Coffee With Cardamom

Some days I want change. Today is such a day. 

My world, right now, is rather limited. So, too, is my ability to affect change. That is why I just dropped three crushed cardamom pods in my coffee press and called it “a change.” 

It’s a tiny thing, this break in routine. But right now the act of making coffee is the closest I have to any daily ritual. If a ritual is understood to be an action repeated with intent, then there is also significance in the act of introducing anomaly to the pattern. 

This is, of course, an imaginary construct against powerlessness. It is the ridiculous yet visceral urge towards irreconcilable opposites. It is the wish for the world to be different

I want change, yes – and peace and creation and healing and the chaos of rebirth and destruction. I am selflessly greedy; I want none of this struggle to be necessary. I want the ideal of Spaceship Earth. I want people, as a species, to have fulfilled lives doing whatever they do best, without impinging on anyone else’s ability to do the same. (I’m not going to say “I want everyone to be happy” because, frankly, I suspect there are people who just wouldn’t be happy with that.) 

Somewhere, if you catch Probability on a very good day – there’s a version of our universe in which, each time there is a chance for strife – it misses. 

Each time we are faced with the opportunity to do harm, we don’t. We dodge each trap of choice, while retaining free will. 

In this thought-experiment, there is no divine intervention which keeps choice or chance on track. This is no Paradise, no Nirvana. This is a place of human decision. So the word for it is: Utopia.

Now, for a bookshelf detour. There is a book called The Power of Myth1; it is a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on why, and how, we need the mythic. I have recently acquired a copy, after brushing against references to this work off and on over the last decade. 

One constantly recurring theme is the idea of the price of life. Campbell goes beyond simply discussing the old duality of life and death to suggest that the act of life requires an act of death – an act of killing. This is framed as the necessity of eating (animal or vegetable, both involve an organism’s death). Yes, that escalated quickly. 

In Campbell’s own words:

Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been….Only death is no trouble.” (emphasis mine)

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It appears my thought experiment has just been called “childish” by one of the twentieth century’s best-known thinkers on comparative mythology. 

I can’t even say he’s wrong. It’s a demonstrable fact: life survives only at the cost of other life2.

Campbell continues to say that he thinks the world is perfect the way it is – there is nothing he would change.

“…People ask me, ‘Do you have optimism about the world?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.’”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

When life and killing are intrinsically linked, you can’t exactly go around playing Caped Crusader. (Well, capes haven’t really been in since The Incredibles, but you get the picture). 

There’s not that much to argue against a person who will simply respond that you haven’t evolved the higher understanding necessary to agree with them. That aside (“questionable scholarship aside”) – Campbell’s words bother me because they heavily imply that what humans need isn’t an ideal of Utopia; humans just need better rituals to navigate the business of killing things. (Periodically he also mourns the fact that modern societies have no rituals.)

I think Campbell fails to distinguish between necessity and gratuitousness. 

If you find you can do less harm – do so. That is the greatest act of change possible. If you can exist in such a way that lessens suffering, both individual and cumulative – do so. And look for ways to continue to do so. Globally it may be a lost cause. You can’t control anyone else’s actions. But you can try to lessen harm in whatever is placed in front of you, each day. 

Campbell doesn’t have a lot to say about my thought experiment anyway because he’s already said there is nothing he would change. 

Here is my unsubstantiated suspicion: Campbell could afford to say there was nothing he would change because, as far as these things go, he was at the top of the pyramid. He was educated (Dartmouth and Columbia), financially stable, a tenured professor. He had many safety nets against the rougher side of change. He had many insulations against precisely the cycle of desperate necessity he described as inevitable. Poverty and powerlessness were not his lot.

The rest of us dream of a changed world. The rest of us construct Utopias in our heads, and look for small ways to sneak glimpses into the everyday. 

There are plenty of times in life when imperfection must be accepted, acknowledged, embraced, or celebrated. Imperfection has its own lessons for us, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on imperfection. 

But the act of reflecting on “perfection” – even if we can’t agree on what it is or how to get there – also holds lessons. This act of imagining Utopia? It’s powerful stuff. It is an action I repeat with intent: a ritual, if you will, performed as often as I can get away with it. The understanding that I will always fail to create it for others does not release me from the drive to use it as the template for anything I do create – even if it is as simple as a single chance to “do no harm.”

Good grief, that cardamom coffee3 is good stuff. I wonder what else I can find to throw in there tomorrow? 

