Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Girl and the Flamingo

For Pamela

Once upon a time there lived a little girl who loved to dance. She lived in a village beside a tropical rain forest. Each morning just after the sunrise and before it was time to do her chores, she walked into the deep green forest. She walked until she came to a big circle field shimmering in the golden rays of the early morning sun.

In the middle of the field she stood silently with her eyes closed and her arms above her head. For a minute all was still. And then she began to dance.

First she danced slowly, her arms swaying like tree branches in a gentle breeze. Her movements grew bigger and soon she was swirling and shuffling around the circle. She moved with freedom and playfulness, with beauty and grace. She danced all the ways she had learned from the forest. She twisted like a river, she splashed like the rain. She flapped like a bird and slithered like a snake.

The animals of the forest loved to watch her dance. The mouse lived closest to the field and he noticed first when she began to dance. The mouse told the toucan, the toucan told the jaguar, the jaguar told the snake, and the snake told the monkey. Soon all the animals of the forest were gathered around the edge of the circle to watch the girl. When she danced fast the animals would clap and hoot and stomp to make a rhythm for her dance. When she danced slow they would sway side-to-side in a silent trance.

But there was one animal that never came to the dance. The flamingo. He stood on one leg  in the shallow part of a river not far away, feeling lonely and covering his head with his bright pink wing.

In days gone bye, all the animals used to watch him dance on his long, elegant orange legs. But since the girl started dancing nobody came to watch him dance anymore. He became increasingly unhappy while dancing on his own with never more than a few passing insects to appreciate his performance. Soon he stopped dancing at all.

One morning he was brooding over his unlucky fate when he decided to take action. He came up with a plan to win back the love of the forest animals that he felt he deserved.

That day while the girl was still in the forest, the flamingo crept silently into the village. He climbed through the window to the girl’s bedroom and stole one of her dresses. Then he found a broom standing against a wall and he stole all the fibers from the end to make a wig.

Early the next morning, while the sun was still sleeping, he went back to the village and hung up a blanket over the girl’s bedroom window. He knew that she woke with the sun. If a blanket blocked the sunrise then she would sleep late, right past her normal dance time.

The flamingo put on his disguise to impersonate the little girl - the dress he had taken from the girl and the wig he had made from the fibers of a broom. He walked into the forest along the girl’s normal path to the circle field. And there, in the middle of the field, he began to dance.

Following their normal routine, all the animals came to watch the morning dance. But soon they realized something was wrong. The little girl’s legs were skinnier than normal. And her beak was bigger than normal. And the way she moved was all wrong. The monkey broke the silence, shouting “That’s not the girl! It’s the flamingo. Look at how funny he looks in that disguise.” All the animals saw it and began to laugh.

The flamingo was so embarrassed that he turned redder than normal. He stumbled out of the clearing and ran and ran. Eventually he got tired of running and hid himself beneath a bush. There he cried.

The girl missed her dancing that morning because she slept an hour later and had to do her chores as soon as she woke. She was puzzled that she had woken so late and that there was a blanket over her bedroom window. She wondered about her missing dress and the missing fibers of her broom.

Later that day she decided to skip lunch and go dance in the forest to make up for the dance she missed. She knew that the animals might not come watch her at this unusual time of day, but she loved to dance even without an audience.

On her way through the forest she heard a loud sobbing sound. She stopped and saw the flamingo crying under a bush. There were her missing dress and her missing broom, torn and tattered and worn by the flamingo. The strange sight startled her for a second. But soon all other thoughts were pushed aside by concern for the crying bird.

“Dear flamingo, why are you crying”? she said.

The flamingo looked up and saw the very girl that was the source of his problems. When he heard her concern for him he started crying even harder.

“Since you started dancing,” he said with heaving breaths, “nobody comes to watch me dance anymore.”

The girl picked a leaf to mop up his tears and then handed it to him so he could wipe his runny nose.

“So I made a disguise to look like you so the animals would come watch me dance again. But my costume didn’t fool them and everybody just laughed at me. Buuaaaa Haaaa Haaaa…” he bellowed.

Seeing the flamingo’s tears, her own eyes began to fill with water. She put her hand on top of the flamingos ridiculous wig.

