I Can’t Take It With Me?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/3/21

That old saying warns us we can’t take it with us, but where does our stuff go when we say goodbye to this plane of existence? If I go first, Susan will just haul all my crap down to Goodwill. If she goes first, I’ll do the same for her. But if Susan goes first, who will process all my cherished possessions?

Before my mom died, she gave some of her stuff as little personal gifts to people she knew at church, or in the neighborhood, or relations. And the stuff she didn’t give away, she assumed either I or my sister would take after she died and cherish for the rest of our lives. We didn’t tell her we had other plans. After my mom died I went through her house looking for sentimental things like photographs, letters, and a few books. My sister wanted more of the knicknacks. My mom’s closets and extra bedrooms were jammed with things she’d had been saving since the 1945 when she married my dad. I told the ladies we had hired to sit with my mother when I was at work that they could have anything they wanted in the house except the stove and refrigerator. The house was clean enough to sell when I came back.

If I was kind and considerate, I’d get rid of my junk now. I’ve been getting rid of stuff for years, but there’s enough left to fill the pickup several times over. When I was young I thought I wanted a smaller house for when I was older, but now that I’m older, I don’t want that at all. This house has become the perfect size for our junk. Susan and I have divided our home into our individual territories. I junk up the den, two bedrooms, and one hall closet. Susan fills up the living, dining room, one bedroom, and the other hall closet. We both encourage the other to get rid of their stuff, but we don’t.

I’m not religious, but what if there was a heaven, and what if we could take it with us? What if St. Peter allowed everyone to bring one U-Haul trailer full of Earthly possessions to heaven, what would you take? Imagine everyone getting a luxury two-bedroom condo in paradise, how would you decorate it? (I wonder if they have the internet up there?)

My friend Connell has been moving out of his house where he’s lived since the 1980s and into a two-bedroom condo. He’s been selling his stuff on Craigslist. I wonder if I should set up an eBay account and sell off my stuff too? But it would be so much easier and put it off until I die and let Susan deal with it. Now I know why I always planned to go first.


How to Flourish and Avoid Languishing in Retirement and Old Age?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/5/21

Languishing and flourishing are two words that have been banging around in my consciousness since reading two essays in The New York Times: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and “The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing.”

The first article was geared to people suffering a sense of stagnation, emptiness, and muddling through caused by the pandemic. Adam Grant says languishing is the state of mental health between depression and flourishing and explores the emotion in detail, along with advice on how to beat languishing. The second article, by Dani Blum gives us seven ways to promote flourishing.

I immediately resonated with the word languishing, but not because of pandemic confinement. I realized languishing is a state I have fallen into because of retirement and aging. I am not depressed, but often I am not flourishing either.

What I realized was the confining lifestyle required to avoid Covid-19 was similar to the lifestyle of being retired. Both involve spending most of our time at home. Both involve seeing fewer people. Both involve limiting what we can choose to do. Sheltering at home from Covid-19 was no great effort for me because I was retired. I no longer needed to go to work or school, and my social life shrank drastically after I stopped working. I felt sorry for the millions that had to put their careers, businesses, and education on hold. But what I understood now, being retired had put my future on hold too. That’s where the sense of languishing grabs us.

On the front side of life, when we are young, the future is full possibilities. We flourish by chasing all our wants.

But on the back side of life, possibilities dwindle, and opportunities disappear. After retirement our wants become fewer. As our health fades away, so do the desires that drive us. We begin to languish.

I believe wanting people, places, possessions, and proficiencies make us flourish. But how do we thrive with vanishing vitality and dissipating desires?

I need to think about this. I do know when my health fails, I languish, and when my wellbeing returns, I start flourishing again. Unfortunately, the frequency of poor health episodes are increasing.

The answer to the title question needs two approaches. One for retirement, one for aging. Retirement gives us more time but less of other things. Aging is a diminishing of being, a natural state of not flourishing. Yet, I hope to find ways to flourish right up until I’m dying. Is that even realistic? Or some Pollyannaish belief?

I could speculate now and make this essay much longer, but I believe I need to contemplate the problem deeper before philosophizing further.


Understanding Uncertainty

by James Wallace Harris, 5/1/21

Most people are binary in their thinking. They don’t like juggling shades of gray. We want to know yes or no, it is, or it isn’t, is it good or bad, friend or foe, us versus them, and so on. For several decades now science has been under attack because it confuses people with complicated and even contradictory results.

Reality is not simple. It contains infinite variables working through infinite combinations. Science is about statistics. It looks for patterns, making hunches to test. And the results are never absolute. Last night I came across a film that visually illustrates this better than anything I’ve seen before.

This video is well worth 25 minutes it takes to watch. Actually, it’s worth watching over and over again. Don’t be put off because the film uses climate change as a teaching example if you’re burned out on the topic. Just watch it for how science works.

Digesting the daily news has become a survivalist skill. That skill should be combined with reading, writing, and arithmetic as part of every K-12 curriculum. Even though we’ve all had a lifetime of practice consuming new information, most of us would fail this subject, even the most studious would only be getting Ds and Cs. I’m no exception, failing most tests.

