Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!

The anonymous author of the Middle English mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing advises his reader that the best prayer is a single word, and that a one-syllable word is best of all. After all, “Fire!” and “Help!” are undeniably our most sincere “prayers” to our fellow human beings, and the ones most likely to get a response. We instinctively rush to help a man who shouts “Help!”, the author of the Cloud explains, even if he should be our worst enemy — while a longer, more discursive request for assistance may well be turned down. And if even enemies are moved by monosyllabic calls for help, he reasons, how much more so must God be; we should therefore never cease to pray, “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!”

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I do not feel qualified to comment on this appropriateness of this form of prayer, except to note that it sounds an awful lot like the “vain repetitions” warned against by Christ. However, I have found it to be surprisingly effective  psychologically.

I never consciously decided to try following the advice in the Cloud. However, once I had read the passage summarized above, the machinery of association saw to it that whenever I found myself thinking or doing something that I ought not to think or do, it would pop up automatically in my mind: “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!” — and then I would find it quite impossible to go on with whatever it was I had been thinking or doing which had prompted the association.

In a previous post (qv) I discussed the inadvisability of trying to reason with oneself in the heat of temptation. Reasoning is an invitation to argue back and rationalize. Commanding oneself, while more effective than reasoning, is also suboptimal because it triggers instincts of independence and rebelliousness. If, on the other hand, some part of your soul is shouting “Help! Help! Help!” — well, what can you do but rush to help the poor guy?

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I should make it clear that the author of the Cloud did not intend for his prayer to be used in this way. His purpose was not to help people control their behavior or to sin less often, but to make them constantly aware of their sinful nature and thus motivate them to draw closer to God. He did not intend it as a prayer for deliverance from some specific sin one was committing or being tempted to commit; on the contrary, he instructs his reader to think of sin “as a lump” and to avoid analyzing it or thinking of any specific sin. Nevertheless, despite the author’s intentions, I have found it to be useful for quite another purpose, and I post this in the hope that others may find the same thing.

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Minor precognitive dream

A couple of days ago, my morning alarm interrupted a very vivid dream in which I had taken a small bucket of water and splashed it out onto the dining room floor. Muddy cat footprints had appeared in the water, though no cats were visible.

Upon awakening from the dream, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and that sort of thing, and while I was in there I heard a loud clattering sound downstairs. When I went downstairs, I found that one of my cats had upset his water dish and spilled water all over the dining room floor. There were muddy pawprints, but the cats, presumably having been spooked by the sudden noise, were nowhere to be seen.

The noise made it clear that the water was spilled a few minutes after my dream, ruling out the explanation that the dream had been inspired by sounds I heard while sleeping. (I suppose it’s conceivable that cats knocked down the dish while I was sleeping and then later bumped it again and made another sound. However, I don’t think this is likely. The clatter I heard was very loud and was clearly the sound of the dish falling from its stand to the floor, not just moving around on the floor.)

I’ve been keeping cats for about four years now, but they’d never knocked over their water dish before.

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A precognition?

Last night I had just cleaned out the cats’ litter boxes and was walking out to the garbage bin with a bag of cat poop when I suddenly had a very vivid mental image of a man lying on his back with his mouth open, and someone stuffing the contents of the bag into his mouth and up his nose, packing it in tight so as to be able to stuff in even more. And I felt a surge of pure righteous hatred for the man being thus punished, as if I somehow knew he really deserved it.

The image and the feeling quickly passed, but they left me a bit disturbed and confused, since they had just come out of nowhere. Well, in a sense it was obvious what had inspired the image — I had just been stuffing cat poop into a bag — but what could have moved me to imagine it being stuffed into the orifices of a human face? And why the surge of hatred? It would have been more understandable if the face had belonged to some particular person I hated, but he was no one in particular — and I was a calm, cheerful, benevolent mood that evening (that one brief episode excepted) and was not conscious of hating anyone at all. All very strange.

