Too Much to Do, Too Little Time

“Enough organization, enough lists and we think we can control the uncontrollable.”
John Mankiewicz, House, The Socratic Method, 2004

House, M.D.

I am a recovering list maker. I used to start every day compiling a to do list. And at the end of every day I had checked some off and added many more. I moved to having more than one list, even writing on both sides of a page.

When it grew to the point where I felt I could no longer complete all the work on my lists, I stopped one day, looked over what I had said I needed to get done, and decided other than getting milk at the grocery store and putting shoes on my feet, I really didn’t need to write the next great American novel by noon or figure a theory of everything by dinner. I did keep one item on a mental list: Take time every morning to read a few sentences of better writers than I am, spend a few minutes in silence, breathe in and out slowly, and try to free my mind from thinking.

I used the quotation from the TV series, House, one of my favorites for taking philosophy into the wasteland of television, because it rings true. Making lists is just one common way we think we can control the uncontrollable. Some people just need to feel they are in control, driven by deeper psychological motivations than I am able to diagnose here.

But the truth is that like the myth of Sisyphus, most of us spend out lives pushing rocks up hills, seldom getting to the top and when we near it, finding the rock rolling back down with us under it. We then redouble our efforts, pushing and straining our backs to get near the top, finding the same result. Don’t get me wrong: Rock pushers are needed in this world, but according to the Jewish tradition, even God rested one day a week.

Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to stop trying to control everything and everyone around us. Sometimes, contrary to what our culture teaches us, the best thing to do is give up. Sometimes by giving up we learn how to let go and move on. In losing our need for control, we gain our lives back. A teacher of wisdom once asked: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and lose his or her soul?”

So don’t put off what you need to do until tomorrow. Get rid of that pad of paper on which you keep your to do lists. Don’t get stressed out when people act other than the way you hope they might act. Relax. Take a deep breath and think of all the things you don’t really need to do tomorrow, all the people you won’t have to change, and focus instead on only a few things that are really important. And do them (without making a list).

We are, after all, human beings, not human doings.

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New Centers of Life in Communities

“The center cannot hold.” –William Butler Yeats

Once upon a time there were centers to most communities. This is still true in some areas and certainly in New England where I have lived and worked.

However, it may be that it’s difficult now days in many communities to specify exactly where the center is or even where it has moved. It may be there is not one center but many centers and many communities in a given area.

When I left the area in which I now live many decades ago there seemed to be a vibrant center of the region. There were movie houses, department stores, small businesses, jobs and many people out walking the streets at all times of the day. People lived within walking distance of a clearly defined center of the area.

Now the “center” seems to have been recreated in another part of the city and new businesses relocated there–an attempt to recreate what was once and is no more. Meanwhile, the towns and villages around what once was the center have shifted outward. What once were new suburbs are now taking on the appearance of what once was the center–call them exurbs. And what once were the suburbs have moved outward into what were farmland. And there has been some movement back to the inner cities by young people, but not nearly enough to change the landscape.

I have lived in some areas where policies built on a different paradigm or model are being employed, such as not trying to recreate a “center” like it used to be (e.g., with department stores, big restaurants, etc.) but rather focusing on rebuilding neighborhoods–creating and sustaining new neighborhood centers with parks and village like shopping areas (not strip malls) with walking and bicycle paths, even creating times and places where cars are not permitted so pedestrians can walk freely, and where there is a visible law enforcement presence to make certain people feel safe at night especially. If I ask myself the really important question about renewing a region–what kind of community do I want to live in?–it will follow the model above.

There’s a principle architects cite and which made sense to me when I was working in community programs and that still makes sense: Form follows function. Or, as someone once asked me when I was working on a new project: “What’s success look like?” Put another way: What’s your vision? Are you going down the highway to the future looking in the rear view mirror? Or are you driving as fast as you can on the turnpike but not quite sure what direction you’re headed?

Someone once asked me why people want to live in any community. Without giving it much thought but reflecting on my experiences living in and trying to create new communities, I responded: People want to feel a sense of purpose and find a place to belong. So the question is not how to redevelop a center that no longer exists, but how to adopt a different model–supporting not one center, but many, and creating spaces where people can feel they belong and where there is a wider sense of purpose. It’s not all about buildings (e.g., creating new hotels, restaurants, et al)–I used to call this the “edifice complex–but about people. Rather than one big city with a center, why not many communities or neighborhoods with many smaller centers?

