Wednesday, May 16, 2018

May Meeting is on the 25th

Due to travel schedules and other competing activities, we have moved the May meeting to the 25th this month.  I hope this works for everyone’s schedules.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Big Questions - Reading List

I laid out several books on the coffee table last time.  These are books I have found helpful in reviewing the topics we cover, and filling in background info from philosophers who have wrestled with these same topics.  I like books with Big Questions in the title, of course, but there are others.

Socrates Cafe is a philosophy book wrapped in the trappings of a novel.  Christopher Phillips is the author, and he recounts his efforts to take the ideas of Socrates and the method of dialectic discussion to whomever and wherever he can.  College campuses, coffee houses, schools, prisons, and private homes where people gather.  His stories are engaging and he showcases Socratic thought interpreted for modern times.  It is available from Amazon for under $10 in paperback, or under $9 for the Kindle.  I'm sure it will be at your local library.  If you only read one book in this list, I recommend that this would be the one.

The Big Questions: A short introduction to philosophy by Robert Solomon is a college textbook style review of philosophical thought, organized generally into the major fields of thought:  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a god?  What is the nature of reality?  What is truth?  Who are we as individuals?  What is freedom?  What is morality and the good life?  What is Justice?  How does philosophy impact our ideas of sex, race, and culture?  Each of these topics is covered through some direct discussion by the author with reviews of relevant philosophers and their writings.  I find his style easy to read, and the info to be well presented.  (My copy is copyrighted 1998.  I see on Amazon that there are more recent versions, sometimes with an additional author, Kathleen Higgens.  I expect this newer one to be essentially the same, maybe with some additional info.)

For practical exercises in philosophical thinking, you can't beat The Philosophy Gym by Stephen Law (available as paperback and Kindle versions).  He lays out 25 topics and couches them in layman's terms, presenting opposing perceptions or ideas and points out fallacies in thinking, contradictions, false interpretations, etc., to get the reader thinking.  He also rates the topics as Warm UP, Moderate, or Challenging to indicate their degree of difficulty.  I like to use his format for BQ since it is a short read, clearly identifies the ideas you need to cover, and often leaves the topic open ended at the conclusion of the session - no Big Answers!

There are many more great books for beginners.  Sophie's World is a great read, and lots of fun along the way.  The other 2 books by Phillips, The Six Questions of Socrates, and Socrates in Love.  I mentioned in an earlier blog that I recommend reading The Republic, by Plato.  It can seem a bit pedantic at times but it helps to get the banter into your head, to listen to the back and forth of dialectic.

And of course everyone needs an anthology of philosophy so you can read the original writings of a philosopher you like, or who strongly influenced whatever topic you are studying.  Fortunately these anthologies are generally not expensive, are very big, and contain huge amounts of information but are not usually very well organized.   I have several on my shelf, and you can read them when you visit, if you like.

Desmond

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Refresher Concerning Big Questions

At this time of reboot, it pays to take a minute to remind ourselves how Big Questions started, and what was the intent?

Philosophy:  Asking questions like a child, and answering them like a lawyer!

A Socratic Question is typically formed as a "What is ...?" question.  What is virtue?  What is justice?  What is honor?  That sort of thing.  These were the sorts of topics that Socrates liked, and we try and keep to that format when developing Big Questions for our own discussions today.  We have certainly branched out a bit and don't limit the topics to ones that Socrates hashed out 2,500 years ago, necessarily, although many of the classic questions are still good ones to keep in mind today.  We can delve into topics that are of current interest to us, and that may be a product of our modern society and way of living.

I have many sources to draw upon for What is .. ? questions.  My ideal situation is for the group to come up with one they like, and are ready to explore.  They can be based on daily life.  What is marriage in modern society?   What is our civic responsibility in a corrupt society?  I think these are valid questions, and wold be pleased to lead a discussion about them,  As I noted in March, marriage can be a touchy topic, especially if you and your spouse are looking for help or validation of a position you may have taken.  It certainly was lively many years ago when we tried it for the first time.

Classically philosophical topics can be difficult for non-philosophers to deal with.  The reasoning gets abstract, and often people draw in what may seem to be obscure sources, quoting philosophers inaccurately or possibly out of context.  It often leaves me wanting to look up the source material to put things into proper context.  If you look at the sheer size of the anthologies I have on my shelf you can see that "great thinkers" of the past were also tremendously verbose!  Still, Socrates was fond of this sort of thing and I'd like to think we can all participate in a true philosophical discussion once in a while.

