find popular things the most because that’s what makes them easier to find.

In that way, popularity is an emergent property.  What makes something popular or not is a complex collection of millions of decisions by millions of people.  Should I read this?  Should I publish this?  Should I talk about this?  Should I invest in this?

I’ve heard that the first Harry Potter book was rejected by quite a few publishers before being accepted by one.  So now people say “wow, those publishers who rejected it sure must be sorry!”  Well, no.  Harry Potter’s eventual insane success was never a guarantee based entirely on the story.  If another publisher had published it, it might not have become a success.  If it was published a year later, it might not have become a success.  (For that matter, if one set of J. K. Rowling’s great great great great grandparents had not met, Harry Potter wouldn’t even exist.)

Movie producers are always making assumptions about why this or that movie succeeded or failed.  Shut up, you idiots!  You don’t know!  “Ah, this Disney animation film failed because people want computer animation now.”  “This film succeeded because Tom Hanks was in it.”  “This film failed because of the competing films that came out at the same time.”  “This film succeeded because it had a strong central hero character and a villain that represented the evils of our times very well.”  And blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever they can say to themselves to make their investments not seem so risky and more predictable.

And people apply this assumption to artists who have become insanely famous.  The Beatles are so famous because they were good.  Shakespeare was good.  Mozart was good.  But these aren’t objective facts just because they’ve happened to stand the test of time (at least, for now).  Their continued fame is still an emergent property based on millions of decisions by millions of people.  (Let’s stop forcing high-schoolers to read Shakespeare and see what happens to that market!)

“If it is popular, it is because it is really good!”  I completely reject the assumption.  When I experience or create a piece of art, I make up my own mind.

Not that I don’t care what other people think.  If I write a piece of music and someone on YouTube comments that they like it, I find it flattering and encouraging.  But it doesn’t change my initial thoughts about my own work.

In conclusion, what is “good” and what is popular are two completely different things.  You shouldn’t let what is popular influence your creative decisions too much, because you actually have no control over what becomes popular.  So stop thinking you do!

And read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it’s a good book.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

Goals

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while… my thoughts are admittedly unorganized…

I’ve noticed that most humans, including myself, tend to never really live in the present; we’re always thinking about some event coming up or what we need to do tomorrow. We’re filled with plans. Everything we do is for some goal we’re trying to achieve. I think even at the millisecond level, our brains are focused on what to expect sensing milliseconds in the future. It’s extremely hard, perhaps impossible, to truly live in the present.

So my question is… is that good or bad?

Sometimes it seems good. If you had no plans, you’d just by lying there like a dog, staring at the world. Or maybe a couch potato. One might say it’s morally wrong to have no goals.

But then… what’s the point of goals? Or what’s the ultimate goal of goals? Sometimes it seems like some people don’t really know.

I think there are only two things that people want for their own sake: pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Everything else done is for the sake of one of those.

Or at least should be. But I think some people instead seek the idea of pleasure. They seek something they think will give them pleasure. But then they spend so much time on this idea that some certain thing will bring them pleasure that they make themselves suffer for it. It’s like this video

Some examples might be a wedding or a party or a vacation that people stress about and plan every detail of to the point of making themselves miserable because everything has to be perfect for it. What I think is especially dangerous is when people start daydreaming what the wedding or party of vacation will be like. They imagine scenes in their heads: “I’ll be smiling over there, and these people will be laughing over here, and we’ll all be happy” or “he’ll be driving and listening to good music and I’ll be half asleep reading my book, and we’ll be happy” … stop it! You have no idea what the future is going to be like! You really can’t plan happiness like that, and you’re most likely just setting yourself up for disappointment. (Not that such events can’t be fun; I just think it’s stupid when people obsess over their planned future happiness so much that they make themselves suffer in the present.)

Weddings and parties and vacations, though, are all things that could be planned and accomplished within a year. I think the process becomes even more dangerous and stupid when people start daydreaming huge life goals to the point where they’re subconsciously expecting them to come true. I will be rich. I will be famous. It seems to be obvious to way too many people.

Or there’s the parent or teacher having expectations for their children or students. They want them to be “successful” but they don’t really describe what exactly that means. Just as much $$$$ and power as possible? What should be the child’s ultimate goal? I guess what comes to my mind is to have a job you’re happy with and to make enough $$$$ to support yourself (and family if you choose to have one (and it is a choice… I hate when people who hardly have enough money to support themselves start raising a family and then kind of romanticize it as if they had no control over when babies would come along… “oh, we’re struggling with our five children, working so many jobs to make ends meet!” … that was a choice)).

