A TRINITY

FOR LIVING

 

An Essay

by

Jim Michie

 

 

Introduction to the Web Version

The printed version of this essay is in Microsoft Publisher. I have modified the format slightly to suit the limitation of the Web's HTML language. There are no page breaks in this version. The printed booklet has 39 pages.  As you can see from the notice below, the essay is protected by copyright, but feel free to disseminate it in its printed or electronic form to others as long as it is given freely, which was the spirit in which it was written.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2005 by James C. Michie

 

 

 

 

Download a preview of this essay in PDF format

Full essay available in EPUB format from

LuLu.com

 

Return to Topics List

Return to Essays

 

 

 

Foreword

 

This is an essay on existential observations in my life that have led to the formulation of three guiding principles for interaction with other individuals and the society in which we all live, for setting the ethical framework within which we live both as social animals and alone, and for providing the direction that keeps us focused on the ultimate goal in life—fulfillment of potential.

Having spent my life in constant contact with technical jargon, marketing catch-phrases, and more acronyms than any human could ever remember, I have naturally gravitated to brief and catchy phrases for the three principles. They are: people are no damn good, moderation sucks, and complexity is its own reward. The first two are moderately humorous but straightforward statements. The third statement is enigmatic rather than straightforward and totally devoid of even a humorous hint. There is absolutely no significance to the similarities and differences of these phrases other than that each of them is somewhat mnemonic in nature.

Once these guidelines were postulated and their brief catch phrases devised, I began to formalize some of the corollaries inherent in the principles. Actually it was more that they sprang forth on their own like weed seeds in the fallow field of philosophy.

This field has, for some four thousand years, resembled an enormous cow pasture filled with a few philosopher bulls strutting through and servicing an ever-changing group of societal cows. An immediate conclusion one might draw is that this field would be lush and verdant with the wisdom dropped frequently and randomly by such bold and imposing bulls, but alas, the field has only the occasional daffodil. For me, the sage droppings of philosophy have proven to be little more than bullshit.

 

A lifetime of producing charts and graphs in an effort to distort esoteric study conclusions has led me to reduce the basic three principles to a Venn diagram. It is simple in concept, as you would expect, showing little more than a roughly equal relationship between the principles. I then complicated the basic diagram by adding the immediate corollaries and overlap relationships of the principles.

Having set the goals of this essay, I will proceed to further confuse you with the details. Unlike Mr. Thoreau, who thought our life was "frittered away by detail," I feel that detail is where it's at. Or perhaps, the Devil is in the details.

 

 

1st Principle - People are No Damn Good

 

What are your expectations of the people with which you have casual day-to-day interactions, not people you know, but people like store clerks, delivery persons, wrong numbers, others in the movie ticket line, and the people at the next table in the restaurant? Do you expect them to treat you with courtesy, the forgotten concept of current society? Do you expect them to interact with you the way they would want you to interact with them? Well . . . you might, if your basic personality includes eternal optimism or you are firmly wedded to Socratic ideals.

However, the existentialist knows that the important question is, "what has been your experience with these people?" Be honest with yourself here, and think about the bulk of your experiences. Some of these people, mostly those who must interact with others as part of their livelihood, have been taught or have learned on their own to show careful neutrality in their dealings with others. This usually carries over to deportment in public and is a reasonable, if not ideal, approach to dealing with living in a less-than-perfect society. Eugene O'Neil would have you see these people as wearing their "social interaction" masks whenever they are in contact with the generally unknown public, which is a perfectly sane approach for social animals.

Man seems to have distinguished himself from the lower social animals by being the first to have a society where characteristics other than the physical ones might be dominant in interactions with others. It's not a characteristic that is completely integrated into the psyche of all mankind yet, as history is replete with examples of backsliding from Helen of Troy to Mike Tyson. And we have learned how to extend and shade this "might makes right" axiom of the animal world to the societal structure we now call politics, but that's another essay.

Suffice it to say that if you have answered the question at hand with any sort of honesty (your real experiences with people, in case you forgot the question), you must agree that most of the time the people at the next table could care less that you are having dinner with your mother and grandmother when they make choices about their use of loud and boisterous language. The parents at another table, after having to deal with angry demands and persistent crying, are only too glad to have their three children racing through the tables in an effort to relieve their boredom at having to wait eternally for their food—after all, the kids are not bothering them anymore. And bring to mind all those shopping carts blocking the close parking places because the shoppers didn't give a thought to how they were inconveniencing others.

These are just casual or incidental interactions. What about the people you have to work with? Are they any better? What about the assistant who has plenty of time to tell you about his or her past and currently unfolding life but not enough time to accomplish the assigned work? How about the boss who has trouble pouring piss out of a boot but belongs to the right country club and plays a mean round of golf—usually twice a week during working hours for everyone else? What about the four workers just below you on the ladder who will stab you in the back for your job the minute your guard is down?

The business world is full of these people, and if you have any supervisory role where you work, you really see the bad side of everyone. Everybody knows the rules were written for the other employees, or if they are smarter than average, they know that the rules were written for "normal" situations and don't apply to their case—for which they can give you endless illogical argument. And of course, they would like to take off early today, which they are clearly entitled to do because of that day three weeks ago when they stayed late to finish the report that they could have easily finished during the day if they hadn't been screwing-off most of the morning.

Finally, we have the people with whom we interact socially. One would assume that these are carefully chosen people who come closer to your own ideas of intellectual interest, ethics, and social responsibility. Right? Wrong.

Life for most people really allows little opportunity to exercise much selectivity over this group either. If you enjoy the symphony, it is impossible to attend with only those you know and like. If you go to that good restaurant you like for dinner, you have no control over whose sitting at the other tables. Do you give up these social activities you enjoy just because you are not in total control of the people you might have contact with? No, you don't. You have elected, either consciously or unconsciously, to live in and enjoy the advantages of this society, and you must pay the price.

But social contact is not governed just by chance encounter at social events. It is more likely to be governed by someone else within your social circle. It could be your wife's or husband's friends, your parent's friends, your children's friends, your sister's friends, or even your friend's friends. If you're lucky, some of these people won't be too bad. In fact, if you chose your own friends cautiously, there is a good chance that some of their friends will be unexpected jewels.

Looking at the whole body of people that your life as a social animal brings you into contact with on a continuous basis, you're lucky if you find a couple of jewels in the gravel truck of human interaction. And even though they might have a lively, bright color with a few sparkles on a side or two, they will probably just be rough-cuts.

Now if this sounds unbearably cynical, it's because it is. In fact, it is my opinion (redundant but stated to emphasize that all this essay is my opinion) that Antisthenes, as founder of the cynic school, was the first existential philosopher. Apparently the people who Antisthenes came into contact with in his contemporary Greek society weren't all that different from those we suffer today.

Life has to be lived as it is experienced, not as one would like it to be. Fooling yourself about the great masses of the unenlightened is a waste of time and energy. Actively trying to work within the reality that these people are inescapable demands your dedicated attention if you hope to produce a reasonable return on your effort. To do this, it is first necessary to understand how our society has devolved to the production of so many people who are no damn good, that is, if you think mankind ever had periods of greater enlightenment. I personally think we did, but that greater enlightenment was socially stratified and thereby had its own set of problems.

