µ05: Symphony 4 is finished

It is finally done: Symphony 4: Elegy, demo music available on Soundcloud. I guess it captures some of the mood of these last years. I shy away from calling it my “Covid Symphony”, but it basically is.

#110: Poem: To Understand the World

TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD

Corvallis, August 20th, 2021 – P#754

how it would be
if finally we
could claim to comprehend
whatever it is
that daily surrounds us?

are choosing we
to blissfully ignore
all that life has to offer

in joy and in pain,
in bliss and damnation,
in promise and anguish,
in safety and danger,
both heaven and hell?

in this all-twisted world
you cannot have one
without the other
for too long a time

the path of life
if long enough
will lead us through all
in spite of our bestest intentions

now, seeing all this,
do we then choose
that knowledge is better
than ignorance?

once knowledge we choose,
how much of a Faustian bargain
should willing we be to sometimes embrace?

or should we yield to ignorance,
or blissful non-awareness,
how much are we willing to lose as well?

and once we are done,
how much of all that understanding
will stay with us in what may still come?

just like moments in time,
we are fragments of life
thrown in the maelstrom of strangest existence
thinking we need to make sense of it all

to understand the world
may lead us to knowledge
to highest achievement
and yet
we are mortal

and that which is eternal,
may care it or not,
might care just enough
to take note
of all our attempts
erratic they may well be:

so that something survives
at least as a memory

for the idea
that all this could have been in vain
is certainly not an understanding
we ever will be
prepared to accept

and yet
to truly understand the world
may ask us to do so
nevertheless

philjohn.com/poems

#108: Carefulness Is Not Fear

Some of the criticism – if you can call it that – put forth by those believing that the Coronavirus pandemic would not be so dangerous, that you could certainly go without the vaccine, that you should stop wearing the mask, that you should stop avoiding unnecessary contact – is that those who do follow those scientifically advised procedures would just be “afraid.” “Don’t be afraid”- “Don’t promote fear” – “learn to live with the virus.”

I do want to live, but we can avoid living with a virus we could certainly seriously push back if everybody followed serious scientific advice. Certainly, we will eventually have to learn to “live with” the virus, but not before having done whatever we can to protect everyone.

Also, since when do we shun people who are afraid of something dangerous – and is such a line not preposterous coming from those claiming – against all serious evidence – that the vaccines would be dangerous, masks would be dangerous, and other nonsense?

I agree with people who respect the virus for what it is: a dangerous pathogen that is not done with us yet, and that should be given as little space to evolve into more dangerous variants, and we can use the tools at our disposal safely. This is not fear, it is carefulness. We care about a disease that even in its so-called mild or moderate form can lead to long-term effects that can be debilitating in both adults and some children. We care even about those who don’t realize they should protect themselves.

Sometimes, I hear people saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, chuckling, implying that they should not be, and that such a demand would be ludicrous. They certainly don’t know their Bible. It is Cain, after having slain Abel, when asked by God where his brother would be, is responding as such, in a way implying that he – the murderer – would not be his brother’s keeper.

But we should be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I must be expected to care about not getting sick myself, I can – and should – also be expected to care about others not getting sick, even if they are misguided in their conviction that sees measures fighting the pandemic as allegedly less dangerous than the pandemic themselves.

This is not fear, it is care. With a hint of frustration, which I am certainly aware of. Maybe we can all be frustrated together, albeit about different things…

#107: How (Not) to Be Unhappy

There are many ways to be unhappy. For more, I recommend you read Paul Watzlawick’s excellent book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness), still relevant after all these years. For example:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer.
But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him.
If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that i need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!
And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

(Watzlawick, Paul. The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness). United States, Norton, 1993. page 39)

That’s it! That’s what we do! Ain’t it grand? No, seriously. Sometimes, we can’t seem to help ourselves seeing the worst in people and in situations. It is certainly easier, and sometimes, it is mandated.

