Chapter 28: Normal As The Gold Standard—Part Two
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In this chapter I finish a brief discussion of each of my proposed dimensions of noble character that I claim are important qualities of thought and behavior. They are both learnable and teachable.
12. Necessary Obedience
Agnostic noble character hardly suggests the old free-thinker style of do anything you want, when you want to do it. Agnosticism is not an overt social rebellion or an excuse for an orgy. It does not suggest a wanton, impulsive, or greedy life, or a life free of all restraint or external control. Such a life, as our ancestors recognized, leads only to transient pleasure and, in the end, to depression, failure, waste of life, and a death with unfulfilled potential.
Necessary for self-discipline is voluntary obedience to some set of rules or principles. They can be rules of our own discovery, although hardly of our own invention or creation. So, yes, noble character demands the recognition of and surrender to a higher power. Higher power? What higher power?
Well, anyone who thinks she or he is an ungoverned free agent is simply ignorant of the laws of nature and of the anatomical, physiological and psychological rules under which we all operate. Everything that we do is governed by forces over which we often have little direct influence. I have said that noble character results from a series of choices, so where is there room for choice if everything we do is governed by the higher power of nature's rules?
I suppose it is all a matter of perspective. Once all the information needed to resolve a question has been gathered, the proper course of action should be self-evident. To survive, one does what the situation demands, that's pragmatism. If a clear choice does not emerge, it simply means that all the needed information has escaped our notice and that our research is not finished. Until the data are available, all we can say is the agnostic, "I don't know." The alternative to the admission of ignorance is rule by irrational emotion.
The challenge in developing obedience as a part of noble character, consistent with the surrender of childish ego, is not to invent a personal higher power since we do not and cannot invent the universe in which we live. The challenges are discovery and acceptance, not invention.
We can invent any number or kinds of gods, and then set up these elaborate, imaginative, and totally ineffective fantasies as higher powers. Then, of course, we tear down, ignore, or redesign our fanciful gods as situations change. To be effective, obviously, a higher power must be as real as we are, and there is no shortage of very real higher powers in our culture, in our world or in the universe.
The more we rely on blind faith, the greater the danger. The more we know about the world, the better our decisions. The truth, I suggest, is that the more we know, the clearer become the inevitable right choices, and the more unnecessary become the tortured guessing games we, in our ignorance, are pleased to think of as decision making. Given a perfect knowledge of all things, our behavior would be a natural flow unbroken and untroubled by inner conflict. It would always flow into and through those inevitable channels representing least resistance to achieve maximum fulfillment.
Welcome to the lifelong pilgrimage of discovery, a pilgrimage not to perfection, but toward the reduction of ignorance. Faced with a godlike knowledge and perfect understanding, we would be blinded by the light, blinded because vision, hearing, and feeling as we know these capacities would be unnecessary. We would be transformed and brought to a level of existence we cannot imagine in our present condition. We will not live so long to do so much, but we can move always closer to the light of knowledge experiencing higher levels of noble character.
In short, decision-making is irrelevant when all alternatives are known and when all possible consequences that may flow from each alternative can be forecast. This is an increasing possibility with the growth of scientific knowledge and with the increasing power of computer technology.
One computer game I have is Chess. I can play chess with my computer all day. I have never won a game except in the tutorial program when the computer curtails its abilities by request. The computer can look down the road—down many different roads—in a split second. It can foresee the consequences of any move I make or could make. I make choices (guesses) at each move since I cannot foresee all possible consequences. The computer never makes choices; it only selects the most probable path to victory from an array of always changing paths. It never makes choices, it just does what it has to, and it always wins.
The great revelation brought about by modern computer technology will not, I think, involve building a computer that exercises free will, but in accepting the fact that free will is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
Alas, poor, mindless computer! Could mindlessness rather than mindfulness be a proper goal? I would be as obedient to the truth as my computer always is if only I could do thought experiments as well as it does.
If I knew more, could see more, then I would have fewer choices to make; my foot would go instantly to each best path with perfect obedience. I could give up ego and become the game myself. There is nothing so completely spiritual as a good computer (or a wise and experienced human teacher).
