For a few months before, I had begun to explore the Bible with fresh eyes. But up until that day, God and religion were still intellectual pursuits. That changed in one day.
As part of the service, hundreds in the massive auditorium started praying together: some silently, some aloud. We were sitting, packed to other in the middle of the room. A few people cried out to God, sobbing, reciting lines, asking for forgiveness, and thanking him for his grace. I held my Bible in my hands and closed my eyes. I focused on my prayer.
Then two things happened.
I perceived my Bible grow in width in between my hands. The book seemed to expand between my hands, even though separately my arms felt in the same location. The book was expanding right and left, like into a different dimension. It was filling the space with unimaginable depth. I felt the importance of these words.
Second, my mind began to grow distant from my surroundings. I was falling backwards from reality. I perceived myself slip further away. A great distance was opening between the edge of my senses to where I was. The chasm grew in depth and weight to a point to which I could not measure it. I began to lose touch with my senses and reality opened up to me within myself.
With my eyes closed, I saw a vision of a light blue wire connecting from the top of my spine upwards. It curved up hundreds of feet and forward into a great presence, a light, a cloud, something up there. I saw many other blue wires connecting to that top point from everyone else worshiping in the room.
In both cases, I felt warm and filled with purpose. I wasn’t afraid… not exactly. I was awe-struck; filled with wonder at these two parts of my experience. Eventually, I arose back into reality with a fresh respect for life.
These visions and experiences were as original as I can guess. It’s hard for me to explain where I may have gotten the “inspiration” or been “imprinted” by them. So, as much as I can tell, I had a legitimate, lucid, spiritual experience. In my own way, I was touched by God.
After that day, my spirituality shifted from an intellectual exercise to a fundamental life journey.
Enuma Elish is a Babylonian creation story that outlines a god Marduk who destroys an evil dragon, saves the day, and earns dominion over all the other gods. To transcend the other gods, Marduk incorporates their names and powers into his own being. The only way to really capture the essence of Marduk is to say his 50+ names. These names and what they symbolize are literally the best things in the world.
To earn similar powers, we can embody Marduk in our daily life. We can go out and courageously fight evil. Find the dragon, slay it, earn the treasure, save the town, and then go do it again.
We can clearly see similarities between the following attributes and the attributes of the Christian God that came along after Babylon and Enuma Elish. This is a fascinating precursor to modern religions and world-views. The language we use today to describe the most powerful things has been around for centuries. This fact gives us a perspective of awe at our ancestors: they were more creative than we give them credit for. And we owe more respect to how their ideas have shaped our world.
(all quoted from “The Babylonian Genesis” by Alexander Heidel)
Come, let us proclaim [Marduk’s] fifty names! …
The provider of pasture land and drinking places, who fills their stalls with plenty;
At his command let there be creation, destruction, alleviation, mercy
Then all of Marduk’s other names are now listed with their specialties: some are below. These names and what they symbolize are the most powerful things in the world. I bolded similarities between the names and the names of the modern Christian God.
Marrukka verily is the god, the creator of everything;
Namtillaku, the god who restores to life;
Namshub; the bright god who brightens our way.
Asaru, the bestower of arable land, the creator of grain and legumes,
Asaralimnunna, the mighty one,
Tutu, the author of their restoration;
No one among the gods can equal him.
Ziukinna, the life of the host of the gods;
Ziku, the maintainer of purification;
The god of the good breath (of life), the lord who hears and answers (prayer);
The creator of riches and plenty, the establisher of abundance;
Who has turned all our wants into plenty;
Agaku, the lord of the holy incantation, who restores to life the dead;
Who created mankind to set them free;
Shazu, who knows the hearts of the gods, who sees through the innermost parts;
From whom the evildoer cannot escape;
The administrator of justice, who puts an end to crooked speech;
Who in his place discerns falsehood and truth.
Epadun, the lord who waters the field;
The ruler of heaven (and) earth,
Gilma, the bond that holds the family together,
Agilma, the sublime,
Nibiru shall be in control of the passages in heaven and on earth,
May he shepherd all the gods like sheep.
