Tag Archives: Religion

Tubes, Butterfly Wings, and Free Will

Segueing from my last post, a what now recently came into my mail box.

The assistant to the city manager e-mailed me about another opportunity to get involved: the Montpelier Conservation Commission has a vacancy. So I’ve applied for that, like I did with the Development Review Board. It will be a few weeks — sometime in October — before the council votes on appointments to it, but I’ve put my application in, and that’s as good of a first what now as any.

But there are lots of nows until then. So learning from my past and hoping to give a better impression this second time out come October, I’m going to do some research on what the commission has done, plans to do, and hopefully talk to some relevant people live about the role.

I might still not get it. And if I don’t, I’ll try to learn from it and see what other, perhaps better kinds of actions I might take towards achieving my civic goals.

Nothing unusual about that: taking action, seeing effects, and taking more actions based on the effects you’ve seen. Comes with being human and having faith that are actions do generate effects.

And they do. But they also kind of don’t.

The don’t is what I’m thinking about right now, which escorts me towards free will territory. But I won’t cross over too far into that borderland for this particular post, as the ground there quickly becomes treacherous and tricky to navigate, starting with even getting at a satisfactory definition.

But here on the edge of it, I’ll cash it out simply and oversimplified as what kind of power you have to take action in the world, which further cashes out, it seems to me, as what kind of effect you can have in the world.

Now I used to be a big butterfly believer: the idea that a small action — like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings — can have large effects. And I still am to some degree and still think a small action can. But lately I’ve started thinking about scope and how difficult it is for any action to have true consequence.

All actions have effects, but effects can get cancelled out. And if they do, from the point of view that encompasses all the relevant actions, there is no real effect.

Imagine a tube. You throw a ball down it and it ricochets every which way, but it still comes out the end. You can throw it down the tube again and it will likely go a different every which way, but it still spits out the same place at the end.

It’s not necessary to know each and every point of ricochet to predict — to determine — the outcome. You just have to be able to see the tube that holds the events not the events themselves.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be an actual tube nor look anything like a tube. It can be a life or lives, a war or wars, a society or civilization itself.

Nothing revelatory about this. Myths mine it heavily and we have words ingrained in us like fate, destiny and the ubiquitous phrasing full of implicit deterministic belief “meant to be”.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be confined to the plight of humankind. It can be one large enough to funnel the world, the solar system, the universe. When all is said and done, the sum of it all — our all — will likely be just a single ricochet off the side of a much larger tube.

A tube that I would think is God if I were religious-minded. But I’m not, so I’ll stick with envisioning it as a tube; yet, nevertheless I can’t help but think how bizarre it is for the ostensibly religious-minded to harm others in the name of that tube, whether in Kenya or Andromeda.

Maybe their answer to what now is driven by an unconscious realization that they are going down the tube, as is everyone, whether they want to or not. They think that if they can claw their way over others, they might stop their dropping, or maybe somehow arrive at a more prime spot at the end; win favor with a tube that is not so much indifferent as unaffected.

Being neither a god nor a tube, I can’t help but be affected by the goings-on halfway around the world. I can’t help but think that each and every person is in this tube together and that should be a common thread that binds us; one that should encourage us to help make the mutual descent as pleasant as possible.

Being just a mortal, I do not have the power to stop, or really even slow, the absurd amount of bloodshed caused by others.

But, as just a mortal, I can sew my what nows with that aforementioned common thread and do things like try and join a conservation committee where I might help preserve natural beauty for everyone to see. I can pick up an author from the airport for a book festival, try to be nicer to my husband, and take time out from whatever I’m doing to pet my cat.

Small acts for sure. But then again, in the blind eyes of the tube, all acts are small.

But they don’t all have to be, and shouldn’t be, so damn shallow.

Fair Thoughts

I went to the animal fair
the birds and beasts were there
The big baboon by the light of the moon
was combing his auburn hair
The monkey he got drunk
and fell on the elephant’s trunk
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees
but what became of the monk, the monk

I don’t know where or when I first heard that silly rhyme, but it’s stuck with me without deliberation in the weird way some memories do. I want to attach it maybe to my Grandfather Ross or my step-dad Max, or both, as I seem to remember it coming out of their mouths, but I can’t be certain beyond that seeming.

That’s par for the course for me, as my memories are at best disorganized. And at worst? Maybe lost or at least irretrievable.

I remember my life in fragments that are never attached to dates.

Oh, sure, I can sometimes calculate what the date must be, but that’s coming from the outside as I re-process the shard of remembrance with the conscious part of my brain. I mean that there is typically no date inherent in the memory itself. Instead, stray pieces of event data bubble to the surface.

As they did when Gary and I went to the Vermont State Fair.

We went on Patron Appreciation Day, which translates as Free Day. Gary had a caramel apple. I had fried dough (which sounds wrong to me, as I grew up calling the same thing an Elephant Ear, and that’s how I always think of the pastry, and will likely always think of it). We also saw different birds and beasts. And rode some rides.

