Thursday, August 30, 2012

Let's Pretend

As a toddler I sat with my mother while she listened to soap operas on the large console radio in our living room.  Television was in its early stages of development as I grew up, and it wasn't until I was 10 that our family bought a 12-inch Admiral TV set for our home in Greensboro, North Carolina.  So my early imagination was fed by radio, the soaps like "Guiding Light" or "Just Plain Bill" (for which I owe my first name), and such shows as "Sky King," "The Great Gildersleeve," "Amos and Andy," "Terry & the Pirates," "Let's Pretend," "Our Miss Brooks," "Lights Out," "Grand Central Theater,"  and my favorite, "Lux Radio Theater,"which adapted popular movies for the radio format.

I'm told the first movie I saw was "Bambi" which came out when I was 3.  While still living in Toledo, Ohio, before moving south after the end of the war, I saw cartoons at the city's art museum which offered children's programs on the weekend.  About the same time as I started watching TV -- my favorite show was "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" -- I also went to the Greensboro YMCA on Saturday mornings when they showed chapters of serial cliffhangers like "The Lone Ranger,""Zorro," "King of the Mounties," and "Batman."  I loved westerns, particular those starring Roy Rogers, but I also was a fan of Gene Autry.  When we moved to Lenoir in the foothills of the Carolinas, I could walk from our house to the one movie theater in town.  After watching westerns or war movies, I would return home to act out the plot with my friends or my toys.

I've been immersed in stories all my life.  They came from the radio, then cartoons and films, and soon after, television.  I also got them from words.  My father read me Kipling's "Just So Stories" and novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs about Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah.  When I was able to check books out of the library, they were non-fiction stories about heroes, from Thomas Edison to Daniel Boone.  I've been reading stories in books and watching movies on the screen, on television, and now through the medium of the internet, all of my life.

Some time ago I read a very interesting paper by psychologist Jerome Bruner on "The Narrative Construction of Reality" which I'm about to study again, and I'm currently reading Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.  Questions of identity have long puzzled me, whether of the individual or of a group or a nation.  I strongly reject theories based on metaphysical connection or identity based on blood types. Proponents of "narrative psychological" speak of the "storied self."  We see the world through the lens of stories we hear and the stories we tell ourselves.  We organize the blooming, buzzing confusion of our consciousness with a story that has a point to it, a meaning and usually a moral.  Like me as a child, when I reenacted the plots of films I'd seen, most of us are living the stories we've heard or written.

There is an apocryphal story about the universe, that it is "turtles all the way down," with no first turtle, or prime mover.  From where I sit today, I would argue that it's stories all the way down.  Once I thought my life's goal was to discover the answers to two questions: who am I and what am I to do?  Now I believe that the answers to both can only be given in a story.

There are many arguments against this view.  Stories, some would say, have the sole purpose of entertaining and amusing us.  The real business of living is handled by reports and descriptions of facts. Science, through it's testing of hypotheses about reality, gives us facts about reality.  These facts are cumulative and progressive, and the process helps us to control our experience, to get what we want.  Facts, however, must be interpreted in a language understandable to those unable to read instrument dials.  They must be delivered in a narrative with a point.  In other words, a story.

We are surrounded by stories, our own and others, all the hours of our life, from daydreams to nightmares, from the news and entertainment that reaches us via the mass media, to the memories we have of the past and the fantasies we create about the future.  It's all stories, all the way down.  Scientific theories and advertisements for deodorant and cleaning powders are composed of stories.  Our identities are constructed through the stories we've been told and others we choose to tell ourselves.  And the context in which we live is built by shared stories about the community, the nation and the globe.  Partisans of the left and right persuasion both tell stories, albeit different ones, about how we got here and what we can do about it.  Linguist George Lakoff believes that liberals tell stories about nurturing mothers while conservatives favor stories about autocratic fathers.

Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (which I have not yet finished) thinks the brain is hardwired for telling stories.  We imagine stories about the future, both while awake and sleeping, in order to simulate different scenarios without the possibility of real failure.  This can have evolutionary advantages for social groups.  In addition, only exciting stories about avoiding trouble and solving problems can mesmerize the brain enough to make the necessary neural changes.  Ordinary life will not get the juices flowing.

