by Darren Clarke, October 1, 2021
“Rectangles are so common in our increasingly manmade environment that we don’t even notice them, but we feel their unnaturalness. You will basically never see a rectangle in nature. Nature has not selected the rectangle as a useful shape, only man does this.”
Can I go 31-days without having an opinion?
If you know me, you saw that answer coming. I have opinions, lots of them. I have opinions on sports, politics, city planning, pop culture, music, social justice. I have opinions on highway construction, systemic racism, the instant replay, drum solos (and especially bass solos), pineapple on pizza, Christmas movies. The compelling, the irrelevant, the fun, the dumb, the disastrous. I generally have an opinion ready to go for all things at all times.
So there’s no way I can go 31-days without faltering.
But I can try.
More than ever I’m feeling exhausted by opinions. Limited by opinions. Unhealthily attached to my opinions. Maybe this is is just the inevitable result of one of the realities of the pandemic- too much time spent in front of a computer travelling through a social media landscape convulsing with inflammatory opinions and misinformation. Whatever got me to where I am now, not only is it time to take a break from opinions, it’s time to investigate where all those opinions are coming from, what they are based on, what they are giving me and what they are taking from me. Moreover, it’s an especially a good time to audit the emotional response system that drives so many of my passionate opinions.
It’s not that I think opinions are terrible they’re not. First and foremost, opinions derive from an important, functional, place, that works as a self defence mechanism, as in, “In my opinion that falling piano will hit me if I don’t move in a hurry.” You need opinions, you need to make choices, so there’s no escaping considering options and choosing one.
Opinions are also the natural offshoot of processing information. In and of itself, sifting through information, examining various perspectives and filtering data to ensure educated viewpoints on the world around us isn’t an issue. We all should have a thorough process to vet the information we act upon. It’s mostly what happens after that which is the issue. It’s how that information impacts us and how we reconcile the existence of things we don’t agree with. How those reactions may shape future opinions.
Let’s use an easy example- Systemic racism in the United States. There is tons of objective information that supports the rich, tragic, history of systemic racism in the United States and its’ impacts in terms a relative lack of generational wealth for those that racism applies to, poverty, mass incarceration, police violence and a zillion individual sized manifestations of prejudice. If you are informed, you know. If you know it’s hard not to get emotional about the realties attached to it.
Of course not all my opinions and corresponding emotional follow throughs relate to important matters or are as clear cut. Take hockey.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs were having a largely successful regular season in 2020-21 two conflicting narratives arose- 1) Their success was predicated upon only having to play the relatively weaker Canadian teams in their division, 2) The Canadian division is on par with the rest of the league and the success is indicative of the Leafs being an elite team.
My opinion was aligned with option number one- The Canadian divisions comprehensive lack of established elite teams diminished the Leafs’ accomplishments.
The problem was as the season progressed it seemed to me the media swerved away from sharing this narrative because it just wasn’t a very captivating story, as in, saying, “None of the Leafs’ success matters because they haven’t played a single excellent team,” over and over is really anti-climatic and doesn’t get the clicks and viewers media sources would hope for.
In the end it doesn’t matter if I was right or not. The point is it actually bothered me that in my estimation, people were being so dishonest about the reality that was happening right before their eyes. It pissed me off.
This isn’t an issue that clearly hurts society at large, nobody is getting killed over this, nobody is suffering because of this. It’s a game. So, why did I get emotional here?
I could string together an argument that dishonesty being a part of the discourse of any element of society increases the likelihood of dishonesty being accepted in the most important elements of society. I think I could support that argument too. But it would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that there were less noble elements to why it pissed me off that so many people held different opinions than I did on this not-important-at-all.matter. Vanity maybe? Some elements of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Yeah. Fair. It would be hard for me to argue against vanity and OCD playing a role in my emotions.
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
About fifteen years ago, friends of mine, a couple who’d graduated with degrees in philosophy from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, gave me a t-shirt they’d had made for me. The shirt read, “Knight of the Truth,” on the front accompanied by a bunch of pictures of great philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Aristotle and of course a picture of me.
The first lesson here was an old one- When Polish philosophy graduates decide to take you down a notch you will know it by the fact it will come with gift wrapping, a bow, a card, and beautific, glowing, personages. Never trust a smiling philosophy graduate.
The overarching lesson though was you can take yourself and your perspective too seriously. Even if your aim is to be altruistic. Especially if your aim is altruistic.
