Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bullshit versus Bullshit

Been watching "Penn and Teller's Bullshit" on DVD. These guys are smart, incisive and brutally critical. Some of their arguments are weak and some of the shows are gratuitous, but I've been having a grand time with them.

Watched the episode on self-help last night. They featured a group of people using things that I recognized as old martial arts parlor tricks (fire walking, walking on broken glass, breaking arrows with your throat and bending rebar with your throat) as a self-empowerment course. To Penn (who does all the talking), it was "BULLSHIT".

He was right, in a way. The people walking on coals are not doing what they think they are doing. Simple physics allows them to do something that looks dangerous and potentially lethal. They think they are using the power of their minds to prevent injury... and they're close. They are using the power of their minds to overcome fear.

For many people, the moment that they do something they thought was impossible there is a huge elation, a rush of confidence. This can and has spilled over into the rest of their lives. Penn is very rational and very confident. I won't demean that by saying he was born that way. In all likelihood he worked very hard to understand the world around him and gain control of any aspect he could which has resulted in great success for him. In a way, though, I think he has forgotten that most people have many limiting fears.

And the fears are bullshit. The subjects of this self-empowerment course wanted more- better jobs, richer lives, freedom from insecurity.... blah, blah, blah. We all know the list. Each of these fears and limitations are self-generated and self-perpetuated. There is no law saying you were born on the South side of town so you must be poor all your life. The Director of Personnel doesn't even know that your father was an alcoholic so that can't stop you from getting the promotion...But the subjects believe the limitations are real.

So these courses, these tests, allow the subject to defeat one imaginary problem that is also a very real fear. This one victory may allow them to challenge another imaginary problem and another and another... It is fighting bullshit with bullshit.

The final goal, the one Penn and I would both be happier with, is for the people to recognize the problems are imaginary and let them go. It can happen in time. You can outgrow rituals.

Used to be once a year, the group would get together for the "Drowning of Sorrows". We would name one event from last year that we didn't want to drag into the next. We would name it and drink a cup of sake in memory because it was OVER. The ritual continued until we were out of stuff to forget. Somewhere along the line I quit going to the party because I very, very rarely hung on to anything anymore. The problems were all imaginary.

The ritual was Bullshit and it handily helped us deal with problems that, also, were Bullshit. Then you get over it.

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