Some may think that the storied nature of our perception of reality is a trivial insight.  It's built into language with its need for a syntax that makes experience shareable.  Others believe that our obsession with stories, with the everlasting din of drama produced mostly for profit by a media that constantly demands our attention, is a distraction from the real work of salvation or enlightenment.  This ignores the obvious fact that all religious texts and teaching are conveyed through stories.  What the latter nay-sayers are arguing is that some stories are more valid than others, that the parables of Jesus are more valuable than gossip about Lindsey Lohan's troubles with the law.  To settle this we will need an arbiter, a cultural judge or a divine intervention.  What a great story that will make!

This blog post, my 501st, isn't much of an argument.  I've only begun doing research into the narrative construction of reality and the importance of stories.  I suspect we all have stories about ourself and our experience, and perhaps collectively they might resemble some of the categories of myth imagined by the late Joseph Campbell.  I'm planning to look again at the series of interviews he gave to Bill Moyers many years ago.  I'll never forget Campbell's injunction to "follow your bliss."  I wonder often about how to categorize my own story.  Gottschall thinks that all stories have trouble at their root, and the need to overcome it, which is why we love mysteries and adventure stories so much (the Thais are crazy about ghost stories).

I use to conceive of my life as a journey.  Then, after religion became important, a pilgrimage.  This doesn't seem to me to involve trouble, but is rather a quest for knowledge and wisdom. Ignorance is the enemy and the spur.  It also doesn't feel like a hero's journey which was the ground for Campbell's work on mythology.  But later, after I'd undergone a few negative experiences, I began to think of my story as the triumph over adversity.  Rather than let life get me down, I persevered and survived.  Again, not very heroic.

Now, at the close of my life, there is nowhere left to go but here.  The story is almost over.  We all hope that our stories will continue to be retold by family and friends after we're gone from the scene.  And this hope, too, is a story.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

500 Posts

At a time when the internet is litered with dead blogs, I am proud to say that mine is alive and well over six years after its beginning.

This is my 500th post.  Here was the first one:
TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 2006 
Here I go, diving into the deep end of the blogosphere. 
Why, I wonder, would anyone want to read my ramblings about the three primary subjects of obsession for most people on the globe (here I am doing my best to deny cultural relativism)? 
But this is the age of the blog and everyone's opinion is valued and visible. So why not add to the mix? 
It's sunny for a change in Santa Cruz although more of the wet stuff is predicted. Where is Noah now that we really need him in California? Sun lifts my disposition. It's the day after Easter and the busyness of the past week. All I had to do today was help Molly with her income tax forms. 
One of these days I'll come up with a more clever title for this blog. At the moment, "Religion, Sex and Politics" seems sufficient. It has a nice ring to it and it can serve as an umbrella for much of my mental world (although I often spend more time ruminating about movies and music). Here I'd like to introduce the blog by saying a bit about each in turn. 
Should I have used the word Spirituality instead of Religion? That's a more acceptable term these days and covers a multitude of practices. But 22 years ago I decided to become a Catholic after devouring the writings of Thomas Merton and visiting the Trappist monastery, St. Joseph's Abbey, in Massachusetts. To the other Catholics I mingle with at Holy Cross Church, I no doubt seem suitably pious and devout. I participate in a variety of ministries. But what my fellow Catholics did not know was that at Easter vigil Saturday night, as I stood at the lectern to read a passage from Ezekiel, under my suit coat and shirt I wore a tee shirt emblazoned with the word "Heretic." My patron saint is Thomas who said "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Catholicism to me is a spiritual practice, much like meditation is for Buddhists (and I also count myself a member of a local Buddhist sangha). It's not a set of rules or answers. Religion for me is a language with which to describe the ineffable Mystery of ongoing creation. The Mystery is one, the languages are many. 
Sex is a topic about which I know least, despite my years. I have two failed marriages and not a few unsuccessful relationships in my autobiography. Surely sexuality and spirituality should fit together, hand in glove, but I'm still trying to figure out how. Suggestions will be appreciated. In the meantime, I find myself growing more cranky and cantankerous each day, alone and happy with my own company. 
Politics is easy: what's to like in the current situation? Those of us who marched three years ago in an attempt to stop the madness in the Middle East can feel self-righteous. But what good is that? Most of my friends feel like the character in "Network" who leaned out the window and screamed "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Venting feels good, but we're still fucked. Santa Cruz is a comfortable place for liberals and anarchists. We vigil and march and protest, and in recent words I've heard talks by Michael Lerner and Medea Benjamin. After Jesuit activist John Dear spoke last year, we started a Pax Christi group and it provides a monthly forum to study the issues, pray, and plan actions. The writings of Bill Moyers give me hope. 
I'll certainly write more about movies. I see about a half dozen a week, at the three theaters within a few blocks from my home and on Netflix DVDs. Right now I can recommend "Tsotsi" and "Don't Bother Knocking" as worth seeing. And music is equally important. I set out last year to find every song I ever loved and my iPod now contains over 7,500 songs, the soundtrack of my life. In the 1970s, I spent five years as a PR man in the music industry. My two younger children, Molly and Nick, both have inherited my love of music and are exceptionally talented. Nick makes hip-hop beats and Molly sings, beautifully I might add. 
And, finally, travel has been important since I first set out to see the world two years ago. I've been to India and Thailand twice each, and visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka last December. A year ago I spent a month at language school in Oaxaca and another couple of weeks traveling around Mexico. Last April I spent two weeks in Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity. In the summer I went to Europe for two months, visiting cathedrals in England and traveling to Barcelona and Rome, as well as Assisi, Siena, Florence and points north. I'll return to India next December with a group from Santa Cruz to stay at Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, as well as Ramana Maharshi's ashram. Before then, however, I hope to take a trip to South America and travel in the footsteps of Che Guevara. 
Ok, this is a beginning. I'm not sure if anyone will read these words, but let's see what turns up.
There have been a few changes.

