Optimistic Cynic

Choosing to be happy sounds so corny, but I am convinced it’s the only way not to get crushed under the weight of this hard, fallen world.

How one become happy in a world filled with imperfect human beings, and while being one yourself, will differ from person to person. Some use religion. Some decide to ignore negative information. Others find that dwelling on the bad helps them cope. Still others might drown the tragedy of being alive with distractions, either electronic or chemical.

I get that. I really do. A lot of what people do depends on their fundamental views of human nature. This deep stuff, but so much of one’s world-view depends on their answer to the following question: are human beings intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad?

Note well that I did not say “evil,” but “bad.”

People can either be perfected here on Earth and it is society that corrupts us, or we are born broken somehow and need to structure society, as well as work on structuring ourselves, to mitigate these tendencies.

In other words, society has to improve, or you have to improve.

This is really a simplified version, but it helps see how each of these basic assumptions about the nature of being can influence nearly everything, from political affiliations to religious beliefs to the very kind of art one creates and enjoys.

I am clearly in the second camp–that human beings are fundamentally bad and have to be trained to be good–and yet I find this a pretty empowering view of things. In fact, gaining a greater understanding of this view, and treating others and myself in accordance with it, has helped me become happier over time:

  • We are all imperfect, but we can all improve;
  • There will never be a Utopia or a heaven on Earth;
  • We all need to be kind to each other and ourselves because we’re all broken; and
  • I’m never surprised or disappointed when people, from the individual to the species level, makes the wrong choice.

Human beings will never learn the hard lessons from history. That is a fact. This is pessimistic, but pessimism about human nature doesn’t have to translate into being a miserable person.

I have come to consider myself as an optimistic cynic. I have no illusions about humanity’s ability to navigate terrible crises before the happen and head things off. This isn’t how the overwhelming majority of us operate, personally or societally. We have a massive inborn self-destructive streak, and we’re really good at sharing this dark tendency with society at large.

But, and here’s the weird part, we’re still here. We haven’t annihilated each other from the face of the planet, despite our best efforts. Yes, many peoples have been extincted through deliberate genocide, or by being conquered and breeded out of existence, or even inadvertently through diseases. Evil stuff like this still happens, and that’s the tendency we see among those people who can’t cope with the burden of being alive: they lash out at existence itself, whether they’re a mass shooter in a movie theater or school, or a dictator directing their anger at “those people over there.”

And yet, civilization exists in many parts of the world. And it’s actually quite nice. Believe it or not, lots and lots of human beings frown upon destructive, evil behaviors. This would not be possible for as long as its been going on (albeit, in a still woefully low proportion of the global human population) if this fallen nature of humanity couldn’t be mitigated.

Our rules don’t perfect us. They keep us free, from the harmful actions of the government, from the harmful actions of our fellow citizens, and often from the harmful actions of ourselves. Laws aren’t magic, but they do express the values of a society. And I’m much happier living in a society where things like rape and murder are punishable by life imprisonment or even death than a world that tries to legislate these dark impulses from our basic nature.

Because that is never going to happen. Continue reading “Optimistic Cynic”

Interesting People, Vol. 1: Adam Lane Smith

Welcome to a new feature here on Amatopia! It’s called “Interesting People,” and I’m going to interview people I think are interesting. Simple enough, right?

For this inaugural installment, I interviewed author Adam Lane Smith. Adam wrote one of my favorite books that I’ve read in a long time, a sci-fi mystery/adventure called Making Peace. I reviewed it upon release, and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre, or anyone just looking for something a little different than what you’ll find on the bookstore shelves.

Adam is also a very intelligent and easygoing guy, and I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know him over Twitter. In essence, he is the very definition of an interesting person. I hope you enjoy the conversation (my questions in bold, Adam’s responses in normal type):

* * *

Before we get into anything else, tell me one thing: why on Earth don’t you have a blog or website of your own?!