Well, we didn't get to our latest schuss from grace by chance, and we didn't get there without help. Those indigenous to Western culture have gone through the last forty years having modern philosophers tell us that we have been too focused on other people and need to focus on ourselves. The "Me First" philosophy has been eating away at civility and courteousness like acid rain on marble. Books on the subject are surefire best sellers, television incorporates the theme in most of its pap, and pop music glorifies the me-me-me concept. As a result, whole generations have succumbed to the immediate reward syndrome.

Why have people succumbed to this bullshit approach to life and why do they grasp blindly for immediate reward? There are three probable answers. First, our society hasn't provided them with the cognitive skills to reason that the sum of "me second" is greater in the social setting than the sum of pouncing on all the "me first" opportunities life will present them. Second, they might be smart enough to realize the first point but have allowed the jaws of aggressive behavior to eat away at the fabric of self-restraint carefully built up in human society for the last four or five thousand years—that is, they have been taught that placing themselves second to another person or society is a sign of weakness. Third, they truly believe they are better than anyone else and deserve to be numero uno in every situation—a state they would undoubtedly enjoy all the time if the world wasn't against them.

Are these people salvageable? Sure. Is it likely you can do the salvage work? No. Should you make every effort to do so? Of course. Why bother? Because we are responsible members of a society (I know you are, because if you weren't, you wouldn't have gotten this far into the essay). How do we do it? Education.

Wait a minute. How about stirring up a little redistribution of wealth, or ensuring real equal opportunity, or following the wishes of God through theocratic reform? The answer is again one built on the existential approach. When you look at man's roughly five thousand years of recorded history, you realize that our society has tried all these things more than once, and only one of them has worked with any sustained measure of success—education of the individual.

After making such a positive statement, I feel that it must be qualified to ensure that it not be misinterpreted. Other things have worked for the social body, but only education has worked for the individual. Early in the development of social interaction, mankind was in great need of rules for governing such interaction. It also happened that we needed answers to natural phenomena that would allay our fears of these things and events. Thus came primitive religions, inextricably bound to social behavior. When these became more codified into real rules, we experienced morals.

These socio-religious morals appear to have been the bedrock of human society until Hammurabi (in the Western world) made the effort to go beyond morals to societal law. In Mesopotamia, with the concept of a societal law in place and the rudiments of mathematics and science taking hold, a few genuine thinkers started creating man's next step up the social interaction ladder—ethics—that is, a rationally deduced set of societal rules rather than the early-man mixture of the religious, the superstitious, and the practical. The Egyptians didn't manage to contribute anything useful to this new concept of ethics, since they were the first big culture to figure out that rule by terror worked quite well, but the Greeks jumped on ethics like a pack of dogs on a cow femur.

By the time Greek culture was flourishing, ethics had been transformed into a stand-alone method for understanding, generating, and modifying the rules of social interaction. Myth, religion, pseudo-science, or even real science were no longer needed by society to ensure that all the various levels of society, together with their interdependencies, functioned smoothly. It was the synchromesh gear design required to harness the latent power of urbanization, a transmission that could step-down the new energy of the social engine through multi-level cultural, ethnic, and economic strata to the lowest common denominator—the citizen. The rubber had finally found the road. How did the Greeks do this? Education. Was their society perfect? Not by a long shot.

Greek society was highly stratified, with only a few percent of the top strata being educated enough to engage in ethical thought. But it was a start, with the only impediment to a society where the citizens were capable of understanding their needs and formulating or changing its social rules to meet those needs being a lack of universal education. As far as I can tell, the Greeks never recognized how close they were to fashioning a perfect society, being caught up in the class blinders that allowed only a privileged few to have an education.

Of course the Greeks blew it. They let themselves be swayed by the likes of Socrates and his gang, rather than listening to the sensible approach of Antisthenes. The Socratic gang took the gung-ho approach that they could somehow divine the ideal set of both personal and social goals without recourse to what was really happening in the world around them. This ultimately made them prey to the much more practical Romans, and so ended our first real chance at the use of personal and social ethics to guide our social interactions rather than the strictures and dogma of the ruling class, which always have multiple axes to grind.

All of this history is interesting (of course the events I chose to emphasize represent my own bias—it's my essay), but why is the situation so much worse now than at other times in recent history? Here in the United States, which is most pertinent to my expected readers, we have so screwed around with the educational system that we have a great percentage of the population who went to school for the government prescribed amount of time and think they got an education—but they didn't. They got some training in skills that used to be in demand by the business world, some ruling class determined social conditioning for a society that doesn't now exist, and an imprinting introduction to the existing social stratification (replete with racial, ethnic, and religious subdivisions) that would govern the rest of their lives. What they didn't get was knowledge. What they didn't learn was how to think.

Without its individuals having the ability to think, our society has been overcome by Future Shock (thank you, Mr. Toffler, for getting the concept to the public but not for making a ten-page treatise into a book). Technology is forcing change on our society much faster than institutionalized social rules can be changed to accommodate such societal changes. Consequently, most individuals in the current population are educated just enough to know that most of the societal rules they were taught are no longer valid, and they have no ability to define their own guidelines—they have no personal ethics and no ability to acquire them.

How could a person spend all those years in school and not learn how to think? Easy. We succumbed to the political, business, and religious demands that our schools focus on the "basics" these influential groups thought were required to stoke the economic growth furnace. But as you would imagine, these groups knew absolutely nothing about education, only self-interest. Consequently, starting in the late fifties or early sixties, the public school educators in our country were given marching orders to stop wasting time with such subjects as art, music, and literature. More insidiously, they were told to restrict subjects like government, social studies, history, and even science to indoctrination; and not to confuse their rote teachings with seditious concepts like cause and effect. Of course, on a practical level, this approach allows our educational system to be purged of topics distasteful to racial, ethnic, and religious interest groups with a reasonable level of political power.

To most educators who have dedicated their lives to teaching others (they certainly don't do it for the money), this has been a time of overwhelming oppression. Many who would have been teachers were discouraged from pursuing their goals, and as a consequence, too many of the teachers now in the system are themselves ill equipped to teach children how to think—even though it's a lot easier than getting them to absorb rote indoctrination. Children are actually eager to learn if intellectually challenged, but intellectual challenge is a by-product of thinking.

All this soapbox stuff notwithstanding, can individuals really decide what is socially and personally right by their own cognitive efforts? Wouldn't they be constantly conflicted by "social right" and "personal right?" We existential humanists don't believe so for a second. Having accepted the postulate that it is to our benefit to belong to a social group (we haven't chosen to live in isolation, which is still possible in this country), and if we can suppress the seemingly overwhelming lure of instant gratification, simple logic dictates a minimal conflict between group and individual ethics.

So if I claim to be a humanist, why don't I believe that people are inherently good? Because I'm an existential humanist. And while I do not agree that people are inherently good, I don't believe they are inherently bad either. As a humanist I believe that individuals have the potential to be either good or bad (as I will explain later, I would never take the middle of the road on this [or any other] issue.) As an existentialist, reality is inescapable, and my experience has been that most people are no damn good.

Do I like this fact of my life? No! Can I change this fact by the application of some form of idealistic double-think (thank you, Mr. Orwell)? No! Is it possible for us to recover from this socially induced stupor? Being an optimist in regards to the human condition (oh! you couldn't tell?), I would say yes, but probably not in my lifetime.

Consequently, I will continue to engage in social intercourse on the basis that the people I meet will be disappointing, but I will be courteous (at least if unprovoked) and wear my social interaction mask, always on the alert for that rare exception that makes my choice to live in our society worthwhile.

