Category Archives: Happiness

Letter to my Former Selves


Many of my friends and role models have, on particular occasions, done an exercise in fantasy time travel: going back to speak to earlier versions of themselves on a “if you only knew what I know now” basis. I’ve never actually tried such an exercise before, but as the calendar year 2015 draws to a close, with all of the various transitions and wild adventures that it has included, I think it’s time for me to give it a shot. I’ll take the tried and true format of speaking to my selves on the Christmases of each year of my life thus far ending in a 5.

Warning: this is bound to be very personal and perhaps somewhat self-indulgent. In some ways that’s the whole point of the exercise. If you don’t want to have TMI (too much information) shock about me perhaps you might want to consider skipping this blog entry. For those who have been close to me and shared particular aspects of my life, forgive me if I get a bit close to home on such things. I’ll try not to violate much of your privacy here, but I realize this could end up getting a bit uncomfortable.

And with that I take a deep breath and dive on in:

To David of 1965 –– Jackson, Michigan:

You are still too young to remember any of this Christmas, but it has been an idyllic one anyway. Your baby sister has started walking and talking and your young parents have done surprisingly well in getting ahold of their own little piece of the American dream. Having a college education paid for through their parents’ savings and their own hard work, your father being employed in the computer industry in what will come to be seen as its early days, and already having a respectable home of their own in the suburbs and two nice little kids while they’re still in their early twenties is quite the accomplishment –– something that was possible for no previous generation in their families, and in all likelihood will not be possible for any future generation of middle class Americans.

They’re good people. Always be thankful for their strong minds, their good hearts (in the figurative sense at least) and their strong but balanced sense of ambition in life. Even so, it would help for you to be aware of the fact that they got into this “rat race” far too young and they really don’t know what they’re doing at it. In the next few years, after moving to a different part of the country and giving you a couple of baby brothers to go with the package, they aren’t going to be able to hold it together any more. It’s going to be tough on all of you. Hang in there though; you’ll have some advantages that most kids from “broken families” can only dream of: your parents will never use you and your siblings as weapons against each other, and you’ll never have reason to doubt either of their love for you.

Your baby sister will be fine, even if she seems to follow you around and compete with you in bothersome ways at times. Try and avoid letting that get on your nerves. The little brother you’ve got coming next year will need more of your attention actually; not “leadership” but attention. Try to be there for him as much as possible. And be careful with all of the pressure to be “the man of the house” in your dad’s residential absence. Beyond that, be aware that believing that good things are coming in your life can be what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.


To David of 1975 –– South Berwick, Maine:

In many ways you have already found your niche in life it seems. Your grandparents refer to the evangelical Christian religious community where your mother has taken you and your siblings to live as a “commune” and in some ways that’s not far from the truth. You sort of know that this lifestyle isn’t what people in “the world” consider normal, but you’re cool with that. There’s plenty of support and positive reinforcement from the ex-hippie Bible college students that you’re hanging around with, and that kind of atmosphere is helping you learn to think on a much higher level than is expected of kids your age. You can be thankful for that.

You can also be especially thankful for the opportunity to debate about these things with your father on a regular basis. Without that sort of strong contact with the outside world you could be in a rather risky place psychologically. Never doubt the sincerity of your father’s faith, even if he is far more “liberal” about it than your pastor is willing to accept. That doesn’t mean that his salvation should be in any doubt.

For all the good there is for you in this life though, there are still things you should try to understand. First of all you don’t really have to worry about Jesus coming back before you have a chance to experience adult life. You sort of know that already, and it wouldn’t do you much good to dispute this fact with those around you who are dogmatically convinced that the “Rapture” will occur before 1981, but just don’t worry about it. There are enough other stresses in life without worrying about that.

One source of stress for you to deal with more actively is your sexuality, but not in the way you might think. Don’t let the subject scare you, and don’t let the overall negativity towards the subject there “on campus” determine your perspective on the matter. There is nothing inherently evil about it, and it is not the devil trying to distract you from “your calling” or anything like that. Be aware of where the young people a decade or so older than yourself that you are hanging out with are coming from in this regard: they were part of a cultural experiment in stretching the boundaries of how public you could be about enjoying sex outside of marriage. They already have a variety of hindsight perspectives on that experience, and the main emphases in teachings from the pulpit on that subject are to get them to leave all that behind. Thus you may hear a lot about the role of the devil in sexuality and all that, and you need such messages with a grain of salt. You’ll want to find out more about the subject than what your community there wants you to know, and that would be a good thing. You’ll also want to work on learning to recognize when girls are or are not interested in you in a pre-sexual sort of way, and determining what you want to do with that information…

You will inevitably draw the wrong conclusions and learn the wrong lessons from your parents’ and your older peers’ experiences in this area. I wish I could tell you that everything will work out alright in that department, but it’s best to be honest about the fact that it will be tough for you. The best I can tell you is that knowing you are loved in non-sexual ways by so many important people will help you get through many of the frustrating and inevitably awkward times ahead. And beyond that, even though it is something cruelly joked about at times, there really is a certain value in sexual innocence, for guys as well as girls, even if it is largely involuntary.


To David of 1985 –– Helsinki, Finland

So you and Minna have decided to get engaged this Christmas. In some ways that was inevitable. It certainly provides you with a boost in hope and confidence levels. That doesn’t mean it is a wise or safe decision, but I’m not sure I should try to talk you out of it; there are important places for you to go and things for you to do that you probably can only reach by way of such a path.

Your efforts to help start a church in Wales, that you’re now about to call it quits with, will remain a sort of awkward footnote in your life, but the pain-to-lessons-learned ration on that one will make it one of the better learning experiences you will go through in adult life; no need for regrets over your misjudgments on that one.  And now you’re visiting Finland, seriously contemplating the idea of making it your home. That is a wild idea, but it can actually work for you.

The most important thing you should realize is that John Lennon was fundamentally wrong about the idea that “all you need is love”. Love is pretty thoroughly blind at times, but in hindsight you will realize the truth of something you are now actively trying to deny: Minna has deeper personal problems than what your love can fix for her. By making her part of your life you are setting yourself up to be blamed for those problems long-term. Eventually the truth will come out, but not before you’ve been through a horrible amount of wasted pain. Nor will this be the only time you make such a mis-judgement. The sooner you get over the idea that you can use love to repair dysfunctions in women who have that sort of interest in you, the better things will be for you.

Meanwhile Finland is about to start changing pretty radically, and you will have a great front row seat from which to watch history being made. Enjoy the show. Enjoy taking part in the process. If only you could do that without all the marriage messes you’ve got coming…

But here’s where your innocence is both part of the problem and part of how you will eventually get through it. Two virgins saving themselves for their wedding night is not actually a particularly good recipe for long-term sexual fulfilment in life. Eventually you will realize that. But coming into the relationship with that level of innocence also serves to protect you from feeling guilty for causing your own problems through your moral failures. You’re not wicked, just incredibly naïve. Realizing that when you face all sorts of accusations later on will be important for remaining at peace with yourself. It will also provide a starting point for rebuilding your relationship with God through this whole mess. Hang onto that. Don’t lose hope, regardless of what comes your way.


To David of 1995 –– Helsinki, Finland

Been quite a ride, hasn’t it! You’ve had some pretty serious ups and downs over the past decade. You’ve learned about the dangers of marriage, of recovery romances and at times of loneliness. After stints in different aspects of the Finnish food service industry you’ve discovered that teaching is what you are really especially good at. And in spite of all of your humiliation from association with crazy women and crazier church leaders, you’ve started to carve out a niche for yourself as a foreign scholar and a respectable theologian here.

Economically the worst is behind you already. You’re not about to become rich, but the days of not being able to visit with your sons because you can’t afford to provide meals for them during the visit are behind you now. The struggle to have your role as their father recognized and respected has a long way to go still, but don’t give up on it; they will remain the most important part of what makes you you.

Perhaps the best advice I can offer to you at this point, besides encouraging you never to give up, is to tell you to keep working on developing those writing skills. The worlds of e-mail, on-line communities and flexible electronic publishing systems are just beginning, and using them to get your ideas out into the world will be important for you. Try to stay focused on you writing projects, not letting them gather dust for months or years at a time. Every book you finish will be an important step towards gaining respect and justifying your existence to those who have doubts about the matter.

Beyond that be careful, but enjoy this time as a single university student now for all it’s worth. There will be plenty of good things to look back on from the turbulent decade.


To David of 2005 –– Espoo, Finland

At last it’s starting to feel like adult life is settling into a groove for you. At last you are officially qualified to do the sort of teaching work that you’ve been doing for the past eight years! Soon your efforts as a parent and spouse will also be (somewhat) vindicated. Your sons’ childhoods are effectively over already, so you won’t be able to have the sort of active role you spent so long hoping for, but it the vindication will be sort of satisfying regardless. The physical aging process is a bit of a bummer, but there’s some compensation to be had in having people start to take you seriously as an adult for a change. Both trends are set to increase as time goes on. Take it for what it is.

There are all sorts of little details in life that you need to beware of: pay attention to details of your dog Mac’s health. He will remain important in the process of trying to maintain your sanity for many years yet, and by staying alert to his little problems you can make his life a lot more carefree and painless. Likewise pay attention to your own health. Take the weight loss thing seriously and pay attention to issues of your circulatory system in particular.

What else can I suggest to you? Beware of letting anyone talk you into borrowing money to invest in real estate; you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of new adventures and major disappointments coming in the next decade for you. Be careful about getting your hopes up on some things, but don’t let new adventures scare you off. It’s true what they say that you’ll regret more the things you didn’t dare to try than the things you tried at and failed. Keep investing your time and energy, and what little money you have at your disposal, in people rather than things. In the long run it will be worth it.


Sincerely, your older self


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Filed under Happiness, Love, Priorities, Purpose

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

Misungu Life, Part 2

Having completed my second weekend in Kenya, there are still many aspects of the novelty of my situation here which dominate the experience. Two doors down from my hotel is a half-finished commercial building of sorts which is currently being used as a preschool. I have been greeting these four and five-year-old children as I pass by each day, and on Tuesday I stopped to shake hands with a few of them. Before I really knew what happened I was walking through town on market day with a small troop of them trailing behind me and trying to hold onto my fingers wherever I went! I tried to make it clear to all of the local adults that were watching with my facial expressions and body language that this really wasn’t my idea, I wasn’t trying to steal children, and that I wasn’t grabbing their little hands in return. Most were able to laugh at me about it. Walking further out into the countryside later on that day another crowd of children started to gather to stare at me, but as I took out my camera one little boy jokingly yelled to his friends (as my guide translated it), “My mother says that white men eat little children!” So many interesting levels of irony there, but I’m glad they’re being taught some caution at least.

027In visiting primary and secondary schools as a guest speaker I have been most enthusiastically received everywhere I have gone. My stories of a land far to the north where the sun never sets in the summer and where in the winter it gets so cold that my facial hair ices over as I walk to school drew as much wide-eyed wonder from the teachers as from the pupils at times, but very few seemed bored anyway. I have also fielded many rather difficult questions from these young listeners. One of the ones which stretches my competence a fair distance has been when I have been repeatedly asked honestly and innocently by these children, “Why is your skin so much lighter than ours?” My best guess at an answer is to say that my skin doesn’t work so well to protect me from the potentially harmful rays of the sun, so I tend to burn more easily; but one thing that light skin does slightly more efficiently than dark skin is to enable the body to produce vitamin D from sunlight, and given the limited amount of sunlight at times in the northern part of the world where I live we need all the vitamin D advantage we can get. But that being said, I know many dark-skinned people who have adjusted just fine to life in the frozen north, and I know it is quite possible for pale folk like me to adapt to climate conditions in equatorial Africa. Making a show of putting on some additional sunscreen as I said so tends to add to the comic effect.

A more difficult question has been, “Why do white people tend to be so much richer than black people?” Again, my best guess at an answer has been that some would say it is because in the part of the world where I live the struggle for survival against the brutal climate means that people have had to work harder just to survive, and that hard work in turn has generated many different forms of wealth. Others would say that the differences are based mainly on a history of white people coming and stealing from darker skinned people in various ways over the years. My guess is that the truth would lie somewhere in between those explanations. The important thing is to work on building a greater sense of solidarity between peoples of all skin colors, for which those with the greatest advantages must take the greatest responsibility.

Addressing the fact of the inequality between their lives and mine has been an omnipresent factor, as has the question of what they should be praying for God to do about the situation. The people of the Ahero area as a whole are deeply devout Christian believers, who struggle with the fact that God has quite apparently chosen not to materially bless them in the same ways he has blessed many countries dominated by white people. So when some tell me with a tight-lipped affirmation of their faith that they believe God will soon perform some miracle to help them out of their suffering and state of acute vulnerability I must confess it makes me rather uneasy. One young man who is a local school teacher of subjects similar to my own told me that there are churches of different sorts on average every square kilometer in Kenya, but many of them are based on a desperation for God to reach down and miraculously sort out their economic and health-related problems for them. Not coincidentally, as I have noticed, the word “miracle” figures strongly into the names of many of these churches.

013Another aspect of this type of Christianity seeking miraculous relief from suffering found here, which has its most problematic roots in the United States, is the idea that perhaps rather than trying to fix things we should just wait for Jesus to come back in the role of warrior god to destroy everything and then let him rebuild afterwards. Even setting aside the whole question of “smiting the heathen” being problematically inconsistent with the character of Jesus’ message, this sort of belief makes me uneasy in large part because of the dangers of frustrated “rapture” expectations I witnessed in the US back in the 1970s. Sadly many of my friends from that period still haven’t learned from that experience, or outgrown that mentality.

The best I can offer as both medicine for this dysfunction, and as encouragement for those who come to church for such reasons, is a sermon I’ve given in the two churches here I’ve been invited to preach at: Defining the difference between faith and hope. My texts for this message have been 1 John 3:1-3, Hebrews 11:1, Romans 5:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 13:13; all relatively frequently memorized passages actually, but I’ve rarely heard them preached on in conjunction with each other.

The passage in 1 John is particularly interesting in its emphasis on John’s expectation of Jesus’ second coming. John could never have imagined in writing this letter that would reverently be read in churches over 1900 years later; he fully expected that Jesus would return during his own lifetime. The Gospel of John concludes with an anecdote of Jesus hinting that John could well stay alive until the second coming, but it finishes with a bit of back-pedaling on the matter: Jesus never actually promised that John would live to see the second coming, he only hinted along the lines of “Well, what if he does?” This is probably the earliest recorded excuse for high hopes for Jesus’ immanent return being frustrated. There’s a long history of later expectations and predictions of his immanent return causing more than a little embarrassment for those promoting such claims. But in 1 John 3 the “beloved disciple” takes a somewhat different angle on the matter. He’s basically saying that we believers are primarily citizens not of any earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom soon to come. But the awesome thing, he’s telling his audience, is that they are already counted as God’s children, and the mystery of what sort of roles and privileges they could look forward to in the kingdom to come would just be icing on the cake. So the point, John is saying, is to appreciate what we have in terms of knowing that we are part of God’s family, and beyond that to keep pushing ourselves to be the best we can be because of the possibilities that lie ahead of us.

This brings out the most central aspect of the difference between faith and hope: Hope is a matter of being encouraged by a range of possibilities that we really can’t know about for sure. This is distinct from faith which is a matter of being sure about things that we can’t prove to ourselves purely on the basis of empirical data. Thus “faith is the substance of things hoped for…”

This is where Paul picks up the thread in Romans 5. Through faith in what Jesus has done for us we know we have peace with God. That’s the big thing. Beyond that we get excited about the possibilities of God’s glory coming and making all of our dreams come true. But that’s not the end of it; we can also be thankful that we have difficulties in the meantime because of the character that they build in us. That character that comes through facing difficulties (the old “no pain, no gain” principle) is a huge part of why we can somewhat expect good things to come, even though we’re not sure about them.

Beyond that, the hope we have because of knowing that we are part of God’s family and believing this will bring to us good things on all sorts of other levels is a different matter than crying out that Jesus is coming and that he is going to show everyone that we were right and they were wrong all along –– or believing that we really don’t have to worry about the mess we’ve made of our lives and our societies because Jesus is coming back soon to clean up after us. That latter kind of hope has a long history of making people rather ashamed. The hope based on being able to genuinely connect with God and his people, and expecting that in one way or another we will reap benefits from that, is a whole different kettle of fish.

This goes back to my personal 5 Cs of happiness theory: Faith is a matter of certainty about the top two: Confidence and Connection. We can know for sure that we are important in God’s eyes in spite of ourselves through faith. That kind of confidence is key to believing in my value as a person. Beyond that, the evidence that I can have to justify such confidence is the capacity God gives me through this faith through connection –– to be part of something bigger than myself in terms of loving and being loved by others. Those are the faith issues –– the matters that I believe God wants us to know for sure about. The lower three Cs of happiness –– Comparison, Comfort and Control –– are not intended to be matters of faith, but rather matters of hope for us. We don’t really know for sure whether God will enable us to come out better than the next group in terms of various measures of success. We can’t be sure about having freedom from physical suffering in life just because we are believers in God. Having freedom to do whatever we would like –– even when those are really “good things” –– isn’t something we can count on in too many specifics. What we can do in those areas is to continue to hope based on the strength we gain through faith in the two more important areas of happiness.

This is not to say, however, that factors of comparison, comfort and control are irrelevant to the believer’s life. We are still taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are expected to expect blessings from God also in these “lesser” areas. Beyond that, chapter 2 in the New Testament book of James makes it clear that if we genuinely do connect to God and each other through faith, we will be paying attention to the comfort and control needs of others as part of our connection with them: If we say we love God but don’t care about his people, we’re lying. If we say we care about his people but don’t bother to do what is in our power to help them, we’re lying. But that is more a message that Europeans need to hear than a message that the poor of Africa need to hear. The message that the poor of Kenya need to hear is that there are three things that abide –– that will always be important –– faith, hope and love, with love of course being the greatest.