Then the next morning I was checking a few blogs, and found a long eloquent rant by John C. Wright (qv) which included the following lines:

I spoke above of the Unreality Principle. Here is where it comes into play. The Unreality Principle is the moral imperative to ignore and deny reality at all costs, and remain loyal and faithful to the make-believe illusion-choked funhouse-mirror Wonderland of Liberal Bullshit. You must bathe in the bullshit, eat the bullshit, drink the bullshit, and stuff the bullshit up your nose as far as far can be, because from now own the offal will be feast and wine to you, and will be your baptism and your oxygen. It will feed and sustain you. [emphasis added]

The image of stuffing feces up someone’s nose (as far as far can be) is surely not a common one, and the way it came to me out of the blue shortly before I read about it makes it seem more like precognition than like common-or-garden synchronicity. (Or, as always, it could be a mere meaningless accident, since we have no way of calculating how often such things “ought to” occur by chance.) I keep noticing and documenting these oddities in the hope that some intelligible pattern will emerge. So far, “coincidence,” as unsatisfying as that is, is the best explanation I can manage.

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No ghost instinct

I recently had a discussion with a group of Taiwanese high school students about childhood fears. It turns out that roughly 100% of them had been afraid of the same thing: ghosts. One guy had a phobia of cats, but other than that it was ghosts all around.

When I was a little child, I was afraid of tigers. I slept on the top bunk, and I remember asking my mother how high my bed was and how tall a tiger was — trying to calculate whether or not a tiger would be able to climb up and get me while I slept. Leopards, too. One of my most vivid memories from early childhood is of sitting in the bathtub trying to decide whether I wanted the bathroom door to be closed (to keep leopards out) or open (so that I could see any leopards that might be out there). Later in childhood I was sometimes afraid to go into the woods alone, and when I tried to pin down exactly what I was afraid of, I found that it was the prospect of encountering a huge ugly beast which I could visualize clearly but which I only later learned (after seeing pictures in books) to call a Hyaenodon. I’ve been told that I also used to worry a lot about monkeys coming into my room when I was a toddler, but I have no clear memories of that. “Monsters” also featured in my early childhood fears — beasts corresponding to no specific animal, but sporting fangs and claws and fur clearly inspired by the big cats and other predators. Dinosaurs were also an occasional fear.

Until recently, I assumed that such fears were a pretty universal experience for children and that they were rooted in instincts which served our ancestors in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, when leopards and hyenas and such were among the leading causes of death. As silly as my fears were for a kid living in suburban New Hampshire, they would have been perfectly reasonable on the African savanna.

However, when I described my childhood fears to the high school students, they looked at me like I was from outer space. No one could relate — not even the ailurophobe, who feared only domestic cats and had never worried about lions or leopards. This was a bit of a shock to me. I was also surprised to find that they had never imagined “monsters” — the prevalence of which in popular culture (Monsters, Inc. and the like) had led me to believe that they were also pretty universal. They had feared ghosts, and pretty much only ghosts.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember ever experiencing even the tiniest hint of a fear of ghosts. I’ve been afraid of the dark from time to time, but that fear never took the form of worrying about ghosts. Walking through a graveyard at night would be no more scary than walking anywhere else at night. As a child I used to imagine that a leopard or a “monster” or Darth Vader was hiding in the dark corners of my bedroom, but it never occurred to me to imagine a ghost. I even thought I saw ghost-like apparitions a couple of times as a child (bright white human figures glimpsed out of the corner of my eye) but never thought to be afraid of them (or to think of them as “ghosts,” for that matter). As an adult, I lived alone for a year in a house which was supposed to be haunted (and which had very low rent as a result) without ever once feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. I find the ghost movies that my wife loves to watch insufferably tedious because I simply do not respond to them at all on an emotional or visceral level.

This is not explained by the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts. For fears at this level, belief simply doesn’t enter into the equation. After all, I never really believed there were tigers in New Hampshire or Hyaenodonts in Ohio, either. I know plenty of people who “don’t believe in ghosts” but still feel a frisson of fear when passing a cemetery at night. It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them; the idea of ghosts can’t muster enough of an emotional response in me to make it a “live option” in Jamesian terms.

Nor is it explained by general fearlessness. In fact I’m quite easily spooked by things other than ghosts. I’ve been afraid of plenty of silly things over the course of my life, and even now stories about grey aliens can sometimes terrify me every bit as much as ghost movies terrify my wife.

