Making Sense III

After noting that we are struggling to make sense of our existence because we have lost the orientation that served us for two thousand years, for better or worse, I then pointed out the role that myths and rituals have played and continue to play. Our problem seems to be that modern myths and rituals have little substance or seem hollow and do not give us the guidance we need.

To combat the evils that afflict us and send us into a paranoid, catatonic, or depressed state, we need to find meaning in our existence, and it does not help us to have self-proclaimed experts tell us that our existence is meaningless. That is a mockery of the existential experiences people have had, of the loss and grief we have suffered, but also of the commitment and dedication people have shown. There are too many people who see their hopes dashed by the realities of life, whether in a liberal society or an authoritarian one. I have mentioned the different orientation in both, either an individualistic or a collectivistic one, but experience shows that both forms of society have their problems.

Existential to a meaningful life is an understanding of who we are, what we are, how we got here. We also need to understand the strange fact of our mixed minds, and why we so often do what we specifically do not want to do. Why do we act contrary to what we know is best? These are all themes that religions have adopted, but which have also caused speculation here and there, and because of the allegorical style of writing, produced fundamentalist or a critical explanations or interpretations. We are unable to fathom the beginnings of the universe, and scientists have developed several theories, but they all lack yet confirmation. Their theories are therefore, educated guesses, but to us they might as well be mythologies.

What does seem apparent, is that the possibility of life that can attempt to assess its situation, which is sentient life that is aware of its awareness, was around from the beginning. That would suggest that thirteen billion years ago, under the right circumstances, sentient life was possible in the vast expanse of the universe. Religions tended to concentrate on the world we then knew and said that the Divine created man and some suggested that we were the image of the Divine. What that means is clearly not that a biological organism such as we are, created us to look like it did. What it suggests is, that our consciousness resembles a cosmic consciousness that gave rise to the universe.

This is quite astounding considering how long ago our ancestors came to this conclusion, because this is still a consideration that physicists, such as Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who is known for the phrase, “The total number of minds in the universe is one. In fact, consciousness is a singularity phasing within all beings.”1 David Bohm’s theory of the Implicate Order emphasizes that the cosmos is in a state of process.2 His cosmos is a “feedback” universe that continuously recycles forward into a greater mode of being and consciousness. (“The interiority – What is going on”) Recently, metaphysical idealism was proposed by Bernardo Kastrup, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy (ontology, philosophy of mind) and another Ph.D. in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence), suggesting that there is only cosmic consciousness, and that we, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated “alters” of cosmic consciousness, surrounded by its thoughts, which does seem on the surface to echo Erwin Schrödinger.

We can see that the ancient traditions’ account of our beginnings is not off the table after all this time, even if the literal interpretation is. We must agree that there are no simple explanations and that our existence is just as mysterious as the ancients claimed. Further confirmation of a religious theme is that our civilization began after a catastrophic flood. Evidence suggests that after the Younger Dryas (ca. 12,900 to 11,700 years B.C.), which represented a return to glacial conditions after the Late Glacial, humanity moved forward. The reason for the sudden rise in temperature after this period is attributed to several asteroid or comet impacts in the northern hemisphere that caused melting of the ice sheet and subsequent flooding of a large area, resulting in a rise in sea level.

My point is simply that we are using our enormous technological advantage to observe patterns in the sky and in nature, down to the microscopic level, which, if we are honest, the ancients did many thousands of years ago. Our wealth of accumulated knowledge helps us make educated guesses about what we observe, but it does not provide a conclusive, definitive answer to our questions. We are still at a loss to explain our strange existence in a strange universe where much is supposedly “invisible,” such as “dark energy” and “dark matter.”

Occasionally, supporters of scientism claim superiority over ancient mythology, but the problems that humanity has faced for millennia we still have not overcome. We are still arguing over ridiculous issues and have failed to collectively overcome the challenges of nature, as the pandemic has shown us. Moral superiority of any kind bounces off the reality that demands of us the humility that religious wisdom has always advised. The fall of Christianity in the West has been and continues to be the display of piety and devotion that contradicts the truth we know about ourselves. The way forward seems to me to lie in an effective respect for life of all kinds, in the form of panentheism, the belief that the “divine” permeates every part of the universe and reaches beyond space and time.

Panentheism seems to me to be the approach that transcends the tribal aspects of the traditions of the past, and at the same time is a unifying way to respect those traditions, but also to look forward and honour the planet as our only abode – despite the dreams that scientists harbour of venturing beyond our solar system. It seems to me that if we do not appreciate and respect the home we have, we should not aspire to go anywhere else.

What do you think?

  1. Erwin Schrödinger: There is only one mind – Hendrik Wintjen (hendrik-wintjen.info)
  2. Bohm’s Gnosis: The Implicate Order (bizint.com)

Narrow-mindedness versus a broader understanding

One problem that seems to be appearing with some consistency is the narrow-mindedness that I see in all areas of life, including academia, where one would think there would be a tendency to be broadminded. They say universities are places where people are taught to think, but I, a non-academic, was taught by my son that this is not always the case.

His major was computer science, and he had completed an apprenticeship in a well-known German company and pursued the subject on his own. His breakthrough seems to have come while he was still at school when he suddenly understood mathematics and its practical applications (thanks to a student who gave him lessons). After his apprenticeship, he went to university and found that much of what was being taught was outdated. Worse, he was told to forget everything he knew and study for exams based on outdated methods.

The consequence of this, which he personally experienced after becoming an instructor in the company he worked for, was that those with a university degree had no advantage, even though they assumed they had. Even towards him, who had dropped out of university, they assumed they were superior, which he had to correct – a problematic process. Apprentices, he said, often had an advantage because they did not have to unlearn what they had learned.