Let (man) rejoice in Marduk,
Reliable is his word, unalterable his command;
The utterance of his mouth no god whatever can change.
Marduk speaks with the power of creation and authority. Everything else comes from his ability to speak into being. This is a reminder that our own words have the power to create or destroy, so use them wisely!
In July of 2018, I got engaged. Six months earlier, this was not a possibility.
I wasn’t ready for marriage for a long time. But it was hard to articulate why not. I finally decided on three things that would make me ready.
We must tell each other our deepest, darkest secrets. Have trust and openness through vulnerability. Trust is the bedrock of a good relationship. If you cannot tell your spouse your deepest secrets and thoughts, who can you tell? To truly become one, you must fuse all that you have: strengths and weaknesses. If we hold back, this could cause trust issues in the future.
Earn independence from others around us, even family. We must operate on our own and choose to be us, wherever we go. We must be able to be a distinct unit. We must make our own decisions as full adults rather than relying too much on family ties. Often, an over-emphasis on outside forces rather than the relationship can sow discontent. Love for family comes from choice, not from obligation.
Finances go into one shared bucket: not two, but one. What affects one of us affects both of us. We must be able to talk about money and value before getting married. That way, we get those ideas out in the open. Finances cause most of divorces, so why don’t we talk about these ideas first before we make that commitment.
In reality, we made the goals concrete by writing them down. Then we accomplished them together. She was especially excited to tackle tasks that were concrete. Before, we were floating along with no direction, not knowing if we were getting closer to commitment or further.
After accomplishing the tasks, I stood by my word. I could think of no other reason to delay marriage other than my own fear of the unknown and the change that would be required to adapt to it. But change can be good.
I did more than resolve the reasons why I did not want to get married. In fact, I learned reasons why I wanted to: gains beyond one person could ever achieve:
Self knowledge and self-improvement
Touched by the divine, following our ancestors’ path
Paying respects to our ancestors
Following in the ancestors’ path by tying ourselves to another
Love beyond passion: the love that stays when lust is gone
So, we jumped in. Here’s to one year and many more to come.
Reality is how we talk about it. In times of chaos and change, it’s helpful to backtrack to some fundamental order and start over. Genesis (translated by Robert Alter 039331670X)is one example we can read to remind ourselves what’s real.
Bottom Line Up Front
What if reality is a chaos soup: cells and atoms bouncing around. Humans evolved to survive and thrive in the chaos soup over many lifespans. To do this, the collective consciousness of humanity started to recognize patterns in the chaos. They did this by bootstrapping a biological tool: language.
This tool gave the emergent human collective brain a way to set order from the chaos. Humans recognized the cells and atoms consistently bouncing around into a drinkable source of water. We named “stream” as a “drinkable source of water.” This shared understanding gave power to each individual within the collective to navigate the world using “streams” for drinking water and finding fish. This ability is so powerful and so unlikely that it seems God-given. Genesis explains the origin of reality as the use of language. Furthermore, the text relies on the same tool to communicate itself down through generations of humans.
In Genesis, God speaks reality. In the first six days, God creates things. The biblical text follows a structure of God “saying” things, then God saying the words, which results in: “so it was.” Creation comes from speaking into being.
“And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was.” (Alter, 4)
Since the steps of “saying” and “so it was” are separated by an “and,” it’s not clear whether God does two actions or one. It seems as though the speaking suffices without any other action. Speaking is the magic here: by invoking language to call a pattern of chaotic soup into a name which can then interact with other named things. Humans can then navigate this system of named representations much better than the chaos soup.
Every word has meaning and contributes to reality. How we use language builds our world. Being honest and speaking truth builds a more durable reality.
Was language the reason why reality exists as it does to us today? Could God use any other tool to create this reality other than language?
My one year wedding anniversary is coming up. What have I learned in (almost) 1 year of marriage?
We’ve grown in our love for each other. We made the right decision for us. We face challenges and joys every day. Relationships require mutual, active effort to be successful. These are common learnings.