046As I start winding down my adventures here I am incredibly thankful for all of the experiences I have had. Connecting with the poorest of the poor here has been infinitely more gratifying to me than a safari to see lions and elephants. Nothing against those who travel to this part of the world to see lions and elephants, but what I’ve been doing here is just far more “my thing” and the way I appreciate being able to spend parts of my vacation time. Now the challenge is to see if I can take what I’ve gathered here back to Europe and use it to do some “real and lasting good” for those whose needs I’ve been confronted with.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Happiness, Materialism, Religion

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Travel

My Ascension Agnosticism

Something that few other than those of us whose work is related to religious matters realize is that we are currently in the week between Ascension Day and Pentecost. In other words we are in that time of year that commemorates that period of uncertainty that hit Jesus’ followers a month and a half after his execution and after the thrill of his grave being empty, because after 40 days of visions of Jesus in his post-death state –– sort of physical and non-physical at the same time –– they had watched him levitate up through the clouds, after which they received an angelic message: “He’ll be back later, now get busy!”

But get busy with what? The closest thing Jesus’ followers had to a leader after his aerial departure was Peter, and for all his bluff and bluster this guy still felt more at home in a fishing boat than he did leading a worship service or holding an outreach strategy meeting.  The rest as well were really just trying to figure out whether this Jesus movement thing was worth bothering with any more or not. Their messianic hopes weren’t going to be realized in the ways they had first hoped for anyway: There wasn’t going to be a new system of civil government in Jerusalem right away anyway, which is what a lot of them had in mind when they signed on. The other-worldly ideas that Jesus had talked about still seemed more than a little abstract to them. They had watched Jesus rise up through the clouds, but in many respects they were stuck trying to work out for themselves the answer to the basic question: Which way is up?

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

That may sound like a silly question, but in so many ways it remains critical and indeterminate matter for most believers still today. I mean, to start with the obvious, the whole concept of the earth being a spinning sphere –– not really recognized at Jesus’ time but fairly self-evident to anyone who has been through elementary school or travelled internationally by air these days –– sort of screws up the idea of “up” pointing in any given direction within the solar system, our galaxy or the universe. So from that perspective, where did Jesus go?

The basic physical perspective of his followers at the time was pretty clear in this regard at least: After defeating death Jesus’ body had taken on a miraculous form that the empire could no longer kill. He then went to someplace on the other side of the clouds, where his father’s kingdom lies, to gather an army of angels together, and to commission the building of some sort of concrete homes and offices for his followers who were to have significant positions of authority in his kingdom up there. From there their general hope was that he would be returning with his celestial armies of angels in a few weeks, or months… or years… to set things right in the lands God had given to Abraham seed, and then take all of his true followers to the grand and glorious kingdom physically up there somewhere, which he had ascended up to supervise building on. The rest was details to be worked out and revealed when his actual coming would occur; they just sort of had to trust him on that.

Obviously some aspects of that perspective were very much wrong: We have now thoroughly explored the regions on the other side of the clouds, littered that area with satellites and sent out investigative equipment thousands of times further from the earth than the highest clouds, all without encountering any distant kingdom up there as those in the early church would have expected we’d find. Likewise since the ascension there have been hundreds of generations of believers in Jesus, each believing that they would most likely be the ones to experience his glorious return from wherever he went when he levitated off that Jerusalem hilltop way back the –– each eventually facing the disappointment of dying like those before them. Obviously they misunderstood some parts of the system and God’s long-term plan in the matter. How deep did that misunderstanding really go? Did they have any of it right? Troubling questions for those who still choose to identify as followers of Jesus.

The things that these original followers of Jesus knew, or at least clearly and strongly believed, not on the basis of faith and speculation but  on the basis of their personal sensory experiences, were that Jesus’ body had not remained dead, that they had actually seen him in this post-death state, and that a reliable group of witnesses among them had watched as, a month and a half after coming back from the dead, Jesus did his levitation through the clouds thing. Speculations by historical scholars since then that the gospel reports were fabricated simply as a means of maintaining the cult revering this visionary martyr of one of the Jewish restorationist movements of the time don’t come across as particularly credible. To repeat the familiar argument, these apostles all allowed themselves to be put to death for what they believed rather than changing their story to make it more politically acceptable. That doesn’t sound like the actions of cons or fakers.

So there isn’t a credible argument to be made that the whole thing was a giant scam right from the start. Claims that they were the victims of an incredible mas psychosis also seem a bit historically problematic. Somehow they all saw something after Jesus’ execution that gave them a profound existential certainty about the matter of Jesus as the great victor over death, whose side they definitely wanted to be on. Nor do we have any viable reason for doubting their soundness of mind in doing so.

But though we can’t dismiss the apostles as cons or flakes, nor can we credibly belief that everything these guys held as true was the absolute, God’s honest truth of the matter. I find it disingenuous either to claim that they were intentionally deceitful or collectively schizophrenic on the one hand, or to claim that their perspectives –– even those recorded in the New Testament –– were infallibly accurate on the other. There were more than a few things that they didn’t understand, that didn’t work the way they anticipated, and regarding which they were just factually wrong.  So somewhere here we have a disconnect to be rectified, and I’m honestly not sure exactly how and where. All we can know is that somewhere around the ascension ––  somewhere between the sincere eye-witness testimonies to the resurrection and the shared belief within the early church that Jesus had physically taken off to go up there somewhere to work on the material logistics necessary for his return –– we have a breakdown in the narrative credibility. We don’t really have any good answers as to where Jesus would have gone, in what material sense, other than that he just went away, and that opens up a few cans of worms of its own.

Every effort I’ve seen to square this circle involves a fair amount of epistemological bluff on one side or the other, strongly influence by the faith position taken by the person offering the answer. Either they are dismissing the whole account as myth and fabrication, or they are holding to the absolute accuracy of the historical account in the book of Acts as a matter of personal faith. I believe the truth must be somewhere in between these two positions, but I cannot be sure where. So this makes me a proper agnostic with reference to the implications of the story of the ascension: I don’t know what exactly happened that day and how the tale came to be recorded as we have it; and so far I don’t know of anyone whose claim to know about this matter I can take particularly seriously at this point in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Fortunately I’m not one to be particularly afraid of mysteries. Not knowing which way is up has become a fairly familiar experience for me, and I’m almost at the point of being comfortable with it.

There are essentially two important practical matters of faith relative to the ascension that make the story relevant beyond the expectation of Jesus coming back through the clouds in a reverse action sequence of his departure: First we have the matter of believing that Jesus lives, even though he is not with us here on a day-to-day basis. Second we have the matter of taking Jesus as an example of life after death so as to give us hope of someday having life after death ourselves. Let me unpack those a bit.

One of the technical differences between a religion and a cult, sociologically speaking, is a matter of how long it has been since the departure of its founding leader, whatever title that leader is known by. Any new religion begins by revering some particularly charismatic character that walks among us and seems to have all the answers. People live in awe of this individual and turn to him (inevitably it has to be a him) for moral, spiritual and political guidance. Obeying the word of this leader is considered more important than thinking for oneself. It is only two or three generations after this leader’s departure from the scene that his followers start to digest his teachings and experiment with thinking for themselves on the basis of the principles introduced in those teachings. Moving beyond the blind subservience phase to the responsible representative phase is an important aspect in any religion’s maturation process. In this regard Christianity really has been no exception. For the faith to mature into a significant cultural force, its followers had to start thinking for themselves. Some Christians still aren’t capable of thinking for themselves much, but in order for us to at least have a fighting chance at doing so Jesus had to leave to give us the space to do so.

Beyond that the matter of the soul living on, as I’ve been contemplating for the past month, gets rather complicated in Christian theology, and in any other thoughtful perspective on the matter. A bit of exegetical research makes it quite clear that Jesus’ early followers did not have any concept of a soul existing without a body: “the resurrection” was to be a physical matter of each of God’s people receiving back their bodies in their most essential form, though perhaps without their most painful and troubling limitations such as handicaps and diseases. The whole idea of one’s soul being separable from one’s body came rather later in the writings of St. Paul. This is actually one of the primary evidences for the “Apostles’ Creed” predating the “Nicean Creed”: whereas the latter confesses to belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, the former carefully specifies that this is a matter of “the resurrection of the body”.

Jesus’ post-resurrection body was seen as the primary example of this principle; he was, in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s words, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:18). But this was not merely to be understood as a matter of experiencing the joys of earthly life in some semi-detached immortal manner indefinitely, but rather of the potential for experiencing a world beyond this one, which Jesus continued on to. Jesus’ ascension was thus an important aspect of expanding believers’ concepts of possibilities for a life beyond the present one.

I’m not going to use this space to try to change anyone’s personal beliefs about how life after death might work. That’s not the sort of thing blogs are suited for –– even long-winded ones like mine. I would rather like to emphasize something that on one level or another all of my friends from various branches of Christianity, deism, agnosticism, Judaism and other world religions can probably relate to: The key to my soul having relevance beyond the limits of my skin is love. When I love someone, and/or I am loved by someone, that creates in me, and beyond, me a sense that I am relevant to more than just myself. It is this sense of security in one’s broader and deeper relevance that psychological researchers tell us is the strongest corollary to a subjective sense of happiness in this life. Ironically it is this sense of connecting with others that financial ambition tends to rob people of on all sorts of levels.

Having the security to love and be loved regardless of our acknowledged failures and limitations, and regardless of how it relates to our evolutionary biological motivations, is in many ways the core element of the Christian message, but I’ll make everyone uncomfortable by saying that I don’t see this as something Christians should try to lay an exclusive claim to. In fact for Christians to claim exclusivity in such a message rather defeats the purpose of the message. Exclusivity is a matter of setting advance limitations on who we are willing to connect with; on who has the rights to our love in one sense or another. There can be value to that in terms of sexual exclusivity, for instance, but when it comes to shared participation in God’s love there is little excuse for exclusive claims to such love. The foundational premise here should be that God has made all mankind in his own image, and therefore none are to be categorically excluded from the sphere of his love. There is even less excuse for violent attack on those who fail to meet one’s exclusive religious standards.

Whatever we do and don’t know about what lies beyond death and “beyond the clouds”, we can be quite sure of one thing: building a capacity to love in ways that overcome our natural violent and competitive inclinations is an extremely beneficial way of exercising one’s faith. It builds a sense of personal satisfaction in life. It is conducive to building a sense of harmony with those around us, and it lends credibility to any claims we may wish to make regarding our love for God. By loving others I know that I am able to transcend the limits of my body. I am able to become part of someone else; part of something outside my own skin; something that gives my life value beyond the simple physical pleasures and pains that it involves. This enables me to live at peace with what I don’t know about the historical and physical details of the ascension. This even enables me to live at peace with the false certainties that I hear fellow Christians proclaiming on the basis of their personal Pentecosts. And if some people find my attitude towards their would-be certainties offensive and condescending, I do my best to love them anyway.



Filed under Epistemology, Happiness, History, Religion, Science, Skepticism

Open Letter to Daisy, Addendum

Dear Daisy,

I wrote to you here a few months ago to encourage you to reconsider the ways in which your crisis had rocked your faith in God and in society. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to read it through. It was sort of a long and dense text. Apparently a lot of people who care about you did read it anyway (some who strongly agreed, some who strongly disagreed), but that’s not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you find the sort of hope and faith that enables you to move forward.

Hearing about your recent setbacks and hospitalization really breaks my heart. I really wish I could find a way of comforting you and convincing you not to further increase the damage that’s been done to you. Setting all other issues of belief aside for the time being, I really hope that you, Daisy, start believing in Daisy again. I hope you stop in practice agreeing with all of the Maryville idiots who would like you to believe that your life is worthless. Thus I’m writing to you again. Humor me here as I take a shot at trying to convince you, without, I must confess, even really knowing you that well, that your life is important and worth somethingI would prefer to present my case in more personal and individually caring terms, but given how far I am from your situation I have to make my case rather philosophically instead. Forgive me for not having better to offer. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.

Daisy hospitalizedAnyway, in philosophical terms we have to start out with the whole question of what makes anything or anyone valuable to begin with. The obvious answer that springs to mind for such things is how much someone is willing to pay, and how much competition there is to “get” that person or thing. That’s what we call “market value” and some would tell you that all other forms of value are just variations or sub-categories of that. Bovine excrement!

I’m not denying that market value is one very real form of value, but I’m very firmly convinced that it is not the only form of value, or even the most important kind. In fact I am firmly convinced that placing too much emphasis on market value, at the expense of all other sorts of values, is the fundamental reason why so many things are screwed up in our world today. I want to help you step back and look at the question of values from a somewhat broader perspective.

I propose that, to get an overview of all the different sorts of value in the world, we start with four general categories: material/instrumental value, personal/existential value, social/cultural value and spiritual/transcendent value. While I want to try to make this a bit less wordy and dense than my last letter to you, I still want to try to show you what I mean by each of those categories, and then show you how your crisis has probably rocked your believe in your own value in each of those four categories but how you –– as a human being, a young person, a lady and for many a symbol of courage –– continue to have value in each of those sorts of ways. Let’s see how I do.

Material/instrumental: Whatever else can be said about you, you are certainly a material, physical being. You may be more than that, but at the very minimum we can be pretty sure that you are a biological organism: You have a body, which happens to have been badly abused in the past few years. The important thing here is that, while I would encourage you to think of yourself as more than just a body, I want to remind you that your body is still a beautiful thing. Just because there’s an idiot who treated your body as a disposable form of amusement and pretty much got away with it does not mean that your body is without value. Nor is your body’s value based on its ability to stimulate male hormones. Every human body, like every snowflake, but infinitely more so, is an intricate marvel of design, deserving of respect and admiration for its own awesomeness. Not to “shove the Bible down your throat,” but this point is made as well in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament as anywhere: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

I don’t want to minimize the pain and complication of this matter, but I strongly encourage you: please respect your body again; it really is a wonderful thing. Get comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing wrong with who you are physically. You remain beautiful. Your body remains suitable and capable of performing all sorts of amazing tasks and experiencing all sorts of positive sensations, besides being a work of art unto itself. And again let me stress, your body’s capacity to get boys or men excited is not what makes it valuable. Probably best if I leave off on this one here, but I hope you get the point.

Personal/existential: In addition to your basic physical form, one of the beauties of who you are is your mind or soul: the part of you which is capable of experiencing sensations of meaning and purpose in life. This part of you too has been brutally belittled in Maryville, but don’t let the bastards there have the final word on the subject. I know it’s rather cheap and superficial, and perhaps even factually wrong at this point, to say that you can decide for yourself what your life is worth. At this point I recognize that in your young mind things might feel pretty hopeless and out of control. But they will and do get better. The mind is an amazing thing in terms of its resilience. You will find yourself capable of making good on your promise not to let the events of the past couple years define who you are. As long as you don’t give up at this difficult point you will be able to decide what it is that makes you important, and you will be able to build a sense of purpose from there.

If there is any aspect of your life that your trauma will have a lasting effect on in fact, I’d predict that it will be the extent to which it has forced you to look deeper into yourself. You might not like all of what you see there –– there’s a lot of broken and ugly bits inside of all of us, even the best of us –– but I hope and expect that you can also see the brave, poetic, tender parts of yourself that are worth developing. These are things that others can encourage you to love about yourself, but ultimately it’s up to you to recognize this beauty within. It’s up to you to, without shame, accept and celebrate who you are as a person, and to love yourself as such. Please, please, please… do not let anyone take that away from you.

Social/cultural: Perhaps the worst part of your experience has been discovering that the kids at school sided with your abusers rather than sympathizing with you as the victim. Teenagers can be vicious creatures at times. I know something about this from working with school anti-bullying campaigns.  So this makes it more difficult to recognize another key factor in what makes you valuable: Besides being comfortable within your skin, you can be confident in having importance beyond the limits of your skin. There really are people around you that love you and care about you as a person –– thousands of us actually.  No one can belittle your personal value without directly insulting all of us who care about you at the same time. Don’t ever forget that.

There’s an important word in African philosophy that perhaps you heard regarding the funeral celebrations for Nelson Mandela this winter: “Ubuntu”. Roughly translated, this is the principle that “I am what I am because we are what we are” –– that identity is never a completely individual matter. Or to quote the classic line from the English poet/theologian John Donne, “No man is an island.” This does not mean that you have to let the social environment of Maryville determine who you are, but it does mean that you cannot forget about the impact your life has on others. If you let the idiots belittle you, you let them belittle all of us.  If you let them insult you, you let them insult all of us.  I hope this gives you courage to stand up to your detractors, with and for all of us.

Spiritual/transcendent: There is always the question of what makes those who are on your side in this matter “better people” than the vicious little bastards that have used the “s-word” and the “w-word” at you at school. This is no easy matter to sort out philosophically. Suffice to say, most of us tend to believe that, to quote the opening sequence of the X-Files, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” when it comes to these things. There is something that goes beyond social and cultural norms that makes sexual abuse bad and compassion good. There are values that we should subscribe to that are more than just material expedients or means of personal meaning making, or cultural conventions. Again, without trying to “cram any religion down your throat,” believing that there are moral principles like this “out there” is, for me, part and parcel of believing in God. That is not to say that I believe that any particular religion has God’s message entirely right, but that is to say that I believe that the “something” out there which makes rape inherently wrong and compassion inherently good is best understood as a “someone”, and that that someone is on the side of those who suffer injustices, who want peace and who care about others. So from this perspective, Daisy, I am confident in saying that another reason for you to keep going is because God is on your side.

There’s a famous anecdote that might be applicable here, telling of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was said to keep a good luck horseshoe hung over the door of his home in the countryside. Someone asked him about this: How could such an intelligent man with such a scientific world view believe in a horseshoe over the door bringing better luck? His response was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

Even if you don’t share my belief in God at this point, I hope you can still find means of accepting the basic principle that those who are on your side are part of something “better” and “more important” than those who would belittle your value. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

All of this is strictly a matter of “for what it’s worth” but I sincerely hope that this provides some sort of additional motivation for believing in yourself and moving forward in confronting the challenges you still face. We’re here hoping for you and praying for you, and we’re doing what we can to encourage you never to give up. Hang in there for us, but more importantly, hang in there for yourself!


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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!