In 2007, after several trips to Asia, I left California and became a permanent expat in Thailand.  The following year I began teaching English to Buddhist monks, and it's become the most rewarding job of my life.  Gradually I shed my identity as a Catholic Christian and now think of myself mostly as a Buddhist sympathizer.  Religious labels no longer seem necessary. Strangely, I gave up meditation after moving here, but have devoted myself to reading and studying the history of Buddhism and its unique incarnation in Southeast Asia.

Two years after the move, I met the woman who has become my third and final wife. She has taught me not only what it feels like to be completely loved, but also how to live in the enchanted Thai world of sanuk.  Taking care of her is my pleasure and enormously satisfying, although I must admit that her talents in this area are superior to mine.  I must be the most fortunate man alive!

The internet has become even more important in my life via MacBook, iPod, iPad and iPhone (my wife's, not my antique Nokia).  At 73, my body is slowing down and we travel less (though we saw Hong Kong last year and will visit Korea this December).  Sitting on my couch, I can plug into the world.  On Facebook I've connected with distant friends from every epoch of my life, beginning with junior high school. The latest films, TV shows, books, podcasts and musical sounds magically arrive via wifi; I read bulletins, views and opinions daily on the web sites of the world's newspapers and magazines. Sources to stay in touch with events abound and I manage to keep up with what's happening in the country of my birth, although my feeling of involvement is lessening.  More urgent and fascinating is discovering what's happening in this part of the globe. Learning of events and sharing perspectives with my friends through Facebook or Twitter is satisfying, no matter how many objections raised by the digital doubters.

My blog still looks the same six years on.  I found a style and colors I liked and have stuck with it, despite all the alternative possibilities offered by Blogger.  Photos have become more important and sometimes I feel the words only serve to complement photography that I'm proud of.  I write less regularly now, usually 2-3 posts per month, probably because I've said all I know to say about certain topics.  "Breaking News," however, is always just around the corner, and new insights are born, albeit more slowly.  Lately I've become very curious about "the narrative construction of reality" (Jerome Bruner) and humans as the storytelling animal, and will ponder this topic in future blog posts.  How to respond to the ravages of aging with dignity is also a challenge.  I continue to question who I am and what should I do just as insistently as I did when I was 18 and wet behind the ears.