But some parents I’ve met (and thankfully I don’t have these kinds of parents) seem to define success as something that can never really be achieved. You must just become as rich as possible, as successful as possible. You must get your foot in the door of some company and keep rising through the ranks until you own the company, and then own all the competition, and then eventually own the world I guess. Or you must become famous, and then more famous, and then more famous. And some parents believe their children are amazing geniuses and they firmly believe, or expect their children to be successful. Unfortunately, every day there are way too many children born for each one to become rich or famous. Only so many people can be rich and famous at a time. These parents’ definition of success depends on their comparing their children to other people, which has always been a stupid way to define success. (Part of me thinks some parents only want their children to succeed so they can brag about them to other parents. “My little Bobby is doing so well, he’s the vice-president of Boring Old Company X, and making a lot of money!” “Oh really? My little Billy still works at the grocery store, but he’s happy gosh darn it!”) And if their children don’t “succeed” then that means they are normal mediocrities…

It’s like your job and wealth determine whether or not you are mediocre. Rich = good, successful, better. Not rich = bad, normal, mediocre. That’s stupid. There are plenty of rich idiots and many brilliant non-rich folk. Shouldn’t the end goal be just to be happy?  (But some people say: “Being a poor struggling artist is not romantic!  It’s stupid!”  It’s not stupid to be poor, it’s stupid to be miserable.)

And then what if you are happy? What if you’re supporting yourself and you’re happy? Does that mean no more goals? You’re done? You’ve reached your life’s ambition? Is that bad? Is that morally wrong? Shouldn’t you always be dreaming some impossible dream?

This video comes to mind… You can have whatever goals you want! You don’t have to constantly want more. You don’t have to always be improving yourself to something you can’t even imagine. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m getting there!” How do you know?

Just make enough money to support yourself and try to find a job you’re happy with. Whether or not you want to give yourself any goals after that is up to you. You don’t have to be rich or famous or anything. So there.

(Disclosure: I do not yet make enough money to support myself yet, so I guess I’m a failure. But at least I don’t have a job I hate!)

By S P Hannifin, ago
Movies

Is doubt good?

I saw the movie Doubt last night.  It was… eh… it wasn’t bad, it was better than I thought it would be, but it wasn’t that good either, in my opinion.  You can definitely tell it’s based on a stage play, and if you’ve been to a few stage plays you might recognize it’s style: pacing is different, there are long conversations, little music, little action, lots of talking.  Not necessarily boring conversations, sometimes quite engaging conversations, that’s an area playwrites can be brilliant at while most films move much quicker.

Anyway, one of the themes of the film was, not surprisingly, doubt.  Which is a nice coincidence since I was just reading a book (and still haven’t finished it) called Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson.  I mentioned the book a few posts earlier; it’s about the history of questioning religion, the history of people doubting.  The philosophical question is: is doubt good?

From a scientific point of view, yes, of course, one should always be questioning.  That’s what leads to more experiments, more discoveries, and a better knowledge of our world.  And you do experiments to try to prove your guesses wrong; that’s often the easiest way to go about it.  And when you can’t prove yourself wrong, you know your theory may be on to something.

But with religion, you can’t do experiments.  You can’t even get God (or Zeus, or whatever) to talk to you man to man.  So what’s the use of doubt?  It becomes not an act of experimentation, not a question spoken out loud, but a thought, something to think your way through (of course you can talk about it with others, but your answers won’t be emperical).

I think a good faith embraces the questioning of itself.  That might seem contradictory; how can faith really be faith if it’s being questioned?  On the other hand, how can faith really be faith if it’s never questioned?  Isn’t that blind faith, and thus, not faith at all?  But faith being questioned isn’t true faith either, it’s uncertainty.  But isn’t that the way to faith?  Through uncertainty and questions and doubt?  After all, if you had perfect faith in everything you believed in, you’d be perfect.  You would do everything right and always be pleased with yourself.  You’d always be happy, I would think.  You would never face any moral dilemmas.  And I bet a lot of people would envy you.