There are three less obvious things I noticed:
1. Generally, people give a higher baseline of respect to a married person than to a single person. We think a married person is a bit less likely to be a crazy psycho, because someone else has latched onto them for life. Who would latch onto a crazy psycho? It’s one less thing to worry about when meeting someone who’s married. That’s a benefit because now I have less to prove in new interactions.
2. Others expect that we consult each other on big decisions now. Before, I rarely heard “Are you dating? Why don’t you get back to us after you ask your girlfriend?” Why do that if there’s no legal basis for me asking her, other than being on the same page in my relationship? She wouldn’t have the legal rights and privileges to represent me. But now, what’s mine is hers and hers is mine. So any decision for the family must come from both of us. So now there’s an expectation when I hear: “Oh, you’re married? Why don’t you get back to us after you ask your wife?” This expectation affects how we make choices. I’m more used to consulting her on even smaller items now, which is positive because it encourages more open communication and decision-making.
3. We aren’t that old couple in the diner that sits in silence, enjoying each other’s company without talking. They don’t say anything because there’s nothing else to talk about. They’ve already discussed all topics and ideas and events. For us, that’s not the case. We are always experiencing new situations and growing as individuals, and we experience these changes together. Our conversations have continued to deepen as we explore the world together. We talk about injustice, travel, and plants.
The world has no shortage of novelty that we take on together. Life is a learning adventure, and I’m still at the starting line.
George Floyd was killed unfairly. Why is this so significant?
Before diving in, please note: I am not black and I live in a position of privilege, and so George Floyd’s death as well as other similar deaths have not affected me as directly as they’ve done my black colleagues. But I see and empathize with this pain and fear, so I must speak out.
Also, police officers have one of the most difficult jobs in the world; often making quick judgment calls in stressful situations. I trust our police force and know that occurrences of unfair brutality are rare; but they must stop.
What’s different about George Floyd?
Why was this event unique? 1. The events moved slowly, and 2. We saw enough on video.
In many videos in which police use excessive force, the situation typically moves fast and thus it’s not clear whether the result was justified. Any small action or movement push the officer to pull the trigger and shoot in a split second. It’s impossible to see that same action or movement in the video that caused the officer to pull the trigger. So, we cannot have full certainty whether the officer acted unjustly.
George Floyd’s death was different. We see the video clearly. Derek Chauvin and the other 3 officers had 9 minutes of slow bleeding while George was handcuffed, face down in the street, and calling for his mom for help. Once the clock started ticking and Derek put his knee on the neck, there was no need for a quick judgment call. George was already apprehended and the officer was in a position of power. Even if Derek felt in danger, Derek had 3 officers as backup to reposition George from a fatal hold into a non-fatal hold. In fact, this is actually how good officers are supposed to apprehend suspects: hand-cuff the suspect and then reposition them.
But not this time. Every second that Derek held his knee on George’s neck was a second he chose to actively continue murdering George. Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
George did not face a fair trial for his alleged crime. He was arrested, which we trust our police force to decide when to do. But George was not treated according to just practices given the opportunity to face a trial. Instead, the officer carried out a slow murder on the street in full awareness while others in power watched. Maybe George was guilty. But our country has a justice system that is promised as “innocent until proven guilty” to all. With countless evidence showing how black people are treated over-proportionately as criminals, the justice that is promised is not provided to all.
I identify as someone that has not felt the pain of black issues from systemic racism; however today I woke up to see this as a human issue. No human deserves a knee to the neck in the street by anyone for 9 minutes until they suffocate on their own blood.
A whole lot of Maybes
It’s currently unknown why Derek and the officers carried out the execution for 9 minutes. The reason could occur at any level. Maybe the ethical imbalance of how to treat certain humans was in Derek as an individual. Maybe as a group of 4 officers, their morality was off. Maybe it was racism in the police precinct, or maybe institutionalized systemic racism. Maybe none of that. Maybe a bit of everything.
Maybe the result of how the officers face charges will expose systemic racism, institutional racism, or some other form of injustice. Maybe they were all having a bad day and George was really unlucky.
What’s clear is that this cannot happen again to any human being.
