Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Anti-Thesis of the Finite Ego: A Review of Baker's “Eat my Dust, Martin Luther!”

Cover of the Book "Eat my Dust, Martin Luther!" by Jeffrey Baker
Cover Design by Samantha Merley
After my own bookish call for celebration, I would like to draw attention to another book in a kindred spirit, namely Jeffrey Baker's Eat my Dust, Martin Luther! which comprises 96 essays on American mysticism, beating Luther's originally posted bullets by one.

When I was approached for a book review, I initially felt both reluctant (what if I have nothing good to say about it and hence waste all our collective time, energy and resources) and curious (Martin Luther, warts and all, I like, mysticism I like too, but how to feel about dust?).

It turned out that Baker does not only share my philosophy (or rather I his) but that we use the panacea of humor to give our worldview an amusingly absurd twist around the ears. There are parts of this book that made me smile although I wanted to laugh, but in certain situations (especially an exam invigilation) laughter may not be the most appropriate reaction.

I will share my favorite bit in which Baker muses about a strictly amateurish tongue-in-cheek hobbyhorse of mine: astrophysics. He says that no matter how easy the scientific texts are made for us lay people (astrophysics for astrodummies) that he (and I for that matter) always get lost the moment the apple hit Newton's head!

But it is not all fun and games as under his (collectively our) fool-cap there is (or so we like to think collectively) wisdom at the heart of the matter or the end of the road or sentence. I will give you a few themes of his essay collection by categorically spoiling the entire book for you (it is a joke, of course, not the book but the spoiling part).

There is a very Buddhist flair to the difference between finite self and infinite Self, to this notion of a limited ego that craves attention and fights for survival, the baser and more animal instincts of ours versus the endless, immortal self or soul that transcends time and space and is mainly concerned with cosmic health and well-being.

What I liked here is Baker's definition or understanding that evil may occur due to, evolutionary speaking, reasons of survival. That, for instance, racism is a way of trying to forge a more superior group and bond by eliminating others (Nazism or fundamental religion may come to mind). Although such ideas are inherently sick, demented to downright vicious, Baker sheds some light onto its motivations and causes, namely a (Socratic) type of misleading ignorance in addition to a misreading of the world. This lack of knowledge (empathy / awareness) is the source of a lot of mayhem, war and destruction.

Furthermore, Baker claims that those who are very insecure and overly sensitive to criticism try desperately to protect themselves under the layers of armor containing excessive pride. This often leads to a cutting-off from others, inflates the limited survival-oriented little ego to grasp onto false and empty straws, which eventually causes much more damage than good to all involved.

On the other hand, those who are humble (humility next to honesty being one of my favorite characteristics at least blogging-wise) will have a much harder time to convince the goal-oriented rest of society that their path will bring the most benefits. Finally, since the infinite self is so much more resourceful, not to mention blissful than anything else in the world (universe, cosmos), we would strongly benefit from tapping or plugging into it.

In sum, I have thoroughly enjoyed the wit, wisdom and honesty of this book and recommend it, qualms aside, to my dear readers as an alternative or substitute to Arash's World. Chapeau, Mr. Baker, and the next round's on you!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sympathy for the Down-trodden Loser

Lisa Simpson showing the letter L on her forehead
Lisa Simpson

As a child I almost always cheered for the “bad” guy. When watching He-Man, I wanted Skeletor to win; I could not stand Tweety Bird or Jerry Mouse, or the Road Runner, for that matter; I always preferred the “mean” cats and the “wild” coyote. This is also why I never really enjoyed James Bond except in those films where the special-agent showed his vulnerable side, such as On her Majesty's Secret Service (Lazenby's first and only foray) and the more recent Casino Royale.

Why? Because I find the good guys generally boring. They are too perfect and not all that human in my view, so I cannot fully relate to them nor find them interesting in any discernible way. At least, the bad guys have some weaknesses - if you want to call being evil a weakness, that is - and more importantly, they more often than not lose out.

This sympathy for those who show signs of weakness can be extended to various areas of life. For example, Nietzsche's idea of the Superhuman, the Übermensch, I find too bland. What is the point of such perfection since there is nothing to improve upon. With the exception of art perhaps, perfection means death and stagnation since what is already perfect cannot -- and has no need for -- change. On the other hand, flaws make the person endearing, strange as it may sound.

On the flip side those who claim to have no weaknesses are blatant liars or hypocrites. Take womanizers, for instance. They (or so they claim) always get the girls and “play” them as if they were their toy or piano. The word rejection is not in their repertoire, and they (supposedly) laugh in the face of failure.

Such people generally speaking strike me as dishonest. I believe half of them may be actually gay, while the other half may be simply deluding themselves. In reality, they must be unhappy or feel unfulfilled deep inside and would most likely prefer a constant and life-long companion instead of another pointless “one-night stand.”

So who would be heroes to me? I must say I do like Batman and Optimus Prime, but in general I prefer those heroes that have an Achilles' heel, such as, well, Achilles or Siegfried with his soft (mortal) spot on his back. They may be strong, but they are not invincible; moreover, they are mortal. This is something that I can identify with more than those who can survive anything and where there is very little at stake for them.

Now at the point of sounding a bit pretentious, my heroes are those who turn what is seen as weakness into strength. That is good old Mahatma, the frail little man who stood up against the powerful and mighty British army and still won. It is Jesus whose cheek already read turned the other side to receive the next blow like a man! Yes, those who are “soft” (the gentle in gentleman) and nonviolent, often mistakenly perceived as weak, are the real heroes out there. So don't tell your friend to suck it up like a man because it is their so-called weakness that makes them heroic, at least in my mind.

And to add here, one of my soft spots are the downtrodden and misunderstood, especially those who suffer from unrequited love. The ones who don't get the girl will at least - consolation prize - have my full sympathy. I can, from previous personal experience, relate to them; their failure in romance makes them so much more heroic and turns them into a living poet regardless if they turn to writing or not.

But to be perfectly honest, my sympathy for so-called losers may have a self-serving bias. When you see somebody who is worse off than you, there is a certain kind of comfort. Not in a blatant finger-pointing, “ha-ha” manner of course. One may feel superior, but it is also strangely reassuring since all things considered, we may be slightly better off than them.

However, I like to believe that the “poor losers” strike a compassionate chord within me. Not included are those who are losers but think or try to convince themselves that they are very special; they elicit mostly laughter. Yet when it comes to the genuine losers, their humanity makes them not only vulnerable but gives them a touch of honesty and dignity. For those I wish the best and hope that despite not having succeeded in their endeavor, they will find the incentive and push to get it right the next time around.