But there is a difference between unhappiness on the one side, and on the other, carefulness, mindfulness, realism, or fear. These are not all the same things. If I know a certain danger exists, denying that danger would not be making me happy, on the contrary. If I realize the seriousness of a situation, I am preparing myself to react appropriately, and thus minimize unhappiness. If I am mindful of my own or other people’s limitations, I am setting up realistic expectations rather than expecting an unfulfillable fairy-tale. If I am careful, I care about making the right decision.

Unhappiness and happiness may probably be described as outcomes of false expectations and of a flawed attitude towards life. If you expect everything to fail, that may be realistic sometimes, but you lose hope. If you expect everything to work out, you may be eternally hopeful, but such a pollyannish attitude sets you up for failure more easily than you would have hoped.

As we are living in a time where challenges about – a still persisting global pandemic, the crises following the necessary strategies for pandemic abatement, as well as climate change and extreme weather events, refugee crises, political crises, terrorism, domestic troubles, economic crises, maybe even an asteroid with higher likelihood of hitting our planet than we might be comfortable with; all of these certainly can very well contribute to a sense of doom. How, in all honesty, could we possibly be happy in all this?

If we focus on all of these, on the abundance of dangers and threats, we are pursuing unhappiness. Looking at history can be healing. Despite everything, our problems are manageable. Pandemic? Get vaccinated, wear the mask, distance, be hygienic, etc. Climate change? More difficult, but we can all do our part to protect nature, pollute less, consume differently, and be open to technological solutions old and new. Politics? Get involved. Asteroid? Sorry, can’t help you there.

Some problems can be fixed, others can’t be, but we can never stop searching for solutions. That may not make us happy, but at least, we can avoid being unhappy. Because this is important also: There are never just two options. Between unhappiness and happiness, there is the possibility of a neutral stance of acceptance of things as they are, and trying to make the best of it. You may not be happy, but you can choose not to be very unhappy at least.

#106: How to Be Happy

One of the oldest problems of humanity seems to be centered around the question of how to be happy.

This is certainly understandable: So many things stand in our way, so many challenges await us in life, so many things are not as they should be. Wherever we look, there is misery, tragedy, injustice, illness, death, pain, suffering, etc.

We are born in pain, build a life, succeed more or less with what we are trying to do in life, cannot possibly achieve everything, have to make compromises, nothing is working out as planned, and even if it does for a brief moment, we are growing older, losing friends and family, facing a future of death and diminishing faculties, till we ourselves are dead. Whatever awaits us beyond death hinges on faith, which in most cases is wishful thinking. We cannot know what follows death, and for all we know, it will follow similar trajectories of life but be happier – or be so different from what we have known that we cannot even comprehend it. Most likely though, life itself is special, and especially depressing.

This is one way to see things. All of it is true. Is it helpful? Yes! Accept the negative for what it is: the reality of living in an imperfect world. Our task is to make meaning in meaninglessness, make sense in senselessness, to be happy even if we could not possibly be happy.

Happiness is not a goal you can reach once everything is working out as intended. It is the attitude you bring to an unpredictable world, and to the people around you. It is the light you nurture inside, the feeling you need to maintain to accept life for what it is, and to make it bearable.

Happiness is the realization that in spite of everything, this is how it is, and you can either be miserable or happy. In the face of extreme adversity, humans have made a great invention: Gallows Humor. Discover the absurdity in life, the impossibility to have it all, and the realization that in the larger scheme of things, we matter far less than we like to think, and our little lives are significant only to us and the people around us in our time and space.

There is levity in this, and mental space to see our life as a gift – as a window on a specific point in time and space. The mark we leave may be big or small, but at least we are given the chance to make it, to live it, to see what it’s all about. The very insignificance of everything highlights, ironically, the significance for us to ourselves.

Happiness, then, is a combination of acceptance, humility, absurdist amusement, and the celebration of the little things in life that do bring us pleasure, and of the people we meet on our voyage.

How can we be happy? By deciding to simply be happy, come what may. Que será, será.

#105: We May Think We’re Done with the Virus, but the Virus is not Done with Us

It is seductive to think that we can go back to normal anytime soon.

At least within the so-called “Western” World, we have safe and functioning vaccines, masks, abilities to work remotely for many of us, and to distance physically. There should be no debate as to how to proceed, and yet, it is not so.