In making simple life choices, about which I do possess adequate knowledge and experience, I need make no choices. I only do the right thing. I only have to examine my experience and information to make clear the most reasonable choice, a choice that is no choice because it is clearly the best path. Do I stop for red lights? Yes! Do I balance my checkbook? Of course! Not to do so would leave me in financial chaos! Do I beat my neighbor when his dog invades my garden? No! I can only talk with my neighbor and, if that fails, ask the sheriff to look into the problem. It is amazing how many automatic choices we make in life. It is, then, amazing how spiritual we have already become.
The local sheriff's deputy is a higher power in case you hadn't noticed, and that is a fact that will surely vex the rebel in many of us. Even more perplexing is our United States Congress, a collection of opportunistic, money-driven politicians. Congress passes laws we must all obey, like it or not. Congress, then, is a higher power and Congress, in fact, does work. Is there a better way anywhere in the world?
No one said a higher power has to be perfect except, perhaps, theologians. How much more difficult it is to follow an imperfect earthly higher power than some mythical invention! How much more difficult, yet necessary, it is to follow our partial knowledge of natural law rather than some god.
Obedience to law—civil and criminal as well as natural—is a good starting point in developing noble character. It is a bad idea to make up your own laws unless you know how to obey the ones we already have. Learn the rules of music or mathematics before you write a symphony or solve for ‘X.'
Regarding free will, we are dealing with an illusion. Even if I had free will, why would I ignore experience, information and wise advice to follow a less than best choice in a critical situation? The chance to behave foolishly is hardly a reason to defend the illusion of free will, and foolish acts are not a part of noble character.
Obedience, then, is a willingness to follow the evidence. It is the ability to reject the dream, the egotistical ambition, the popular cause, the childish ideal, or the capricious whim. Noble character calls for obedience to the higher powers offered by the natural world; the laws of nature and of society are all the higher powers anyone needs.
13. Ritual And The Reduction Of Chaos
Spiritualistic religions, of course, are full of established ritual. Ritualistic behavior is so universal and so persistent that there are probably valid psychological and biological reasons for its existence. Although ritual may be an overt and dramatic statement about a belief, it is often just a way of dealing with the stress of common problems.
Overt or visible ritual may be a way of holding on to useful beliefs and information since mental determination alone can be a slippery tool. We all practice many nonreligious ritual-like behaviors, usually for excellent reasons. Thus, through stylized behavior called ritual or routine, we store important ideas in behavior as well as in mind.
Any good pilot, before a flight, follows an elaborate sequence that includes a weather check, flight planning, fuel check, review of the aircraft, and communication with air traffic control. Aviation checklists work very well to reduce dangerous, impulsive, and inconsistent behavior. Once in the air, the checklists continue and include en route, altitude, cruise and before landing checklists. To me, there seems always to be something very spiritual about allowing oneself to submit to a time tested methodology. It may seem mindless, but it is programmed alertness and can serve very important survival goals. If we cannot accept a checklist of proven value as a personal higher power, where is the noble character?
Religious or not, we honor marriage ceremonies, shopping lists, wrist watches, calendars, surgical protocols, performance manuals, experimental procedures in research, and hundreds of other prescribed performance standards. Ritual, then, is the useful public statement of a valued belief or behavior system. It is the public evidence of our surrender to an earthly higher power, an organizing power beyond the limits of unaided memory and judgment, a power we have discovered, perhaps even invented for ourselves: it makes life better, safer and more fulfilling. Ritual suggests the surrender of ego, that great enemy of noble character. Ritual itself is the evidence that signifies our ability to live well without having to make an endless series of choices based on emotional impulse rather than on fact and experience.
Some old rituals have lost all meaning. The very old religious ritual of male genital mutilation, called by the less brutal sounding name of circumcision, has been carried on mindlessly by western physicians for years, but has recently again been called into question. In days of poor hygiene long ago, this kind of mutilation might have had some purpose, but I doubt that hygiene was the only motive. Since there were few physicians of any skill, it was practiced by tribal and by religious leaders. Many religious rituals are practiced simply for the sake of ritual—for the primary benefit of the religious practitioner—and are seldom reviewed for their utility or psychological value.