One disadvantage of having lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life is that it’s hard to separate personal idiosyncrasies from racial or cultural differences. Am I personally unusual in having feared wild animals more than ghosts as a child? Or is it that Western children fear leopards and hyenas, and Chinese children fear ghosts? And either way, what accounts for the difference?

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Coincidences: Herodotus and the Piazza San Marco

I’ve been reading the Histories of Herodotus. In fact, it’s the only book I’ve been reading so far this month — which is quite unusual for me, since I’m usually working on three or four books at any given time and finish one every week or so. This is what the cover of my copy looks like:

herodotus

Hanging on the side of my refrigerator is a calendar which I got for free from a Taiwanese insurance company and which, for some reason, features pictures of various tourist spots in Italy. This month it’s the Piazza San Marco. The picture below is from the calendar.

sanmarco

Yesterday I noticed that both my book and the calendar featured a winged lion and thought it was a mildly interesting coincidence. (Actually, the creature on the Greek oenochoe is presumably a sphinx, but the picture on the book cover doesn’t show its face.) Then I noticed that both pictures also included a man with a spear and shield, making the coincidence a little more impressive.

The winged lion in the Piazza represents St. Mark (in keeping with a rather odd tradition identifying the four Evangelists with the four living creatures of the Apocalypse), but I didn’t know who the man with the spear was. So I looked it up and found that he was St. Theodore of Amasea — Mark’s predecessor as patron saint of Venice. I immediately noticed (being the kind of person who notices such things) that Herodotus is a perfect anagram of Theodorus, the Latin form of Theodore. In fact, the two names turn out to be anagrams in many European languages, including French (Hérodote, Théodore), German (Herodot, Theodor) and Italian (Erodoto, Teodoro); English is an exception because we use the Latin form of the one name and the French form of the other.

I also learned that, while it is not clear in the picture on my calendar, the Venetian statue depicts St. Theodore with a crocodile — a creature which puts in a prominent appearance in the Histories. In fact, I assume that Herodotus’s is the first description of a crocodile in Western literature.

In a minor subsidiary coincidence (not Herodotus-related), just below the picture of the Piazza San Marco is the Chinese character 三 (pronounced san; the Chinese name for March is 三月, “third month”) directly above the English word March (only one letter different from Marco).

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Every time I notice something like this, I get the nagging feeling that such coincidences occur more often than they ought to by chance — but of course there is no way to define “such coincidences” or to quantify how often they “ought to” occur, nor is there any possible control against which to compare their frequency.

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Practical observations on will

In an attempt to understand the workings of my own will, I decided to try to take an ice-cold shower every day for three months. I chose this partly because of the purported health benefits but mostly just because it was something harmlessly unpleasant I could try to force myself to do, affording opportunities for introspection. I wanted to observe what exactly happened psychologically when I succeeded in acting contrary to inclination, and what happened when I failed to do so.

I started this project a month ago and have been imperfectly successful so far — only 26 cold showers in 30 days, with my longest streak of cold showers every day being (so far) 15 days. (Of course, imperfect success is what I “wanted” on one level, since my purpose was to observe the causes of both success and failure.) Here are some of my observations.

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Visualizing the intended act

I got the idea from William James (in his Principles of Psychology and elsewhere) that imagining a particular act is the same thing as willing it, and that imagination naturally leads to motor consequences unless something checks it. There seems to be some truth to this view. One of the most effective ways of making myself take a cold shower turned out to be visualizing — as vividly as possible — myself turning the faucet handle to the right.

The act itself is what must be imagined, not its consequences. Imagining the unpleasant shock of the freezing water hitting your body would obviously tend to weaken resolve rather than strengthen it. Less obviously, even imagining the pleasant consequences of the intended action (e.g., how good you will feel when the cold shower is over) turned out to be relatively ineffective. It’s best to be direct: If you want to do X, imagine X — not something which can be connected to X only by a train of reasoning. When it comes to willpower, as I shall explain below, reason is not your friend.

This technique would appear to work only when willing oneself to do something — not to refrain from doing something. Attempting to visualize oneself not-smoking or not-eating-junk-food or whatever would obviously be an exercise in futility. When trying to stop doing something, then, it would perhaps be helpful to decide in advance on a fixed substitute-behavior (“when I’m tempted to do X, I’ll do Y instead”), turning a thou-shalt-not into a more visualizable thou-shalt.