“Flamingo”, she said with a shaky voice, “I’m sorry I hurt you. When I was a little girl I saw you dance and it was so beautiful. You are the one that introduced me to dancing. Without you, I would have never have discovered how much I love to dance!”

The flamingo heard this and his tears stopped. He felt warm inside and proud. “Really?”, he said.

“Yes”, she said, “Would you like to come dance with me?”.

He nodded his head and got up from under the bush. He removed his costume and followed her to the circle field.

And there they danced together. At first she copied the slow graceful movements of the flamingo. Then he chased her swirling and shuffling around the circle. They took turns leading and following. They danced all the dances of the forest, and some new ones that had never been danced before.

Nobody came to watch them. But when they finished, breathless, they hugged each other and agreed that it was the most fun that they ever had.

Each morning afterwards the girl and the flamingo met outside her village. They walked together to the circle field and stood in the middle. Slowly at first, they began to dance. The mouse always noticed first. The mouse told the toucan, the toucan told the jaguar, the jaguar told the snake, and the snake told the monkey. All the animals of the forest came to watch them.
And together the girl and the flamingo made the most beautiful dances that the forest had ever seen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Optimize for Meaning

The world offers many simple formulas for leading a good life - from the ever popular commencement speech advice "do what makes you happy" to the hippie/Disney incantation that "it's all about love". But no simple formula can capture all the nuance that makes up a good life. Behind the scenes the successful followers of these formulas cheat at the edges, making exceptions in difficult circumstances. It's not clear how a philosophy about the primacy of happiness or love offers guidance in hard times when a person must sacrifice short term well-being for long term gain.

Bending a slogan through enough curlicues of argumentation can apply it to all cases. But if any principle can be universalized with enough argumentation, then none stands out. Each serves as a reasonable map for people lacking any life direction but grows hazy in the details.

Undaunted by the failure of simple life philosophies, I recently made an attempt to fashion my own. Perhaps it is no more useful than the others. But it is mine, so I am allowed to adore it. It is:

Optimize for meaning

It is vague (what is meaning?), but I hope that its very vagueness helps it bridge the distance between the clean world of ideas and the messy world of existence. It seems a better description of the method of obtaining the Good Life than optimizing for happiness, or power, or global average utility.

My philosophy is derived through introspection. I perceive my life to be better when I create and participate in meaningful events. I am also heartened by the fact that it doesn't seem to be obviously unrealistic. A meaningful life still has all the facets of life we are used to - boredom, frustration, you name it. It is not utopia. The only thing it seems to lack is the burden of meaninglessness.

As a advocate of meaning, I'm faced with the question: how is meaning created? I recognize that my life today is far more meaningful than when I was a bored teenager growing up in rural suburbs. How did that change happen? I have no general philosophy of meaning, but I have discovered a few ways that it comes into existence.

The effort of creation - If you are so brusque as to ask a young artist why they bothered to hang one of their own paintings when they could buy better ones at the store, they will answer "because it is mine". It is the same reason why parents love their children, even if their children are not the best children in the world. Effort creates meaning.

A strategy for creating meaningful living environments is to surround yourself with physical artifacts created by you and your loved ones.

The esteem of the esteemed -  Meaning is found in the things loved by the ones we love. The favorite song of a friend can create a strong emotional response even if you don't otherwise like it. It feels important (which may be a synonym for meaningful) in a way which other songs do not.

Time - On my birthday I gave my girlfriend and I matching necklaces featuring black onyx pendants. We have not taken them off since, and each day they are infused with progressively more meaning. Keeping an object close to the body or otherwise giving it part of your scarce space and attention imbues it with significance. So does performing some ritual of care to an object over time. These objects of power can be used to elevate the emotional content of ritual, performance, and gift.

On a larger scale, old religious buildings or natural structures such as trees which are older than any living human are especially powerful things. The destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban caused an outcry even from non-Buddhists. But this outcry wouldn't have happened if the stone Buddhas were only 17 years old instead of 1,700.