 

1st Principle Corollary - Treasure the Exceptions

 

Some of life's greatest pleasures result from the exceptions to the first principle. A small percentage of people learned to think despite the lack of being taught the skill by the educational system. A very small percentage managed to consciously shed the unconscious control exerted by misguided parental conditioning. An even smaller percentage were never introduced to social fundamentalism in any of its various forms as children or were able to slip its slimy grasp as they moved toward adulthood. A miniscule percentage managed to run this gauntlet to maturity and maintain the tight interaction of insouciance and sagacity required to enjoy life.

As with any calculation of probability, it is necessary to multiply these diminishing percentages to arrive at a reasonable estimate of the number of exceptions to the first principle that are available for encounter in a lifetime. When you apply this estimate to the relatively small population with which one can reasonably expect to react, a few good relationships is all we can hope for in life.

The character and scope of these relationships is unfortunately limited by the life we have chosen to live. Some of these relationships were formed during adolescence but have been lost, or they have grown attenuated by time and the diversity of pursuit among the thinking. Some were experienced during the mobility of early adulthood and have been stretched to the thinness of spider silk by the territorial fickleness of the business environment. Some were family, if you are lucky, where the additional bond has provided immediacy and a broadband link. Some were destined to be brief though pyrotechnic encounters that lit up a gloomy day or week before being snuffed-out by circumstance. And some are lost from future exploration, if you've managed to live long enough yourself.

You are the result of all the experiences of your life (excuse me if I sound unabashedly Skinnerian), and the experience of real relationships can and should be a major part of it. That's why I've made the interaction with people the 1st Principle of the Trinity. Interaction with exceptional people is a primary source of self-education and a snapshot sampler for potential new experiences. You might simply get new ideas from these people, or you might participate with them in an endeavor in which their related experiences have titillated you, or your dialog with them might open new areas of intellectual interest. Whatever the method, the importance of your interaction with exceptional people is input. The greater the volume and quality of input your intellect receives, the more informed your conclusions and decisions can be and the greater your personal growth.

The goal of the thinking person is to transcend the mere sum of these life experiences and inputs by intelligent examination (referred to by some as "the self-examined life"). Done properly, this examination leads to a true understanding of lessons inherent in these experiences and inputs and thereby creates a constantly changing, personal gestalt.

To a casual observer, such a constantly evolving personality might appear wishy-washy or even unstable. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Don't confuse stability with rigidity. How stable are those who refuse to change their position on subjects where new input clearly calls for a new conclusion? How many of these people does your participation in society force you into contact with on a regular basis? Probably a lot. These people are no damn good.

Many people who have the intelligence to integrate new data but are too insecure to do so try to hide behind the façade of being "fundamentalist." These people are much worse than those without the intelligence or education to integrate new facts, because they actively try to subvert individual freedom by imposing their own positions through changes in societal perception of right and wrong and concomitant changes in societal law. These people are no damn good—but that's enough about them. The purpose here is to stress the importance of treasuring the exceptions. I just want to make sure there is no confusion about which are which.

So, how do you recognize these exceptions in your efforts to increase your contact with them and receive this extra input to your life? The quickest way to screen the masses of daily contact is to become sensitive to the social mask. Thinking people already know, or are about to learn, that to live successfully in our society they must be careful of what and how much they let others see of their true personality. If you have not yet read Eugene O'Neill's culturally relevant adaptation of the Greek mask in modern theater, "The Great God Brown," do so in the context of when it was written, and then mentally update it to current social norms (and of course, carefully examine your own life in this new context).

The mask might be difficult to spot if your encounter with someone is restricted to a single setting, like only having contact with your boss in the setting of boss dealing with worker, or seeing a distant cousin once a year at the family reunion. It's when you spot someone switching masks to deal with different sets of circumstance that your interest should be piqued, but be cautious. Not every mask-switching adept is one of the exceptional people you seek.

The people that have to don the trappings of power are also masters of the mask (thank you, Machiavelli). While a few of these people have avoided the self-aggrandizing temptations of power, for most, it was these very temptations that made them seek power, and they succumbed at the first opportunity. To weed-out these exceptional people pretenders, you must ascertain the primary motivations of the person you are observing. Don't look just at what they appear to be doing, because as with a good magician, the focus of attention is not where the real action is taking place. If the root of all their actions is ultimately me-me-me, then move on. These people are just as bad as the fundamentalist hideouts and for the same reasons.

If you can move beyond a single setting of interaction, the next key to finding exceptional people is the determination of breadth of interest. People who think do not have narrow interests. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. In a single setting, focus might be misread as limited scope of interest, but as different social settings demand the deployment of different masks, breadth of interest will become apparent.

Once you find them, it doesn't take long to recognize that all exceptional people are not created equally, but this is good. This diversity is just what you're looking for anyway. It maximizes input. However, most people feel less anxious when they are able to minimize diversity by categorization, so I will try.

My preferences are to see exceptional people as either acquaintances, friends, or immediate family. While acquaintances and immediate family are more-or-less absolute definitions, friends come in many shades and colors. Acquaintances are those with whom you have shared one or two experiences or settings, and circumstances have not been conducive to further contact. Friends just over the scale at the acquaintance end are those with whom you have shared more than one or two experiences and settings, but with whom you still feel it necessary to occasionally don a protective mask—even when you are only trying to protect them. Friends bumping up against the immediate family end of the scale are those with whom you can interact entirely free of masks, that is, in complete candor. Immediate family is immediate family, a totally different relationship that hopefully includes all the aspects of close friendships but is tempered by a deeper knowledge of vulnerability—yours and theirs.

Where does this leave all those other family members that make up so much of our daily lives? It simply leaves them as it finds them. They can be acquaintances or friends, but they certainly aren't immediate family. I have never been able to ascertain why people feel any necessity to treat extended family any differently (that usually means tolerate) than they would anyone else. They are just more people, some good, some bad, and some no damn good. Oops, that just slipped in.

Another way to categorize these relationships is by level of obligation. Most would agree that no obligation is owed to acquaintances beyond the civility of social discourse. Friendships require, at a minimum, that you be willing to inconvenience yourself when circumstances require. Stronger friendships require that you be willing, even privileged, to put all but your immediate family's wellbeing on the line when necessary. Immediate family can require the ultimate sacrifice.

This clarity of obligation might make some people uneasy. Many would prefer to have some place to hide, someway to add shades of gray to such a stark delineation of responsibility to others. Fuzz it up if it makes you feel better, but the logic is inescapable.

You now know who to look for, how to look for them, how to recognize them, and how to relate to them. Why you need them needs to be reinforced a little more. You need them because they are the Swedish foam topper on the mattress of life—a mental cushioning for the hard edges of social interaction. And most of all, you need them to help in the fulfillment of yourself as a human being, rising above the station of a mere social animal.

How do we fill this need to maximize our contact with the exceptional people we encounter in life? First, you make damn sure you don't easily give up any you have found. Before your tie-lines reach their elastic limit, close the gap with a phone call, a letter, or an email. Only the dead are lost to the future, and even these are available through the reanimation of memory.

Second, you widen your awareness to be better able to find them. Take the risk of putting a small surveillance hole in each of your masks if necessary. The added vulnerability is worth it.

Third, take extraordinary measures to turn acquaintances into friends whenever possible. Widening your circle of friends is to enriching your life like increasing a circle's diameter is to its area. It's much more than a linear relationship.

Friends are those with whom you form the bonds of obligation but also the bonds of joy—agape with or without eros. Treasure them.