In college, I sometimes came across people who thought they had all the answers and went around campus advertising their religion… but they really didn’t have all the answers, they just didn’t have any questions.  Ask them about some moral dilemma or about the nature of God and they only gave empty answers, like “Well, God is mysterious!”  Well… yeah!  A mystery is something you don’t know!  That God is thought of as “mysterious” is an indication of an imperfect faith.  And I would think faith must be imperfect for us, it’s ingrained in the very nature of our humanness.

So, in a way, to doubt, to question, is to have faith… faith in faith.

But what about atheists?  (Some might even say that atheism is a faith, and the only way to really have no faith is to not be human, or to not have life at all.)  Would it be equally beneficial for an atheist to doubt and question their own atheism?  Is “blind” atheism really atheism?  Are atheists that are certain with themselves just not asking any questions, or giving empty answers?

Obviously science doesn’t have all the answers, or at least we can’t find them all right now.  But does that mean the answers aren’t there?  Scientists still spend plenty of time looking and questioning… isn’t that faith?  Faith that answers exist, that there does exist a knowable truth?

So… is doubt good?  I don’t know… it implies an imperfect faith, and is therefore bad… but it’s required to arrive at a more perfect faith, and is therefore good…

Blah blah blah blah . . .

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

The meaning of afterlife

Have you noticed sometimes people who believe in an afterlife believe in it for the same reasons others don’t?  And that reason is: what you do in this life is important and meaningful.  I’ve heard atheists argue that if we lived forever in some afterlife, then why would today matter?  We’d have an infinite amount of time to make up for it!  But if you’re time alive is finite, then it’s infinitely more important.  But to me, the opposite seems true: if we’re all going to completely stop existing one day, why would anything matter?  “Well, you want to have a good effect on the next generation,” some atheists might say.  But if that generation is just going to die and become nothing as well, what does that matter?  On the other hand, if you live forever, all the consequences of everything you’ve ever done stay with you forever; you can’t undo the past with eternity.  If you don’t live forever, then there ultimately are no consequences.

But who really lives as if nothing matters?  Only people with psychological problems, as far as I can tell.  Those who don’t believe in an afterlife still believe their actions matter (I think).  I suppose the goal then becomes to be as happy as you can now, and the future really doesn’t matter, unless of course what you’re doing now would prevent you from being happy in the future.  But the goal is all about pleasure and while I’m alive to feel it.  How much pleasure and pain you felt throughout your life ultimately doesn’t matter in the end, but it matters now, because you’re experiencing pleasure or pain now.

But if that’s the case, there’s still no rational reason to go about caring for others, unless of course it gives you pleasure.  But if it doesn’t, why should it matter?

And what if two people’s pleasures conflict with each other?  I guess one just has to suffer?  After all, it’s only temporary.  It won’t matter eventually.

Then there’s the reincarnation belief . . . we live again, but we forget everything (or mostly everything) from our previous lives.  Isn’t that just the same as never having lived?  But then . . . what about those people who get brain damage and really do forget much of their lives?  Is it really like never having lived?

What if there’s a criminal who sneaks into a rich man’s home, destroys his belongings, and kills him.  Then, as he’s trying to sneak out, he slips on a marble staircase, hits his head, and forgets the past decade of his life, which was when his life of crime began.  Without such memories, is he the same person?  When the police come and arrest him, should he still be held accountable for his crimes?  Even though now the man who will be sitting in prison is a confused man who can’t even remember what happened?  What if he wasn’t held accountable, then one day the memories came back?  Would he have to be accountable then?

Or what if he could never get his memories back?  What would happen to the man he used to be?  Surely there can’t be an afterlife for that man.  He just vanished completely.  What was the point of all the pleasure and pain, of all the hard choices, of all the decisions within those ten years if memory of them just vanished?  Just that he now has to live with the consequences?  But is he really living with his own consequences, or is he living with another man’s consequences, becausing having his memories erased makes him a completely new person?

Of course, science fiction stories have brought up these issues many times, but not many (none that I’ve read) come to any hard certain conclusions.  (Really no new thoughts here.)

So why do your decisions matter now?  Because you want pleasure now (and while you’re alive), or because we’re going to live forever?  And does that decision matter?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Logic is illogical

It’s been very busy here.  In addition to having house guests (who left near the end of last week), someone quit at the place I work (a part-time job, still don’t have a full-time, and not really anxious for one), and I picked up a lot of additional hours that I’m still not quite used to.  My hours just about tripled.  I don’t mind at all the extra money this will bring in, but I have to get used to the new schedule.  This week it’s been a bit exhaustive, but hopefully I’ll get used to it and get into the groove of things.

