“Living with Pain and Appreciating life: A Stoic’s Approach” A sermon by Mark W. McGinnis

“Living with Pain and Appreciating life: A Stoic’s Approach”

A sermon by Mark W. McGinnis delivered on July 8, 2018 at the Boise Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship, Boise, ID

This morning I will draw on my experiences with pain and share some of the ways I have learned to live with it along with a few basic tenants of Stoicism. In the past 20 years I have dealt with chronic pain in multiple manifestations and undergone five major surgeries and a myriad of alternative methods that have rarely provided me with relief. I tell you this to set the stage not to elicit your sympathy, empathy, or pity. I would much prefer your friendship.

In my youth I rejected nearly everything to do with Western culture. Seeing it all as elements of a failed system. In graduate school I developed a strong affinity to both Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, interests that continue today. Now in my old age my thoughts have turned to the very roots of Western culture, Greek and Roman philosophy. It began by reading Plato’s Socratic dialogues. This was a gateway to Stoicism that draws heavily on the remarkable, clever teachings of Socrates.

It is said that Stoicism began with the Greek philosopher Zeno in the third century BC. Little remains of the teachings of any of the Greek Stoics but when the Romans revived the philosophy at the turn of the millennium it flourished for two centuries. I will not delve into the histories and variety of philosophers in this sermon. This morning I would like to focus on what Stoicism can teach us about living a good life in a difficult world and I would like to focus on the teachings of one Roman philosopher, Marcus Aurelius who lived 121 – 180 AD. He might seen as a rare example of what Plato called a Philosopher King. He was a Roman Emperor and a constant general of his armies. He was the last of what some historians have called Rome’s “five good emperors.” He wrote one small “book” that is usually titled “Meditations.” It seems he did not write it as a book and certainly not for publication but as an exercise in reminding himself what is important in life. It was written late in his life while his army was winter-camped along the Danube River in the never-ending and ultimately futile task of subduing the Germans.

I would like to focus on certain parts of the book that I have found useful in trying to live a good life in difficult circumstances. For me the difficult circumstances take two forms: first, the persistent physical pain I experience; second, the emotional pain of living in what I perceive as an unjust, and cruel social system. First we need to determine what is a “good life” from a Stoic’s point of view. It is not a life without pain, without difficulty, without illness, without disappointment, without sadness, without death. Every life has those challenges and more. Marcus’ teachings give ways to be with those parts of our existence and have a good life. At its essence the good Stoic life is to live in accordance with nature. Not a nature of dancing through a daisy dappled meadow, although that could be part of it, but a nature of light and dark and the infinite shades between.

Stoicism teaches that we must use our minds to think about what is happening to us and use our reason with both physical and mental experiences. In the experience of pain it is never simply physical or mental. It always has both components — the physical stimulates the mental pain and the mental stimulates the physical pain.

Marcus says, rightly I believe, that our pain is our perception of an experience. Instead of reacting to the sensation with the emotions of anger, fear and dismay as I so often have, one can analyze physical or mental experience. We can understand accurately where the pain is in our body, what the true sensation is that we are feeling, and the actual duration of the sensation and intensity of what we are feeling. Do not even label it as pain. It is a sensation you are experiencing. This is using reason rather the emotions. Learning to understand what is happening within us rather than unknowingly emotionally reacting to it. While this will not remove the sensation it can significantly change the way you experience it. It has made pain more tolerable for me. It takes practice and determination to make this a habit when pain arises. We have an instinctual need to react to pain to protect ourselves, but this Stoic approach reacts with reason and not emotion.

Another aspect of pain is that of duration. I have often perceived the pain I am experiencing as permanent. We can feel that we will forever be in this condition and we must do something rapidly to eliminate the pain. In modern times this can lead the individual to take dangerous drugs or rush into surgeries. Another key Stoic belief is that everything is in a constant state of change and this certainly applies to pain. Yes, it may worsen, but it also may improve on its own with some patience and endurance. Our bodies are remarkable in their self-healing properties but we often do not give them the chance to do so. I am not saying that there is never need for drugs or surgery as there most certainly is, but in some instances time gives us a healthier result than our corporate health system.

