Friday, December 7, 2012

"Into the Wild" and the Pursuit of a Better Society

SPOILER ALERT! This essay contains many spoilers if you haven't seen the movie.

    In 1990, Christopher McCandless, a star student and athlete that had just graduated from Emory University, decided to run away from his suburban, upper-middle class life. Although the movie spends most of the time showing the adventures of Chris after deserting his home, there are very important clues that reveal what it was the drove a young man with what seemed like such a promising future to seek such a radical deviance from the traditional lifestyle of his milieu. Just as Freud’s study of mentally unstable patients produced insights the could be generalized to all humans, so can the extreme case of young McCandless reveal information about the widespread but relatively unacknowledged discontent of modern society.
    The protagonist of our story was too smart to be able to ignore the problems of the world he lived in. Most others didn’t share his views or weren’t capable of noticing, as he did, the causes behind the boredom, anger and depression prevalent among people.  Having identified contradictions between the paths society recommended and the miserable results they could produce, he had to turn to drastic alternatives for change. Indeed, this made him an eccentric person in his suburban town, leaving him lonely and misunderstood. In a way, Chris resembles the Trojan character Cassandra: both become desperate as they watch everybody enjoy, not knowing that their decisions will be the cause of their demise.
    “Into the Wild” is not narrated in a linear fashion, nevertheless this essay will approach the story in chronological order for practical purposes. At the beginning of the narrative, Christopher McCandless finds himself completed overwhelmed by the superficiality of culture. He just wants to get done with college, tired of the rigidity and the disregard for the practical that characterize formal education. Christopher greatly admired Emerson, who wrote in “Prudence” about the typical university scholar who “whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an incumberance”.
    Upon obtaining his degree, Chris is still unsatisfied. He is tired of his parents who he sees as the greatest exponents of the culture he detests, even though they are the ones that should be the guide in his life. Among the things that bother him are their obsession with their social status, their pursuit of money and material possessions, and the false image they showed to the world to cover the hypocrisies of their moral failings. In all fairness, his parents did love him, but they didn’t realize how much pain they were causing him.
    Almost everything in our society, including McCandless’ town, is centered consciously or unconsciously around obtaining the maximum amount of pleasure. It has frequently been claimed that we live in a post-ideological era, but in reality we have become so immersed in a complex hedonistic worldview that we don’t even realize it’s there anymore. As a consequence of this mindset, people constantly sustain neurotic efforts to maximize wealth, pleasure and happiness, which is most evident in the fact that so many people have become slaves of their jobs and studies. Even the US Constitution placed the ‘pursuit of happiness’ at the center of society hundreds of years ago. 
    The story starts getting into rising action as Chris takes off in his Datsun with no concrete plans in mind but to go away. He gives away twenty-four thousand dollars to Oxfam, burns his social security and informs no one of his whereabouts or plans. However, he sees that his freedom, although increased, is still limited. He has to deal with bureaucracy in the most unexpected places and some new acquaintances, despite being quite amiable, have already started forming judgments and holding expectations of him. Chris decides to say goodbye to them for some time.
   Traveling around South Dakota, McCandless becomes friends with a rural farmer and accepts his job offer, proving to be reliable and very hard working. A few months later, he is disappointed to see his pal arrested for satellite piracy, not so much because Wayne was a criminal, but rather because the government is more concerned with white collar crimes than other more important problems, such as the large number of people living in poverty.
    Seeing events as opportunities rather than problems, McCandless decides to continue his voyages. Chris gets severely beat up for train hopping even though he wasn’t hurting anybody by doing so. It is proof of his character that this doesn’t make him bitter or depressed, but instead he interprets it as part of the adventure in his struggle against the corrupted state of humanity. Somehow, he manages to reach his destination at Los Angeles where he gets a job at a fast food restaurant. He soon quits, unable to stay in a job that consists of mindless repetition in such a dull environment.
    Another setting that demonstrates the madness of dedicating most of one’s efforts to try to maximize pleasure is L.A. . Cities are typically loved for the great availability of entertainment and all sorts of products and services. However, the typical urban dweller, in his attempts to increase his wealth to enjoy more pleasures, becomes ever more neglecting of his wellbeing and drowned in work. City inhabitants are willing to tolerate the pollution, the stress and the schizophrenic-life pace to get the benefits of living in the city. Unfortunately, they get accustomed to unhealthy lifestyles that, ironically, make them less happy than those who live a simpler and more natural life.
    After leaving the city he meets again with some friends he has made during his traveling. Living with them in their small hippy community is an attractive young girl who starts to develop a crush on Chris, or Alexander Supertramp, as he is now known. Even though it seems like McCandless had feelings for her too, he displays a very unconventional wisdom: Chris knows that “falling in love” is not the same thing as real love. Infatuation, is just another hidden form of hedonism. Emerson wrote in “Prudence” that “genius is always ascetic; and piety and love”. It’s not that Chris didn’t care for the girl, he just knew that at some point the passion would be gone, and once that happened he didn’t want to commit himself to a relationship yet, knowing that he was still seeking that transcendent experience in the wild.
    At his next stop, Alex becomes very close to a lonely and depressed veteran, Mr. Franz, who tries to bring McCandless into organized religion. However, it is McCandless that ends up transforming the retiree. Chris shows him that he doesn’t need to go to a church to feel a connection to a higher life, in fact, his conservatism is preventing him from doing so. Slowly, Mr. Franz starts to break out of his routine and vitality is restored into his life. Unfortunately for the reborn man, Christopher still feels like he needs more freedom and genuineness that can only be achieved by spending some time alone in nature, a purifying experience. He has had Alaska in mind for some time now, so he gets the things he needs and heads north.
    The events with Mr. Franz are quite revealing. Until the twentieth century, organized religion provided most people with strength and gave meaning to their life. However, traditional religion has become increasingly disconnected from people, and in their disappointment, many of their followers have been turning towards an agnostic hedonistic lifestyle, perhaps not on paper, but in practice. Many people are unfortunately torn between false spirituality and no spirituality at all. Alexander Supertramp possessed a real and profound spirituality.
    Chris arrives at an isolated terrain in Alaska where the story reaches its climax.  Here, he lives completely authentically, alone in nature. McCandless does not go without his struggles up there, but these form part of the freedom and the aesthetic transcendence he experiences in nature. Unfortunately, Chris starts to feel sick and realizes that he had mistaken a poisonous plant for an edible one. Reaching the resolution, Chris looks back gratefully on the wonderful life he has lived, knowing he is approaching death.
    Despite such ending, it is nevertheless important not to confuse the young hero with a hermit, a misanthrope, or a na├»ve idealist. He had written in his notebook that “happiness is only real when shared” and  it was in his plans to return to civilization and write a book about what he has learned. As said before, living in the Alaskan wilderness was only meant to be an experience where he could cleanse himself of the troubles of his previous way of life, not a permanent lifestyle. Maybe, he should’ve played it a bit safer.
    The conclusion that can be extracted from “Into the Wild” is that being a slave of the pain-pleasure ideology makes people build up defenses, become aggressive to others and stay trapped in their comfortable and boring lives. Most people unconsciously know something is wrong but they can’t put their finger on it, much less imagine alternative possibilities of change at the very root of their lives. However, according to Emerson in “Prudence” “appetite shows to the finer souls as a disease”. This appetite is not limited to materialism, but can also include the desire for fame and status, sexual obsession, among others.
    People are not completely determined by society, so we must bring greater awareness of deeper understanding of societal problems into the collective consciousness. I propose an oversimplified, two-step solution inspired by Christopher McCandless. First we must learn to recognize how the hedonistic ideology penetrates so many aspects of our lives and that this mindset is unsustainable, inevitably leading to failure (typically in the form of a depression or  ‘existential crisis’). Secondly, we should move towards better guides for life which do not deny pleasure and happiness as important, but recognize them as second-order values, and which embrace, above all, love for oneself and for all others, even enemies. In the long run, anger ends up consuming the hater as much as the hated.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Greatness of Agnosticism