Particularity - Modern consumer capitalism wipes away meaning by eliminating individuality and creating a feeling of anonymity. I felt good about my fine taste in clothes when I bought a slick new jacket from Uniqlo - until I saw multiple people on the street wearing the same thing over the next few weeks. I was just one of many people with the exact same taste.

Particularity is a rebellion against consumer anonymity. Buying handmade goods from Etsy provides a source of meaning to both buyer and seller. A rock that picked up on a particular roadtrip with a particular friend can never be copied by anybody else.

Sacrifice - Sacrificing an object that already has meaning or value can give meaning to a new event or object. The Burning Man festival is built around a sacrificial ritual - the burning of a giant, wooden man. The sacrifice of the man has a passionate intensity because of the week that attendees spend living in its shadow, with it the tallest and most reliable landmark to navigate the festival. When it burns, it is like burning "North" or the sun - a force of nature goes missing.

Gifting, another tradition associated with Burning Man, produces meaning. Something given to us feels more important than the same thing if we buy it ourselves, perhaps out of recognition of the sacrifice that the giver made to get it.

Religious fasting, a temporary sacrifice, gives meaning to the mundane act of eating. It is a very nice and pleasant thing to bring meaning to the boring necessities of life.

Belonging - Our connections to others give meaning to our lives. Existence in relationship to romantic partners, family, and larger organizations is more meaningful than existence as isolated individuals. Social roles are also important. People find meaning in filling the cultural expectations of a husband, wife, mother, father, or child.

Altered consciousness - Episodes of identity malleability are meaningful events. This often takes the form of transcendent connection, often in context of genuine religious experience or political activism. Connecting with something larger than ourselves (god, the universe, a political cause, etc.) gives meaning and provides some protection from the crippling existential fear of death.

Struggle - Feats of strength and endurance are meaningful. A severe injury, such as a broken limb, becomes an important story to tell people for the rest of one's life. People even inflict physical discomfort on themselves - running marathons and participating in triathlons. Perhaps suffering creates meaning mediated through increasing one's self-confidence. Becoming a more robust individual feels important.

I'm sure there are other things which create meaning that I have missed.

A world that optimizes for meaning looks different from a world that optimizes for happiness, global utility, or power. For example, some utilitarian philosophers want to eliminate all suffering, even that of prey animals. Aside from the strangeness of such a life (can we even imagine it?), it seems to eliminate a lot of the sources of meaning in the world. I am not ready to suggest that we keep around sources of suffering that we can eliminate on purpose, but I suggest we start to look at suffering as more than just an enemy.

Perhaps listing the things which are meaningful can help us understand the crisis of meaninglessness in modern life. For example, it seems that a lot of things which create meaning involve scarcity and effort, and the primary focus of the modern economy is to eliminate scarcity and effort. Could that be the source of our collective ennui?

This exercise helps me understand the fanaticism that I and others feel towards Burning Man. Even aside from the sacrificial burning of the man, it is an event engineered to generate large amounts of meaning. The festival is a celebration of eccentric creativity and individuation. It exists amidst a physical struggle - the temperature extremes, mandatory self-sufficiency, and harsh weather create shared suffering. The final event is a somber memorial of loss - the burning of the temple (loss also creates meaning).

How else can we create meaning?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Princess and the Tower

For Pamela

Once upon a time there was a young princess who was locked in a tall stone tower.

Each day she would spend hours gazing out the windows. From her high perch she could see for miles around. She could see the tops of forests on green hills and tiny people leading tiny horses on roads that were a thin ribbon of brown. She imagined running down the green hills and playing with the horses and people on the road. She wanted very badly to visit the land outside her tower.

She didn’t remember how she had gotten there, or why she had been locked up. The truth is that a person of royal blood is a dangerous thing, even if they are small. So people seeking power sometimes lock them in towers.

Her room was large and mostly round, taking up almost the entire top floor of the tower. On one side there was a flat wall with a tall wooden door. It was thick and she knew from trying that it could not be opened from the inside. Next to the door was a wooden slot above a stone shelf. Each morning, she would find a bowl of food and one of water on the shelf. Sometimes she tried to stay up and see who put the bowl through the slot, but it never came until she fell asleep.