It’s not a matter of knowing the right answers, but learning to live with uncertainty. It’s developing an intuition for data, both numerical and narrative. We need to consume our daily information like Sherlock Holmes, always looking for clues. In the old days, teachers would talk about developing a rule of thumb for rough guessing. Other people talk about bullshit detectors. The trouble is humans aren’t rational, but rationalizing creatures. We constantly fool ourselves with false assumptions. We feel we’re being logical, and sometimes we are, but all too often we’ve started our chain of logic after making a bad initial assumption. If you’ve ever played the game MasterMind, you’ll understand this basic trait.

Learning to think clearly is unnatural for human beings because we tend to make up our minds quickly and stick to our decisions. We decide in childhood, when we’re uneducated, on many beliefs we choose to defend for the rest of our lives. Science is all about constantly reevaluating data, and that goes against common human habits. Humans aren’t Vulcans, but we all need to think like Mr. Spock, but that requires constant effort, constant vigilance. Always learning new insights feels like we’re always swimming against the current, when the urge is to relax and to drift with the current. That’s as natural as entropy. But understanding reality is anti-entropic, it is swimming against the current.


Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.


Are You Sure You Want to Reject Science?

by James Wallace Harris

Trigger Warning: Do Not Read While Flying

I assume we live in an objective reality understandable by the scientific method. There is a growing movement to reject science. Does that mean those people believe reality is explainable by something other than science? Or do science deniers assume reality is subjective and mutable by our thoughts, desires, and fears? What happens if science doesn’t explain an objective reality? What happens if we really do live in a reality where mind over matter rules?

I know science can produce inconvenient results, but do you really want to reject it? I can understand why the faithful rejects science, science invalidates their theories about life after death. I can also sympathize with business people who fear following scientific research means losing money. But still, do you really want to reject science? Hasn’t science created more wealth than faith?

What happens to our reality when everyone believes whatever they want?

First off, if you have doubts about science don’t get on an airplane. For hundreds of thousand of years Homo sapiens did not fly. Then we discovered science and took to the skies. If we were wrong about science, maybe flying really doesn’t work. If reality works by believing and we stop believing, what happens? If enough people stop believing in science will planes start falling from the skies?

Religion is based on faith. That means believing in believing is how things work. Do you really want to believe that? What if you’re lying in bed at night and imagine a monster is going to grab you and wad you into a bloody ball? Doesn’t rational thinking protect you from such dangers?

Whenever I’ve stood next to a jetliner I’ve marveled at its immense size and weight. It boggles my mind that science can explain how lift works, especially with something so massive. Yet, I put my faith in science even when it’s hard to believe. Science succeeds in so many millions of ways that I can’t believe it could be wrong even when I can’t understand.

What if the faithful are right, and it’s faith that makes things happen. If we lose faith in science, will that mean jets, televisions, computers, telephones, medicines, cars, and so on will stop working? Do you want to return to horses and plows? Do you want to bring back ghosts, demons, angels, pixies, devils, and all those other beings that science disproved? Do you want the world be be flat and just a few thousand years old?

What if mind over matter is true? What if technology works because we live in an age where Faith in Science works? Do you really want to stop believing in science and create a new age? I don’t believe it, but if you deny science, aren’t you believing that?

Back in the 1970s I got into a lot of New Age ideas. The foundation of those beliefs was mind over matter. Religions are based on the same principle. God created the world with the Word. If you take that to its logical conclusion, reality could be anything we imagined. That’s fine as long as you can maintain happy thoughts, but if your minds veers into darker ideas, it can get pretty damn scary. Think about the next time you’re 40,000 feet in the air. Don’t you actually prefer embracing cause and effect over the power of thoughts?

I decided way back then that I didn’t want to live in a reality ruled by mental power. I wanted reality to be objective rather than subjective. Of course, maybe I live in an objective reality because my mind subjectively built it that way, but I prefer not to even believe that. I want planes to fly because of the laws of nature, and not because of our shared beliefs.

Our species has a history of inventing explanations for reality. The only cognitive tool we’ve ever discovered that works in a consistent fashion is science. Magic, faith, religion, philosophy, gossip, conspiracy theories – all fail to produce consistent results – no matter how much we wish they could. Science has transformed our relationship with reality. Science isn’t easy to understand because reality is complex and thus hard to predict. Often the number of variables involve make it difficult for the statistical nature of science to be definite. But just look how we’ve improved weather prediction over the last several decades. Just consider how many diseases we’ve conquered. Just contemplate the marvels of technology. We can fly. Doesn’t the continual success of science validate it?

Just because science implies something you don’t want doesn’t mean disbelieving will alter the results. You don’t want to believe that – especially if you’re flying.

For those who believe in God, what if science is the way God works? In all religious texts, God or gods succeed because of magical abilities their believers can’t fathom. Faith is belief in the power of that magic. What if the belief in magic is wrong? What if reality isn’t ruled by magic, but science? People who reject science are people who believe in magical thinking.

The next time you’re flying in a jetliner, think about magical thinking. Does magic make it fly, or science.

But, like I said, decide before you get on the plane. Don’t think about it in flight – what if you decide wrong?