I finished reading Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique last week, and posted some quotes on my Book Quotes blog.  ‘Twas a good book, I recommend it… I’d like to buy it in paperback if/when it comes out.

I’m now reading Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson by Jennifer Michael Hecht.  I read somewhere (maybe on the author’s website?) that the author originally wanted to call the book “A History of Atheism” or something.  That’s basically what it is, the history of the questioning of religion, or doubting it.  That said, it’s not a book of “why atheism is correct” or “why religion is correct” … it doesn’t really seem to make any religious judgments itself, it’s more a “history of religious philosophy” book.  For someone like me who doesn’t know much about history, or religious history for that matter, it’s very educational.

So far, I’ve only read the first two chapters (which are the first 85 pages), and there seem to be qutie a few philosophers of old who questioned how we can really know anything or what the point is of questioning things is when answers cannot be obtained.

But maybe how we humans understand logic in the first place is fundamentally flawed in a way we can do nothing about.

So often we think in terms of cause and effect, an event and a reason for it, a “why?” for everything.

For many things, this seems logical.  Something happens, we ask “why?”, we come up with a reason, and that’s that.  The trouble is, we can always keep asking “why?” again.  And again.  Ad infinitum.  This usually leads us to some point where we can go no further, a point where we have to say “I don’t know” and that’s that.  But even if we could come up with answer, what would be the point?  We would just ask “why?” again, and it would have to go on forever.  Every event would have to have an infinite number of causes, going backwards for eternity.  If it goes on forever, then isn’t that the same as there being no answer at all?  There can be no end point.

One could cheat, and go in circles.  “Why are you the boss?”  “Because I tell people what to do!”  “Why?”  “Because I’m the boss!”  Of course, such circular logic is considered a logical fallacy.  But real logic isn’t always much more helpful, even though it seems to make more sense to the mind.  But if logic isn’t circular, is it linear?  A line that goes on forever?  That’s just as useless as a circle!  In fact, just about every shape logic could be in is useless.  (Well, depending on what you’re using it for.)  The whole cause and effect, one thing from another, dominoes of logic . . . ultimately I think it’s a flawed way of looking at the universe, of trying to discover truth.  But right now I have no earthly (or heavenly or hellish) idea of what it could be replaced with.

I’m sure these are not new thoughts for the world, but . . . well, there it is.  Logic is illogical!  Don’t ask me why!  Let me know if you have heard of any philosophers who have had similar thoughts, as I should very much like to read about them.  There’s gotta be someone out there, some form of thought I haven’t heard of yet…

On an unphilosophical note, I had a weird dream a few nights ago.  Near the end of it, a bunch of people gave me a bunch of presents, and it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas or anything.  Being quite astounded at my good fortune, I thought “this must be a dream!  I’m going to wake myself up!” and with some strange mysterious semi-lucid mental process, I awoke myself.  It was like my uncontrollable subconscious willingly giving control back to the my real conscious self.  It was a really strange strange experience.

I call the blog “Blather” so I can blather ya know!

That’s all for now.  Oh, in case you missed it, I posted a YouTube video a few days ago right here.  It’s a piece I’m hoping will be on my first album, which I’m hoping will be finished this year.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

Why love Susan Boyle? Or anyone?

A couple posts ago, I stated:

Another things that bugs me is that if [Susan Boyle] was a beautiful woman and sang exactly the same way, the reaction might be different. The “triumph” here depends on our prejudice. And then we say our prejudice is a bad thing? Then why do we love getting over it so much?

(And what if she had sung terribly? No one would say “how dare we judge a person based on their singing!” and yet that’s what we do here; we’re still basing her worth on something…)

Today I came across this article, which says:

If Susan Boyle couldn’t sing, Simon Cowell wouldn’t have stopped smirking; the spectators would have kept on snickering; and America’s newest heroine would have gone back to her Scottish village to resume the life of an unmarried, unemployed, ungainly, middle-age woman who lives alone with a cat.

In other words, without what we define as talent, Susan Boyle would be an object of mockery and pity.

“What has Susan Boyle taught us about the way we judge people based on appearance?” I heard some radio host intone on Friday.

My answer: Not much.

… after the rooting’s done, what’s the lesson? That we shouldn’t make fun of odd people because they might have talent?