In my experience the more attention I give my pain the worse it becomes. When I work in my studio I feel very little pain because my mind is totally involved in making my art. Even talking about my pain I have found a detriment. It simply brings the pain to the front of my mind and elevates the intensity. When you are in long term pain, again physical or mental, and you are giving it much of your attention you become desperate to relieve it. You are willing to try just about anything and I think I have tried just about everything over the past 20 years. Very well-meaning people have new ways to help you that has worked for this or that person. Sometimes it may help, for me often very short term, and many times it does not help me at all. I believe it may be a false assumption, and certainly a modern one, that we are to live our lives without pain. We have become convinced that modern medicine will solve all our health problems. We will all have some degree of pain on that Stoic spectrum. It is how we react to the pain, whether with reason or emotion, that will determine how it impacts our experience of the “good life.” Please keep in mind that my thoughts on pain and how I interpret Stoic ideas about pain come from my personal experience and everyone’s experience with this difficult subject is unique.

While the concept of change has helped me in understanding my pain, it has a larger role in Stoic philosophy. My favorite quote from Marcus Aurelius’ little book is, “The universe is change and life is opinion.” His understanding of the universe seems quite extraordinary for the second century as does that of the many Greek philosophers he studied. Marcus writes, “Never forget that the universe is a single organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things for a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.” That is a beautiful, poetic expression of the Unitarian/Universalist seventh principle. He held that the cosmic mind is a part of us and we have access to it when we live the good life in harmony with nature.
Change is a topic that often arises in his reflections. He writes, “Look around you and see how everything is perpetually changing, and get used to the idea that nature loves nothing more than to change…. Change is a kind of river, an irresistible flood sweeping up men and events and carrying them headlong, one after another, to the great sea of being.” Marcus also contends that within this sweeping, never-ending change there is only one true time and that is present time. The present is of equal duration for everyone and it is all we possess. He put it very succinctly, “We live only in the present. In this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.” Change for me is a concept of comfort and hope. The level of discomfort I feel will change. The conditions of the world that cause me despair will change. Every particle in the universe is in a state of change.

The second part of my favorite quote is “life is opinion.” Marcus felt that an individual’s power to form opinions through reason was an important tool to guard against hasty false assumptions. But he also believed that these opinions are not to be held if they can be proven in error. One should listen carefully to opposing ideas and if they are superior to the ones you hold, abandon yours and improve yourself. He also says that opinions can become a burden and that there are times to just “jettison” them. And my favorite quote on this topic, “You always have the option of having no opinion.”

Bringing the mind into harmony with nature was a topic of primary concern for Marcus. We are as much a part of the interconnected nature and as any other part. Conformity with the whole is the good life and the goodness of this world is realized through the study of its wonders large and small. That is how a true understanding of our small place in this whole can begin.

It is in this area of nature and beauty that Marcus gave me a revelation I was not expecting from a Stoic — a deeper understanding of aesthetics. He wrote, “Whatever is beautiful owes its beauty to itself…. Praise adds nothing to beauty — makes it neither better or worse. This is also true for commonly praised objects, natural wonders or works of art. … Which of these is improved by praise or marred by criticism.” So beauty simply is. It exists outside the realm of judgement. For me this was a profound insight. It removes the rather arrogant human opinions that we impose on nearly all we experience.

In this vast complex natural system Marcus sees us all working toward the same great end. This is true whether we purposely work for unity with nature, or blindly stumble along, or even resist this unity, we still must follow the great flow of change and everyone in their own way will contribute to its path. Stoicism in not a philosophy that is shaped exclusively for the individual. It is a way of life that realizes that through the community the individual works for the good of all. As he put it “What is useless for the hive is of no use to the bee.” We all need help from one another and there is not shame in asking for that help. In a passage he seems to have written in concert with my partner Patricia he says, “So what if you are lame and cannot scale the wall alone. Does your lameness prevent you from finding someone to help you?”

One final quote — “Live in harmony with everything around you, and love — without reservations or conditions — those with whom you live and work.”

