28 March 2009

Philosophical Media

I accidentally found an enjoyable and informative series of YouTube videos tonight. The username "PhilosophicalMedia" has videos on Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Albert Camus, Nietzsche, Plato, et cetera. So far, I have watched the series "Epicurus on Happiness" and "Seneca on Anger" and have enjoyed both. Some of the series appear to be general surveys, while others -- like the two I mentioned -- are smaller and focus only on one subject. I'm personally looking forward to viewing other videos. The videos seem well-put-together, and are sometimes funny in unpredictable ways. In one, the host tries to employ the Socratic method to urge people to think about their lives; in another, he talks to the camera while pedaling across the field. As he pedals, he's looking sideways at the camera, and I kept wondering if he was going to ride straight into a tree.

I found that through the "Related Links" section while re-watching a favorite series of videos, the Virtual University lecture on Marcus Aurelius, in which a classical historian delivers a lecture on the man and his philosophy. I have arranged the videos in a playlist. The first part is slow and is mostly background, but it really picks up during the second part.

User NLPNVC's videos are also of interest. Known as "NLP", he frequently posts videos in which he asks philosophical questions of his viewers and in which he tries to deal with ideas he's encountered, like "non-violent communication". In some videos, he addresses people whose approach and opinions he disagrees with, but tries to find some way to empathize with them. Sometimes he posts music videos about a particular theme, like "Hypnotized to Enjoy Violence". In one not-so-recent video, he asked people what they wondered about. The result is funny, and touching on some levels. This is a guy asking questions and trying to deal with people in a personal way, and I've found that his videos are not only provoking, but moving, as I said before. "All I'm saying with this video is...I wonder if you wonder like me."

11 March 2009

The Art of Happiness

I recently read The Art of Happiness and found much within it to recommend it. The book is a dialogue between psychiatrist Howard Cutler and the 14th Dalai Lama, but much of it consists of the psychiatrist asking the Dalai Lama questions and then commenting on his answers. Although the Dalai Lama is a religious figure, there is very little dogma in the book: spirituality, for the Dalai Lama, seems to consist of practicing a compassionate, tolerant, patient, humble, and mentally disciplined life. He is very much aware of the importance of reason and empathy in living our lives, and I dare say he's a humanist at heart.
"I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life." - the Dalai Lama

"Happiness is determined more by one's state of mind than by external events." - Howard Cutler

"You can relate to [people] because you are still a human being, within the human community. You share that bond. And that bond is strong enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can even become a source of consolation in the event that you lose everything else." - the Dalai Lama

"We [...] often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally."

"Honesty and self-confidence are often mixed."

"I believe it is essential to appreciate our potential as human beings and to recognize the importance of inner transformation."*

*By which he means using the practices of compassion, tolerance, and so on to better ourselves.

09 March 2009

Lot's Wife

A friend recently read me this poem, and I thought it quite interesting. It is based on the Hebrew story of the divine destruction of the city Sodom. There once was a fellow named Abram, and his nephew Lot lived in Sodom. The town annoyed Yahweh, so he decided to destroy the town with fire and brimstone. Out of respect for Abram, he allowed Lot the opportunity to escape. So Lot and his wife and their daughters left the town, but Lot's wife looked back and YHWH promptly magicked her into a pillar of salt.

Lot's Wife

(by Kristine Batey)

While Lot, the conscience of a nation,

Struggles with the Lord,

She struggles with the housework.

The City of Sin is where

She raises the children.

Baal or Adonai-

Whoever is God-

The bread must still be made

And the doorsill swept.

The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,

But today they must be bathed and fed.

Well and good to condemn your neighbors religion,

But weren't they there

When the baby was born

And when the well collapsed?

While her husband communes with God,

She tucks the children into bed.

In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,

She puts down the lamp she is cleaning

And calmly begins to pack.

In between bundling up the children

And deciding what will go,

She runs for a moment

To say goodbye to the herd,

Gently patting each soft head

With tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.

She smiles blindly to the woman

Who held her hand in childbed.

It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven

Not to look back;

Those who have been-by necessity-drawn to earth

Cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.

Good, to a God, and good in human terms

Are two different things.

On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,

And turns, in farewell-

And never regrets

The sacrifice.

08 March 2009

Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek, Humanism, and Me

Thinking about my enjoyment of Star Trek and my humanism is a bit of a "chicken and egg" scenario. While I cannot tell you which came first, I can tell you that the two are inextricably connected. I was a misfit as a child, left alone when I was not being harassed by the class bullies. Looking back on those experiences now, I realize how instrumental they were in forging my character: my contempt for abuses of authority, my intense craving for justice, my emotional self-control, and especially my yearning for tolerance and kindness in human affairs. Whenever I was able to watch Star Trek, I could see the kind of world I wanted myself and others to live in: a world where people got along, where they treated one another with respect and tolerance, even if they didn't always agreed. The Starfleet officers in the various shows were always striving forward to improve themselves. In high school, I happened upon an interview with Gene Roddenberry where he spoke of his childhood and I realize that we had similar stories, and that made Star Trek all the more appealing to me. Roddenberry was a humanist, and there is little doubt that his humanism shaped at least the first two shows. Those childhood lessons grew into humanism for me, and now I appreciate Star Trek even more than I used to. Just last night I listened to Inside Star Trek, which contains the interview in which Gene talked about his childhood and the making of Star Trek. Because of my relationship to his ideas and his legacy, I transcribed part of the interview and share it here. Please note that I attempted to convey the pattern in which Roddenberry spoke, hence why some sentences trail off in thought and why there are sentence fragments.

