Category Archives: Thought

It’s all relative

It’s definitely my bet that there are endless others — conscious beings enough like ourselves that we will clearly perceive them to be conscious beings like ourselves — out there in the universe.

To imagine that we are absolutely alone would mean that everything we perceive is either a) part of a unimaginably unique random event causing consciousness in one minuscule planet-ful of people or b) a God or gods who went to enormous trouble to create everything around us just for our benefit.    Neither of those seems remotely possible to me.  This falls into the rather large category of things that I believe to be impossible to know for certain, but it sure seems more likely that neither a nor b is true and that there is a universe of conscious out there, not a huge pyrotechnic light show.     Science fiction hasn’t done terribly well as imagining beings similar but different from ourselves.    We marginally understand our family pets, how would we understand an alien species or they understand us?

But our distance from these other conscious beings brings us back to being pretty much on our won.   They are so far away, on a human scale, that it as though we were alone in the universe.   Perhaps, centuries from now, people will have come to the conclusion that Einstein was wrong and people just thought he was so smart because his haircut or lack of it.    And maybe there will be twists and turns in what we think as a smooth world of time, but if we’re really stuck with the speed of light being the speed limit of the universe, then we ain’t gonna be having any long conversations with any space creatures, perhaps ever, perhaps as long as our species survives on Earth.

Which always leads me back to figuring we ought to be doing everything we can to manage a life together on this ball in space.   And it might make it a lot easier if we’d ease off on trying to get everyone to believe things that make one group of people “better” than another,  that “everyone should believe what I believe and if they don’t they’ll get what the misery the deserve.”


too scary to think about

2013.   What will it come to mean to us?   Life, both our individual lives and our collective life as a species, moves along way too fast to dare think about it.  It’s hard not to be a pessimist when the end of life appears, for all that we fantasize otherwise, to be death, pure and simple:  gone, that’s.  And we kind of know that’s true for our species, too.  We have a life span.   And we are acutely conscious of the decay we see along with the growth.  Pointless to be obsessed by it, I suppose.


l’existence précède l’essence

Sometimes people have asked me what kind of psychologist I am.  I usually end up back with “existentialist” or “humanist,” although believe that there is such a thing as dynamics, both on the interpersonal and the intra-personal level.  I’d go so far as the Freud was right about one very important thing:  We aren’t always aware of what’s going on inside us.

By existentialist and humanist what I mean is the belief in Sartre’s simple statement that is the title of this article:  existence precedes essence.  That we are, that we are aware, conscious beings precedes what we are or why we are.  

Now the rest of existentialism, particularly existentialist psychology goes on in directions that I don’t care to follow.  From Sartre’s bleak visions, like No Exit (“Hell is other people.”), to some German weltanshlang (yeh, I know that’s not the actual word, but you’ve gotta admit it has a nice ring to it!) etc., it’s all too dense for my poor head, but I do believe that human consciousness is the starting point of everything.  Everything.  God, nuclear physics, love.  Everything.

I think most modern psychology has given up on understanding human beings from the inside out.  Today’s psychology objectifies everything.  It requires that everything be turned into measurable, quantifiable entities.  But the assumption that the objective reality is a perfect equivalent of the subjective experience is fatally flawed.

If you talk to nearly any intelligent, informed, alert adult for any length of time about psychology and psychological problems, they will nearly inevitably bring it around to the advances in neurological mapping.  They will speak with reasonable skepticism about prescription psychotropic drugs (that now treat everything from schizophrenia to early-stage head scratching), they will nevertheless see them as the state-of-the-art of psychology.

How often does anyone talk about the human factors any more?  By human factors I mean two things: influence and choice.  They may seem contradictory, but they’re not.  Influence is what brought you to this moment, choice is what you do now.   We define ourselves, by what we do.

It also matters that your father abused you as a child, if he did.  It also matters if you told on a friend to get the friend into trouble; or if you what you did made a positive difference in a person’s life.   What happened to you and what you chose to do bring you to where you are now, with new choices.

And how conscious we are of who we are and why we are the way we are is something that varies, that isn’t the same for everyone and can also change within a person.  This premise of psychoanalysis has always made sense to me:  The more conscious you are of what’s made you who you are, the more consciously you can chose to be who you want to be.

Rather than being a paradox, this as a meeting point of the existentialist-humanistic and psychodynamic.   By getting to know ourselves better, by letting ourselves be more conscious of both past and present, we can get more out of our lives.

