Random Thoughts

Ideas appear in my head.
Dreams. pictures, music.
Entire poems, sometimes.
From whence do they come?

Imagine that the word “random” had
never been invented. What does it
but “there are some questions you must not


These are the sensations to which you are to attend.
These are where you shall find your meaning.
Pay no attention to the small, still voice within.”

“Random” < Old English < German, “to gallop.
To run fast is to have no purpose or direction.

Or perhaps the speed
conscious purpose,
and we are guided by an inner/outer/manifest.





But for this pillow, I might have no dreams—
I seek in vain for dream within its down
And when a nightmare rages in my crown
The pillow’s far away, or so it seems.

It’s when my heart dissolves in perfect bliss
The pillow, all too near, disturbs my joy
And inner state of rapture must alloy
As senses tug upon my consciousness.

In light of day, the dream fades like a ghost
But in the dream’s pale light the world’s forgot
So, which rich forms are real and which are not?
I’m free to choose the one I fancy most.

The world is hard, the pillow’s stuff is soft
One holds my frame, one keeps my soul aloft.

JJM, after Yuan Hong-Dao 袁宏道 (1568-1610)


Can we decide to be happy?  Is it that simple?

Utilitarian philosophy, which is the unsung foundation of Western economics and modern culture, says that happiness is what we all seek, the summum bonum, the ne plus ultra. According to the utilitarians, we have already decided to be happy, all of us, and it is only the proper means that we contemplate, the interposition of outside circumstance that confound us. If happiness were under our personal control, the entirety of utilitarian social philosophy would be vitiated.

At the other extreme, “you create your own reality” is a mantra of New Age culture.

If you’re still reading this, you obviously think it’s not an utterly ridiculous question. Yes, we have some control. “Deciding to be happy” is not obviously useless all the time. How much do we control, and to what extent are we at the mercy of our hormones? Or of external cricumstances?

The worst depression of my life occurred in 1994-95, triggered by the collapse of a lawsuit, which was all that remained of my software business, begun so propitiously just a few years before. For a year, I answered in monosylables and behaved insufferably to my wife and, most shamefully I confess, to my young daughters. Then one day I said, “I don’t want to be like this any more,” and a corner was turned.

If being happy is as simple as deciding to be happy, why have so many of us chosen not to? Perhaps because it is not part of our culture to be happy. We risk ostracism if we are “insufferably cheery.” People around us are sub-clinically depressed, and we annoy them if we appear day after day in a good mood. What is it to “be cool” if not to blow off the world’s glorious gifts as we blow off insults and setbacks, and to hide our child-like capacity for wonder from the light of day? In our culture, “I don’t care” is the easiest thing in the world to say, and “I love you” is the most dangerous. I dare say that, given the choice most of us would choose the acceptance of a peer group over genuine happiness.

Without a doubt, there are cultures where people are much happier than 21st Century white middle-class Americans. Black middle class Americans, for a start. Most Latin and oriental cultures, many tribal cultures are happier than ours, certainly not because they have more wealth or security, but perhaps because they are situated more comfortably in family groups. How many of us dance regularly, or sing spontaneously as we go through our day?

I can’t leave this brief essay without a nod to Meher Baba, Indian master in the Zoroastrian tradition. As a young man he wrote profusely, sometimes tortured songs of incessant seeking, sometimes rapturous poems of divine love. Then, in 1925, he broke off, counseling, “Don’t worry–be happy,” and didn’t speak a word for the latter 40 years of his life. (In the 1930s, Meher Baba visited America and his particular magnetism attracted a following of movie stars and celebrities included Boris Karloff. There’s a match!)



Maybe free will is an illusion.  Maybe “deciding to be happy” is something that happens to us, and we only feel we have control over it.  Maybe our dispositions are dictated by outside circumstance far more than I like to admit.  Maybe deciding to be happy is not different from choosing a perspective of gratitude.  Maybe happiness is a property of cultures and families far more than individual temperaments, let alone individual choice.

But I think deciding to be happy is a worthy experiment.  Whatever your belief system, suspend it long enough to imagine that there is a buoancy in the world, a guiding hand that works in mysterious ways but for your ultimate good.  Try it! So long as it doesn’t make you sweep emotional grist under the carpet, sing out loud while chewing your cud and continuing to grow.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Prose Poem

Like Stars in the Daylight

I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’,
Naming the emptiness where thought is not
– George Eliot

Had we been born on a planet
that always keeps one face to the sun
(as Mercury was once thought to do)
We might have breathed a rich lifetime
all in Daylight.

So how might we have responded
if some mountebank conjurer told us there were stars?
Not just stars, but nebulae, black holes spouting bright plumes of plasma,
And a million million pinwheels in the sky…

A polite and patronizing smile perhaps,
on a good day; scorn otherwise.

Bourdillon had it exactly backward.
The soul has a thousand eyes,
all rendered blind
by the glare of the mind.
The senses, the hormones, the nerves of the brain–
Endlessly screaming with pleasure and pain
Prevent us from sensing aught else.

Must we wait on those who return from the dead
To tell us who we are?
Who we are when we are not thinking,
Not feeling our bodies
Pulled nor by sense nor by wrenching emotion
From the glorious expanse
of our very own

— Josh Mitteldorf



Haven’t we said enough about the ineffable?
— Dean Radin

Give me a place to stand, from which I can see the earth
Sell me a ticket that I might return to the land before my birth
Grant me a new perspective on what I have never seen
Teach me to be a being of a sort I have never been
Deliver me from the familiar, from whence there can be no sight
Shutter my eyes in darkness, that I might see the light

What have I held as presumption, routinely unaware?
What have I failed to see in the haze and reflection of my own glare?
May my neurons diverge from my body and branch to infinity
For there is and can be no salvation but devolves from mystery.
The source of all my confusion is this vessel which I call “me”
And until it’s demolished, how can I expect to aspire to clarity?

(No I cannot believe that I have to be dead to see things as they really are
But compared to the scope of this limited brain, the truth is a distant star.)

— Josh Mitteldorf

What work could be

Untitled drawingI have long accepted this as true and right.  It is part of the cultural water I swim in.  But today I find it goes against the grain of my deeper values.  It is a denigration of work and a denigration of living.

Everyone deserves to live.  No one should starve or freeze on the street.   This applies without conditions to all.

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. — Mark Twain

Many people are generous; they find joy and fulfillment serving one another, in large ways and small.  We can organize our economy around faith in the citizens’ goodness, rather than the assumption that people are lazy and selfish by nature.

When you coerce a man to work, when you tell him that work is unpleasant, that he must suffer or die—of course he comes to hate his job and hate his employer.

Real work isn’t degrading.  It isn’t dishonest.  It’s not at someone else’s expense, and it involves no coercion, either of or by the worker.

Real work makes us feel good about ourselves and connected to those we care about.

We are all serving the god of capitalism.  What if we served one another instead?

In practice it might looks like this:

  • A guaranteed universal income, sufficient live modestly with health and security.
  • Public employment: a guaranteed job for anyone who wants one, doing public service of his or her choosing, maintaining infrastructure or providing social services, creating art or scholarship.
  • In fact, people should be encouraged to write their own job descriptions, with liberal oversight and generous approval.
  • An expansion of the idea of public utilities: banking, housing, internet, and transportation become free public services.  Basic personal energy needs might also be free, including energy efficiency, energy conservation, and recycling services.

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