So the question to ask people is: What do you want in a community where you choose to live? I suspect you would find some common responses that have little or nothing to do with building a new movie theater or hotel. Who moves to an area to stay in a hotel or go to a movie? We may travel to these but not live in them. The communities in which we choose to live have great schools, parks and affordable and decent housing, health related care, libraries and religious groups, civic clubs, government that is listening to and working on behalf of people–in other words, communities where the mission is to serve the basic human needs of food, shelter, etc.

I have lived through at least two major periods of our history where attempts were made to renew or rebuild centers of regions. Some worked, some didn’t. Maybe given the realities of our times (less money to spend on renewal, more people to serve, etc.)it’s time to face reality and adopt a different model that creates many centers of community life with smaller numbers of people in any community, with businesses and parks and places to gather closer to where people live, and with a focus that takes care of the nuts and bolts of neighborhood life that citizens have been talking about for decades: Less crime, better code enforcement, walk ways and bike paths which are accessible and safe, businesses within walking distance serving local needs, enclaves of beauty and learning, etc..

Communities are about people–their hopes and desires and needs. That sounds too simple, I know. But as a wise city planner once said to me: “Keep it simple; it will get complex all by itself.”

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Landing on Comet Denied

Despite pictures showing a comet within reach of a small, refrigerator size craft sent into space ten years ago to land there, some Americans have said the flight was a fraud and the pictures taken in a storage facility in New Mexico.

“If God had intended us to land on a comet, he would have created us on one,” said one pastor. “The next thing you know they’ll be saying that humans are bringing about climate change.”

Opponents of the launch toward the comet say it was created to answer the big questions about the universe, its origin and future. “If they want to answer big questions, go read the book of Genesis in the Bible,” said one protester.

A advocate for a group advocating for teaching creationism in public schools in biology classes, said the supposed landing on the comet was created by evolutionists wanting to prove life on earth arose elsewhere and came here on a comet. “I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take one to make a film about going to a comet,” he said.

Meanwhile, in its Texas warehouses, a publisher has already begun making sure any new books on science omit any mention of a trip to a comet. “We’ve already eliminated evolution from our biology textbooks and any mention of religions other than Christianity from our history texts,” said a publisher spokesman.

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How to Know If You Are a Philosopher

One of my more creative students came up with nine statements to determine if you are a philosopher.

Here they:

How to Know if You Are a Philosopher
You are a philosopher if……..
You read Kierkegaard under the bed covers late at night.
You know how to think like a bat.
You have read the Critique of Pure Reason in German (at least three times)
You have a beard (men or women).
You go to thrift stores looking for copies of the Republic.
You know who Regina Olsen was.
You took Pascal’s wager and lost.
You’ve been to Plato’s cave.
Your mother said you were not meant to be.

If you couldn’t figure what these statements meant, don’t fret. Philosophy is more than a subject taught in college. It is about a way of life that is not afraid of questions and wrestles with life’s meanings. If you want to meet a philosopher, hang around a child long enough to pay attention to his or her questions. Why did my pet die? Why do bad things happen? Before we tell them to be quiet, children are natural philosophers.

Aristotle wrote that philosophy begins in wonder. And children live in the wonder years. Some adults still are not too busy to stop and wonder. Blessed be those who wonder; for they shall be fully alive.

There are really two purposes to philosophy. The first is to learn how to think better and the second to learn how to live more deeply. I would contend these are the two highest reasons for being human, and unless we have stopped thinking or living, what it means to be a philosopher. That’s why this description of philosophy makes sense to me:

“The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them.” (Thomas Nagel, then Professor of Philosophy and Law, New York University)

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Stop!

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The stop says it all: STOP. I think the sign is there for the seasons. Stop the winter. Stay in fall. Maybe go back to summer, even spring.

The golden leaves in the tree speak the same language. They hang on. There’s a cartoon that shows a child trying to glue the leaves back on tree. That says something else that is simply true. Just as you can’t stop water slipping through your fingers, you can’t stop time or seasons in their tracks.

