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Weekly Commentary - Feb. 10, 2020

Somebody wrote an academic paper and quoted me

For several years now, I have subscribed to a site of academic publications and every time a new study is published on a subject of my interest, I receive a notification. But the notification I received last week was different because it was not a specific subject, but a name: mine.

According to the notice, a researcher in South America had written or quoted "Francisco Miraval." I must confess that at first, I was really confused. After all, who could have any interest in writing about me or quoting something I have said?

But then I reflected that I have been sharing my thoughts for many years (in fact, decades) and that perhaps someone, for reasons unknown to me, found in that pile of nonsense something of interest, perhaps because it strengthened an idea presented in his monograph or maybe because it contradicted that idea.

In other words, it would not be the first time that, when using me as an example, someone uses me as an example of what not to do, think, say, or believe. Be that as it may, someone had written an academic research paper and my name appeared in that document. I decided, then, to see the details.

It didn't take me long to discover that the research was indeed focused on what Francisco Miraval had said and done, but not me. The paper was about a lawyer of that name who lived in Spain in the 14th century. (Perhaps my ancestor, but I don't know.)

Then I discovered something else and, I think, something of greater importance: I had fallen into the trap of allowing my ego being played with, of my vanity being encouraged, of my self-deception being perpetuated as if I were an important person. 

In short, I saw my name and thought that the paper was about me, as if I were the only one with that name (which I share with my father and my grandfather) or as if I were unique. And I did not like that discovery because it revealed to me that, no matter how many years one dedicates to philosophy and meditation, everything can be lost in a moment of vanity.

And it is no excuse to say that we live in an era of exaltation of vanity, of exacerbated "Likes", of "Wake me up when I am a celebrity." If we cannot see that deceit and that illusion, if the simple fact that someone uses our name makes us believe we are important, then we are doomed to live trapped in out addiction to narcissism.

That is why, although I do not know the author of the study on "Francisco Miraval", I thank her at a distance and without her knowing of my gratitude because she wrote about "the other" Francisco Miraval, the historical, so influential that 700 years later people still talk about him.

I, for my part, received another lesson on how close stupidity is to wisdom. So close, they always go together.

What can we sow today that could be successfully harvested in 2000 years?

In a recent report in the specialized journal Science Advances, it indicates that seeds that remained in the soil of Judea 2000 years ago were successfully cultivated, growing and bearing fruit. Although this is not the first experiment of its kind, the result leads to the question: what are we sowing today that can be harvested within two millennia?

Let's be honest: most of what we do is so irrelevant, so superficial and also so trivial that even we forget that we have done it. Therefore, hardly anything we do today or say will become of interest to archaeologists and anthropologists of the future.

But we can ask ourselves, what made six seeds of the past could be grown in our time? The answer is simple: they had been kept in such a way that not even the passing of the centuries made them lose their ability to germinate.

Another recent report, in this case disseminated by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii (Italy) indicates that the aqueducts built by the Romans 2000 years ago so that the rain fallen in the center of that ancient city was discharged into the sea are preserved in such good state that now, two millennia later, they are used for the same purpose.

Recall, as is well known, that Pompeii and other nearby cities were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. However, despite this catastrophe and tragedy, the aqueducts continue to function. Why? Because they were built to last, contrary to what happens with the vast majority of the things we have access to today.

In spite of the many negative things that can be said of the Romans, there is no doubt that they excelled in construction because they were building proof of the future, without the idea so common in our time of an obsolescence program to favor inhuman capitalism.

So, what can we build that is so well built that it will last for many years precisely because it is built to last beyond tragedies and catastrophes? And what can we preserve so well guarded and protected that, when the appropriate conditions arrive in the future, what we have saved and protected germinates and flourishes?

Maybe it is not about building something or safekeeping something, but about giving something and, because we give it for the future, give it now in advance so all those we will never meet (and probably will know nothing of us) can enjoy.

To give something for the future is what is called forgiving (for-giving), not in the superficial and devalued sense that word has today, but in the sense of creating a safe and secure environment today, so well built, that it will allow the humans of the future to become fully human. The Greeks had a word for that kind of forgiveness: agape.

Agape is also a devalued word, whose deep meaning, unknown to many, is not to be explained, but lived. As somebody beautifully said 2000 years ago, agape will remain. 

Just because you don’t see the road you can’t assume the road is not there

A few years ago, driving back home on a local road, a truck traveling in the same direction caused such a splash that my windshield was filled with mud, preventing me from seeing the road. The incident was resolved immediately. Nothing bad happended. But those few seconds seemed longer than they really were.

