Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

Reveries of the Fall

Just a quarter of an hour, studies show, of time in the woods can reduce stress. I suspect that if those fifteen minutes are spent running from a bear the opposite might result, but in general time in nature is an incredible solace. The weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative for October walks in the woods around here, but yesterday my wife and I managed to spend some time, along with many others, in Hacklebarney State Park, one of New Jersey’s gems. Living in the most densely populated state, to gather from the number of hikers we saw, encourages time in the woods. It was good to be reminded of the compelling scent of autumn leaves, the wonder of seeing their colors in the daylight when daily commutes begin and end in the dark. When work days are spent in the grayness of the city. Being out with nature, to borrow words from the Good Book, restoreth our souls.

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I suppose there’s nothing really logical about it. We’ve built civilization to protect ourselves from nature. Solid walls to keep predators out. Heat, running water, and electricity so that we can surf the internet without ever going outdoors. Permanent settlement always within reach of cell phone service and work email, we are the scions of civilization. Being unplugged just for an hour or two—even fifteen minutes—can feel like salvation. If that fifteen minutes is spent among rocks, trees, and the peculiar light that reflects off a lazy river. The internet will always wait, won’t it? Thoughts of work can be suspended until Monday, can’t they?

Hiking among the other expatriates of civilization in what used to be the Garden State contrasts so sharply with the image we project to the world. The Chris Christies and Donald Trumps who bluster that nature is there to be exploited. They may not say so with words, but lifestyles speak so much louder than syllables. Gaining wealth requires putting one’s own agenda first. We’re out here picking our way carefully over a rocky path. We have to stop frequently to let others go by the other way, or to let those faster than us pass by. But we’re all out here for the same reason. It’s a beautiful autumn day and spending it indoors feels wrong. I know that even getting online now feels like my time is being demanded by a million distractions. Unplugging, walking at a moderate pace, feeling the cool air and breathing the aroma of fall deeply into tired lungs, I can feel the stress draining away. If only for a day.

Nature Worship

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Here I am in a natural setting, with nature close at hand. From these windows I can see mountains, a mercury-smooth lake with fish breaking its silvery sheet, and trees aspiring for the sky. I hear a red squirrel chattering from one of those trees, and the call of a lonely osprey looking for its morning meal. It took a day of arduous travel to get here, and I am staring at a computer screen as nature puts on her show for me. I think, “it’ll still be there when I get done.” Then I think about what I think. Will it be there? This world we’re creating in our own image demands more and more of the planet we inhabit. To which we feel entitled. As I stood at the airport staring at the monitor, I couldn’t believe that my flight had been cancelled. What? I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., flew countless miles, only to have you tell me my flight has been cancelled? Am I not owed better than this?

This attitude, I reflect, may be what brought us to such a place to begin with. This incredibly beautiful world was never ours to own. We’re guests. Invited perhaps, but guests nevertheless. And we all know that guests are supposed to be gracious and to act as if they wish to be invited back. So why am I rudely sitting here, ignoring my host? We are part of nature, but we tend to think of those closely attuned to nature as “uncivilized.” They don’t dress like city dwellers. Their hair is worn differently. They value things money can’t buy. They don’t play the entrepreneur’s game.

I travel to “get away from it all.” That which I’m getting away from is my life every other day of the year. How did we come to call this “civilized”? There’s no denying the creature comforts of a place to call home and a routine that seldom varies. But sitting here, amid nature, I realize the tremendous cost. Even as soon as it began to warm up in New Jersey we tried to carve out the time to explore local parks. To be outdoors among nature before heading back to the office on Monday. The whole point of worship is to break the flow of everyday time. To stop and think of the good that we have been invited to enjoy. I find myself amid this splendor, and I sit at my computer while nature awakens around me.

The Boy on the Bus

GirlOnTrainCommuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.

I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.

My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.

Hunter-Gatherers

PandorasSeedEvery once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.

Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.

Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.