This is the promise of psychotherapy, but psychotherapy has had a very bumpy road from Dr. Freud’s time to ours. There’s no real way to control the fact that anyone, essentially, can become a therapist.  There are hurdles, to be sure, but plenty of manipulative sons-of-bitches nevertheless become shrinks:  People who know  little about the complexities of human nature and people who know how to keep coming and paying for something that isn’t doing them any good; and it may be doing them a lot of harm.

I know that there are good shrinks out there:  people who really do listen to their patients and know something about how to be helpful to them.   My point is that there’s not been any solid way devised in my lifetime to determine which is which.  Which is going to a person who is ultimately quite helpful to have talked with over time, and which is the blood-sucking manipulator?   Certainly graduate program or state licensing agency aren’t able to make that determination.  It’s not even their job.  It’s no one’s job.  And no one’s worked out a clear way to tell the difference.

But this does not mean that psychological causation is hooey.  Far from it.  Someone who will honestly listen and knows how to turn what they hear into something useful for the patient or client to hear can be extremely helpful.  This shows how powerful relationships can be:  They can heal as well as tear apart.

Sometimes friendship also heals.  The ability to have someone, whether partner or friend in another part of the world, with whom one can let out aspects of oneself painfully held within, is invaluable.

Meanwhile, take your pills like a good child, especially if the pills make you feel better or people tell you you’re a lot easier to be around now that your on them.  Take them, but don’t put too much stock in them.  You still have to think about your life, you still have to figure out what will make you a happier person and those around you happier to know you.

And forget about the little electrical currents flowing through your neurons that you can sometimes see pretty pictures of on television or the internet.   Think about them this way:  Without all the intricate electro-chemical wiring and chips and all the rest inside the computer you’re reading this on, these words would not exist.  But does the all the electro-chemical wing and chips and all the rest know what the words on the page mean?  Of course not.  Let the neurobiologists worry about their pathways and genome sequences and biochemical reactions, psychologists and psychologically-minded people should focus on the meaning of the words, the thoughts and choices that make us human.


Pieces.  Each reflecting an image, a truth.  But always only a partial proof.  And not like a jig saw puzzle:  The fragments cannot be put together, the whole cannot be re-created from the parts.

It frightens us when we see it in raw form in the overtly insane, but we know it to be universal human fate:  to have to put together our world with the fragments we can find.

New short essay: Do we learn to be a community from our disasters?

Added a short essay on the aftermath of Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.  It’s a reflection on what we do and don’t seem to learn from these momentous acts of nature that our human hands seem more capable of exacerbating than resolving.  We seem to come together, under the impact of the disaster, but all too quickly go back to regarding our fellow humans as competitors for limited resources rather than our companions in the struggle to progress as a human community.

Sometimes I get so scared…

Sometimes I get so scared…

There were rumblings today about Iran possibly being willing to negotiate about their “nuclear program.”  I try to forget that Israel is poised on the verge of starting a war like we have never seen before, a war horrible beyond imagining.  But here is the New York Times saying that some suspect that Iran is only trying to “buy time,” two weeks from the U.S. Presidential election in proposing talks.

Buying time?  Two weeks?  Are we really that close to Israel attacking Iran, with or without U.S. immediate military support?

While Obama and Romney spar, far more like prizefighters than statesmen.  Are these the men, and the men and women around them, who will decide our fate?

It terrifies me.

The age of the universe

The age of the universe


The conventional way of describing the universe, saying “a little under 14 billions years old” has struck me for a while to be wrong:  that the Big Bang happened about then.  Now ,Oct. 12, 2012, we can see it right on Google.  It’ll pop up with 13.75 billion years quicker than you can change a channel with your remote:

But as best we understand it today going back to Einstein says that time is tied up with mass, that mass warps time.  How we understand gravity today is based on this, in fact.  So we sometimes may hear the expression “time loses meaning as we go back as far as the origin of our universe.”   As mass became denser and denser as we understand the universe was at its birth, then time also ceased to exist in the way we understand time today.


So the universe went from a point outside of time as we know it to time as we think we know it today,  how long was the time when time had no meaning?  A minute, a second, an eternity?  Just as that question has no meaning, neither does the 13.75 billions year figure.

On playing the villain

About ten days have passed since I finished a run of acting the part of Henry Ford.   Playing Henry Ford is not like playing Mark Twain.  Samuel Clements, so far as his persona is concerned, was a wonderful man who sometimes said things that sounded crass, but weren’t, not really.  Ford, on the other hand (in this Mark St. Germain play, Camping with Henry and Tom), is a fundamentally base man.  He is very fucked up.  I’ve played unpleasant characters before.  Sometimes you feel like the people you act with take personally your role with them on the stage.  Sometimes you feel like you are the nasty son-of-a-bitch you’re portraying.