We have this situation in non-academic fields as well: Our worldview, which was taught in school, is shaped by a materialistic worldview that in many cases still adheres to a mechanistic understanding of nature. Many of us leave school realizing that we have not been prepared for the natural world. The simplistic ideas we are inculcated with are incompatible with reality, which is not black or white, and it is often not enough to assume that there is simply a wrong or right way to answer questions. Complexity forces itself upon us and we are confused when nuances complicate life. This sometimes develops into a resistance to complex questions, and we try to simplify them, but the more we learn, the more complexity arises and the more questions surface. We give up the struggle and try to empower ourselves with a preconceived notion that we do not recognize as a prejudice and therefore we do not take it into account.

In defence of such developments, we must acknowledge that life often challenges us to make complex decisions in ever shorter periods of time, which only worsens matters and helps a kind of fundamentalism to grow in all areas, not just in the religious realm where it is most prominent. Religions saw the rise of modernism as a challenge to their traditions and in some cases to the way of life they promoted, which has given rise to so-called culture wars predominantly with militant Islamic groups, but also to a doubling down of Christian fundamentalism and a phase of widespread evangelisation by people like Billy Graham in the 1970s. But there has been a similar development amongst atheist and humanist circles, which threw out the very concept of religion and spirituality in favour of a materialist ideology.

The narrowing of focus can also be seen in other areas, which is what my son and I experienced in Germany. We both became quality consultants in our vastly different fields of work (Nursing and IT) but realized in conversation that quality management is universal, even though it was initially developed for industry. It reflects a process that we implement every day, even if we are often not aware of it. We plan events, invite people to them, and buy what we need based on what we know about the people invited. Once the event has taken place, we check whether our sourcing was right for our invitees based on their satisfaction with the event and whether they will attend again. If something was not to everyone’s satisfaction, a change is made, which again may or may not be approved at the next event. This process continues if the event is held, each time evaluating the event and considering what could be done better.

This process requires a certain amount of constructive criticism and a willingness to respond to that criticism. It also means that if an event is good, we need to keep that standard and figure out what makes it a good event. This is something we do every day and something we take for granted. However, my son and I found that when we applied it to work processes, there was considerable frustration. My manager didn’t want to wait until the process took place but insisted on jumping ahead and doing the work process “good” right away. When I said I wanted to find out what made such an operation good, he said that it was obvious, even though it wasn’t, because when different people did the same work, there were different results. I wanted the operation to be good regardless of who was doing the work.

This is just one example of how we tend to narrow our perspective to individual specifics that are only part of a process, not the whole. We are increasingly discovering that our lives are made up of processes, not things. We can’t just observe the what but must also consider the how. The same kind of frustration that my CEO experienced is experienced by many people in their interactions with people. People change over time, but they also change under different circumstances, which means that every time I meet someone, they can be different to how I remember them, even after a brief period. I’m sure we all know people who are very blunt and “matter-of-fact” as they say about themselves, but in reality, they are not able to consider processes.

There are many people today who simply cannot get along with others. They seem less and less able to accept that other people have a different point of view and that this is not because they want to do us harm. The woman who is concerned about the safety of women has no intention of harming trans people who identify as women. The person who is concerned about the welfare of children is not out to harm men. The person who is comfortable with people of other ethnicity isn’t racist for not addressing their issues. The process that is charged with ensuring the quality of work does not criticize people personally. To the extent that we take a fixed perspective, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Collaboration suffers when we lose sight of the big picture, and conflicts arise.

However, our society is highly dependent on interaction and cooperation. It requires social processes in which individuals and groups interact, adapt and readjust to establish relationships and patterns of behaviour that are constantly changed through social interactions, just like the quality process described above. The more we focus on our small area of interest, forgetting that we contribute to the bigger picture, the greater the unconscious collective impact we have on society. That is the danger of narrowmindedness and the reason for much of the conflict we experience, especially in social media.

Broadmindedness is not just an inclination to tolerate or overlook opposing or “shocking” opinions or behaviour as is commonly assumed, but also to accept the various perspectives people have as valid, and subject to the process a person is going through. In fact, it would suggest that opposing opinions could have something constructive to offer towards the larger picture. Opposite sides of a coin make up the whole, despite being very different. Perhaps we could develop into a society similar to the people in the following parable:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

“In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

Individualism versus Collectivism

We are currently seeing a standoff between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, which is being portrayed in the West as a threat to Russia against a former Soviet territory that Putin supposedly sees as his sphere of influence. However, many point to the promise Gorbachev claims to have heard in February 1990 that NATO would not extend “one inch to the east.” The spokesman is said to have been U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. This clearly contradicts what has happened, but it is left to historians to debate whether this promise was really made. For Russia, it is enough that they think it was.

But is that really the problem? From what one hears from Russia, it seems to be the issue. It is quite clear that there are major differences between Russia and the West, but it is no longer about capitalism or communism, even if some of the structures of the Soviet past are still used. Rather, it seems to be about individualism versus collectivism, or, from a Western perspective, liberality versus restriction. It seems restrictive to be subordinate to a social collective rather than living in a society where the rights and interests of the individual are paramount, but a large majority of people live in societies where it is normal to give priority to the interests of the state, as the term collectivism suggests.

The idea behind collectivism is understandable. It aims to increase cooperation to solve common problems and boost solidarity between members of society. It can lead individuals to be guided by the opinions of others and can lead to mediocrity, i.e., individuals seek only comfort, food, and entertainment for themselves and seek security in the group. There is also the aspect of authoritarian rule that suits certain personalities who can become very defensive for the group and relentlessly attack criticism. It can then be difficult to suggest corrections or improvements in such a society, and conformity and harmony become ideals, and a collective narcissism can lead to an overestimation of the group. However, it is a society that is easier to rule and to mobilise in comparison with a society in which everything has to be discussed at length before a decision can be made. It is therefore comprehensible that Putin and his friends are very defensive of their kind of society.