At the best of times I am a guy who tilts at windmills at the speed of around forty words per minute. I am aware of my overly dramatic tendencies. The problem is though, we are a generation not afforded the luxury of not knowing and thus we know we live in overly dramatic times. The last decade’s challenges and events seems to make it feel almost negligent to disengage.
Consider the pandemic. Consider the recent Canadian federal election.
The Canadian election was what got me to my current, “Man, I need a break here…” state. Overflowing with propaganda from Canada’s American hedge fund media and inflammatory Conservative run social media sources Canadians, my friends and family, were being drowned by dishonest political discourse while simultaneously being faced with anti-vaxxers gone wild- protesting at hospitals and, like some kind of dumbassery on wheels caravan, following Justin Trudeau’s campaign from town to town to throw rocks and generally behave like neanderthals.
With the Conservatives leading in the polls, Canada was staring down going backwards not just politically but environmentally and socially. Canada was staring down being a little less decent and a lot less kind.
So how could a person not be engaged in that? As Alberta and Ontario, as the United States under the Republican government showed under Donald Trump- fanatical right wing regimes have life and death consequences.
But can human beings be mentally and emotionally engaged in global concerns in a healthy way?
Not long ago the average human being’s concerns were largely limited to the daily challenges of staying alive and procreating. That was pretty much it. In our present tense humanity has evolved to a point where being eaten by a wild animal is really unlikely, and a lot of the daily concerns faced centuries, even decades ago, are mostly gone. The evolution of the internet, of a surplus of information and opinions, has coincided with a number of pressing existential concerns, important pressing, global matters like- Climate Change, water scarcity, wealth inequity, authoritarianism, fascism and overdevelopment.
It’s here we reach the point of impasse. Trying to reconcile the need to recognize important, dramatic, events with not feeling overwhelmed, helpless, depressed, by how awful the state of the world often seems to be.
In the end I don’t even know what I’m trying to do here. It’s more a feeling than anything. But I know two things, 1) Even the smartest person on the planet knows buggar all in the grand theme of things, 2) I’m not anywheres near the smartest person on the planet.
“You’re not holding opinions; opinions are holding you and stopping you from reaching the truth which is beyond all opinions.”
I once saw a bit of graffiti, a rectangle with the words, “Resist the Rectangle,” inside.
It made me consider how much of the world is physically made up of rectangles- Fences, TV’s, cars, houses, cereal boxes, laptops, books, department stores, cell phones, windows, purses, wallets, cabinets… on and on it goes, rectangles everywhere.
It left me overwhelmed with how omnipresent the rectangle is. I mean, how much fencing is there in the world? How much money is spent on fences? What are the reasons that individuals, governments, businesses, put fences up? What do they keep in? What do they keep out? What would the world be without fences? What would the world be if we took the manpower and money invested in erecting fences and directed it at something less inhibiting and more freeing?
When countries like Portugal, England, Spain and France were colonizing Africa, South America, North America, etc. each country had their own way of signalling ownership of places. Spain read the Spanish Requirement to natives, a document indicating the Pope had given them dominion over the place and the people. Portugal mapped the stars. The French had an elaborate ceremony/celebration that sought to incorporate the native peoples into their ownership of them. The English built planted gardens and built fences.
None of these countries of course recognized the legitimacy of the others sensibility.
The English fences indicated a demarcation between the owned and the unowned, the cultivated and the wild, what made sense and what didn’t.
Cages are also often rectangular in shape. While it’s understandable that most often we focus on the plight of things held captive in a cage we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the really spectacular tragedies happen to those who try to hold things captive in a cage. The tragedy in being a captor is absolute, the tragedy in being held captive meanwhile still leaves a glimmer of hope. It’s the difference in having something done to you and doing something to someone.
In the end, the rectangle represents something too rigid, too finite, too eager to exclude. Mindsets that cripple understanding and steal richness of experience from life.
Consider in the case of the colonizing countries, not only did they dismiss the perspective of their colonial peers, they especially dismissed the perspectives of indigenous peoples and even more especially the land and wildlife they encountered. And while I still don’t think we get this- they were not only poorer for it, they were further setting in motion their own future demise.
“Greek geometry, and all the math, starts with rectangles. The Western mind thinks “inside the box” which is rectangular, more than just metaphorically. Look around you right now, and you see thousands of rectangles. Go out into nature and you see nearly zero rectangles.”
So, in many ways the question for me over the next month is- What are the rectangles I created? What do they keep in? What do they keep out?
Long ago I read a book on Zen that about 30 pages in said, “If you haven’t understood anything so far you might as well stop reading.” I stopped reading. In retrospect though I think it was a crappy Zen book because a good Zen book would have said if you haven’t understood anything so far, great, keep going!