Will you read a few pages of text to prepare for a session?  I have pages copied and available electronically for several topics.  I will try and make them available for topics I may want to promote in future sessions.

It may seem trite, but please take the time to read The Republic by Plato.  The information is very accessible, and the process of dialectic discussion that has made Socrates the world's premier philosopher is in full display throughout the work.  Plato's chronicle of the life of Socrates stands as a monument to Greek Philosophy through the ages.  If you can get into this frame of mind, you can understand what I am trying to create in Big Questions.

Desmond

What is Happiness?


Recap of March 16th Meeting

Potluck Supper and Check In
We had an attendance of 18 souls for this re-boot of BQ.  The dinner was fine, with a mix of items.  Nobody went hungry, but the mix of offers was short on mains and salads, with a very welcome main dish that showed up at about 7:45!  There was seating for everyone around one of the 2 large tables, and people seemed pleased to be able to get together again.

Discussion
The opening question concerned an personal issue around respecting personal expectations of behavior in public places.  It was cast as a question of the rights of an individual vs the rights of the many, but the flow of the discussion didn’t follow that path.  What it boiled down to was the behavior of a developmentally challenged person who liked to jump into a public pool in a noisy and splashy way, while a group of seniors were trying to do water exercises closely enough to be splashed and bothered by this person.  It was suggested that the person who was bothered talk to the care giver (who did not seem to be paying attention to the conflict) to move the jumper further away. 

We then talked about several topics, settling in on the concept of happiness.  What is happiness, what do we do to achieve happiness, is happiness a worthy life goal, can happiness exist without contrasting unhappy or just not happy times, and many more related questions.  The discussion was lively and everyone participated. 

I used the Happiness Box example to illustrate what I think of as being a peak experience sort of happiness, which many people rejected as not something they would enjoy.  I tried to point out that the definition of the Happiness Box is pure enjoyment and it didn't make sense not to enter because it would not be enjoyable.  The parallel between the Happiness Box and drug use was explored, and the pitfalls of drug addiction. 

Part of the offer to get into the HB is that you don't have to get back out, but can stay in as long as you want - a clear invitation to leave the world behind and live in pure bliss for the rest of your life.   If the goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, this would seem to be a great chance to maximize the pleasure part.  People usually cite their responsibilities to others, their families, and to themselves as reasons not to get into the box, which are all good reasons, but seemingly altruistic.  A hedonist would jump in.  A person struggling with issues in their life might want to get in.  Someone with chronic pain, or depression, or maybe loneliness.  A well adjusted, socially connected person who gets satisfaction without the box might be wary.  Or maybe just someone who didn't want to be thought of as self-centered.

One participant offered the comment that happiness does not come in levels, but rather exists only as a form of quiet contentment.  This person denied the idea of "peak happiness", but I did not understand just why it was not possible.  They did comment that awareness of suffering and pain in the world meant that, in some way, we are denied peak happiness though this knowledge.  It seemed a heavy burden to bear, intellectually, so that it affected our moment to moment participation of our lives and feelings.  A crushing burden, I would think.

I was asked to offer a list of books and authors that deal with the review of philosophy as a collection of Big Questions.  I laid out several from my personal library, and I especially noted the value of reading Christopher Phillips' Socrates CafĂ©.  I will append this list to my blog shortly.

Desmond

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Restarting Something I Really Like

Hello Everyone!

Yes, it is true.  We are starting Big Questions back up again, starting March 16.  For the time being we will have to announce the once monthly meeting dates, so don't add any meeting times into the following months just yet.  Generally we like the 3rd Friday of the month, but there are some scheduling conflicts coming so we will have to advise you as the times are set.

To start up out, I'm tempted to let the group pick a subject after I make a bit of an introduction to what I expect to be several first timers.  The Fellowship has experienced some growth in membership, and there may be good interest in a social/philosophy group get together. 

A recent sermon topic was Authentic Happiness, which has been a recurring theme for BQ as well.  We might want to explore Happiness as a philosophical topic again.  It is one of my favorites.  Let's see how the group want to go.

See you on Friday!

Des


Friday, November 11, 2016

My Only Post-Election Blog

So, what's new since I last posted anything?  Has the world changed in any important way?

My lifelong buddy, Phytophacter (www.phytophacter.blogspot.com) is the master of the 1-2 paragraph blog.  He distills his thoughts into succinct thoughts that can be conveyed in straightforward statements that take 12-15 sentences, often with a photo or other helpful visual aid.  He publishes 500-600 per year, and has done so for the past several years.  It is a really impressive compendium of thought, actually.