Why this temporal distortion? Because of the “anguish” (so to speak) of not seeing the road, and, at the same time, knowing that I had to continue traveling along that road. And among everything I thought at that time (how to quickly clean the windshield, what to do to keep my lane, how to avoid a new splash), there was something I didn't think: that the road no longer existed.

In other words: it’s absurd to think that just because I can’t see the road (because of the mud attached to the windshield), the road no longer exists. But, if we are honest, that is exactly what we do in the way of life. When we no longer see the road, for whatever circumstances, we believe that road no longer exists.

But why was the mud against the windshield problematic? Because, as is obvious, the windshield is made to look through the windshield, and not to look at the windshield. In other words, if the windshield becomes present (because it’s dirty), then we are in trouble: we no longer see beyond that glass.

The same thing happens, so to speak, with our ideas, beliefs, creeds, and opinions. Most of the time we don't pay attention to them. We don’t see them. In fact, we see reality through our ideas, but we don't see the ideas themselves. But if life muds our journey, those ideas become opaque, become visible and we need to "clean" them to see our path.

However, in many cases (perhaps in most cases), we do precisely the opposite: we cling to "muddy", opaque, closed ideas, beliefs, creeds and opinions. And we say and proclaim that if we do not see the path, that path doesn’t exist.

Because we don't see beyond the windshield of our ideas, our world is reduced. And a reduced world forces us to close our mind, our heart and our will. And then the world is reduced even more, and the cycle repeats itself with smaller and smaller worlds.

When that situation becomes intolerable (and sooner or later it will happen), instead of cleaning the windshield, instead of cleaning the ideas, we adopt a very dangerous attitude, that of self-deception. Not only do we believe that we are right, and others are not, but we also believe that we know more than others and that we are smarter than others.

At that moment, the downward spiral intensifies and then we begin to look for guilty people and scapegoats. Our contribution to the social field of negativity is intensified and, even worse, we infect others with the disease of self-deception, thus increasing the social negativity. 

Meanwhile, life’s way goes inexorably on.

When we stop confusing "being" with "having", self-deception dissipates

In his book The Song of the Bird (which should be mandatory reading), Anthony De Mello tells the very short and beautiful story of the dialogue between a young husband and his wife. He says: "Someday we will be rich." And she replies: “We are rich already, dear. Someday we may have money.”

I invite readers to stop reading the commentary at this time and explore for themselves the possible meanings of that story. After that, continue reading our column.

I read the aforementioned book more than three decades ago and since then I have used countless times the dialogue between husband and wife as an example of the double meaning of "rich,"  both "having money" and "having experienced and continuing to experience lasting, positive interpersonal relationships.”

And on some occasions I have shared some ideas about the repetition of “someday” in the short dialogue, wondering if the first “someday” is equal to the second, and the passing of time and the understanding of the future varies from person to person. in person.

But it was only many years after having read and reread De Mello when I finally perceived the wisdom in the response of the young woman, who separated "being rich" from "having money." Or, to put it more generically, she separated "being" from "having" as ways of connecting with the world, or with reality, or with the universe (whatever you want to call it.)

It seems that she perceived that he believed that "being" something amounts to "having" something and she managed to dissipate that equivalence by keeping the "being" separated, but still connected, from "having", thus creating a hope for both of them which cannot be seen when he speaks, since he seems to speak with some pessimism or defeatism.

Obviously, different cultures respond in different ways to the differentiation between "being" and "having." For example, in Spanish you have your age ("Tengo cinco años "), while in English, you are your age ("I am five"). And the same happens, as an additional example, with hunger: "Tengo hambre " compared to "I am hungry."

It seems that culture and language lead us in one direction or another.

Regardless, when talking about this topic, we cannot fail to mention To Have or To Be?, by Erich Fromm (1976). Fromm explores not only the marked differences between one and another way of existing (both valid and necessary), but he also highlights that we frequently confuse "being" with "having" ("con-fuse", that is, fusing what was previously separated.)

This “fusing together” causes us to give priority to one or another way of existing or, worse, we will focus exclusively on one of those modes, denying or neglecting the other. Thus, we end up "being" what we are not and "having" what we do not need, without ever knowing who we are or what we need.

John Vervaeke (University of Toronto) aptly qualifies this modal confusion for what it is: nihilism. Nihilism is the basis of self-deception. And self-deception is contagious.