How awesome is it to walk out in the forest on a warm summer day? The cool shade, the smell of earth and life- trees and water, the quiet encroached upon by only the sound sof birds chirping. It’s magnificent and more importantly it’s a magnificence without human coercion- it hasn’t been studied by an analytics department, had test runs with test audiences, tweaked and altered to suit a certain demographic- It simply is what it is. We don’t understand it fully. It’s the same phenomenon when we stand in awe in front of the ocean or lay back staring up at a star filled sky.
That’s where I’m headed- From the impasse, into the forest, the ocean, the stars. The voyage done as nakedly as possible- wholly unarmed and not just void of a destination, resistant of one.
“To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.”
For October I have decided to do, that which I cannot possibly do. Not have an opinion for a full month. It’s bigger than that of course but I think that simple desire to be curious, not judgemental* has a larger goal, I just am not sure of what it is heading into it. And that not not knowing, that’s okay, that’s the point.
So here are the do’s and don’ts for October. (Keep in mind I am open to the process indicating other points of consideration along the way and following them)-
- Don’t have external or internal opinions. The external- writing, talking, opinions will be the easiest to stop. The main idea in either case is to genuinely explore moments as they unfold instead of feeling compelled to process and assign a meaning, or value, or virtue, to those moments.
- Don’t cheer for or against anyone (or anything)- sports, politics, everything. Worry less about the result, more about the happening.
- Don’t get upset with strangers or inanimate objects– so, I cannot get frustrated with other drivers out on the roads, strangers milling about in supermarkets, walking the streets etc. nor can I exert any emotions on struggles with vacuums, screws that won’t unscrew, or any of the other myriad of possibilities wherein I grow frustrated with inanimate objects.
- Do resist the rectangle– Meaning little to none- TV, cellphone, laptop, couch…
- Don’t react mindlessly– When I am out in the world and feel emotions I need to consider what is driving those emotions, what the other options are and why I might consider other options. Further, Locate the emotional points of origin for opinions and explore how this manifests in the amount and types of opinions I have. (and, is there something I could do, an action I could take, that might alleviate frustrations)
- Do go for walks. Five walks a week in urban and natural areas and avoid responding to my natural triggers for emotions while exploring, i.e. overdevelopment which makes me annoyed/angry, homelessness which makes me sad. Try to get outside the limitations of my normal thought patterns to see what else there might be to see.
- Do read books. Four books in October– Two from my normal inclinations, two from outside those normal inclinations.
- Don’t post on social media– I was going to say- No Facebook, No Twitter. But I think that’s kind of hiding out. The more important point is no posts on Facebook or Twitter and, when I am there, considering how and why information is impacting me emotionally.
- Do consider what a healthy relationship with social media looks like– Is there such a thing?
- Don’t drink alcohol– “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose!”
- Do stay up for 24-hours. The idea being to get outside the normal habits I have and see what’s there to be seen.
- Do Take Public Transportation
- Do Create. Writing, music, crayon coloured art, whatever- Create.
- Don’t judge others– Now this is one that come come off as really trite. The main idea here though is to hold my most subconscious judgements up to the light and see if they make sense. When I pass a homeless person, a beautiful woman, a businessman, a bohemian- what are my prejudices and do I want them as part of my internal filter?
- Do look to avoid enterprises that are exercises in vanity– Look for activities that do not fall under the heading of, “smart,” or, “efficient,” or, “valuable,” or, “evolved.” Search for activities that hit on positive emotions- joy, calm, peaceful, happy, content but…
- Do push your boundaries– Push further outside of your comfort zone, particularly areas you have traditionally not gone because of immature fears.
- Do explore options for community involvement that may make my attachment to social concerns less abstract and more tangible.
- Do Consider the pros and cons of having opinion are and how to most positively carry and employ them.
- Consider the question, “Is this largely a- Problem Exists Between the Keyboard and Chair Issue?” How much of the emotional challenges of having opinions is about the forums, the vehicle and well, me? How much is my laziness, unwillingness to pursue other options to express myself, driving the problem here?
- Do consider- Is seeking “purpose,” seeking, “meaning,” in life a thing you should do?
- Do keep a daily journal of observations trying to avoid trite conclusions.
Wish me luck.
I’ll let you know how it goes in November, or not.
(*note*- the, “be curious, not judgemental,” line I got from Ted Lasso who attributes the line to Walt Whitman. Thing is, Walt Whitman never said that. The origin is unknown, the thought though, solid)