 

2nd Principle - Moderation Sucks

 

While the input we need to become fully realized human beings can come from communication of the experiences of others, it is at its best when it comes directly from ones own physical, emotional, or intellectual experience. How much physical, emotional, or intellectual experience is gained through the practice of moderation? Not much.

By definition, moderation is that safe and comfortable middle ground that is unchallenging. When people are unchallenged they do not have to stretch their knowledge base in search of answers. If your knowledge base is never stretched, you don't learn, and you don't grow intellectually. That is the simply stated, primary reason that moderation sucks, but this concentrates on the intellectual aspect of experience. Physical and emotional experiences tend to be more immediate and are just as important in one's growth into a complete person.

The next time you're in an amusement park, take a ride with a kid on their version of the roller coaster. The kid will enjoy it, but for you it will be no more thrilling than many of the moderately engineered back-roads in this country. Then go take a ride on the adult monster that's so big it defines the perimeter of the park. The experience will be quite different.

On the active rather than passive side of physical experience, there are activities like skiing and rock climbing. You can confine your skiing winter after winter to the bunny slopes, or you can work your way up to the fastest and most challenging ski trails. You can climb up a pile of rocks that is mostly path, or you can take the fissure up the vertical face of Old Ugly.

At the other end of the physical experience spectrum lies those activities that virtually deny you of physical sensation. In the more metropolitan areas of the country this is available in a sensory deprivation tank, but it can be modestly approximated in your hot tub on a dark and quiet night with the temperature at just above body heat and the Jacuzzi jets in the off position. The peace of no sensory input is hard to express.

As a jolt, try the hot tub sensory deprivation trick but allow yourself just the auditory input of your favorite piece of music. Removing the distraction of the other senses greatly enhances the emotional and intellectual impact of great music. It's easy to find tears.

But is all this extra effort really worth it? It is if you value the quality of your experience. It is if you consciously seek experience as input to your self-realization. It is if you find black and white more stimulating than uniform gray. It is if you're not satisfied with mediocre.

Why shouldn't you be satisfied with gray and mediocre? Well, for one thing, it's unnatural. Our knowledge of the universe is that extreme forces are in play, but they balance each other out (more or less—not completely if it keeps expanding as current popular theory predicts.) Over time (great amounts) these extreme but balancing forces will tend to cancel each other out through their interactions, dispersing their energy more uniformly into the universe, leaving entropy and chaos in place of the highly ordered state currently observable.

This macro view of the universe can be squeezed down to human scale in the concept of moderation. The natural balance between the highly ordered states of emotional highs and lows, sensory receptors open and shut down, thinking and non-thinking inevitably ends with death. What sets conscious humans apart from the apparently unconscious universe is our ability and need to ". . . not go gentle into that good night . . ." (thank you, Mr. Thomas). Moderation is like entropy (". . . the first big step on the road to degradation" [thank you Mr. Willson]), and entropy leads to death.

So much for moderation of the physical. What about emotional moderation? Is it all bad too? Again, only if such moderation is achieved by limiting one's experience to the gray, i.e. never having any lows or any highs. An amazingly high percentage of the outstanding persons in every field of human endeavor have been shown to have all the characteristics of and were probably experiencing what the doctors now call bi-polar disorder.

I propose that this is not a fact of happenstance. It is rationally predictable. Here were people whose experience inputs weren't grayed out or fuzzed over, and unless their extremes were so severe that they self-destructed, these people came closer than most to fulfilling their potentials.

People who exhibit these wide mood swings vary considerably. Some experience mood swings that are slightly above those of the average person (do not read my use of "average" here as in anyway dignifying it.) Some experience mood swings that are so extreme they become dangerous to themselves and others. Obviously, the later situation is not desirable, but I believe that those having large mood swings are truly fortunate. The breadth of their experiences, with the ensuing high quality of personal growth input, is at its maximum. They are able to maintain balance without dilution to mediocrity, high states of order with minimal entropy, and enthusiasm while surrounded with meaninglessness.

How people control their mood swings is as various as their personalities. When I'm up, I want to be around exceptional people so I can revel in intellectual exchange. When I'm down, I want to be alone until I'm on the upswing again. While I've never wanted or felt the need to dampen the highs, I've worked hard on creative ways to shorten the lows.

In some cases these are actual creative endeavors like sculpting and writing. These creative endeavors are my best low shorteners because they combine intellectual stimulation, emotional input, and physical activity. If circumstances do not allow me to immerse myself in these creative endeavors, I can and do employ less demanding techniques, like music, reading, fishing, and gardening (hmm, all solitary I note).

Music has long been part of my mood swing arsenal, and I suspect it is for many people. When alone and you walk over to that big stack of recordings to select what to listen to in the next hour or two, you usually select something to suit your mood. When I'm low, I will play some well done pop, light Broadway, movie scores, solo and small group jazz, or romantic classical or opera. When I'm high, I will play the more intellectually and emotionally demanding Beethoven, Prokofiev, Schubert, Brahms, and Wagner.

While almost any kind of physical activity serves as a tension release, those sports that require intellectual and emotional control work better for mood alteration. While the body of our society's sports contains solitary, one-on-one, and group activities, I personally prefer the more solitary activities because they require acceptance of a greater responsibility for the outcome and thus sharpen the concentration of my input. And like most endeavors in life, the more and more precise the effort you put in, the more and more precise the results.

So, should you indulge yourself for that weekend visit with a friend where you drink considerably too much wine and your menu runs to things like ravioli stuffed with cheese that is swimming in cream sauce or a well marbled rack of lamb served with garlic and sour cream mashed potatoes? The moderate would carefully calculate from their body weight that their daily meals should be low in fat and total exactly 1736 calories comprised of all the essential food groups in all of the government recommended proportions.

We that also believe in the healthiness of maintaining a reasonable weight through a balanced diet choose to do just that—balance rather than moderate our diets. If a couple of days of alcohol abstinence and meals composed mostly of vegetables and fruit are required to bring our nutritional intake back in balance, so be it. It's well worth the shared experience of good food and drink with friends, which brings not only the pleasure of these physical experiences but also an enhancement of the intellectual stimulation of these events.

In fact, the nub of moderation avoidance is the achievement of balance. The tension of balance between extremes is the emotional circuitry of art. The painter seeks balance on his canvas, but never an averaging of his input. One of the first things a painter learns is never to mix colors too thoroughly on the palette because they become muddy and dull. The symphonic composer takes the listener through a roller coaster of volume, tempo, and emotion. The surface of a poem usually belies the allegory of its essence.

So how did the thoughtless acceptance of moderation rather than balance come to be such an integral part of our culture? How did this gray lifestyle grow to its almost universally perceived state of "goodness"? In a complex society like ours where the necessary rules are laid down to suit the normal or average situation and where such a society's individuals have not been equipped with an education that allows for discrimination or interpolation, a default to moderation is inevitable. After all, moderation offers the path of least resistance, even though it neuters the human spirit.

Moderation in all things: what a wonderful societal tranquilizer for those in power—no great expectations, no discontent, no demands for change. The closer the power wielders can come to convincing the so-called masses that this view of moderation is true, the greater the chance that the existing power structures will be perpetuated.

This clever ruse has been used much more successfully in Eastern societies than in those of the West, and its influence is manifest in many ways, but its primary manifestation is the continuing rigidity of class structure in most Near and Far Eastern cultures. Not to say that rigid class structures are foreign to Western culture, it's just that they don't tend to last that long when the people in the less fortunate classes become unhappy enough to take remedial action.