… the lesson I’d hope we take from Susan Boyle is that people deserve respect, however strange they are, even if they don’t have talent.

Oh, look, someone agreed with me!  Though she makes a larger point of it.  But, YES, I agree!

Which leads me to some questions about this thing called love… what makes one person love someone else, and when is it really love?  Can anyone really love Susan Boyle from just watching such a short video?  And if so, why?  Just because she can sing?  Is there some subconscious pity going on?

Attractiveness

Of course beauty seems to be one of the first requirements for love.  This can probably be illustrated best in the movies; ugly people are rarely cast as lovable main characters.  It’s much easier for audiences to instantly sympathize with someone on the more attractive side.  Even on TV channels for children like the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, characters are often seen being instantly interested in other characters only because of their looks.  Isn’t that… extremely shallow?  But it’s natural!  It’s what the human mind is designed to do.  But… certainly that’s not love, is it?  That’s just physical attraction.

It’s obvious most people can get past this, as there are plenty of ugly couples all over the place.  But beauty is still important; I’ve never overheard any husband say “honey, you’re ugly, but I love ya!” nor have I heard any wife say “you’re out of proportion and I wish you looked different but I had to pick someone or I’d never get married!”  What impolite things to say!  So I guess in a sense, we never really get past it.  We only learn to ignore it more.

Intellect and talent

The next thing we are instantly attracted to is talent.  Who has that wonderful voice?  Who painted that beautiful portrait?  Who can play that instrument so beautifully?  Who can blah blah blah do whatever so well?

Isn’t this part of what has Susan Boyle’s audiences in tears?  Is this love?  What is this?  I suppose this is partly some sort of admiration, and partly some sort of wanting to have the talent yourself, but not in a terribly envious way, perhaps more of a subconscious desire.

When you ask people why they love their spouses, they’ll probably list some cliche traits.  Wait a sec?!  Are they saying that love is based merely on a list of traits?  I doubt it… there’s something more that can’t be expressed in words I suppose… or is there?  Is the act of love actually a pretty shallow act that only feels deep, like putting a mirror in front of a mirror?

If this isn’t love, what else is there to base love on?  I guess common interests?  Common beliefs?  A balance between interests, beliefs, talents, and attractiveness?  It’s gotta be something, doesn’t it?  If it wasn’t anything, we’d fall in love with rocks in the streets!

Pity

I don’t think this is often a conscious thing, so not many people will admit to it, or even know they’re feeling it.  It’s something like a deep desire to see someone else succeed because there’s something about them you feel superior to.  An ugly person is the simplest example.  Quasimodo may be a good example, though I’ve only seen film versions of the story.  In those versions, the audience is meant to love the hunchback merely because he is deformed and not a villian.  “I’m ugly!  Poor me!  Love me because you feel sorry for me!”  I think in fiction writing there can often be a fine line between wanting readers to understand and care about your main character’s plight, and wanting readers to just downright pity the characters.

This is why I usually hate movies with mentally challenged characters; they’re so often portrayed as objects of pity, but the screenwriters and directors might not even realize they’re doing it, because it’s coming from their subconscious pity for the characters.  (One film that thankfully doesn’t portray mentally challenged characters as objects of pity is the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

Actually, I suppose there are several different definitions of “pity.”  There’s the more “sympathize with, understand” pity, and there’s the more “oh, poor you, I’m obviously better than you and want you to succeed at something because you’ll never be as good as me in this other thing” pity.  It’s obviously the latter I’m blathering about.

This sort of pity is a vile thing and should be avoided.  Trouble is, I think, it’s often subconscious.  We can feel the emotional effects of it without actually feeling it itself.  And what are these emotional effects?  Well… it probably feels like love.

But is it love?

I don’t know

I obviously have more questions than answers.

But I do think it is a bit of an insult to Susan Boyle to love her only because of her singing.  Then again, how could we expect ourselves to be any different?  Our biases are nothing new.  Nihil novi sub sole!  (Is that the phrase?  I can’t remember.)

That said, I still enjoy Boyle’s performance, just as I enjoy movies with attractive people in them.  But Boyle’s performance and “triumph” is not a “wake up call” to our cynicalness nor does it really say anything profound about prejudices.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

The Atheism of Dolphins

I was going to post some philosophical thoughts on the relationship between psychology and religion, mostly about how they’re compatible.  My main point was going to be: that the emergence of religion among living beings can be explained scientifically says nothing about the truth of religion.  But such a post would be very long-winded, and it would certainly get confusing in some parts.  Then again, maybe to some it’s already pretty self explanatory.  However, I’m really just too tired and a bit too uninterested right now to go into it all.