We knew early on that this would get worse. Sure, some – not all – pathogens seem to get weaker with time, but that is not true for all, and such a description is already overly simplified. Pathogens do not think, they do not decide to survive. They procreate, and wherever we provide them with a fertile ground, they will do so. Given enough selection pressure, those pathogens that can procreate without destroying us will survive only because we let them. Right now, we are giving them ample room to circulate, so no, we will see variants arise that will be progressively more aggressive – because we allow them to do that.

We are all tired. We are all sick of this, even if we haven’t gotten physically sick from it. But we all want this to end.

It’s not up to magical thinking to make it so. Vaccinate, wear masks, distance, isolate – globally. Sorry, no better news here. If this does not end soon, it’s due to those who choose to be careless – and to not care for others. Some people cannot follow this prescription, and those who can need to make sure that they are protected as well. Is that so difficult?

#104: Psychological Long Covid

As far as I know, I have not been infected with the novel Coronavirus. I have been sheltering in place as much as possible, have been distancing myself physically, maintaining a sanitizing regime, wearing masks, getting doubly vaccinated, maintaining safety precautions even now, listening to the advice and latest scientific debate and not just to some statements by politically mandated officials. The virus is real, so are its variants, and vaccines help but are not perfect. It is not over.

Even as I have not been infected – and I would be very surprised if I have given my precautions – I somehow feel as if I had something like “long Covid.” In my case, it cannot probably be medical, it is probably psychological. Lack of inspiration, motivation, difficult sleep, nightmares, and an overall sense of dread have made this a difficult time.

But this is not about me; I don’t like to draw attention to personal matters typically. I’m not trying to whine or complain, but to maybe validate your feelings in case you are experiencing something similar. I am noticing this in others, whether it is necessarily verbalized.

Additionally, I have witnessed friends of mine who have moved into political radicalization, virus relativization or denial, anti-vaccine and conspiracy theories, and an overall anti-democratic, anti-scientific extremist spectrum with affinities to right-wing extremist positions. This is especially troubling, but again, not limited to myself.

This crisis is affecting us on a multitude of levels, and we need to give us all some leeway, some grace, some sense of understanding that this is affecting us psychologically and socially much more than we would care to admit.

These are not easy times, let’s just admit it and be gracious to each other.

#103: The Story About the Lone Renegate Scientist Showing That Everyone Else Is Wrong

The resistance to the pandemic abatement has revealed the strength of a very popular narrative: The story of the lone hero, in this case, the lone renegate scientist who knows something that nobody else knows, that shows that everyone else is wrong, and that there is a different reality waiting to be discovered underneath what you still think is real.

There are several of these types out there. Some claim the pandemic would not be dangerous at all, that there all kinds of Coronaviruses, and this one would not be more dangerous. Others claim that somehow magically, the virus would become less dangerous over time (sure, evolution may point to such a possible pathway, but it is not guaranteed – or have AIDS, the Plague, Measles, Ebola, or Smallpox have become cuddly harmless pets in the meantime? I don’t think so…). Again others claim that the vaccines would be uniquely dangerous, and that everyone else – the pharmaceutical industry, politics, journalists, the vaccinated, are all in on the conspiracy.

Only the lone, renegate scientist can help us here?

This is called romanticism. In today’s newly romantic era, the romantic hero is typically a comic book character, or somewhere on a spaceship far, far in either the past or future.

Romantic narration – not unrelated to psychotic narration (Flor and Kneis 2007) is a category of fiction, not reality. Let us not mix methodologies!

How does reality work, how does science work?

Be careful of arrogant geniuses that tell you that what they are saying would stand against the orthodoxy of established opinion. If anyone even claims this, they know nothing about science, about the scientific method and process. They must not be taken seriously, for they know not what they are doing.

Science is collaborative, it is always conducted within an established methodology and community. That’s why scientific or academic writing is so hard! You need to have evidence, you need to tie you work into  the long line of researchers before you, you need to open yourself up to ruthless (let me repeat: ruthless!) criticism, so that once your ideas pass muster, everyone can accept your contributions as legitimate.