This blog does not have many regular readers, and that's never been very important to me.  Maybe 150 individuals read an average post.  Nearly 900 have looked at "Pattaya: A Boneyard for Old Men," probably thinking it a guide to the girls.  A large number have seen my posts about Ajahn Brahm's ordination of nuns, Pali scholar Richard Gombrich's criticism of Thai Buddhism, and my wedding to Nan.  Over 300 read about Old MacDonald's farm in the Thai hinterland. And "Family Values" has attracted nearly 400, no doubt Republicans thinking it upholds their Victorian views.

Living in the large Asian capital city of Bangkok, a hall of mirrors and a garden of delight, is a constant wonder. I recommend becoming an expat to anyone who feels their arteries hardening and their heart turning to stone.   I've tried to chronicle my experiences here, but there isn't enough time to itemize all the surprises and mysteries I've encountered living in this city.  Certainly there are inconveniences in not understanding the language, and standing out in crowds like a tall white oddity, but the frequent epiphanies more than make up for it.  I moved here to avoid the rocking chair on the front porch syndrome (not to mention the "retirement" home), and I'm certain that it's knocked years off my age.

If you substitute Posts for People in the title of this video, you'll get an idea of my achievement!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Losing My Mind

William Blake's painting of "mind-forged manacles"
Where did I put it?

I'll first look for it where I last left the glasses I eventually found.  Or maybe, like Mullah Nasruddin, I'll just search for it under the street light where it is easier to see rather than in the darker places it might more likely be.

The mind is a terrible thing to lose.   At least I had the presence of mind to go looking for it as soon as I became suspicious that it was missing.  Great minds, Nasruddin and I, think alike.  I usually make up my mind quite quickly, and invariably speak my mind about the state my mind is in, which often takes a load off my mind.  As we all know, sn idle mind (or is it a dirty mind?), is the devil's playground.  It sometimes crosses my mind, however, that "out of sight, out of mind" troubles the mind less than the constat preoccupation of expressing my mind, and in the end, a quiet (yet open) mind is more likely to bring peace of mind.

And so it goes.  I've spent the last week researching the mind (and all its clichĂ©s) for a meeting of the BuddhistPsychos yesterday.  We met in a lounge adjacent to a bookstore and a McCafĂ©, and a dozen of us expats in Bangkok debated definitions of, and perspectives on, the mind, comparing and contrasting western psychology with Buddhist teaching on the subject.  The topic attracted no women participants, perhaps because the fairer sex knows better than to quibble over how many minds can dance on the head of a pin.

How can something like the mind, so central to our experience of existence, be so difficult to pin down?  And yet any discussion of the mind leads straight into a minefield of paradoxes.  The disciplines of psychology and cognitive science lay claims to objectivity, and yet the mind is as slippery as an eel.  I know I have one, but I'm not so sure about yours.  This thought leads some theorists, and science fiction writers, to suppose that only one mind exists and other minds are illusions produced by that one.  An alternate hypothesis is that no minds exist: What we think we experience in the imaginary chambers of our consciousness is only the epiphenomenon of neuronal activity in the brain, steam rising after the rain.

Buddhism seems to be very sensible about the mind, calling it a sixth sense.  Like the sensory input processed by the other senses, the mind manipulates thoughts.  Just as the nose detects smells, the brain controls and coordinates thought.  In this, the brain comes close to being synonymous with the mind as many believe.  Thinkers like John Locke argued that without sensory input from the five senses, the brain could not produce any thoughts at all.  Prior to the gathering of sensory experience, the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate.  This evolutionary proposal is rejected by others who see the brain as hardwired to develop certain proclivities, like language.  Could the mind be a black box we're born with, ready by design to interact with the waiting world?

