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Discards

by on January 11, 2016

                                Discards

                          by Marco M. Pardi 

     All comments appreciated and responded to.

                                 “They paved paradise

                                     and put up a parking lot.

                                    With a pink hotel, a boutique

                                    And a swinging hot spot

                                    Don’t it always seem to go

                             That you don’t know what you’ve got

                                                ‘Til it’s gone

                                     They paved paradise

                                     And put up a parking lot”

                                     “Big Yellow Taxi” Joni Mitchell

Ever talk back to the television?  In the mid 1950’s a major U.S. corporation closed its commercials with: “Progress is our most important product.” Even then, I retorted, “How about ‘Understanding is our most important product'”?

Progress, by its very nature, seems to leave things, ideas and even knowledge behind.  It inherently says what was then, even what is now, is insufficient.  By whose standards?  Is progress driven by demand, or by companies pushing something new to the marketplace?  Did so many people really push for a three speed reversible electric nose-picker?

During my first few years in the United States I was too young to have a sense of antiquity; everything was new to me.  But after spending several months in Firenze (“Florence”) in the close of my 7th year my return to the U.S. brought with it a different perspective.  Day after day in Firenze I could see the Palazzo Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio, medieval structures dominating the city center.  Across from the Palazzo I could see the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly called Il Duomo, where my paternal grandfather was baptized.  And throughout the surrounding countryside were working villas hundreds of years old, remnants of Roman architecture, and sites of pre-Roman Etruscan (hence Tuscany and Etruria) civilization.  Twenty three years later I wandered into a Firenze bank as it was opening and asked what the balloons were for. “Oh, we’re celebrating our 500th birthday.”  “Oh. That’s nice.”

But in the U.S. I could not easily find a building as old as my grandmother (b: 1877); even my mother (b:1913) had outlasted almost everything I saw.  Yes, I knew America was young, and its buildings were often built for the short term. But where did their remains go?

In June of 1961, driving past Suk el-Juma on the way to what is now (euphemistically) the Libyan Coastal Highway I saw a large enclosure filled with refuse.  Men were walking around sorting glass, metal, cardboard, and cloth into heaps. An American G.I. told me, with a sneer, they were recycling.  “That’s how poor they are.” My unspoken thought: That’s how smart they are.

Most readers are well familiar with the history of intentionally discarding materials, even ideas.  Opposite to the Roman model of inclusion, the Christian church arose through discarding any and all writings contrary to its orthodoxy and, wherever possible, the writers along with them. The Mayan language and cultural heritage would be lost to us had not four manuscripts survived the fires set by Diego de Landa and his Franciscan missionaries in the sixteenth century.  Up into the early 20th century mission schools savagely beat and starved Native American children caught speaking their own language.  But the great discards of the 20th Century included the Stalinist purges and forced starvation, accounting for some 20 million people; the Holocaust, upwards of 6 million; the Maoist purges of untold numbers; and, the Kmer Rouge killing fields. Perhaps an indicator of the discarding of knowledge along with people is the fact that most people associate the Holocaust with Jews.  But any reader of history knows it started with “undesirables” of many kinds, a kind of eugenics after the fact.  The Romani people, commonly called Gypsies, lost a very much higher percentage of their population than did the Jews.  The Romani do not use the word Holocaust; they use “Porajmos”, The Devouring.  But they are powerless people wherever they are found.  They are curiosities; they can be discarded with yesterday’s Beanie Babies.      

But while we pride ourselves on fewer book burnings we fail to note the change which has crept into the use of books, and other media.  This is especially apparent in textbooks, most notably history but including a broad spectrum of fields. As knowledge advances and is meticulously recorded and archived room for meaning correspondingly diminishes.  Similar to an archaeological site suddenly and fully exposed, our field of knowledge is speckled with facts, so many and in not a few cases so small as to generate a new word into our lexicon: factoid.  I have not yet encountered the word, meaningoid.  I doubt I ever will. I cannot count the number of students I have heard complain their history courses, and similar social science courses, were simply a matter of memorizing unexplained and disjointed facts for the test, to be discarded in the end to make room for the next semester’s load of facts.  Memories of college days are more often populated with what happened there, not what was learned there. 