When I played a nasty union boss in a Clifford Odets play, my friend and director told me something that he’d learned from a director he respected: “An actor shows his character flaws not by what he reveals on stage, but by what he refuses to allow to show.”  I kept this in mind throughout doing Ford.  But as much as it’s “fun to play a villain, a real prick and an asshole, it’s no bullshit that you do get some contact of some very dark places of oneself.  As they say, it’s necessary to do that to get any reality to your character.  Even so…

I wonder if this is fundamental to any artistic process:  that both dark and light need to be explored.   I think so.  I think of a Beethoven symphony or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or James Joyce’s Ulysses or the poetic songs of Dylan and blues and jazz.  In theatre, except where there’s a terrible struggle going on inside the character, there’s often the dark and light are dichotomized into different characters.

The death of the word has been greatly exaggerated

There’s the wonderful quote by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) that rumors of his death were “exaggerations.”   I wonder if this is something that has happened to the power of the written word.  I wonder if we have come to accept the notion that life has been reduced to postings on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube or 10-second television sound bites to the degree that the written word in the form of essays and books is irrelevant, anachronistic, the domain only of the most academicians and other “intellectuals.”  Perhaps the death of the word has been exaggerated.

Perhaps the word is only badly injured, in intense need of rehabilitation, not altogether abandoned to the landfill of history.   Perhaps it will rise like Lazarus.  Because it is the word that makes us human.  And, as much as we may admire the great apes and the infinitesimal bacteria, as much as we are ashamed of what humans have done in the name of humanity, we should also be proud of what we are:  Thinking, choosing, curious beings.   Beings who can express complex and wonderful thoughts to each other.  Beings who can be moved by what we read, whose lives are affected by what we read.

There will always be diversions, ways for us not to think.  Who can blame us?   There are plenty of good reasons not to think, not to dig beneath the surface of the reality presented to us.

But there will always people who do think, who have not given up, who have not stopped trying to figure out how to make better sense out of this world.

I guess that’s why I write.  And why I read.


A thought on the value of the hint in learning

the hint is very underrated


Like a lot of people, I like to solve puzzles. I prefer word puzzles or highly visual puzzles like Myst and Alida. I like puzzles that allow you to set your own pace.  The best are puzzles that you love to solve, but also kinda sad to see that’s over, that you’re done.


But ya sometimes reach a point in a word or audiovisual puzzle where there is more frustration than it feels worth and where a small hint can let your mind go, while a large hint would utterly ruin the experience, take all the fun out of it.


Hints give us a way of learning the way forward.  They can tell us whether we’re on the right track or wandering aimlessly.


This a piece of what needs to happen in teaching.  It’s not a new idea, but it’s easily forgotten.  A early twentieth century Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, called it the fancy name  Zone of Proximal Development, but it was probably understood by good teachers when our forebears still walked on four legs:  A good teacher helps us learn the step today that tomorrow we will be able to do on our own.


What a simple idea.  But how easily it is forgotten.  We need hints to move forward.  We neither need to be clobbered over the head or nor to be given more than a reasonable amount of encouragement.  This is the constant challenge for the teacher: to find that point and to move it gently forward.


For more about the adult learning of creativity, check out this essay.



I wonder if where I live in southern Vermont is a NORC (a naturally occurring retirement community).  If so, it ain’t a bad one.  It doesn’t have that feeling that you might as well not exist anymore, that what you try to do doesn’t really matter.  Nice place in the world, this is.  It has it’s own harshness, from flooding rivers to mean-spirited people, that’s for sure. but that also reminds you, like to bugs do, that you’re here on earth.  I guess it really isn’t a NORC, ’cause only a minority are actually retired.

I have been busy writing.  I’ve thought a lot about why it matters that people think about what socialism really means.  We — meaning people who knows that something’s very wrong in our world and that wealth and power have a hell of a lot to do with what’s wrong — we need to be able to conceive of an alternative to the way things are.  That will be coming here soon if you’re interested.





Ran into a punctuation thing today stopped me in my tracks.  How do you say, well, something like this?:  Like this?

Or perhaps you should say it like this:  “A whale is a mammal not a fish”?

Or even “A whale is the greatest fish of all.”?

Which is the right way to do it:  To use a colon and a question mark together?

But I saw little point to pursue it.  But couldn’t rid myself of it.

So of course I asked the great god Google, oh, tell me please do, what is the right way to do it?




I always feel saddened when I see Dr. Seuss used, now that he’s gone.  What a wonderful mind!  NYT crossword had him today.  Nice.

I didn’t realize the title didn’t have the word “who” in it.