While I have found Stoicism a valuable source to better understand my physical condition, I continue to study Stoicism in an attempt to gain a better understanding of this complex existence we are all share. Stoicism provides a practical framework, or design, to live a good life.

most quotes from – “The Emperor’s Handbook”, A new translation of the “Meditations” by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks

We Have Reached a Tipping Point

 

I believe we have reached a tipping point in our nation’s current crisis. In eight months we have plunged into circumstances I would not have thought possible in our country at this point in history. We have seen our president aggressively threatening the use of nuclear weapons. We are watching the dismantling of environmental protections. Governmental actions are preventing us from dealing with ongoing climate change. White supremacist groups are growing and becoming bolder and white supremacists are advising our president. Race relations in the nation are worsening. Proposed reductions in the meager healthcare support for our citizens could mean untold suffering. Our public education system is threatened with being dismantled. Immigrants and refugees are being scapegoated for political purposes. These radical actions are fundamentally changing our country and coming at us with mind-numbing speed all engulfed in the smoke of Trump’s outrageous words and buffoonery.
History shows us events such as these can have catastrophic consequences. The demonstrations and voices of dissent across the country have not been enough to have meaningful impact. I believe we need nation-wide, non-violent civil disobedience. We need national and regional leaders willing to organize and spearhead this movement. We need local training in peaceful civil disobedience. We need people from all walks of life ready to make sacrifices and go to jail if necessary — for us and our children and their children. Placards, slogans, and memes are not enough. Reactive resistance is not enough. We must take proactive action.

Feel free to share these thoughts.

Mark W. McGinnis
#civildisobedience

What I Don’t Want to Watch

“Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind.― Epictetus, 50-135AD

What I don’t want to watch:

1. I don’t want to watch entertainment that is drenched in violence. Iraq, Afghanistan Syria, Yemen, The Philippines, Nigeria, and more, are all currently experiencing terrible horrors that men are inflicting on men, women, and children. Violence is in our cities, in our rural areas, and maybe in the house next door. I need to be informed of this but why would I want to watch and enjoy similar cruelties inflicted on people as entertainment? Violent film, TV, and video games are addictive. Adrenaline spikes and brain activity changes while watching violence creating a rush. Consuming a steady stream of violent entertainment to varying degrees numbs us to real violence.

2. I don’t want to watch exploitive and/or meaningless sex. Again, the people who make such entertainment are playing to instinctual drives. We are hard-wired to desire sex as that is the way our species propagates and survives. Dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and endorphins are all released in the brain while having or watching sex. Hard-core pornography takes this desire and perverts it to an addictive level that distorts what should be the natural beauty and joy of sexual relations.

3. I don’t want to watch entertainment that revels in stereotypes: young, stupid people; bumbling, dolt-like seniors; and shallow depictions of minorities.

4. I don’t want to watch late-night political humor. Most of my friends would say they need this lampooning of our national leaders to make the events of the day more tolerable. In ordinary times I would agree, but these are not ordinary times. I do not want these events to be more tolerable. What is happening is not funny. It is by far the greatest threat to our nation that I have seen in my 67 years. I need to be accurately informed and take action.

I am far from a paragon virtue and I have fallen for many kinds of what I see as negative entertainment, but I am trying to avoid them. Much popular entertainment has the potential to manipulate us for profit, pandering to our instinctual nature and desire to escape from our daily lives. Censorship is not the answer. We live in a market economy and if entertainment with violence, pornography, and stereotypes was in less demand it would make less money and less would be produced. Epictetus also said, “If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.”

How Not to Fund a University

The following is a guest opinion piece I wrote for the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise Idaho (published April 19, 2016). The article is in response to a lengthy piece the newspaper published on the growing national trend of states funding their state universities and colleges based on graduation rates of individual institutions.

In my 30 years teaching in higher education I was fortunate to often be dealing with students on a one-to-one basis. This allowed me to be part of their education and personal growth for four or five years. When graduation came it was a joyous event. I also had many students who in one or even two years came to another understanding. That understanding was they were not ready for college or that college was simply not right for them, and they discontinued their time at the university. This was often not a matter of failure but reasoned decisions.

Should funding for higher ed institutions be determined by graduation rates, these students would likely be pressured to remain at the institution even though it was not in their best interest, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt they would labor decades paying off. Teachers might be encouraged to keep students in programs even though it was not what the student wants or needs. This could well reach the point of the lowering standards to help unqualified students graduate. Administrators could subvert quality of education to increase graduation numbers. One only has to look at the many failures of No Child Left Behind to see the layers of problems in outcome based funding.