There are a couple reasons I felt compelled to write such a post.  Firstly, I’m reading quite an interesting psychology book called Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga.  It’s filled with many interesting psychology … uh … things.  For example, it seems the emotion of disgust is a purely human trait, and it is possible for humans with certain brain injuries to be incapable of knowing it.  Can you imagine not being able to see anything as disgusting?  Also, it made me question what I said in my last post, that emotional suffering comes from wanting.  I think that, like physical pain, some emotional pain can just be automatic, such as fear or sadness; they can be born from things we don’t consciously control.  I guess you could say they still come from wanting; they still come from the brain wanting the environment to be different.  But it’s not really always so much a conscious wanting.  One could also say that suffering serves the purpose of physical survival, so why do we always try to find spiritual meaning in it all?  I guess that’s a whole different topic…

Anyway, the second reason was that I was browsing Neil Gaiman’s blog, and he wrote this:

Picked up my copy of New Scientist over breakfast this morning (which, along with Fortean Times, is my favourite publication) and found myself puzzling over an article that began

That a complex mind is required for religion may explain why faith is unique to humans.

Which left me amazed and potentially delighted that journalists at New Scientist had succeeded in interspecies communication to the point of being certain that dolphins and whales have no belief in things deeper than themselves, that ants do not imagine a supreme colony at the centre of everything, and that my cats only believe in what they can see, smell, hunt and rub up against (except for Pod, of course, who when much younger would react in horror, with full fur-up, to invisible things), and that there are no Buddhist Pigs, Monkeys or whatever-the-hell Sandy was.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Gaiman’s post… I hadn’t really considered the idea that non-humans might have religious feelings.  It just seems rather… absurd.  But then again, I guess it depends on how you define religion.  We humans tend to believe in a difference between right and wrong.  Why wouldn’t animals?  It’s needed for the survival of the individual and of the species.  I would think it would be part of their psychology.  I guess my puzzle is… where is and what is the nature of the link between believing in a difference between right and wrong and religion?  I’ve met many an atheist who think religion is not just stupid, it’s evil.  But that seems like a religious statement in and of itself; the word “evil” presupposes the existence of an objective right and wrong.  How can anyone truly be atheist while believing in an objective difference between right and wrong?  Wouldn’t true atheism just lead to moral relativism?  Or should psychology by itself lead to moral relativism?  But if atheists who believe in an objective difference between right and wrong are really religious, then wouldn’t animals also be religious, in a very fundemental way?

So I think both Gaiman and New Scientist have some truth; I guess they are differing a bit in what they mean by “faith”.  Very interesting… I had not thought of such things before.

So… that’s that.  The book I’m reading and Gaiman’s blog post there made me want to write a much longer blathering about psychology and religion, but what I just wrote is enough… for now at least.  It’ll give my subconscious something to think about while I’m not.

In other news, my short story No One Was Abendsen goes out to critiquers in the Critters Workshop this week, so I look forward to getting some more feedback.  (Mr. Sawczak was kind enough to provide some very helpful feedback earlier.  Thank you again!)  So by the end of next week I should be ready to write a final draft and start sending it out to magazines.  (I can sometimes be a perfectionist, so I like to say I never really finish a work, I just stop working on it so I can move on.  So, after my final draft, I don’t get any more critiques no matter what so as not to waste time trying to make it perfect for anyone in particular including myself.  Some people send their stories through Critters multiple times, but I must move on!  It’ll never be perfect.)

I started writing another short story, which I mention on Twitter every now and then, but I’m not far enough into it to say much about it because… who know?… I might abandon it later.

And that’s that. 🙂

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Art and suffering

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY!!

Here’s a good amount of blathering on some thoughts I’ve been wanting to blather about for a while.  I just finished (by recommendation) Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which sort of reminded me I wanted to blather about these thoughts.  It’s a good book, though it’s really not as much about the craft of writing as the other books I mentioned in my last post are.  In many ways it’s more about life philosophies and how they relate to writing.  It’s extremely funny at times, and has some very poignant moments.  I’m not sure I agree with all of Lamott’s thoughts, but it might just have to do with my interpretation of her words.  She almost seems to encourage people to delve into their sufferings for material; to bathe in the unpleasantness they’ve experienced in their life for their writing.  While I do agree with a lot of the other things she says (and really enjoy how poetically and humorously she says them), the suffering issue somewhat inspired this post.

