Sunday, July 13, 2008

We wear the chains we forge in life

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?" – A Christmas Carol

What is the reality of any literary or cinematic image? Is it to be found literally or metaphorically? Are the words above simply the product of the imagination of Charles Dickens, or do they reflect a real process Dickens observed? Are these words about an archaic notion of sin, or are the links made not of sin but a different sort of burden we create for ourselves? Was Dickens describing events he thought an observer could witness or was his entire story occurring only in Scrooge’s mind?

What is imagination anyway? Explain the anatomy and physiology of it to me. Where does our will guide what we imagine?

We rarely reflect on how symbolism dominates our consciousness. We are in much better touch with how our senses stimulate us. How symbols do the same is so surreptitious. I look at a word, and I always know I’m using my eyes. I know a lot about how I do this thanks to science, if I care to reflect on that. In contrast, I rarely think about just how many symbols are involved with such reading. There are letters and language, the symbols that let me recognize a word, then the concepts symbolized by the word, with whatever ambiguity there may be in that, then the overall meaning of phrases, sentences, and entire stories, the larger symbols for which that word is a piece. These symbols affect me according to so many connections to experiences, values, and desires I carry with me. A Buddhist might summarize these as delusions and attachments. People vary in what symbols they use to describe reality.

Is there one person on the planet whose view of reality is best? I might be interested in that question except for how quickly knowledge increases, the world changes, and I change. I doubt any one person is keeping up with all of that.

Is there one sort of view of reality that’s best? Are literal descriptions better? Are metaphors better? Is objective data over entire populations better or do subjective anecdotes flesh out or even replace data in some essential way? So many parts of us like our imagination are impossible to detail currently in any material way, yet I’d hate to rely only on metaphors to talk about my experience of life. That would be maddeningly ambiguous. I think we’re stuck with both the literal and the metaphorical for the foreseeable future.

That gets me back to the metaphor that we wear chains that we’ve forged in life. As I have no hope of describing the burden we carry through purely literal means, I embrace this metaphor. I prefer it to the passivity implied by the idea of memes. I doubt that I see this exactly as Dickens did. Chains are not just a burden, but also security, stability, strength. This I would point out to anyone advocating complete freedom from them, be that person a Buddhist who is bad-mouthing attachments or some secular youth advocating a freedom of expression that is one step short of anarchy. In giving up all restraint, all that is left is nature. Such is my experience.

So what’s wrong with nature? Have you seen the physical and mental suffering that comes from living a life entirely by whatever thoughts and feelings come to us naturally? All that’s wrong with politics is just this. All that’s wrong with religion and the lack thereof is just this. To escape our nature we not only have to learn the discipline of the scientific method, a philosophical method and/or psychotherapy such as cognitive therapy, we have to use such discipline throughout our lives. A scientist who knows how to be scientific about genetics, but has natural prejudice about the rest of life has at least one arm in chains.

There is a lot one could write about how we are chained by the thoughts and feelings that come to us naturally, by everything that is unhealthy in that. Yet what reaches people? Most people can agree Scrooge’s life needed improvement. Our own chains are another matter. Who is willing to see that Republicans are restricted by the neo-con triad of low taxes, an aggressive foreign policy and wanting to rollback every social change since the fifties? Their opponents are, but not so much true believers. Likewise Democrats would have difficulty seeing the bondage in believing that every problem has a simple solution, a solution that would be in place already except for greed and corruption.

We are in chains, some foundational from our biology and culture, the rest of our own making. We are surrounded by spirits, some of whom would free us, the rest who would eat our livers each day as they did to Prometheus. In saying that I’m being at least as metaphorical as Dickens was about what was binding Scrooge really and what really freed him. Was it 3 dreams? Were the space and elements for these 3 spirits already in his mind or did they need to enter him? Whatever these spirits were, they were not that part of Scrooge’s mind he called his self. So are spirits in everyone’s minds beyond the boundary of oneself.

Dickens wrote of a solution that is forced on Scrooge. Marley’s ghost intervenes. Three spirits intervene, whether they are dreams or something even more strange, whether they are purely psychological or also spiritual. None of them asked Scrooge for consent.

If such freedom from our chains can be forced on us, why don’t we hear of it happening more? I would think that’s because it can’t be forced on us, naturally or supernaturally. Courts can order psychotherapy or 12 steps as an alternative to jail, but even they can’t force a person to accept what they hear. Supernatural experiences like Scrooge’s are rare, and ones I’ve experienced or read about do not involve anyone as resistant as Scrooge. It seems such experiences only happen to people who welcome them at least a little.

We wear chains we’ve forged in life. Some ask for help getting rid of them, yet rarely does that help come dramatically. Try to dive into this realistically and so much time will be spent on what really is a false belief and then which false beliefs are binding us too tightly and which provide necessary support to living. Thank God cultural evolution will sort this out for people as a whole, regardless of which metaphors they like. It’s enough for me just to sort it out in my own life.


Anonymous said...

You contrast Science and Nature.

Why? Is Science not a product of Nature?

"Astrology is not Scientific, just as Science is not Astrological - there is complete symmetry"; put contentiously, we have a choice of figments, and may decide that some suit us better than others. Of course, _extreme_ bad judgment tends to render those possessing it extinct.


DavidD said...

No, I didn't contrast science and nature at all. I said I know a lot about the nature of vision due to science, but science hasn't helped me much in being aware of all the symbols I use in how I understand things, so I need a different discipline for that. What is the reality beyond all these symbols? There are many ways to decide that, many opinions. I think we have to be willing to be free of our chains to find the best way, but I can't prove that scientifically.

One can say that any aspect of our culture has come to us naturally, be that science, astrology, anything. That's not enough to know what to trust.