When I was growing up television news programs regularly featured a Commentary on a significant news issue.  Presented by someone who was both qualified and able to sit back from the facts and analyze them for their implications, it carried the viewer’s mind far beyond the final commercials and the lead-in to the next program.  And, most importantly, it was very clearly demarcated from the carefully objective presentation of the news; you knew you were getting analysis, even opinion.   

I suspect these features died from lack of interest.  The U.S. has become a Detective Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am. Nothing but the facts.”  But with the flurry of facts coming at us daily, who chooses which are important enough to report, and in what order?  When that archaeologist is confronted with a mass of artifacts she is the one who decides what they are and how they are grouped. If we have doubts we can examine her CV, including her schooling, relevant experience, and peer reviewed work. How able are we to do that with the journalists who present “facts” to us, much less the editorial boards of our various media who sign off on these facts?  Worse yet, some major media outlets unashamedly gin up “the facts” through the presentation itself, presenting us with “anchor persons” who shriek, snarl, choke back tears, smile and otherwise attempt to choreograph our feelings faster than a cheap opera.  In short, we are encouraged to discard our critical thinking skills and eat what’s on our plate.

An amusing example of sequestered critical thinking skills is the current PowerBall lottery.  We are told the odds of being a sole winner are 1 in 292.2 million. Factoid.  The odds of this factoid being correct are incalculable, however it is apparent that many people do not know that.  On its face, it appears to pose the odds of an individual against the raw number of people old enough to legally play.  What is unknown is: the large number who do not play; the large number who buy multiple tickets; and, the significant number of pools which can purchase very large quantities of tickets.  There is no statistical formula for calculating an outcome when every variable is an unknown. The hook, though is in the word sole.  But even granting the factoid, the statement is spurious since the individual is not playing against a population; they are playing against the odds of the numbers matching those they have chosen.  Those odds remain the same regardless of whether they are the only player or they are playing along with everyone in China.

And speaking of deceptive numbers, how about those presidential candidate polls?  If the numbers are correct I may buy lotto tickets in hopes of getting the currency to set up myself safely elsewhere.  As we now enter the calendar year of the election we will be blitzed with “factoid” ads, Trojan Horses carrying triggers to cause us to self destruct.  Just as new immunotherapy drugs are designed to fool cancer cells into apoptosis (cellular sepuku) these ads are designed to cause us to discard any power of rational thought we may have in favor of emotion based reaction.

A world without meaning is a two dimensional world.  There is a strong thread of that woven into the materialism of modern scientism.  But to whom should we look to help us regain a sense of meaning?  In rejecting the obviously man made contrivance of Western religion some have pursued “Eastern philosophies” only to find that, ultimately, what Alan Watts called “Suchness” and what Baba Ram Dass celebrated in his book The Only Dance There Is presents one with the dilemma of aborting even the most rudimentary “Oh, that’s why” moment.  The flippantly used saying, “It is what it is” turns out to be far more insightful than first meets the ear.  Was the nihilism of Nietzsche so crazy after all?

A classic teaching tool in Buddhism is the example of the monkey trap, a box with bananas and a hole just large enough for the monkey to insert his hand. Once he inserts his hand and grasps a banana he can’t withdraw his hand and so falls prey to those who would take him. The message is: If you want to be free, just let go.

 

How much of what we hold dear, what we hold as comforting truth are we willing to let go?

 

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13 Comments
  1. Ray permalink

    I love it – if you want to be free – just let go…. freedom is not somewhere out there it is within us. Great thoughtful piece Marco

  2. Thank you, Ray. I appreciate your thoughts and your participation. Marco

  3. ” But to whom should we look to help us regain a sense of meaning? ” Every time I’m upset about the news or the world my brother gives me the same advice, “Hang with your dogs”. I fought the good fight my whole adult life and reflecting back on what good I really did, not sure it mattered much. But the time I spend with my dogs I can see the good and I’m my happiest when I do just hang with my dogs and avoid all knowledge of what is going on in the world.

    • Thank you, Mary. I have a sense of what you are saying. I don’t try to explain to people the values and lessons I learned through interactions with my non-human companions. But I know I would not be who I am were it not for them.

  4. It is, indeed, what it is: one of my favorite aphorisms, and a true reflection of my acceptance of those situations over which I have no power. I do not have the strength to fight the good fight, and so must pick my battles from among those I have a chance of winning.