I can talk about things now that would have embarrassed me once. And maybe my story could be helpful to you if you're somehow different from other people, or handicapped. Most of us are, in one way or another. I guess Star Trek had its first beginnings in the fact that as a child, I was different. Handicapped. I had difficulty breathing, eyes that didn't work well in bright sunlight... spindly-legged, weak, uncoordinated. I wasn't a very pretty thing, and I suffered the awful embarrassments that only a child can feel. I don't suppose every writer has to start like that, but -- if I had been the things that I dreamed of being, agile, athletic, admired and popular, I know now that I never would have ended up with as happy a life . I became a reader. Thank God, I became a reader. I lived in a dream world because...it was a helluva lot better world. I was Dr. Doolittle, I was Zane Grey's* Lonely Cowboy...an explorer. Most of it trash, I was an Indian fighter, a fearless soldier...a fighter ace. If you read Peanuts, I was Snoopy. I fought the Red Baron many times.

Certainly, part of Star Trek was written by that boy...dreaming maybe as you do of a better world, in which people would look past our exteriors and see whatever loveliness we had inside us. I remember being about 8 years old in the backyard, sitting in the soap carton, pretending it was a great vessel of some kind -- and the bold, strong person hidden inside of me, he was the captain. I remember that it was an enclosed vessel, because I had a second soap carton pulled down over my head. After sitting there for several hours, still encased in soap cartons, I heard the concerned voices of my parents speculating whether my illness had led to brain damage. Ah, how lovely all our daughters are inside. How fearless, all our sons -- if only we could see it. I remember helping my father clean the garage. Actually, he was cleaning. I was facing the firing squad. The bullets caught me, spun me to the ground, and as I lay there bravely dying, I looked up to see my father watching me with pity on his face, assuming I was suffering some new kind of seizure.

Years later, something brought me back to reality: science fiction. Yes, incredible. Science fiction taught me to live in the real world. Thank you, Homer, my ex-convict friend. Thank you for John Carter of Mars. It made your cage more bearable, and it helped rescue me from mine. And thank you, Claude, for that first copy of Astounding Stories magazine. Sorry you didn't reach sixteen, and grow out of your illness as I did. I was lucky -- a miracle of adolescence. My body mended, I actually became stronger than average -- but science fiction saved me from that, too, saved me from the perils of a strong body.

I'd learned by then that reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting than the flesh and blood vehicle that we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it, the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science still knows practically nothing† about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time -- and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all-that-is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You are just a visitor here in this time and this place -- a traveler through it. What a difference that makes! As a traveler here, it no longer crushes you that this world is not always fair, or orderly, or understandable. Your passport allows you to fix what you can, to love, to refuse to take part in ugliness -- but meanwhile you are delighted that this is such a varied, colorful, exciting place. As a traveler, you're not here to judge, but to experience. You begin to feel a new affection for the life-forms here. You no longer feel threatened that some may be greater, or lesser, than you. It's only important that you've been given this marvelous opportunity to enjoy this trip -- to learn from it, and in my case, to write about it.

Perhaps you know where I'm leading. On a trip like this -- and it is a trip -- its loveliness is not in the sameness of people and things, but in their incredible variety... Eventually this led me to the Star Trek statement IDIC: Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations. Thank whatever created us, we are different. Each of us, and everything around us. To the end of time, if it ever does end, no combination will ever come up quite the same. That's quite a travel package. All of this is how Star Trek began, and it's also something of what it is about. I am an alien -- and so are you. And yet, and this is the loveliest thing of all, we are also part of each other and part of everything that is. I don't know if this has a moral or not, unless it's "don't sit inside soap cartons too long -- unless you enjoy traveling."


* I was unable to make out the name Roddenberry said and tried to get as close as I could. I have been unable to find a character or comic strip with the label of "Lonely Cowboy". I would appreciate it if anyone reading is familiar with that label and can tell me the author responsible for it.

** I attempted to type the name as Roddenberry pronounced it. That may be his pronunciation of "Claude".

† This interview was produced in the late seventies or early eighties, judging by the fact that the interviewees kept referring to the product as a "record" and there is no mention at all of the movies or The Next Generation. As such, Roddenberry may have been unaware of advances in physics in the past few decades.