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Opiates of the Peoples

I spent the end of last week and the weekend working on a seminar presentation for this week, speculating on who Pope Francis was referring to as an ideological illness in the church. It involved a lot of background reading, and there is much more I need to do on the subject, but so be it. So I’m writing my weekend blog on Monday again.

When it comes to use of time the perennial question come to mind: how much of my time am I actually wasting along the way? There’s two aspects to this: How hard should I be pushing myself (to accomplish what sort of goals), and then what non-goal-oriented activities –– stress relievers –– should I consider to be particularly dangerous or harmful? Let me explore that latter one for a bit here.

Those of you who are moderately well read in humanities subjects would obviously recognize my title here as a play on one of Marx’ dictums regarding religion in general: it numbs people to the painful realities of their otherwise unrewarding and essentially meaningless existence, and rightly so. If they have to have such an unrewarding and meaningless existence at least we can allow them to become comfortably numb by religious means. It was Lenin who gave this turn of the phrase its more condemning connotation: the religion of Rasputin and company as a vile addiction that keeps people from moving beyond their miserable, abused condition. Of course the issue that both polemic approaches are missing is whether religion has a particular value in and of itself beyond providing a means of escape from the mundane stresses of everyday life. Might there be some eternal value system that is more important than the implications of the “selfish gene” –– the drive to have as many offspring as possible and to keep them alive long enough to have offspring of their own?


But let’s set that aside for the time being. Let’s just assume that we all have goals in life that we spend a certain amount of our time working to achieve, that such work largely defines us as people, and that beyond our work we each have our own forms of “play” that are psychologically necessary for us in order to be able to continue on with our work. Let’s further assume that the balance between how important we consider our work to be for its own sake and how much we do in just to get other things that we “really want” will vary quite a bit from person to person, as will the things that we are ultimately trying to get as rewards for our work. So we have our goal-oriented behavior and we have our personal-amusement oriented behavior. How do we keep those in balance with each other? For that matter how important is it to draw a distinction between them?

Lots of different distracting directions those ideas could take us in. Given that I’m not actually being paid to write this, and I don’t have anyone reviewing this and telling me what is expected of me in this essay, I could easily chase off down one rabbit hole or another here just for the fun of exploring what’s in there, but I’m trying to stick to the job I’ve set for myself in the title here of talking about “opiates” in the figurative sense, and what is potentially wrong with them. The main thing that all such “opiates” would have in common is that they provide a form of distraction from our more goal-oriented behaviors which may end up preventing us from accomplishing our more goal-oriented behaviors. My basic theory here though is that all of the different forms of condemnation of such “opiates” are based on somewhat unquestioned assumptions regarding the value of different forms of work, defined in turn as focused goal-oriented behavior.  This would apply to everything from Marx’ and Engels’ condemnation of religion, to Neil Postman’s condemnation of electronic etertainment culture, to the Catholic Church’s strict limitations on forms of sexual satisfaction, to programs to keep people off of heroin and other actual opiates. All of these are trying to keep people from gaining some false or dangerous form of satisfaction that keeps them from working for more important “true” forms of satisfaction.

Amusing-Ourselves-headlessThere are a number of considerations that follow from this observation. First and foremost perhaps is the question of whether Marx’ observation deserves further analysis here: the idea that people turn to some “false” form of satisfaction because unjust and dehumanizing circumstances prevent them from being able to experience –– being able to reasonably hope for even –– “truer” forms of satisfaction.  Industrial workers of the 19th century drank heavily and then sometimes prayed heavily because those were the only forms of personal satisfaction in life that were open to them at that time. If they would have had some hope of gaining more control of their own destiny in terms of someday owning their own land and workshops, or even enabling their children to get an education and step onto the path of upward mobility, maybe they wouldn’t need to numb their pain so much. By the same token, if more people were able to properly enjoy genuinely satisfying and committed long-term romantic relationships maybe there wouldn’t be such a big market for porn. Are we numbing ourselves just because things around us don’t work well enough for us to be able to hope for better? Is there some way that we can trick ourselves into genuinely hoping for better so that we can achieve more in our goal-oriented behavior? Are there ways in which we can improve society to increase people’s hopes in more or less honest ways? And if we can’t “fix” the situation to allow people sincere hope for a better life through their efforts, are we actually justified in condemning their “opiates”?

In terms of where the rubber meets the road on this one, the breakdown of family structures in the western world has been blamed by moralists on increased mobility, and access to information about other possibilities than that of women staying home and making babies while men go out and push themselves to do whatever they can to provide for the needs of those back in the nest.  There’s some truth to the idea that many people these days don’t have the same sort of family lives their grandparents had simply because they don’t want them, or they aren’t willing to make the same sort of sacrifices their grandparents made to get them. But more to the point, breakdowns in the political systems protecting the basic rights of workers have led to a situation where no matter how hard a man would try to work at basic labor these days he can never make enough to keep a family provided for on his own; and no matter how submissive, loving, nurturing and “wifely” a girl is ready to be, she can’t expect to get the sort of deal her grandmother had as a stay-at-home mom. So why should they behave in a traditional manner designed to improve their odds of getting into such a situation? And can we really condemn behavior that decreases their chances at such a life? After spending much of the weekend reading papal encyclical letters from over the past 40 years, I’ve sort of realized that that is where Catholic moral teaching is really at these days.


Beyond that we have the question of whether there are certain types of goals to be pursued in life that should be “natural” for everyone, that our cultures must be designed to reinforce. This would include, but certainly wouldn’t be limited to, questions of reproduction and genetic continuation of family lines. Should people naturally want to have tribal identities reinforced? Should people’s lives be defined by whatever “competitive edge” they are able to find for themselves? Should ease for its own sake be a value worth relentlessly pursuing, and if so how do we deal with the inherent contradiction in such a proposition? Beyond that then, if none of these goals can be reasonably taken as moral imperatives for everyone, what argument is there for condemning behaviors which limit one’s possibilities of achieving them?

The tragedies we keep finding ourselves faced with are when someone we know –– personally or through their public image –– has the possibility to realize all the sort of things we think they should naturally want, or all of the sorts of things that they’ve seemingly dedicated their lives to attaining, and they “throw it all away” over the “uncontrollable” urge to “play” in some particularly dangerous way, or to numb themselves in some unacceptable fashion.  We sometimes feel sorry for them for not being able to master their inner demons. We sometimes condemn them for “setting a bad example for young people” and “contributing to the breakdown of society” –– defined as a group of people informally cooperating to realize the sort of goals we see them carelessly neglecting. Do I see them as evil? It depends.

injectionYes, I do get angry at the idea of predatory individuals selling drugs near a school yard. Getting kids who don’t understand the risks involved hooked on self-destructive forms of amusement purely in order to profit from their ignorance, without concern for the fact that it could lead to early and painful deaths, is something that I would consider to be objectively wrong… evil even. So how far do I want to take that principle? If I want to protect kids from drugs, what do I want to enable them to have that drugs would steal from them? What else might steal the same things from them just as effectively as drugs?

In my own ideological way I guess the most important thing I’d like to enable kids to have is the possibility of choosing for themselves what sort of goals they wish to pursue in life, be it the standard reproductive/tribal/competitive ones that most of our societies seem to be built around, or more individualized pursuits of their own choosing. Whether such a priority on personal freedom is sustainable in the long run or not is a complicated question unto itself. Suffice to say, things are rapidly changing regardless of whether or not we try to prevent change by maintaining traditional mindsets in our children. So if traditionalism for its own sake, and/or as a means of preventing uncontrollable change in society is a lost cause, why not let them have their freedom?

The limitations on this freedom in turn are of two sorts: there needs to be some form of justice to prevent people from carelessly or maliciously harming others, and there needs to be some possibility of forming connections of love with others which can in turn become more important to us than our own self-determinations. As I was saying to Daisy last month, those are what I consider the ideal essence of religion to be about.

So going back to the “opiate” issue, I’d hope that those who wish to keep people away from these “wrong” forms of satisfaction would really stop to think about why they consider them to be wrong, acknowledging that on more careful consideration sometimes they can be seen to do objective harm and other times they can’t. I would hope that the motivation for condemning such “opiates” would run deeper than just trying to get others to live according to the moralizers’ personal tastes. I would hope that it involves enabling the person in question to be genuinely free to choose what goals they want to work towards, and to seriously consider what forms of “play” could prevent them from realizing those goals. Then rather than considering those “opiates” as in themselves wrong, I would hope that those who condemn them would do so based on what greater forms of satisfaction might be chosen without them; and that from there they would work first and foremost to enable people to have hope of attaining those “better” forms of satisfaction rather than simply moralizing against the ones they don’t like.

And beyond that, no matter how important someone’s work is to them, they will also need to play sometimes. How much of their time, how riskily, involving what sort of extra rewards along the way… are all important questions to be considered. We can perhaps enable people to play in less addictive and time consuming ways, with greater safety for themselves and others, and offering greater opportunities for thrills in the process, but what we won’t be able to do is stop them from playing entirely.  Ideally one should find some form of work that is as much like play as possible –– serving as a continuous form of satisfaction unto itself rather than just being a form of suffering to endure as a means of reaching some goal outside of the process. If work has its own “play” element to it in that sort of way, the amount of play needed outside of work will be considerably less for it.

I must confess that blogging and online interaction are somewhere between work and play for me. I’m not getting paid for this, but it is something I do in a certain goal-oriented manner regardless, feeling ever so slightly guilty when I’m late like this. Yet it is also something I do mostly for the fun and challenge of it. It is a form of “opiate” for me in terms of enabling me to escape from my mundane routines of getting 14-year-olds to remember facts about faraway religions, processing paperwork to let others know how much this information has sunk in for them, and keeping my simple bachelor apartment in relatively livable condition. Does it work? Most of the time. Is it bringing me closer to the realization of other goals in life? Rather hard to say. Is there something more important I should be doing with my time? Not that I know of at this point, but systematic time management has never been my strong suit to begin with.  Are their parts of it I should be ashamed of? Some may be angry at me for spreading heresies here, but I can live with that. Do I have other, more problematic “opiates” in my life to get rid of? Perhaps… but at this point I’m not going to start stressing about playing too much and not working hard enough. Give me a new specific hope to work towards and I might change my mind about that.

So here’s hoping that all of you as well are more or less at peace with yourselves regarding what you’re working for and what play you allow yourselves along the way. Here’s hoping you’re able to live at peace with others in terms of the choices they make along the same lines. Enough for this week.


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Filed under Control, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Individualism, Philosophy, Politics, Purpose, Religion, Respectability

Open letter to Daisy

For those of you not familiar with the case, going on two years ago now, one cold winter night two young teenage girls snuck out of the house to go to a party with some older boys from school, and ended up getting raped. One was dumped, undressed and obliviously drunk, in the snow outside her house. She lived to tell of it and to seek justice, but so far the only result of this quest has been that her (widowed) mother was fired from her job, her siblings have been threatened with violence, her family was driven out of town and local terrorists on the side of her rapist(s) burned her family’s house down. Last week she took the trouble to tell her story on line, mentioning how it has, among other things, made her stop believing in God . This is my response back to this deeply wounded girl.  


Dear Daisy,

First let me say that I’m sincerely sorry for your pain and all of the suffering you and your family have been through. I don’t pretend to know how it feels not only to be raped and treated as disposable, but then to have those who care about you terrorized for caring about you. I have my own problems in life, but I’m not going to pretend that they match up with yours.

By way of introduction all you really need to know about me is that I’m a man roughly three times your age, a school teacher to kids your age in Europe, and I’m currently working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. What that basically means is that I’m supposed to be some sort of an expert in helping kids work through the question you asked (yourself) repeatedly in your blog about your recent trauma: “Why would a God even allow this to happen?”

Don’t take this as someone trying to defend the idea of God to you. You certainly don’t need that, and if there really is a God (probably best if we leave that question open for the time being) he wouldn’t need someone like me to organize his defense team for him. Think of me rather as one more well-meaning expert of sorts, who in the abstract knows something about what you’ve been through, and in his own particular area of specialization really wants to help if he can. The doctor who treated your vaginal injuries probably didn’t know what it felt like for you, but she/he knew something about how to prevent infection and help your organs to heal. Likewise (I would hope) you’ve had a social worker who probably doesn’t know how it feels to be you still trying to help you to return to something like a normal social life. The same would go the lawyers you’ve talked to, counselors you’ve been sent to and many others. Think of what I have to say as analogous to what they might try to say to help. I know you have been “spiritually wounded” in this series of events and that has left you with some deep and troubling questions. As that’s supposed to be my area of specialty, and as your blog caught my attention, please humor me as I try to offer what little help I can.

First let me say, as you probably know quite well already, your questions are nothing new. In fact they reflect what is probably the oldest and most important questions in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an old running joke, with hundreds of variations on line, which sets out to explain world religions in terms of the old adage, “Shit happens.” They always start out by saying that the basic message of Taoism is simply that shit happens, and always end with the basic message of Rastafarianism being “Let’s smoke this shit!” In between, among others, the basic teaching of Judaism is always summarized as, “Why does this shit always happen to US?” There’s quite a bit of truth to that summary. Rather than the existence of unjust suffering being the death of their religion –– and consequently all of the other monotheistic religions in the world –– this question has become the most basic starting point and foundational consideration for their religion, and mine/ours. (I self-identify as a Christian. I know you don’t believe in any God at the moment, but I would assume it is some variation of the Christian God that you have recently decided not to believe in. Am I off by much?)

As you may know, the books of the Bible as we now have them are not arranged between the leather covers in the chronological order in which they were written. It’s a long story that I won’t bother to go into right now, but it is commonly believed among those who make a living investigating such matters that the oldest book in the Bible is the one we call Job, about why this guy who hasn’t done anything wrong goes through all sorts of hell anyway. I’ll come back to that later, but for now suffice to say, historically speaking at least, the problem of unjust suffering is just the starting point for belief in God, not the inevitable ending point for such belief.

But before getting into that, let me say that there are definitely a couple sorts of God beliefs that, based on your experience, you certainly should trash –– two common sorts of ideas about what God is that you should no longer give any credibility to.

First there is the idea of the tribal God: the sort of god who “is on our side” and helps us to “smite our enemies.” As a matter of building social solidarity and getting large groups of people to work together on major projects, almost all major human societies throughout history have had one sort of god or another, or some collection of local gods that they could call on, for this basic purpose. But in spite of how useful such beliefs can be as a team building shtick, and in spite of how much of this sort of belief has worked its way into various forms of American Christendom in particular, the sort of god that people make up to help them distinguish between their own tribe –– “the righteous” –– and everyone else –– “the heathens” –– is more useful to socially powerful jerks like Matt than to those like you who need protection and justice. Don’t be surprised if the sort of God that people make up to reinforce their tribal identities is of no use to you then, and don’t be surprised when some people claim that the Christian God is like that.  I could try to prove that such people are idiots, but rather than bothering with that let me just say that, as a Christian, that’s not the sort of God that I worship.

The other sort of God that you should not bother believing in any more is the sort of magical helper “upstairs” who takes all of the risks, uncertainties and unpredictability out of life. There are a lot of people who become religious because they have a hard time dealing with things being unpredictable and out of their control. For them religion doesn’t really work any differently than superstitious practices like rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet or nailing up horseshoes over doorways and the like. (Two sorts of people who are said to particularly depend on religion for superstitious luck improvement in this sort of way are competitive athletes and sailors.) But it doesn’t really work like that. As the Bible says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good people too can have random bad things happen to them. For instance a preacher friend of mine has a grandson who has been battling with cancer for most of his preschool-aged life. If God were in the business of showing favor to his favorite people and keeping them from experiencing random suffering, why doesn’t he start there? No, life will always involve risky situations. You can limit those risks somewhat by following certain sorts of safety rules and by taking advantage of different forms of technology we have these days, but those things too can only go so far in stopping bad things from happening to good people.

So tossing those sorts of religious habits aside, what is left for you to believe in? Plenty actually.

You used an interesting turn of the phrase: “I lost all faith in religion and humanity.” I think I know what you mean there, but if we were talking face-to-face I’d still ask. I mean, if you were to say that you lost faith in God that might mean that you know longer believe that God exists, but when you say that you’ve lost faith in humanity you obviously know that humanity still exists. Likewise for religion. So maybe you’re saying that you just believe that, even if those things exist, you can’t trust them to “be on your side” any more. Part of that could be that you had rather unrealistic expectations about what humans in general are like. Might the same be said of your expectations regarding religion and God?

If this were a proper dialog I’d wait for your response on that and frame my comments based on how you actually feel about such things. Since we’re not in direct contact I have to sort of make up the next part not knowing if you can relate to what I’m saying or not.

Anyway, your blog has this (old?) picture of you holding a puppy. I’m glad to see you have such a friend. I hope you still have her/him. (A boxer?) My own dog is a Springer Spaniel, and without him I swear I’d be in a mental hospital today! Dogs are far more dependable as friends than people, beyond doubt. But dogs too have ways in which they can’t be entirely trusted. My dog, for instance, knows that he’s not allowed to have pizza, among other things, but if I were to leave him alone in the house with a pizza in a box on the kitchen table, even long enough to go take the laundry out of the washing machine, I could not be sure that he would behave himself and leave my pizza alone. That doesn’t make me love him any less; it just makes me more careful about was sort of chances I give him to do things we’ve agreed that he shouldn’t do.

Perhaps your experiences have, in some analogous way, taught you to be more careful in how you relate to people in general, and in what ways you need to avoid risks with them. Hopefully, as with our dogs, seeing the limits in how much people can be trusted doesn’t stop you from appreciating their value in other ways. The same might even be said of religion for you, but from here I can’t say; that may be pushing it a bit.

But whether through religion or through purely secular therapeutic perspectives on things, in terms of wishing the best for you I hope that you come to believe in two basic principles that are in some ways very, but not exclusively, religious: love and justice. Finding ways of learning to believe in both of these again is key to regaining a sense of your own beauty and of joy in life for the long term. These may sound impossible to believe in at this point, but please hear me out on this.

