Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Art of Being Human -- Writer's Poke #284

I'm preparing to teach a Humanities class with the title "The Art of Being Human." What a weird title for a class. According to the course description, the course should basically show students how others have attempted to live worthwhile lives.

Admittedly, trying to teach others how to live worhtwhile lives might be going a bit above my paygrade, as they say. My sole hope, really, is just to teach people to examine their own lives. I'd like my students to be able to differentiate between art and artificial.

Unfortunately, many of us live our lives in a "paint-by-numbers" style. Now, I ask you: Can paint-by-numbers be considered art? Sure, the finished product can be pretty, and there's a value to the systematic, ordered approach. But in the end, it's not art.

To me, the true value to living a "worthwhile life" is to avoid living the sort of predetermined life that others would set for you -- whether it be promoted by cultural, familial, or religious traditions, or whether it be simply following the approach to "appropriate" for your particular age or life circumstance.

What specific steps can you take to ensure that you're the artist creating your own life, rather than submitting to being the articifical subject in someone else's portrait?

"How can we surround that which is dying with love?" -- David Whyte

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Free Will Paradox -- Writer's Poke #283

Philosophers may debate it, but most people accept that we have free will. While we can all think of exceptions to the rule, for the most part the buck stops with us. We are responsible for our actions.

Now here's the fun part. Some religious traditions promote the idea that, yes, we have free will, but we really shouldn't be using it. That's not exactly how they would state it, of course. Such traditions would most likely state that part of our "free will" is to freely avoid acting on improper impulses, etc. Yes, you have the free will to do x, y, or z, but instead, accept that doing x, y, or z is "wrong" or "sinful" or "against God's plan," and don't do it.

Can we use our free will to question why x, y, or z is wrong, sinful or against God's plan? Well, no. Because doing so would itself be wrong, sinful, or against God's plan. Please don't question. Be obedient. Offer yourself up as a willing sacrifice. Submit. Accept.

To me, this is the Free Will Paradox. To believe in such religious traditions is to believe that we were given a gift that we were never expected to use.

Explain why some people don't want you to fully exercise your free will. Should free will ever submit to obedience? If so, when, and under what circumstances?

“Man was predestined to have free will.”  -- Hal Lee Luyah

Infinite Choice -- Writer's Poke #282

The average person living in the United States today has more freedom of choice than any person living in the entire history of humankind. But does more choice equate to more happiness? How do we cope with the infinite number of options we "enjoy"?

Psychologists have developed tests that indicate that too many choices lower overall satisfaction levels. In other words, if we have a few options, that's optimal, but when we have to sift through dozens of choices, it's too much for us to handle. We become numb through oversaturation.

Common sense would suggest the truth behind the curse of choice, too. Think about going to the store to buy a box of cereal. Does it really matter that the grocery store stocks a hundred different kinds of cereal, or are you simply going to pick out Honey Nut Cheerios like you have done every previous time? It takes a special kind of person to select an unknown cereral from the more tried and true options available.

Or, think about something you do on a less frequent basis. When you go to buy a gallon of paint, for example, do you like have thirty different shades of yellow to compare, or does the number of options simply become burdensome? After a while, all of the yellows tend to blend together. Who really knows what the yellow will look like on your bedroom wall anyway? So just pick one and be done with it.

Perhaps having too many choices inhibits our ability to choose at all. We simply submit, basically giving up our right to choose by selecting what is most familiar. Or most easy.

Does choice best work in moderation?

"It is the ability to choose which makes us human." -- Madeleine L'Engle