    Politics, and politicians in general, terrify me. It’s hard to find “just the facts” when everyone is telling their version of the truth; liars, one and all. No one really wants us to understand. I feel as if we are becoming a society where thinking is not only discouraged, but may someday be outlawed.

    What we know as “facts” are subject to change as new information is discovered. The world is not flat, and the moon is not made of green cheese. Is, or is not, Pluto a planet? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? The world may never know..

    Who and what we ultimately become is, at least in part, determined by which “facts” we choose to believe are true. Just because something new comes along, does it make what used-to-be of lesser value? The older I get, the more I change, and the more I cling to the core of what makes me… me.

    • Thank you, Rose. Your comment captures the potential trap of realization leading to inertia and you wisely navigate through that. I like to say, there’s a fine line between realism and depression; not everyone can walk that line without a misstep.

      Yes, the core. Everything else is just tinsel on the tree. Thanks, Marco

  5. There is so much here with which I agree that I find myself compelled to comment once again. Just letting go sounds so simple, but it’s nothing of the kind. Emotional connections make some things almost impossible to discard. Emotions and ideas are not so much discarded as subject to the evolution of mind and heart. The good little conservative I was raised to be has evolved into a relatively free thinking liberal.

    Neither of my two dogs were planned; each of them came into our lives through a death in their previous forever homes. My dog had died many years before, and I was not convinced I would ever want another, but now that they are part of our family< I can't imagine life without them.

    Marco, when you write about Firenze, it is like being there again. I have so many memories of this beautiful city, and you have brought them all back to me today. Memories are the one things which we should never discard. Thank you, Rose

  6. Thank you, Rose. You are entirely correct. I cannot imagine discarding the feelings I have for certain people, and non-human companions, without in fact discarding myself. However I do continually examine those feelings, try to understand them in their “updated” form, and move forward in a sense of realization.

    I also have to remember that the Firenze for which I have feelings is not the Firenze there now. Still, I feel entitled to keep my feelings and the experiences from which they arose as essential building blocks of who I am today. The old adage, You can never go home again, is true but the real truth is that you develop your portable home as you move through life as more than the sum of your experiences. Marco

  7. To quote the great philosopher-poet, Jaden Smith, “how can mirrors be real if our eyes aren’t real?”

    All sarcasm aside, so many “facts” are in flux. Things that sound truthful because they fall in line with “conventional wisdom” are often steaming piles of… ahem, we can all finish that sentence silently. (Also, why is “conventional” wisdom a good thing?)

    Certain facts hold up. If I eat an entire stuffed crust pizza, I will feel ill, and my jeans won’t zip. Gravity exists, and twelve years of ballet classes won’t save me from hitting the floor when I trip over thin air. Satan is real, but we know him by his other name, “tequila.”

    But the facts being spoon fed to us by the media are suspect. “Just the facts?” Sure, the facts about Justin Bieber’s new haircolor, who Jennifer Lawrence is dating, and who’s been voted off American Idol. I’m reminded of Don Henley’s song In the Garden of Allah: “I am an expert witness because I say I am… There are no facts. There is no truth, just data to be manipulated… I can get you any result you like. What’s it worth to you?”

    Sadly, for a lot of people, it’s worth everything.

    • Thank you, Ash. You bring a much fuller context to this discussion. I especially like the message inherent in Henley’s song. Sometimes it’s hard to not give in to a certain depression as one grows more aware. But in doing that we would just become another discard.

      • Thank you! Henley has written a lot of though-provoking songs. The Inside Job album has several that are painfully accurate. Well, that’s why we have fur-babies. When I feel depressed, I hug my cats, and all is right again.

  8. Gregg permalink

    You left out the set of lyrics involving putting all of the trees into a museum and charging people under two dollars to see them. I’m not sure what pains me more, only finding trees in a museum or the fact that you used to be able to get into a top rate museum of extinct things for only a dollar fifty. Maybe both.

    • Thanks, Gregg. You are right; there are many opportunities to point out the ironies around us. Even I have been called a museum piece at times. I guess, in a sense, we each build our museums within ourselves and visit them to reconnect with the world and time we consider most true. And, when these visits within ourselves inform our attempts at communications with others we find ourselves talking past each other.

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