The Root of Transcendence

Dan MountainsAs an atheist, you hear it all the time – the in-your-face assertion that Humans are “wired for God.” We believe in gods, we’re told, because it’s natural to us. Because we have something in us that NEEDS a god or gods. Maybe because it carries some evolutionary advantage, so we evolved to have it.

The conclusion, in the mind of any faith-professing Christian, is that we’re this way because there really is a god, or at least some sort of “something bigger out there somewhere” that makes it so. We believe because we need to, because we have to, because to do anything else makes us less viable organisms. Lacking a god-need is an evolutionary dead end.

In how many conversations have I had someone tell me “Well, I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I think there’s something out there. Something beyond anything we know.”? I’ve heard that a LOT. Even people I would otherwise consider full atheists have said such things to me.

I’ve felt that pull myself. I’ve thought many times, “We live our lives on a human stage. Everything we do is for other people. But is that enough? Isn’t there anything … more?”

I actually think there is. But it’s not God or gods or mystical superbeings of any sort. It’s this whole other thing, something real. But it’s something so much a part of us we fail to notice it.

I’ll tell you what I think it might be.

First, here’s me: Atheist. Beyond atheist, in fact. I independently came up with the term “antitheist” to describe myself 20 years or more ago, long before it was in vogue. Rather than the current fashionable pronunciation, “an-tee-THEE-ist,” I pronounced it “an-TITH-ee-ist.” I described it humorously as “Not only do I not believe in gods, but I don’t think you should either.”

But I’m also a realist. You have to face the real world and take what it gives you, even if you don’t like it, even if it flies in the face of things you think you know. So whenever I’m presented with a woo-woo idea, something I know isn’t right as presented, but which nevertheless seems to have some sort of substance to it, rather than dismiss it with “No, despite what it looks like, there’s nothing there,” I have to 1) accept whatever realness it presents, and then 2) see if I can figure out a real-world explanation for it that makes sense.

So do we have a need for gods? Are we wired for that? If not, what is it we DO have? Let’s explore a couple of conceptual trails and see where they lead.

Most of us, when we talk about going hiking in the woods, or camping in the wilderness, talk about it in terms of “going out there.” We live in cities, and we “go out” when we head away from the city into the wilds.

But it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Because cities are NOT our natural environment. Our natural environment is … the natural environment. It’s where we grew up, where we evolved to be. We’re not going OUT when we go to the wilds, we’re going BACK. The only time we go OUT is when we trek from the wilds into a city.

Our home, our real home, is in the woods, on the mountains, in the midst of trees and creeks and blowing wind. It is out in the sun and rain, in the dirt and dust, the pollen and bugs and mud. It’s out where we can stomp around in our bare feet, filling our toes with mud, seeing wild animals and birds and distant valleys, blue sky and fluffy clouds, nights filled with full moons and stars. Where we can taste berries and ripe fruit, where we can smell waterfalls and flowers and our own sweat, but also skunks and even blood and death.

I know you’re thinking all this is some kind of artsy-fartsy poetic allusion, but I’m dead serious. CITIES ARE NOT OUR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT. Cities are alien. Artificial.

They’re not even all that good for us. Yeah, we’re comfortable in our engineered and sanitized ’burbs, but we’ll also eat until we weigh 300 pounds, and then whine that we feel sick all the time. We’ll tolerate noise and pollution and chemically-adulterated foods until it weakens and kills us.

Think about all the animals we’ve invited out of the wilds, bringing them into towns and cities to live with us. Compared to their wild cousins, domestic animals are almost invariably weaker and dumber. More fragile.

Wild animals are generally tougher, stronger, faster and fiercer than our pets and livestock. We’re used to how soft and cuddly kittens and puppies are, but pick up a baby raccoon – which I did, years back – and you’ll be shocked at how hard it is. The little bastards are tough as boiled leather.

Just as our pets are, we humans here in cities are soft. Less robust. And probably a lot dumber than whatever wild cousins we once had.

But there’s a deeper point than that our real home is in the wilds. It’s this: That we’re a part of the world around us – profoundly inseparable from it. We’re no more alive without the world around us than a toe is alive when removed from its foot.

Allow me to argue the point:

Say we wanted to define “human.” We’d probably have a fairly involved description, possibly accompanied by a picture of some individual person, maybe some other animals for comparison. But what we wouldn’t have is a full understanding of what being a human means. Because we never really even think about it.

You’re sitting there right now believing yourself to be a complete individual, a discrete quantity of personness, probably picturing your exterior, your skin, as the boundary between “you” and “everything else.”