Individualism in the West seems to threaten its own livelihood. The lack of concern for survival or the betterment of the whole, making everything relative and truth trivial, is not a recommendation for individualism. The fact that we become hostile to anything that seems to threaten our individualistic ideas is an indication that our society is quite fragile. If truth is relative, there is no basic substance on which to build society, and the idea that “if it feels good, it is good” often failed us when we were growing up. Therefore, there is a feeling that individualism is a rather juvenile ideal and is not up to the conflicts that our existence presents us with. This also seems to be the attitude of Russia and China toward the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we once thought we were superior, but perhaps the West is going the same way.

There is an element in the West that seems to have a similar idea, which is very vocal against the rise of extreme individualism, expressed in a militant “cancel-culture” that was also seen in communist societies in the revolutionary period. But this element is also critical of far-reaching rights, even human rights, which were drawn up after the war, and human rights courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights (based in Strasbourg). This is basically the kind of opposition that Russian civic groups, independent media, journalists, and especially political opposition currently face, which in the West has so far only been threatened by right-wing governments. One aspect of collectivism is that the protests we are currently seeing against the Covid measures have been crushed in authoritarian societies.

What would happen if the authoritarian elements in western politics were able to gain control? Would they prefer to enforce an authoritarian collectivism, like countries outside of the West do? Was that the idea that made Trump warm up to Putin? But what would that mean in countries in which individualist freedom is held high and people are prepared go to the streets to protect their individual rights against an authoritarian government? In America, where individualism finds radical expression, we have seen the violence of ‘Black-Lives-Matter’ demonstrations and people turning out with weapons to ‘protect themselves’ against demonstrators (who also looted in the process). We have seen an insurrection on the 6th January 2021, where protestors were prepared to storm the Capitol to “take their country back”.

It has been suggested in various medial outputs that Russia and China are instrumental in radicalising people in the West, undermining those aspects which make society strong. It is said that the European Union is also under attack, because it is one of the more stable areas of individualism, with pockets of dissent being excited out of context, so that it ignites into violent protest. Conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ are spread to propagate distrust in authorities. In this way, if it were true, opposition would be using individualism against itself. I think we have to take this into account more.

A Forced Break

Unfortunately, due to renovations in our house and the noise they were making, I have had to postpone my Making Sense III. I’m working on it, but I have to be able to write, let alone think!

Making Sense II

I ended the last episode of “Making Sense” by acknowledging that it isn’t a simple matter to return to paths once abandoned, in particular, for a post-Christianity Europe to return to Christianity. It may be true that much of our culture is highly influenced by Christian role models, and personalities of the church, but the church has lost its exemplary status. This becomes very plain by the onslaught of popular atheistic personalities, who have revelled in the downfall of the church. However, I have a feeling that we have a case of the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.

The reason I say this is because I am convinced that we need stories to make sense of things, and not just any stories. There is an extensive use of narratives made in advertisements today, with a clear intention of encouraging us to buy their products. This is a use of a basic story, an account of incidents or events, making it coherent to the goal that the narrators are trying to achieve. If you like, the story is enhanced with a significance that it would probably normally not have. This has also been the role of mythology in the past: to give a story an enhanced significance, or a meaning. Myths, such as foundational tales or origin myths, were instrumental in sense making in the past, and as a folklore genre consisting of narratives, they played a fundamental role in a society.

Myths still play a role today, although they are incorporated into artistic creations such as films and computer games, but myths also go unnoticed in some cases. People tell anecdotal stories that somehow spread over time and become “urban legends”, such as the well-known story about the alligators that supposedly live in the sewers of New York. Children are often targets for myths, like the story of Santa Claus or even the Easter Bunny, to whom thousands of requests are sent each year. In the early 20th century, there was the myth of cursed mummies in Egyptian tombs, and since then the conviction that alien civilizations are visiting us has arisen, and that people are abducted. In the series “X-Files” an iconic poster stated, “I want to believe”, and many do.

In fact, modern myths consist of conspiracy theories and fantasies, and curiously, include rituals that have grown in recent times. Burning man is an event that attracts thousands of people into the Black Rock Desert. Some older rituals have evolved and accommodate needs that they didn’t in the past. Women have played an influential role in making rituals more inclusive for them, as have members of the LGBTQ community, using rituals to channel emotions, and give a new meaning to welcoming the newly born, coming of age, coupling rituals, and funerals. The times of transition in life still require ritual, even if they are sometimes inadequate, and people aspire to give these times a proper relevance.

What seems to be missing, given that we are in a sensemaking crisis, or better, we struggle to make sense of crises, is the accompanying narrative. The problem we have with such narratives, or “enhanced” stories, is that we tend to separate stories into fact or fiction, but narratives seldom fall into these categories, just as poetry doesn’t. Poetry enhances an experience, a moment, a scene, or an event, giving us more than a factual account could, but it isn’t fiction. No wonder then, that many mythologies were written as a rhyming narrative, such as the Iliad, or the Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur by Lord Tennyson. There are also German legends written in rhyme, mostly so that they could be memorised. Also, the Qur’an is written as rhyme in the original language. These are just a few examples of literature that don’t fit into the category’s fact or fiction easily.