We can’t escape the past, but we can still see the future

When we look at the starry sky, which caused so much admiration to Kant, we don’t see its present but its past and, in some cases, even if we don’t know it, we contemplate a distant past, billions of years ago. Even that the sun we "see" is already eight minutes in the past and the moon we see is the moon that existed a minute ago.

And if we are sitting at a table for a family dinner or maybe to share a coffee with a friend, that person we see is the person who existed in the past and, albeit a past that happened just a fraction of a millisecond ago. But it already happened, because our senses need time to process sensory stimuli.

So, be it because light takes time to reach us or because our senses do not acquire the information instantly, what comes to us and to our brain has already passed. We live, then, locked in a constant perception of the past.

It could be said that we call it “the present” or, better said, what we consider the "now" is only a memory, an interpretation of the past that still remains in our consciousness, in our mind, because the information or the stimulus that caused that memory or that interpretation has just happened and we are still processing it.

In other words, as Augustine already said (better than I can say it now), memories of the past are actually memories of the present. The past, therefore, is one of the forms of the present. If the past were totally past, then we would not have any access to it.

So, from a physical and biological perspective, the past in the present is all we have. What we know, what we think we know, what we simply believe, what we remember and what we have forgotten, all that is a product of the past or better yet, of the past that we now remember in the present.

But, as Augustine suggested, if we have memories of the past, we must also have memories of the future. That is, although everything we perceive, from the furthest star to the nearest person, is in the past, that doesn’t mean we can’t “see” the future.

The future didn’t always exist. The cyclical time in which our ancestors lived, moved and existed until not long ago didn’t leave room for the future because everything moved within a cycle of repetitions.

The future is only possible if time is freed from the return of the same. But we, instead of liberating time and creating a future, have enslaved time to mechanical time (Chronos). We can’t remember the future because what we call "future" is not. We deceive ourselves by saying that we don't know something that it really isn't.

How do we see the future? Not with our five senses or with an emphatically closed mind. Maybe, then, you have to open your mind and activate a new sense.

Can we still keep our dialogue with ourselves in the age of social networks?

It has been known for decades that intelligence is not one, but that there are different types of intelligence and one of the most interesting is intrapersonal intelligence, that internal dialogue that everyone has with himself/herself and that, well practiced, takes us away from self-deception. But is it possible to dialogue with oneself in the age of social networks?

My argument is, first, that social networks represent the externalization of our thoughts and that, for that reason, what used to be an internal and exclusively internal dialogue (often even secret), it has now been outsourced, thus negatively impacting our intrapersonal intelligence.

In addition, this externalization of our internal dialogue has another effect, that of seeking reactions (“Likes”). So strong is that desire that, if we publish something on social networks and get no response, we believe that the whole universe and everything in it have forgotten us.

And so strong is that desire that we immediately unfriend he/she who publishes something we don’t like. Or we try to manipulate others to share what we publish through expressions such as “I am sure you will not share it because… " or "Let's make this viral image," or similar expressions.

In short, not only we don’t think about ourselves within ourselves, but that “outsourced” dialogue is based strictly on calculations designed to see how much “followers” we can get, how “influencers” we become, and how we can monetize the influence we have on our followers.

Therefore, my argument is, secondly, that the externalization of internal thoughts in social networks makes the internal dialogue disappear or it reduces it to Machiavellian calculations based on the activities of our reptilian brain (so to speak), far removed from any self-discovery.

But what is that internal dialogue of oneself with oneself, that intrapersonal intelligence? Among the best examples we can cite are, how could it be otherwise, two of Jorge Luis Borges's short stories: "Borges y yo" (when Borges, the writer, says he is not the writer) and "El otro" (when Borges, now old, meets his younger self.)

In either case, Borges is fully aware that he is talking to himself, but he doesn’t fall into the error and illusion of holding on to that dialogue with himself as if there were more than just the dialogue (or, perhaps better, that the memory of the dialogue). Without intrapersonal intelligence, we are just a thought away from self-deception. 

Every attempt to say something more about how Borges exemplifies, embodies, and transcends to be himself and the other at the same time in a continuous and coherent dialogue exceeds, by far, the very narrow limits of this column. But one thing is certain: when Borges, already old, meets the young Borges, he doesn't need a social network to remind him of his past.

Without internal dialogue, without intrapersonal intelligence, there can be no self-consciousness and, therefore, there is no mindfulness. As a result, all other types of intelligence disappear or shrink. Without internal dialogue, we inevitably become zombies.