But your skin is NOT the boundary. In fact, when you really think about it … well, think about this:

Take a human. Hang a large sign around his neck, “Human.” Have him stand on a stage with no other person around, and take a picture of him. QED, this is a human, right? This is all a human is, all there needs to be. No, because you still haven’t separated him out from a great deal of other stuff.

But take that same human and drop him through a portal that deposited him someplace where he could REALLY be alone – say 50,000 lights years away, out in the space between galaxies. What do you have? A dead person.

We never think about it, but the definition of “human” has this hidden implication – that the human is alive, and that quite a lot goes into that aliveness. We never think about the food and water, the gravity and atmosphere, a solid place to stand, other people around to make life work, other animals and plants, a lot of them, somewhere nearby to eat.

The atmosphere we breathe doesn’t just go in and out of our lungs, it seeps into and out of our skin, penetrating us on a cellular level, maintaining a pressure without which we’d die in seconds. The food and water we consume, and later excrete, forms a flowing river of input and outgo, without which we’d also die in short order. And the thing is, the food and water comes from somewhere, the air comes from somewhere.

So we are linked, bound into, an entire system of processes that extends backward in time and outward in complexity in a way that no end can really be found. The oceans? Part of us. The mountains? Part of us. The rainforest, the arctic, the deserts? Part of us. The clouds, the rain, the snow, the bees, the plants, the rocks, the crustal plates, all part of us.

The sun? Oh, yeah, part of us. BIG part of us.

And WE are part of IT. We don’t just live on Earth, we’re nailed into it, soaking in it, connected to it in a way that allows no separation. Even the International Space Station astronauts can live for only a brief time before they start suffering serious health effects – and they get continuous supplies from Earth.

There is only one way to define “human” without also including all this other stuff – the way that specifies “dead human body.” To have a live human, you have to include everything else … at least as far out as the sun.

We say “we” and we say “I” but those are rhetorical conveniences that have no true reality. The view of ourselves as separate and individual is purely subjective – a view which is fantastically, stunningly, titanically oversimplified from the real situation.

The truth is, our mysterious and powerful “something out there” is the natural world. Yet here we are off in cities, acting in our vast ignorance as if we’re discrete individuals, separate from our larger inclusionary selves.

On some level, I think we know this. We yearn for that larger part of us. We reach for it. We desire to be a part of it, to touch and be touched by it.

But divided from the natural world in cities, ignorant of it, we think the missing “something out there, something larger” is a god, or gods, or some other mystical formulation.

It’s a drastically wrong, tragically misleading answer. But sadly, it’s all most of us can understand or accept.

The Book of Good Living: Left Lane Driving

BGL copyThe Book of Good Living, if you’re new here, is my concept for a broad, basic guide to living well and living with others. It’s all the stuff we SHOULD know about living life among other humans and on Planet Earth.

Rather than some silly Ten Commandments focused on duties to a mythical god, this would be a searchable online multimedia encyclopedia something like Wikipedia, constantly updated by users and powerfully cross-referenced, covering every area of life, everything from basic morality to practical everyday health and safety. A how-to guide, completely voluntary in use, but packed with crowd-sourced wisdom about every little thing.

Elsewhere I recently wrote:

I imagine a Book of Good Living collected online with non-religious guidance for daily life, for anyone who chose to read and consider it. With tidbits such as “Take pictures of your parents, lots of them, something to keep you company in the long years alone,” or perhaps “Live your life in such a way that nobody has to pick up after you.” Or maybe even “Never leave your dog in a hot car.” But definitely, “Hey, dummy, if you’re on the freeway and people are passing you on the right, get the hell out of the left lane.”

Regarding that last, I came across this video last night, and it’s practically perfect for The Book.

Thinking Tools: Weather and Will

BGL copySome of what you work out — hopefully, anyway — as you go about your daily life, are what I call “thinking tools.” These aren’t just facts, they’re ways of viewing or understanding the world around you  in a way that allows you to deal with life in a more productive, or less painful, way.

I wrote about something I call “Nailing” quite some time back, and that concept is one of my own thinking tools, something that helps me understand a bit of seemingly irrational human behavior. (Such as why people can be MORE supportive of war after their kid gets killed in one.)

I often have these things in my head for years before I finally sit down and think about them, much less commit them to paper. One such idea is something I call “Weather and Will.”

“Weather” as I’m using it here is meant to represent natural forces as distinct from human ones. It’s all the stuff we have no control over, and have to just be aware of and careful about.

“Will” is what humans do, and it’s subject to, well, human will.

Anytime there’s some sort of incident involving Weather — say Bob gets hit by lightning while playing golf during a thunderstorm — we tend to think it was Bob’s fault, if anybody’s. He should have taken into account that standing out in the open during a storm — and holding a long metal rod aloft — was a bad idea. It’s no fault of the weather itself, which was only doing what weather does — be weather.