Instead of narrative, we find many people reading self-help manuals with titles such as “Lost Connections”, “Fewer Better Things”, “The Longing for Less”, “The 100-Year Life”, or “Burnout Survival Kit”. These manuals are clearly naming a problem and supplying an answer, sometimes by offering a ritual to overcome such problems. The lack of ritual seems to be the underlying problem, and a lack of community with which one shares such a ritualised lifestyle. This suggests, of course, that the ritualised everyday life of the past that revolved around the church wasn’t so far away from the truth of what we need to feel well. I remember meeting my Great Aunt when I was small whose life revolved around the Methodist church. For a while, because my immediate family had no such religious background, it seemed like entering another world. My immature judgement of what I experienced there was based on my experience of people, and how they presented themselves. My Great Aunt was a lovely lady, who was so compassionate and caring, that I felt at home each time I met her. At the same time, the life she led slowly became restrictive in my eyes, and when I had grown older, it seemed like another world.

We all have a personal ritual, and we often find ourselves tending to do the same things, eat the same meals, go to the same places, until we decide we need a change. Our individualised mind occasionally needs to break out of the routine we have set ourselves and take on another ritual, perhaps a vacation ritual, but we tend to return to our comfort zone after a while. Is it because we have a routine, but it is only a mode of existing rather than living a life that makes sense of the world? No wonder then that people latch onto stories that seem to have that enhanced nature. I know of a young woman who permanently watched the Waltons and had the box set that had a revered position in her apartment. There are others who gather around the Lord of The Rings ritually, which, fair enough, was an attempt to give the English language a mythology, comparable to the mythologies of other languages. The trouble with these examples is that they have no venerableness that grows with age, no tradition and no time-tested relevance that could enhance a modern life.

The reason for our lack of tradition seems to fall back on the fact that we have lost the communal spirit of sense making. Large gatherings are found, when there is no pandemic, where people socialise and generally it is accompanied by alcohol, which has a relaxing quality that enables sociability. Even there we tend to group together with people we know and only gradually make new acquaintances after a period of observation and increased relief from bodily or mental work or effort. However, it is this loosening or slackening of pressures that is the reason for such gatherings, a respite from the “daily slog” or some entertainment. Usually, people gain no insight into what makes sense at social conventions, sometimes quite the opposite. We all know people who are addicted to various means of relaxing and use alcohol extensively outside of social gatherings.

What remains are attempts to overcome the feeling of being driven by external forces, which are no longer regarded as spirits, but are identified as aspects of society, as work, as mortgage, as politics, or even as our partner. We notice an increasing need for relief, and a frustration when the means we find exert added pressures.

What helps you make sense of everything? Do you have an idea?

Making Sense

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time making sense of what we’re going through right now. Of course, compared to what the people we have known have gone through, especially those who lived through the twentieth century with all the wars and ideological conflicts, it seems like a trivial thing. I had to wonder whether my expectations and the belief that we would overcome the experiences that caused so much suffering by becoming more reasonable were the cause of my difficulties.

The assumption that we would become more reasonable after the horrors of the last century was, I think, fostered by schooling in Germany, which was clearly an indoctrination away from the fascist mindset that had made Germany such a war machine. It was propaganda designed to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, and it was, of course, well-intentioned, and many of us believed it. A similar mindset accompanied me in my training as a geriatric nurse, where it became clear that gerontology, a relatively new field of nursing, was trying to overcome the appalling conditions in which older people with dementia had been kept until the 1980s, and to better educate caregivers. We had set out with the idea that our approach would make the world a little better, especially the world of people with dementia.

Many of us had not understood that people had a similar intention at the beginning of the 20th century, when they believed that World War I would be a war to end all wars and intending to make reason and science the tools with which to overcome the irrationality of religion, ignorance, and superstition. In a sense, it was an application of pure rationality that led to the atrocities of the 20th century, and a heartless determination took people’s breath away in horror because it seemed to consume people and make them burn for something that had the opposite effect of what they had imagined. It did not seem to matter in which ideological direction people moved, whether fascism or communism, people were captivated and those who were not indoctrinated were swept away.

The conclusion of the post-war period was that an evil had been overcome with the surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan, but the comparably rationalist indoctrination of communism had taken place in Russia and China, causing unimaginable suffering that surpassed that of World War II. An ideological struggle was still going on in many countries, and people continued to suffer until towards the end of the century. It is hard to imagine how I could have had such an idealistic worldview when I set out to make the world a better place, given the recent past. Not only did the world not make sense, but I did not make sense either.

Since then, it has become abundantly clear that while we had not defeated the evil that plagued the last century, at least in the West, we had driven it underground. We could have recognized this after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed victory over communism by noting a shift in power, but the problem was by no means defeated. In fact, the problem is our nature. Some call it a dualistic nature, some say it is due to the structure of our brain, and some say it is our shadow self which, if ignored, overturns the good resolutions we have carefully made. In whatever way we want to explain it, explanations do not free us from the consequences. To make sense of the world, we must make sense of our contradictory nature.

The strange thing that people discover is that there is a side of humanity that well-meaning people tried to eradicate at the beginning of the 20th century: Religion. Today, many people in Europe see religion as something outdated, something that is rapidly disappearing – especially since the scandals of the Church have been investigated and made public. It has cost the sense of faith the church sought to convey, and its maternal nature has been sullied by the behaviour of a minority among the clergy who have abused the trust placed in them. But, as studies show, we are a species that is primarily emotional, and our rationality comes later. That’s why we keep looking for something we think as an institution in which we can place our trust. For some it’s work, for others it’s the soccer club, for others it’s the vacation that is an expression of what they believe they are. That’s why we can get very emotional about some things, even though we suspect that it’s something else that makes us happy.

