Matters of Preponderance

Mariner receives from a relative each year at Christmas a calendar with daily sayings. The theme tends to be ethereal, whimsical, transcendental and often profound. Mariner confesses most sayings leave him puzzled or blank in reaction. Still, there are many that provoke obscure thought.

For the weekend, February 3 and 4, two sayings were offered:

“I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being”

– Wislawa Szymborska. (Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.)

“If we don’t turn around now, we just may get where we’re going”

– Native American saying.

Both sayings piqued mariner’s curiosity. The two are as far apart as one can imagine. The first truly is profound and runs amok in the Cosmos while the other is pragmatic, skeptical and of the moment.

Examining the second saying first, the Native American saying, mariner is reminded of the current advertisement on television showing a rookery of penguins marching across the endless miles of Antarctic ice sheets back to their nesting area. Two penguins, however, are using a GPS device to find their way and seem to have taken a different path. Finally, the penguins reset their destination and are advised that they will arrive in 92 days.

Similarly, mariner often tells a story in his sermons about the housewife who, when baking a whole ham, would always cut away a significant portion before baking the ham. Her daughter asked, “Why do you cut off the end?” “Oh,” her mother said, “that’s how Grandma always does it.” Later, when the mother and daughter were visiting Grandma, the daughter took the opportunity to ask Grandma why she cut the ham: “Because the pan is too small,” Grandma replied.

Ingrained habit has its dark side. Mariner’s grandmother, a feisty German immigrant, would reject an individual with great ire if they suggested a better way to do a habitual task. It is human nature to allocate as much thoughtless behavior as possible to the deep reaches of the basal ganglia – a part of the brain that runs habitual behavior without need for logic or reconsideration. One has many, many gestures and emotional reactions that are thoughtlessly launched from the basal ganglia. Does one follow an instruction list when using the toilet? Virtually every gesture is thoughtless and automatic. To prove it, try wiping yourself with the opposite hand; raise that zipper with the opposite hand. Disrupt enough habitual gestures and a person will find themselves lost as to what to do next. Like the penguins, which relied too long on the automatic nature of their GPS without considering reality, they got where they were going because they didn’t turn around.

The heart of the matter is that long held emotions and attitudes also reside in the basal ganglia and are launched thoughtlessly. Consider any prejudice – take racism or class rejection or personal arrogance; like the housewife cutting the ham, reason is not in play. In fact, one would be unable to leave the house to go to work except that the majority of emotions, gestures and opinions are automatically deployed. At least a person has space in their frontal cortex to solve Sudoku. Evaluate your habits once in a while or you may get where you’re going.

– – – –

The first saying, about a reason for existence, defies thinking about functional values as reasons to exist. This is not an exercise solved with an instruction list. Wislawa’s wish is more in despair than it is in pursuit of obscure philosophical speculation. One hears loss and waste in her words.

The twenty-first century has started with unimaginable confusion in a time when everything we know about the Earth and the life living on that Earth is under stress – both physically and existentially. To twist a trite commercial saying, this is not your father’s world; it may not even be the father’s world mentioned in the Christian hymnal. Whatever reason existence has to exist, it blessed Wislawa by calling her home in 2012 – before Donald.

Ancient Mariner


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