The short answer is that I’m lazy.
The long answer is that in the process of writing my book I had to deal with many pitfalls and time sinks. My former publisher went full SJW and let me know in a passive-aggressive manner that I was no longer welcome at their company, and then in an aggressive manner threatened my day job. I started and then completed an apprenticeship as a psychotherapist. I worked a traveling job. I started two new jobs. I conceived and then had my first child, and then conceived my second. I worked long hours reading everything published and unpublished from fellow authors while networking with them and raving about their works on social media so they’d know who I was when I finally published my book.
The struggle wasn’t limited to my personal life. After I finished writing the book, I unwillingly went through three separate people for my final cover. My second cover artist almost opened me up to being sued by using copyrighted material and claiming it was legally okay after I confronted him. I had to learn about editing and got a punch to the gut from the fantastic editor I hired, which necessitated 45 hours of editing and rewriting after I’d thought I was done.
All of that is my sniveling way of saying I was exhausted. Rhett C. Bruno mentored me through the launch and warned me sternly not to launch without a website, but I was beyond caring. I wanted to be a real author and be done with the cursed work which had tormented my soul night and day for three years. (Is that tortured enough for me to be considered an artist?)
But, unlike with modern Hollywood trash writing, there is a happy ending! I’ve got someone working on my author website right now. That’s registered at AdamLaneSmith.com, and will eventually exist once I prod him hard enough.
That’s a pretty good reason not to have a blog, but I’m glad to hear that the official home of Adam Lane Smith on the web will soon be up and running.
 
Your answer dovetails nicely into my next set of questions. As someone who really enjoyed Making Peace–indeed, it’s one of the strongest Pulp Rev works I’ve read–I’m eager to discuss writing, but I’m also intrigued by this publisher who tried to get you fired. What’s that all about?
 
Before getting into that, though, how about a little of your background, to the extent that you’re comfortable talking about it? You know, the kind of thing an actual professional interviewer would’ve asked you about first.
I grew up in Central California in George Lucas’ home town. When he writes about Tattooine and has Luke complain about how miserable it is, that’s what he’s talking about. When he writes about Mos Eisley, that’s our home.
I grew up poor in the ghetto. My mother came from a wealthy family but was disowned and disinherited for marrying a Christian man, and my father grew up with a divorced mother in trailer parks. No one helped us, and my parents each worked multiple low-paying jobs day and night to keep us fed and scraping by. Life was hard. Much of this is mentioned or hinted at in the afterword of my novel.
People died, friends were molested, I fought for my life several times against violence and untreated sickness, I developed PTSD, family members were abducted and raped by gangs, violence was ever present. One of the first lessons you learn is to lay on the floor with the adults on top of you so they die first and the kids might live under the corpses.
I learned to love reading as an escape, and dreamed of being a writer. By the grace of God, I worked my way out with the help of my diligent wife. Now we live a life of relative comfort and safety on a farm.
Those who’ve read Making Peace probably see a great deal of my upbringing in the setting.

My Conversion Story

People have asked me for my “Easter conversion story” before, and since today is Holy Wednesday*, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about this.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. Or inspiring. Or crazy. I’m sure some “rational skeptic” will tell me it’s a “chemical phenomena akin to insanity that shouldn’t be viewed as proving anything other than the delusion-holder’s personal subjective experience,” and so on.

(Boy, wait until I tell the story about when I had an honest-to-God prophetic vision . . .)

Whatever. All I know is what I’ve experienced and you can take it or leave it. The important starting point for this particular story is that, from the ages of about fifteen to seventeen, I was an atheist.

Or thought I was. Things changed on Good Friday when I was 17.

Let’s back up a little bit though. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Both of my parents are 100% Greek with either parents or grandparents from the old country. On my mother’s side, my grandfather is a priest, and so was his father. There were more in the family, but I don’t know how far back it goes.

My experiences with the church were generally positive. I rather enjoyed seeing my pappou up there doing the service and giving communion, and we always went out to breakfast afterwards. Orthodoxy focus a lot on the mystical, the afterlife, the resurrection, and the love of Christ . . . as well as the wages of sin. This didn’t bother me, nor was it prohibitively frightening. In fact, it made sense: Disobeying your own parents and ignoring tradition and common sense lead to big trouble. Why wouldn’t ignoring your heavenly Father lead to the same?