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Stupid slogans, not syllogisms

In the heat of temptation, the last thing you want to be doing is reasoning — earnestly trying to persuade yourself to do what you have already decided you ought to do. Reason is the slave of the passions, and practical reason ought not to be attempted when the baser passions (such as a caitiff unwillingness to be doused with ice-water) are in play.

Here I seem to be parting ways with William James (“to think, in short, is the secret of will”) and leaning more in the direction of Martin Luther (“the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore”), but in fact James is right even here, as the larger context of the quote makes clear.

If, then, you are asked, “In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?” you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory (Talks to Teachers, emphasis in the original).

The kind of “thinking” James is recommending is certainly not discursive reasoning. (That kind of thinking may be “the secret of memory,” but in the context of will it is a mere slippery slope to rationalization.) Rather, it is a stubborn refusal to let go of an idea. Bulldog, not fox. The tools you want are not arguments, but rather thought-terminating clichés.

In my attempts to make myself turn on the cold water, the most effective “thoughts” were sound bites calculated to bypass reason and enlist the passions in the service of a predetermined conclusion. I drew slogans from various sources, ranging from Spenser (“Vp, vp, thou womanish weake Knight”) to Hollywood schlock (“This is SPARTA!”), and the stupider they were, the more effective. One that worked particularly well was simply “I’m a Viking!” — because, you know, Vikings are tough and obviously aren’t afraid of a little cold water.

On those occasions when I found myself standing in front of the faucet reasoning about what I was going to do, I inevitably ended up being swayed or almost-swayed by the stupidest rationalizations imaginable: I didn’t say I wouldn’t take any hot showers, only that I would take cold showers — so I can take a hot shower first and then a cold one after that. Or I could make it a James Bond shower (start with hot water, then switch it to cold right at the end). Or I could just take a hot shower today and two cold showers tomorrow, which still averages out to one a day. Or actually, since I’ve only been doing cold showers for a few days now, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference if I took a hot shower today and started the three months tomorrow. And so on. The slave of the passions is nothing if not a hard worker, and will keep dutifully churning out justifications until one of them does the trick.

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Striking while the iron is hot

You think and think, and then at some point you say “Okay, NOW!” and make the jump from thought to action. The timing of that jump is important because various motivations fluctuate in strength. You don’t always have the luxury of choosing when to make your decision, but usually you do, and you want to time your fiat so that it coincides with your “good” motivations being at their strongest and their rivals at their weakest. What exactly that means in practical terms varies from situation to situation and can be learned only by experience. Sometimes I had to turn on the water immediately, before I’d had time to have second thoughts; other times I had to just stand there, sometimes for over a minute, “working up” the necessary willpower.

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I intend to continue this experiment until I actually succeed in doing three months straight of cold showers every day, and will post other observations as they occur to me.

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Another James-related synchronicity

I’ve been reading a lot of William James these days — eight books of his so far this year, the most recent of which, The Meaning of Truth, I just finished this morning.

Approximately four hours after finishing The Meaning of Truth, I was getting a bite to eat at a supermarket deli when a teenage boy came and sat down at the table next to mine. He was wearing a gray hoodie with this sentence written on it in big red and blue letters: “TRUTH IS WHAT STANDS THE TEST OF EXPERIENCE” — a statement, that is, of the meaning of truth, and a pretty “pragmatic” one, at that, Jamesian in its emphasis on experience and in its characterization of truth as something that happens to an idea. (I didn’t think it was likely to be an actual James quote, the focus on “testing” being uncharacteristic of him, but I googled it just to be sure. It turns out to be from Albert Einstein.)

I need scarcely mention that I have no memory of ever previously having encountered a truth-defining article of clothing of this sort, making its appearance at this time a pretty impressive coincidence.

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A further synchronicity: James makes a distinction between “facts” and “truth” — the former refers to realities; the latter, to a property of our beliefs in relation to those realities. In The Meaning of Truth, he repeatedly takes his critics to task for conflating these two things.

Just three weeks before I read The Meaning of Truth, my father also tried, in a comment to this post, to make a distinction between “facts” and “truth” (though not the same distinction that James makes), and I insisted in my reply that there was no such distinction.

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