This is also the reason why we are so easily disappointed. Material possessions do not satisfy the need within us that seeks nurturing guidance to understand ourselves. It is the restlessness within us that makes us unbalanced, sometimes depressed, sometimes a little paranoid. It is the place where conspiracy theories are born, and blanket condemnations are made of certain groups or individuals. It causes hooligans to fight with a rival group, and other people to fight with their partners and leave them. It causes the cohesion of society to crumble, sows’ distrust of the authorities, and leads to the radicalization of groups that actually mean well. It is a hole that needs to be filled.

The trouble is, we can’t just go back. That is probably why there are numerous people who are seeking solace in other religions, or in other convictions and teachings. It may well be that our society has a number of areas that are clearly remnants of the Christian faith, but unless it is translated differently, our access is blocked by the typical. Our problem with other traditions, however, is often that they presume a social cohesion that is different to our own understanding. Other nations underrate the individual, and only sees the individual as subject to the group he or she is in. We celebrate the individual and the group works to give the individual his freedoms. That is important and the reason why we fail to understand people in those traditions. Their discipline often seems restrictive and limiting.

So, making sense of our self seems to entail finding something to fill the void, since we obviously can’t ignore it. I found a quote on the Internet from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees that addresses this problem:

“All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions.

A test which has gone on so long, without pause or change, really ought to convince us that we are incapable of attaining the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us very little. No two examples are so exactly alike that there is not some subtle difference, and that is what makes us expect that our expectations will not be disappointed this time as they were last time. So, while the present never satisfies us, experience deceives us, and leads us on from one misfortune to another until death comes as the ultimate and eternal climax.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”

As St. Augustine said, there is a “God-shaped hole” in each of us. But what do we understand when we use the word God? What could be infinite and immutable? It is quite obviously not a “thing” since all things are finite. In fact, many Christians seem to make the mistake of making God a thing, something graspable, as though we were able to understand how this whole existence in which we live came to be – “it’s easy”, they say, “it’s in the Bible”. But it isn’t easy, is it?

So, how do we make sense of our existence? What do you think?

Knowledge doesn’t protect from folly

There is an old German saying, “age doesn’t protect from folly” (Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht), but as it turns out, knowledge doesn’t protect from folly either. Hegel anecdotally said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. It does make you think, regarding the lack of awareness of historical context in society, whether we are keeping ourselves in the dark. I have to agree with Joe Murray, the coordinator with Afri-Action, who said “More and more, I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers.” Knowledge of the past seems to be continually covered over by the triviality of the news that is regularly used to attract our attention. The similarities in current developments to problematic developments of the past is virtually ignored.

As Kurt Vonnegut observed, history is a list of surprises that can prepare us to be surprised yet again, and Thucydides states “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” It is a shame that the large numbers of people in the west accumulating knowledge aren’t making a better world, despite the assumption by many in the west, that we are so knowledgeable. The fact is, that we are not using knowledge as a tool for improvement, and probably never have, but instead it is our feelings that guide us, and we know how insignificant they can be. We have also built tools, called social media, in which we can let these feelings out into the world, and if one doesn’t see the insignificance of feelings there, then nowhere. By insignificance I mean that they don’t help us construct anything but are very destructive in most cases.

History is significant because it is deserving of attention and can show the consequences of a particular behaviour. We can glean meaning from experience by studying what was good and what was bad in the past, a sign that guides us to a better future. The problem is, as we have observed above, we fail to learn from history, or even from bad experiences. We allow ourselves to follow the rut on the path we are travelling, which leads us down the same erroneous paths we have followed over and over again. The fact that we fail to follow examples is something that we must begrudgingly own up to, and overcome our prejudices, our misled confidence in our knowledge, and look for wisdom. As was quoted above, wisdom isn’t equivalent to age, and age also has its share of folly, but wisdom is the ability to discern the right judgement from the insights we have won by past experience.

One wisdom of the East that has impressed me was an age-old advice to look at things as if for the first time, called “beginner’s mind”. This isn’t a voluntary ignorance, but a deferring of what we assume to know for a moment, in order to perceive a situation anew. A knowledge of history shows us the ruts of time in which mankind has been stuck, and a new assessment could help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Rushing into important decisions has always brought us into the ruts of the past. We need to carefully consider our intentions at an opportune moment, so as to be prepared for situations in which quick decisions must be made. What we observe in history is the opposite. In fact, the most important decisions in current politics seem to be rushed, for fear of having to think them through. In such cases, all knowledge and experience are thrown out, there is no time to rethink, and we fall into the same ruts as before.

I can’t help thinking that it is because we are being ideologically influenced. Ideologies have a rigid agenda, and there is no time to contemplate the consequences of its policies, rather the dogma must be quickly implemented. Ideologies are also resistant to criticism and doubt is seen as a sign of betrayal. Ideologies have maintained a course of action with the most atrocious consequences, and people addicted to ideologies have become firm to the point of being cold and callous. There is another danger, that Iain McGilchrist picked up from John Stuart Mill in his book:

“As John Stuart Mill so wisely said (speaking about social science, but it applies more widely):

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

McGilchrist, Iain. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (S.620-621). Perspectiva Press. Kindle-Version.

We put our trust of people who are educated, who aspire to release us from dogmatic ideas, but as McGilchrist points out “…some evidence shows that people with more education are more likely to cling to ideological beliefs in the teeth of evidence…” (S.1098). This is evident in the ideological warfare that seems to be going on in university campuses in the western world, which doesn’t increase our confidence in our younger generation to avoid the mistakes of the past. In fact, it is truly worrying that those who should know about history are still prone to repeat it.

The question then is, what can we do?

