Category: Reality

Review of “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals,” by John Gray

“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (–John Gray, in “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Human and Other Animals, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2003) Thus, the closing paragraph of a book by Gray once again reflects his pleasure in poetic, but oblique narrative. I find it appealing, an intellectual challenge to extract his meaning. But for those less inclined to mental effort, he might have ended more explicitly: “There is no purpose to life. Get over it!” Gray generally interchanges meaning and purpose, and his arguments seem directed at the human tendency to seek or create either.  More correctly, his premise is that there is no more meaning to human life than to that of non-humans. Granted, many seem to find it in everything, but Gray is not buying it. He’s talking about a fundamental, existential reason for human existence that sets us apart from the rest of the biosphere. He is more inclined to say that, if it’s there, it is beyond us to perceive it. Apart from the minor existential challenge of abandoning all hope, Gray’s book is an insightful work, if a difficult one to review. Ironically, its most maddening aspect was also its most enjoyable. The entire book is...

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“Consensually hallucinating,” (more on John Gray…)

These following is a quote from “Straw Dogs:” Virtual reality is a technological simulation of techniques of lucid dreaming practised by shamans for millennia. Using fasting, music, dance and psychotropic plants, the shaman leaves the everyday world to enter another, returning to find ordinary reality transformed. Like virtual reality technology, shamanistic techniques disrupt the consensual hallucination of everyday life.  (John Gray, in “Straw Dogs:  Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.” Farrar Strauss and Geroux, New York 2003) John Gray is reflecting on the history and future of virtual reality in humankind.  He notes that current technological innovations are just a more efficient means of doing what mystics have always done.  And his analogy to lucid dreaming points to a central danger of both lucid dreams and virtual reality:  Who of us, having experienced lucid dreaming, would really prefer to live in the real world? But what resonates with me are the last six words:  “…the consensual hallucination of everyday life.” While seemingly written in passing, Gray’s words here are profound.  This is because what we think of as “reality” is unique to each of us, and “consensual hallucination” is probably all that keeps us from going mad....

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I’m reading “Straw Dogs,” by John Gray…

…and he is describing the fiction of the self, the fictive self. He posits that life is really only a series of discreet but connected perceptions tied together by the capacity for reflection we call consciousness. The crux of his view is that the self I think of as me does not exist. It is an illusion. Instead, I am only a series of analog moments that came about through subconscious stimulus-response reactions. What we attribute to decisions, whether the habitual decisions of living day-to-day or ethical decisions based on some moral code, are really responses to ingrained genetic, biological and cultural programming. Nor do I remember more than a nanoscopic (my word) subset of the responses I have made. Indeed, those conscious moments I have assembled into a “self” are only the few I actually recall, whether by choice or otherwise. As such, this illusory self has neither a future nor a past (as we tend to think of these), and never has had. Instead, we exist (we, that is, as in our thoughts, not our physical bodies) only moment to moment. Our construction of those moments into a past, like our projection of them into a future, is only an unconscious intellectual exercise.  [Note: Gray does not say this (maybe because he didn’t think if it), but he makes me think of Alzheimer’s patients…of whom we often...

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Empathy, acceptance and tolerance

This is a followup to my last post, because it seems mildly incomplete. I should have perhaps mentioned empathy.  Empathy seems to me the only means of truly communicating with anyone, of understanding them. It’s what we all want, for someone to see the world as we see it. And yet, a fully empathetic experience, actually getting into the head of another, being in their mind and experiencing emotions from their perspective, is not possible. Nor, I suspect, are we capable of understanding just how far apart from one another we really are. All of this begs for tolerance and acceptance of differences as critical to building relationships.  And it goes a long way towards explaining why the human race is in such trouble…and maybe why humanity today can be such a lonely...

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Ask for acceptance, don’t expect understanding…

Coming back from Europe last week reminded me of coming back from Chile and the Peace Corps back in 1980. This time I was only gone five months, back then it had been 30. Trying to explain to anyone what I had experienced was pointless, because no matter how carefully chosen your words, no one who hadn’t been there could really know. And, with the exception of the uniquely insightful and curious, I suspect few really care.   I shared this insight with a young French college student a few years ago and he understood immediately. He commented that he had recently spent a full year drifting around the globe, only to return home to his parents in Normandy who’d questioned him for 15 minutes. Then they began discussing lunch. And our experiences pale alongside those of soldiers returning home from war. How could any of us who haven’t been there grasp that? But then there are many things I can’t know: What it’s like to have a son or daughter, to shoulder commitment to a wife and family? To be extremely wealthy, or even poor? To be a woman, or black or Muslim? To be an addict, or live in a Haitian slum? All of of this is just an amateurish way of commenting on individual lives and the perspectives those lives create within each of us. We...

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Now you see it, now you don’t…

This last weekend, my little adopted town in East Tennessee held a annual three-day festival, a big deal. Takes a week to set up, with tents and booths and bandstands and vendors and competitions spread over many acres.  Thousands of people gather, laugh, eat and drink, buy and sell, play or listen to music, compete in games.  I was there both days, and Sunday afternoon sat in the beer tent drinking and talking with friends for hours as evening closed in on us.  Then today, Monday, I went back to help tear it all down. In one day it was virtually gone, and by tomorrow it might never have been. I’ve had similar experiences.  I used to go to an annual music festival where we’d arrive Sunday with a couple thousand other campers and pretty much build a small city in one day.  For the next week, activity was virtually nonstop:  People doing what people do when we gather.  Then, the following Sunday morning, we’d wake up and within three hours, it would be gone.  And a few years after my father died, we sold the family home and the new owners moved the house away to clear the lot.  I visited the site and sat on the foundation piers, gazing around me at the tiny area that had been our life.   Forty years of all that a family is, now...

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