Me, I'm a little too verbose for such linear thoughts.  When I want to sit a write something, I plan an hour, and often it takes several.  I don't think of myself as anything special when it comes to Deep Thought or any such nonsense, but I do tend to want to have a conversation with my reader, pulling in ideas from related areas to illucidate some point or other, and to more fully explore whatever topic is on my mind.

I have been fascinated by our just-ended election cycle.  The stark contrast (in my mind) between the major party candidates has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Never have there been 2 more disliked candidates, and that includes my own assessment. I detest the American fascination with what I call Political Royalty, typified but the Adams, Kennedys, Rosevelts, Bushes, and now the Clintons.  Name recognition notwithstanding, a candidate needs to have their own message, some sort of separate motivation other than just to perpetuate their personal public persona, and a reason for being.  A person who is recognized on TV becasue of years of exposure is miles ahead of some unknown but intelligent politico with a plan, a working ideology, and a desire to truly help America move forward.  What we end up with is 2 demagogues with terrible pasts, pounding on each other and creating mayhem.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Watching The D negotiate the aftermath of his successful bid for the Presidency is telling.  He has lost all personal freedom as he ascends into the role he has so ardently prusued.  He will be stripped of his assets (he can't own and manage his businesses if he is POTUS), be forced to live in sub-standard housing (by his standards), will be awakened at all hours of the night as world events occur, be forced to meet with people he doesn't like, and be held accountable for the success of every proposal and program he puts forward for the next 4 years, most of which will fail.  The Cabinet he is assembling is ridiculous. The people he surrounds himself with are inept, self-centered, and sycophants.  They cannot succeed. Not that I wish them ill, they are just incompetent.  Like their leader.

I am not sorry that H failed.  I voted for her becasue I hated The D more, but I did not favor her as President.  I would have accepted her as POTUS, but would have watched her closely.  I didn't want Bill back in the White House, which was obviously part of the deal.  How was that supposed to work?  I didn't get it.  

We have a government based on checks and balances.  Certainly there are initiatives that POTUS can push ahead by force of office, but critical issues require the agreement of Congress, and now I call upon them to be the force of reason in the world!  Hopefully all the insane claims and promises for change that The D made during his his campaign will be tempered the Clear Light of Day.  

I suppose I might analyze the electorate at some point.  Currently I am so pissed off at the Pro-D contingent that I can't possibly be objective.  The acceptance of the hatred and ignorance of The D's platform are so antithetical to my personal beliefs that a supporter of The D and me might not be able to find the common ground we would need to be able to communicate.  The Left Coast rose up and voted their Liberal consciousness as they always do.  The Blue Bubble that exists over the Puget Sound was fully in evidence.  And Oregon.  And California.  And western Nevada.  I see that a new map of Canada includes these four western states as new provinces of Canada.  Why not?

The anxiety that America feels about the Path Forward is real, and now we get to see how it unfolds.  The Great America envisioned by The D needs to make itself manifest.  Jobs, prosperity, harmony, and personal freedom without fear need to become reality.

And inner cities populated with entirely by blacks without poverty and crime.  That will be Yuge!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mentoring is All Around Us


From our earliest age we have been taught by our parents, family, and others older and wiser than we.  Teaching comes naturally to parents, and children absorb it all.  They take in the technical content like language, behavior, socialization, and cultural norms with Mother’s Milk, and we grow up “just knowing” so many things we learn at this very young age.  And how I am enjoying the process from the perspective of being a grandparent with the little ones around all the time. 

Something happens in our adolescent years, however.  Somewhere in that morass of hormones and intellectual development their creeps in a sense of self, an awareness of Life As A Journey and our place within that journey.  And the idea that decisions made today may and probably will have consequences for a lifetime. 

The “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Question takes on added significance.  How do we know what we want to be?  How do we know whom we want to be?  What does it mean to be a Something, a named stereotypic category of a person that may liberate or stigmatize us the rest of our lives?  Will that Something fit with our self-perception and personal expectations?  Will picking that Something make me happy?  Questions like this make Teens a bit anxious, even a bit crazy.

The Existentialists have a phrase that I like in this context: Become Who You Are.  Combining the ideas of Becoming as the imperfect physical world and Being as the perfection of Plato’s Forms, it speaks to the idea that, at our core, we are each someone with unique qualities of Soul, of an essential and personal Self.  Perhaps this is the Personal Truth that underlies our search for the divine.   A life spent in awareness of the world of Becoming is a life spent seeking the perfection of Being.