Sometimes an unexpected void forms that we cannot fill

During the recent holiday season, I received a puzzle as a gift. It is not one of my favorite activities because putting together a puzzle requires patience, which, in turn, is not one of the highest points of my character. But the festive occasion and the collaboration of the family led me to participate in the attempt to solve the 1000-piece puzzle in just two days.

And, responding to the challenge, two days later 999 of those pieces were in their right place. What happened to the missing piece, the easiest to find because of its multiple colors? It just wasn't there. And it's not that we lost it carelessly. My impression is that it was never part of the original package.

Therefore, my exercise of patience and deduction, and the family exercise of working together to complete the puzzle, only had partial effectiveness. We lacked 0.001 percent to reach the total goal. But we didn’t reach it. And the empty place in the puzzle was more prominent than all the other 999 pieces together.

Despite our high level of completion of the task and our dedication to that task, a feeling of frustration gripped us because we could not put the last piece in its place and thus complete the whole picture of the puzzle.

Obviously, the good moment of the holidays and the good company made the frustration disappear immediately and the missing piece became a funny and ephemeral anecdote. But I couldn't get that experience out of my mind. In fact, I wonder if life itself is like an eternally incomplete puzzle.

Let's think about this in this way: day after day, with all our actions and thoughts, we add new pieces to the puzzle of our life. As we do not have a finished model guiding us, we trust that the “pieces” (family, children, work, studies, occupations) are accommodated in their corresponding place. And we live our lives based on that belief.

But what would happen if, at the end of our life, when we know that we have few pieces left to complete the puzzle, we find out that we are missing an important piece, the last one? In other words, what would happen to us if we discover that our life will be eternally incomplete?

When I was trying to complete the puzzle and I was not able to do it, I wondered why I didn't detect the problem earlier. I could have counted the pieces beforehand and, if one were missing, the game would change from solving the puzzle to finding which piece was missing. 

But in life we cannot count our pieces beforehand and, therefore, we do not know if we are missing any. Maybe it's an advantage not to know. Perhaps, if we knew, we would decide not to try to solve the puzzle of life.

Be that as it may, an unexpected void where obviously there should be something is frustrating. But the future likes to hide behind our frustrations.

Be careful when crossing the threshold of the New Year!

If we could stop seeing ancient Greeks and Romans myths as if they were baseless legends and we could see them for what they really were, that is, narrations of psychological reflections on important moments of life, we would then see that these stories have much to teach us about the beginning of a new year.

In fact, the name of the first month of the year, "January," comes from the name of one of the Roman gods, Janus, the only god with two faces, one looking to the past and another looking to the future. The teaching is clear: you cannot look to the future without looking simultaneously at the past, and vice versa.

Moreover, as someone well said (I don't remember who), what we have now was not received from our parents (that is, the past) but we have it as a loan from our children (the future).

In other words, against everything we are taught, the past never remains in the past, but is reinvented in the present. Therefore, the idea of "leaving the past in the past" or "forgetting the past" is equivalent, if fully implemented, to forget about the future, something that, incidentally, is what many people do.

If Janus teaches us something, it is that, in the passage from one moment to another of our lives, especially when that moment is shared socially, we must look simultaneously in both directions, but not because the future is continuity of the past, but precisely because the future is no longer continuity of the past.

If we only look to the past, there is no future, or we enter the future walking backwards. If we only look to the future, we will lack identity.

But there is another god, Mercury (Hermes, among the Greeks), known for being the messenger of the gods. At the same time, Mercury is also known for manifesting (although not as himself) in moments of transition, be it a physical (passing through a door) or temporal (beginning of the year) transition. And those are the moments that Mercury uses to deceive us.

I must correct myself: Mercury doesn’t deceive us. He does something even more worrisome: he creates the space for us to deceive ourselves. And once we deceive ourselves (that is, we betray ourselves), we not only cease to be who we should be, but we rationalize and justify our decision.

Therefore, at the end of each year we promise that we will stop doing many things and that in the new year we will achieve what we have not achieved the previous year. But it is only a self-deception, as evidenced by the messages on social networks "declaring" abundance and prosperity, posted by those persons who a year ago "declared" the same things and still didn’t succeed.

In a way, even if we don't recognize it, Janus and Mercury are still as active as they always were. After all, they are expressions of our psychology every time we cross a threshold.