While the brain is an amazing piece of meat, the mind we speak of is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and, in general, invisible.  The activity of my own mind may be a blooming, buzzing confusion, but all I know of another's mind are inferences made from observing behavior which lead me to postulates about an unobservable will with a multitude of intentions.  Your thoughts are a mystery unless you talk about them, and then you could be lying.  What can a scientist, or a husband, know about what's going on in the mind of another persion?  Mental processes have been compared to actions of particles at the sub-atomic level; with the proper formulas and data, predictions can be made about macro behavior.  But I have my doubts.  Just as our dreams are made coherent by the stories we tell about them upon awakening, I suspect the mystery of our inner life can only be grasped, even by the participant, through the creativity (and hence un-truth) of a story.

One of my research discoveries this week was the location of the mind (when it isn't lost).  For me, an educated westerner, the mind clearly resides in the vicinity of the head with access to the eyes, our primary tool of interaction with the world.  But to an Asian, the mind is in the heart.  In Thai, both the mind and the heart are referred to by the same word, jai.  And this goes for Korean, Japanese and Chinese as well.  In English, the heart is the metaphorical site of emotions and feelings while thinking is   the province of the head, a rigid separation.  Tibetan, my friend the former monk tells me, has no word for emotions.

The key problem for the mind is its relationship to the brain.  Descartes declared "I think, therefore I am," and distinguished thought from the body, a dualism established long ago by Plato.  All religious thinkers, who posit any sort of life after death, are dualists.  Metaphysical entities that transcend the lifeless body are beyond the realms of objectivity and science; their acceptance relies of the truths of faith, propounded by pundits and prophets but beyond the ken of us mere mortals.  Non-dualists have developed the idea of embodied cognition, a mind that inheres throughout the body.  In this view, even the little toe is a thinking thing (holistically, of course).  But when the body dies, this mind disappears.

It's difficult to escape a discussion of consciousness when contemplating the mind and its mysteries.  At its most basic level, consciousness is awareness.  I experience it, and, if you're alive and awake, I assume you do too.  Freud gave us a multi-level structure of consciousness to point out the obvious that some of our memories are lost in the basement, and even out perceptual awareness of what is presented to us is often flawed.  We see so little and miss so much of our surroundings, and what we do perceive is conditioned by previous experience and ideological expectations.  In addition to consciousness, the mind occasionally stands in for: intellect, intelligence, wit, reason and, of course, brain.  Besides being itself a metaphor, the mind is also a metaphor for a multitude of labels for agency and intention, what we call a self.

Today we typically understand mind by using the metaphors of a computer or a container.  It's the software for the hardware of the body, and computer viruses could be the virulent memes that lead people to work against their own obvious interests (smokers with cancer, Social Security recipients who join the Tea Party).  The mind is most often described as a room that is open or closed where the contents are corrupted or pure.  Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation not to fill it up but to clean it out.  Awareness among practitioners is often conceptualized not as awareness of anything but of an empty readiness to appreciate everything on its own terms rather than from some prior perspective, ruled by ignorance, anger and greed.  Just how the mind can be both computer software and a room without furniture will require a story greater than any I can tell.

Whenever I seem too serious and preoccupied, my wife will observe: "You think too much."  This is a common opinion Thais have of westerners in their midst.  Thought is sometimes viewed as the enemy of sanuk, the ethic of enjoyment that Thais value highly.  For me, however, the intellectual chase is highly pleasurable.  I lose myself in the search for the variety of facts and opinions that the internet makes readily available (the library in Alexandria could never have offered such a delightful smorgasbord).  While I no longer see my discoveries as the equivalent to creations of art and music, I do strive to embody my fragile insights, treasures from the common wisdom, within the everydayness of a life lived: mine.  One typical metaphor for mind is the pilgrim on a journey.  From this perspective, all humans are tasked with making sense out of their experience.  I'm fascinated with how others do it.  This is my way.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Joyful Pessimist

 It's all over, folks.

The planet is trashed, the economy is in the toilet, If cancer doesn't get us, it will be done by the drive-by (or cinema) shooters or the suicide bombers.  Every sign of hope turns to shit. Wars of liberation and democratic revolutions unleash sectarian hatreds, and globalization fuels ethnocentric nationalism and religious strife. Obama sells out to the banks, corporations and Israel, and sends drones to assassinate "terrorists" without benefit of trial. The spread of digital technology brings expensive gadgets that addict us no less than the illegal drugs that are destroying the minds of those unable to bear much reality.