These thoughts are somewhat random… I’m not sure I’m trying to make any overall point, I’m just making observations and suggestions to myself for the most part.  Hopefully it won’t sound too corny.  But let’s face it: deep down in our hearts we’re all corny and sentimental.  (Get it?  Cuz that’s, like, sentimental right there?)  Anwyay, here I go:

Suffering can’t be compared

I think everyone suffers.  And I don’t think suffering can really be compared because we can only ever be one person.  When someone says or thinks something like “I have suffered more because I have been so ill all my life” or “I grew up with such and such a life and such and such happened to my family and nobody else can know what’s that like” or even “oh, I am clinically depressed and take medication for it, so it’s clear I suffer more than most!” … I think that’s one of the highest forms of arrogance.  It’s such a ridiculously huge assumption.  I think you can know someone for years and years and never know how they’ve suffered.  I guess the main thing I don’t like about such an assumption is: why does it matter?  Why do some people have to compare their suffering to others?  Are people who suffer more better?  Are they more deserving of good things?  Even if we could journey into other people’s minds and find out how much suffering there is, what would we want that to change?  People who suffer more get bigger paychecks and better houses?  People who don’t suffer as much should be punished so suffering is equal for everyone?

Anyway, the point is, I think suffering is non-comparitory.  We can’t journey into other people’s minds, and I think it’s stupid to assume one can assess another’s level of suffering by anything else.

Who cares if you suffer?

Since I think everyone suffers, and I don’t particularly like suffering myself, why should I care about someone else’s suffering?  That said, I think it’s natural for us to care about each other as people, and if someone we know well is obviously in a lot of pain we’ll want to ease it if we can.  But that’s not because we’re interested in that person’s suffering, it’s because we’re interested in that person.  We don’t like that person’s suffering.  We’re not interested in it, we want to get rid of it because it’s annoying and it can spread.  Would anyone want to be around a friend who’s just gloomy all the time?  I doubt it.  I think we naturally try to avoid such people, they don’t make us feel very good.

A suffering character

Though I don’t much care for the suffering of others, when I’m reading a fictional story, something really weird happens.  I’m not sure what the psychological reasons are behind it, but I want the main character to suffer.  If the main character goes around happy for the entire story and experiences no conflict at all, I feel that the story is rather empty.  If I don’t care for other people’s suffering, and if I don’t like suffering myself, how come when the story is fictional I all of the sudden desire it?

Maybe some other part of my mind does want to suffer after all, but it wants to suffer with the meaning a good story can provide.  It wants to suffer for something, for some cause.  I already know I’m going to suffer in real life anyway, so why not use stories to daydream that there’s a worthy cause for all this suffering?

The suffering artist and letting it out

I know there are plenty of artists who use art as a way to “release their emotions” … I guess it’s kind of a self-therapy.  I guess whether or not such an act is useful depends on how it’s done.  I think sometimes it can help the artist find answers to his problems.  I like to think that writing literature is, in a way, searching for answers within oneself.  That might sound corny, but I think it’s really true.  Where else are you going to find any moral answers you can believe in?  (That’s not an argument for moral relativism, by the way!)  But I think “letting it out” can also help an artist to continue to hurt himself if the artist becomes dependent on such feelings to produce art, if that makes any sense, or if it just encourages the artist to dwell on terrible feelings.

Personally, I think when I’ve been really miserable, I’ve used art more as a way to “keep stuff in” … to get my mind off it, to be able to focus on something else.  I don’t like remembering the bad times, I don’t want to use them as fuel for my art.  When I look back on my art, I don’t want to be reminded of the bad times that inspired it.  That said, I still think every memory, good or bad, will influence my work whether I like it or not.  And I can’t very well write about a character suffering if I don’t recall some of my own suffering.  But I guess I use art more to “search for answers” (like I said above) and to sort of escape the suffering and let my mind go to a different world for a while more than I use art for making any sort of record of my suffering.