Thoughtful agnostic ritual is nothing more than a kind of regrouping, organizing, or even an energizing mechanism. As such, it is the tool of noble character, not the master of it, nor a ticket to it.
The secularist may wish to make a ritual out of certain behaviors that have consistent success and that must be repeated frequently. Warm up stretching before exercise would be an example of this. Checklists of all kinds, mechanical and electronic reminders, cookbooks, and computer programs . . . the list goes on and gets better the more we learn. There are, of course, even rules of evidence that apply in courts of law, scientific laboratories and in exploratory field studies of all sorts. As we pursue our chosen enterprise, we always check our thinking against the rules of evidence that have worked well in the past to avoid errors.
In obtaining serenity and detachment, in confirming and strengthening self-discipline, the rituals leading up to meditation and deep contemplation can be important. We may have to use our own private rituals as bookmarks and boundaries between social involvement and personal detachment.
Ritual is a multi-purpose tool of noble character. It can invigorate and prepare us for stressful situations as with a war dance, a physical warm-up before competition, or a military drill. Other rituals can have a calming and soothing effect; examples such as chanting, psalm singing, meditation, and solitary contemplation come to mind.
Success is a very dangerous thing, of course, since we may forget to review our rituals from time to time. Any very successful and widely practiced ritual can find a life of its own in the hands of the stupid, lazy, and uncritical simply because it either has a calming or energizing effect, perhaps because the official practice of a ritual becomes a source of income. The abuse of ritual is a problem, and we should guard against the thoughtless codification of ritual either in theology, civil regulation, or law.
14. Taking Responsibly
The person of noble character must be willing to be responsible for his or her actions. When we act impulsively or make a decision with less then perfect information we will, like it or not, live with the consequences. Blaming circumstances, demanding a government bailout, raging at other people, calling it bad luck . . . nothing will improve the situation until we take our share of responsibility and begin corrective action.
In religion, good and bad events are attributed to God's will, which is generally said to be beyond human understanding when things don't go according to plan. The Will of God is invoked to justify all kinds of dreadful, barbaric acts. German troops in World War Two wore a belt buckle that said, Gott Mit Uns, (God is with us). One the other side, the Allied soldiers were assured that God was with them. At the end of the war, German officials were tried for war crimes and some were put to death; that is, they were held responsible for their acts which were not seen as instruments of God's will by the conquerors. Had the Germans won, I am sure many of our people would have been put on trial, if not summarily shot.
It our attempts to avoid dangerous behavior, a prohibitionist mentality often seem to emerge, mostly with religious overtones, in place of education. Among the things we see people trying to prohibit or eliminate are abortion, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, psychoactive drugs, guns, swearing, sexual displays, and even hateful speech. Prohibition, of course, generally fails. It fails because it takes from the hands of people the freedom to choose. To choose wisely we must practice making good choices, a task in which education, not prohibition, is enormously helpful.
There certainly are immature and harmful people in the world that should not have access to dangerous and difficult choices because they lack the ability to make wise choices. For most of us, decisions to drink alcohol, gamble, drive a car, or undertake any dangerous task should not be subject to undue restriction. Other than trying to prevent minors from having to make these decisions, few people support efforts to identify and intervene with the dangerous and irresponsible adults in society until those adults have demonstrated their poor judgment. Few would support licensing laws that might permit us to evaluate adults and restrict access to dangerous choices to these we think might be vulnerable people. Even fewer would support a Darwinian approach that would leave vulnerable people alone to make fatal mistakes. Prohibition for everyone—the elimination of the need to make a choice—is the easy task that always fails. It is much easier than following a policy of human perfectibility and individual responsibility. It is much easier to prohibit something for everyone than to selectively ban it for the few or regulate it wisely.
Sheltering is protecting someone from the disastrous consequences of their bad behavior. Gifting is giving unearned gifts or rewards to people. Both sheltering and gifting have a ritual presence in many religions, but should be examined carefully for their behavioral effects. A real sense of responsibility comes only from successfully experiencing and dealing with the actual behavioral consequences we produce ourselves. In helping others toward increased responsibility, we often soften or mitigate behavioral consequences that might be too damaging or even fatal, but we should allow the individual to experience at least some part of every consequence hoping always to be able to create an independent, prudent person through the effects of experience. Sheltering and gifting others is not part of noble character because it is harmful to the individual in the long term.