We might generously call the event an “accident,” but if there’s any blame to be leveled, it would definitely go to Bob. Recognizing that one of the factors involved has no human volition and the other does, we’d never say the weather should have done something different, but we would definitely say Bob should have done something different.

You challenge Weather, or ignore Weather, or forget Weather, you better expect a bad outcome.

But “Weather” is not always WEATHER. It’s all those other uncontrollable, non-volitional forces too.

If a man lies down drunk on the railroad tracks at night — even through trains are human-made and human-controlled — whose fault is it if he gets hit by a train? We tend to think it’s the drunk guy’s fault. Trains are Weather in the sense that they have this sort of inevitability about them: They can’t be stopped quickly, but even if they could, the train engineer might not be able to see the guy lying on the tracks at night.

Besides which, it’s not like trains leap out of nowhere, or chase you down and kill you. They’re not stealthy, or malevolent. Not only do trains run on tracks which are unmistakable for anything else in civilization, their crossings are always clearly marked, AND a train makes a noise like … well, like a locomotive. Civilization has been SO careful to make trains safe, it’s extremely rare that we could say “Yeah, that whole family was killed after stopping their RV on the clearly-marked rail crossing, but it wasn’t their fault.” No, most of the time it IS their fault, or at least the driver’s fault, and not that of the train or its engineer. There’s really very little about it which is accidental.

But there’s a confusing idea out there about Weather and Will. We see situations — both in fiction and in real life — in which one person gets blamed for something another person did: “The bank robber wouldn’t have shot Bob if Bob had only done what he said. It’s his own fault, really.” “He wouldn’t beat her if she didn’t provoke him.”

Both of those formulations make the bad guy’s actions out to be Weather — as if he’s some sort of unstoppable natural force, something nobody, not even he, could do anything about — when they’re really completely about Will. It’s NOT Bob’s fault for getting shot, not even a little bit. It’s never the woman’s fault when she’s hurt by an abusive boyfriend.

In both cases, the injury done to the victim was 100 percent the doing of the aggressor. There is no element of Weather about the thing. That guy shot Bob because he wanted to. He might have set up this bogus choice for Bob — “Obey me, or die!” — and in truth it might be good in that specific case for Bob to just obey, but nothing in the situation says responsibility for any later shooting rests with anyone but the guy with the gun.

An abusive boyfriend might say “I wouldn’t hit you if you’d just be quiet when I tell you to!” but at no point does that become Weather. It’s his CHOICE to hit her, and he can choose not to. We might say “My gosh, woman, get away from the bastard! Leave now and go as far and as fast as you can!” But this is more in the way of a avidly suggested precautionary measure. At no point does the physical abuse become her fault.

We tend to see large-scale human things like government or war as Weather, and in the sense that they’re big and unpredictable, or take on a Weathery life of their own independent of the human wills within them, it certainly can seem to be true. But it’s important to continue to think of them as the result of Will. Government is a thing humans do, and they can do it differently. War is a thing humans choose to do, and can choose not to do.

There are statistical effects from massed human behavior — actions or effects that arise from our own unconscious nature — that we tend to consider as Weather. For instance, we might say that anytime large numbers of humans gather together — for an outdoor event, say, or just crowded together in cities — there will be masses of litter left to pick up. We expect it, grimly resign ourselves to it, as if there’s nothing that can be done but hire people to try to keep up with the deluge of garbage.

This is certainly true in New York City, where I travel every day in the course of my work. But a half day’s drive to the north, Ottawa, Canada, is the fourth cleanest city in the world. The streets and sidewalks are spotless. Not because the Weather is any different, but because the people of Ottawa CHOOSE to act in a different way.

I think the point is, only Weather is Weather. When it comes to human behavior on any scale, even when you’re dealing with what appears to be unavoidable results, it’s still Will.

Meaning it can be changed. Altered. Done differently, and better.

Lefty Pet Peeve

mass hangingThis picture was shared on Facebook with the caption, “Americas (sic) largest mass hanging of Indians.”

Hey, I’m in. I’m on board. The LEAST you can say about the alleged incident is that it deserves to echo through history as one of our most shameful moments. It deserves to be remembered, reflected upon, regretted.

As a compassionate, reasoning being — or so I like to think of myself — my first impulse is to find out more. This is something that needs to be a part of my thinking, right?

But … no further information is attached. No link. No explanation. No date. No location. Nothing.

I can’t tell whether this incident was perpetrated by forces of the newly-minted United States, by the pre-Revolutionary British, by Mexico, France, Texas, some pre-1776 state, or just generic “white people” acting on their own. I can’t tell whether it was even on this continent.  Might it have been India? Australia? Feudal Japan? China?

We don’t know. Not only do we not know, we can’t even guess. (Okay, from the architecture, I’m going to wager it’s probably not Japan or China.)

I’d think it would be obvious why this pisses me off, but I’ll tell you anyway:

In my mind, there’s a stark difference between INFORMING and MANIPULATING.

Informing is when you introduce a subject and tell me the full details. Or at least give me a start and then point me to somewhere I can (without, say, flying to England and digging around in historical accounts) find out the whole story.

Manipulating is when you project a knee-jerk emotional appeal with NO FURTHER INFORMATION.

Here’s the pisser: I’M ALREADY SYMPATHETIC TO THE MESSAGE. I’m on the “this is truly terrible” team. I don’t need to be manipulated, I need to be informed. He who informs me is on my team, he who manipulates me is not.

I’m willing to do a little research to find things out for myself, but it would be peachy if the original assertion contained SOME sort of clue as to where or when to start looking.

But whoever posted the thing didn’t do that. Is it that they couldn’t be bothered? That it was enough to rile people up in righteous anger? Was this aimed at evoking pure emotion, with no action or understanding necessary?

Was it meant only to inspire the lame-ass conclusion that White People Are Evil? Because THAT conclusion I’m  not on board with. It’s as racist as any other race-related generalization.

Actually, I have no trouble believing this act happened, and was carried out by “Americans.” But I can’t AUTOMATICALLY place that blame any more than I can automatically blame fresh graffiti on my fence on the first random teenager who walks by.

In both cases, you have to KNOW.

Projecting an emotional message at me, a message which I am already inclined to sympathetically consider, but which contains zero facts, is either the act of a careless idiot, or someone deliberately manipulating his/her audience — me. Either way, it’s a betrayal of the faculty of careful thought and reason I like to think sets me apart — sets US apart — from those people who make up the crazy, excitable rabble who so vividly fill the ranks of the teabagger movement.

Two conclusions:

  1. The person who would do this is no friend. He/she is, in fact, my enemy.
  2. I have no need to look any further into the claim. The bullshit level is high enough that I can ignore the thing entirely, and suffer no loss.



Non-Sequitur: Dog Friends vs. Dog Owners

chihuahuaSomeone once walked into my office with a basket of Chihuahua puppies. “Here, you want to hold one?” “Eww, no.” “What, you don’t like dogs?” “No, I LOVE dogs!” I threw up my hands and walked away. There was no way I was going to be able to explain why “loving dogs” and “feeling creeped out by Chihuahua puppies” could coexist in one person.

I’ve realized that most people, even supposed dog lovers, don’t really have a feel for the fact that there’s somebody THERE in a dog’s head, a being with feelings, a sense of self, and this other thing: a sort of life-agenda that has nothing to do with humans.

We command and demand so much from them, and mostly never let them be dogs. Which means … we never really KNOW them. We know only the fantasy-images of them we build up in our own heads. We ignore most or all of what they are.

They have no choice but to quickly adapt to whatever conditions we impose but, fairly often, it must be immensely frustrating for them.

This bears on the main reason I don’t like the tiny dogs. They’ve been interfered with so much they’re no longer capable of being DOGS. They’re more like toys with four legs — almost wholly the creations of the dimwits who made them that way.

News flash: The natural environment of the dog is not tucked into a purse. Or even cloistered away inside a house. Yet if these helpless little bundles of fur ever did get outside on their own, they’d still never have a chance of being a dog. Left to their own devices, they’d simply die.

In my mind, turning a dog into a little speck of “cute” is a betrayal of the bargain we have with them — the bargain of >>MUTUAL<< love and respect.

With Tito the Mighty Hunter, my big malamute-black lab mutt, I discovered I could find out who he was, what he wanted, what he might do, only if I made room in my life for an independent Tito, a Tito not of my making but of HIS.

I never expected him to do tricks, or be be “good” for my benefit or the benefit of others. My house was his house, my yard was his yard. If he wanted to dig a hole in the yard, that was fine with me. If he wanted to stop and gnaw on a deer carcass alongside the trail, I’d wait.

And oh boy, we took hikes, sometimes two a day. As a result, Tito was smarter, more relaxed, more aware, and friendlier than any dog I’ve ever known. He could annoy the hell out of me by occasionally going off and having his own adventures, but he was in all other ways a SPECTACULAR friend. Someone who taught ME things about life.

There are so many dangers in the human world that you can never let dogs be completely themselves, but you can let them be SOME of who and what they are.

When you do, they’ll surprise and amaze and delight — and yes, annoy — you. You’ll discover that dogs are not what you thought they were, and you’ll be a true Dog Friend rather than merely a Dog Owner.

Power: The Source is the Limit, the Source is Us

powerWould you believe me if I told you “government” doesn’t really exist? That when we talk about government, there’s nothing really there? It’s as fictional as religion?

So where do I think all those government buildings come from? What’s all that business you see in Washington DC — Congress and the White House, the Supreme Court and all those museums and monuments and stuff? What’s the deal with all the cop cars, and the uniformed people driving them? What do I think the IRS is, or the U.S. Army? What exactly is the local fire department, the school district, the Water Board, the city and county office buildings? What about all that sheer government POWER??

It’s just this: People pretending — or agreeing — government exists.

Oh, the buildings are there, sure enough, but they’re really no different from other buildings. They’re things people build for some purpose. But the something-or-other inside them, that’s just a bunch of people playing an elaborate game of make-believe. The game of “Let’s Pretend Government Exists.” And the power?

Let me see if I can explain it.

Say John Smith wants Bob Jones to do something for him. There’s a range of persuasions that can be called into play to make this happen. At one end is the generosity and goodwill of Bob toward his friend John, and all John has to do is suggest he needs the thing done, and Bob will jump to do it. At the other end, John holds a gun to Bob’s head and orders him to do it.

In between is John the cop flashing his lights at Bob the driver, John the distant tax collection official and Bob the annual tax-return-filer, John the teacher announcing a pop quiz to Bob the student, John the storekeeper telling Bob the shopper the total will be $27.16, John the preacher telling Bob the parishioner to say ten Hail Marys.

But in each case, and all the cases between those two extremes, there’s a hidden agreement. Bob agrees that John has the power over him. He PERMITS it.

The agreement is “You pretend you’re a teacher, I’ll pretend you’re a teacher, and we’ll proceed as if that’s something real.” For human social reasons, it’s real. But in any other way, it’s a pretense.

Even if John is President of the United States, or a four-star general, he’s just one guy, right? And so is Bob. Discount for a second the fact that one of them might be physically stronger than the other, and you have one unit of human power facing one unit of human power. EVERYTHING ELSE is that agreement. Bob agrees that John has the right to tell him what to do. Bob agrees to do it.

He doesn’t have to. He can say no. You might say “Well, John might kill him for it,” and yes, that’s true. But how many civilized situations really involve the imminent threat of death? Very few.

But in reality, John has one unit of human power, and only one … until Bob AGREES that he will lend John his power by doing what John wants.

Toss some other people into the mix. Say John is a four-star general. Surround him with a thousand obedient soldiers. In addition to his own single unit of human power, now John has the power of a thousand soldiers, plus the power of Bob. But only so long as the thousand-and-one people AGREE they will obey John. Only as long as they willingly PERMIT the general to have that power over them.

Fame is a sort of power. So is wealth. Every aspect of human social and political power is this same sort of thing. Put a billionaire — or a rock star, the leader of a country, a military dictator, any sort of powerful person you might imagine — into a huge empty stadium by himself, and he will again have only one unit of human power. This is why “powerful” people MUST be constantly surrounded by legions of sycophants — servants, toadies, secretaries, guards, henchmen, flower girls and all the rest.

Power in the human sphere comes only by the agreement of the people in the sociopolitical structure within which the power displays.

The democratic model of government is fairly open about this. In nations where political office depends on voters, there’s a recognition that “the people” are the ultimate deciders as to who has power and who doesn’t.

Every “rise to power” — think political campaigns, but also the rise of Hitler — occurs along a lengthy road on which the people being powered-over become gradually convinced, one by one, that they’re willing to cede their own power to the leader. They PERMIT the leader to become powerful by agreeing that he is powerful, and by acting, or refraining from acting, according to the leader’s wishes.

A totalitarian government works no differently as far as the source of power, but it conceals from the underlings any suggestion that their leader — or tyrant — is anything but massively more powerful than them. Yet his power comes only through consent of the henchmen and carriers-out-of-orders, and the fearful-but-willing acquiescence of the populace. You can scare people into fearful obedience, and it works for exactly as long as you can keep them scared.

No one enjoys being afraid, though. It’s why we came up with the democratic social model in which leaders are chosen by the people, each with his one vote which says “Yes, I’ll pretend you have the right to tell me what to do, and I’ll allow you to pretend to lead me.”

But in this social model, just how much “right to tell me what to do” do we give away? To answer that, we first have to realize that in the democratic model, the “leader” position exists not for the purpose of ruling over people, but for doing certain larger social work the individual knows needs to be done, but is unable to do, or chooses not to do, himself. The “ruling over” part of it exists ONLY in the pursuit of that larger work.