Dreams can be stupid

I don’t know how it emerged, but at some point having a “dream” became a very romantic thing.  Children are raised being encouraged to “follow their dreams” and even adults are encouraged to continue to pursue them.  Woah!!  Doesn’t it matter at all what the dreams are?  I think it does.  I’ve talked to artists who long dreamed of becoming rich and famous, of having their work influence thousands or millions.  And then their dream doesn’t come true and they become bitter and think about giving up.  I guess the real problem is that it became more of an expectation than a dream.  It became something they expected to achieve, and something they were depending on to find happiness.  That’s just stupid!! I can understand the natural desire to want fame and fortune, but if you’re secretly expecting such things and depending on them for happiness, you’re an idiot.  Just stop wanting them!  Stop!  Now!

Maybe their are two kinds of suffering: physical suffering that comes from nerve endings and such, and emotional suffering that comes from wanting.  Obviously we’ll always have to want something, like at least a next meal and to sleep every now and then and to have some air to breathe.  If we didn’t want and work towards things we need for survival we’d just sit there and die.  Some stuff we naturally want but we don’t really need to survive, like our loved ones to be around forever.  They die and we cry at their funerals, but that sort of suffering still comes from us wanting them.  Or as I mentioned earlier we naturally want others to not suffer.  So if a loved one is going through a particularly very rough time, that might make us suffer too, because we want them to feel better.  It all comes from us wanting stuff.  And then there’s the really unimportant stuff like wanting money and fame and this award and to be seen as that kind of person.  I guess that sort of wanting is natural too, but it’s the dumbest and most useless sort of wanting.  The sooner we can get ourselves to stop wanting such things, the better.  So if one of those bitter artists is thinking about giving up on their art because they’re not famous yet, I have a real tough time thinking of anything encouraging to say.  You shouldn’t be wanting such stuff!  Or at least you shouldn’t be depending on such stuff.

Being loved

Perhaps the desire for fame comes from the desire to be loved.  (And perhaps this is the source of relationship problems too?)  I think all humans have a natural desire to be loved, but it’s the oddest of desires because we can never really know whether or not we have it.  How can you tell if someone loves you?  I guess the most natural way to tell is attention.  So that’s why people want fame, that’s why people want attention.  It can be a sign of love.  And if you love someone else, how else can you show that love besides giving that person attention?

But they’re still two separate things, love and attention.  Love is something you do in your brain; it’s a silent act and you don’t have to move any of your limbs.  I think in many ways it can also be unconscious, or subconscious.  It’s not often (at least, I’m guessing) you sit there totally thinking only about your love for someone else (though it might be a good exercise), but then when that person leaves forever or dies, tears can just come out of nowhere, and you suddenly realize how much that person meant to you, even though you didn’t consciously realize it.  (Perhaps love itself is a form of wanting?  A wanting for interaction with or dependence on that person?)  Attention, on the other hand, is something you do, something you give, with words or a listening ear or some gift or whatever.

Anyway, I think people can love you without giving you all the attention you crave.  And I think people can give you attention without loving you.  So, while love might be expressed by attention, I don’t think attention is necessarily always an honest sign of love.  Therefore: stop wanting attention!  I think that’s a huge challenge, but I still don’t think it’s a very good thing to want.  Not that it’s something you should reject, of course.  But if you have it, don’t trick yourself into thinking it always means you’re loved.  And if you just want to be loved, just realize there’s never going to be any way you can really tell whether or not someone really loves you.  It’s something you’re just going to have to believe in.  And if it’s all up to your faith, you shouldn’t need the attention anyway.

I guess I could also say: stop wanting to be loved!  But I think that’s a good thing to want, and I think it’s perhaps the only thing that it’s impossible to not want.  But it’s not something we can ever really know we have from others, not in this world at least, so the most we can do is give ourselves the faith that we are as loved as we want to be, even if we don’t feel we’re getting any attention at all.  We shouldn’t need the attention.

A bad place

I suppose another thing that can cause a lot of suffering, besides physical pain and wanting stuff, is being in a bad place.  Actually, I suppose that is a form of wanting something: you want to be out of that place.  But there’s a lot less you can mentally do about it.  Trying to stop yourself from wanting the things I already mentioned is hard enough.  What if you’re stuck somewhere?  I really don’t know.  I guess you just have to hold on to something until you’re able to get out.  Sometimes a place is the problem (or a person is the problem).  I can’t think of much else to do besides trying to get out of there as soon as possible and in the meantime just doing all you can to get you’re mind off it.

Whew, thank you for reading all that.  All that philosophy or whatever it was (blather, I guess) tired me out.

By S P Hannifin, ago