Structuring higher education on a business model is a trend that has been evolving for decades. University administration in league with corporate donors have created institutions whose primary role is job training rather than higher education. At one time a higher education was structured to prepare students to be well-rounded, critical-thinking people to make our world a better place and not just to make money. Higher education should prepare people for professions, but that is only part of their role in society.

I know there are institutions that still strive for a rounded education, but they are being transformed under the business model that is dominating our universities and colleges. The true value of higher ed to the individual, and the society, cannot be measured with quantifiable outcomes to create a spreadsheet of investments and profits. Outcome-based funding and especially graduation-rate funding will hurt those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of higher education: the students.

FullSizeRender-1Mark W. McGinnis resides in Boise. He is an artist and emeritus professor of art at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

Understanding Change: An Essay

 

Gitanjali 82, acrylic on paper, 9" X 9", 2003, Mark W. McGinnis
Gitanjali 82, acrylic on paper, 9″ X 9″, 2003, Mark W. McGinnis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For better or worse I have always had a desire for understanding. In different phases of my life my understanding has grown or diminished. It has certainly not been a constant upward trajectory. As our planet moves into a period of radical change, and there have been many in the four and a half billion years of the earth’s existence, I find myself trying to come to some understanding of what is going on. I began my efforts with blame. I blamed my species for overpopulation, pollution of our atmosphere and water, destruction of the environment and other species and their greed in general — all things that are contributing to the climate change that will radically alter the way life functions on the planet. As I have been able to back up and see more of the big picture I see the kind of change we are witnessing is part of the earth’s ongoing cycles. In just the past 650 thousand years there have been seven major climate changes.

Some say this one is different because it is being caused by human beings and is not natural. This suggests that human beings are not natural. It seems to me that we are just as natural as a slight shift in the earth’s orbit, a meteor striking the planet, volcanoes erupting, or any of the other phenomena that has caused climate change in the past.

If you study our species from early homo sapiens to the present, we see that the behavior of human beings has consistencies and seems to be based on polarities: greed and generosity, love and hate, war and peace, order and chaos, brilliance and stupidity and every degree between the poles. What we have done and are doing to our planet is consistent with our behavior as a species. To blame a species for what it is and what it has always been is pointless (especially when it comes from one of that species who manifests all the polarities listed above).

Am I saying that we should sit back and watch this huge, devastating change take place? No I am not. Certainly the wheel is in motion and climate change will continue to unfold. The degree of this change and amount of suffering it will impose not only on our species but on most of the species on the planet is yet to be determined. We still have it in our powers to lessen the impact of this change. The question is do we have the fortitude to make the changes needed to lessen the changes we have instigated. People of my generation and possibly my children’s generation will not feel much of the impact of these changes, but my grandchildren and most certainly my great-grandchildren will.

I was born in 1950. Human beings have made some significant lifestyle in my lifetime. I am not talking about the technological toys people often point to as the great changes of the past sixty years. I am talking about changes of consciousness and behavior. The place of women in our society, the rights and attitudes toward minorities, the change in attitudes and rights of those outside heterosexual orientation, and even the end of massive world wars have all been radical if incomplete shifts in thinking since my birth. Our species has exhibited a remarkable ability to adapt for the better as well as for the worse. That is why we gained the ability to alter the climate of our planet.

Some European countries have made large strides in reducing their use of fossil fuels that are the primary source of climate change. I find a sad irony that in our use of fossil material of previous climate changes we are creating the climate change of our time. But most of Europe is not the primary cause of our problems. USA, China, Russia, and India are a problem, and much of what was called “the third world” wants to raise their standard of living to match the “the first world” which involves much higher energy consumption. Lessening climate change is a huge challenge but not an impossible one. Will we change our way of living so future generations and other species can continue on this planet? Those who work to lessen global climate change by whatever means are certainly the most noble people of our times.

It is common to hear people speak of “saving the planet.” This may be the ultimate hubris. The planet will do just fine as it has been through considerably worse climate changes in the past. Even if we manage to eliminate most of the species of life on the Earth, more will evolve as they have so many times. It is impossible to know if one will evolve that has something like our cognitive abilities. For the sake of the other species it might be best to hope that one does not.