So here I am, John Q. Public, and I’m lending out some power to a police officer. How much do I lend him? Exactly the amount needed to do the job of keeping the peace and enforcing the necessary regulations. No more.

If you picture power as gasoline, and imagine a cop needs 13 gallons to do his job each day, we-the-public would provide him 13 gallons, possibly a touch more for unforeseen circumstances. But no more. We wouldn’t give him 38 gallons, or 70 gallons.

So a police officer does NOT have any extra power outside the bounds of his job. And even in his job, there are limits.

We don’t give him permission to beat his wife, for instance, to intimidate his kid’s schoolteacher into giving all A’s, or to beat down some guy he takes a dislike to in an after-hours bar disagreement.  All of those are clearly abuses of power, and we cut it off as soon as we find out about it. If the driver in a traffic stop gives him lip, we don’t agree that he can shoot the guy 36 times, killing him.

There’s some inevitable slop. You and I don’t have free rein to drive 90 miles per hour on the highway, but we somewhat grudgingly allow cops to do it. Not to race to get donuts, or to pick up his laundry before the cleaners closes, but to attend to NECESSARY duties which we assume he’s doing. As we don’t know what he’s doing, though, he’s free to skate over the line at least a little bit for his own purposes.

It’s this “skating over the line” I really want to talk about, though.

The job of policing, tax collecting, being a Congressman, operating a toll booth, all require a certain amount of lent power to accomplish the official duties. We lend exactly the amount necessary, and not one jot more.

A police car is a bit of borrowed power. We might agree that a police officer could need to take his patrol car home with him, but we’d end his power to drive it after he gets home.  If he leaves home for a shopping trip, or to take his daughter to a Little League game, we’d expect him to take his own car. Taking his patrol car would be a clear abuse of his borrowed power.

One of the consequences of such actions, if we assume power lent to do a job comes in limited amounts, is that every bit of power diverted to private goals makes the person less able to do his job. There just isn’t enough power.

There are two main points here.

One is that borrowed power has limits, the limit in each case being the boundary of permission of those lending the power. We all of us lend out our power for officials to do their jobs, but we lend out EXACTLY the amount of power to do the job, and no more.

So every official who uses the power of his position to accomplish his own private goals or feather his own nest is not only abusing the power of his office, he is also making himself less able to do his job. Just as if he used 5 gallons of provided gasoline to run his own private errands, he’d be 5 gallons down on the amount needed to perform his duties.

Second is that the power can be taken back. We can do it through the voting process, by removing the person from that office. Or we can do it ourselves by refusing to recognize the power of that one PERSON to order or rule us.

So what does all this have to do with day-to-day living? Not much, admittedly, under normal conditions.

I still think it’s important to keep in mind the situation, though, the origins and limits of power, in case you (we!) ever decide to make other choices about how much and to whom you’re lending it.

Power is purely a belief. There are no powerful people, except those we pretend are powerful. 

The Book of Good Living: Self-Contained Living

BGL copy“The right to swing your fists ends where your neighbor’s nose begins.”

I first heard that saying something like 50 years ago, and it made immediate sense. Obviously, you have no “right” to be hitting other people in the nose, accidentally or deliberately. Besides the fact that Fist vs. Nose is a fight nose always loses – meaning you hurt this other person – it also sparks Other Fist into action, putting your own nose in danger. Other people can be drawn in, starting a melee. Property can be damaged. Police and ambulances can become involved, expensive medical bills can be incurred, jail time can be levied.

But the saying – or the thought behind it, anyway – applies in a much broader sense than that of mere physical violence. In my view, it applies to almost every aspect of life. The thought behind it is fairness itself. Fairness to the people around you. Living your life within a space that doesn’t lap over onto others.

For instance: When I was a kid, I peed in the pool. I don’t mean I did it occasionally, I did it EVERY time I was in a pool.

Nobody ever said not to, and it felt natural to do it. When I was around the sound of flowing water, or immersed myself in water, the signal came down, “Now! Now! Do it now! Ahhhh.”

Considering that it IS sort-of natural for us humans to pee when we get in water, you’d think there would be signs in every municipal pool admonishing people about it. DON’T PEE IN THE POOL. But we’ve always been squeamish about open discussion of natural functions. (Hell, today we’d probably have an instant screaming pro-pee lobby: “Oh my god, you’re pee-shaming! Peeing is perfectly natural! I just don’t know why people are so hateful, trying to stop innocent children from natural functions!”)

I had to figure it out on my own, embarrassingly late in childhood, that this was something you never, ever did. It wasn’t a matter of getting caught or not getting caught, it was a matter of respect for others. If I had a pool, would I want other people peeing in it? Did I like the idea of swimming in other people’s pee? No, and no. Therefore, I should never do it to others.