The problems of the world are of course compounded by the fact that time is unrelenting, and we must do things of importance when the opportunity arises. With enough time, perhaps many of the blunders of the past could have been avoided, but I believe that it has more to do with our mindset. The more dogmatic we are, the less alternatives we have and the less imagination of what else could be perceived as a solution. We need to understand that we are being driven, not just by time, but by the ideology of commercial growth, expansion of markets, and global competition. This ideology tells us that consumerism is the calling of mankind, and that without it, there is no point in living. It is at times as merciless as a tsunami and takes everything in its path with it. Most important, it drives us into the channels of the past and prevents us from finding other avenues, other directions in which to travel.

If we are stuck in that rut, we know where it is leading, just like in the past. If we can get out of the rut, we have a chance.

Disillusioned about Modern-Day Politics

Growing up in a military environment, politics was hardly talked about, and I had no idea what was going on in the world. It was only when my father left the army and I left school in 1970 that I became vaguely interested in what I read in the newspapers and gained a rather caricatured impression of the struggle that was taking place in Britain. It was all somewhat black and white in my mind, there was the political party that was for the working class, and the political party of the upper class. I had gained the impression that I was working class and I watched the uninspiring governments that clung to the remnants of a post-war consensus, the struggle between the parties, and the voter disillusionment that brought on a cultural shift and, in the end, the way punk music best portrayed the mess the country had got itself into.

The 1970s was namely a decade brought to a halt by industrial action, a decade of falling productivity and an economy struggling under the pressures of globalisation. In 1973 I joined the army at eighteen, where I experienced once again a suppression of political interest and was even called before my commanding officer to explain myself for portraying the political environment in a caricatured manner. I also got to know Belgium and the Netherlands a little bit via a buddy of mine, whose father had been posted there when he was younger and with whom I served in Germany. We were sent to Northern Ireland, and I saw even more poverty and desperation. The comparison between the German town I was posted to and the British town I had left seemed drastic in my eyes. The army and even my time in England on leave seemed to me an environment that was increasingly constricting and after marrying a German girl, and with her help, I broke out in 1978 and decided to turn my back on Britain just before the Falkland war.

It was in Germany that I began reading political commentary, in books and magazines I learnt about the cause of the world wars, the political struggle that ensued after the wars, and the political parties that were prominent then on the political landscape. It also gave me the chance to review my perception of the British situation, and it seemed to me to be even worse than I had imagined. Inflationary pressures back home were almost visible to the naked eye. Unemployment was high. The British government seemed to be permanently concerned with curbing trade union power and the striking British worker seemed to be the subject of the decade. The British worker was not generally well-paid, I heard from my brother that he could only earn a living by working long hours, and there was a growing militancy mixed in with the discontent I heard.

In Germany, The Coal, Iron and Steel Codetermination Act of 1951 had enabled employees in the coal and steel industry to participate in corporate decision-making. Corporate co-determination was ensured above all by equal representation on the supervisory board. Although the prerequisite was that the company must be in the coal, iron and steel industry, must have the legal form of a stock corporation or a limited liability company, and must have at least one thousand employees, this approach had far-reaching implications for the rest of industry. The strikes I experienced in Germany were of a very different nature to those in the UK. Living standards were raised by securing a wage that many people could live on after a forty-hour week. There were still areas where this could not be guaranteed, but progress was being made.

Denmark, Ireland and Britain had joined the EEC in 1973, after Charles de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, as he was the main reason why Britain hadn’t joined earlier. Under the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, there was a UK referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in Europe. But the relationship was difficult to begin with. Margaret Thatcher negotiated an EU budget rebate in 1984 after threatening to halt payments to the EU budget because Britain’s economy hadn’t yet picked up to the degree it had when Cameron’s Referendum knocked on the decision to leave. Up until then it had become one of the strongest nations in the EU, but I diverge.

In Germany, along with the Works Constitution Act, the Co-Determination Act and the Act on the Formation of Speakers’ Committees, the Coal and Steel Co-Determination Act was one of the most important laws on employee co-determination in workplaces and companies in Germany and paved the way for further development. Employee rights in other areas were largely further developed due to these laws. Of course, this was the situation at the beginning of the 1980s that had a large effect on how I viewed the world and gave many of us the hope that these developments were promising further improvements in the future. It is clear now that this wasn’t the case and globalisation also had its effect on Germany, although political developments, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of eastern Germany gave a certain reprise to the hopes we had been fostering. We all know now that these developments changed life in Germany, as well as the rest of the world.

In the early 1990s, I began to turn to more conservative values after becoming a father and working for the British military, and I turned away from the more hawkish political attitudes of the past and was amazed to learn that even what I considered conservative in Germany was considered socialist in America. It was the time when New Labour emerged and was led by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown in the mid-1990s until 2010. In Germany, Helmut Kohl had become chancellor in 1982 and survived a long term in office until 1998, when the Christian Democrats suffered from numerous scandals. Gerhard Schröder took over as chancellor until November 2005 and showed a similar interest to Blair in developing the Social Democrats (SPD) into a modern party and leaving behind the socialism of Willi Brandt, which had also caused Helmut Schmidt to fall in the 1970s. Blair was successful until he got involved with George W. Bush in a war in Iraq, which Schröder had strictly rejected, but that still didn’t help him. His policies had lost him the support of the left, who were welcomed with open arms by the successors to the East German communist government.

In between was the highly symbolic attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, which was seen as an Islamic reaction to the expansion of American interests but led to an even more aggressive attitude toward Islamic countries, which many saw as a culture war, with no distinction between militant and conventional Islam. In Germany, however, there was concern that the CIA could do as it pleased, and the aggressive defence of American interests, including the unjustified war in Iraq and the aggressive occupation of Afghanistan, which experts predicted in retrospect would not succeed, sparked a wave of criticism. The lack of sympathy for American policies included criticism of Israeli policies, which were supported by America and viewed by some as a form of apartheid against the Palestinian population.