The seasons teach some valuable lessons about life. You can’t go back to the previous season nor jump into the next. You are where you are now–in the present. It’s really all you have, so you might as well make the best of it. Don’t fret about the future; it will come on its own. Don’t remember the past; it is lost.

The only way to live is now, not forgetting the past but not living in it and not stepping into the future before it arrives. This is it, right now, today if you are lucky, and everything else is an illusion. Who knows, maybe time itself is an illusion and its passage only due to our perceptions.

Stay awake.
Right now the golden sun shines through the leaves.
The sky is bright blue.
The evergreen trees surround the light.
Perhaps in a universe we simply don’t know where it might end,
if at all,
on a lonely planet in some obscure galaxy
in the middle of who knows where,
there is this moment.
This is it.
Rejoice.

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In Defense of Winter

Snowbound

Okay, I know I’m not exactly your favorite season, except perhaps in parts of the world where tourism depends on snow and freezing weather. I realize most of you don’t like scraping ice off your windshields or wrapping your children up in layers of clothing before going outside. I appreciate that heating your home costs a lot of money.

But, hey, give me a break. I didn’t exactly choose the seasons. I was born this way. Ice and snow and sub zero temperature are literally in my cold blood. As many of you say more often than I care to hear: “It is what it is.”

So, given everything, you can either move to a climate which is sunny and warm (dare I say, “hot”} all year or adapt, even appreciate, to the seasons. I offer the follow logic:

All life is about change.
Seasons change.
Therefore, seasons are life.

Think about your life as a book of seasons. You have summer, spring, winter, and fall in your life–times of bright and sunny days and times of dark and dreary days. The trick, my seasonal deniers, is to learn how to live with change. So maybe you don’t like me, but think that what follows me is worth the wait–spring. And if you learn to live with me, maybe you can appreciate sitting by a fireside or staying inside reading a good book (or your Kindle).

I submit that the oldest religions all reflected the seasons. It’s in your ancestral blood. Winter is for quiet reflection. Spring for rebirth. Summer for action. Fall for change.

So don’t blame me. Without me, you wouldn’t appreciate spring.

Hope

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Me and My Shadow

I noticed someone standing beside me this morning as I took my dog for a walk.

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He (or she as the case may be) did exactly what I did.  I tried to run, but he/she followed me.

Words tumbled into my mind.  The shadow knows……………..Shadow Land………………..I am a shadow of my former self…………

And then the catchy tune echoed and I literally tap danced my way home (followed by you know who):  Me and My Shadow.

Once I got inside and shut the front door, my friend did not follow me.  But I thought of the words of the Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas:

……..And a shadow

       as we watched, felt, as though

       of an unseen writer, landing over

       his work.

And I got to thinking how often shadows appear in world literature and philosophy, perhaps most often thought about in the ancient story of the cave told by Plato about 2,500 years ago.   The story is about cave dwellers chained to see only the shadows of people outside the cave.  They believe the shadows are reality since that is all they know.  One day one of the prisoners inside the cave manages to get outside and beholds the colors of the world there when seen in sunlight.  When he returns to tell others, they don’t believe him.

Thinking about Plato’s story and some of the findings of modern physics that speak of many dimensions, ours being only one of them, I got to thinking about my own perceptions of what I think to be reality.  What if what is really real is not what I perceive?   What if there are other dimensions beyond my time and space I cannot see but perhaps only feel from time to time when the veil is lifted temporarily to permit a quick look?  What if all of us live in the shadow land and can’t or won’t see through the veil?

I suspect that from time to time each one of us, some more than others, find ourselves seeing through the  veil, maybe in the twinkling of an eye or the sudden insight which sometimes take the form of a poem or a painting?   Few of us can live in some moments for long.  We care creatures of the cave.  Our eyes cannot adjust to the light.  We are people of the shadows.

In my wildest fantasies I wonder if when we die we leave the cave and come into the light and see reality as if for the first time?  Would we come back to tell those living in darkness what we had seen?  And what would they say of us, that we were crazy?  And wouldn’t they, disturbed by this new vision, do everything to keep us quiet?

The great story told in literature and in science is that there is more to reality than what we see, a great chain of Being that includes but transcends our little worlds.

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