            Being an agnostic is not easy. Religious people believe that you are so lost you can’t even declare yourself an atheist. Atheists believe that agnostics are people who have realized that God doesn't exist, but haven’t reached its logical conclusion. I have been both an atheist and a believer, but in this essay I will explain why I have changed my mind and demonstrate why agnosticism is not only a valid position, but a valuable one as well.

Labels carry too much preconceptions, so instead of letting others define my position, I will do it myself. My definition of an agnostic is the following: he who is inclined to disbelieve in deities or any other supernatural existence, but does not deny that their existence is a possibility.

The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer. 
An agnostic is open minded and a free thinker. An agnostic acts just like an independent voter considering who will receive his vote by weighing each candidate objectively, without any favoritism for a party and by recognizing that each side has its strengths and weaknesses. Whether in politics or in religion, independent thinking is very admirable.                               
Both atheists and theists agree that there are many, many things in the universe and even in our body that are still beyond our knowledge.  If you have never seen, heard or felt something and someone enquires to you about that something, the obvious position to take is to humbly accept one’s ignorance about the matter. Well then, shouldn’t an agnostic search for the answers? Yes, I have and I still am searching, but I believe that some things are beyond our understanding, at least for now.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
I am not a believer in God for the following reasons. I have no direct proof from my experience that can confirm the existence of a deity. And I don’t rely on indirect accounts for this matter because they do not seem reliable. Why believe in a Christian image of God and not a Hindu one? Why throw away the gods of Ancient Greece, the spirits of early tribes or the alien worshipping religions? I am convinced that they believe their accounts are true, but they can’t all be right. It seems more logical to consider that the variety of supernatural entities corresponds to how different cultures respond psychologically to phenomena they can’t explain.