During this time, I was undecided about my political direction, having been in Germany long enough to lose my right to vote in the UK, and not qualifying to vote in Germany. The political situation in the UK seemed to be moving toward a more conservative approach after Gordon Brown. I remember being puzzled by the increasing criticism of the EU in the British newspapers and the reaction of my family, because my experience of life in the EU in general was positive. I particularly remember a conversation with a Frenchman at the birthday party of a German friend of ours, and the fact that we both came from backgrounds where the Frenchman was critical of Britain and the Brit was critical of France. We both concluded in German that both the British and the French should meet informally on neutral ground and that hostility would then give way to friendship. This experience seemed to be shared by many “ex-pats” residing in European countries, very many of whom were later horrified by the decision to leave the EU.

Angela (Mutti) Merkel took over as Chancellor of Germany in November 2005 until December 2021, ushering in another long period of conservatism. In America, despite the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing issues of rapidly ending the Iraq War, increasing energy independence, and reforming the health care system, in a campaign that projected themes of hope and change. In his first few days in office, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but Congress prevented the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds and preventing moving any Guantanamo detainee. Obama reduced the secrecy given to presidential records. He also revoked President George W. Bush’s restoration of President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy which prohibited federal aid to international family planning organizations that perform or provide counselling about abortion.

There was broad agreement between Merkel and Obama, and Merkel was particularly instrumental in finding solutions to European problems and calming the situation in Germany. Because of this maternal influence on her country, she earned the nickname “Mutti,” which faltered when she misjudged the public’s attitude toward increasing immigration. The reaction triggered an even greater racist backlash than I had anticipated, caused primarily by the uncontrolled admission of young men as refugees, who in turn misjudged their freedoms in the country due to a lack of integration. There were several incidents of assaults on German women by immigrants that were all over the media and where the perpetrators clearly had a wrong understanding of sexual freedom and female rights. The cultural divide became clear and another reason for the rejection of immigrants.

I find myself today somewhat disillusioned with the international politics that effects most people on the planet. We seem to be moving into a situation that nobody wants, and those countries that have supposedly been the home of liberty loving, supportive politics, where freedom of speech was valued, has now become home to political parties and activist groups that are more authoritarian in their approach than they would like to admit. These people are in their own words, of course, struggling against some enemy that would subvert society, whilst all the same by their actions, undermining the freedom they claim to protect.

The first wave in which this became clear, as far as I was concerned, was the reaction to the Brexit referendum. This became especially clear in 2019 when Theresa May had been disposed of after she had planned a new vote on the EU withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons and, in contrast to previous votes, added a detail according to which a future vote on an EU withdrawal agreement should be mandatorily linked to a so-called “Final Say” vote – which would have been, in effect, a vote on a new referendum. In retrospect it was a sensible thing to do, but the powers that had pushed Brexit to begin with had the upper hand. Brexit made little or no sense, except to those whose interests lay in the finance markets and large corporations, who feared a move by the EU to tax them all, as we see now.

Secondly, despite Obama’s appeal to Europeans, and to the surprise of many of them, there was growing unease in America about the liberal policies that were being implemented. The latent racism that has always existed in American society sparked reactionary protests and counter-protests, and the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidate to succeed Obama led to a responsory vote that put the most radical Republican candidate in office: Donald Trump. In much of Europe there was an immediate repugnance at the change of personality and policy in American politics, and Trump seemed to revel in it. His immediate reaction was to reverse many of the achievements of Obama and affront his allies. His warming to Putin, even Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and his initial attempt to better the relations with Xi Jinping of China, sent waves of disquiet through European countries – although here and there, it was clear that the people who were behind Trump were also active in Europe.

Since Trump’s ouster, we have seen the Russians and Chinese threaten world peace in response to the West’s expansionist policies. Of course, the West supports people on the borders with these countries who want less tyrannical government and freedoms comparable to the West; and of course, Russia has actively supported countries with authoritarian, if not dictatorial, governments to suppress such movements. The EU has actively supported opposition to such repression, but the EU was built on trade policy as an alternative to armed conflict. NATO is also incapable of real military resistance because of existing interdependence. The days of nuclear stalemate are behind us, and now alternative weapons are being developed that would enable a first strike with a speed and precision we have never known before.

Of course, we need a mutual agreement to respect the borders of countries, especially when authoritarian and liberal political systems are adjacent. The contrasting politics in these countries inevitably raises desires or concerns depending on which system people live in, and the sovereignty of a nation requires that, should that nation want democratic renewal, repressive measures should not be taken by other countries to prevent that. But Putin in Russia and Xi in China obviously believe that such a development in neighbouring countries is an attack by the West on their own sovereignty. We desperately need a diplomatic solution to this problem, especially since the West is having its own problems.

The value of running

I was always a bad runner. Oddly enough, it wasn’t so bad when I played soccer or rugby, and when I joined the Army, I was minutes faster than others on the indoor assault course. It was only when I was running that I didn’t seem to be able to adopt the meditative mindset to run down a dirt path. I also know that running has good effects on the body, improving lung function, boosting the immune system, and lowering the risk of blood clots, heart attacks and strokes, as well as preventing high blood pressure and osteoporosis, but it doesn’t motivate me.

Of course, body type matters, and those who start out with a pronounced disadvantage like obesity have to make an extra effort to overcome the resignation that sometimes sets in. I was never truly obese except later in life before my wife and I changed our eating habits, exercised more and went outdoors and lost a lot of weight as a result. That’s when she discovered she could run. The secret was smaller steps, and once she mastered them, she had no more problems. Apparently, it was balance and rhythm that held her back, but as her sense of balance improved, she was able to run. I must concede that I just didn’t get the positive hormone boost from running, although I did notice that when I walked for over an hour, after about ten minutes, something changed, and it wasn’t as unbearable after that.

