Tag Archives: atheism

The Obstacle Is the Way


I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.

The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.

They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.

This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)

Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.

See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?

But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.

Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.

We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.

And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.

But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.

And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.

The obstacle is the way.

Are you on the path?

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Terrible Reviews: Everything is F*cked


I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.

Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.

Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.

The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.

Image result for life is pain gif

While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.

Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.

The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)

Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.

… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)

I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.

The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.

It is us. (106)

If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.

Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)

Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.

The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.

It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read:


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)

camel-3540678_1280

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.

llama eating GIF

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Go Evolve Yourself


There’s a church near me —

No, wait.

At one of the churches near me —

Nope, that doesn’t help either.

Look, there are a lot of churches near me. Living in semi-suburban, semi-rural Georgia. I pass by no less than five on my way to work, and my commute is only about fifteen minutes. (That’s a church every three minutes; way more common than any golden arches ever dreamed of.)

And some of them get pretty clever with their marquee. Credit where it’s due, I’ve gotten more than a couple of chuckles driving past this one particular church.

But this is not chuckle-worthy.

It’s not even smirk-and-drive-on-worthy.

This is veins-popping-from-the-forehead-worthy.

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I get it, it’s a joke. Haw haw, evolution thinks it has all the answers. (It doesn’t, actually, only lots of answers.) Moms are overworked. (On that one, preach on.)

But it’s a joke that critically fails to understand the thing it’s poking fun at in addition to being just idiotically wrong. Because that isn’t the way evolution works. And evolution *is* true.

Does that make me triggered? Does that make me a snowflake? Well, break out the flannel caps and snowshoes, because I have no patience for this.

Claiming that evolution isn’t true — for laughs or for real — is freaking harmful to society. Empowering people who don’t know any better, who base their arguments off archaic books rather than science you can see with your own eyes, to disagree with the fundamental understanding of the way the world works is bloody anathema to the forward progress of our culture. (And sweet fancy Moses, we need some freaking forward progress right now.)

Claiming that evolution isn’t true is the sort of thing that really should carry a sociological cost, in this day and age. Like stepping into an NRA meeting and suggesting a government buyback on guns, or crashing an LGBTQIA support group and crowing that about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

Claiming that evolution isn’t true, and telling kids to resist it in schools (I’ve encountered this myself actually, it really does happen), is holding us back.

I’m not saying it should be illegal.

I’m saying anybody seriously representing the idea should be embarrassed.


So Scientology is on TV Now.


Remember that time yesterday when I posted about the dumb things you do that remind you how dumb you really are?

That feeling is only salved by knowing that there exist in the world, somewhere — as a result of sheer statistics — people dumber than you. Honestly, the only person who can’t say there’s somebody dumber than him out there probably died hundreds of thousands of years ago, before our species properly had its feet under it (literally) and had not yet invented the capacity for realizing how stupid one is, let alone the language to kvetch about it. (RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE A POLITICAL JOKE RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE A POLITICAL JOKE RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE A POLITICAL JOKE)

So, you know. There are dumber people than us out there; we just don’t always see them.

But sometimes.

Sometimes they explode into visibility with fireworks and press releases and white-hot glowing idiocy.

Scientology is launching its own line of streaming TV programs.

Yeah.

Their tagline? “The only thing more interesting than what you’ve heard is what you haven’t.”

HAhahahahahahahahaNO.

Nope. Nopenopenope NOPE. Negatory. The cat is out of the bag on you already, Scientology. The horses have left the barn. The bell is rung. The milk is spilled. Choose your cliche; the world at large is already wise to your particular brand of horse puckery.

My first brush with Scientology (man I feel lame for even capitalizing it but rules of English trump even my disdain for acknowledging the titles of idiotic things as things which deserve recognition — heck, rules of English trump even my searing hatred for use of the word “trump” as a verb anymore) was in high school. Way back in the days when this budding atheist still thought there might be something to religion, in the maybe-there-was-a-creator-we-just-can’t-know-but-why-would-it-care-what-we-did-on-Sundays kind of way.

But even then, in the larval stages of my skepticism and the infancy of my critical thinking, all it took was one mention of the word “Xenu” and I ran away faster than you can say Tom Cruise.

So: a network? For Scientology?

This is dumb on at least three fronts:

  1. People already watching religious TV (bless their hearts) won’t be switching over to Scientology TV. It’s not like how you got bored with The Walking Dead and stopped watching it and you’re looking for another show in your life. People like their religious illusions and cling to them fiercely, and — more bad news, I know — IF they leave their religions, most likely end up with NO religion rather than any other religion. (Actually I don’t know if that’s true, but it must be. It has to be.)
  2. People not already watching religious TV are not about to start watching religious TV. We have better things to do with our time. Also, we know better. Move along.
  3. So, the only people who will be watching Scientology TV are those who are a) already members of the “church”, or b) chemically inebriated and watching for a laugh. The B’s won’t be offering up any money to you, and the A’s, given that your “religion” has as a central paradigm the extraction of as much money as possible from its faithful, are unlikely to have MORE money to offer up to you or your advertisers.

Oh, and that’s without even mentioning the nuclear submarine in the kiddie pool: Scientology is terrible. As a religious institution, it’s worse than most. Like, astronomically worse. It abuses its members. It attacks members who leave the “faith”. And its core beliefs about the world and about people — well.

It would almost take a divine being to create something so bad.

In that way, perhaps, Scientology TV might be the evidence for a divine being that will finally settle the argument.

Or maybe it will be evidence that our evolution truly did stop eons ago.

Either way, there has to be something better on TV. I mean, surely there are some reruns of The Walking Dead on, somewhere.


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