The romantic hero cries into the wilderness like a mental patient.

The scientific researcher willingly endures science bootcamp for all his academic life with rewards few and far between, and academic versions of drill and persistent criticism making all of us, hopefully, better.

If you read something by someone saying “What you are hearing from me stands at odds with the entire scientific/medical/political establishment,…” – simply stop reading. It will not be worth listening to. Ever.

#100: Poem: One Moment in Time


ONE MOMENT IN TIME
(一期一会)


Corvallis, May 29th, 2021 – P#752

what we are
it is
what it is

there is nothing here
and everything

we are not meant to last
and yet we want to

this
is foolish desire

for meaning
lies in the fleeting,
not in permanence

in the end
in the beginning
we are
and we’ll be

there has to be an end
in order for a beginning to matter

one moment in time
is all we ever have
in this cruel and beautiful life

each moment
unique
and not to be wasted

一期一会

philjohn.com/poems


一期一会 – ichi-go ichi-e: one moment, one meeting: an idea from Zen Buddhism in which every single moment counts. It can translate as “One moment, one meeting”.

#99: Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

Zionism is the understanding that Israel is the historical home of the Jewish people. This is not a belief, this is not ideology, it is the truth. Just because there are also non-Jewish people living in the area does not change the fact. Jews are indigenous to the area, and have every right to have established a state therein after the occupation by the Ottoman and British empires ended.

The foundation of Israel was legitimized by the United Nations. The so-called occupation of Palestinian territory is the reaction to decades of partially Nazi-inspired antisemitic campaigns, terrorism, and outright war against the Jewish state, and against the very idea of a Jewish state.

At the same time, Hamas is unequivocally clear that their aim is the elimination of what they call the “Zionist entity.” There is no desire for peace till Israel and its Israeli inhabitants are eradicated. Hamas says it in their charter, it says it through their actions. Jewish lives, according to Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations, do not matter.

But it is even worse. To Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and their allies, Palestinian lives do not matter either. Gaza is not occupied. It is well-funded. Hamas has used the funding to support their mission of destruction of Israel. Gaza could be a rich and functioning society, but it is Hamas who is holding it back. Hamas – and Fatah – are actively sabotaging democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a peaceful and prosperous existence for their own citizens. They are not interested in democracy or in human rights. They say so, and they act accordingly.

The only friend of Palestinian people is Israel. It has a functioning democracy, and Jews and non-Jews alike can live in peace and are equal citizens. This is not what is happening wherever the enemies of Israel are in power.

The Zionist vision is not an exclusive vision. It is the vision of a peaceful and democratic homeland not just for Jews but also for Arabs, Christians and others. To be antizionist means to be antidemocratic, to be a-historical and to sell out to terrorists and the enemies of democracy.

There used to be a time when it was perfectly well understood on the political left that Zionism means just that. Israel was, rightfully so, seen as the shining example to the region that liberal democracy was possible after centuries of autocratic government. That a people that have been demonized and persecuted throughout all of history deserve to have a home. It was also understood that the biggest critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians actually are Israelis themselves.

Peace cannot come if the antisemitic, antidemocratic and pro-violence narrative of Hamas and others gets to win the day.

If the political left starts sounding like their alleged National Socialist enemies, then there will be hell to pay. Without a supportive left that does not even for a second support the continued existence of Israel, there cannot be any legitimate criticism of settlement policies either. Without a supportive left, it will be the conservatives and the proponents of the security state who will rule the day.

I have said it before, but it needs to keep saying: If you want to support a Palestinian cause for sovereignty, you need to support Israel. If you want to support liberal democracy, you need to support the democratic forces in Palestine and Israel, and not the warmongers.

The left needs to wake up from its delusion that Anti-Zionism somehow is different from Anti-Semitism. It isn’t. Such a confusion of epic proportions destroyed the ambitions of the Labor Party in Britain, and it will destroy the ambitions of the Democrats in the United States as well. Nothing good can come of siding with an aggressor, and the aggressor is Hamas and its supporters. What is best for Israel is also best for Palestine. It is time that this is understood again amongst those claiming to support truth, justice and liberalism.