What about inferring God’s existence?  It is typical of theists to ask non-believers who created the universe if not God. They argue that the universe had to come from somewhere, that it can’t exist out of nowhere. Well, the same argument applies to God. Where did he come from? It makes just as much sense to say that the universe, or the multiverse*, has always existed without any origin, as it does to say that God had no origin.

 So far both explanations seem to be equally possible, but as we will see, they really aren’t. First, Occam’s razor tells us that when two explanations equally explain something, we should choose the simplest. The simplest explanation is that the universe has always existed, because believing in a God requires believing that there is a metaphysical being that is beyond our senses which adds an unnecessary and extra level of complexity to the explanation of why the universe exists. Secondly, the existence of the traditional God, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, cannot be logically inferred. My argument was brilliantly summarized by Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
If God is omnipotent and perfect then he has no reason or need to create us. Even if he did create us, why did he make us imperfect? How can something imperfect come from something perfect? To those who say that we are imperfect, because God gave us freedom I ask the following: given that our freedom is limited, and we are not omnipotent, why would he give us the choice of doing evil  instead of leaving it beyond our possibilities, as he has done with so many other choices?  Some people say that God lets evil exist so that we can learn, so that we love him more, so that we can appreciate goodness or to let us earn a place in heaven.  An omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would be capable of making free humans, who learn, love him, who appreciate goodness and earn his rewards without the suffering and pain that exists in the world.        

Then my believing friends would answer that we can’t know God’s reasons for making the world the way it is. How is it that believers can give this unknown metaphysical being so many qualities and with so much certainty, but non-believers cannot point out that these qualities are contradictory? The following scenario would make more sense: imagine if a friend told you that “X” person is physically immortal no matter what. “X” dies the next day. Now your friend still try to defend the contradiction between his words and reality by saying that “we don’t really understand death”.

            Now here is why I am not an atheist either. Atheists have failed to give a good explanation of why life exists. How is it that from an inorganic universe, a group of molecules started reproducing and trying to survive? Even though atheist biologists will deny it, there is a zero probability that something inert became alive because it interacted with other inert forces and substances, no matter how much time and randomness you factor into the equation. It is silly to theorize that life just randomly appeared out of a bunch of molecules.

            Besides, atheists do not have a good explanation for consciousness and the mind either. They claim that our existence is confined to our body and our brain, but that doesn’t explain why we seem to exist beyond that. How is it that a bunch of neurons have gained awareness of themselves? How is it that a small part of the universe (the atoms that make up our bodies) has become conscious of its own existence?

       Finally, even if scientific and natural explanations are found to the previous questions, who are we to deny with certainty all supernatural entities because we haven’t experienced them? It is one thing to say that it is probable, even practical to believe that there are no supernatural beings or forces, but to say that it is certainly true is a mistake. It’s just as absurd as saying that there definitely weren’t, aren’t and never will be any aliens just because we have yet to prove their existence. Although it is reasonable for now to go through daily activities assuming that one won’t encounter an alien, that presumption can’t be generalized to billions of years and billions of galaxies. For all we know, we might be tiny cells that make up a huge alien. Again, the most probable explanation should be chosen, until there is reason to believe otherwise.

            Agnosticism is a stage in my development and that of humanity. Until we have more information and more answers, it is a stage in which I choose to believe what is most likely, which is the inexistence of deities, at least until given reason to believe otherwise. Perhaps the next stages will be reached in a few years or they might not even exist. If I stay at this stage for the rest of my life, I will remain curious about the universe but I see no reason to be upset or to believe that I am somehow stuck in my development. Agnosticism gives me the best of both worlds. It gives me the rationality, the practicality, the realism, the objectivity and the down-to-earth mentality of atheists as well as their usual drive to enjoy life to the most, in case there is nothing else after death. On the other hand, agnosticism also gives me the capacity to be spiritual without a religion, the opportunity to take risks with a leap of faith that something or someone out there might be guiding and helping me, the hope that there is a meaning to my existence, to humanity and to pain and pleasure, and the chance to entertain the possibility of an existence beyond the body and of life after death.
"Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant." -Jorge Luis Borges
            For all these reasons, agnosticism not only is a valid position, but I believe it is the one that provides the best answers, the right attitudes and the greatest emotional, intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. It puts together the best of each of the alternatives and throws out the worst. And that is why I am proud to be an Agnostic.

*Multiverse: is the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes (including the historical universe we consistently experience) that together comprise everything that exists and can exist

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Yes, Your Dream Does Mean Something (A Beginner's Guide to Dreaming) Part 1

Hundreds of years ago, dreams were considered a channel to the divine. Gods, spirits and the universe revealed things to us when we were asleep. The Egyptians, biblical characters, the Aztecs, all of these gave special significance to dreams and interpreted them to see the future or gain valuable information. Unfortunately, today dreams have been reduced to random electrical activity in the brain. However, we will see that dreams are much more than that.