Justice would be the tougher one for you to believe in just now I’d imagine, so let me just say I believe in justice to the same extent that I believe in biology, and maybe you can too. In my first couple years in high school I had a syrupy sweet lady as a biology teacher; not the kind that any boys had crushes on, but the sort of kindly middle-aged woman that many kids wished could be their mother. As part of her personality she taught the subject in a rather fuzzy sort of way that sort of bothered my rational mind. We’d do an experiment with the different variables in growing pea plants for instance. We saw the difference that varying amounts of sun light, water, soil types, etc. made, but in any given sample group of plants you could never tell which ones would turn out tallest or have the most flowers, and she never tried to explain that to us beyond a sort of naïve assumption that “some things are up to God.”

Physics and chemistry didn’t have that sort of unaccounted variability to them it seemed. Once you knew what the input parameters were and how the system worked, you could predict pretty exactly how each experiment was going to turn out. Those sciences didn’t seem to have the same “slop” to them that biology did. Later I learned that it’s not that simple. If you get down to the microscopic and atomic level –– if you see the exact composition of every molecule within the seed or cell –– you can tell very exactly how it will behave or how big it will grow under given conditions. Biology isn’t actually as “sloppy” a science as it looks from a simple high school level. Likewise physics, when you get down to the sub-atomic level, gets a lot more random, requiring things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and “Schrödinger’s cat” to make sense of it all. But that’s not important right now.

The point is that when it comes to justice, seeing that in individual cases it doesn’t seem to work the way it should on the surface of things doesn’t prove that there’s nothing to it. Problems of accounting for the slop in the system not withstanding, there really is something to the principles of justice, ethics and morality.

Of course this is not to say that you deserved to be raped or that your family deserved to have their house burned down! Anyone who tries to write off those tragedies as something you “had coming to you” cannot be properly described in vocabulary that teachers are allowed to use. The point is that there is a complex set of dynamics behind such events and a complex set of results that progress from such events, but dismissing it all as totally random doesn’t really help anyone.

Obviously you know in hindsight that you could have reduced your risks by not secretly experimenting with alcohol and not bypassing your older brother’s judgment in this case. No need to beat yourself up any further emotionally over those matters. The more constructive perspective on the justice of the matter at this point is in looking forward. The point now is that Matt in particular, and Maryville and Missouri collectively, cannot escape from “paying for this” on some level. Besides the different variations on the mystical idea that “karma is a bitch” and it’s bound to get them, if not within this life then thereafter (and those shouldn’t be entirely written off), there is the factor that by in practice denying your value as a human being and treating you as disposable, they have seriously discounted their own value as human beings as well, and effectively categorized themselves as disposable. That inevitably will have effects that cannot be ignored. Just as slavery and racist abuse throughout American history have seriously messed up not only the abused peoples but the abusers themselves, for Maryville to accept the treatment of teenage girls as disposable sexual objects cannot help but seriously mess up the individuals involved and the society there as a whole. Ultimately it has the effect of seriously reducing, if not eliminating, their capacity to love and to be loved, which leads to the other point I wanted to make.

At the risk of getting all fuzzy-wuzzy in ways you totally cannot relate to at this point (and sappier than my high school biology teacher to boot), love is something vitally important for all of us. Love is about more than sex and genetic survival and all that; it is about recognizing that my importance is not limited to what’s happening within my skin. I am, as a person, important to others, and they are important to me. I matter to people (and to my dog) and they matter to me. Love is about seeing others as more than tools for your physical enjoyment and competitive self-promotion. Sex, at its best, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love; though sex as you’ve experienced it is pretty much the polar opposite of love. But in spite of that, love is particularly worth believing in for you.

Believing that we can find these sorts of connections with others is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Lacking a capacity to connect with others in these sorts of ways is actually the basic essence of what hell is all about. In that regard your rapist certainly deserves to be in his own form of hell, and there is every reason to believe he is. No one can do what was done to you and still have a capacity to connect with other people as people. He may be admired for his athletic skill or for his family’s social position, but he can never know what it is like to matter to others as a person if in practice he treats other people as disposable. Through his actions then his life has come to mean nothing. Likewise a community or society which thinks it is OK to treat certain people as disposable is more than likely to become hell for most of its members. This is what turns countries into what are known these days as “failed states.” In the same sense Maryville may well be a “failed community” already. Those are more common than you realize.

In fact as the emotional wounds from your trauma heal, in your case it should be relatively easy to believe in love again: After the whole #justice4daisy campaign there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who feel your pain and see your value as a person as important. As you have inadvertently come to stand for thousands of other young women who are to one extent or another treated as disposable sexual objects, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you matter. Let the sheer volume of that love you are receiving soak in for a minute or two. Through your pain you have become important to many of us who will probably never have a chance to meet you even, not just as a symbol, but as a person. That has to be a good thing for you.

The whole question of love and importance becomes far more difficult for girls who go through variations of your same trauma every day in many countries around the world –– from victims of sex tourism in Thailand, to child brides in Arabic countries still, to those raped as an act of war in the continuous conflicts happening in much of Africa today. It is much harder for me to imagine how love and justice can come into their lives than to see how it could come into yours.

I don’t want to trivialize any young rape victim’s suffering by saying, “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” For many I know it won’t. That’s where I comfort myself by believing in a form cosmic justice that lies beyond the limits of this life, and where I keep working on doing what I can to promote justice and caring for others within this life as well. I haven’t definitively solved the problem of unjust suffering. I’m quite sure no one has. I can only keep working on doing my best to reduce it in ways that still enable life to go on for all of us.

Let me close by coming back around to that oldest book in the Bible I was talking about. The introduction chapter in the book of Job is actually the silliest part of the story: How could we imagine God still being God if he would intentionally choose to let a good man suffer excruciating agony of all sorts just to settle a silly random bet with the devil? Forget about that part for the time being. The important part is to acknowledge that Job really didn’t do anything to deserve to suffer. From there the thing is to look at the series of debates which make up the core of the book.

Job has three peers who come to see his situation and try to help him figure it out, all assuming that somehow he must have done something to deserve it. First we have this guy named Eliphaz, who responds to Job’s statement of depression by telling him that God is just and justice always works, so he should just pray about it and comfort himself in trusting God. Job basically responds to him by saying, “No offence, but it really doesn’t work that way. If you think there’s some justice in this then show me how it works.” Then comes a this guy named Bildad, whose basic message is that you shouldn’t pretend that you’re in a better position to say how things work than God is, and if you’re a good guy God will always put things right in the end. To him Job goes on a rant and says that he fully understands how much wiser and more powerful God is than him, but that doesn’t really solve the question of why this shit keeps happening to him. Then comes the third one, Zophar, saying, “How dare you mock God and claim that you’re right and he’s wrong on this one?!” To this Job basically says, “You’re not the only one to give me that sort of crap. People who have it easy always treat those going through rough times with contempt. But besides joining in to what the crowds have to say, what do you really know about it?”

From there they each take a couple more rounds going after Job, with increasing antagonism as things progress. Eliphaz says that Job’s mouth is getting to be the cause of his problems. Bildad says that Job in turn is not being respectful enough towards their perspectives. Zophar finds a particularly long-winded way of saying, “I feel rather insulted here, so to hell with you!” Job gives abuse back to each of them as good as he gets. Finally they all give up on trying to change each other’s minds about things.

That’s when a kid about your age, named Elihu, gets involved in the discussion. Elihu had waited to talk because young guys weren’t supposed to interrupt older men in their debates in those days, but he found it particularly frustrating that Job was trashing the whole idea of justice and that his three “friends” were ready to attack him without really having any grounds for their accusations. So when all of the others are done talking he lets them have it. After deconstructing their arguments (for 5 chapters) he basically points out that nothing we can do as people would really have that big an effect on God one way or the other. Rather than worrying about what we can do for God, and what God is ready to do for us in return, the point of religion should be to look at the incredibly majesty and mystery we see in the world around us and to ponder the wonder of being able to connect with something that incredible.

After Elihu’s speech then a huge tornado comes up and God starts speaking to these guys from the tornado, saying basically, “You know, the kid’s right.” It then goes on with 4 chapters’ worth of itemizing the marvels of the universe that make people and our problems seem pretty tiny by comparison.

The ending of the story is almost as problematic as the beginning: God tells the three friends that they owe Job a pretty massive apology, so they follow through with that, killing a truckload of livestock before God and Job to say how sorry they are. Job then forgives them and asks God to forgive them, and after that God makes Job all rich and successful again… as though, in spite of everything that was said in the debate, that would be what really matters. But some people need to see that sort of thing in order to find what God has to say before that as important. Such is life.

So what can you take from this long speech? (Sorry. Sometimes I talk too much: teacher’s occupational hazard.) Hopefully that you have a value that doesn’t depend on you being a “winner” in any sense. Your importance doesn’t depend on being the prettiest or the sexiest or the most athletic or the smartest even. Your value is based on your being able to connect with something greater than yourself –– being loved and being able to love in return. For all your sufferings, that principle is still worth believing in. Many religious people fundamentally miss the point on that one, so they might try to give you the same sorts of messages that Job got from his “three friends.” You may want to avoid such people if you can. But if you can find people who really “get” the message of Jesus –– about being able to love God and each other in spite of all our problems –– you might find their company and support quite helpful.

Whatever else happens, I hope you do come to believe in love and justice again in the aftermath of your tragedy, Daisy. I hope the same goes for Paige and for all others who suffer great travesties of justice in our world. Speaking not only for myself, but for the thousands who still believe in God and who have been touched by your story, our prayers are with you.

David Huisjen


Filed under Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.


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Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

Old Heights

As I type this I am listening to the comforting sound of my fermentation tank bubbling away in the corner of the room. I skipped a few years at this hobby, primarily out of sensitivity to the feelings of particular people about the whole subject of alcohol use in general, but I’m over that again. Even so, given all of the complexities there are regarding questions of alcohol use and intoxication in general, I think the subject is worth deliberating on a bit here.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

It all goes back to my childhood. I was raised as a teetotaler in the sixties and seventies. Many if not most of my friends were regular drinkers and casual smokers of marijuana, but I always kept my distance from both habits as a matter of principle. There were a few aspects to this choice, all having to do with my rather religious up-bringing.  First of all this was before the term “pro-life” had been invented. If anyone had talked about being “pro-life” in those years it would have meant that they were anti-war and opposed to young men getting sent to kill and be killed in Viet Nam. Homosexuality, meanwhile, was seen mostly as a bad joke in Mel Brooks movies, not a major threat to family life. For lack of any other distinctively Christian political issue, opposition to alcohol use in any form was one of primary ways in which conservative Christians “stood up for what they believed” still the late sixties/early seventies. Billy Graham was seen by many as a too much of a compromiser; what was needed was preachers who had the same sort of fire as Billy Sunday: someone who dared to scream out against alcohol “for the demonic force that it is.” Good kids in our church didn’t question this.

Second, perhaps somewhat more relevantly, many of those I hung out with and was friends with in my early teens were former hippies, 5 -10 years older than me: “Jesus Freaks” by any measure you care to use to define such a phenomenon. Many of these guys had experimented with booze and drugs during the height of Timothy O’Leary’s popularity as a chemical recreation guru, enough to know that there was more harm than good to come from such things. A few still were rumored to sneak the occasional joint on the side, but they were pretty intensively ostracized from the rest of the group. Overall they found the absolutely sober lifestyle to just be more interesting and fulfilling, and I was quite ready to take their word on the subject. This perception was all the further reinforced by my observations of my peers “partying” when I got into my late teens and early twenties. I knew some chronic drunk drivers and some people with other fairly serious problems when it came to addictions and chemical escapism.

But besides all that, among those I knew whose drinking and other chemical hobbies seemed to be pretty well under control, I occasionally received the complement of sorts that “David’s the sort of guy that you can be standing around talking with him stoned drunk, and you can forget that he’s entirely sober.” Sitting around after the shop closed on Friday evening, the other guys who were not driving anywhere would sometimes have 3 or 4 beers while chatting about the events of the week before heading home, and I with my ice tea or fruit juice could be just as loose and animated and talkative as any of them, without needing anything to loosen me up. I really didn’t see the need. I never drank for the same reasons I have never, to this day, smoked tobacco or anything else: I knew the basic dangers and I just never felt like it was something I had to do.

My habits in this matter gradually changed as I got into the restaurant business. I was selling wine to go with fine food, and I thought it was important to know what the various sorts tasted like. I didn’t need the buzz, but I wasn’t afraid of the slight experience of it. It was my own variation on the Buddhist principle of detachment: being preoccupied with avoiding something can be as emotionally harmful as addiction to the vice in question.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

Since then I’ve adopted habits of very moderate social drinking, that I can easily live without for months or even years at a time, but which doesn’t bother me in terms of my conscience, my health or my lifestyle stability to have a glass or a pint every now and again. I’ve never had any serious worries about slipping down the slope into alcoholism. I can still count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I’ve been drunk enough for the hangover to cause me to throw up afterwards. If anything, for purposes of optimizing the health of my circulatory and digestive systems I don’t drink quite enough alcohol. Even so, of all the regrets I have from my teenage years and early twenties, spending them entirely sober isn’t one of them.

There are two activities for which I make a point of having no alcohol whatsoever in my system: teaching and driving. I’ve never even toyed with the idea of doing either under the influence. Even if this wasn’t a matter of strict regulation, I can’t imagine the risks involved in either being worthwhile. I have, I confess, done both at times under conditions of fairly extreme tiredness, where I knew my brain was functioning at a level equivalent to if I had had a few glasses of wine. I did not run into any crisis situations because of this, but I’ve learned to carefully avoid such risks regardless.

Overall alcohol is not a major factor in my life, but it is a significant matter, pro and con, for many people close to me. Some find a certain amount of alcohol particularly useful as a form of self-medication under certain circumstances, and as an aid to social interaction. Some have had bitter personal experiences of their own alcohol use, or that of someone close to them, getting seriously out of control. It can be noted that in all countries bordering on the Arctic Circle the risks of alcohol abuse run pretty high. Under those circumstances I’m entirely ready to go without alcohol if I’m with someone who, for personal reasons, has a problem with it.

For me this clearly corresponds with the New Testament debate over neat which was leftover from butchering that was done as part of pagan rituals (1 Corinthians 8). Paul’s basic perspective is that the gods which were worshiped in these rituals were nothing but figments of the worshipers’ imaginations, and that isn’t any reason not to eat the meat. But if there are those who have a serious crisis of conscience about it, there’s no point in trying to prove that you’re stronger and that you know more than they do. Just don’t harass them by doing what they’re bothered by in front of them.

At the University of Helsinki's botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

At the University of Helsinki’s botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

But these days this leads to the question, “If you’re cool with alcohol, is smoking pot also cool with you?” My short answer: I do not have enough experience on the matter to take an expert opinion either for or against. I’m prone to believe that significant self-medication is more common with marijuana than with alcohol, and that attempting to deal with stress and depression in this sort of a way has its own significant dangers no matter what chemical you use. I know more people who’ve done significant damage to themselves with alcohol than with marijuana, but I’ve seen enough to know that the latter isn’t as harmless as some of its missionaries would have us believe. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m certainly not in strong enough need of the experience to break the law to get it; and even if it were legalized, I’d probably continue to think of it the way I do tobacco: I don’t think much the less of my friends who do use it, but I don’t see much sense in starting myself. For the problems it causes there’s no particular reason for me to bother. There’s probably not much more for me to say about that matter.

So why do I bother making wine? Honestly, part of the reason for taking up this hobby again is just the creative challenge of it. I enjoy working on producing flavors that I can enjoy and that my more seriously culinary friends find particularly nice. I had a fair amount of beginner’s luck in this regard, and I’ve learned to duplicate my successes and somewhat to build on them.

The raw ingredient

Aronia berries: the primary raw ingredient for my brew

Beyond that I believe that consumed in small amounts, as I tend to do, this stuff might actually improve my health somewhat. My primary ingredient is aronia berries (aronia melanocarpa in Latin), which are supposed to qualify as a “super food” for their health effects these days. According to the current Wikipedia entry on then, these berries, with their record-breaking richness in flavonoids, are currently being given to test animals to test theories that they can cure or prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer to arthritis to eye irritations. Fermenting their juice certainly doesn’t appear to pose any serious health risks. They are currently grown as landscaping plants all over my home town of Espoo, and it seems like I’m about the only one doing anything with them. Given my Dutch heritage (as good an excuse as any in such matters) I hate to see such a resource go to waste.

When it comes to my social life, the overall effect of this endeavor is probably going to be quite minimal, but while there are some minor risks involved, there are also potential rewards. I suspect that overall the effect will again be positive. If I had pubescent children around who would be at risk of getting into my stash, I would probably think more cautiously about the matter. Likewise if I were to have friends with problems with alcohol one way or the other visiting on a regular basis, I would make more of a point of not bothering them in this sort of way. I do remember a few people in particular to whom I shouldn’t offer this year’s product as Thanksgiving table contributions or Christmas presents. But overall my friends find this a pleasing hobby to passively participate in, and for those few casual acquaintances I have whose world view is so narrow that they will think less of me for my wine production, I can easily live with that loss of prestige in their eyes.

So anyone here in southern Finland who wants to stop by and share the experience at the end of the month, or try my recipe for themselves, be in touch. I’m sure we can work something out. And regardless of how you think about such matters, I wish all of you a pleasant start to the autumn season.

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Filed under Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Forms of Freedom

In case you haven’t heard, Finnish is a rather funny language. It has a particularly unusual grammar structure, and the vocabulary is less inter-related with other languages than pretty much any living language in the industrialized world. There is a word for borrowed words which is in itself rather interesting: “sivistyssanat”. There is no literal translation for the word “sivistys”, but it implies something of personal refinement and development. So borrowed words used in Finnish are thought of somewhat as signs of cultural refinement. Nevertheless, there is an intense effort to find alternatives to these “sivistyssanat” in day to day use. The inventive ways of using the basic etymological building blocks of Finnish to develop conceptual equivalents to terms used in English, German, French and Russian is an art form unto itself here. Some of my favorites:

unique –– “ainutlaatuinen” -> literally “of a solitary quality”

simple –– “yksinkertainen” -> literally “of a one time sort”

complex –– “monimutkainen” -> literally “having many twists/turns”

This week I became aware of another Finnish alternative to a particular borrowed term: I’ve always freely used a Finlandized variation on the English word “spontaneous” when speaking Finnish: “spontaaninen”. A paper by one of my university course-mates, however, pointed out that the properly Finnish term for this is “omaehtoinen” –– literally “having one’s own conditions”. In other words the Finnish understanding of spontaneous action is to do things on your own terms, not being submitted to conditions set by others. I had to ask about this, because in many ways this strikes me as an interesting linguistic effort, but a bit of a near miss conceptually. Our professor confirmed that this is a standardized official translation, but the philosophical contemplation of how spontaneity actually works would be a long discussion unto itself.  Fair enough. So for this weekend’s blog I’ll just toss out my own preliminary perspectives on the meaning and value of spontaneity as it relates to the cultures I’ve lived in, and open the matter up for further debate here if anyone is interested.

