Friday, December 3, 2021

"The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff--Nonfiction Review

Today we’re talking about Winnie the Pooh—and Taoism. Okay, admittedly, not immediately two things that seem related but hear me out. I found “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff to be a decent—if a bit over my head—introduction to the topic, but mind you, I have no idea what I’m talking about—so grain of salt.

Benjamin Hoff

What I love about this book:

I love Winnie the Pooh. I love him and his stories in that uncritical way that you only really possess in childhood and possess vicariously into adulthood only because you remember being a child with something. Stories of Pooh, and his friends, were a staple of my earliest childhood memories, and as such, I even love things where he’s only tangentially related.

Tangential might not be the best way to put his involvement in this book—Pooh Bear is essential to the point and effect Hoff is after about Taoism. Pooh is utilized precisely how he was intended to be, filling the role of unexpected and unlikely teacher, as well as friend and companion.

Before reading this book, I was aware of Taoism, but I wouldn’t say I was ever familiar with it, so it made for a fascinating read. It certainly makes for a good starting point on the subject and jumping-off point because clearly, that was Hoff’s intention.

What I don’t love about this book:

I’m not wowed by this school of thought. Concepts like the uncarved block have always rung to me as an excuse for non-achievement. Typically, I go a little cross-eyed when people start talking about limitless potential and oneness with nature or the universe—or whatever. I can respect that Taoism can be a source of great comfort for some, and who knows, maybe it truly is wisdom in its rawest form. But it occurred to me several times while reading this that not only was I more like the pitiable examples pointed out in this book of individuals cut off from true wisdom, but I also agreed with them more about the world.

Hoff has some strong words about his perceived limitations on scholarly pursuits and scientists and what science, in general, can tell us about the universe. Maybe I’m just an elitist, but I respect scholars and scientists first and foremost above all other professions. So I’m a little suspicious and defensive when someone tells me that their collection of beliefs—regardless of how vague or precisely explained they are—demonstrates the weaknesses of the scientific method.

Parting thoughts:

So despite identifying more with Rabbit and Owl—the clever and the scholarly types—it occurs to me that I might be fundamentally limited in some way, and that’s what’s keeping me from “getting” it. I think it is essential to always have that inner voice that questions your own beliefs.

Regardless, it isn’t important whether or not my limitations have held me back with what I want to talk about here. Clearly, I didn’t exactly enjoy this book or agree with it—so why did I continue to read it until I finished it? 

Because I think it’s essential to be exposed to and try to understand ideas different from my own. I believe this because increasingly, via social media—and hell—just traditional media causes us to entrench in our own little information silos specifically built to reinforce our own worldviews. The social media side neatly groups us into groups of like-minded people and limits our interaction with “outsiders.” While clearly comfortable for everyone, regardless of position on the political spectrum, we accept this digital segregation from one another because it plays to one of our most basic and outmoded impulses. The impulse to form tribes.

I’ve expressed why I feel tribalism is ugly and dangerous before on this blog—but in this case, it is exceedingly terrible because all ideologies are not made equal. Equality is a concept that should be applied to people. Not ideas. For instance, the belief that the Earth is flat doesn’t deserve the same respect as general relativity. It’s disturbing that most internet platforms that allow for online communities seem to be built so that they tacitly imply that they are—in the form of the flat earthers have their little silo over there, separate from the mainstream over here.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against the concept of online communities. I’m not. I belong to several. What I’m against is when these groups are allowed to spread patently false information and aren’t called out for it in any way. Because that’s how people radicalize and become the extremists that we see in the news. My intuition is no one starts out wild-eyed bug nuts crazy chomping at the bit to shoot up a pre-school. This is a road that starts off with several little steps, supported by online “friends.”

We are, at our core, social creatures. The urge to form friend groups with similar interests isn’t destructive on its face. It’s only when these little pockets of people become toxic, self-reinforcing echo chambers that they become dangerous.

Where I think we’ve gone wrong is we’ve strayed too far away from an overarching universal society of humanity to smaller, more personalized, customized societies that appeal to our initial biases about the world. This drive to belong to a special group, who gets it, has gone so far that people try to apply those same customizations from their online life to reality in general. But reality doesn’t care about anyone’s preferences, goals, values, or anything. It is indifferent and just is.

To avoid going down a path where people can, with all the confidence in the world, say that JFK isn’t dead and is going to show up in Dallas—any—day—now—we need that solid overarching society that we all belong. When we’ve gone astray, we need it to tell us that we’re not just wrong but stupid—and it requires the authority and enough of our respect that we believe it when it tells us that uncomfortable truth.

How do we get there? I don’t know. Like all complicated problems, it will likely require a complicated solution. My paltry contribution to addressing the problem is: we should never be convinced of our infallibility that we couldn’t possibly be simply wrong about something.

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