So, we need something to police the police. We design similar systems for other groups with power and privilege like banks and government branches. We need a review board of how law & order treats crimes and criminals.
We’ve seen this too many times before
This was not the first time that an unarmed black civilian has been killed. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Philando Castille. Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
In the past, I would defer to authority. I didn’t know the whole story, so I’d let the experts and the system carry out justice. But the evidence in this case is undeniable that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Now, this makes me question whether past events were judged fairly and why police trials for civilian killings are so rare.
There is something going on and it is not new. Minorities and underprivileged people, but especially African-Americans, have been treated unfairly for centuries in this country from the very beginning. And there is still imbalance of treatment today. We thought we solved it before. But we are seeing the unresolved injustice more often now, because people are filming and sharing events. I was in willful ignorance a few years ago.
Those on the receiving end of imbalance are used to feeling this pain and fear from systems meant to protect or support us. But those who have rarely experienced this imbalance of opportunity need to wake up and see how fairness that is promised does not always equal fairness given.
What do we do?
The right thing to do is to identify areas of imbalance of opportunity; why a drug crime in one neighborhood is a sickness, while the same crime in another neighborhood is a felony. Why? If the crime is the same, then why is our justice given out differently? Why are unarmed black people killed at higher rates? Then we address them. Then we change them.
We as people with privilege have a responsibility to make change, share our opinion, and address these issues. Let’s educate ourselves to have wisdom and empathy for those experiencing systemic imbalance.
Where as a country have promised one thing, but practiced another? Suppose that George Floyd was killed because he was black or poor or suspicious within a country that accepts institutionalized racism. Then we can talk and think about why other unfair imbalances occur, like why the iPhone facial recognition has more trouble recognizing black faces than white. The product designers didn’t intend to be racist, but nevertheless we see an unfair imbalance. A black person spends the same money on the same product but receives different value. This is not fair. Then we can talk about how we would design the next iPhone differently to enable a fairer result.
I believe in good. I believe hierarchies are good. Institutions are good. Change is good. Let’s use what we have.
George Floyd’s death is a universal issue. His life mattered because all lives matter. If you are in the hospital for a broken leg, your broken leg matters because, of course, your whole body matters. But the issue here is that your broken leg needs the treatment. Black lives have not mattered enough in the US, and we must finally follow through to make “fair and balanced” in policy to be “fair and balanced” in practice.
Throughout history, things come from other things. Offspring emerges from parents. Physically, matter changes forms. Metaphysically, things change into other things. How does this happen? Consider two explanations.
(A) all stuff is already created
Thus, new things emerge by splitting up the existing stuff amongst them
(B) new stuff emerges from old stuff
Thus, new things emerge as distinct from the old stuff
The Greeks thought of the changing process as a force with a personality: a god: Eros. Eros was the god of love and sex. Through Eros, parents beget children and things become other things. In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one meta-narrative. In doing so, he explains where things come from and how they change.
Let’s consider (A) and (B) in some examples from Theogony.
1. Earth produces Sky, Mountains, and Sea.
This seems to be (A). Our planet Earth includes features like sky, mountains, and sea. Thus, Eros can split up Earth into those parts sky, mountains, and sea.
2. Night + Darkness = Day and Brightness.
This seems to be (B). Night has a quality of darkness, which is the absence of light. Day has a quality of brightness, the opposite of darkness. Seemingly, Night does not have the qualities that Day has. So, Night produces something entirely new when Day emerges.
Alternatively, maybe the Greek idea of Night included brightness, and Eros split it up into two: Day and Night. Certainly, in modern language, a “day” can refer to either the daytime and brightness for 12 hours, or the full scope of brightness and darkness for 24 hours.
3. Earth + Sky = Titans, Cyclopes, and Hundred-Handers.
This is not clear whether it’s (A) or (B). The offspring of Earth and Sky seem to have personalities and “souls” like humans do. Whereas Earth and Sky should be like non-living material. How would conscious life emerge from pure physical matter except as new emerging from old, like (B)?