There’s another saying that applies to the broader idea of fairness to the people around you, something you probably heard from your mom a thousand times: Pick up after yourself.

Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house. Don’t leave your dishes on the table. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway.

The unwritten second half of “Pick up after yourself” is “… so other people don’t have to.” Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house so I don’t have to deal with them. Don’t leave your dishes on the table so others have to clear and wash them. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway so someone else has to pick them up.

Taken together, the two sayings express this more general idea: Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime,  that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.

Some of this stuff is personal-scale petty:

Back to the subject of pee again – when I go into a public men’s room and find that person or persons before me have peed on the toilet seat, rather than, say, lifting the fucking seat out of the way before urinating, it strikes me as self-involved. Not just ignorant self-involved, but self-involved to the point of aggression against others. If the next guy comes in to use the toilet, but has to first wipe up your piss, you might as well have slapped him.

When I’m shopping with one of those little carry-baskets at the supermarket, and I get to the register and empty it out, then go to drop it on the stack of other baskets, I find about half the time that the last person dropped their basket so that one of the wire handles flopped across. I have to move that wire handle so I can drop-stack my basket. I’d bet most of us feel the same way.

The point isn’t that it’s a lot of extra trouble, the point is that it’s something you shouldn’t have to do. You’re picking up after that guy that came before you. If YOU are the guy who came before, it’s not like the world will end if you don’t do the right thing, but again, other people shouldn’t have to come behind you and fix things, or pick up things. You don’t have the right to live your life so blithely that it adds the “weight” of your life onto theirs.

For me the rule extends even into those areas where people are paid to pick up after you. You don’t leave your garbage on the table in a fast food restaurant. You don’t drive away and leave your shopping cart loose in the parking lot. And sure, your city probably has street sweepers and sanitation workers, but you still don’t drop trash or cigarette butts on the streets or sidewalks.

A lot of this stuff is so basic, so noticeable by others when you fail to observe the rule, that it should go without saying. But … it has to continue to be said, for the sake of all those others – of whatever age – still growing into adulthood. You don’t play your music so loud it annoys people. You don’t waft your cigarette smoke in their direction. You stay in your lane, you drive at the speed of traffic, you signal your lane changes and turns.

The rule scales up to the decidedly non-petty: Industry dumping toxic wastes in rivers, or pumping it into the ground where it can contaminate drinking water, in both cases, this is so obviously wrong it should never even come up as a question. Wall Street bankers wrecking the national economy for their own amusement or profit is a no-no of massive proportions.

When you think about it, the underlying regard for the rights of others is the foundation for ALL our big social rules and laws. Don’t Steal. Don’t Cheat. Don’t Kill.

The rule extends even beyond human rights and concerns. The business about not poisoning fish in rivers with toxic wastes isn’t just about injuring fishermen who might want to eat what they catch. It’s about the fish too. It’s about eagles and elephants, mantas and manatees, raccoons and redwoods.

Because we have to live in society with others, because we have to live on this planet, and because we’ve gone long past the point where natural forces will clean up our messes, conscious self-contained living is not simply an admirable social ideal, it’s pretty much a planetary necessity.

Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime, that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.

The Book of Good Living: Tools 2

BGL copyTools are under-appreciated by most of us officey types. Whether it’s a circular saw, a drill, a planer, an arc welder, or just a simple car jack, too many of us aren’t ready to get our hands dirty.

It’s not the dirt, of course. It’s just that certain tools can be outside our bubble of competence, and it’s human nature to shy away from getting involved in something we probably, in the beginning, won’t be much good at.

But here’s the really great thing about tools: If you have the right tools – and the skills to use them – you can turn anything into anything.

You can turn a discarded old oak pallet into a beautiful jewelry box. You can turn scrap metal into sculpture, or a rusty steel pipe into a gleaming barbecue pit. You can turn a ragged old house into a welcoming home.

You can turn garbage into gold. Metaphorically, at least.

Three rules for tools:

  1. Buy the best tools you can afford.
  2. Learn to use them safely and thoroughly.
  3. Never lend them out for any reason.

Rule 1: Anybody who’s bought a cheap tool has lived to regret it. That bargain socket wrench set that LOOKS just like the more expensive ones, is not. It’s a cheap knockoff of something better, and it will neither last nor perform as well. And there’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a critical job and having your socket or screwdriver or router bit fail on you. The cheaper ones are also dangerous. If you’re leaning on a wrench to try to break free a rusty nut, and the socket breaks loose, it’s gonna hurt. Buy the best, always. Good tools are made well enough to last pretty much your entire lifetime. Which means they’re cheaper in the long run.

