Nobody's Word is Final

As a member of the Canberra Humanist society, I felt a spark this year when I heard that some of the members had been investing energy into an activity called Humanist Chaplaincy. This service provides ethical and moral support from a non-religious perspective in institutions such as hospitals and universities, employing the most important tool available-- the art of listening. While the title ‘humanist chaplain’ sounds like a contradiction in terms to some ears, others have not overlooked its potential and significance. There is not only the positive function this role can serve in the community, but the scope for other community work that would only be limited by our imagination. Indeed Council of Australian Humanist Societies President Lyndon Storey has called for Australian humanists to explore as wide a range as possible of volunteer community service roles under the banner of being “humanist community workers”. By this he means for humanists to feel free to be as creative and forward looking as possible in developing new forms of community engagement for the 21st century. While accepting that sometimes these new forms will have to use old terminology, such as humanist “chaplaincy” the key goal is to encourage humanist community workers as much as possible, whether they focus on chaplaincy or something else. As humanists we need to be open to our sense of compassion and our ethical imagination to develop new ways of connecting with people. That is the strength of humanism, and what distinguishes it from mere atheism, its focus on developing positive values for living life.

If Aristotle thought ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it’, I think it is the mark of an open mind, to entertain a thought without rejecting it. I know from experience how powerful the art of imagination can be. As an incredibly fortunate specimen, I somehow found myself capable of reaching beyond the confines of my narrowly defined identity and noticing a seed of intellectual enlightenment grow after decades of darkness. If that seed can grow at thirty years of age, with literally no prior interest in the Sciences, History, Art, Philosophy, introspection and discourse-- then it can happen to anyone, any time.

As far I can tell, there is no need to set boundaries when exploring meaningful ways to extend the Humanist community outreach. Focussing only on critiquing other’s attempts at social engagement, or criticising such attempts, like humanist chaplaincy, as too similar to religion, misses the real point; what can humanists bring to the social table? What we need is more encouragement for those who seek ways to spark interest and invent spaces for building connection in the world, not fruitless attempts at criticism. These smack of privilege mixed in with a dose of intellectual elephantiasis. There are infinitely more pleasant ways to discharge such energy. For example, a humanist alternative to anonymous addiction groups could be one such way. If the private sphere can be safely navigated through meditation and group discussion- then the chamber of one’s mind can be slowly understood. This understanding can open many doors and bolster confidence for those who wish to go on and explore the public sphere. As Pericles said, ‘Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you’.

I am proposing that rather than leave it to religiously inspired values to drive voluntary addiction support and self-help projects, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, we can develop humanist alternatives. This need not mean simply putting the word humanist in front of an existing model. It can also mean drawing upon our own imagination and creativity to create new, and better, approaches.

Furthermore, there are ways to bring together an Eastern and Western approach that can enhance our thinking and experience. A Zen teacher by the name of Lin Chi is said to have once uttered the words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road---kill him”. The Royal Society of Science have used a comparably wise motto ever since their founding in 1660, ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as- ‘take nobody’s word for it. While the latter encourages us to falsify and test the diversity of facts we find ourselves interested in, the former asks us to examine our pre-existing concepts and beliefs, and undertake a clinical observation of our minds sprightly, and frequently neurotic, modes. These attention seeking modes are a constantly active part of the brain known to Neuroscientists as the ‘Default mode network’.

Neither of these two statements suggest that the authority or wisdom of experts and sages should be wholly rejected. For example, when we saw Malcolm Robert’s recent misunderstanding of the empirical method, somehow lead him to reject the evidence of NASA, and most other leading authorities on climate change, we all felt a cold shudder. Instead of this muddled thinking, the statements challenge us to seek evidence, adopt a healthy and rational scepticism and cultivate a curiosity for both the private and public spheres.

By contrast, Eastern meditative traditions that have concepts such as the Japanese ‘mushin no shin’ (Mind without mind) and the Chinese ‘Wu wei’ (Action without action), are often intellectual points of departure that can lead to a process of self-discovery. For the sceptical and hard-nosed types, it can raise a red flag when it becomes apparent that intellectual representatives of various traditional camps start to distinguish themselves based on the grandiose claims and concepts they stand for. The intended point frequently loses its flavour and instead we are served with a bland and rotten excuse for a banquet. The intended recipe, as with most things that are worthwhile, requires discipline -- ‘Kill the Buddha - investigate for yourself’. These ideals, that stimulated the East throughout history, are interpretations of a universal experience that is best understood through determined observation of subjective experience. This can of course render a conversation about these states of consciousness, not only confusing, but very nearly futile.

That said, there are few conversations that are completely pointless and some effect is always made. Popular physicists would understand this well. A verbal explanation of quantum mechanics, for instance, is no doubt lost on most us mere mortals and it is not far- fetched to say that only a small minority of the population possess the mathematical stamina to understand the quantum world in depth. Nevertheless, physicists continue to promote their subject with great zeal, and they know that those who get a small spark of interest in the subject are just as important as those who pursue a deep understanding.