© 2014 Mark W. McGinnis

The Dream of an Introductory Lecture to Painting 1 Students (about 10 years after retirement)

(This lecture began in a dream and continued into wakefulness where I could not stop giving the lecture)

“Good morning incoming painting students. My name is Mr. McGinnis. Now some of you might find that too formal a name and showing far too much respect. Those you who have such casual, haughty or arrogant opinions may call me Mr. McGinnis.”

“I am here to teach you how to be painters.” (Saying this I begin to giggle and then break into uncontrollable laughter. I then remember that is what I am being paid to do and quickly bring myself under control, wiping the tears from my eyes). “Now you might ask what painters do in this incredibly rich and diverse economy in which we live? What fine question.” (At this point three boys stumble into class obviously deeply hungover from meaningful first week orientation activities. They lean against a divider partition nearly knocking it down. I look at them with loving kindness.) “Well, I say with conviction and pride, well-trained painters often wait tables or work construction, cashiers, stock boys, fast food ‘associates’, Walmart cart collectors or work as nannies or hookers of various kinds. Yes, there is a plethora of job possibilities for the creative mind.” (I could see I should not have used the word “plethora” as many students were turning up their Ipods.) “Some painters even become teachers like me. I only eat ramen noodles three times a week while I suspect many of you have them four, five, or even six times a week.” (I stole the ramen stuff from one of my student’s recent Facebook posts — in art we now call it appropriation — god, how I do love appropriation. And note that I do not credit the source — artists are too cool to cite sources [aren’t we Jerome])

“Well, some of you might be thinking, ‘We should become hedge fund managers and make at least a million dollars a week while bringing our culture to ruin.’ I tell you, my eager-faced young ones, that is fine aspiration in life, but I can make you gods and goddesses.” (and anything in between, of course). “‘How!!!?’ You might ask. How can a lower-middle class artist from a hick town in South Dakota teach you mostly lower-middle class youngins from the Midwest to become gods and goddesses? I will tell you how. If you work very, very, very hard you will begin to create things. Things that never existed before — you will be divine. There is nothing in this suffering world that is greater than that — you become the creator. And how will this illustrious culture reward you for evolving to such heights? — it will reward you not at all unless you bend your talents to fit some tawdry market that strips nearly all creativity from you.” (The students were now looking at me with what I saw as awe, wonder, and the beginnings of devotion. They could clearly see I had made some good points — man, I do love teaching.)

“Well, enough of this fluffy philosophical stuff. Let’s get down to our first lesson — how to make a quality stretcher bar from scratch. Craftsmanship! Craftsmanship! Craftsmanship! It is the first step to becoming gods (or goddesses)!” (I go on for some time profoundly talking about lumber quality, lumber yards and the life skills needed to deal with lumber yard employees — heady and useful stuff again.) “Now I clearly realize that most of you are—“ (I almost say morons, then realize its a no no) — “you are Yahoos and won’t remember a word I have spoken. So I have made you an elaborate handout in third-grade English. (Yes, yes, it would all be online now and it is safe to call them yahoos because after thirteen or fourteen years in school they have an almost a complete lack of education. They do not know yahoo means primitive, brute-like humanoid creatures with a complete lack of education. Most will think I am referring to a nearly extinct species of search engine and they will think its cool to be called one of those. Heaven forbid I mention Jonathan Swift — it is probably the name of some neo-post-punk band. At this point I notice that the three still somewhat drunk boys in the back have been in a deep sleep for the past two hours. I admire their more constructive use of the time.)

“Our time is almost over, I know many of you are probably on your way to scamper on to the administration and complain about my insensitivity to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and many other issues. Please do as it is good to wake them occasionally, but understand that I will deny it all, and in a class of this size, at least thirty students, I will have a half dozen or more students mentally unstable enough to back me up. Save yourself some time and drop the class. Yes, please, please drop the class. It will eventually dwindle to about eight students anyway — my ideal class size.”

“So, class is done, bless you all, see a few of you on Wednesday — please don’t forget your materials for the stretcher bars.” (I begin to giggle again at the absurdity of my plea and then regain my composure and smile lovingly at them all as they numbly stagger from the studio. We gently leave the three young satyrs in the back of the studio, quietly slumbering and mumbling their dreams of fornication).

