Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I enjoy discussing politics, religion, and the pursuit of happiness.

They say polite conversation should never involve politics or religion. Well, in polite terms I say "screw that."   Recently I have come to understand that I enjoy those two topics more than anything else: they are complex, impassioned, nuanced, and most importantly, they can keep my attention.  When so much conversation is mundane and perfunctory, it is nice to get into something that people are willing to believe fervently, without much proof on either side.  I mean we're talking about huge ideas here!  Something to really get your teeth into.  Where a chance encounter with an intelligent, well-spoken person has the potential to blow your mind on everything you have ever thought on a subject.  That's exciting to me.  With a few notable exceptions, this planet has been explored quite thoroughly; so unless you're James Cameron who is willing to invent a submarine to take him to the lowest depths of the ocean floor, then our options are to explore the ideas presented to us by the people that enter into our lives. Some can afford to do this by traveling to other cultures around the world, which I think is one of the most enlightening experiences available to us; while others might have to search in their immediate surroundings, or through books that force you to look at the world and life differently.   Do it.  Stop believing everything you think.  

When it comes to politics and religion, we should look for the behind-the-scenes motivating factors.  Whose interest does it actually serve?  Is gay marriage really going to destroy the foundations of today's family?  Does Obama really have a master plan to bring down the U.S.  in a fiery ball of hell after his 2nd term?  Is there a god that really cares about Tim Tebow's touchdowns or Taylor Swift's Grammy's more than the millions of small innocent children who face starvation, rape, torture, beatings, etc. every single day of their lives?  Is killing abortion doctors or infidels really the right path for someone looking for a deeper meaning in life? Any serious internal examination of these, and other important topics, is vital to the health of our society and world, yet so many blindly follow what they're told without even a minimal effort at examining it for internal truth. 

Unexamined beliefs allow us to become labeled.  I hate labels.  I don't like what they stand for, and I think they do more harm than good in our world. 

The problem is deeper than "labels" though.  To me it is the human ability for us to choose to see the world--and live it--through a lens of singularity.  We all know people like this: they engage the world through the singular lens of Christianity, shopping, adventure, sex, physical intimidation, economic forces, profits, conservatism or liberalism, exercise and fitness...there are endless options.  They engage their daily experiences by how it relates into their chosen focus.    

I heard a story on the great NPR show This American Life, where one lady devoted her life to the art of quitting things.  She quit her town, job, boyfriend, and hobbies. She developed a life strategy that revolved around the act of quitting; she even put out a very successful magazine called The Quitter Quarterly and published two books: The Quit, and The Art of Quitting.   Every time she started a new project she started it by focusing on how she would eventually quit it.  She was experiencing her life through the singularity lens of quitting.   Now, let me be clear, she has the right to do this: it is part of living in this time and age that we have the freedom to experience life in this way.  But I also have a right to make an argument to the contrary.  And in this argument I assume that we can agree on a couple of things:  1) As humans we desire to live a happy, enriched and fulfilling life.  Our forefathers agreed, as they put this idea into our Declaration of Independence.  2) By definition, "enriched" and "fulfilling" do not mean seeing the world as a singular purpose. The word for that is "extremist."  3) Becoming a master at your craft does not necessarily mean living a singular purpose.  Bela Fleck is a master at the 5-string banjo, but look at the work he does in exploring what music means to other cultures.  Becoming a master did not stop him from interacting with this world in a completely open and engaging fashion.    (Here is a link to watch his documentary about exploring Africa while looking for the origins of the banjo, Throw Down Your Heart.  One of the most beautiful documentaries I've ever seen.)

I believe that to get a sense of fulfillment we have to not only be open, but to engage many different areas and opportunities presented to us.  We have to not only avoid the singularity lens trap, but also avoid labels that define our beliefs.  If you present yourself to the world as a staunch liberal then you are defined by the other side.  You then allow conservatives to control you.   If they go towards A then you must go towards B to maintain the proper division.   Who wants this? Life is so much deeper than this.  Lately we've watched congressional Republicans make an effort to block every single piece of legislation that our president has brought forth.  They allow themselves to be defined by Obama, not only at the expense of our nation, but at the expense of their own interests, credibility and common sense.   To see this as positive you must have a singular mindset that everything Democrats stand for is wrong, and everything Republicans stand for is right; the only way to see politics in that fashion is to completely ignore both economics and the political history of this country.  

In the same fashion, viewing the world through the lens of Christianity is equally limiting. To properly do this you have to completely ignore the history of our world, along with the complex relationship of humans and religion throughout it.  We have the freedom to do it, but as I argued before,  it does not serve the purpose of experiencing life fully.   

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. - Christopher Hitchens.
My last point will be an attempt to answer, or at least discuss, the question of "How can you say what is right or wrong for someone?" It's a big question, but one I think needs to be engaged.   I believe that a happy and fulfilled life is also a moral life.  I also believe that humans, regardless of cultures, can actually agree on what a moral life constitutes.  Otherwise we fall into the trap of allowing extremist views--with religious backing--that harm other human beings to enjoy equal precedence, and I refuse to believe that.   As we see some middle-eastern countries go backwards where the culture actually supports suicide bombing more than it supports education for females, we have to ask ourselves, "Is it time to agree that not all viewpoints are equal, and should we start working toward what we can agree is a moral and fulfilling life?"   You would be surprised at how many people are not willing to consider this!  I think it is a fear of taking a stand, or of breaking the cardinal rule of never criticizing the beliefs of others, especially when it comes to religion.   But as we see what used to be very forward, advanced, artistic, and free countries be dragged back to the middle ages through religious extremism, we will be forced to either deal with it through the worst option--war, and/or the best option--education, knowledge, and enlightenment. The productivity and overall happiness of a nation can always be linked to a few factors, one of which is the amount of educated women in that nation.  We can all agree that this is a moral high point, and if we can agree on that then we can agree that there are other moral high points that we can strive for in this world, as well as moral low points.   This is not a conversation we should fear. We should fear the possible outcomes of not having it. about politics and religion more, and don't believe everything you've been told.   You might just find out that it is not only exciting, but if enough of us do it then we might just make some positive changes around this place.