However, the Greek beings Earth and Sky are actually beings that are closer to living than non-living material. This makes (A) more possible to have Titan beings emerging from other living beings.
4. Theia (Titan, “goddess”) + Hyperion (Titan, “he who goes above”) = Sun, Moon, and Dawn.
This is closer to (B) but not clear. This doesn’t make sense in a modern perspective. How could two Titans, beings closer to humans than materials, produce the non-living material Sun, Moon, and Dawn? This appears like the opposite of #3: non-living things emerge from living beings.
Hesiod does not detail how beings are born or how things become other things, whether through (A) or (B). But Theogony still ties together an important narrative to explain the high-level transfer of ideas and concepts among beings. It shows generally where things come from.
In our modern day, we delve into science to explain the world. As we discover the micro-steps that details how matter changes at a small scale, let’s keep the big picture in mind, like Hesiod did. Maybe it’s ok to build and believe a story that leaves out the details but gives us an explanation of the world at a higher level.
In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one narrative. Since it’s one narrative explaining the common thread of many narratives, let’s call it a meta-narrative.
Meta-narrative = an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. – Oxford Dictionary
The Greeks wanted one narrative story that tied together all the common stories of their day. Through the one common meta-narrative, the Greeks found knowledge of their shared human condition.
The stories of Theogony include the massive Titans, the powerful Zeus, the forethinker Prometheus giving knowledge to man, and the gods’ punishment in response: the first woman Pandora who unleashes a box of evils upon humankind. Lightning bolts tore the sky and babies emerged from the force of love. From top-down, these stories justified worldly events and human behavior.
From bottom-up, a narrative is formed by human biological processes that interpret the world; these processes manifest as human behaviors; these combine into archetypes (“good” behaviors and “bad” behaviors); archetypes then map to language in a narrative story.
Different human people groups create different types of stories. This is because the biological processes and worldly events differ. Humans in arctic adopt different behavior than those in the desert.
But even in disparate people groups, common narratives emerge. For example, many groups strangely spoke about the common Flood Myths. Since the events and behaviors in the Flood narrative appear so widely, a catastrophic flood may have occurred and affected many humans in recent history. Or, many humans have experienced a tragic calamity that destroyed lives and resources. So, a flood should be in our human meta-narrative.
Narratives emerge from many different groups. A meta-narrative like Theogony incorporates all narratives. Thus, it explains what’s common among all of the narratives it uses. The commonalities are what we share. What we share is what it means to be human.
I recently joined Online Great Books, “an online community developing classically educated men and women using the Great Books of Western Civilization.” Thus far, we have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus, Euripides, and we’re about to start Plato. Each month we have a virtual seminar to discuss ideas that we found interesting. In parallel, I’m also in a seminar to discuss creation stories; we have read the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Theogony by Hesiod.
I love it. I highly recommend joining if you are able. Or at least trying it out. I’m reading more and thinking critically. And I’m appreciative of the great things that persist.
In meditating on and discussing these works, certain ideas pop out to me. Some as “AH HA!” and some as “WTF!”.
Thus this is the first of a series of meditations on the ideas from great books that apply to life today, inspired mostly by the ideas of others in my seminars: #037 and #creation. Thanks team!
Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, and Hippolytus
Euripides is known as the last great tragedian. This is probably because he pushed the limit of storytelling. His characters acted rationally enough while pushing the limit of believability. I think he fills the role of the last tragedian because anyone trying to one-up Euripides would have had to jump over the line into ridiculousness.
What’s the edge of what humans can do? Race 26.2 miles: easy to believe. Race 3,100 miles: less easy to believe.
In Medea, Medea is a powerful, rash, and logical woman who has used selfish acts to get her way. She betrayed her family by killing her own brother to help Jason, her husband. Later, Jason betrays Medea and their marriage oath by taking a mistress. In response, Medea plots and then murders his mistress by tricking her to wear a fancy dress that burns into her flesh. Medea then kills their own children. And literally rides off with their bodies unburied into the sunset on a chariot while Jason looks on in horror.