To revere is to hold something or someone in special regard. Although we understand little of it, the universe is a magnificent thing. It contains nothing worthless. Noble character suggests we revere not only people and things close to us, but all that we encounter. The good warrior reveres even the enemy.
Education, as abysmal as it is in the United States today, produces few people who have any deep understanding or appreciation of natural phenomena, mathematical principles, or scientific law. If they did, they would certainly revere with total amazement the orderliness of nature. In our ignorance, we take magnificent creatures and natural events for granted. We explain their existence the easy way, by invoking some idea of god.
16. The Nonviolent Life
It is possible to be extremely violent, I suppose, even if you have all of the qualities so far listed. But, it would be difficult. Certain forms of the martial arts, based on the ancient code of the Samurai Warrior, teach an extreme detachment during combat. Combat becomes almost mystical, a selfless experience based on ritual and self-discipline. The classic work on this subject, outside the Orient, is Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery. Here, a German professor recounts his efforts to train in archery under the sometimes indifferent supervision of a Japanese Zen master. To be a great archer, the student must learn his own insignificance, his own unimportance. He must become one with the bow, the arrow, and the target. He is not the master of weapons, he is their servant. He must learn that in the highest accomplishment there is no accomplishment at all. Little wonder that it took a German professor seven years to understand the task.
The great heroes of noble character, however, were and are consistently nonviolent. Often, sadly, they themselves died violently.
Try an experiment. Try to go one week without speaking an angry word to anyone, without killing even an insect, without inflicting any verbal or emotional violence upon anyone, and without even a frown, cross look or sign of annoyance. Put a smile on your face; stop judging people, places, events, and things. Accept all with a smile and a shrug. Practice serenity and detachment. Let go of anger. If you succeed even for a few days or even a few hours you will have learned a lot about yourself; it may be an experience you will long remember and seek to re-create.
17. The Universality Noble Character
Whatever collection of human characteristics make up noble character, the sum of these dimensions needs to be consistent over time, in different situations, with everyone we encounter, and in all the places we venture. That is to say, personal noble character can become generalized, pervasive, and global. It is not situational, not put on at one moment or withdrawn the next to please a changing environment. It is always directed from within.
Since the perfection of your human condition is sought for inner, private purposes, its results come out spontaneously. There is nothing noble about one who makes a public show of surface spirituality and then acts the predator in private and business life.
Genuine, lasting noble character is never on parade to please the crowd. It is quiet, unassuming, always present, and as natural as breathing. Since the spiritual person usually did not begin by seeking noble character for its own sake, it is not seen as particularly praiseworthy, and is therefore generally ignored by its owner who yet pursues an endless further journey of mind.
I hope the reader will remember that in using common and non-technical words to describe the dimensions of noble character, I have given my own limited meanings to these dimensions. Ritual, for example, as I have used the word, has a far more limited meaning here than in religion and history.
If you or I decided to start tomorrow to do all the things listed above, we might appear very foolish in the eyes of our friends. We would be recognized as artificial in an instant. My only purpose was to make as useful an analysis as possible for what has generally been described as noble character. You cannot learn a skill by describing it or its products; you only learn what to look for. This is all I wanted to accomplish so far.
In defining noble character, I have tried to use dimensions most people could recognize and agree upon. I might have added others that you might yourself wish to add, and if you can make a better list for yourself, please do. Here is my list of the seventeen characteristics or habits I have applied to the study of noble character:
1. Simplicity in living
3. Honesty with kindness
4. Humility and subjugation of ego
5. Freedom in personal and emotional living
6. Detachment or objectivity
7. Unconventional in thought and action when necessary
8. Serving and helpful to others from choice
10. Kind and compassionate
11. Tolerant and free of extreme judgments
12. Obedient to the natural order of things
13. Ritualistic and/or systematic
17. Universal and consistent in noble character
I believe these traits can be defined, measured, and taught, but those are projects for the future. But, can anyone practice all these qualities in all these places all the time? All we can do is try, pick up the pieces when we fail, and try again. It gets better with time.
Here is a summary table/checklist that might serve as a reminder: