Friday, September 30, 2011

free lunch

In the 1950's, my mother, who was a good writer, gave up writing articles for popular magazines. Her reason, she once explained to me, was that once upon a time, it was sufficient for a writer to make a cogent argument and that it was assumed that the reader was intelligent enough to decide for him- or herself whether the argument held water. But the tides had shifted. Now (then) each proposition or conclusion had to be supported by an 'expert' -- someone acknowledged through academic degrees or books-published prowess to be, if not that last word, then very close to it on the topic. Suddenly, articles were as much footnoting and attribution as they were original or interesting thinking.

And in one way, it made some sense. But in another, it represented the elevation of mediocrity ... a house of cards in which the reader no longer carried a responsibility to think things through. Instead, everyone relied on the experts and the Ph.D.'s without wondering or assuring through logic or common sense if those emperors were wearing any clothes.

Today, with the internet, everyone and his grandmother is free to shoot his mouth off in whatever way he chooses. And sometimes the most flimsy arguments or assertions are sexy enough to make it into the social lexicon. Today's reader is expected to think for himself once again, but it is an open question whether he is exercising that option with any energy. Are people any stupider and lazier than they were in my mother's day? I don't know, but it certainly feels that way sometimes.

What interests me in the midst of these observations is the need to put an adulated name on one topic or another. If Pooh-Bah says so, it must be true. If Joe the Taxi Driver says so ... well, that's dubious at best. Or vice versa.

I think of this sometimes when it comes to spiritual endeavor. I am fortunate enough to have been 'schooled' in a persuasion that was not just whistling Dixie when it said, "find out for yourself." Naturally, I tried to duck the responsibility as best I could (relying on someone else is every so much easier, even if it invariably turns out to be wrong), but the facts kept smacking me in the face until I finally gave up. Get used to it, Adam, you're in the driver's seat!

Does it matter if Gautama (the guy most commonly meant when people say "The Buddha") said one thing or another? What if your news stand vendor had said the very same? Would it matter? Wouldn't the most important thing be to find out if something were true in experience ... and stop worrying about the source? There are those in every spiritual adventure who point to texts and tomes as a means of somehow buttressing their wisdom. They defer to the Ph.D.'s of an earlier age. OK, we've all been there and done that, but does it dispel doubt with the same certainty that applying some individual and personal determination might?

 If you're going to the movies, lose your way and ask for directions, do you sit around marveling at the Samaritan who says, "At the second stop light, turn left" or do you say thank you and then drive the car?

Listen to your grandpa --  there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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