Thank goodness society never gave itself one hundred percent to this call for moderation. Had it done so, we would have remained in the dark ages. With the middle and lower classes practicing moderation and the ruling class so used to excess that its members were unwilling to take the inherent risk involved in change (i.e. the potential loss of their power), the acquisition of knowledge would have ground to a halt.

So, moderation is a red herring. It seems like a rational way to avoid the potentially destructive extremes of life, but when employed, it robs the individual of experience essential for self-realization. And once we rob ourselves of experience, we are in an intellectual death spiral.

Selfless societal leadership is a fine Socratic ideal of which the history of mankind records many examples—all being categorized by longevity measured in nanoseconds. As a practical matter, the societally empowered can only remain at the top of the food chain by suppression or subversion. Suppression usually leads rather quickly to revolution, so intelligent leaders only use it as a backup control option.

That leaves subversion as the primary method of societal control. Enter the concept of moderation as a Trojan horse. It rides in cloaked as the societal voice of reason but remains to become the executioner of enlightenment.

 

2nd Principle Corollary – Find Experience through Commitment

 

It is easy to see the appeal to society's power structure of using the seduction of moderation as the soma (thank you first, Sir Thomas and then, Mr. Huxley) of the people. It has no physical form and, therefore, doesn't need to be manufactured; being non-physical, it requires no distribution network; and it costs virtually nothing but a little time and effort. But what is its appeal that people are so willing to give themselves to this Devil in disguise? For all those looking for an excuse to avoid commitment, it is the answer to their prayers. For those seeking self-fulfillment, it is the leach of knowledge.

True commitments necessarily open one to the experiencing of extremes. They are a giant-step away from diluting your life with moderation. To commit is to open one's self to the full panoply of life. It is not the easy road. It is one filled with bumps and curves, but it is paved with rich experience and knowledge.

As the physical universe is composed of balanced extremes, so too is the universe of intellectual concepts. But there is a difference. The physical universe is what it is, but the intellectual universe of mankind is a dynamic entity that continues to grow and metamorphose, its very growth and change traceable to those individuals who were motivated to explore ideas considered to be social extremes. Many of these individuals made a commitment to ideas that required extreme personal sacrifice and frequently their lives.

So with intellectual commitment carrying the high risk of extreme consequences, like societal fame and fortune or societal condemnation and even death, it should be little wonder that the majority of people tiptoe though the minefield of intellectual concepts with no greater goal than avoiding being blown up. And this is the shortcoming of only those capable of thinking in the first place.

Most people, you will remember, never learned how to think and are simply accepting of current societal, governmental, or theological interpretations of the proper and moderate course to be steered through this minefield of intellectual extremes. And who are the likely beneficiaries of these carefully considered positions of the establishment? You've got it, The establishment—the people in control of society, the government, and the church—those who want to make sure they maintain control.

Does this mean that all people in the power structures of our lives are self-centered and even Machiavellian? Of course not. However, it is the rule and not the exception. When a leader manifests a propensity to lead in directions of the common good rather than self-interest, they deserve your encouragement. When they lead with logic and wisdom, they deserve your support. When they have proven themselves, they deserve your commitment.

But just what is a "commitment"? A commitment is an individual's decision to physically, intellectually, or emotionally participate in an activity, an intellectual concept, or a state of being. A minimal commitment calls for physical, emotional, or intellectual participation, but a total commitment calls for participation in all three ways.

While it is possible to make a total commitment to a sport, for instance, it is far easier to imagine a total commitment to a personal relationship, a religion, or a political concept. Consequently, those of us that make commitments do so with a subconscious assignment of hierarchical importance.

When the inevitable conflict of commitments arises in our lives, we fall back on this hierarchy for quick decisions concerning conflicting items that are clearly separated in importance, but we have to re-examine those conflicting commitments having close or equal importance. This is a good problem when it occurs since it reminds us that as thinking people we learn, grow, and change; prompting us to make a regular review of our commitments based on the new person we have become.

The fact is, being human, you might have made a bad initial decision concerning a particular commitment. It happens. Commitments are strong but not blind. When your knowledge base changes in a manner that impacts an earlier decision, it's time to change your mind, change your commitments, and get on with your life.

Commitments are essential to the structure of all societies, and they are essential to the well being of the human psyche. But they aren't all sweetness and light. They're a risky business, and as such, demand some serious intellectual energy in their application—and they aren't all of equal value. At the bottom of the pile are the commitments made to society, both its stated and unstated rules. In the middle are the commitments made to intellectual concepts. At the top of the heap are the commitments made to personal relationships.

Commitment to personal relationships are the fulcrum of friendship and the essence of love. When the chips are down, most of us have at least one commitment to a personal relationship for which we would break every societal rule or law while ignoring the possible personal consequences. Not many of us feel quite so strongly about intellectual concepts, and chosen activities are fairly expendable.

So the commitments we need to focus on are those we have made to those special people we have found in life, knowing full well that commitment might include the good, the bad, and the ugly (thank you, Mr. Leone). Close personal relationships are rarely average, rarely moderate, or rarely gray, and though rare themselves, they offer the best chance we have at an unbridled spectrum of experience.

 

3rd Principle – Complexity Is Its Own Reward

 

The grays of this world owe their existence to the blacks and the whites. Gray is a result, a mongrel of chance, not a thing of its own substance. Without the existence of black and white there would be no gray, and even though the existence of black and white permits gray, it is dull and lifeless, without tension or energy. And while life is filled with the complexities of experience and knowledge, they too can be mixed on the palette of chance to produce the mediocre.

Take a breathtaking Eisenstaedt photo of a Rocky Mountain vista and digitize it to ten million pixels. Assuming you had a super computer and an equally capable black and white printer, when you printed this picture it would still look like a breathtaking Eisenstaedt. However, if the constraints of your computer or printer forced you to compress the picture in order to print it, your software would compress the image for you. To do this it takes a block of pixels and averages them. For example, it might take a square of three pixels on a side and average them to a new single pixel, producing a new digital version of the picture having only one ninth of the original pixel total. If the square contained only nine white pixels, the new, compression pixel would likewise be white, but if some of those nine pixels were gray or black, the new pixel would be gray. If this compression were repeated again and again to eventually produce a single pixel, it would be gray, and it would be a gray that reflected the average of all the pixels in the original photo—a dawn photo being a darker gray than a noon photo. The wondrous contrasts and complexities of an Eisenstaedt composition would be reduced to uniform gray.

The society in which we choose to live is subject to the same laws of averaging as the pixel compression program. As science and technology push the boundaries of knowledge, the time we have to absorb this knowledge seems to shrink in inverse proportion.

What did society do when it realized there was more to know than time to learn? First, it forced the growth of specialization. A hundred and fifty years ago it was still possible for an individual to know all that was important about all of science. Today, it is doubtful if a single person could know even a ten-thousandth of that knowledge.

The second action of mankind to solve the problem of too much to learn and too little time to learn it was to minimize the knowledge base needed by an individual to function in society. While there are many clever and even rational ways of doing this, the way that was chosen was to dumb-down the knowledge base provided to the majority of people. While specialization by itself might have been a reasonable approach to maintaining mankind's acquisition of knowledge and the general improvement of the species, its dynamic linkage to dumbing-down the knowledge base has produced a negative synergy.

With the specialist taking care of the difficult details, we have made the knowledge base more accessible by taking out the aberrations, the polarizations, and the contrasts. Who needs all that complexity since we aren't smart enough or have time enough to understand it anyway? Complexity, schmexity, make it simple, I've got other things to do.

About every ten years for the last fifty, the newspaper industry has decided that journalistic communications needed to drop one school grade lower, and they have been joined to a slightly lesser extent by the news and feature magazine industry. In this era of technologically driven growth, the journalist is faced with the difficult task of conveying increasingly complex ideas with increasingly less language. The problem here is that the very reason there are so many words in the language is because there are so many complex ideas. The words came into the language because they were necessary to convey the complexity of the subject to the reader, not just to make the language needlessly difficult. Consequently, the newspaper fails to convey the whole idea or report the whole event. It presents only a dumbed-down version, and only one person's version at that.

We have reinvented the journalist. He and she are no longer just an accurate reporter of the facts with an obvious personal bias that can be easily detected, appreciated, and dealt with accordingly. They are now forced to be a carbon-based compression program, reducing the subject they are trying to convey to fit a limited form (the vocabulary of an eight-year old) and a limited fit (they've got to keep it short to make room for the ads.) Only the very best poets can do this, and only when the reader can draw on the complexities of their own experience to interpolate. Neither the journalists nor the readers meet these requirements.

Unfortunately, when journalists do their newly defined job well, they have completely ignored their original function—to report the facts. What we are given instead is a muddy gray version of the subject based on the reporter's personal bias that cannot be recognized, separated, and evaluated by the readers in their attempts to understand the subject. And unlike the Eisenstaedt example above, where the whole picture is still stored somewhere as ones or zeros, an accurate record of the idea or event is lost forever, all its complexities and subtleties are dumbed-down and grayed-out.

While I picked on the newspapers and magazines because it is frequently easier to use extreme examples to make a point, our media soaked culture is being bombarded by similar grays from every quarter, every day. Books (and maybe an occasional movie) are our last refuge for the language and its ability to convey complexity, but even here our market driven culture is limiting us to the output of publishers driven by values other than money—an endangered specie.

While the necessities of survival drove the development of society, that development's first prerequisite was language. It has served us well, but it now seems to be galloping down the path of the dodo. How can we save it? My feeling is that we probably can't, at least not in its old form, but its essential purpose of communication need not be lost. Today's proliferation of new media forms has plenty of potential to provide the complexity needed to fuel new and original thought. We just need to stay focused on making sure there are still a few people around who can think.

The new techniques of the visual and aural media are quite capable of communicating complex ideas. There just needs to be a demand for employing them to this purpose. My college professor for Shakespeare (a long time ago) once remarked that he thought W.S. would have been thrilled to be a screen writer where he could reinforce the subtleties of his language by calling for the camera to focus in on the flaring nostril of the actor. Taking that thought a step further, some of the subtlety of the language might be forgone with this alternative way to display the largely abstract concept of emotion.

An exponential leap beyond today's movies and television will be the full realization of computer driven virtual reality. It is already being used in its crude form as the best method for communicating the complexities of difficult environments as diverse as medicine and war. This ability will no doubt grow to encompass an ability to simultaneously impart complex information to all the senses. A staggering potential as long as we don't de-educate ourselves to the point where we can't or have no desire to fulfil it.

The doom and gloom of the past and the bright potential of the future are all well and good, but what about today? Where do we turn for soul-filling complexity right now? As always, it is at its best in the abstract—the arts and the sciences. Let's start with science and the nature of the universe (a very short version.)

I can start with the big and work my way down to the little or vice versa. Since it's my essay, I get to choose, and I choose to start at the macro end. How dull life would be without its big enders and its little enders (thank you Mr. Swift.)

The book is still open on whether the universe is forever expanding, will ultimately stop expanding and collapse, has always pulsingly expanded and contracted; whether it started with a bang or has always been and is continuously being created; and whether it will end with another bang or with a whimper (thank you Mr. Eliot); etc. I provide this litany of uncertainty about its exact nature because it reinforces the point I want to make. Whatever and however the universe is, it is not simple. It is unquestionably, perhaps infinitely, complex.

As complex as it is, however, it does seem to be reasonably understandable if taken in mankind-size bites. It appears to have an onion-like set of rules to which it adheres—layers and layers and layers of them (thank you paraphrasingly, Mr. Sagan). These rules or laws can be understood by the analogous approach (thank you Mr. Einstein) or the dissection approach. The cosmologist starts roughly where Einstein left us and works toward the big end. The particle physicist starts in roughly the same place and heads for the little end.

We've been doing this for more than a century now and the results are mixed. I've already iterated the inconclusive results of studying the macro universe, probably due to its inability to meet the acid test of science—repeatability in the laboratory. The results of studying the micro universe have been just as inconclusive, but they have been more fitful as each believed basic element of matter has turned out be composed of smaller and weirder parts—a pattern that might just continue infinitely. For a long time at each stage of discovering yet smaller pieces, we thought we at least understood how they fit together and how they worked. It was all like a big machine; each action and reaction predictable and repeatable; a mechanistic universe that ran like a clock never needing to be rewound.

Hah! Thank you Mr. Heisenberg for yanking us ruthlessly back from the self-aggrandizement of a certain universe. While still trying to understand the complexities introduced by Heisenberg, the physicists were blind-sided by chaos theory. Science was practically dumped back at ground zero in its understanding of how things worked, but the resultant rehash of physics was greatly simplified and time compressed by the computer.

So now we have expanded, by many orders of magnitude, the complexities of the mechanistic universe by the introduction of randomness. Where will it all end? I think it will not. I suspect our universe is a lot like the complex simplicity of a fractal (thank you, Mr. Mandlebrot). It has recognizable and repeatable patterns from the macro to the micro, infinite in their complexity and without end.

Most of us realize that the physical world is or will ultimately be expressible mathematically, even if only in tiny bites. You might also be aware of how the mathematics of the physical world expresses itself in some of nature's beauties like the whorl of a flower's petals, the shape of a mollusk shell, or the crystals of a geode. But are you aware that we are beginning to understand the mathematics of beauty and of aesthetics itself (thank you, Mr. Hoffstaeder)?

This is important because it links the basic structure of our universe with the abstractions we thought uniquely attributable to man. How humbling this knowledge would be were it not for the complexities of the universe's abstractions, for from these infinite complexities man must identify, sort, and combine these abstractions to produce art that is relative to the experiences of the artist and the artist's culture.

Some people think that abstract forms of art are unnecessarily complex, but this is a misconception about the nature of abstraction. Primitive man was simple in his thoughts and life, but his drawings left in caves and on rocks around the world are still remarkably effective abstractions of the animals and people that made up his life. His tools for painting were simple, and his pictures were therefore simple, but he successfully captured the essence of his subjects by choosing only their defining elements to be displayed. If it was a picture of a food animal, the body might be boxy (the meat) and the horns might be prominent (the danger). The rest of the animal might be minimally representational, but the essence of primitive man's relationship with this animal was captured succinctly.

Caricaturists and cartoonists still rely on this same approach of showing only the essence of the subject they are presenting. It is all that is required to provoke the mind to fill out the rest of the image with its integrated knowledge of the subject. The artist is using an abstraction of the essence of the subject to convey his or her message.

Painting as an art developed for decoration of utilitarian objects and to record images of people, things, or events in man's early cultures. Sculpture has similar roots. Since there were no cameras, the powerful could only display their magnificence beyond the grave by having their images painted and sculpted, and representational art was born.

The artists, however, made it clear right from the earliest of these paintings and sculptures that they were not satisfied with faithfully representing the subject in the minutest detail. Mayan and Egyptian art was focused on symbolism and emotional evocation, even though they had the tools and the techniques to make their art far more representational. El Greco elongated his subjects to give them a more ethereal quality, the Dutch masters set their subjects with an ethereal light, Michelangelo didn't hesitate to stray from real human proportions to evoke power and drama, and Rodin pretty much ignored reality in favor of composition.

So it isn't surprising that the culture of science and analysis that flamed in the 19th Century should kindle a self- examination by the artists. Just what was it they were trying to do? What was the substance of their mission? It turned out to be the same as primitive man's—to capture the essence of the subject, but to do so in a new and exciting way that would convey modern man's much greater understanding of his environment. Thus, modern, abstract art, in all its great variety, was born.

Some, like Monet, relied on reality from which they could abstract while focusing on the serene. Others, like Kandinsky, cut their canvases from the whole cloth of their imaginations. Similarly in sculpture, Brancusi clung to the reduced essence of shape, while Arp focused on the meaning of the subject to create his billowing forms.

Without the necessity of representation, the artist freed himself to concentrate on the complexities of form, color, balance, contrast, tension, movement, and all the other compositional subtleties. And without digressing again, I will point out that this same acceptance of the reality of complexity and its employment in communicating meaning can be found in music, dance, and all the other artistic expressions of our society.

So what does the makeup of the physical universe and a brutally truncated history of art have to do with living your life? The seductive appeal of the simple life wanes when one understands that to ignore the complexity that surrounds us in nature is to deny the basic reality of our existence. Art offers us a model, a microcosm, a paradigm of how growth can occur only by accepting the complexities of experience and finding a meaningful way to integrate that complexity into our knowledge base, for meaningful knowledge can only come through embracing the reality of complexity. Take another look and listen.

 

3rd Principle Corollary – Achieve Fulfillment through Knowledge

 

Countless religions have arisen and fallen throughout the history of mankind from its most primitive emergence to the complex societies of today. Originally, they all had the single purpose of providing a reason for existence. The primitive society's scope of existence was confined to the immediate environment of the social group. With the acquisition of ever-greater knowledge of the infinite variety of existence in the universe, it was necessary for these religions to stretch their answers to cope with the growing complexity of reality.

Early religions were narrowly defined and culturally specific, making it difficult or impossible for them to stretch sufficiently to provide that reason for existence that was still reasonably in step with the current perception of reality. Those who couldn't stretch sufficiently died, usually under the pressure of a new religion more attuned to the culture's current perception of the universe. This system worked well before science, but when man started examining his physical universe to discover its relationships and rules, stretching just wasn't adequate. A whole restructuring was required.

When Hammurabi, in Western culture, began to delineate the rudiments of societal law, he was also taking the first of many cultural bites out of religion. Through thousands of years of primitive societies, religion was the law and the education system, the definer of morals and acceptable social behavior, and the interpreter of reality. As early society became more complex, religion's functions were reduced to only the interpreter of reality with a steadily lessening input to morality.

The entrance of science onto the stage of reality threatened to be the last straw—the back breaker. Drastic action was obviously required to salvage the burgeoning power base of religion, and the deviousness of mankind rose to the challenge by seizing upon fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism had been around for thousands of years, off and on, but it had never really stuck because it didn't suit the early function of religion in society—interpreting reality. But as the function of religion changed, fundamentalism hit its stride. Here was a way to stop the erosion and maybe even reverse religion's loss of the cultural power structure. It meant giving up the original purpose of providing an explanation of the observable universe, but it would hold on to power and control.

It would simply deny reality. It would seize on mystery, a touchstone of emotional response that could release vast amounts of energy ripe for direction. After all, science was directly supporting the idea of a mysterious universe by showing its infinite variety, never-ending complexity, uncertainty, and randomness. The logic employed was the time-worn tautology, which employs the circuitousness inherent in the concept of faith. It goes like this: obviously, man is incapable of understanding the mysteries of God, and when man perceives a conflict between the codified teachings of the church (or synagogue, or temple, or mosque, etc.) and the scientifically observable world, it is simply because the observers of the world are incapable of understanding the works of God. In their lack of understanding and their inability to divine the mystery, the scientists are incapable of perceiving the real structure of God's works. Reality denied.

The intrinsic power of this concept is awesome. If one were inclined to believe in works of the Devil, this concept is an example without equal. Not only does it perpetuate the power brokers of the world's fundamentalist (read "extremist" rather than "fundamentalist" if it makes you more comfortable) religions, it carries the seeds of mankind's destruction by its ability to reverse all its progress and extinguish all its knowledge—the power to return the culture of man to the ignorance of the dark ages.

So how do we meet this challenge to enlightenment which threatens to engulf the whole world under the multiple banners and guises of God? We do it by ensuring intellectual freedom. How do we do that? We do it by expressing our views on all things intellectual that bear on cultural and personal values; by vigorously defending the rights of others to express their opinions, no matter how different; and by guaranteeing the access of ALL people to an education based on a scientific understanding of the universe and not social, political, or religious dogma—an education that teaches people to think.

As simple as this solution is in concept, the difficulty of its execution cannot be overstated. We can all probably manage the expression of our opinions in most social environments, but even that gets tough in those environments that could foment social, financial, or personal reprisals. Defending the rights of others and guaranteeing a real education requires a much higher level of commitment. It requires a dogged vigilance and an active advocacy, which might include time and money as well as emotional energy.

While this is a must for the future growth of mankind, it applies also on a personal basis. The only way we can achieve fulfillment as individuals is through knowledge, and the only way we can gain true knowledge is by recognizing the reality of our world. This necessarily includes an understanding of as many of its complexities as possible and an appreciation of the importance of those complexities in determining the patterns of life.

 

Principle Interface – There are Friends and Other People

 

As you have probably noticed, I have eschewed the formal terminology of Venn's diagrammatic relationships for a more ordinary vernacular. Consequently, let's look at the three overlaps or interfaces of the principles to see how they fit together. The fit with and the flow between principles should provide the reader with an understanding of how these seemingly disparate statements can provide a unified direction for a meaningful life.

Man only tolerates societal structure because collective self-preservation is inescapably superior to going it alone. The basis of those societal structures is personal relationships; without them there would be no society. Even large societies that have by necessity stratified rely on broad relationships within strata, even though relationships to higher or lower strata are minimal.

So what is the essence of personal relationships? What do we need to know about them and do with them that will make us better people? We need to understand that most people's purposes are narrowly focused and are not likely in the same vector as ours, and we need to interact with them in a manner that will be both conducive to the collective self-preservation purpose of society and to the goals of personal fulfillment. That means we need to have meaningful discourse with as wide a group as practicable. To do this we need to treat everyone with civility (a remarkably poetic word where its root derivation takes us invariably to a full understanding of its meaning).

The disadvantages of a stratified society are many, but a classless society of any large or complex structure is impossible (thank you unwittingly, Messrs. Engels and Marx), and a large and complex society offers the only opportunity for the growth of personal and societal knowledge. In spite of mankind's cleverness in social tactics, the strategy of a stratified society has not been surpassed to date. If our goal is the growth of knowledge, we must pull the teeth from the disadvantages of the stratified society and get on with the task of making it work.