Rule 2: Power tools aren’t kid stuff. Get some safety training if you’re unused to, say, a circular saw or a jointer-planer. If you use it wrong, it really can take your hand off in a split second. The same blade that rips into a length of pine can put you in the hospital, or worse. Keep your insides on your inside by being damned careful.

Rule 3: Can I borrow your new mower? Can I borrow your expensive wheelbarrow? Can I borrow your paint sprayer? No, no, and no. Find a way to gracefully beg off, or just be blunt about it, but don’t lend your tools to your neighbors, your friends, or your kids. Go over and use the tool for them, if you must, but don’t lend it out. It sounds harsh, even unfriendly, but there are some good reasons for it. First, if your chainsaw rips into some kid’s arm, or your powerful mower slings a rock into somebody’s eye, oh boy are you going to feel bad. Not to mention the lawsuit. And then there’s this: Nobody loves your tools like you do. They WON’T take care of them the way you do. The guy who loves tools as much as you do – and yes, there are plenty of them out there – probably has his own, and won’t be asking to borrow yours. There’s also the fact that most tools have a service period built into them. Well-maintained, they just might last forever. Poorly taken care of, they won’t. You do the math.

Finally, Rule 4: Use them! Turning garbage into gold is exciting! Satisfying! Fun!

The Book of Good Living: Tools

BGL copyAdvice to moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, anybody with young people in your lives:

There are few material things you can give kids that will make such a difference in their lives as good tools. Carpentry tools, woodworking tools, mechanic’s tools, plumbing tools, metalworking tools, electrician’s tools, — kitchen tools! blacksmith’s tools! — tools for servicing appliances, computers, mechanical devices.

The card should say “Dear One: Build things. Make things. Fix things. Take apart the world and see how it works. Then make it work again.”

We go through our lives depending on auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, service and repair people. We stand back and feel disempowered as someone else makes our everyday lives work, and then charges us handsomely for it. (We also get rooked more often than we want to know.)

If you learn from an early age to live hands-on, to understand how things work and how things are made, to engage the world with your own powerful hands and mind, you become somehow realer than those who have to depend on somebody else for everything. You’re also able to help friends and family in ways that few others in your family will be able to (the hardest lesson will be learning to say no!).

If you have a feminist bone in your body, give your little girl tools. If you understand what it means to be a complete, independent man, give your little boy tools. If you want to be the uncle, the aunt, the cousin, the friend who gets remembered for giving a lifetime of real power over into the hands of your young loved one, give them tools.

(And yes, tools are dangerous. Everything powerful is. Make sure the power of the gift comes with the precautionary knowledge and respect that makes it safer.)

The Book of Good Living: The Social Minimum

I’ve struggled for a long time to figure out the simplest way to say this, and never gotten it down to a short formulation. But here it is at last, I think:

It’s not your job to cater to others. But you DO have to live your life in such a way that they’re not forced to cater to you.

Unpacking this brings out a lot of little specific rules such as:

Don’t pee on the toilet seat, forcing the next guy to wipe it off before he can sit there. Don’t park in the supermarket entryway, forcing others to walk around you. Don’t stand obliviously with your friends in the middle of the corridor, forcing others to slither to get past you. Don’t walk away and leave your basket so it blocks the supermarket aisle, so others have to move it to get past. Don’t drop your garbage on the sidewalk, or onto the side of the highway, where someone else will have to pick it up. Don’t park blocking the road. Don’t throw your gum in the urinals. Don’t flip your cigarette butts onto the sidewalk. Don’t leave your shitty diapers on the bench at the park. When you get out of your car and go into the mini-mart, turn off your loud-ass music. Don’t stand smoking in the doorway so people either have to breathe your smoke or go out of their way to avoid you.

I’m extremely conscious of the needs of others as I move through my day. I don’t want to get in anybody’s way, or inconvenience them. I don’t want someone to have to pick up after me. I don’t want my life to be a WEIGHT on others.

No, I don’t make an effort to vanish in other people’s shadows. I’m certainly conscious that I deserve my share of our common time, space and resources, but I try to be generous and unobtrusive in my use of it.

This is a pretty ironclad cultural rule with me, and I think a lot of us. I’m not sure just where I learned it, but it seems sound and broadly applicable. I have a hard time seeing how anyone could think it a bad thing.

Yes, we meet people every day who either don’t know it or don’t care about it, but they really come across as either children or assholes, don’t they?

We don’t absolutely have to donate to charity, or adopt a homeless pet, or — bearing in mind that not everybody is up to it — even stop and render aid at the scene of an accident. But if we’re talking the bare minimum each person has to do to maintain a genteel workable society, this is it.