While it is true that dreams have their origin in electrical activity, it would be silly to dismiss them, just as it would be silly to dismiss everything you think and feel just because it happens due to neurotransmitters racing from neuron to neuron. Even if the electrical activity is random, the way the brain chooses to interpret it is clearly relevant.
Yeah right! That dream you had about your ideal partner was just random brain activity...

 Hundreds of writers, historians, psychologists, philosophers, kings and even common people like you and mean have pondered about the meaning of dreams. Is it a message from the gods? A vision of the future or of your past life? Your imagination and creativity set free for a while? Your true fears and desires being revealed? A metaphor or a symbol?  An internal compass guiding you? Maybe its all of that and more.

To avoid creating an argument about the existence or non-existences of gods and of the possibility of seeing the future/past, those two possibilities will not be further explored here but will be left up to you to decide whether they could be true or not. (At the end of the article there will be links if you are interested in any of those topics).

Dream as Creativity, Imagination and Problem Solving

The interesting thing about the unconscious is that it keeps working for you, putting bits and pieces of information together and analyzing things while you rest. Even if you don't  remember your dreams, the labor of your unconscious isn't lost. There are two ways dreams can help us in this area. Have you ever had a problem where you couldn't make up your mind, go to bed and when you open your eyes you know the answer? 
Lets use an example: I had met two girls and felt attracted to both of them and couldn't decide which one to ask out. One of them had stunning good looks but I got along better with the other one. I spent the whole day thinking about which one I should choose (for those of you one step ahead, I couldn't choose both because they were friends). So I went to bed and entered the world of the unconscious, hoping to gain some insight from it. Anyways, I had dream in which I went a got a really cute puppy for a pet, everybody was so excited about it, but it bit me and ended up causing an allergic reaction.
If I hadn't been so driven to get help from a dream I probably would've ignored and forgotten the dream. But that wouldn't have mattered because as soon as I opened my eyes I already knew who I wanted to ask out: the "nice" girl over the "hot" girl. My interpretation of the dream only confirmed it. Here's how it went: everybody had seen me flirting around at a party with both of the girls and all the guys told me to ask the hot girl out (that's the PG-13 version of what they said anyways). In my dream those were the people who were all excited about the cute puppy (emphasis con cute). However, one of my more mature friends advised me to "choose the girl you had more fun with, because when you think with your libido instead of your head, you end up getting hurt". So, getting bit by the hot girl (a.k.a the metaphorical puppy in the dream) seemed like something worth going after, but getting hurt in the end (yes, you guessed it, the metaphorical allergic reaction) was a deal-breaker.

So in the end I chose the "nice" girl (who was good-looking as well by the way) and 3 and a half years later, here we are married, with 2 beautiful kids.
Just kidding; she had a boyfriend.

As anticlimatic as that was, it was not my unconscious' fault for choosing her, because the dream never told me to go for the nice girl. Even if it did, it still was been my conscious's  responsibility to have found out that she had boyfriend (the unconscious had no way of knowing). However, there is also a positive note to the finale, because later on I found out some information about the hot girl and her ways that make me grateful that I didn't ask her out.

Now when it comes to creativity, the unconscious can also be of assistance. Dreams often deal with issues that are important to us, and since the unconscious has access to millions of videos, pictures, sounds, memories and thoughts that we can't access as easily, dreams can often express important feelings, desires, and ideas in original and unconventional ways. Below, a short list of some great people inspired by dreams:

  • Paul McCartney: woke up humming the melody to what would become the song "Yesterday" by the Beatles.

  • Authors: Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) were all inspired by their dreams
  •   Jack Nicklaus: the greatest professional golfer of all times changed his swing after realizing in a dream that there was a better way to do it
                                                                    Jack Nicklaus
  • Carl Jung: came up with his model of the unconscious from a dream (in an attempt to improve Freud's oversimplified model in which everything came down to sex and aggression).
  • Albert Einstein: got clues from a dream that allowed him to discover the Theory of Relativity (yes, the one with the E=MC2 equation).

  • Salvador Dali: the most famous surrealist artist was constantly searching for new ways to explore the unconscious to get more creative material from it
                                              Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion, c.1954 Art Print

Ok, I think you get the point. Maybe you're thinking of a new idea for a business or perhaps you're unsure about whether you should move to another city. Try putting this wise Latin-American saying into practice: "Why don't you consult your pillow?"

Ready for more? Part 2 will include "Metaphors and Symbols: the Secret Language of the Unconscious" "Dreams as Your Inner Wisdom" and "True Desires and Fears". Check it our here.

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