The storytelling is masterful because even though Medea toils between feeling pity for her innocent children vs. anger in cold blood, she can understand both sides: mercy and revenge. However, she is consistent in her behavior and self-justification by always acting to fulfill revenge. But, even though she commits heinous acts, her anger is believable and justifiable. She follows her anger to the end but justifies her decisions every step of the way. Medea’s character straddles chaos justified into order.
What would Euripedes’ successor have to do to make the sequel to Medea? Tricking Jason into eating his parents? Maybe infanticide in revenge was the evilest but most plausible act by the Greeks. Anything beyond this would reach parody beyond believability.
Battles of rhetoric with witty insults from emotional confrontations are universally enjoyable for us to watch. Euripides includes two levels of battle. Phase one involves long paragraphs of one character going at the other. Then phase two is one-liners back and forth in quick succession. The play acted out seems like a real battle. Each shoots at one another with their slings and arrows from a distance. Then they get closer, fighting hand-to-hand, jabbing and countering.
In Alcestis, Admetus has a chance to save his life from his fated death. Death, personified, pursues him. A god saves him by telling Admetus that he can save his own life by picking a family member to die in his place.
This may seem like a strange thought experiment, but it’s applicable to today. Who decides who lives and dies if a COVID-19 outbreak hits an underprepared hospital without enough beds?
Admetus first asks his parents, who refuse. Then he asks his wife Alcestis, who accepts and dies in his place. Props to Alcestis for going the honorable route: I think this is why the play is called Alcestis, to honor her sacrifice.
Anyway, after Alcestis dies, Admetus confronts his father Pheres about why he wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his son. The following insult battles are compelling. Keep in mind, this was ancient Greece and not Shakespeare.
Part of Admetus’ soliloquy to his father as a “battle phase one”:
“Go on, get you other children – you cannot do it too soon – who will look after your old age, and lay you out when you are dead, and see you buried properly. I will not do it. This hand will never bury you.”
Medea and Jason share some blows back-and-forth from their story as well as a “battle phase two”, after Jason confronts Medea about their kids.
Jason: “O my poor children, what a vicious mother yours has proved to be.”
Medea: “O my poor boys, what a sad end you’ve met, thanks to your father’s failing.”
J: “It was not by my hand they died.”
M: “It was, though, because of your own arrogance and your new-saddled marriage.”
Stories throughout history still capture our interest by maintaining believability while pushing the limits of what’s possible. Anything outside of believability enters into comedy and parody.
Intellect and wit can be used as an attack, similar to physicality and technology. Throughout history, we appreciate and enjoy fights, either with swords or words.
Personal protection has always been cool – Bali, 2019
During this unique time, I’m missing the freedom to explore, among other things. Travel is an escape from the mundane routine. This is a throwback to our escape to Bali last summer for part 3 of the lessons we learned.
A little tip goes a long way
Money from the West goes far in some other countries. People work hard everywhere. Leave a healthy tip when you’re pleased with the service. Remember that while you’re on vacation, residents are still working. They deserve to know when you appreciate good service.
“Nothing can be built higher than the coconut tree”
There is a fascinating concept that states no building can exceed the height of a coconut tree. Apparently, this isn’t completely true. But it’s a nice story that’s been around for so long because it would make sense if it were true. Regardless, there is a deep respect for nature on Bali.
A store is a home
Often, vendors live and sell in one place. You’ll find the whole family in the store sometimes. Treat it with respect, buy something, and play with the kids. It’ll make their day.
Bali and Indonesia went through some shit
The tsunami absolutely wrecked the island. The debris and leftover destruction are still there. But the Balinese rebuild stronger and continue living with honor.
There is no fee for any ATM withdrawal
Seriously, every ATM we withdrew from did not charge us a fee. My wallet supports whatever program enabled this to happen.
You’re not obligated to buy from a vendor even if you feel like it
This is like the tug of guilt you feel when you walk out of a store without buying anything. Vendors will ask you to take a “quick look, but no need to buy.” They know that looking makes you more likely to buy. Your act of compliance makes you more likely to comply with a future request coming soon: “Why not just buy one?” Then later, “Why not buy another?”