The Journey series
Last week, in Cause and Effect, I claimed that we anticipate various effects our actions might cause and then act to cause the effects we desire most.
Ultimately, there is only one effect we desire: happiness. Everything we do aims to maximize our happiness. We attempt to reduce that which displeases us and increase that which pleases us.
We are created body, mind, heart, and soul, and there lie corresponding levels of happiness.
With the body, happiness is relatively immediate but short-lived. The pleasures and pains we experience through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell don’t endure much beyond the time our organs remain stimulated.
When we encounter a stimulus we rank it somewhere between I must have more of that to I’d rather die. We learn to seek things we like and avoid those we find offensive. The pleasure or pain we experience from any particular stimulus changes, however, both with exposure and with iteration. We may enjoy Mozart or Beethoven immensely but, at some point, it’s time for the concert to end. The Nutcracker Suite is wonderful to hear every Christmas season but would eventually lose its appeal if heard every day.
Our senses do not act in isolation, they compete. We feel pain when hungry, but balance that discomfort against the pleasure anticipated from available food. If we expect better food to be available in the near future we forego the stale crust of bread at hand. As our hunger grows we become less particular about taste, smell, and texture. Mothers take advantage of this when convincing little Johnny to eat his vegetables.
Sensual pleasure is often counter-productive to longer-term happiness. Our appetites are poor judges of our needs. Johnny’s sweet tooth is a good guide neither for what nor for how much he eats. Many worthwhile goals are only achievable through sensory suffering. We don’t take our medicine because it tastes good. Pleasure, it turns out, is a poor candidate to hold veto over decisions.
Unlike hedonists, who view pleasure as life’s ultimate pursuit, I consider it to be God's consolation, His encouragement and our respite along life’s journey. Sensual treats are better sign posts than goals post. These sweet encounters with our environment are a gift for which we should be grateful as we pass by, but, in my experience, they more readily distract us from our true purpose than propel us towards it. There is much happiness beyond mere bodily pleasure. I don’t want to revisit my years of chronic pain, nor would I wish them on others, but, when I look back honestly, I must admit I learned to appreciate far more through my pain than through my times of joy. I wouldn’t even recognize much of my current happiness without having been through my sufferings. It would still be there, but without me knowing it.
Last week I wrote about cycles. This week I will look at cause and effect relationships.
Cause and effect relationships are assumed when a particular state of being consistently precedes another state of being. One assumes this pattern will continue. The sun rises and it becomes warm, the sun sets and it becomes cool. We recognize that the sun shining causes the Earth to warm.
We also realize early in life that we can affect our environment in a manner which precipitates a desired outcome. Babies learn that when they cry Mommy comes. When they smack their hand in their food it sprays all around. When they slide things over the edge of the table they fall – sometimes it pushes Mom over the edge too.
We learn what we can and can’t do and push against our limits. We create simple tools that allow us to stretch those limits out a bit. This is not unique to man. Monkeys and birds use sticks and strings to fish for ants in an ant hill. Elephants push rocks around to step up on them and reach higher into a tree. Some crows in Japan even use cars as nutcrackers. They have learned to follow the walk-signal; placing nuts in a crosswalk and returning to the curb in one walk cycle, waiting for cars to drive over the nuts and crack them, and then retrieving the meat during the next walk cycle.
We learn to form associations, co-operating to push the boundaries a bit further. Many animals also associate, they hunt in groups. Geese fly in skeins, taking turns leading a V-formation which reduces air resistance for those following.
These actions are learned through instinct, impulsive responses to opportunities which present themselves. Man exceeds other creatures when he looks to the future. He acts according to what he predicts will happen; he plans. Because man is looking to the future rather than the present, he is able to see more than one event. This, in turn, enables him to combine simple tools into more complex tools. It also allows him to resolve complicated problems into simpler tasks. Then he can schedule those tasks in the necessary sequence. He can assign particular tasks to individuals or groups. Those people may spend their entire lives completing intermediary tasks, never actually seeing, or possibly even knowing, the end effect they are causing.
We associate cause with effect to determine what will happen. Next week we’ll examine the effect of asking why.
