Category Archives: Accidental Philosophy

Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

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Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

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This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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Accidental Philosophy: The Futility of “Should”


“Should” is a useless word. 

-Delilah S. Dawson, Hit

There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now. I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t name it, so it just sort of floated around in the back of my brain like a dragon fly, darting this way and that, sometimes getting right up in your face, then skittering away whenever you swat at it or grab for it.

It’s about people, and the way we talk to each other, and the way we talk about the world. Specifically, it’s about certain kinds of people and the way they want the world to be. You know these people. They talk about the way the world ought to be, saying things like “wouldn’t it be better if …” or “things would be perfect if only …”

And some of these people even find their way into office in this country. And they start making laws and enacting statutes and directing policy to bend things to the way they say they “ought to be”. Trouble is, things are what they are, and changing them around isn’t so easy as that. Especially when the things are people.

Before I get too carried away, let me wander back to the point. My leisure reading the last two weeks was Delilah S. Dawson’s Hit, a YA dystopian thriller about a future where banks have seized control of the country and are forcing children to become debt-collecting hitmen.

(Why kids? Because it’s too diabolical to be believed, and who’s gonna point a gun at a kid coming to their door? And also, because YA. Pretty wild, but who cares, it was a fun read.)

Anyway, about a third of the way into the book, one of the characters is lamenting their situation and moaning about how “things shouldn’t be this way” and the protagonist snaps back, “should is a useless word.”

I read that. And all of a sudden, that dragonfly in my brain stopped skittering, landed on a lonely dendrite, and took root.

“Should” is a useless word. Yet it’s one we use all the time.

“I should have gotten up earlier.” Yeah, I should have, but I didn’t — so what am I going to do about it?

“People shouldn’t steal.” Yeah, they shouldn’t, but they do — so what are we going to do about it?

“He shouldn’t have even been there.” Yeah, but he was — so what are you going to do about it?

See what happens there? Any time somebody says “so-and-so should …” there’s an automatic “but” followed by a “so what” that comes in response.

“Should” seems more and more to me like the refuge of the coward. It says, “I don’t like this situation, so instead I’m going to talk about what I would rather it had been (yikes, grammar is hard when you get rid of “should”) without doing anything about it.” And yeah, sometimes the “should” statement is followed by action, but a lot of times, it isn’t. A lot of the time, we just say “well, it should be this other way” and we leave it at that.

For that matter, a lot of what people go around “shoulding” about has nothing to do with them. “Gay people shouldn’t get married.” “Women shouldn’t be in those jobs.” “He should take better care of himself.” None of which has anything to do with the person saying it. We have a rule in my house and in my classroom. Rule #1. MYOB. Mind Your Own Business.

The fact is, people use “should” to hide from things they don’t like, from things that make them uncomfortable, from things that scare them. They use “should” to build a fantasy world in their heads. A make-believe universe where things are perfect, unoffensive, unscary. “Should” represents a fundamental failure (or, worse, refusal) to see the world as it is in favor of how we expect it to be.

But the “shoulding” doesn’t do a damn thing. Things are what they are, and all the shoulds in the world won’t change them.

What changes things is action.

And guess what?

You can take action without griping about how things “should” be first. Address things as they are, recognize that there is no such thing as “perfect” (because the world we live in is messy and filled with other people who don’t automatically agree with you) and work to make things better.

Don’t waste your time moaning about the way things “should” be.

Get to work on fixing what’s wrong.

 


On Bloody Ears and the Problem of Luck


I cut myself shaving this morning.

Not a big deal. I wasn’t the only one. And it’s not like it has messed with my day in any major way. You get a cut, you stop it up with some tissue paper, you forget about it and walk into the office with spritzes of bloody tissue on your face, life goes on.

Except I didn’t cut my face, as one might expect. I cut my ear.

And not the low-hanging fruit of the lobe, which, while unusual, is still within the realm of the normal and understandable. No, I sliced the top of my ear.

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This is virtually impossible to do under ordinary circumstances, unless, like me, you’re a guy taking a safety razor to your dome once a week.

(Side note: the safety razor is not particularly aptly named, as it turns out. Your average dollar-store special is way harder to injure yourself with — though it doesn’t give you nearly as nice a result.)

Worse still, I’ve done it before — and it’s the kind of mistake that, really, you shouldn’t make that often. Cuts that high up on the head sting terrifically, and bleed with the abandon of a five-year-old running toward a playground, which is to say, total. One would think that one would, therefore, remember the unpleasantness of the entire affair and take care to avoid it.

The trouble is, of course, that shaving is one of those things that becomes routine, that you do so regularly that they become automatic. And when things become automatic, our minds tend to wander while we’re about them. (See also: driving. Unless something seriously significant happened — a near accident, for example, or a strange sighting, like a murder-clown walking along the street side — what can you really remember about your drive this morning? Probably not much. Your brain handled it for you, on autopilot, while you listened to the radio or thought about what you had to get done today.) And when the mind wanders while you’re about a routine task, well. You can come away missing pieces of yourself.