The process of setting standards to live by is indeed an interesting one to analyze. There are animal trainers which will tell you that “an obedient dog is a happy dog,” and there might be some truth to the adage. Continuous contests of wills between the dog and the humans in question make everyone a bit stressed and frustrated; if the four-legged family member has accepted a more submissive role within the pack that is completely natural and satisfying for the dog, and for all others concerned. That is not to say, however, that in order to have a satisfied life the dog should lose its own will and personality entirely; in my opinion quite the opposite. A dog has a greater degree of satisfaction in life, and makes a more satisfying companion for humans, when it can decide some things for itself, and communicate its own joys, interests and desires to other members of the family at times.

My old dog Mac is generally well house-broken and capable of following most necessary commands for contented life with a family, but he is also quite prone to do things occasionally according to conditions he sets for himself. In his old age he is deaf as a post, and he tends to use that as a bit of an excuse for wandering off in the directions of interesting smells. He knows where the limits of his territory are supposed to run, according to the conditions set for him by others, and when he reaches those limits he generally stops to check as to whether or not there is anyone interested in enforcing his boundaries. If not, he will happily wander off in search of whatever adventure life has to offer.

Mac on a spontaneous trip to the beach last year.

Mac on a spontaneous trip we took to the beach last year (my spontaneous decision, not his ).

If any blame needs to be assigned for Mac’s tendencies in that regard it falls squarely on me. It could be said that he’s sort of been socialized into my own bad habits: doing things less according to standardized norms and more according to whatever seems workable on any given occasion. This goes with the territory of being what Jungian analysts refer to as a type-P (for “perceiving”) as opposed to a type-J (for “judging”) personality, and in that regard I admit to being something of an extreme case. I tend to allow myself to work on things that interest me in the moments when they interest me, even if that totally screws up my sleep schedule at times. I tend to leave things where they lay and deal with cleaning tasks and the like only when the clutter becomes a practical hindrance to my random activities. I have to put a serious effort into being places and doing things according to an agreed schedule; it never comes naturally to me. I don’t consider myself to be lazy, just… overly spontaneous. That spontaneity allows me to be inventive, humorous, problem-solving and personally open to the sort of surprises life always throws at us in ways that J-types have more difficulty with.

But this doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be a better person than the J-types. Nor do I consider them to be less free than I am in the sense of being able to set their own conditions in life. When I visit with the sort of friends who always have a place for everything and everything in its place –– who have a regular schedule that they keep week in and week out that they don’t want to have disturbed –– I can see that they have their own sort of freedom: they have the ability to set their own rules in ways that enable them to feel entirely in control of their own lives. The rules they follow are ones they have fully chosen to adopt, at least as completely as I am capable of choosing when I allow myself to do things more randomly. When I am their guest I try to make a point of not stealing their sense of control from them by messing with their carefully structured lifestyles, and when they come to visit me I try to make some effort to have the place at least minimally sanitary and organized according to socially accepted principles. Inevitably I slip somewhat and I try their patience at least as much as they try mine, but among those I care about and who care about me in return we’ve learned to deal with that and accept each other in spite of our differences.

This comes to where I would question the Finnish etymology for their word for spontaneity: I agree that freedom has something to do with setting your own conditions, but I would argue that J-types are more thorough in setting and consciously owning such conditions, whereas we P-types are more properly spontaneous in terms of being capable of doing things without dependence on plan or structure.

There are many, however, who would say that those of us who live without properly structured guidelines for our lives lack a fundamental sort of freedom. Whereas I might be prone to think of my more organized friends as “slaves to the clock,” they could just as justifiably label me as a slave to my own uncontrolled whims. This can be tied to an idea that, like the obedient dog, humans can only be properly in harmony with life when they are able to do things rationally and logically. Some theologians would go as far as to say that the fall of mankind that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden had to do with losing our capacity for submission to God’s completely rational and transcendentally ordered standards by drifting off to do “our own thing”; and the practical goal of religious redemption should be to enable us to return to a more completely rationally organized and self-disciplined and thus sinless state. Their savior, they believe, came to make life more controllable and less unpredictable and messy. I am more inclined to believe that our savior came to embrace life in all of its structure breaking messiness –– to heal the sick and spontaneously pluck grain on the Sabbath –– and to enable us to accept all of the things about ourselves and each other that we can never control and predict as much as we’d like to.

What is worth recognizing here though is that neither the P-types nor the J-types have a right to remake God in their own image –– the greatest and most dangerous of religious temptations, that we never completely escape from. What Jesus preached was that we should place a personal attachment with God ahead of all other pursuits in life, and that we should learn to empathize with those around us as completely as possible: the twin commandment of love. This means P-types having compassion on J-types in spite of what we might in Freudian terms call their anal fixations, and J-types having compassion on P-types in spite of their slovenly lack of discipline at times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a sense of freedom in terms of both self-regulation and spontaneity, we are confronted with the question of raw determinism and what, if anything, we can do to escape it –– or if it really is worth escaping from in the questionable event that it is possible. What is the form of slavery that we need most to liberate ourselves from? What addictions are most dangerous to the process of learning to thrive in our most basic human essence (which religious folk call “the image of God” within us)?

My take is that this is a very individual question. Each of us is faced with a variety of things that functionally prevent us from being able to live at harmony with ourselves and each other. Some of these are problems caused by holding ourselves and each other to overly strict abstract standards that have little to do with the genuine process of human thriving. Some of these problems are caused by a lack of impulse control and capacity for delayed gratification. Pretty much everyone I know has to struggle for balance between these factors so as to achieve a lifestyle that would generally be regarded as “free”.

Such is my spontaneous deliberation on the contrast between spontaneity and living according to one’s own conditions. If native Finns in particular would like to challenge my perspective I’d be more than happy to spontaneously discuss the matter further and perhaps adjust my standards.

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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Respectability

After Lent

Continuing on with a mini-series here on personal ruminations regarding the significance of seasons, Easter has now passed, and in theory we are now full moving full tilt boogey into spring. It might be appropriate in this regard, however, to note that the extra celebration day taken for Easter here happened to fall on April Fools’ Day. In other words if you believe that spring is coming soon in this part of the world weather-wise, the joke is on you.

The timing for the religious self-deprivation of Lent is no accident. This time of year for giving things up quite conveniently falls in the season where, in a difficult year, you would be starting to run out of the foods and things with which you could properly indulge yourself anyway. Back in the day that last month and a half before spring would actually start properly springing was a pretty sparse time, so why not make a religious ritual out of embracing that sparseness in one way or another? But this year Easter came early, and spring is coming late to the point where the naturally lean season is by no means over yet. So in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t bother ritually giving anything up for Lent this year.

There’s another way in which the agrarian roots of our seasons of celebration and my academic lifestyle don’t really synchronize though: Spring, whenever it eventually arrives, is the season for planting, investing and laying the basic groundwork for the year’s agricultural labors. But in academic life spring is the traditional harvest season for all of the autumn and winter’s planting and cultivation of knowledge and understanding. In other words we are heading into the rush season for final examinations and the evaluation of all of the other sorts of work students have done, on the basis of which grades are given and qualifications are handed out. Here’s where the school teacher’s rush season properly begins.

In any case, for teachers and farmers alike, this is a season of great hope: hope that the ground will soon thaw out enough to accept seed and that once that seed starts to grow the young plants will not be killed off by some vicious sneaky late frost; hope that all those distracted and struggling young minds really will show signs of having absorbed the knowledge and understanding we’ve been trying to pump their direction. Hope is a wonderful thing.

Growing up as an American evangelical Christian, one of the more challenging things to get my head around was the distinction between faith and hope. In fact contemplating that difference over the years is perhaps one of the chief reasons I no longer self-identify as a Christian evangelical.

To some this difference might seem self-evident, or hopelessly abstract, so I should probably unpack what I’m talking about here a bit. Both hope and faith, in the everyday senses of the terms, might be thought of as species of positive thinking. When we talk about having faith in another person we are choosing to believe that they will not betray us. We do trust exercises where we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of the other, believing that the person we are trusting will not let us fall. In some real senses we can’t be rationally sure of that person’s reliability, but we allow ourselves a fairly strong degree of emotional certainty regardless. In this way faith is a matter of choosing to believe what we hope for. As the writer of the New Testament’s book of Hebrews put, “faith is the substance of things hoped for.”

Hope in turn is different from faith because there isn’t the same sense of certainty implied. It is positive thinking which leaves more room for doubt, thus becoming less positive in the process. So the question is, is the only real distinction between these forms of positive thinking a matter of quantity or degree? If so –– if hope is really just a weaker form of faith, and the point of the matter is to strengthen the positive thoughts as far as possible –– shouldn’t we just try to take all that hope stuff and push to turn it into a proper sort of faith? Many evangelicals I know seem to operate on such a premise.

This might sound a bit crazy in some ways, but there are strong tendencies in this direction within all of the world’s mystical traditions, in Christianity within the Pentecostal and Charismatic “faith healing” movements in particular. Within the self-help literature and seminar industry this sort of faith-based pursuit of personal advantage has taken on a new secular form, suggesting that by believing something strongly enough you can change the flow of events and cause desired states of affairs to come about. The archetypical form for this is based on a film called The Secret, which Barbara Ehrenreich does a pretty good job of debunking.

It goes with this understanding of things to say that when Jesus told the woman in Luke 8, for instance, “Your faith has healed you,” he was being quite literal about it. Combining the placebo effect with a bit of divine help brought about through persistent and trusting petition to that power can do all sorts of positive things for us. If you only hope in such matters the effect isn’t nearly as powerful. So why bother with hope at all? The basic evangelical perspective wouldn’t seem to have so much use for hope as such.

But then why does the Bible, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, have so much to say on the subject of hope? To start with there is the closing verse of I Corinthians 13, the famous hymn to love: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love…” Thus it states directly that hope, regardless of its uncertainties, together with faith and love, is an everlasting theological principle; towering above wisdom, courage, benevolence and a host of other virtues. Then in Romans 5 Paul goes on to explain how hope is the precious result of faith enduring suffering, coming by way of hard won experience. Beyond that the expected experiences of the after-life and Christ’s return to earth are not spoken of as matter of faith, but as hope: When it comes right down to it we don’t have any absolutely certain information about what lies on the other side of death, or how the end of the world will play out in practice. So we give ourselves certain uncertain expectations to keep ourselves going, and that’s perfectly as it should be. And then there are all of the various things that Paul and other Bible writers allow themselves to look forward to without basing their faith on such things actually coming about, like getting to visit with old friends at some point, or parcel deliveries of various sorts getting through. These things have a way of giving strength and motivation in day to day affairs, but Paul never contemplated a possibility that such things failing to work out might call into question the foundation of his certainty regarding the deeper principles of faith. So there would seem to be something of a qualitative difference between these two phenomena, not just a quantitative matter of hope being the lesser form of positive thinking.

Hope is a paradoxical business though. It involves the anticipation of something sweet that can be a greater thrill than the arrival of the sweetness itself, but if that sweetness never arrives and the hope gets crushed it can cause all sorts of nasty sensations –– “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). So the trick with hope is to extend it out for the maximum possible level of satisfaction from the hope itself without it hitting that breaking point; or to keep a rotating arsenal of lesser hopes on hand so that when some hopes do fail you can always fall back on others.

Some hopes are certainly harder to let go of than others. For the Apostle Paul the biggest hope defining his life, that he eventually had to let go of, was that he would live to see Jesus return to earth with an army of angels to set things right for those who had suffered in his name. For me the hardest hope in life to let go of has been that of having a satisfying and stable marriage and/or family life someday. For Paul and for me this big hope being frustrated was/has been further complicated by its being combined with other smaller disappointments in life; but somehow the assurance of actual faith combined with the realization of a  collection of significant smaller hopes along the way enabled him, and enables me, to keep going in life.

If Paul’s great hope would have been realized, human history would have been over long before I would have been born. I have enjoyed life enough where I still see it as a good thing that Paul didn’t get what he was hoping for then. What grand divine master plan it would have screwed up for whom if my own greater hopes would have been realized is hard for me to speculate about even.  Or maybe it’s simplest and most practical just to think of things in terms of my being a screw up when it comes to following through with romance and leave it at that. Whatever the case, life goes on; and as they say, when there’s life there’s hope.

One of my modest hopes: to see these sights again.

One of my modest hopes: to see these sights again.

The hopes currently on my mind are simple enough: I hope that the kids I am now teaching give me good excuses to give them good final grades this spring. I hope that what they learn in my classes and my colleagues’ classes will be of some lasting value for them in “the real world”. I hope that they will each find their way into suitable and satisfying academic and vocational paths once their compulsory school education is complete. I hope I find some way of paying my rent this summer, given that as a part time teacher I won’t be getting any summer vacation pay. I hope that my sons each succeed in the academic and career targets they have set for themselves for the coming months. I hope that my sons are each eventually more successful in long-term relationship building than I have been. I hope to stay relatively healthy, including not getting myself killed on the bicycle while negotiating all of the ice and slush that remains on the paths I have to ride each day. I hope that even if we don’t get a proper summer in this country this year there will at least be a pleasant spring sometime soon, with flowers in the fields and all of that. I hope that some of the stuff I get written this year, academically and otherwise, will turn out to have lasting value.  I hope to experience many warm moments of friendship and fellowship of various sorts in my own life in the medium-range future.

I figure that if more than half of those hopes come to be realized, whichever ones they turn out to be, 2013 will go down in the history of my life as not having been too bad a year. Meanwhile I’ll keep doing what I can to increase the odds on all of them, realizing that some are less under my control than others.


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Filed under Happiness, Religion, Spirituality, Time

Syrup Season

Every school day morning for the past few weeks I’ve cycled to work over ice that‘s just starting to melt in the sun, and every afternoon I’ve returned over slush that is just starting to solidify, with irregular solid chunks of ice buried within. So far I’ve managed to avoid any significant injury or equipment damage in the process. It’s hard to get really frustrated with the conditions even, as they are the surest sign of spring that we’ve got here at the moment.

wannabe syrup

wannabe syrup

The other happy thought that keeps me going these days is that these are prime conditions for doing maple syrup. Relatively few people outside the northeast United States, where I grew up, seem to be aware of this important cultural activity. Around the world there are products labeled as “Maple (flavored) Syrup”. But few seem to have any clear idea of where the real thing comes from, when and how it is produced.

To get good maple syrup you need to have the right sort of trees growing in the coldest possible area. The trees need to be good and hopelessly dead for some months of the year for the process to work. If they aren’t frozen up solid on the top during the winter, you won’t get any decent syrup making sap out of them. Then once they have suffered enough, and they become desperate enough to make leaves to gather what energy they can during the summer, you need the sort of weather that cruelly teases them for a while. So in the morning they need to feel warm enough in the sun where they start saying to themselves, “Yes! We can live with this!” and they start shooting all sorts of energy-rich sap up into the branches to start making leaves. But then later in the afternoon it starts to get cold again, the trees start to think un-Christian thoughts about the weather again, and they start to suck their sap back down into the roots where it won’t suffer from the solid freeze coming again that night… only to be fooled again the same way the next day.

The earlier in the season you manage to get some sort of inter-venous tap into the tree to collect some of this energy rich life blood of the maple tree, the more pure sugar water it contains. There’s something particularly sweet about the trees’ time of innocence each spring, when they have their first few dozen false alarms about spring having come. Eventually though a woody cynicism starts to set in, and rather than just sugar water the tree starts sending up more of its deeper brown earthy wisdom as to the disappointments this world has to offer. Eventually the sap becomes too dark and woody for commercial syrup production, and the season comes to an end, leaving the trees to make their leaves and do their best to thrive in peace. The sap is then boiled down to the desired thickness, bottled up and stored for special occasions or shipped off to be sold to those who appreciate the finer things in life.

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

So there are actually an infinite number of grades of syrup to be had from any given patch of maple trees on any given year. Some connoisseurs particularly like the lightest, sweetest, most innocent syrup from the early season; others prefer the darker, more distinctively “mapley” flavor of later season syrups. In Europe and in more southern climates, however, you can’t really shop around much for finer grades and better years of syrup. You take what you can find and you’re thankful for it!

The Finns do something similar to maple syrup from birch sap in the spring, but it’s not as sweet and it has a pretty powerful laxative effect, so it can’t be appreciated as freely as the classic North American confection. I would image it would be rather easy to grow sugar maples in this part of the world, but to the best of my knowledge no one has done it with any noteworthy success; and with all of the problems that have come with other tree species that have been transplanted around the world, it could well be illegal to try. Besides, it takes close to a man’s lifetime before a sugar maple tree even starts to provide a significant amount of tappable sap in the spring. It takes a pretty old forest to really make it worthwhile.


Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Now buried within this philosophical acceptance of, and sentimental appreciation for, the current time of year, there are far more analogous lessons for life than I can even begin to tease out for you. I’ll just quickly note some of the basic understandings that all this brings to mind for me:

  • The sweetest things in life only come through difficulties and disappointments. 
  • Sometimes naïve hope is worth expressing even if it does end up getting frustrated. 
  • Not everyone can appreciate it, but the unique character that comes out of repeatedly facing difficulties without giving up –– the darker aspects of what comes out of us –– are part of the unique character that makes us special. 
  • When you move on to new adventures in life you can’t always take all of the best of your old experiences with you, but you can bring some little taste of them along, enriching the lives of those you meet along the way in the process. 
  • You need to be careful how you go about replacing things you start to miss. 
  • Every season has its purpose, its beauties and its rewards. 
  • When it comes to changing the world for the better, we need to remember that sometimes the process takes longer than what would allow us to appreciate the fruits of our own labors. 
  • Some of our best intentions may have unpredictable consequences, and sometimes when we are not able to realize our ambitions that might actually turn out to be a good thing.

