"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 27, 2017

Survival Of The Fittest–Limiting Belief And Conviction (A Stoic Primer)

Evolutionary biology teaches that the most adaptable organisms are those that survive best and longest.  Cockroaches have lived basically unchanged for over 300 million years because they do not care what they eat or where they live.  They survive well in all climates, indoors or out, rain or shine.

Raccoons have been around for only a fraction of that,  perhaps 25 million years, but have survived for the same reason – adaptability.   While not as strong, aggressive, or dominant as other animals, their intelligence, tactile sensitivity, agile paws, and  omnivorous habits have given them an evolutionary leg up.

Alex Hardin had always been considered indecisive.  When asked what kind of food he liked, he always said, “Whatever” and meant it.  Pork, lamb, fish, hummus were all the same to him. 

It wasn’t that he lacked taste.  On the contrary, Alex had a fine palate, could always identify the wild berries in the coulis, the earth spices in the truffle sauce, and the back-terroir flintiness of certain Oregon pinots.  It’s just that he didn’t care.  Put more carefully, he placed no particular value on cuisine.  Food had its interesting variations and subtleties, but it was still fodder – basic sustenance.

It was no surprise that it was of little difference to him whether his vegetables were organic, locally-produced, or farm-grown.  He was just as happy with tomatoes and pears grown in Argentina or Chile than those grown around the corner. He was indifferent to the living conditions of poultry, farmed fish, or pigs.  He was happy enough to eat oysters while they were plentiful, but knew that with the increased population pressures on the Bay, their numbers would eventually dwindle.  This was not a matter of concern, only fact.

Mountains or sea? Alex was indifferent.  Both were pleasant changes of pace from life in the city. Progressive or conservative? Either one.  Politics were cyclical, political movements ebbed and flowed, nothing in the world ever really changed, so ‘conviction’ was irrelevant.

Blonde or brunette? Leggy or full-figured? Aquiline or pert nose? Although I doubt he ever thought of himself in this way, Alex was a proto-feminist.  He loved all women not because the way they looked but for the unique, special, one-of-a-kind sexual responsiveness which was as stamped and patented as any original.

Similarly, although Alex was never concerned with labels – it was enough that everyone else was obsessed for him – he would best be described as a Stoic.  Play the cards you are dealt, limit desire, figure out what’s what before it is too late, and let the world take its course.  Or a Hindu.  The world is only an illusion; so choice – let alone convictions – are meaningless.

Evolutionary biology and Greek and Hindu philosophy coincide nicely.  Don’t be picky.
When he was a child, his parents thought he was wishy-washy.  How could anyone with so few preferences and so few conviction ever survive in the real world.  The tried to get him to declare his preferences.  Few children liked broccoli and most liked ice cream.  What was Alex’s demurral all about?  Neither his mother or father could ever have been called indecisive.  Their careers in law demanded just the opposite.  If cases were not decided on truth, they were adjudicated based on strong, logical, well-argued convictions.

The Hardins, who had never read Epictetus or Seneca the Younger, could not have possibly recognized what was to become their son’s Stoic bent, nor would they have appreciated and encouraged it if they had.  The world is made up of winners and losers and nothing in between.  There are no successful fence-sitters in today’s America.

Instead the Hardins wondered what they had done wrong.  How could two such decisive, purposeful people have given birth to such a…..Here, words failed them. ‘Spineless’ was far too cruel.  ‘Wishy-washy’ was closer to Alex’s bland comings and goings.  ‘Indecisive’ gave him too much credit for rational analysis.  However he turned out the way he did – whether faulty genes, inadvertently negligent upbringing (the Salvadoran maid), or some unexplained psycho-physiological anomaly in his brain, their son was a loser.

Alex was nothing of the sort.  Not only did he have discriminating taste, a very logical mind, and a decisive management style, but he used those talents to his advantage.  He was well-respected in his field and in his community.

Women were intrigued by him.  His elusiveness was a challenge.  Unlike men whose sexual interests are basic and simple, women want to know men, what makes them tick, and to figure out who they are.  There is too much risk in emotional choice.

Whatever the reason, Alex was in his element.  Since he was happy with all women, he entertained them all.  He was unconcerned that most of  them soon gave up because of his ‘lack of commitment’ or unwillingness to share his feelings.

Colleagues and acquaintances were frustrated by his lack of commitment.  He demurred on the most important election of the last two hundred years, said his progressive friends about the Trump rise to power.  How could he have?! He saw both sides on Israel, Iran, Syria, Brexit, immigration and taxes.  He had no religious affiliation, appreciated all religions but was quick to point out their faults.

Alex, however, saw nothing but hysteria.  It seemed as though there were nothing but belief in America unfortunately expressed as righteousness, moral indignation, anger, and hostility.  It wasn’t only that the most strident and intolerant interest groups had no coherent, rational, evidence-based foundation for their protest, but such collective emotionality was directed at others.  While true belief may be the result of individual search and personal conclusions, it rarely is.  It seems to need resistance to firm up and aggressive push-back to consolidate.

Beliefs alone are not so much the problem; it is the militancy which results from those beliefs that causes trouble.

Alex found it harder and harder to live well.  As much as his innate Stoicism gave him a strong defense against irritability, bad humor, and scratchy dissatisfaction with everything, he as not totally immune.  It is hard to ignore a racket.

If it weren’t for the noise and bad music, he might have enjoyed the show.  True believers do have a comic side – the manic, hyper-passionate, revivalist fervor of those for whom pollution is not just an environmental hazard but an assault on dignity, community, and personal value.  For whom lagging black, gay, and women’s rights is an insult.  Protests, demonstrations, and marches are St. Vitus’ dances, circus side shows, and vaudeville acts.  Where is the equanimity?

Except for the most disciplined Greek Stoic of 2000 years ago or the most hermetic Hindu ascetic in the Himalayas, few people can be unaffected by the loud off-key brass, the howling, the obsession, and the lamentations.

Alex, however, had a good bit of the old school in him enough to inoculate or at least partially protect him from the hysteria.  It wasn’t that difficult, after all, to pull the plug current events, heed his mother’s advice to avoid religion and politics over dinner, and to read Conrad.

There are few people like Alex Hardin.  Most cannot withstand the incessant pressure to choose and have given in to preference. It take a lot more to hold on to the conviction that conviction doesn’t matter, than to embrace collective purpose.

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