By Comparison

I was standing in line at the post office yesterday, and as a longtime resident of this area, feeling inconvenienced by the wait. Not too many years ago our town was very quiet in December, by comparison. I struck up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. He was standing contentedly with a very different mindset than the one I was developing. He told me that in West Palm Beach, where he had lived a few years ago, such lines regularly stretched out the door and around the building. He went on to describe how much he enjoyed living here and also noted, with a smile, how the feeling akin to amazement he had just experienced paying his property taxes here was very different, by comparison, to the one produced by that same transaction in Florida.

I’m grateful to the gentleman for stimulating my own short term memory of recent travels through the urban cliff dwellings and the unremitting attrition of my brake pads in the rapidly moving and rapidly stopping stream of ruthless and eternal traffic. By comparison, the botheration of waiting an extra thirty seconds at one traffic light in Hiawassee began to evaporate. I had a better day because he reminded me of what I should already know.

Last night I heard crickety things chirping in the woods and a few peepers peeping from the pond. I stood in the moonlit mist in my t-shirt, waited for the dogs to conduct their dog business and compared Decembers past with the springlike temperatures of that tranquil evening. I could almost feel a fully formed template of concern ready to snap into place, a paradigm of thought built up by years of opinions (as unrelenting as Atlanta traffic) on climate ranging from scientific curiosity to emotional pearl clutching. I almost – almost – lost the opportunity to enjoy the moment and appreciate the beauty of the moonlight, the tenacity of life adapting to a different kind of December, and most of all, how comfortable I was in that t-shirt.

By comparison, my power bill for these springlike fall temperatures will be a cause for celebration. Don’t get me wrong. Climate is certainly a cause for concern as it has been throughout the history of humanity. Great civilizations unable to adapt to changing climate have disappeared. My point is that “concern” in our society has mutated from the realm of the scientific, practical and expedient to something caustic and unhealthy, a monetized, leveraged and politicized assault of our emotions and peace of mind.

Some of the responsibility lies in the structure and function of our brains. The brain is a “difference engine” in that it is continuously making associations and comparisons, averaging and collating data, often erroneously, in order to create recognizable and actionable thoughts. It seeks to provide a complete image from whatever data is available. Optical illusions, for example, result when conflicting data is received by the neurons that create visual images and certain neurons “win out” over others. The process is not fully understood, but science has observed that what we see is also influenced by past experience and cultural conditioning.

Conditioning. Herein lies the problem. We swim in a sea of information very often designed to monetize our fears and concerns. Differences of generation, culture, race, nationality and an ever increasing number of “identities” are a given, but all of these divisions, whether cultural, biological or self-imposed, are subject to being targeted by conditioning designed to monetize our attention.

I have a friend who spends countless hours watching a highly politicized network which produces continuous breaking news updates on the falling sky and the end of civilization brought on by a certain political party, peering through a small screen into a virtual world of fear and hatred in the comparison of us and them. There is a window overlooking a garden right next to the television, but that garden is now untended.

Another acquaintance looks through a similar screen but tuned to a different illusion, absorbing daily reminders that people who vote a certain way are likely to be despicable, with a laundry list of predictable reprehensible beliefs. This partisan can now quickly identify, by comparison, them from us simply by observing how “they” dress or talk or what they drive, and those infallible clues will immediately reveal how they vote, which of course reveals the quality of their character.

This morning the dogs and I were greeted by another spring day in December. We enjoyed it thoroughly, the dogs with their intrinsic “be here now” nature and me with a conscious choice to disengage the difference engine long enough to splash in a few puddles and throw the ball. Incidentally, the snow cover in the northern hemisphere is now at the greatest extent it has been for the last 56 years. All that cold air is not going to stay put forever. Chances are that by the time Christmas comes around we’ll be bundling up and complaining how cold it is, by comparison, to just a short time ago.

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