Time passed and the princess grew older. A bird couple built a nest outside her window. In the springtime their eggs hatched and three baby birds were born. The mother and father took turns watching the nest while the other went to find food for the baby birds.

She gave them all names. She named the daddy and mommy Walter and Sarah, with kids Nathaniel, Jean, and Mary. In the morning she would sing to them and at night she would tell them a bedtime story.

There was a bookshelf on one side of the room. She learned how to read bigger and bigger books as time went on. She ripped out the pages of the ones she didn’t like and drew on them with pieces of charcoal. Some days she spent hours looking at the clouds in the skies and drawing their shapes. Up high, the shape of the clouds in the sky are strange and beautiful because there is nothing to block your view for miles and miles. She could see them make shadows on the ground as they moved across the land.

Other days she folded pages of books into fantastic costumes. She made herself into a sailor, a bird, or a dragon and staged elaborate plays for the family of birds.

Gradually she lost her desire to go down to the ground. She got used to her life of making beautiful drawings, talking to birds, and watching the clouds come and go. If someone were watching her, they would say that she was happy and without a care.

One day she was in middle of drawing a portrait of her bird friends when there was a loud bang on the door. Some of the wood splintered and cracked. A deep voice yelled “Princess, don’t worry, I have come to save you!”. She backed away to the other side of the room, cowering at the noises. There was another bang, loud as thunder, and another. Finally a thick steel battle-axe came through the door, followed by a sweaty man in dented and dirty armor. He had tired eyes and a face full of brown stubble. He kneeled down and offered his hand, saying “Princess, come here, we are to leave”.

“I don’t want to go. Who are you?”, she said.

“Princess, I am sorry for scaring you. I am to take you to your brother, the King.” he said.

The word “brother” caught her interest. She didn’t know she had a brother. She would like to meet him. Anyways, she knew she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t well say “no” to a big man with a sword and battle armor.

“Ok, I will go with you”, she said taking his hand.

“It’s easier if I carry you, it’s a long way down”, he replied.

She nodded her assent and he whisked her onto his big shoulders, piggy-back style. His shoulders were thickly muscled like a horse. She gave one final look back at the nest outside her window. It was empty, the birds were scared off by the noise. She felt a pang of regret that she would not see them one more time.

As they walked through the doorway she gasped and looked back again. She saw her room from the other side for the first time. She kept her eyes on it as they began to climb down a long spiral staircase, and the last sliver of her room disappeared from sight. The princess fell asleep on top of the big soldier.

In the next few days she learned the story of the life she had been living for the past ten years. When her father, the king, had died, her uncle had kidnapped her. His plan was to kill her brother and marry her when she was of age, so the kingdom would pass to his own family. However, one of her uncle’s men were still loyal to her brother, and he had helped hide the young boy and smuggle him out of the country. Her uncle ruled as regent for 10 years while her brother in exile grew into a mighty king. He came back with an army to defeat their uncle and take back the throne.

Life was strange in her brother’s castle. She got a new room with big windows and a fancy bed. She liked it. But everybody thought her very quiet and odd. She thought them noisy and busy. She spent a lot of time drawing in her room.

She enjoyed the beautiful clothes she got to wear. They reminded her of her bird family. She wished she could show them how colorful she was now.

It was a strange experience to meet her brother. She was allowed to eat dinner at his table one day with his advisers. He seemed to care about her well-being and she liked that. But he spent most of the time talking about the affairs of the kingdom with his advisers. He seemed to be a very busy man. After that, she did not see him often. She guessed she admired him, but she did not like him.

He encouraged her to marry and that made her nervous. But one day she met a quiet young Duke who preferred writing poetry to fighting and they became fast friends.

They married and had children. She was a good mother and a wise princess.

Eventually her brother died in a war and her husband became King and she became Queen. The people were happy to have such kindly monarchs. Their wisdom and gentleness was celebrated throughout the land.

She had a good life. But when she had a spare moment from the tasks of running a kingdom and raising a family, she would think back wistfully to her time in the tower. The paintings on the walls of the castle were pretty, but they were never quite as beautiful as the clouds she remembered. And the professional court musicians were very good, but she missed the honest song of the birds.