I continue my examination of relationships with a pattern as obvious as night and day: cycles. Each day the sun rises in the east, traverses the sky, and sets in the west; each month the moon waxes and then wanes; and each year cycles through its four seasons. Water evaporates; condenses in the sky; falls back to Earth; collects in streams, lakes, and rivers; and finally flows to the seas and oceans to begin the cycle anew. And plants and animals pass through various stages in their life-cycles.
Scientists have also identified a seven-stage life-cycle for stars. The life of a star, they calculate, ranges from forty thousand years to tens of billions of years depending on the star’s size. Obviously, no one ever has, or ever will, observe the entire life of a star. How could scientists have even thought of stars having life cycles? That takes us back to the sets and subsets I mentioned two weeks ago.
To us, stars began as the spots of light shining in the night sky. As people studied them and developed tools to see them more clearly, they realized there were different types, or subsets, of stars. They then recognized similarities to things that are not stars, things that live and grow. Scientist began to theorize that, just as plants and animals pass through various stages, so, too, do stars. Stars are not living beings, but because of their similarity in passing through stages , scientists identified a life-cycle of stars. They are born when a vast field of space particles collect together until they are dense enough to trigger fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. They live like this until the Hydrogen is expended and then they die. What can we learn from this?
Firstly, we won’t begin to examine anything until we first notice it and then observe it closely enough to notice differences. Secondly, we understand things better by comparing them to things with which we are more familiar, noting similarities and differences. We don’t understand anything in isolation, without relating it to other things. Thirdly, being similar to something is not being that thing. Having a life-cycle is a useful analogy for studying stars, but we do not believe that stars truly live.
I planned to continue my series on how we understand our environment but my mind kept returning to Pilate's words, "what I have written I have written." Here, he was referring to the prophetic mockery uttered by Jesus’ detractors. They said the words but they didn’t want them posted above our Lord for all to see. Why?
My mind was also drawn to two other instances. First, God wrote His Ten Commandments on stone tablets and second, Jesus, when the Scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to accuse her before Him, bent down and wrote in the dust. Why do we write things down at all?
We write things down to preserve them and to share them. I’m sure most of my readers have played the game Telephone where a group of people line up and whisper a phrase into the ear of the person beside them, then that person passes it on to the next person and so on. Once the last person receives the message, they repeat what they heard out loud and the first person announces the original phrase. The more people in the group the more distorted the phrase becomes. Oral transmissions are highly unreliable. Even between even two people, messages are often misunderstood. Obviously, if a phrase is written down and passed from person to person, it remains as written.
It is common to refer to some things as written in stone. The point there is not that the writing remains for many ages but that the idea the writing represents will not change. The Ten Commandments remain as valid today as they were 3300 years ago. Jesus wrote in the dust because He meant that message only for the people who were present at that time. We don’t know what He wrote but the people around Him understood and acted accordingly. The people reading Pilate’s plaque knew that their words, when taken outside the context of their jeering, had a meaning they didn't want to convey.
George Orwell foresaw over seventy years ago that people would use language to obscure their ideas rather than elucidate them.
Those in favour of abortion never say they are pro-abortion, they call themselves pro-choice. How is it pro-choice when just one of the three people involved has all the choice? The child and the father have no choice, they must suffer the consequences of the mother's choice.
Those who support euthanasia will never call it killing. They will use terms such as dignity in dying or the Canadian government’s MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying). They claim falsely that one’s death falls within their right to autonomy. Life is God's to give and take.
People in a same-sex relationship who desire the same social recognition and legal protections afforded marriage claim they are being denied marriage. They are not being denied, they are choosing not to have a hetero-sexual relationship. Many of them claim those who retain the definition used for thousands of years are hateful and homophobic. I know many people who believe that marriage must be between one man and one woman until death does them part, but I don't know anyone who hates homosexuals.
People who believe that sex is a psychological rather than biological reality call counselling that helps one accept their biological sex conversion therapy. Legislation before the Canadian government actually claims to clarify that hormonal therapy and plastic surgery meant to convert the patient’s appearance to that of the other sex "is not conversion therapy". How so?