And the fact that there was a Creator didn’t bother me at all either. Everything has to come from something, I thought. And even to this day, “Everything spontaneously came into being in perfect order for no reason and with no cause whatsoever” remains an unsatisfying leap of faith to make.

No, what first got me as I got older was the idea of the Resurrection.

I remember on my way to church with the family when I was 14. It might have been Easter; I can’t remember. What I do remember is expressing skepticism that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead. “I get all the other stuff,” I said, “but how do we know he didn’t just die?”

My family didn’t quite know how to answer. Continue reading “My Conversion Story”

Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis

“An explanation of what happens to you when you die” is sort of the lazy man’s answer to the question of “What is the purpose of religion?” This is true, but it is only a part of it.

The question of what happens after death has enthralled, and indeed scared the hell out, of human beings since we first became aware, unique to all other creatures, that we will, in fact, die at some point, and that this death is inevitable.

This is what author and theologian Nikolaos P. Vassilidis attempts to shed some light on in The Mystery of Death, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Published in Greek in 1993 and later translated by Father Peter A. Chamberas, Vassilidis, a member of the Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians has taken Scripture and the teachings of the Holy Fathers and compiled them in a lengthy tomb big on what Scripture and logical analysis tells us and light on speculation.

It’s heavy reading, as you can imagine.

Religion, most religions at least, deal with more than just what happens when you die. But questions surrounding the end of life are obviously incredibly important, questions such as:

  • Why do human beings know they will die?
  • Why do we die?
  • Why are we here if we’re destined to die?
  • And of course, what happens next?

Vassiliadis relies heavily on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Symeon, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nikodemos, and other luminaries of the pre-Schism Church, as well as more recent Orthodox scholars like Georges Florovsky and Justin Popovic. It’s a well-researched book that offered a lot of eye-opening revelations about what death is, why we die, sin and repentance, and what comes after.

It’s tough to do a typical review of this book other than to say I highly recommend it to any Christian, Orthodox or not (although Catholics will probably have an easier time with it than most other denominations). So as with my discussion of Moses Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed, I think it’d be more useful to go over a few of the more interesting points Vassiliadis makes:

Continue reading “Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis”

Fun with Mental Illness

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One of the most-read posts I’ve written on this blog is called “The Pros and Cons of Suicide.” Every day, it tends to be my most-read article.

This makes me sad, because it means that so many people are looking up information about the pros and cons of suicide on the Internet, implying that they think there are actually pros to killing yourself.

I titled to be deliberately provocative and tongue-in-cheek, because there’s nothing good about killing yourself, or depression in general. And that post’s denouement was also a little acidic, basically stating that it’s good to keep yourself alive just to piss off the people who wish you’d kill yourself:

It’s admitting defeat. And here’s the biggest one, at least for me. While I would say that I love God more than anything, sometimes I hate the devil more than I love the Lord. I’m convinced a lot of this spiritual sickness, this acedia in the world, is the result of the devil. And killing yourself is just saying to the world, “You win. I give up.”

So don’t be a statistic.

Isn’t this horrible? I’m basically telling the Internet here that a large part of the reason I am still alive is out of spite.

But if that’s all you’ve got, then run with it.

No matter who you are, no matter your beliefs, do not let yourself be defeated by the world. If your continued existence is nothing more than a walking middle finger to a world that wants you gone, so be it.

So live for spite if you must. I do many days, but you don’t have to be miserable about it. Life is pretty simple: be good to each other, help the next generation on there one way trip through life, and try to laugh and have fun.

My overarching message, then and now, is this: Don’t ever kill yourself, there’s always a way out, and God loves you, even if you don’t believe in Him.

You can cue the corny violins all you want, but I firmly believe this and stand by that statement. And I’m speaking as someone who’s struggled with this for much of my life as, I’m sure, have millions of other Americans. Over six-million, in fact. Life expectancy is down in this country, and opioid use is up. Forty million Americans are purported to have anxiety disorders. Forty million!