NOTE: While this lecture was a dream, I shamefully did say much of this to students at one time or another. It may be a blessing that poor health took me from the classroom ten years early or I would be retiring next year leaving behind even more scarred students who could have been hedge fund managers. It is a comfort to me that the human species is so rapidly shaping their own extinction. Then a relieved earth can begin with the business of evolving a truly intelligent life form. (Man, I do miss teaching.)

NOTE, NOTE: I have not had this lecture edited as in its present form it more clearly reflects the mind that created it (and I certainly never edited a lecture in my life).

Mark W. McGinnis, BS in ED., MFA
(contact me at Boise’ Walmart on Overland Street with any questions — I’ll be in the lot collecting carts)

©2014 Mark W. McGinnis (I’m going to make a bundle from this one)

A Short Essay: Little Wing

 

poplar leaves cover image - 2013-11-01 at 15-43-13
Cover image for “Poplar Leaf Study: Version One” – acrylic on paper, 11″ X 4″, 2013,
Mark W. McGinnis

I sit in my studio contentedly working on my paintings as I do six days a week nearly 52 weeks a year. My iPad is playing one of the many Blues stations I have programmed on Pandora. A piece comes on by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood live at Madison Square Garden. My mind is taken back to all the Eric Clapton music I have had over the decades — the vinyl, the cassettes, the CDs. I think about playing one of the first Cream albums on the stereo in the shoe store where I worked in the late 60’s while doing my undergraduate art studies — selling platform shoes and listening to Cream — life was good.

I have a couple Clapton albums in my digital collection on my iPad but nothing live, and for me Clapton, like Springsteen, has a special energy live that cannot be found in studio recordings. With the seamless magic of Apple’s world in a few seconds I am sampling the full 2009 album on iTunes – I buy it.

Back in the flow of my work I listen to track after track with pleasure, then Clapton begins Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. My eyes well-up with tears, I stop my work and am completely absorbed by the sound. It is not only an emotional experience, it is also a spiritual experience. This experience is created by many factors, not the least is the combined talents of three artistic geniuses — Hendrix’s original creation, Clapton’s remarkable interpretation, and Winwood’s symbiotic keyboard work that is so subtle and perfect. There is also something in the lyrics —

Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.

The words seem to embody that brief time in the late 60’s and early 70’s when there seemed an alternative way. A possibility of breaking free of the dominant culture, of becoming more concerned with love than money. Yes, I am feeling loss. Surely not all those involved with the counterculture of the time lost – some stayed with it. But most were quite rapidly absorbed in the powerful current of consumer culture. For the most part I certainly was swept into family responsibilities and career path.

Loss can certainly be part of aesthetic experience. Fast burning flashes of genius like Hendrix or the complex long-maturing richness of Clapton’s talent show us the potential of art to bring understanding of ourselves. I continue to sit at my table and apply paint — washes and overlays. I hope once in a while they might give someone some insight. They keep me busy and I am grateful for that.

Earth Day and the Parasitic Painter (a morality tale)

srb-salmon river

Snake River Basin: Salmon River, 11″ X 14″, acrylic on 300lb. paper, 2013, Mark W. McGinnis

Once upon a time (and space) there was an unfolding and expanding universe. Among its seemingly countless galaxies is our Milky Way galaxy. Within the Milky Way galaxy are seemingly countless stars, one of which is our own sun. In the debris that circles that sun is rock called the Earth. On that rock has evolved seemingly countless life forms, one of which is a robust parasite called human beings.

There is a beautiful spot on that planet called the Snake River Basin. In one of the Snake River’s many valleys, near the Boise River, one of the Snake’s seemingly countless tributaries, there lives a parasitic painter called Mark McGinnis. Being new to the region the painter decided to explore the area and paint what he found. He found great geographic diversity: mountains, deserts, forests, rivers, lakes, streams, creeks and more. While the parasites had done some DAMage to the system it still maintained much of its beauty and life-giving bounty. The parasite painter hoped that his paintings might inspire others to preserve and maybe even, in time, restore this lovely area of the earth.