When we suppress humor, our world becomes one-dimensional

One of the basic elements of every humorous story, or joke, is to direct the story in a certain direction and then, using the multiple meanings of a word, suddenly change the story in another direction. That unexpected change is what causes laughter (at least in some cases).

One of the most common examples of that kind of humor is the well-known phrase "You can't make jokes to kleptomaniacs because they take everything literally."

In this case, there are two possible meanings of “literally”. First, that the joke is interpreted literally and, therefore, not understood. And second, that “literally” is part of the description of “take everything”, in the sense of "stealing", that is, the definition of "kleptomaniac". (Obviously, there is nothing worse than trying to explain a joke, as we tried to do it here).

In other words, the variety and multiplicity of meanings of the words is the basis of humor. Without that ambiguity, without that ambivalence, there would be no joke possible because the story would not have a change of direction and rather it would resemble a mathematical operation where, although the result is not initially known, it is never unexpected.

Humor is, then, the possibility that things are not what they seem to be, that there is a different interpretation of reality, that the narration that seems to say one thing is actually saying another, and, ultimately, that due to ambiguity (and in many cases indeterminacy), the present is not an anticipation of the future.

When ambivalence is suppressed, when ambiguity is considered intolerable, when language becomes forcefully univocal, humor disappears. And when humor disappears, the multidimensionality of life also disappears.

The subject is obviously not new. Maybe that's why the book that Aristotle wrote about comedy about 2300 years ago has been lost. Perhaps that is why Jesus does not laugh in any of the canonical gospels. And maybe that's why humor has degraded into mockery or imitation or, even worse, it is considered as an insult or as something in bad taste.

In short, it could be said that humor is something like a dialogue between two people where both persons (although for different reasons) are willing to open their minds and hearts to a multiplicity of interpretations of reality.

Maybe that's why humor has a therapeutic effect, because it takes us away from what it is and leads them to what can be, to the alternative, to the unexpected, to the already present but still hidden. Maybe that's why it is suppressed, because suppressing humor is controlling people's minds and emotions.

As British philosopher and humanist Thomas More once said (I am paraphrasing here), Blessed are those who learn how to laugh at themselves, because they will never stop laughing. 

Therefore, humor itself, well understood, is uncontrollable and arises spontaneously. At the end of a long presentation I asked the participants: What are you taking home today? A young woman immediately told me, literally: "Professor, why do you teach us to steal?".

By projecting our inaction to the world, we contribute to the reduction of the world

I recently learned, while reading a book written by James Mallon, that the consequence of inaction is not just to allow a problem to get worse or an adverse situation to get out of control. The consequence goes beyond the loss of goods, money, opportunities or health. The worst consequence of inaction is something much deeper.

According to Mallon (and we agree), the consequence of inaction is accepting the external world as it is and, at the same time, separating our inner reality from that outer reality. In other words, when we project our impotence to the world, we contribute to making the shared world in which we live smaller and, in fact, more chaotic.

But, if we are honest with ourselves (a rarity in our times), we must admit that all of us project our internal conflicts in the outside world, assuming that the problem is "out there" and not within us and, on that basis, we decide to do nothing, believing that there is nothing we can do. 

Let me share a couple of examples to illustrate this situation.

A few days ago, a person told me that two young children he knows found a photograph, clearly already ruined, on the floor outside their school.

For fun, they drew mustaches and lines on the face of the man who appeared in the picture, a man they didn't recognize. And then, to increase the fun, they left the photograph in a tree away from school, but visible to other students.

The next day, upon returning to their classroom, both children were brought before the school principal, whom they had to listen to for long minutes while the principal accused them of having disrespected a former teacher of the establishment. For that lack of respect, the children were sanctioned.

Obviously, the children knew nothing about the former teacher. They only found an old and abandoned photograph. And, clearly, the problem with the former teacher was in the mind of the director of the school, who projected his problems to the children. The director's inability to act according to the situation, that is, his inaction, increased the negativity of the situation.

And I personally know the case of an 11-year-old girl at a school near Denver who was arrested by police officers, handcuffed and taken to a patrol car after a teacher called the police to report the girl for "destruction" of an object inside the school.

The only thing the girl had done was to put her hand on the teacher's desk and, in doing so, break a chocolate bar that the teacher had there. Again, the inability of the teacher to act appropriately led her to project her problems and her helplessness over a clearly innocent girl.

The examples could be multiplied, but it’s not necessary. It is clear that our inability to detach from our own internal inability leads us to project a chaotic inaction towards the world, fostering negativity instead of a future of co-creation and coevolution.

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