The rides is where the most bubbling occurred for me. Again, without dates or any other such lattice to fully secure them into place. But I remembered:

Being downright chicken-shit with rides. One of the more embarrassing childhood moments for me was slinking out of line for a ride my step-brother Tim tried to trick me into going on. Or in. He told me it was a line to go watch motorcyclists drive around the walls in that gravity-defying way that is popular for watching.

Instead, it was that ride where you stand against the wall of a round room which spins fast enough to allow the floor to drop out from under you in your own gravity-defying, non-motorcycle riding way.

I was mad at him at the time but now I’m thinking he had to have found me exasperating.

Sometime, though, during the course of life, I became un-chicken-shitted. I rode The Racer — backwards and forwards — the Screaming Demon, The Beast  and The Bat as well as assorted rides that emphasized various degrees of equilibrium-disturbing spin. One of my strongest memory fragments is racing through Kings Island with my friend Mark making  sure we got our money’s worth of thrills.

Just a short decade or so ago Gary and I went with  the folks to Busch Gardens and rode, among other things, the Demon Drop, which is just what it sounds like:  a completely vertical drop

Now, though, I find myself viewing such rides again with more than a little trepidation.

Oh, I can’t rightly say I’ve reverted back to my scaredy-cat past. For one thing, the pair of balls I’ve managed to grow over the years won’t let me. I’m not the same afraid-of-my-shadow kid that I was and I think all-in-all that’s a good thing.

As it is, I reckon I even fancy myself being the butch — or maybe more butch — one of the relationship, so I kind of have an obligation to automatically agree to whatever ride Gary wants to go on, regardless of any reservations I might have about the amusement level of such amusement rides.

So I bought us each a ride band and we rode as he willed, us getting scrambled, tilted, whirled, and, déjà vu of that day long ago with Tim, spun fast enough so the floor could drop away from us as our backs clung to the wall.

As we revolved around our mutual center, I couldn’t help but think of that song by Duran Duran:

The world spins so fast
that I might fly off

And yeah, I had faith in the machinery that moved us, just like I have faith in the gravity of the considerably bigger ride we’re on, so I didn’t really believe I might fly off in either case.

Yet how are such beliefs grounded?

Yeah, sure, we can measure, predict, and mathematically model this spinning piece of rock we call home, but the starting point of such scientific explanation rests ultimately on a faith similar to that of a religious nature.

Oh, I don’t mean the silly dogmatic kind of religious faith that applauds dioramas of men riding dinosaurs like Neanderthal cowboys and weirdly if earnestly believes that calling evolution just a theory somehow is a refutation of it.

I mean instead the faith of those who are actively engaged in trying to make sense of something that at the end of the day, no matter how you grapple with it — philosophically, religiously, or scientifically —  is beautifully, wondrously, and awe-inspiringly more than a little absurd.

The ride stopped and I stepped out onto the ground that was there as I expected it to be, blind faithfully feeling the Terra Firma baptism of the cosmos.

Not Enough Compasses

We have too many laws and not enough compasses.

I was going to write about Mr. Marsh of Marsh Supermarkets and his curious claim that he was unaware of being under a code of conduct during his employment.  I have strong opinions about morality versus law (or code or policy or commandment).

Obeying or not obeying some edict or other has little to do with being moral. Many religions drive me crazy with their specious claims to morality. If you are only doing or not doing something for fear of punishment by the Big G in the sky, the policeman down the street, or your mum and dad, you may be curbing behavior but you are certainly not automatically being moral.

Instead, you are just a dog not pissing on the carpet for fear of the master’s lash.

I thought I would write on this and segue into Boy Scouts territory with a deconstruction of “morally straight” in their oath. I would talk about the shallow absurdity of believing that straight refers to “put your penis there but not there.”

But I think I might write about a dead raccoon instead.

Living in the city, I do not see a decent variety of wildlife. But my husband and I have started feeding the stray cats that come by and that has attracted other creatures, like birds and dogs and squirrels. And, until now, the raccoon.

He loved our house. After eating, he would shimmy up the wooden beams on our porch and hang out on our roof.

Last night I came home from the SGI Buddhist Center. As I parked in the street I saw him about fifteen feet in front of me. Dead.

Ran-over. Killed. Murdered.

He was so beautiful up there on our roof; a beautiful that will be no more.

Today I sent a service request to the Mayor’s Action Center. It’s an efficient site. I just picked the correct options from drop down boxes: dead animal — raccoon — location.  There are laws governing such things and I did my part, my civic duty, by reporting it.

But such action on my part wasn’t moral. It was functional,  behavioral, and responsible, but not moral. Morality can certainly include those three things, but those things can also be separate.

Instead, morality is the feeling I get when I contribute to the beautiful, whether on the rooftop or elsewhere in the world. It is the pit I feel in my stomach, like it’s been hollowed out, when I see the once beautiful now just so much discarded meat in the road.

Morality requires action, but it also requires a feeling; an emotional pull on the needle of your personal moral compass that keeps you heading in the right direction.

Passing laws or policies has little to do with instilling people with their own moral compasses. But the good news is that compasses come pre-installed. There just aren’t enough compasses being used as we too often settle on the ease — and empty morality — of simply obeying the rules.

It is time for us to move beyond canine obedience into human compassion.

Think Progress.