So let’s see where a small spark of interest in humanist volunteering might lead us. Volunteers and peer support groups can play a significant role not just for people struggling with addictions but for others on the mental health spectrum also. This, of course, is not a substitute for the important role of social workers, psychologists and councillors, in fact it would drive in their direction. The ‘accountable’ mental health professionals who play a pivotal role in society are not always as approachable as they like to imagine. Many people who suffer on this planet need time to warm to the idea of professional help. Of course there are also many who simply cannot afford professional help or simply don’t trust the idea that compassion and support really are compassion and support when they are commodified into “professional” services.

People suffering from addiction and other afflictions can draw help in the right circumstances from volunteers who are intellectually honest, empathetic, and share in a similar historical struggle. To be safely exposed to both honest and empathetic support, and if necessary inconvenient truths in this way can prove indispensable on the journey to not just recovery, but self-understanding and realization. The art of listening and providing open spaces to talk aloud creates connections that continue to drive compassion into the future: that is, so long as dogma is not permitted to imprison our minds and superstition is rejected. Evidence, reason and understanding have the strength to open hearts and minds and as Kant petitioned, ‘sapere aude’ – dare us to know.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Looking after our ageing population

ACT Humanist Society Meetup April 24 2018

Topic – Looking after our ageing population

How can we make sure that people are able to live the best life they can in their declining years?

Can younger people support the growing number of elderly people in society?

At the ripe old age of 66 this is a topic dear to my heart.  In some ways I think I am declining, in some ways I think I am improving and in some ways I feel I am the same person I have always been but with a more wrinkly skin.  You know, as long as you don’t look in the mirror you can still feel young. It is a question of attitude. I feel I am the fittest I have been for years. Giving up a stressful job and no longer having to juggle all the tasks involved in going to work has done wonders for my health.   Of course, there is no denying that I am wearing out and that I am on the downhill slope towards death. However, I feel my fantastically healthy diet, the five exercise classes I do each week at my retirement village, the long walks both outside and on the treadmill and the weekly vigorous dose of Scottish Country Dancing will keep me going full steam ahead for a while.  Eighty is the old sixty after all. Mind you, like all my peers, I am madly doing cryptic crosswords, sudoku and any puzzles I can lay my hands on to try and stave off dementia.

One of the first points I would like to make is that young people do not have to look after the ageing population all on their own.   Very young people are looked after by their parents and many young people live at home well after they have left school and are helped by their parents.  This dependency lasts longer now than in the past as young people undertaker further education and often don’t find permanent work for a while after graduating.  Middle aged people contribute more in terms of taxes to support older people because of their greater earning capacity. In late middle age people may find themselves doing a lot to support to their parents because their parents are living into their eighties and beyond.   And of course, many older people look after themselves; they have planned for their retirement, they have superannuation and they live in their own homes. Fundamentally, older people value their independence and most don’t willingly want to be a burden on anyone.

Secondly, the present cohort of elderly people worked and paid taxes when younger which helped to support past generations of older people.  So, it is nothing new that the younger generation supports the older generation. What is different is that the proportion of younger people to older people has changed due to older people living longer, the ageing of the baby boomers, and a lower birth rate.  These are not bad things in themselves but they may be problematic for the younger generation, perhaps.

Of course, if you think of older people as dependent and declining you are likely to see them as a burden but in fact, many older people contribute a lot to society.  Older people make an economic contribution to society by paying taxes on their earnings, spending their disposable income and passing on wealth to the younger generation.  Older people often save their families considerable amounts of money by acting as child carers. This seems to be a full-time job for many of them. Furthermore, older people are great volunteers, helping out a diverse range of organisations and people.  They have the time to give back to society.

Just because we are old doesn’t mean we are brain dead, uninterested in politics or couch potatoes.  Many older people take courses in the University of the Third Age, have a wide circle of friends and interests, some even attend demonstrations and become vexatious letter writers.  The assistance given to older people, their own knowledge of what they need to do to stay healthy and with it, means that a lot of people are really enjoying their old age.  And of course, older people have a life time of experience which younger people can mine if they are so inclined.  

It can’t be denied that there is an economic cost in providing services to old people.  For example, health care costs are high for very old people, but they are also high for treating people with cancer, or providing organ transplants, treating accidents and sporting injuries and saving very premature babies.  Society has to decide how much it should spend on the health budget and how it should be allocated. Old age pensions do cost the tax payer money as do other social benefits such as youth allowance and disability allowances. I can’t see how any of these costs can be cut because people who rely solely on a pension are living on the verge of poverty as it is.  Beyond taking the Soylent Green option (although I am happy to see voluntary euthanasia legalised – much better than having to leap off my balcony when I discover that I have some nasty incurable disease) what can be done?

One option is to reduce the costs to the public purse of providing services and support for older people.  Already the age that older people can access the old age pension has been raised. For some people, compulsory retirement was unwelcome as they felt they had many productive years ahead of them.  There is no doubt that retirement for some people means the end of a useful life and boredom and emptiness. For others retirement is welcome, a rest from decades of toil and a time to take up pursuits that were not possible before.  In fact, many older people are so busy they wonder how they had the time to work. But along with raising the retirement age it is important to make sure that there are real and meaningful work options available to older people and that there is also a change in attitude towards the capabilities of older people.  You are not past your use by date simply because you reach retirement age.