With those things in mind, let me go on to say to those I know in New England, New York, Michigan and southeastern Canada in particular, count your blessings, friends!

People in other parts of the world have their own special blessings about which you can understand little from where you sit, but your own blessings are something special. Like everyone, you are able to experience some of these blessings due to your own persistence and hard work in life, but there are other aspects which have nothing to do with your merit and everything to do with random factors working in your favor, or your good fortune to be able to harvest what those who came long before you have cultivated. Enjoy your freedom and blessings in tapping into the bounty that surrounds you then, always being careful to protect the trees and keep this wonderful blessing going for those who come after you.

Those too are ideas worth pondering for their broader implications.

And if any of you find it in your hearts to send or bring me some of your early to mid-season syrup, I will do what is in my power to arrange blessings in return on your lives.

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Another Lent

wanhat-1This past week I there was a series of “important days” that I failed to properly recognize: the pope’s resignation announcement, followed by Mardi Gras, followed of course by Ash Wednesday, followed in turn by Valentine’s Day. On Friday, and in between, were all sorts of birthdays, anniversaries, annual formal dances for Finnish high school students and all sorts of other things which I should have probably properly paid more attention to, but which I just let slip this year.

Nor am I paying particular attention to Lent this year. Last year I made a point, primarily for health reasons, of spending the season without red meat. I slipped a couple times, but overall I did pretty well at it, and I have since managed to cut back my beef, pork and lamb intake considerably. But having the occasional meat ball or lasagna dish so far this Lent is not a crisis of conscience for me; I’ve decided not to bother repeating last year’s experiment in that regard. The same goes for giving up caffeine, alcohol, pastries, candies and other “vices” that I’ve made a point of setting aside for the season in years past: I don’t feel particularly guilty about my current consumption levels on any of them, and I haven’t had the motivation to plan something along those lines to live without just to prove to myself I can live without it. Nor do I think that God thinks any less of me for my lack of participation in this ritual this time around.

The best I can promise myself is to spend the time until Easter avoiding all sorts of PC time killers, such as solitaire and mine sweeper. Those are on-going little challenges for me: not to waste time with such trivial mind-emptying challenge games. Just as well I could give up Sudoku, crosswords and other things I do on paper to keep my mind semi-active with no other rational purpose. As I don’t own my own television set at this point, intentionally giving that up would seem rather pretentious at best.

Rather than giving things up, what I really need to do in order to feel better about my state of personal discipline and/or spirituality067038-pope-john-paul-ii is to focus on better fulfilling my positive purposes and intentions: to better prepare the lessons I teach, to write more profoundly and creatively, to jump into my new post-graduate studies with both feet… But as the previous pope pointed out, it is much harder to set firm standards for positive requirements than it is for negative ones. It is more important to love your neighbor as yourself, but it is easier to set a solid standard for not stealing and not perjuring.

And once again this brings me to the question of how valuable ritual for ritual’s sake can be in terms of keeping us on track with our day-to-day pursuit of meaning, purpose and direction in life. When we do things the same way every day, every week, every year, how far to those routines serve to enrich our lives, and how far do they go in preventing us from doing things that would otherwise make our lives as wonderful as they otherwise could be? Not a simple question. We all need some things in life to be just automatic matters of habit in order to save energy that would otherwise be needed for contemplating such matters. This is why some people get pissed at philosophers in general; for forcing them to re-think things that they had been comfortably ignoring as routine matters. You don’t think about taking part in daily, weekly or annual worship rituals; you just do it. You don’t think about fastening your seat belt when you get into a car; you just do it. You don’t think about buying your wife or girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day; you just do it. Once such things are properly settled in your mind if you stop to think about them you are just wasting time, unless… unless there is good reason to reconsider why you are bothering, and what difference it actually makes. Even then the process can be rather uncomfortable and bothersome.

And there are those for whom strict, unquestionable rules are the only way they can avoid self-destruction –– people for whom, if alcohol would be considered an acceptable lifestyle alternative, they would be seriously drunk every week, and therefore it just makes the most practical sense that they never let themselves drink; not even to think about it.

But as those who know me are aware, when it comes to rituals as a means of keeping my life together, that’s just not my style. The best I can hope for in such regards is to have a set of positive habits in place that can serve as a useful automatic structure for all of my spontaneous decisions. And even there I am nowhere near as regular as I would like to be. For instance you might notice that for the first time this calendar year I have failed to get my blog up over the weekend, like I’ve been making an effort to do. Perhaps I could have done better, but I had other spontaneous priorities. It may be enough by way of explanation to say that I am writing this in the guest room of my son’s apartment in Sodankylä, in Finnish Lapland.

lapland trip 019I am very proud of my older son, though I am far more distant from him than I want to be these days. I spent a year where I chose to live more than 10,000 kilometers away from him, and after I returned we were only spending time together a few hours per month. Then relatively soon thereafter he took his current job as an army drill sergeant within the Arctic Circle, about an even 1000 kilometers from my house. So this last weekend, as this is my last full week off from school during the school year, and as this is the week before my French car goes to “that big parking garage in the sky” and I start using my bicycle and public transportation, I decided to spontaneously drive up and see him.

While I have been here we have not had uninterrupted “quality time” but we’ve been together more than really any time in the past two years, and while he was off of work for the weekend I didn’t want to spend extended amounts of time on line or writing. Thus I have allowed myself to break my “good habits” regarding this blog and post it late, and I actually feel better about myself for doing so.

My son, by virtue of the sort of work he does, lives a rather structured life compared to most people I know. He wakes up early each morning and makes himself some instant oatmeal and coffee. He then commences with whatever active physical routines he has set for himself for the day, most of which involve interaction with the Arctic nature in one way or another: bicycling, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, playing with his Jeep… His life is rather Spartan, with no extra luxuries or ornamentation visible in his shared GI bachelor apartment. He is neither a teetotaler nor a heavy drinker; neither passive about his career nor obsessed with ambition. I strongly respect him for where he’s at. In some ways I wish I had more of the sort of rituals he does to keep his life regular; in other ways I’m glad I don’t.

lapland trip 015On my first full day up here he asked if I was interested in climbing up one of the better known skiing hills in the region, which is actually next to the Bible society lodge where he met with friends to see in the New Year. I happily agreed, while posting disclaimers about my physical condition being significantly worse than his. “Well, there’s one way to take care of that,” he said. And predictably, as we climbed he got considerably ahead of me, slowing down only enough to make sure I saw where he was going and didn’t give up. The obvious reversal of leadership roles would have been interesting to observe were it not for the physical strain involved. The joys of having fathered a drill sergeant!

lapland trip 022What time I was spending to myself while up here was mostly reading the library book I brought along: Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It is the story of another rather Europeanized American man who grew up very religious; who had some significant accomplishments relative to that earlier in his life, though he never properly conformed to the mold he was cast in; who has also set out to reinvent his identity in middle age, partially at least as a writer (in spite of struggling with dyslexia); who also has a military son that he is rather proud of; who also hopes for his children to accept him and find things to respect about him in spite of himself. A lot I can relate to there, obviously.

So I’ve begun this year’s Lent in a rather un-Lenten way, but looking rather for non-ritualized, positive ways to spontaneously “improve myself”. I recognize that many would recommend a more ritualized approach to life than what I’ve taken –– and in many respects they may be right about things –– but like, so what? I live free and focus on connecting with those who are important to me as much as I can. Rituals which don’t serve such purposes –– or which take away from such purposes –– I largely live without. I don’t have the whole thing figured out by any means, but I don’t have a great deal of trust in those who would like to set better ritualized norms for me. I still respect the value of the ritual of Lent, but this year I’ve decided to go without. I guess you could say that I decided to give up Lent for Lent.

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KE part 7 (evaluating connection-based happiness)

So now I come to the peak of my “Five Cs” of happiness: connection. I should probably start out with a couple of qualifications here. First of all, as I’ve said already, there are many philosophers and psychologists in the field who are dogmatically convinced that confidence is the true peak of happiness and self-worth, and I’m not going to try to conclusively disprove their theory on the matter. It’s not the sort of thing that can be scientifically proven one way or the other. Both are important, and I recognize that happiness can come in many forms for many people. Secondly, just because I consider connection to be the most important source of happiness does not mean that as long as you have that, nothing else matters. All of these sources remain important and need to be balanced with each other, right down to the comparison business I started out with. I have some ideas about the limits of connection as source of human happiness but that is an essay unto itself.

All that being said, and my personal experiences aside, there is one powerful theoretical justification for putting connection at the top of my sources of happiness list: all the others are limited to the scope of a person’s natural lifespan. It’s highly unlikely that I have more life ahead of me than I do behind me at this point, and no one who is old enough to read this will be alive 100 years from now. So that brings me to one inescapable conclusion matter how well you live it, life is just too damn short. The limits of what happens within my own skin are just too tight. We have a certain need to feel that we are part of something that goes further than that. The author of Ecclesiastes (3:11) put it this way: “[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done.” Even Aristotle recognized that in order to count as truly happy and successful in life, a man has to leave some sort of successful heritage. To do that, he has to connect with something beyond himself.

And then beyond that there is my subjective evaluation of things that have made me happy and common traits I’ve noticed among the happier people I have known. People who feel cared about, part of a group of “significant others,” in touch with something greater than themselves and in general “loved” tend to be far happier than even the most powerful and self-confident of all loners out there.

Looking at what I wrote to my son on this subject years ago, I now see some things that are very dated about this text, but it’s worth sharing anyway:

This form of happiness can begin with the most trivial of things. At its most basic level, I can experience the happiness of connection through such simple things as a bicycle ride; as I stand up on the pedals and start pumping my legs to get up a hill, I start to feel like my old Raleigh ten-speed just becomes an extension of my arms and legs, moving according to my will as a part of my very being. The great gun-slingers of the American Wild West said the same thing of their revolvers; they just felt as though they became part of their hands. For the skilled jockey or cowboy on horseback, or for a shepherd working with a well-trained sheep dog, the same principle goes a step deeper; instead of a machine, a living, breathing organism with a mind of its own effectively becomes part of that person’s “self.” There is a special thrill as these two operate entirely as one. But it is only when two people somehow have the experience of effectively becoming part of each other that this satisfaction reaches a plateau where it deserves to be called love.

Since I wrote that the Raleigh has long since been stolen and I am no longer in very good cycling condition, and since it is entirely fair to say that my relationship with my dog has been one of the major factors in preserving what is left of my mental health, I might be a bit more inclined to recognize the proper use of the L-word as relating to “lower species” as well, but other than that I still stand by this quote. It does, however, make it necessary to consider more carefully the ways these connections are formed and how they become meaningful to us.

To start with, I would deny that love is merely the emotional component of a complex set of self-defense and self-promotion reflexes which, on Freud’s authority, are seen as related to the sex drive. Besides reacting to the offensiveness of the implied reductionist claim that all of my interpersonal connections are nothing more than instinctive hormonal reactions, I would point out that we can see the difference between love and sexual preoccupation by studying psychopaths. These particularly sick individuals lack the capacity to experience any form of love, but not sex. A psychopath can experience sexual satisfaction just as well as the next guy; he just can’t experience any sense of closeness with his partner in the process. A certain sort of love should be part of sex, and at its best sex is an expression of a very profound sort of love, but love is far more than that and comes in many more forms than that.

It should also be noted that love is one of the areas of human experience where human language is at its most inadequate. Poets of all different languages, styles and cultures have been trying to capture the experience of love for at least as long as we have had written languages, some doing better at it than others but none of them succeeding entirely. The nature of the problem here was captured as well I have seen anywhere by the recently deceased Finnish poet Tommy Taberman, whom I jokingly refer to has being a distant relative of mine by way of marriage (long story). Taberman got a bit of a rise out of critics by describing a sunrise as being “the color of an orgasm.” Now what color would that be? Obviously the experience of an orgasm cannot be captured in a particular shade of color (though if it could it would probably be something warm and dazzling like the most intense sunrise you’ve ever witnessed), and just as obviously the experience of love cannot be captured in a particular verbal expression. However you say it, there will always be more to it than that.

But that still leaves an open question of what we are really talking about when we speak of love in sincere, non-lustful terms. Christian devotional writing on the topic has spent a lot of time and ink going over the three basic Greek words for love used in the New Testament, but in my opinion that doesn’t really answer the question; in some ways it may just muddy the waters. Not that I consider myself to be wiser or more verbally skilled than the inspired writers of scripture or their army of commentators, but perhaps if I toss out my own ad hoc set of categories for types of love—or interpersonal connections in general––it might at least inspire some fresh thinking on the subject. I’ll show you what I’ve got then and await a variety of different critical responses. Here are Huisjen’s basic categories for what might be meant by “love”:

1. “Warm Fuzzies”
Borrowed from the name for emotional images used in Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, warm fuzzies is a term used to refer to an unthinking, instinctive sense of emotional attraction. This is where someone or something is presented in a way that makes them appear “totally huggable.” Some people, women in particular, live for warm fuzzy experiences, and media experts are all too happy to provide such experience for them as means of manipulating people into consuming whatever product they’re being paid to sell. There are some very basic tricks of that trade that we could discuss, but I’m trying to keep this brief. The point here is that these sorts of feelings are a bit like the rabbit my sons and I had as a pet prior to our spaniel: soft, tender, endearing, mostly harmless and incredibly stupid.

Cynical as my approach here is though, warm fuzzies can have their own legitimate role in helping us find happiness. As long as you’re careful about it and recognize the inherent limits in this kind of relationship, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in appreciating cuteness and non-sexual cuddliness.

As to the risks of becoming obsessed with “love” strictly in terms of warm fuzzies (at the risk of distastefully speaking ill of the dead) two words: Michael Jackson.

2. Synchronized Function
There is a slightly deeper sort of “love” than warm fuzzies that goes with working smoothly together with someone, sort of like what I spoke of above relating to bicycles and sheep dogs. There’s just this certain bond which comes about when a rock band plays really well together for a long time, feeding off of each other’s energy and creating great art in the process; or when a military unit functions so that every member can literally trust every other member with their lives because of how well they have learned to work together; or even when a restaurant staff is able to function reliably and efficiently under pressure, giving each customer what they want when they want it with pride and finesse, regardless of how swamped they get. In any of these cases it’s entirely appropriate for members of the group to say to each other, “I love you, man!” This sort of love has its limits though, in that it is obviously based on each person’s performance abilities and similar skill levels. It may provide help for a colleague who gets wounded or even stumbles under pressure, but it has no place for weaklings and wannabes. Less able folks also need love, so we can’t leave it at this.

3. Aesthetic Connection
In the film (and theatre play) Shadowlands (based on the life of author C. S. Lewis) there is an important line repeated a few different dialogs: “We read to know that we’re not alone.” I would strongly agree with that assessment, and apply it to many other forms of appreciating human creativity. Literature, like all fine arts at their best, gives us a sense of connection with the experience of the author/artist and other members of the audience; it helps us know we are not alone. Knowing that there are others out there who feel something at least quite similar to what I feel gives me a sense of being part of something important. Sometimes this is a matter of sharing an appreciation for the artist’s awesome talent; turning to the guy next to you and saying, “Damn! How does he do that?!” Other times it is just admiring the elegant simplicity of a particular creative solution to a difficult challenge. Other times it is a matter of recognizing the feelings being expressed as ones you’ve gone through yourself, or that you could easily imagine yourself going through, but you hadn’t quite been able to express them; and through this art you now discover a certain community of those who’ve had the same sort of experiences. Or it could be any combination of these forms of connection through the art. Of course not everyone “gets it,” but that can be part of what makes it special.

4. Romantic/Sexual Union
I’ve already discounted hormonal attraction as a form of love, but sometimes there is something intense that physical lovers experience that goes beyond the sexual. Plato talked about a legend of the gods cruelly splitting souls in half and putting each half in a separate body, so that people spend their lives looking for the other half of their primordial true self––someone they can “become part of” not only physically but, through the physical passion, on a deeper level as well. While on a fundamental level I do not believe in this sort of “soul mate” idea, and while my personal experience in looking for romantic partnership has been mixed at best, I do deeply respect and appreciate the value of the sort of bonding that couples who are “meant for each other” are able to achieve. Of course it doesn’t “just come naturally” for anyone, but when two people are able to build the sort of life together where, after spending more than half of their lives committed to each other, they still get profound satisfaction from being together, those are some of the most enviable people in the world. The institution of marriage may or may not help people build this sort of partnership in any given case, but when this kind of love is established between the partners even a cynical second generation divorcee like me can see marriage as a potentially beautiful thing. But the problem with this sort of love is that “authorities” who claim to have sure-fire ways of making this sort of relationship work––from conservative religious leaders to neo-Jungian relationship therapists––are never as effective at it as they claim to be.

5.  Kinship
In addition to the pair bonding aspect of building happy families there is also the matter of people having a semi-instinctual urge to protect and build solidarity with those they have the most in common with genetically; especially their own children, but also siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins and even more distant relatives. This sort of connection can be very powerful and important regardless of one’s pair bonding success. Especially in the case of parent/child relationships here, this sort of love can easily trump all others. Like romantic relationships, it can very seriously misfire at times, but when it does you can’t divorce yourself in the same way from your parents, or your children, or your siblings, as you can from a spouse. That sort of involuntary certainty in the relationship can actually have a very positive effect at times.