He was able to hope this because of a rather painful evolutionary trait the parasites had developed called consciousness. It had enabled the species its great success and also enabled it to damage its hostess, the Earth. Now that same consciousness had the capability undoing some of the harm it had wrought and the parasites created a holiday to honor that new consciousness. The parasites, not being too imaginative, called it Earth Day.

copyright 2013 Mark W.  McGinnis

(presented to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Boise ID, April 21, 2013)

Killing is Fun? A Short Essay

 

That seems to be the message. Look through the movie and TV guides. People with guns killing other people. We entertain ourselves watching this. It must be fun … we spend billions on it. Violent entertainment is nothing new; it was in the Colosseum and probably the cave.

Am I standing on a tall soapbox shouting down to the offenders below? Oh no, I stand among the seduced with thousands of images of blood soaked bodies dwelling in my memory banks. I recently went to the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. I enjoyed it. What did I enjoy? — the action, the plot, the acting, the cinematography … and the guns, the guns killing people, many people. I am used to it. I have been seeing it all my life. It is just a movie, a TV show, a computer game. With the later you get to become the shooter (but it’s just a game).

“Saturated” seems a good word to describe our culture’s relationship with violence. We are saturated with violence. There seems to be a competition in recent decades of how to make entertainment that is more shockingly violent than what preceded it. While the violent entertainment I have experienced is a part of of me, I am not going to shoot anyone and most people are not. But about 81 people in the United States are killed by guns daily. Every day, day after day. When 26 people, most children, die in a massacre such as Newtown, people notice, as they well should. But day after day those 81 die too.

There were about 9000 murders with firearms in the US in 2011. There were less than 60 in United Kingdom, 19 in Australia, 11 in Japan. To look at it another way, the firearm deaths per 100,000 people were the following: US 10.1, UK .25, Japan .07. Sane gun laws account for much of this astounding difference.

What allows Americans to accept this daily carnage? I can conjecture that we have been desensitized to violence. That by entertaining ourselves with violence daily, we are more ready to accept to the real violence that is part of our daily national life.

The forces impacting violence and guns in the US are many and complex. Violent entertainment is just one. Tragedies such as Newtown wake us up and will hopefully effect some change in our current gun laws that allow so much suffering.

As for myself, I am going to limit my violent entertainment. In a consumer society such as ours, if you do not buy it, it will go away, and it has been said that if you want change — start with yourself.

 

A Short Essay: Naturalism & Atheism

(note: It does seem a strange time of the year to be writing on this topic but a request for input came from my Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship and the following is the result)

For some time I have labeled myself as a naturalist, using the term in a bit larger sense than some have in the past. I believe all, from the largest to the smallest, is a natural process — from the unfolding of the universe, or universes, to the organization of sub atomic particles and waves and everything in between. Nothing is SUPERnatural. Human beings, as a small but interesting piece of this vast natural cosmos, are limited creatures. We are limited physically, mentally, and yes, even creatively we are limited. There is no way we can expect to have anywhere near a complete understanding of this system of which we are a part. It is a noble undertaking to try to expand our understanding, and I revel in my small endeavors and greatly admire those who have added so much in the past several centuries.  But I do believe that what we can understand can only be done so within our natural limitations.

It is a very common wish of human beings to want to fill this very uncomfortable gap in our understanding. God or gods have performed this task ably since consciousness evolved in our species. Theism can be used to fill in all unknowns and justify any social and moral structure desired by those in power.

In my view of naturalism I see great beauty, inspiration, creation, destruction, and unending change. It would be very easy to deify this process, but I feel it would be just one more comforting illusion. I can live with the understanding that there is much that I do not know and I cannot know. I have come to accept that my form of naturalism is atheistic. I do not believe in any form of god. But I do believe in this glorious unfolding process of which I get to play my role — so tiny, but oh so important to me.

Belief in a deity can offer many kinds of support to an individual and a society. For those who wish to follow a theistic understanding of life, I can only hope they do not wish to force their way on others. Theism in all its many forms has imposed many blessings and sufferings on the people of this little planet. I hope that in the future we see more of the blessings.

whitman 18-lr
Whitman #18, acrylic on 300lb paper, 8″ X 8″, 2011, Mark W. McGinnis