Many more people have superannuation now so that should reduce the number of people on the old age pension.  However, for many ordinary people managing superannuation is not easy, especially as people can have many jobs in a lifetime.  Furthermore, superannuation can be whittled away by high fees and risky investments. A government superannuation scheme where the sole aim of the scheme is to make sure that people have a good income to support them when they retire could address this issue.  People could always opt for a private scheme if they wished.

Programs that help prevent or at least delay the sort of ailments that result in older people needing a high level of care will pay for themselves in the long run and greatly increase the quality of life for older people.  Aerobic exercise classes, weights and resistance classes, yoga, Tai Chi, balance exercises, advice on healthy eating, participation in games of all sorts, the provision of social activities, all help to keep people active. The provision of support services in the home also reduce the number of people who need intensive care in hostels, nursing homes and hospitals.  Retirement villages provide all these sorts of services but need to be well regulated and affordable. Comprehensive and affordable health insurance is also a necessity.

Another option is to change the tax system.  We could abolish income tax altogether and largely rely on a goods and services tax to raise revenue.  In this way, those who consume a lot pay the most tax. We could pay every adult a benefit – enough to live on, albeit frugally.  Sounds an outrageous idea but it could have some very major benefits. For example, the administrative savings would be huge; there would be no stigma associated with receiving social security benefits; it would provide so many options for people – they could use the benefit to pay for childcare, take time off to study, use it to help establish a business, start a new career, spend time volunteering, to support creative endeavours and to provide a basic income after retirement.  What a flourishing society such an approach would produce. It would require a big change of attitude, work would have to be seen as a privilege and the taxes paid by working people as their contribution to social capital.

A third option is to just pay higher taxes and make sure everyone, including corporations, pay their fair share.  These taxes could be used to ensure that everybody is able to have the best possible life including access to excellent education, healthcare, accommodation and social security.  If happiness is the goal of our society then we could learn a lot from the Scandinavian countries which consistently rank highly in the happiness stakes but pay fairly high tax. We may have to tighten our belts a bit to afford to pay higher taxes, maybe have more modest houses, fewer possessions, waste less, consume less.  Over the past 60 years Australian homes have more than doubled in size, going from 100 square metres in 1950 to about over 240 square metres 2013.    By comparison, Denmark, frequently the happiest country in the world, had houses sizes of 137 square metres.  We are second only to America in terms of house sizes. Of course, fewer people are living in these bigger houses than in the past.  Reducing our insatiable consumerism would make it easier to help those in need as well as helping the environment and producing a fairer society.  If higher taxes, wisely spent, mean that people don’t have to beg in the streets, live under bridges, live in poverty or go without medical treatment, then I am happy to pay them.

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

Virtual Reality and the Good Life

Recently I went off to see the Spielberg movie Ready Player One. Some time in the future, not so long from now, humans are condemned to a harsh, ugly world where they eke out an uncertain and unsatisfying existence. With little to inspire them in the real world many escape to the virtual reality gaming world of Oasis. It is wondrous to behold and the special effects of the movie are fantastic. You can go anywhere, be anyone and do anything in this alternative universe. I enjoyed the first hour of the movie but the second hour dragged on a bit. Were the heroes ever going to find the three keys and the golden egg and reap their reward? The compulsory battle scenes seemed to go for ages. But the movie did make me think about virtual reality and the good life. For many people the good life means having enough money to live a comfortable life and enjoy a few treats such as travel or other indulgences.

It is very hard to escape the consumerist treadmill on which our economy seems to be based and so most of us accumulate a lot of possessions over a lifetime. We also tend to throw away a lot of our possessions and replace them with bigger and better things. When we travel or follow other pursuits we often use a lot of resources and have a negative impact on the environment. The impact on the Nepalese environment and culture of hundreds of determined souls slogging up the slopes of Mount Everest springs to mind. Not to mention being so obsessed with getting to the top of the world’s highest mountain that you are prepared to ignore people dying on the side of the track.

There is a danger that our seemingly unlimited need to be the best, own the best, have the best life possible might be at the expense of other people and the environment, for example, the sweatshops in Asia where many workers are paid a pittance to provide us with beautiful but cheap clothes and shoes. But maybe we could live much more modestly than most of us do now and share wealth more fairly around the world but still live the good life through the use of superb virtual reality places like Oasis.

Every time we felt like a treat instead of buying it, or travelling to it, we could experience it in alternative world. We could travel to wherever we wished, climb whatever mountains we desired, enjoy beautiful houses, gardens, cars and clothes to our hearts content whilst firmly anchored in our modest real abode. We could watch concerts, walk in the bush, visit imaginary universes, without adding to the enormous burden that our rampant consumerism is placing on the environment. All in moderation of course, because the greatest danger of such virtual reality is that we might never want to leave it.