The “What do you want to be” question seems to be asking, “Who will you become”, or more fundamentally,  “Who are you, really?”  Asking a person who is still figuring things out about just who they are in their core, to make a decision about a life direction is quite unfair.  People spend a lifetime trying to answer that one!  Many people here in this room right now might count themselves among those who are still seeking to know who they are at their core!

We look to our parents as the first Role Models after whom we can fashion our lives, if the situation is right.  Nature vs. Nurture comes into play here, of course, and there is certainly a strong pull of genetics in any decision we may make, but our Mother’s and Father’s personalities, sense of themselves, and lifestyles complete with challenges and successes will have a strong and profound effect.  It can be positive, and it can be negative.  Who hasn’t said, even if privately to themselves, “I’m never going to do what my Father did.” Or something similar?  Still, there is no denying the genetics of family, and the powerful effects they have on our lives.

But let’s consider the idea of Role Models.  Language, speech, dress, daily life, etiquette, empathy, compassion, responsibility, boundaries both personal and social, and a host of other explicit and implied behavioral characteristics are learned by example, by watching others and mimicking them as Role Models.  It can’t be helped, and it is a part of all of us.  This can be what we call Normative Behavior, or seeking the Norm.  You might also think of this as being our process of Fitting In, and it may comprise some large percentage of our concepts of Self.  Maybe not so much the unique parts, but the basic, how do I get along with others parts.

Aside:  I recently read about studies made of the way people interact in social settings.  The studies were by university sociologists who were trying to understand why we do some of the odd things we do.  Have you ever noticed that people who stand around talking will tend to all stand the same way?  If one crosses their arms, others will, too.  Or put your hands in your pockets?   If you happen to think of this while you are standing around during coffee today, try it. It works!  You can get others to follow your example. 

Another example cited in the report was the tendency for a parent to open their own mouths when feeding a baby.  The baby opens its mouth to receive the spoon of creamed carrots, and then the parent closes their mouth to encourage the baby to do the same thing, and it works.  This is the same mental process in another context.  (Now you don’t have to feel embarrassed when it happens to you!)

Well, the researchers were looking at brain activity and found something they called Mirror Neurons in the brain that are the unconscious source of this parroting activity.  You mirror others without thinking about what you are doing.  It is an innate, universal characteristic of the human brain.  What does that say about our evolutionary development, or about Crowd Think?

Are Role Models Mentors?  Not necessarily, if you consider the perspective of the mentee.  A mentor is a valued and trusted advisor, not necessarily a teacher or role model, but someone who specifically looks out for the mentee and to whom the mentee turns for help and support, especially in the realm of Life Coach sorts of areas.  It is this intentional sense of participation in the advising role by both that makes the Mentor-Mentee relationship special. 

As adults we may find ourselves assigned as a Mentor or Mentee by our organization as a way to help a younger person advance through the company structure more effectively. 

In the recent movie The Intern, an older retired executive is brought into a Dot.Com company where the average age of the workforce might be in their 20’s.  These bright and motivated younger adults find the perspectives and experiences of the older Intern to be life changing, and very helpful in issues ranging from finding an apartment to finding love. While the movie is clearly a nod to the wisdom of older people, which of course I applaud, it was also a great look at a nurturing Mentor-Mentee relationship in action.

In adolescence a person’s circle of friends has a huge impact on our self-esteem, our sense of place, and to some degree, the trajectory we expect our life to take.  What you expect of yourself is, to a large degree, informed by the Group Think expectation of the social structure around you.  Motivated and ambitious people motivate the people around them.  Negative and disruptive people affect people around them adversely.  We pick our groups perhaps subconsciously, but perhaps intentionally.  With whom are you most comfortable?

Kids negotiating High School pick friends of similar interests in education and school activities.  Cliques of high achievers occur.  Others are more interested in specific activities like athletics, or band, or debate, or skipping class and driving cars.  We can all remember the day, right?  Which group were you a part of?  And perhaps of more lasting importance, did your choice of friends then affect how you have lived your life since?

In my day there was something called Tracking, where, on the basis of a student’s performance on tests, their GPA, and their teacher’s general impression of the potential of the student, kids were tracked into “College Bound” or, for boys, what might be called “Vocational” areas.  For girls the alternative might have been called Home Ec, or some variant.  – Not very politically correct these days, right? -  Once the track was set, then a defined school curriculum was expected of the student, with little room for variation.  I hope the track chosen for you was the one you felt was right for you.  It was hard to change, and it set in place a set of expectations for you, and it told others around you something about who you were. 