There’s a huge wave of despair going on in this country, a wave that many lay at the feet of modern life, atomization, automation of formerly physical or low-skill labor, and a growing urban/rural divide, among other things.

depression

But there’s also this weird thing we do where we almost romanticize mental illness or other difficulties, linking things like depressionbi-polar disorderautisim, or Asperger’s with creativity. And everyone loves creativity! Who doesn’t want to be creative? And so we end up with the popular idea that medicating or otherwise treating certain mental illnesses kills creativity, even though the data suggests that the opposite is true.

Trust me: I’ve been through this. It’s terrible! There’s nothing creative whatsoever about lying in bed, refusing to wake up because you wish you were never born. The creative juices don’t get flowing when you pray to God that a tractor-trailer would just absolutely cream you on your drive back from work, or thinking, “What if I just revved my car up to 120 miles per hour and crashed into that tree over there?” Depression doesn’t make one want to be creative, or do much of anything except die.

Yes, depression and other feelings caused by depression and its friends can give good grist for the creative mill, as it is quite cathartic to get those feelings out somehow, whether it be by putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, paint to canvas, or whatever you choose to do. But it’s even more cathartic to not want to kill yourself, or wish you had never been born every second of the day. And remember that plenty of fantastic art has been made by people who aren’t struggling with one form of mental illness or another.

There is nothing fun or mystical about suicidal thoughts. I don’t care what the popular myths about Beethoven and Van Gogh or Kurt Cobain are. Talk to someone. Get help. Get your life back. Continue reading “Fun with Mental Illness”

Recapturing the Awe

Lent is here. It’s a big deal to the faithful, the biggest deal of all.

Fasting. Prayer. I don’t think I need to get into what Lent is. How about we chat about what Lent isn’t?

Lent is not suffering for suffering’s sake.The purpose of fasting for 40 days (Eastern tradition) or giving something up for 40 days (Western) isn’t to make you miserable. It’s to provide focus and clarity.

The Resurrection is the central tenet of Christianity. If it were false, if it never happened, all would be, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in vain:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15:12-18

So yes, Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection, is a big deal. Millions, like St. Paul himself, have died for it. This is why the Lenten period is so important. Continue reading “Recapturing the Awe”

Peak Virtue

What does it mean to be virtuous? What does the end-game look like?

It’s a weird question, sure. But it seems to be a question not too many speak about.

Here’s what I mean: If you’re a Christian, “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40, Luke 6:28-30) has probably been said to you by people who hate Christianity–and likely other Christians!–to discourage you from fighting back against anything, ever.

But this is silly, right? That’s not what God wants, to let us be patsies and doormats and get rolled by any evildoer whoever happens to come along with ill-intent towards us.

After all, what’s more virtuous: To stand up and fight against those would world enslave or exterminate you, or keep you from proper worship of God? Or to refuse to fight until your enemy runs the world, and you and your children and grandchildren are in abject misery but at least you can say “Man, I turned the other cheek like a goddamn champ!

See what I mean?

This isn’t going to be a verse-slinging post, or a theological one. But I think this example makes a good point out of pinning down what is virtue and how does one practice virtue?

I’ve presented a little bit of an unfair binary question here, but let’s play it out for a bit. Virtue is either:

  1. Standing by your principles, even if it means you and your loved ones die; or
  2. Occasionally violating a principle or principles now in order to prevent ruin and damnation for future generations.

I think it’s pretty clear that this is a difficult choice to make, one that will make the principled feel “icky” (a technical term). But it might be the most difficult choice a man faced in his life.

What would a deontologist do? If you “always do what is right,” do you aid the wounded man you know for certain was about to rape and murder your wife because “it’s the right thing to do” (give aid to the wounded) even though that man will resume trying to rape and murder your wife, or do you let the attempted rapist/murderer die?

Which is objectively better? Which is right? Which is virtuous? Continue reading “Peak Virtue”