It's not all fun and games, as the above ditty might indicate. Back in the Cold War era, it was assumed Nuclear Annihilation was the earth's biggest threat; now we know that human-caused Global Warming can do the trick.  The jolly mathematician, Tom Lehrer, wrote humorous songs about serious subjects that amused worried political and cultural activists in the 1960's.  The pessimist's anthem, "The Merry Minuet," sometimes mistaken for a Lehrer song , was written by Sheldon Harnick, lyricist for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
They're rioting in Africa
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man
Can we laugh about Armageddon? Can we live joyfully in the present moment while the sky falls and the universe turns to dust?  I think so.

I began to reexamine pessimism as part of my critical analysis of the false hopes and optimism of other-worldly religion (see last blog post), and what I see as the necessity of living fully, and joyfully, in this world.  One day I found a trove of videos on YouTube of Eva Cassidy, a notoriously shy singer who left us with only a few recordings after her untimely death from melanoma in 1996.  In a documentary for ABC Nightline, friends describe how Cassidy had to be helped onto the stage for her last performance two months before she died.  The song she choose to sing was "What a Wonderful World."

Aside from hearing her beautiful voice, I was deeply moved by the choice she made of this song, a hymn to the wonders of life.  It affirmed for me the possibility that one can choose, out of the deepest darkness, to live in the light.  There was nothing optimistic about it, for hope on your death bed is a pointless luxury.

Pessimism has certainly got a bad rap.  Most people understand it as a black mood or attitude, a negative disposition, a psychological state perhaps resulting from an unhappy childhood.    The term comes from the Latin pessimus which means "the worst," and it's been called the most un-American of philosophies because America was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the pursuit of happiness.  But Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political philosopher at UCLA, believes pessimism is not the same as skepticism, cynicism and nihilism.  "Pessimism is a substitute for progress," he writes in his 2006 book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit.

Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton called "sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin," while progress historian Howard Zinn echoed the fears of political activists by writing that "pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act."  Even the saintly Helen Keller thought that "no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." To admit that one is a pessimist is to declare for the dark side.

Mark Twain, however, believed that "the man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little."  Robert Oppenheimer, "father" of the atomic bomb, is reported to have said, "The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."  Marxist Antonio Gramsci, jailed by Mussolini in the 1930s, wrote, "I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will." Finding the right balance between an understanding of pessimism and of optimism is the key.

"Optimism," writes Dienstag, "makes us perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments. It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment." This to me is a very Buddhist prescription for living in the present moment.

Conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton sees optimism as a liberal plot in his small book, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope.  Optimism and hope are behind all the social engineering projects of everyone from the Nazis and Mao Zedong to Barack Obama's mildly democratic schemes.  The desire for improvement is an abomination, an escape from the true values of tradition.  But this conservative spin on pessimism is only partly true. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, warned against both "reckless optimism and reckless despair."  She pointed out that "Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition."

At my age, it's easy to give up hopes and plans for the future.  Having a good poop in the morning is often the most I can wish for.  My 60's generation condemned pessimism as the evil of negative thinking. But I've always had difficulty with pollyannaish Power of Positive Thinking.  Anyway, I've think that hubris is the greater sin.  Hubris was the attitude of the first farmers who abandoned foraging for food because they'd learned how to control the growing of plants and the domestication of animals.  It's been all down hill since then. The development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a byproduct of World War II, is only the latest phase of the war by optimists on the planet.  When I was teaching environmental issues to undergraduates I was made constantly aware of the unintended consequences of technology.  Today, in addition to iPads we have drones and the reality of hands-off warfare.

The recognition that optimism and hope are false friends does not preclude actions in the present that may benefit the future.  Recently I joined a group of tenants from my condo in the planting of mangrove seedlings along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand to prevent erosion.  Such this-worldly realism also does not turn one into a dogmatic materialist.  Our lives become meaningful not only by performing such concrete deeds joyfully but by also by listening and contributing to the stories and myths that give them significance.