1The Power of Myth is a complex book, and it’s ideas – for better or worse – have shaped a lot of modern cultural production. Here, I have pulled at one small thread of many. My caution? Campbell is often viewed as some sort of Messianic figure, and I think that is precisely a view he seeks to bolster. The book should be understood as a heavily subjective interpretation at best – Campell cherrypicks sources and versions of myths, and he constantly draws from other fields – in which he has no in-depth knowledge – to back up his subjective claims. Having said all of that, if you are at all interested in narrative or symbolism or philosophy or the weirdness people get up to when they’re trying to make sense of themselves and the world – I think the book is a very worthwhile read. 

2 Of course, he’s ignoring plants and single-celled organisms who form chlorophyll from solar energy. But he would likely argue that soil is formed by decomposed life.

3 Upon coffee-enlightened reflection, I’ve now backed myself into a corner labeled “hypocrite.” Neither coffee nor cardamom are, strictly speaking, necessary. So in this act of consumption of once-living plants, I am back to square one. Dammit, I need better rituals for this sort of thing…

Published by Marushka

I dream curiosity and write words that change brains.

21 thoughts on “Coffee With Cardamom

  1. Your posts beg a long philosophical discussion… Let me grab my coffee. (Hold the cardamom)
    I think maybe our minds think along the same lines as I am forever trying to figure out (in short) What’s the point? (Of life that is) Why violence, why not peace, why war, why strife, why can’t we just be happy… etc. etc. etc.
    Does it boil down to personal responsibility? Are we all on a level playing field really? With the capacity to ‘create’? Are we capable of creating heaven and choose to create hell? All questions – no solid answers. For a while I worried about the ‘world out there’ but realized that is futile. Is that selfish? (maybe) but I realized at some point there is only one thing I can control and that is my personal space. That was hard – because I had to start taking responsibility for my own peace, happiness, contentment, etc. Yuck. Lol
    Anyway… like I said your posts beg for a coffee shop and several hours of discussion. And I love always the humor your throw in at the end.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed! Yes, thinking about Utopia is like sourdough starter for ideas, it just keeps growing…and growing….0__0 haha. It remains to be seen whether it has more implications for the personal or the social level of transformation – I used to think the latter, but currently I’m inclined to the former. Which is to say – Utopia is something that almost certainly varies from person to person, but it’s important to contemplate what yours is. “Know thy Utopia,” to paraphrase. If you’re really fortunate, you’re in a space where you can reflect aspects of it out into the world around you, and it will line up with enough other peoples’ Utopias to become real. As always, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, I always look forward to them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s also interesting (like the Matrix) that somehow I think we (humanity) just can’t quite stomach ‘perfection’. I would argue that what we find ourselves in – the World of Form, I call it – is perfection in that it oscillates / undulates so that somehow we are forced to strive back toward balance. Or does that force us to acknowledge the Now? Where else can we be?
        It’s the movement we crave. Or maybe on a deeper soul/ eternal level it’s the experience we so desperately crave. (I would italics the word experience but can’t figure out how on this iPad)
        Again, I have to go back to the personal – it’s all personal and can’t be any other way but I do think when someone ‘finds’ that Utopia for them it affects all those around them, then perhaps that moves it to the social lever (?) – no answers always questions. Lol

        Liked by 1 person

        1. To your Matrix observation – I suspect the impulse to define ourselves through struggle is too deeply ingrained. Even if we, somehow, set aside external struggle (war, economy, politics, etc), we still have this compulsion to derive meaning from internal struggles like grief, challenges, anger, etc. Perhaps just my way of understanding the “movement,” the experience you talk about. The thing is, that’s struggle against Self. So I definitely think you’re on to something when you say that “when someone finds that Utopia for them it affects all those around them…” .

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ok – yes, we are definitely in need of a coffee shop (one that’s allowing people to sit inside) Oh wait – Murushka’s is open!
            “Even if we, somehow, set aside external struggle… “ That is exactly what I meant by ‘movement’

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The idea that humans wouldn’t appreciate Utopia stems from humans’ intrinsic need for balance – that you can’t have your cake and eat it. But the problem is: it’s totally made up. Smith’s statement was cooked up by entertainers to provoke thought, it is not established fact about human psychology.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I think one of the central questions that arises in any discussion of Utopia is – “whose?” We use it as a catch-all concept for a bunch of ideals stemming from different disciplines and philosophies…and then you have the small variations each individual wants out of their own environment – so eventually you have to decide what preferences you are going to include in your utopia, and what you’re going to exclude. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that a lot of utopias are based on a somewhat mechanistic understanding of human behavior, and so it seems reasonable that – since human behavior isn’t really mechanistic – the real challenge isn’t designing a utopia, but getting people to live in it.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. There’s a lot of truth to that. I think we need to approach it from the lowest common denominator. Rather than asking “does everyone in Utopia get free ice-cream” we need to find what the vast majority of people would consider “must-haves”. The Epicurean standard of a life free of chronic fear and pain is a good baseline. Will people still be afraid sometimes or stub their toes? Of course. But a safe and healthy place to live in is the least we should expect and strive for. I think we’ve made a lot of progress here and there’s no reason to let up.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. One of the greatest flaws I see in a lot of utopias is that they are conceived as “perfection” rather than “what it takes to flourish.” Perfection doesn’t really allow for adaptability, and adaptability is a must for a species to flourish. So a good idea of utopia must anticipate stressors – and rather than trying to eliminate them, it must seek to design a system that absorbs and lessens the impact of such events. It’s like building with rubber instead of glass.