This is called automaticity, by the way, and is one of the few concepts I recall with perfect clarity from my college days. Who knows why. Probably it’s the funny word, which WordPress’s spellchecker does not recognize.

But shaving is not a thing that I should be doing in such a carefree manner. The blade I’m using is sharp, and the technique for its use is not necessarily intuitive. Not to mention that the curved surface of a skull is not the easiest thing to shave when using a blade that is flat. There’s care involved, and skill, and attention to detail. And getting above and behind the ears is fiddly even by head-shaving standards. I really should know better.

But no, instead of focusing on the task, I was listening to a podcast. Trying to learn a few things about the world we live in. (A back episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, for the curious.) You know, trying to better myself. And then, snag, slice, recoil.

And here I am, bleeding. I thought it might not be that bad, until a few seconds later when blood began dripping onto the bathroom counter. (Pit pit pit. Cue dizzy panic.)

There’s something to be thought, here, about luck. I was unlucky this morning, but this is my MO every time I shave, and usually I am not unlucky. (To put it into perspective, consider: many, many people text and drive, some of them alarmingly often. Some unlucky few will get into accidents, or even hurt or kill somebody, as a result. Only those disastrously unlucky enough to have accidents happen are likely to suffer any significant penalty or jail time; most people who text and drive suffer no consequence at all. Yet they all participated in the same inadvisable behavior. Some are lucky, the others are not. Shouldn’t those who text and drive, even without causing any harm to anybody on the occasion, suffer the same penalties we would levy against the person unlucky enough to hit somebody with their car? Why should those who were simply unlucky bear a harsher penalty? Needless to say, this is a practice I do not partake in.)

Anyway, just some food for thought on a Monday morning. Maybe I need a bit more mindfulness in my day. I’ve got a bloody neck and shoulder to remind me. It leads me to wonder: just how much of our days do we complete on autopilot?

 


Accidental Philosophy: Staying in Bed


Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. — Sam Harris, Free Will

My wife asked me the other day why I keep getting up early.

It’s the summer, after all, the Sacred Time for all teachers, where we have basically two months to forget about life and work and students and classes and just be ordinary humans for a while. (Of course, being a teacher kind of ruins the concept of being an ordinary human in its own right, but that’s a discussion for another time.) It’s more or less expected that teachers are going to sleep in as much as possible over the summer. Why wouldn’t we? Sleep is awesome, and we lose out on it by the bargeload during the school year.

Still, I can’t sleep much past six. Seven, if I’m really sawing wood. Partially I know the kids are awake, or will be soon, and it feels like somebody should at least be conscious in the building to make sure they don’t start causing collateral damage immediately. And partly, I guess I’m just getting older, and my body more or less syncs up with the sun these days (if the sun is up, my brain seems to say, so should you be).

Maybe even a part of is is that plague of the young, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Some unconscious part of me wants to know what’s happening out there in the world, as soon as possible. So I have to get up and turn on the news, check Twitter, troll Facebook, etc. (Incidentally, my day doesn’t feel complete of late if I don’t spend a good hour or so hate-watching CNN. Which is a seriously messed up state of affairs.)

Also, of course, here in the South in the summer, the morning is really the only time of day you can reasonably Get Things Done. If you want to exercise or do yard work or, I dunno, wax your car or something (I guess people do that? Maybe?), you’d best get it done before the mercury climbs out of the top of the thermometer.

And then I think, too, about the people I know who do sleep in late. Family members and friends or friends of friends who, it seems, are always sleeping. Sometimes this is out of necessity: they work odd hours or nights and have to sleep during the day. Sometimes it’s chemical: they’re depressed or on a “down” cycle and they can’t summon the energy to get out of bed for more than a few hours. Sometimes it’s sheer laziness or obstinacy: they sleep in because it feels good, or because they’ve stayed up all night doing whatever it is people stay up all night to do. In any case, the person seems in a very real way to have vanished from the meaningful part of life for the rest of us. And I don’t want to be that, or even be perceived as that.

Suffice it to say that I not only do I find it difficult to stay in bed for very long after I wake up, but I have no desire to. I have better things to do (even if those things only include hate-watching CNN).

All of that is a little tangential to the quote above. For context, Harris is talking about a common argument against his position on free will (i.e. that we don’t have it, at least not in the way most people think we do). If we don’t have free will, the argument goes, everything must be pre-determined; if everything is pre-determined, what I do doesn’t matter. Therefore if I’m meant to become a millionaire or a famous novelist (or both!), I could just lay in bed all day and it will simply happen.

Which is ludicrous. Ergo Sam’s statement above, which I absolutely loved when I read it. Especially the idea of “increasingly heroic efforts to resist” getting out of bed.

For me, as it happens, it never seems to get that far. There is no such thing as a “heroic effort” to stay in bed; the sun comes in or I hear my kid in the hall, and I’m up.

Whether that’s a product of my free will or not, I can’t say I’m bothered by it.

Free Will, anyway, is a 100-page or so treatise by noted atheist and neurologist Sam Harris, and is a fascinating read worth your time regardless of your feelings on the subject. (Incidentally, I’m pretty convinced, as Harris is, that free will in the conventional sense is an illusion.)

 


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