Living in the moment

LivingInTheMoment

Ply dredge hog league gents.
Dude dug hag.
Odd knee newt mightiest taste sub am miracle.
Sand tube deep reap pube lick.
Pour wicked strands.
Wand nascent.
Yonder goat.
In Dee’s vittles bowl.
Pith Libby tea ant just fish whore ball.

Congratulations. You just wasted an irreplaceable fraction of your life reading a nonsense poem.

Did you happen to identify in this nonsense poem a familiar pattern? Did it sound kind of like something you’ve heard many times? If so, you will understand why I think the poem could be improved by removing the line about “Yonder goat.”

Now that I have scammed you into wasting a little of your time, I’d like to encourage you to waste a wee bit more.

I’d like you to take a moment to consider our remarkable human ability to discern patterns. I’m not talking just about patterns in poems. We find patterns everywhere. We find patterns in musical phrases. We find patterns in historical narratives. We find geometric patterns throughout nature. Science and art are largely dependent on our ability to identify patterns.

More than any other faculty, our amazing pattern-seeking talent makes us smarter than rabbits and aphids combined. But this same mental faculty can get us into trouble.

For example, an article in Intelligent Life magazine reported the following:

“If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate…When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat…”

This experiment tells us something, not just about Yale undergraduates, but about real people out in the real world. Our intelligence sometimes gets in our way.

In 2011 PBS aired an episode of Nature titled “My Life as a Turkey.” The episode was about a man named Joe Hutto who lived intimately with a flock of turkeys. I don’t know how intimate he got with the turkeys, and I don’t want to be sued for defamation of character. Let’s just say that he lived very closely with a flock (or rafter) of turkeys. This fellow, Hutto, who dwelt among the turkeys, was impressed by how turkeys live in the moment.

Living in the moment apparently comes naturally to turkeys. It doesn’t come naturally to us humans. It seems that we humans are often mentally abiding either in the past or in the future. We are reflective one moment and anticipating the next. We do this because we are scanning for patterns. We are unconsciously trying to figure out what we can learn from the past and what we need to beware of in the future.

You might think of our abilities to recall past lessons and predict future events as the mental analogue to the insect’s antennae. We feel our way about our environment with our minds, much as a bug feels its way through its environment using its antennae. The insect relies on chemical and tactile stimulation of its antennae, whereas we humans rely on our pattern-recognition talents to explore our environment, memories, and prognostications.

But any animal with feelers of any kind has “feelings” of some kind, and feelings can be hurt. Stick your antenna where it doesn’t belong and it can bring pain. Think about certain harsh lessons from your memory, or anticipate problems arising in the future, and you will also feel pain. Being more “sensitive” and contemplative means being susceptible to pain. Ernest Hemingway, in The Garden of Eden, commented, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

Reflecting on the past or worrying about the future comes at the cost of enjoyment of the present. According to the Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer, “happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” According to the book of Matthew, Jesus instructed us, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

John Stuart Mill took a different view, arguing that we humans have intelligence, memory, and foresight for good practical reasons, and we cannot be fully human if we fail to use these faculties. He opined that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” That’s a typical thing to say if you are a disgruntled intellectual.

But not everyone is a disgruntled intellectual. Drug addicts seem willing to sacrifice their futures to gain immediate pleasure. They are living in the moment.

Consider as well the fantastical beliefs that seem to comfort the minds of religious believers. Many people in our society value emotional satisfaction very highly. The immediate pleasure that comes from the belief that there is a god and that we can enjoy eternal bliss in heaven is very alluring. It’s not surprising that so many people find religious myths more alluring than any scientific and philosophical knowledge they might acquire.

Religion can bring peace of mind, helping to ward off the fear of death. It brings comfort to the old, ill, infirm, inane, and insane. It emboldens the soldier to put his life on the line. It diminishes the fear that might otherwise give the suicide bomber second thoughts.

So we have discussed three solutions to the problem of overthinking life. First, turkeys live in the present moment because that’s how their brains were sculpted by natural selection. Second, drug addicts solve their worries by stunting their ability to contemplate the future. Third, religionists shun any knowledge that threatens their visions of eternal bliss.

But what if one wanted to worry less and enjoy life more without becoming a turkey, a drug addict, or a delusional religious adherent. Is it possible to be both keenly aware of the human predicament and still be completely at ease?

Probably not. Still, we should strive to set aside any memories so haunting that we feel compelled to drink them into oblivion, while we strive to emotionally resolve any anxieties that we might otherwise hanker to medicate with prayer.

Reality may seem unpleasant or painful at times, but much of our discomfort is of our own invention. I opened this post by scamming you into wasting time reading a nonsense poem. I’d like to close this post by citing a no-nonsense poem. The excerpt is from Odes, published in year 23 by the Latin poet Horace. In this poem, Horace urges us to “Carpe Diem!” That means “seize the day.” Horace encourages us to turn away from the false arts of astrologers and diviners. He advises us to live in the present and enjoy life.

Even death itself should not worry us, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE), who commented as follows:

“Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”

Set aside the fantasy that there is life after death and what is left? Your whole life.

Attitude can make a big difference. Altogether now, let’s sing that Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

By the way, Snopes.com debunked the rumor that Bobby McFerrin committed suicide. You can check out that story at  http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/mcferrin.asp.

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