There are other problems, of course, and the later you start, the more likely you are to develop them. I have a problem with lumbago and sciatica, which begs the question of whether these are the reasons I can’t run or the consequences of not walking. My orthopaedist advised me not to run after I had my problems with lumbago, and I willingly complied after having a feeling like my lower back was flopping about after every step. Of course, slowly approaching 70 is not the best age to start running. I don’t have balance issues, but coordination could be a problem. The latest cross-training machines give my legs a run for their money, and I quickly went back to the bike or back to walking on the simple treadmill. A big issue, I found, was stretching either before or afterwards – I prefer to stretch afterwards, which relieves much of the discomfort almost immediately.

I think the main reason many people can’t run is because of the pressure we put on ourselves, and instead of relieving the tension, we cause it. I often watch young people at the gym really pushing themselves when running for a few minutes but then stopping and preferring to lift some weights. This is quite a problem because moderate running is also recommended to reduce stress and depression, which have become serious problems today. I must confess that I am a little jealous of those people who seem to have a natural spring in their steps and who go bouncing down the road, as though it was no effort. Especially smaller people with the right proportions deem to have an easy time, but I’m sure there is more effort involved than I can see.

I think the most important thing is to start early in life to find our balance, coordination and rhythm – and especially the rest that allows us to move with less effort. The longer we wait, the more problematic it becomes. I don’t think it’s about being able to run a marathon, even if people have such ambitions, and a leisurely pace is recommended for most. For most people, sixty minutes is enough, especially if you lead an active life anyway. If it becomes a daily exercise, less is more, and it is recommended to run 30-45 minutes until you reach a fitness level that allows more. It is also important to have rest days in between: two a week at first, and then you can reduce them to one when you notice that you feel comfortable running.

It may be strange that someone who has confessed to being a non-runner is recommending that people take it up. It is because I can see the benefits and would like to see myself enjoying them, but there are also reasons why that isn’t possible. However, I think society as a whole would benefit if we were more active, and if running came naturally to many more people.

The Matrix contra Reality

I like the concept of the Matrix movies, and I like the last movie too. I know it calls for a stretching of the imagination, but that’s good for us as long as we can differentiate and return to the real world. The films speak to a quasi-religious intuition in many people’s lives about the reality they live in and the need to see through the surface and understand the workings of the matrix they live in.

But Matrix is about recognition, from Latin recognitiō, from recognoscere to know again, from re- + cognoscere to know, ascertain. The word suggests that we relearn something that once belonged to us but that we have lost. It is a regaining of knowledge and an assurance of what really is: the truth. The story of Neo is certainly taken from the many concepts of a man among us who is “the one” who takes the first steps of knowledge and liberates others, and not least taken from Christian story. Even the title of the last project, Resurrections, is a pointer to the Christian concept.

I feel like our lives are a bit like Neo’s, whose movie existence is obviously an archetype meant to draw us into the Matrix and have us travel along with him. We too need to wake up from the fantasy we are living and see things as they are. In the Matrix, it’s a sobering experience, and the “real world” is a struggle against the machine that rules the lives of millions – and in our world? We too live in a programmed world, in a maze of intentions that simultaneously construct and control the world we live in. The industrialization of our world is much like the machine – on the one hand, it gives people in the industrial nations a sense of achievement and provides comfort, on the other though, we have recognized the fact that we are destroying our environment and exploiting people less fortunate than us. Sometimes we look through the mirror and doubt the validity of our perceptions – “Am I going crazy?” asks Neo.

In the past, there were other stories that suggested something similar, and the minds of those who recognized that they were living in a world controlled by minds that were disparaging them were challenged. Our problem today is that we have many self-proclaimed “seers,” people who are not motivated by awareness of the bigger, global picture, but by their own selfishness. They too suggest that their lateral thinking sees the flaws in the structure of our society, but their concern is with maintaining the status quo and deflecting the needs of others in the world at large. They fail to see that our concerns for our future must necessarily include the concerns of underdeveloped countries.

If we leave aside the action in the Matrix films and recognize that the depiction of the struggle against the machine is necessarily dramatized, the fact remains that the processes we have brought into being must not be allowed to dominate us and dictate our lives. This is a common image in dystopian films and represented as “the spirits I called up” and lost control of, like in the Terminator films in a similar fashion. In reality they are new adaptions of a classical theme, and the fact that situation portrayed in the Matrix seems familiar is disconcerting.

The question that stayed in my mind after the first three films was whether we will regain consciousness and realize our true role in the world, as stewards of the planet, with a calling to avert, ward off or prevent danger and harm, to care for our environment and our fellow humans.

Spoiler alert!

The remnants of the last films, Niobe, Sati and Agent Smith, suggest that the sacrifice made by Neo and Trinity has made only a minor difference, and that there are still millions of people trapped in their capsules, and that the Matrix continues. This sounds a lot like the failed Christian hope for a new world after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which instead turned into a power grab when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion.

I am pleased with the romantic ending of the fourth film, but disappointed that the metaphor was abandoned and that the Saviour who had come to liberate the world ended up more like a Greek god who had power over the world. The flight into the sunset seemed like a betrayal but is probably resignation to the fact that the analyst who said, “try and change it!” regarding the Matrix was probably right. In the end, isn’t it just a Hollywood fantasy, a pipe dream that is over when the lights come on?

We can take inspiration from such a film, look up and see through the illusion that our world presents us. But to change it, we need to do something more substantial than just fight a few agents. Instead, it starts with each of us individually, recognizing who and what we are, and resolving to make what small changes we can. In this way, the ripples we produce could unite with others and form a wave that might make a difference.