Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Second Lowest Position on the Totem Pole

I have often heard people who have never lived in crime-infested, dilapidated housing question why anyone in their right minds would stay in such places. I find this ironic since many of the people who feel this way are suffering from the same malady that is keeping many of these residents in their sub-optimal circumstances. I refer to this condition as the Second Lowest Position on the Totem Pole Syndrome (SLOPOTOPOS, pronounced SLŌ-PŌ-TŌ-PŌS).

SLOPOTOPOS sufferers are aware that there is a great deal of room for improvement in their current situations. But they are kept from acting on this awareness by their perception that things could easily get worse. These individuals feel there is no guarantee that any change they initiate would improve their condition and there is a realistic possibility that it will make matters worse. For people living in sub-standard housing SLOPOTOPOS is a significant factor in keeping many of them there (though obviously not all of them). It is also a major reason why many of those questioning the judgment or sanity of these residents do not quit their soul-sucking jobs.

It doesn’t matter how horrific their circumstances are, as long as people can imagine them easily becoming much worse, they can convince themselves that their current condition is not bad enough to necessitate action on their parts. People in demeaning jobs can take solace in the fact that at least they don’t live in “bad neighborhoods”. People living in such neighborhoods can at least say they have a home. Homeless people can say they at least have food to eat and so on. In each case the individuals appreciate that their situations are not good but remain in them for fear of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. They see the spectrum of increasingly less fortunate conditions below them as the single state that represents the actual bottom of the totem pole.

SLOPOTOPOS has probably been with us in one form or another since the dawn of human societies. But it became a more problematic condition as societies became less rigidly structured. This social evolution led to increasing numbers of people realizing their actions could significantly influence the course of their lives. People began to see that it was both permissible and possible to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. But for many this perception was tempered by the empirical belief that things could also get worse.

The decreasing viscosity of the social order led to an increase in the possibility of upward mobility. But fear that this situation also increased the possibility of downward movement led to SLOPOTOPOS, which inhibits exploitation of this new upward mobility. Victims of this condition allow their fear of failure to keep them down in certain circumstances where their less unjust (though hardly “just”) society no longer does.

Ultimately, the current strain of SLOPOTOPOS is the result of the perception that while there is a path to success it is not a ladder but a greased pole. Sure it’s possible to climb to the top but as soon as they loosen their grip to go up, they fear they are more likely to slide to the bottom.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Impact of Answers

What would it be like to know the answers to the fundamental questions of our origin, purpose and destiny? I don’t mean just best guesses but the actual Answers, the ones that theologians, philosophers and scientists insist we can never rationally know. I’m talking about answers that completely resonate within you on the most fundamental level. As such I mean truly knowing the answers, not simply believing what someone else told you. What kind of difference would such knowledge make in your life?

To get a handle on your answer, first imagine knowing exactly how the universe came to be, with such certainty that the answer seems almost trivial. When you truly think about it, for the majority of us, the most important thing that knowledge of our origin would impart to us is insight into the nature of our creator, be it Brahma, Gitche Manitou, YHWH, Yuanshi Tianzun, Unkulunkulu, Abba (God, the Father), Allah, Damballa, Bondye, the ultimate monad, a limitless quantum field or the multiverse. Minimally, universal acceptance of this insight would provide those who already suspected as much with an “I told you so” moment. While this knowledge might affect how some of us conduct our lives, without insight into why we are here, knowing our origin would merely be an interesting piece of trivia for most of us.

Now imagine knowing exactly what your purpose is. Truly knowing why you are here has greater potential to impact how you live your life. Whether or not this potential would actually be realized would primarily depend on how you felt about your purpose once you knew it. Your perception of the worth of your purpose reflects your feelings about the difference you would make by fulfilling it. Since we tend to believe that great things are only asked of great people, if you weren’t impressed by your purpose, you might be inclined to reject it as an invalid reflection of your worth. Even if you did accept a purpose of dubious worth, your pursuit of it would most likely be halfhearted at best. But, suppose you had unequivocal knowledge of why you are here, and that this purpose was grand enough for you to completely embrace it? What if all it took to fulfill your phenomenal purpose was for you to maximize your selflessness and thus minimize your selfishness? Completely internalizing this knowledge would probably significantly alter the focus of your life in the direction of achieving this purpose.

But some of us might fear that we are not up to the task of fulfilling such a heroic purpose. In order to keep from losing heart these individuals would require the additional knowledge that they are destined to eventually achieve their laudable purpose. Consider what it would be like to know beyond all doubt that it is your destiny to ultimately achieve the greatest of purposes and that the only uncertainty will be in how you go about it. Imagine that you knew for a fact that your choices only affect the amount of pain and suffering that will have to occur before you fulfill a purpose is so incredible that it would completely justify whatever had to happen along the way.

How would you feel about your life in the face of such knowledge of your origin, purpose and destiny? Would that make it all worthwhile? Would you live your life differently? If so, what are you waiting for?

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