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. Campbell is clearly an ass. I share your views on the world. It is currently a shithole. Sadly, I doubt that will change anytime soon. I am for the Hedonistic Imperative and all that David Pearce believes in.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good Lord, I hadn’t heard of David Pearce. He doesn’t shy away from addressing inconsistencies in the concept of “end suffering”! Thanks for sharing the name. – In defense of Campbell, he’s definitely got his ego and his blind spots, and I think his work is more accurately qualified as a subjective system of belief, BUT there’s still a lot of interesting jumping-off points. I do appreciate his work for saying – mythology has more to offer than we think, and it can help us understand our psychological heritage as a species.


  3. This guy Campbell sounds like another notable dickhead, who used to go around saying that we live in the best of all possible worlds… honestly, not possible to take him seriously as a thinker.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In fairness to Campbell – as I continue the book, I think that statement was coming from a place of …resigned fatalism, perhaps. He regularly points out the inconsistencies in the ideas of “good,” “happy,” “absence of suffering;” he later discusses the role of the hero as someone who sees the whole mess yet manages to manifest their sense of self in the midst of the hand they are dealt (I paraphrase). At any rate, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting to read if I agreed with it. But thank you for your support in the ongoing reading brawl!


  4. Marushka, I think your thought experiment is dead on, and totally practical; pretty much a standard of ethics.

    I’ve never heard of Cambpell, but I’ll give my two cents. His opinion, and that of all non-utopians, boils down to laziness – either too lazy to fix the world, or too lazy to care about those who are disadvantaged.

    Let’s go back to basics. Entropy rules the universe. Energy, unless contained by an active process, will dissipate to an even, non-living, background radiation. In order to prevent their own decay, living organisms have to consume energy so that they can keep their energy preservation processes running. most, if not all (biologists correct me) living species feed on other living or formerly living things in order to attain their energy and nutrients. But this is only because those sources are the most refined and readily available. The vast, vast, vast majority of energy in the universe is contained in non-living things: sunlight, radioactivity, tidal thermal. Likewise the vast majority of chemicals required to sustain us are also available in great plenty outside of other living organisms.

    So here’s my thought experiment: Can we imagine a world in which all energy and nutrients required to sustain humans is attained from non living things? The answer is unequivocally YES. With the right technology this is utterly possible. This can be applied to both biological and economic predation. Campbell’s point of view is anachronistic, uncreative, and lazy. It ticks me off when supposed experts are so untethered from science and reality. His opinion is nothing more than armchair rationalization.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t considered it from the standpoint of a simple question of energy – thanks for sharing that insight. I think one of the biggest blind spot of various utopias is that people come at it from just one angle – the social, the environmental, the technological, the built environment, the intellectual or political – and then it becomes very easy to miss out on another aspect that could contribute to a more “buildable” version of a better society.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I also think the “childish” comment about rejecting life is also very subjective. The reason people keep on living is because we have evolved to avoid death (otherwise we would be extinct). Here again, Campbell is rationalizing something that goes way deeper than the cerebral cortex. We don’t “choose to survive” any more than we “choose to be hungry”. It’s just something we do as a functional species. But that doesn’t make it intellectually valid. A being’s desire not to be part of a cycle of suffering is actually a noble sentiment. But that desire is usually much weaker than our evolutionarily endowed desire to live.

    I think most of us find some intellectual reason to explain why we keep on living, and that’s a good thing. But those reasons are just bolted onto a pre-existing biological imperative to stay alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I guess it’s a difficult question to ask “why do we stay alive”? It opens up some tricky ethical territory, for one thing. I think Campbell is very attached to the idea that there is no escape, so there’s no point in trying to question or fight the cycle of suffering – but I think his philosophy doesn’t really value the act of questioning. He’s very into “this is the way things are, here’s a way to accept it:” But the minute people have a brain capable of processing something beyond the biological imperatives of survival, they start to want reasons – and even if they never find those reasons, the act of questioning things can help them create a sense of meaning.

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