The lack of societal communications in the amorphous mass approach to society is discarded by stratified societies in favor of an organized entity with intrinsic limits of communication necessity. In the hierarchical structure of a stratified society, the span of necessary communication is limited. It is the same practical approach we rely on every day in any sizeable business, and it works if cross-strata communication is diligently preserved.

However, the communication required for efficient societal function is not necessarily the same as the communication required for personal growth. Communication with the potential for personal growth must be consciously chosen by the individual and not dictated by the exigencies of society or the vagaries of chance.

Personal communication is the transfer of information from one individual to another, and information is potential but uncorroborated knowledge. Since it can potentially increase our knowledge base, the information we receive through personal communications must be carefully selected for its quality.

We do this by exercising as much control as possible over the people with whom we communicate. We choose our friends. Taking random societal communications from people that are not carefully selected friends is like trashing the database. You might never be able to purge it all.

 

Principle Interface – There are No Simple Relationships

 

We take those exceptions we treasure, our friends, and we commit to them. We commit to a personal relationship that includes a giving and receiving of the full spectrum of physical, emotional, and intellectual experience and knowledge. These are the few we love.

Love, now there's a word worth a few moments of thought. There is no better word to illustrate that there are no simple personal relationships. For those who might feel that love is a special case of personal relationships and can therefore not be used to make the general case, I would agree but with the caveat that it fits the only group that is worth talking about—our friends.

The simplest definition of love as applied between two people is selfless commitment. It is weakest between just friends and strongest between best friends. It need have nothing to do with sexuality. If it does, it's a bonus.

Since the commitment is selfless, the committing party is called upon to elevate the needs and desires of the other person in the relationship above their own. In most relationships this calling happens frequently. Sometimes in trivial ways that are hardly worth consideration, but at other times in ways that require travel on a path significantly different from one that would have been chosen without the commitment. For the thinking person, this is difficult because life-path decisions are not taken lightly but only after rational examination.

One might ask why the thinking person would find it desirable to give up the purely selfish motivations in life for love. The answer (as you certainly suspected by now in this essay) is both simple and complex. Love isn't really selfless; it is enlightened selflessness. It is a paradox. In making the commitment of love, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, so are we really fitting that definition of "selfless commitment"?

As a paradox, there is no logical answer for why we love. Not being rational, it can only be understood as an emotional necessity. We do it not because of words like logic, rational, selfish, selfless, agape, or eros. We do it because it allows communication at orders of magnitude higher, truer, and wiser than any other mode available, and this is essential to the order of our deepest selves. Our loves are the roots of the unique self we grow like an oak tree throughout life, from childhood, through maturity, and into death. Without these roots, the acorn of life dies as a mere sprout.

So relationships with friends aren't easy, and these are the ones we love. It's no wonder that our societally demanded relationships can be even more difficult. Because they are potentially difficult, we hold our other-than-friend relationships to a minimum and conduct what communications we have with civility, but we remain vigilantly open to finding new friends. A thoughtful life gives us no other options.

 

Principle Interface – Easy is Indistinguishable from Average

 

A lot has been said in this essay about average, mediocre, gray, and dumbed-down, but I can't help taking one more swing at this screwball of life. It's hard to connect solidly with it and it's even harder to hit it out of the park—where it belongs.

Why do so many people yearn for a simpler life? Probably because they've allowed theirs to become uselessly complicated, and they think that removal of these complications will give them some sort of idyllic life. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Since we continue to choose to live within our society for the benefits it offers, our life is necessarily complicated by the effort to live in at least a modicum of comfort based on standards of the time. For most of us, this means we must work at some job that offers financial compensation, and this means we must put up with the baggage of complication this necessary social interaction brings.

The few who are born to wealth are free of these sustenance requirements and its attendant complications, but they are nearly always diverted from realizing the advantages of their situation by acquiring an even heavier set of baggage with their wealth. This baggage starts with the childhood indoctrination of self-importance, grows with little outside help during adolescence to self-aggrandizement, and becomes cloying self-indulgence in maturity like a not-quite-rotten peach. If your social interaction happens to include one of the rare exceptions to this generalization, you should give them serious consideration for closer acquaintance. They probably have a lot to give.

I have digressed (yet again) to make it clear that, for most of us, some level of complication in our lives is unavoidable, but we do have the ability to keep it to a minimum and still stay within our social contract. Your life becomes uselessly complicated when you allow random or unscreened experiences, thoughts, and emotions to have a major impact on its conduct. After youthful indiscretion is spent, there is no need for this to ever happen. By the time of maturity, the thinking person is quite capable of rationally screening all of life's inputs before allowing them to impact his or her life, but that frequently doesn't happen.

The most frequent reason for allowing our lives to become uselessly complicated is childhood and adolescent conditioning. In my day, this was provided benignly by one's parents, without any explanation of the origin or veracity of the imparted "truths", which was mostly because they didn't know themselves. This general set of social and religious guidelines served most children well. It only failed when the transition to adulthood presented one with social realities for which the childhood rules had no relevance.

With today's abdication from parenthood by too many parents, it is no wonder that children are forming their own value sets. They have no choice, because they have to live in a society just like the rest of us, even if it's not quite the same as the adults' society. On the one hand, the emerging adult population might bring total societal breakdown as it rolls into power with its media-based value sets—which would be bad. On the other hand, it might bring more flexibility and less dominance by childhood conditioning—which would be good. So we are left with decrying the sorry state of today's youth with little understanding and, predictably, no accuracy of prescience, as the written word has done for thousands of years.

The hope has always been that parents first and then society would provide the individual with the knowledge required to make a smooth transition from the fairyland of childhood to the reality of adulthood. With the demise of parenthood, we have only society to ensure that children learn how to think. Boy, are we in trouble.

Fortunately, a uselessly complicated life and a complex life are not the same thing. Over the complications of life, we and the generations currently in societal dominance have only partial control, but we have complete control over the complexities we will experience in life, and only the complexities we experience will bring knowledge. There are no simple truths.

 

Trinity In a Nutshell

 

To achieve fulfillment as individuals we must strive to meet as much of our individual potential as possible. To do this, we must live with the burdens of society so we can partake of its benefits; we must push skepticism to the limit in screening social contacts so we can protect ourselves against deceit and misinformation; we must have civil discourse so we will not loose the opportunity of new knowledge and friends through our skepticism; we must find moderation only in balance so we can find experience through the extremes of commitment; we must embrace the difficulties of complexity so we can find knowledge.

Through all the apparent meaninglessness of our lives and the universe around us, we must find the courage to be (thank you very much, Paul Tillich). John Donne gave us an encapsulated truth. We cannot find this courage alone. We must have friends.

 

Afterword

 

At about the midpoint in the process of writing this essay, I became convinced that I would need to close with an apology for its didactic tone. I finally got over it.

I have decided instead to end with a poem I wrote in 1963 (the best I can determine). This is during the early years of my "angry young man" period. (Oh, you can't tell it's over?) I find it at least interesting if not remarkable that my opinion hasn't changed about the particular group of societal pariahs to which the poem was addressed—so many of my other opinions during this time have.

The poem is couched in the form of a prayer, and if I thought it would be answered, I would have been and would still be on my knees every day offering it up.

May God damn

All the narrow-minded

To an eternity of living

In the world

They are striving to create

 

 

 

Return to Essays

Return to Topics List