6. Intellectual Stimulation
As a philosopher and a theologian (in the looser senses of both words at least) I’m inclined to believe that there are levels of personal connection that transcend all physical or biological considerations. More important than biological kinship, in other words, is our search for “kindred spirits.” Beyond knowing that each of us is part of a particular family tree, beyond having that “special someone” in your life, and beyond sharing a certain level of emotional experience in relation to the arts, we all need to experience the sense that our basic world views and the foundations for our personal values are more than just our quirky individual ways of looking at things. Finding others who can share those views with you and who can help you refine those views can in fact be one of the most important experiences of love that a person can have. This can be seen as a combination of the aesthetic and the synchronized, cooperative forms of love mentioned above, but it also goes beyond that. It is a matter of my overall world view somehow becoming profoundly connected with someone else’s world view. This need not be a perfect or comprehensive match in order to be a profound source of joy for those fortunate enough to experience it. Perhaps the joy that many think they are getting from personal confidence in their intellectual processes more properly comes from this form of connection with others that they get be way of these intellectual processes. This can also be related to…

7. Spiritual Union
Some may consider this to be a delusional form of connection by way of intellectual stimulation, but I am also prone to believe that there is indeed “something out there” beyond the metaphysical limits of the material realm; something which is the ultimate source of our being and which ultimately defines our purpose in life. As an unabashed member of the Christian tradition, for lack of any better name, I refer to this “something” as “God” when I am speaking English, with rough equivalents in any other language I might try to use. More than connecting with other people, but at the same time as one of the primary focal points for my connection with other people, I wish to have a connection with this ultimate source that I call God. Again, in my experience, people who humbly reach out in search of this ultimate source, and who find satisfaction in building a connection with such a transcendent source of peace and harmony, whatever religious tradition they happen to base this sense of connection on, tend to be some of the happiest and most enviable people in the world. This is why, for example, I believe the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are able enjoy such a profound sense of connection with each other, regardless of their theological differences. This is a form of love that I strongly hope to include in all of the other loves I feel and express.

There’s still a lot to be said about the relative importance of each of these types of love, and the risks and rewards involved in pursuing them as sources of happiness, but I already have more verbiage here than the average blog reader has the patience for, so I’ll leave it at that. And since this series isn’t really generating a lot of traffic this time around I’ll leave off on this here for now. Here’s hoping then that each of you finds the sorts of connections in life that you need in order to be genuinely happy, and if any of you want to connect with me personally in some of these more important ways, feel free to contact me about the matter.

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KE part 6 (Epistemological considerations regarding our sources of confidence)

Continuing on with the re-edit version of this series, before I get to evaluating connection I believe it is necessary to take into consideration some of the epistemological factors related to choosing our sources of confidence. When I set out to improve myself –– to find a valid justification for my self-confidence –– should that be a matter of learning to please God more, or somehow helping the evolutionary process to advance, or being more of an authentic individual, or promoting some form of social good? When it comes to deciding which of the four points of the compass (the transcendental, the material, the individual existential or the social) one is ultimately going to base one’s sense of value and morality on, is there really a rational way to choose?

There are plenty of people out there telling you what to believe. How do you decide which ones are right?

I pointed out last time that there is a fair amount of ethical risk involved in each of these approaches, and that all of them can be misused. But regardless of the risks involved, regardless of whether or not we can be sure about such things, we need to find some basis for proving to ourselves that we are worth something. To be truly self-actualized, as Maslow calls it, we need to have some sort of target in life that we can justifiably consider worth shooting for. So the task here is to consider how we can go about determining which source(s) of confidence are most trustworthy, sustainable, admirable and efficient in terms of actually making people happy.

To start with, we need to recognize that, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, a certain amount of uncertainty is somewhat inevitable here. As I wrote for my son years ago,

There is in fact no conclusive system for evaluating metaphysics which does not itself depend on some metaphysical presupposition. This is what philosophers refer to as tautology, also known as circular reasoning. If for instance I say that God is the ultimate source of reality, and I know this because God has shown it to me, that says nothing to an outsider. I might just as well say that I am the most important person in the world, because I say that I am, and as the most important person in the world I have the right to say so. It may be a legitimate statement of faith, but logically it proves nothing. Yet outside of starting from such assumptions there are no grounds for proving that any system is the best.

So how do we avoid sinking into the quicksand of confusion on this one? First of all we need to recognize that at some point we will have to just “dive in” in spite of our uncertainties. This is what Kierkegaard called “the leap of faith.” Since we can never have absolute certainty in advance when it comes to choosing a foundation for building our personal value on, eventually we just have to dive in and try something. If that first attempt doesn’t work out it’s likely to hurt like hell, but hopefully it will still leave you whole enough to try another alternative. The good news is that it is probably fair to say that of those who are sincerely seeking for this sort of purpose, more often actually find something that works for them than die in the frustration from searching in vain.

Of course that doesn’t mean that what works for some individual is beyond doubt the final metaphysical truth of the matter. We know that because we can see how different people actually find workable purpose and confidence for themselves at all four points of the compass I’ve laid out, and in the final metaphysical analysis obviously not all of them can be right. I’m not saying that it makes no difference which premise you base your confidence on, or that they are all equal when it comes to truth value, or that the dangers I pointed out in relation to each given foundation are not real. But rather than jumping into the process of justifying my personal preference on this matter, I want to lay out some useful rules of thumb on the matter of making such commitments.

So how do we go about deciding which foundation is “close enough” to start with? I’d suggest beginning with the following:

Consistency / Coherence
If you’ve studied a little bit of epistemology, you know that there are two primary ways of judging the truthfulness of any given proposition: the extent to which it fits together with other things which we accept as true, and the extent to which it is able to avoid self-contradiction. The former is called correspondence theory and the latter, coherence theory. Since theoretically we want to begin with an open mind here as to what foundation our starting “facts” that set the standard for the factuality of other things will come from, we should probably avoid using the correspondence theory as a starting point here. So that leaves us with coherence to look at.

You might call this Sudoku logic: if you can’t continue by the rules of the game without putting the same number twice in some row or column, you know there is a mistake in there somewhere. Likewise when some person’s ideological position leads them into self-contradiction––saying that certain things are both morally required and morally forbidden at the same time––you can pretty much tell that they’ve got something in the wrong place.

We have to be careful not to judge too quickly here though: any moral position will involve difficulties and paradoxes, and if some position seems to just fall together without any such challenges that is not so much a sign that it is true as a sign that it is superficial. Any system can be kept consistent by avoiding its application to the messy process of human experience; and if it isn’t applicable to deeper aspects of human experience, it’s unlikely to be of much value as a source of confidence. Some capacity to deal with internal tensions must be part of the value of any meta-ethical starting point. The way Kierkegaard put it, “a thinker without paradox is like a lover without passion.”

Another rule of thumb that can be applied to choosing what to believe in has to do with whose word you are willing to take on the matter. Like many decisions in life, you want to ask various people who have tried the different alternative “products” that you are considering “buying.” But you need to be careful about this, because many who will try to win you over to their own way of thinking will do so as a way of trying to get your money, for instance. Others will try to convert you to their way of thinking as part of a personal power trip they are on. If you can catch these signals they can serve as valuable warning signs. It’s always best to avoid following the recommendations of hypocrites if you can help it. But on the other hand many wonderful people can be sincerely wrong, and some real sleaze balls can randomly end up as representatives of beliefs that have a lot of value to them, so don’t take this as the final standard of what to believe.

The role of the belief in the person’s life

Grossly generalizing here, among sincere recommendations for a belief the most unreliable ones tend to be those coming from someone who has converted to the belief in question either in their late teens or early twenties. This usually means that they turned to this belief as a means of becoming an independent adult and/or as a way of drawing a line under the painful mistakes they made as adolescents. That can make any belief system look better in the eyes of the convert than it really merits. Slightly more credible than this, but still rather unreliable is the testimony of those who have remained faithful to their childhood beliefs without ever seriously questioning them –– who have never seriously considered the possibility that their parents were wrong about key issues. On other hand, the more serious a set of crises a person can get through without having to radically change his or her belief system in the process, the more it says about the genuine value that belief system has for the person.


A viable source of confidence will decrease rather than increase your need to attack others.

One final factor worth mentioning is that those who have a serious hatred towards those who believe, act or look different from themselves should not be trusted. One characteristic of a workable set of foundational beliefs is that it enables the person to act secure and civilized around those who don’t share his/her beliefs. This sort of personal confidence enables the individual with a functional belief system not to feel threatened by those who see the world differently. This is what we call tolerance. In short, the less tolerance you see among believers in a particular system, the less likely it is to have much value, and visa-versa.

All this is based on the premise that your source of confidence is something you actually choose. It’s fair to say that this is something the vast majority of people –– even well educated people –– never really stop to think about that seriously. For most people the things they pursue as sources of confidence are things that they are socialized into by their families, their schools, their religious communities, their local peer groups or some combination of the above. It might be rather idealistic to believe that any of us genuinely choose our beliefs and our career paths. But I have to agree with Kant on one basic thing here: if we’re going to have anything called “ethics” we’re going to have to postulate some basic capacity for people to choose what they do with their lives. “Ought” implies “can.” And since on that basis I’m willing to postulate that people can choose, at least somewhat, how they are going to live and what goals they are going to pursue, I would hope that they would choose carefully and wisely; and dare to admit their mistakes and revise their choices if necessary. It is the capacity to make such decisions for oneself that qualifies a person for the elite status that Maslow calls self-actualized.

In any case, though intellectuals of many sorts tend to believe that this sort of existential autonomy is the highest form of happiness, as I’ve said already, I really don’t see it that way. First of all, I don’t believe that in practice a person’s level of happiness depends so much on how intelligent she/he is or even how important she/he is seen as being. I believe there is something greater than confidence as a source of happiness: connection. This includes, but is not limited to, all of the different emotional and spiritual experiences we call “love.” Explaining what I consider that to entail will be the subject of the next (and for now probably the final) installment in this series here.

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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy

KE part 4 (evaluating control-based happiness)

On I go with re-editing and re-blogging my three year old series of posts based on my “Kristian’s Ethics” manuscript.

Having outlined my basic approach and discussed the pursuit of happiness by way of comparison and comfort, I now move on to the third c-word: control. I began explaining this to my son years back by way of a true story (or so the person telling me claimed) that I heard during my years as a bar tender in Helsinki, shortly after the Berlin Wall and all it represented came down:

This Western businessman I was serving told me a story of the culture clashes he had faced while trying to set up a business in Eastern Europe. As he told it, as free enterprise was just becoming possible in that part of the world, he went to this Eastern European country, hired a few local assistants and set up an import/export office. The office was an immediate success in marketing at least; orders started coming in left and right, and to keep up with the demand the entrepreneur himself had to work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week. The problem was that he had to do most of the work alone; every weekday afternoon at five o’clock all of his local work force would put on their coats and head for the door. Working nights and weekends was out of the question for them. Overtime was a concept that was untranslatable into their language. The business man begged and pleaded and negotiated with these people until finally one Friday afternoon one fellow explained things to him in rather crude terms: “Look,” he said, “I’m done with this shit for the week. I’m going home to open a bottle of brandy. I’m going to get so drunk that I can’t stand up, then I’m going to go to bed and screw my girlfriend until I wear the skin off my dick.  Tomorrow I’ll get up around noon, open the next bottle and start the party all over again, and I’ll keep it going all the way through ‘til Sunday.  Meanwhile, you’ll be here driving yourself crazy with this shit, and if you go anywhere it will only be back to your hotel room to collapse because you’re too tired to do anything else. Why should I want to be more like you?”

The poor businessman couldn’t answer, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for himself. He thought of himself as a free and single playboy, but he wasn’t really living up to it. He kept going with his own rat race while his hired help was getting what he thought he wanted for himself in life.

He wasn’t being as illogical as he thought he was though. Most people, given a chance to see everything about the businessman’s and the worker’s lives, and given a choice of having one or the other for themselves, would still choose the businessman’s life; and as time has gone on more and more Eastern Europeans have become workaholic businessmen themselves. Why? Because he had something that most people consider to be more important than comfort: control. He could control what his company did, where he lived, what he owned, where he traveled, who worked for him, and to a certain extent he could even control the economic relationships between different countries. Compared to that, the only things that the worker could control was (to a certain extent) what time he could come and go, what he drank on the weekend and, if he was lucky, what woman he would sleep with.

I use the term control here less in the sense of having order and predictability in life––though that is an important side effect––and more in terms of being able to cause the things of your own choosing to happen. It involves the exercise of power as a primary element, but also a certain skill at channeling that power with precision and being able to foresee and regulate the consequences of the exercise of this power.

There is a common but erroneous conception of there being good and bad forms of control, with a clear border of sorts between them. The good ones would have names like empowerment, freedom, liberty, self-determination and autonomy. The bad ones would be labeled with terms like tyranny, domination, subjugation and dictatorship. The word authority has a rather variable connotation between these, in that it is technically defined in sociology as “the legitimate exercise of power,” but it is also the primary factor limiting the exercise of freedom or liberty which everyone wants for themselves.

In practice no line can be drawn between “good control” and “bad control,” because we humans are interactive creatures. Everything I choose to do has effects on those around me, and everything those around me do has an effect on me. If I have complete freedom to do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of how those around me feel about it, I am effectively subjugating them. On the other hand, if I have no control over the actions of other, I end up lacking freedom from their harassment and freedom to interact with them in ways that I find satisfying. I illustrated this with a paraphrased version of a story that I borrowed from someplace I can’t actually remember. (Extra points if someone can find the original source.)

Let’s imagine that once upon a time there was a village where there was perfect freedom: everyone could do whatever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it. Well, as it happened, what some people felt like doing was going around punching other people in the nose as hard as they could. They claimed that it was part of their basic freedom to use their fists as they wished, and they were perfectly willing to grant the same freedom to those around them. Most of the people in the village, however, preferred freedom from having their noses broken to freedom to break other people’s noses; so they passed a law that forbid spontaneous nose punching.  The nose punchers were deeply insulted by this new law.  They claimed that this was a terrible restriction of their basic personal liberties, and that the village was taking away their greatest joy in life. Eventually many of them moved away to form their own village, where starting a fist-fight when you felt like it was a guaranteed civil liberty. So then you had the pretty-nosed village and the happy-fisted village side by side, and the question must now be asked, which one was more free?

The traditional reciprocity argument of limiting yourself to actions that you can accept everyone else doing doesn’t do much to help us solve this one. In their own ways each village was being perfectly reasonable. And while this may sound a bit absurd to some, if you substitute the nose punching with smoking, trading in pornography, experimenting with “chemical recreation” of various sorts, playing loud music, auto racing or even the building of nuclear power plants, you can see the same dynamic as relevant to issues of our own time. Sometimes in order to achieve happiness it is important to exercise control over more than yourself, and developing means of controlling yourself, your environment and other people in it can be a very important part of any person’s happiness.

So how do we do that? What means of control are we talking about? I would itemize four basic types: physical, political, economic and philosophical control.

Physical control is perhaps best symbolized by various larger vehicles marketed as “freedom machines,” ranging from cruising motorcycles to sport convertibles to SUVs to private jets. Not only being able to go wherever you want whenever you want as fast as you want, but being able to get tons of metal to move at great speeds precisely according to your whim can give guys in particular a great rush. In the old days an important part of this rush was making it happen with the strength of one’s own muscles, and sometimes that still applies, in sports in particular; but less and less it would seem, as sports become more technology and equipment oriented. This also spills over into our primitive violent urges to dominate other people through physical aggression, but in the contemporary world that technique of controlling other people has become largely outdated.

Techniques of influencing other people can be referred to as political control. I use this as a broad term for pretty much any exercise of social influence, down to children manipulating their parents into giving them the toys they want. The means of exercising this sort of control over others are too many to itemize. Carnegie’s famous work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, doesn’t even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, advertisers and lobbyists have worked on getting this down to a science, but it still remains more of an art, and on the micro level at least, women seem to have an advantage over men in this area. But there is one way that more than any other seems to work these days as a means of getting people to do what you want them to: pay them.

This is what I mean by economic control. These days wealth is not, strictly speaking, an abundance of material possessions; it is a measure of a person’s culturally accepted capacity to pay for things –– to get others to give them what they want or do what they want in exchange for a certain portion of their money –– their recognized purchasing power. With certain cultural skills, this form of control can be used to expand itself exponentially these days, until the system becomes so abstract that it starts to crumble from within. Since I am not an economist by training I have to limit myself in terms of how far I try to go in analyzing the monetary system, but suffice to say, it is the major measure of the capacity to exercise control in the world today, and it is in itself rapidly spiraling out of control.

Given my own biases as a teacher though, I consider one form of control to be more important than money: the power of original and valuable thoughts and ideas. I refer to this category with the blanket term of philosophical control. This can include conceptual areas ranging from inventiveness to hegemony, but explaining those would take more bandwidth than I’m ready to use here this weekend. Once again, suffice to say that if you have sufficiently powerful ideas or wisdom, you can usually parlay that into economic wealth. (I’ve never managed it myself, but I do believe it can be done.) Beyond that, there are some things that some people will not do for money, but there are far fewer things that people would not do on the basis of a commitment to an ideal they have become convinced of.

All that being said, Nietzsche’s theories not withstanding, I do not believe the will to power, or the desire for “freedom” and control, to be the ultimate source of satisfaction in human life. While a certain amount of freedom is necessary for anyone to be happy, and while control tends to be more important to people than physical pleasures once we get beyond the basic survival level, obviously the world’s most powerful people are not the world’s happiest people. It has become a cheap cliché to say that money cannot buy you happiness. There can be exceptions to this, but they require that the money is used to gain something other than influence over others. It’s not enough to be in control; we need to have something worth doing with that control. That’s where this serialized theory of happiness is going next.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Philosophy

KE part 3 (evaluating comfort-based happiness)

Here we have part 3 in the series  based on Kristian’s Ethics –– a manuscript providing advice to my younger son that I started writing about 20 years ago, and which I serialized a bit of on Myspace 3 years ago.

To repeat, my basic premise here is that I believe Aristotle is right, that happiness –– defined as the successful realization of human pursuits which are naturally ends unto themselves –– should be the basis for ethics. But the operative question is, what sort of pursuits which are ends unto themselves for us can we successfully realize? Humans are, after all, notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy. I am thus starting out by going through various alternative categories of sources for happiness, considering which provide the greatest satisfaction. Last time in this series I pointed out some of the limitations of seeking happiness by way of comparison. I will now move on to the area which is considered by many to be the true core of happiness: pleasant physical sensations which can be lumped together under the title of pleasures or comfort.