But my point here is aptitude and attitude.  This is a difficult time for many kids at ages 14 to 18 or so, and knowing what you want for yourself at that stage is really challenging, but we all had a sense of ability, and where we fit in the overall Big Picture.  Like lining up from tallest to shortest, we had a sense where we would end up in line if we used smartest to dumbest as the criterion, or maybe fastest to slowest on the cross country track.  Everything was a competition, a 1-on-1 comparison, and ranking.  This helped us know where we stood, informed our self-expectation, and helped us set our personal bar.

Layered on top of this is what I will call Raging Hormones.  I don’t think I need to say much about this, other than hormones come in their own sweet time, and can be a blessing or a curse.  It is all a matter of your perspective, and how you handle it.

My favorite metaphor for kids in this age is that they are in the Pupae Stage.  You can see it through dress, the way they wear their hair, language, interaction with peers and parents, interests, and angst.  On the other side of the growing up process lays Adulthood, responsibility, commitment to some sort of Path or other, and Getting on the Treadmill of life.  For the young adults at this cross-road of life this Adult Stuff is all in the future, a bit out of sight, and something not to be welcomed, but rather to be delayed as long as possible.  At least for most.

So let’s get back to the idea of a Mentor, and how this might all fit together.  Accepting that some sort of life path will require at least a minimal commitment to an activity that will allow a person to live, such as to make money and have a cool cell phone, how is a person to choose

Adults with some sense of the journey of life have learned that the best thing we can choose to do is something that we love.  Follow your passion.  While this might be easy to say, it can be bewildering.  What if the thing you love isn’t something you know how to make money doing?  How is that supposed to work?  This is where a Mentor can help out.  Mentors know things.  Mentors have that Long View of Life where they can help advise you on how best to take your talents to the market and make something positive out of them.  And often what they suggest is not something you might have thought of yourself.

One of the most non-intuitive things a Mentor might tell you is, You will make exactly as much money in life as you expect to make.  Since making money is at the root of a great deal of the angst we all feel about our place in life, this statement might sound a bit crazy.  What if I want to make a bazillion dollars?  You mean I can do that?  Yes, a Mentor will tell you, but you must dedicate yourself to the task, chart a path to your destination, work diligently at the task without hesitation, and follow that path without fail.  Forget anything else. 

I like the story about the guy who used Craig’s List and started with almost nothing - a paper clip – and by trading and negotiating over a period of months ended up with a house worth many thousands of dollars.  You can take a very meager beginning and make it into anything you want.  You just need to want it bad enough to give up everything else to get it.  – Sounds like the American Dream, doesn’t it?

Most of us have an Aristotelian Golden Mean sort of goal for money in our lives.  This means we desire a certain amount of money where we have enough to do what we need to do without working all the time to earn it.    But if you want it all, that path is open.  There are plenty of examples in modern culture: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos.

The complimentary view is the Work or Play paradox.  Do you work to live, or live to work?  I think the answer to that conundrum changes depending on the stage you are in life.  Certainly sacrifices for work are more common for younger workers trying to find their place or to make their mark, and less common for established workers who don’t need the aggravation or upset a sacrifice might entail.

Life is a journey, not a destination.  We all live day to day.  We make plans for the future and certainly save for that eventual rainy day, but we have to make ends meet today, too.  Keeping that sense of balance takes years of trial and error for all of us.  Mentoring can help guide expectations, keep steps from being missed, and make the process of selection much more assured.

And remember, no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.  We all have to be flexible and roll with life’s punches.  Mentoring can really help when things seem to be falling apart!

In the context of the Fellowship we see informal mentoring occurring as we support one another in our independent searches for Truth and Meaning.  Our spiritual paths are an innate part of who we are, and our need to search for our personal place in the grand scheme of life.  A minister acts as a teacher and role model for most, and can become a personal mentor for people who seek out that more personal, specific relationship.  

Informal and formal mentorship may also occur in the special groups we participate in here, like the Men’s and Women’s Groups, Circle Suppers, Big Questions and Food for Thought.  There are many ways in which we can meet and interact with each other in ways that are more than just conversations, but also avenues to personal growth and development.    What would happen if you asked someone you trusted and respected to help you with an issue that concerns you?  Would the act of asking for help put you in a Mentor-Mentee relationship?

We live in this intentional community in part to associate with others that share our values and aspirations, our perspectives on life, and what it means to be spiritual.  But I think in another sense we seek associations with people to whom we can look up and admire, to learn from, and who may be able to learn something from each of us.  We all have our gifts that we can share, and when we share them with people in our community we add our presence and a quality of life that enriches us all. 


Namaste