I use this term in a much broader sense here than its standard usage. Basically what we are considering here is any physically pleasant sensation which could be said to have a relatively clear evolutionary purpose in terms of prolonging life and improving one’s chances for reproductive success. Such sensations would include flavor, intoxication, sexuality and general painless function. Generally speaking, the pursuit of these sorts of pleasures is what many people naively assume that they most want in life.

Aristotle considered the balanced attainment of all of these things to be essential to true happiness. A man who experienced no culinary pleasures, no moderate buzz from wine and no sexual satisfaction, and/or who lived in constant pain, was not, in his opinion, someone who could be categorized as “happy.” While this conclusion intuitively makes sense, there are many examples of people who –– for reasons of religious devotion or on account of traumatic experience –– have chosen to live without any given one or two of these forms of physical satisfaction; sometimes all of them even. Can we really exclude the possibility that Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi lived happy lives on this basis? We’ll come back to that thought.

The New Jersey governor in his cameo appearance in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”. How much pleasure should we get from eating?

If we start with the consideration of pleasures which come by way of flavor, it is easy to see how this sort of positive taste experience could have developed from generation to generation. The ability to sense which foods that will provide us with strong boosts of energy and the nutrients our bodies need on the one hand, and to sense which foods might contain parasites and poisons that could endanger our survival on the other, would be important to our basic survival. But along with the other things to be mentioned in this chapter, this tool for survival has since become far more a means of recreation for many of us. We don’t eat tasty things to improve our odds of survival; we eat tasty things for the sheer pleasure of it.

If you give the average five-year-old a couple of large coins and ask him what he will buy with them, by far the most common answer will be, “candy!” Oh, the simple joys of childhood! […] As people get older, their bodies’ needs change, and with them their tastes also change. The sugary gradually loses its natural appeal, and instead we start to crave things that are rich, creamy and robustly flavored. While adults’ tastes aren’t as simple as children’s, for adults too a major share of life’s pleasures come from taste experiences, and almost every time someone makes a list of their top ten pleasures in life, a good meal is in there somewhere.

But besides the challenge of keeping our calorie intake balanced with our day to day activity level, we have to acknowledge that a lot of the things which taste best to us are the things our bodies least need. Sugars, starches and saturated fats are particularly nasty culprits these days, leading to continuously rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and complications of obesity for vast numbers of people. The old adage that “all sweet things should be tasted” certainly does not hold true these days, if it ever did.

Aristotle wrote about the pleasures of food together with the pleasures of wine. Wine can be part of any outstanding adult culinary experience as one of the many flavors that come together as part of the pleasure, but there is obviously more to wine than that. The alcohol involved is one of many chemicals people can use to trigger particular sorts of pleasurable sensations in their central nervous systems. These pleasures can be grouped together under the heading of intoxication. How and why these chemicals developed in such a way to trigger pleasure centers in our brains is a long discussion unto itself; but the fact is that they do have such an effect, so why not use them?

My drug of choice

There are plenty of different answers to that, including the various risks of destroying your body while seeking such highs, and the risk of losing track of the need to be productive somehow to keep supporting this and other forms of pleasure seeking. No need to go into detail explaining here the risks and lack of long-term pleasure involved in being an alcoholic or drug addict. For that matter the same sorts of risks apply to the use of some “drugs” –– chemicals affecting the central nervous system –– that people don’t actually take with any conscious intent to “get high” –– caffeine and nicotine being the most obvious examples.

But even so, there’s a lot to be said for carefully using mild and familiar chemicals to give yourself a bit of a buzz every now and again. I’m not making any statements in favor of illegal chemical recreation here, but I don’t think that people should be made to feel guilty for having a cup of coffee, or a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine every now and again. And if we consider this category of personal satisfaction to be ethically acceptable, as long as we consider factors of personal and public safety carefully enough in the process, I don’t see where other forms of intoxication need to be forbidden. There are some pretty serious qualifications here though, and when in doubt I strongly recommend erring on the side of caution here.

It might be argued that the thing these chemicals are most directly substituting for in our brains is the sensation that comes from sex. Obviously this thrill was “intended by nature” to make us reproduce and keep our genetic lines going, and perhaps also to create a stronger bond between the lovers to help maintain the sort of partnership necessary to raise children; but just as obviously sex is used as a source of pleasure in ways that have nothing to do with building families. In fact intentionally removing the reproductive and emotional bonding elements of sex is an important part of its pleasure for some people.

Should that be forbidden? “Absolutely,” say the Catholics. “Not at all,” say some reconstituted versions of pre-Christian religions. In between these extremes we can find many different levels and variations of restriction on sexuality in the name of “protecting the family.”

I used to believe quite strongly and idealistically in only allowing sexuality within marriage, as a means of strengthening that bond. But when my marriage to Kristian’s mother eventually fell apart the threat of promiscuous sex had nothing to do with it. All things considered I don’t regret the sexual restraint I exercised in my younger years, because it saved me from feeling guilty about my marriage failing. (The crisis of faith I had over the matter is a separate issue.) But even so, these days I’m inclined to believe that restricting sex is perhaps the least effective way of building partnerships and protecting families, and there’s a fair amount to be said about sex for its own sake.

That being said, there are plenty of risks involved in sex: pregnancies that the lovers aren’t ready for, STDs, sex being used as a tool in ugly power struggles and unexpected emotional reactions to unmatched levels of commitment to the relationship. All in all, even more than with drugs, it is vital to know what you’re getting yourself into with sex and not to mess with things that you’re not sure of or ready for. Beyond that, there’s something about being in love which can make sex a whole lot better, but that’s for another chapter.

Beyond all of the above, happiness by way of comfort can be just a matter of things physically “working right” and not hurting. There’s a lot to be said for the comfort of a warm shower, a soft bed, properly fitting quality jeans, a razor that doesn’t tear the skin off your face (or whatever other part of your body you are shaving), tools that are properly ergonomically designed, and a host of other things that enable us to do what we have to do without giving us extra aches and pains in the process. What’s wrong with that? As long as it doesn’t lead to new forms of helplessness when we don’t have these things, and greater dependence on an unsustainable consumption driven lifestyle, absolutely nothing.

There’s also a lot to be said for physical fitness for its own sake in this regard. Some people try to get fit to improve their sex lives, or to compete more effectively with others in various ways, but just being able to feel your body working the way it is supposed to on a long run or bicycle ride or swim is a significant pleasure unto itself. While fitness can become a rather absurd manic addiction unto itself, as one of the basic joys of a balanced healthy lifestyle I really don’t believe that there’s anything to be said against it.

So when you put all of these things together, is this the best life has to offer? Is it some combination of these things that should make our lives worth living?

On the one hand humanistic psychologists rightly point out that if these forms of happiness are at a critically low level –– especially if someone is starving to death and/or in chronic pain –– no other forms of happiness is likely to make any difference to them. Christian missionaries trying to spread their message in desperately poor communities have noticed the same thing. One motto for promoting humanitarian relief of physical suffering before trying to preach to anyone is, “Empty bellies have no ears.” But does that mean that once the belly is full, the person becomes happy? Moving up the comfort scale from there, can true lasting happiness be found through something akin to the Playboy lifestyle?

This question has two significant aspects to it. First of all, should physical pleasure serve some purpose beyond itself –– prolonged genetic survival in particular? And beyond that then, what factors could/should limit our pursuits of intense physical pleasure?

See any functional similarity between this…

We can look at the first side of this in terms of the cuckoo bird’s foster parents. When we see this classic strategy used in nature we tend to feel sorry for the little sparrows or larks or whatever who get tricked into feeding and caring for what to their eyes a particularly cute chick, hatched from an egg in their nest, because we know that this sneaky chick is killing their own offspring and preventing them from being able to keep their own family lines going. But what if feeding this big baby intruder actually gives the foster parents their own sense of thrill and satisfaction? Is this any worse than a human guy getting off on watching some silicon enhanced porn star, which cannot possibly improve his odds of successfully parenting children? I mean, there too instinctive reflexes that were designed to keep this creature’s genetic line going are being artificially stimulated, leading him to behave in a way which actually reduces his chances of genetic survival. Should we care?

…and this?

Or for that matter there is the urge to eat unhealthy foods because they taste good. If our pleasure programming, intended for purposes of improving our odds of survival is being deceived here too, should we put sensible survival strategies ahead of the process of enjoying the satisfaction of our various appetites, or should we just go ahead and “feed the cuckoo chick in our nest” because it feels good?

If we resist the pleasure urges in favor of survival, we are implicitly admitting that there really is something more important to us than the pleasure itself. If, on the other hand, one wants to live strictly for a sense of physical pleasure and euphoria, perhaps the most consistent way of following that path is to be a drunk or junkie who never has to come down from his high. Eventually it will cause him/her to die early, but if the thrill is more important than survival, what difference does that make?

Then again, perhaps the most sensible path is to follow a strategy of spreading out the physical pleasure experiences over a longer period of time; not destroying oneself carelessly in order to maintain the hope of experiencing more years of good food, pleasant partying and satisfying sex. But how can you really plan for the best experience overall then? How can you adjust things to have the longest run with the most pleasure and the least pain possible? And if that’s all you really have to shoot for, isn’t there a pretty serious risk of the stress of figuring out your strategy taking away the joy of the party itself?

I have to admit, I enjoy many forms of physical pleasure, in spite of the risks that I know I’m taking with my health with some of them. But at the same time I believe that there is more to life than that. If physical pleasures were all there were in life I don’t think I’d be so satisfied with my life. There just has to be more than that… and fortunately there is. If you don’t believe me, try to refute the arguments in the next few installments in this series.


Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Parenting, Philosophy

KE, part 2 (Evaluating Happiness by Comparison)

I have promised a few people that I would come back to the project of re-editing my and re-blogging my old series from elsewhere serializing the digest version of the manuscript I have written over the years providing ethical instruction to my younger son, Kristian. I started this a month ago, and having now got a bit of political and theoretical reaction to what I see as silly ideologies out of my system, it’s time to continue with this –– setting aside my problems with what others believe and systematically laying out some basics of what I believe in myself.

I basically believe that personal happiness is a goal all of the best ethicists (as well as some of the worst ethicists) since Aristotle have been concerned with, but few have seriously worked through the psychological and practical implications and applications of what it takes to make us happy even as far as Aristotle himself did it. So in doing my part to try and fill this gap I’ve formulated the 5 Cs (comparison, comfort, control, confidence and connection) mentioned in the intro last month. I believe that each of these really deserves an essay unto itself.

So I start out here looking at the item which represents the weak end of the scale –– the thing we turn to for happiness that in the end provides us with the least satisfactory results: happiness by way of comparison. We all have a semi-controllable urge to match ourselves up against others to see who is tallest, fastest, richest, strongest, prettiest, smartest, funniest, most coordinated or whatever else. This is in some ways one of our most infantile and yet most enduring forms of motivation in life. It begins with our inborn instinctive urge to imitate others. As I wrote for Kris years ago:

…a common sight in daycare center play rooms is a toddler who doesn’t talk very well yet sitting alone, miserable and bored in a room full of toys. He cheers up some though when another child, perhaps a slightly older one, comes along and starts to play with one of the toys there––let’s say for example a toy fire truck. The first kid, who had no interest the thing a moment before, suddenly realizes that the most important thing in his little world at that moment is the fire truck that the other kid has. He might look for a similar one for himself from the toy box so as to play together, but the more likely reaction is for him to do everything in his power to get that truck away from the child that is playing with it. What this kid who has just turned aggressor isn’t capable of realizing though is that what makes the little fire truck so interesting to him is not so much its bright color, its exciting motion or the different sounds that it can make, but simply the fact that the other child is playing with it! If he wins, once the other child is no longer playing with it the fire truck will cease to be so important. If it was any other way the first kid would have already been playing with it before the newcomer’s arrival.


We’ve all witnessed the same sort of behavior with children of both genders and all ages: wanting something just because we see others with the same. A recent study conducted by a Finnish newspaper concluded that the most reliable indicator of what sort of car a person is likely to buy is what they see their neighbors driving on a day to day basis. This is basically the same motivational force in play. And though these examples are stereotypically male ones, the comparison urge is, if anything, even stronger among the females of our species.

This drive to compare ourselves with others generally takes two primary forms: 1) striving for equality: the need to similar to or to be as important as, or have as much as the next guy; and 2) striving for excellence: pushing ourselves to be better than the next guy at something at least. In fact as a teacher I use both as means of motivating students. Sometimes I will say things like, “I know you aren’t that interested in this stuff, Peter, but if everyone else can sit still for 10 minutes, you can too.” Or then I will have contests to see which team within the class can remember the most from the previous month’s lessons. As comparison is such an integral part of students’ psyches, why not at least use it to some practical advantage?

So what’s wrong with basing our happiness on comparison with others then? Well, plenty.

First of all there are all the stupid things that kids do, particularly in their early adolescence, as part of trying to “fit in”: trying to impress their friends by ignorantly experimenting with beginners’ versions of sex and drugs and rock and roll––smoking, drinking, seeing how much nasty language they can get away with, and ignoring basic safety rules their parents taught them as part of an unofficial competition to show how bold and daring they can be. As anyone over 16 probably knows already, these are not reliable ways of finding long-term happiness in life. Yet in spite of knowing that these things don’t work as means of staying happy, many people never manage to outgrow this sort of behavior.

Then there is the sheer misery of what Americans used to call “keeping up with the Joneses.” People live in slavery to having the same sorts of toys that the neighbors have, even if they have no practical use for them, just as a matter of fitting in.

Sprint cheaters anonymous… when winning isn’t the main thing, but the only thing.

Then, when it comes to being “a winner” the problem is that the glory never lasts. In the 90s Carl Lewis was the world’s best sprinter and a sporting legend, taking the moral high ground after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the first Olympian stripped of a gold medal for doping. But now Lewis himself has been stripped of his medals for the same offences Johnson committed, and since Usein Bolt has come along the public has pretty much forgotten that Lewis ever existed. The ancient Greeks gave their champions laurel leaves rather than gold or silver to symbolize this very fact: the glory and joy that go with victory are very fleeting.

Beyond this, as a Christian I have a particular respect for the teachings of Jesus, but even for non-believers the moral lessons he taught in story form deserve special consideration for their moral wisdom and historical influence on Western thought. One of these stories in particular is specifically about the problems of comparison. It’s commonly called “the parable of the workers in the vineyard,” recorded in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 20. In my own paraphrased version it goes something like this:

During his peak season, a local wine producer went into town early one morning and recruited some temporary workers to put in a long, hard twelve-hour day on his estate picking grapes. He promised them a wage that was somewhat above what they could normally have expected, and they gladly hopped into his wagon and went on out to work for him.

During the course of that day the vineyard owner made four more trips into town, and –– more out of concern for the local unemployment problem than for his actual labor needs it seems –– he hired on a few more extras each time, right up until one hour before quitting time. At the end of the day then, this employer told his paymaster to line the men up, and starting with the most recent arrivals and working down to the first comers, to pay them all the same wage promised to those who he had picked up first.

Well, the fellows at the end of the line got rather upset about this arrangement, and like any modern trade union would do, they started yelling, “No fair!  Those newcomers are getting over ten times as much pay as us for the amount of work that they did!  If you can afford to throw away money like that then we deserve a bonus!”

They made such a fuss that eventually the owner had to come out to quiet them down.  “Look,” he said, “this morning you agreed that I was paying you a more than reasonable wage. Now if I want to be generous to those who I hired on at the last minute what right do you have to try and stop me?  It’s really none of your business how much they get. Just take your own money and enjoy it!”

Can we get rid of all competition and comparison as elements of human psychology? Of course not!  Nor certainly should we. I can’t even write this sort of essay without littering it with terms of comparison!Beyond that, I’m all for such forms of entertainment as watching a good ball game and screaming at my lungs out in support of my favored team. What I’m saying is that we need to recognize that this doesn’t work as a primary source of happiness in life.

Those who base their lives trying to pick out winners and losers, so as to be able to identify themselves more closely with the winners, ironically end up being the world’s biggest losers, regardless of what form of competition they peg this to. Those who spend their lives making sure no one gets more than anyone else, if they have any success in this fool’s errand, inevitably end up holding everyone back and making everyone miserable in the process. While using comparison as a tool for gaining greater efficiency and as a source of extra spice and excitement in life, we also need to live beyond this level of satisfaction. There needs to be more in life than just being the same as or trying to be better than everyone else.

It should also be pointed out that those who destroy their bodies in trying to prove how much faster or stronger they can be than the next guy aren’t the only ones whose lives get destroyed by competition. Particularly destructive to the world we live in these days are those who need to prove to themselves and each other that they can make more money than the next guy. This abstract form of competition leads to the destruction and hoarding of natural resources that are in limited supply, and that we all need in order to survive, just so some guy can try to prove to competitors at his country club, or in his alumni association, or on the Forbes 100 list, how successful he is. There are millions of people around the world today suffering and dying as a direct result of the comparison games western millionaires feel compelled to play with each other.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with financial success per se. To claim that all millionaires are crooks is not true either, and to be motivated by envy of millionaires while condemning them for being motivated by comparison would be the height of hypocrisy. As we will see in future installments in this series, money can serve many other functions than enabling comparison. Those other forms of happiness can be far less destructive and provide far more lasting happiness than continuous personal competition for attention.

There is also something to be said for the sort of competition which requires someone to be the best they can be in order to get a particular job or sell a particular service. At that sort of moderate level competition within society brings out the best in all of us and enables us to provide each of us to acquire higher quality goods and services than we would if we lived in a purely command based economy. This does not, however, justify children dying of starvation and preventable diseases, families going bankrupt from medical expenses and school teachers being laid off due to budget cuts so that billionaires can pay 30% less taxes. There is no justification for someone who makes more than a thousand times more money than most honest workers within the economy to complain about contributing to meeting the very basic needs of others, even if they are forced to do so. If an addiction to competition keeps people from seeing that point, it really is time to tone down the competition by a notch or two.

Of course if someone out there has a better idea of how to base your happiness on competition… I’d be willing to listen.



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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy, Priorities, Sustainability