Category Archives: Parenting

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

And Still We Keep Trying

I started trying to write this last weekend as a stream of consciousness piece, attempting to overcome a bit of writer’s block. Then I got distracted and blocked again before finishing it. Let’s see if I can finish it now and purge some of the overall despair from my system in doing so.

The past couple of weeks have been a more or less continuous exercise in overcoming despair worldwide. It’s not that things are particularly bad right now where I happen to be, and I’m not feeling especially sad or depressed at the moment, but there’s a sense with virtually every area of life that my/our chances of influencing things in a positive/safe/dignified/sustainable direction are especially limited.

Vladimir PutinI’ll start with the most globally obvious source of stress: Putin. It’s more than a little scary to see that the world’s most evil dictator is less than ten years older than me, and that he has been a de facto dictator for 15 years already. And for anyone to claim that Vlad is a popularly elected head of state that the people are free to vote out of power… I hope that the turf battles between the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t get too violent in that world you live in.

To make matters worse, his closest competitor is this little psychopath in Korea, who happens to be younger than my sons! So besides the fact that our world has some fundamentally messed up structures to it, I’m continuously reminded that my limited time for playing an active role in influencing matters here is speeding by, with little sign of progress!

1936 scupturesPutting aside my aging angst and going back to the Putin problem though, the Sochi Olympics last month were the closest thing in my lifetime to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in terms of their efforts to glorify the accomplishments of a dictator. The main things that were missing from that picture were German technical competence and a heroic Jesse Owens figure to steal the limelight from the dictator for part of the spectacle. The most enjoyable moments for me were watching the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia and then the United States. (Sorry hockey friends there. It’s just more culturally important here, and you have to admit, Selanne did deserve to go out on a high note like that.)  My mother enjoyed watching the ice dance and figure skating events when we happened to have the television open while she was visiting. My nephew developed a certain technical fascination with curling it seems. I couldn’t go much further than politely respecting their tastes on either. It hardly made for inspiring viewing for me overall.

bear tearIt’s hard to say which was more fake in the closing ceremony:  the IOC chairman’s praise what a wonderful job Russia had done or the synthetic tear of the ananmatronic bear on skates. While I strongly support the whole concept of the Olympic spirit and all that, I cringe to see it used with such transparent corruption, and I really don’t know what can be done to fix that problem, or keep it from further snowballing in years to come.

Syria-uprising-At-least-88-protesters-were-killed-This problem has tragically dovetailed into the events featured in other sections of our daily newspapers over the past month: the popular uprisings in Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine and other countries attempting to overthrow lesser dictators than Putin. Many of these public square demonstrations and coup attempts have been getting very messy, and journalists don’t really seem to know what to say about any of them. It’s hard to sympathize with the struggling strongmen in any of these countries, but regardless of the on-going messy legacy of Bush’s Iraq fiasco there is still something to be said for a residual respect for Westphalian principle of nominally acknowledging national sovereignty in such matters. Not to mention how various rebel groups tend to have their own unsavory supporters and bedfellows for us to worry about, especially in this generation when the CIA’s accidental creation of the Taliban is still fresh on everyone’s mind.

So with all of this confusion up in the air Putin somehow decided that this would be a real good moment to cash in on his political capital from the Olympics and invade Ukraine.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-UNREST-POLITICS-CRIMEANot that anyone was under the illusion that Ukraine had ever really achieved complete national sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made some significant strides towards join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in sliding over into European culture and NATO’s sphere of influence, but the orangeness of their revolution wasn’t nearly enough to break free of the bear hug they’re still in. And besides a Black Sea coast that for some obscure reason Putin considers to be strategically important, the outside world has a hard time seeing much in Ukraine really worth fighting over. So what’s to stop us from just letting this expansive dictator have his way with little pieces of this lesser neighboring country?

Just one thing actually: The only thing worse than Putin making delusional efforts to restore the glories of the Soviet empire is for the last remaining military superpower from the Cold War era to find new excuses for expanding its “military-industrial complex” at its own people’s and the rest of the world’s expense.

iraq war troopsThat reminds me of a whole other can of political worms that seems rather hopeless to untangle. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2002, the United States has been more or less continuously involved in a series of military police actions around the world involving American soldiers killing and being killed for causes that overall have less to do with American national security than Viet Nam did. Yes, there was some justification in attacking a country which was providing refuge to a terrorist leader who had engineered a series of attacks that succeeded in killing thousands of Americans within their own country. No, that did not provide moral justification for the use of that conflict as a political smoke screen under which to attack other dictators in the region; even if they did control significant oil reserves and even if they had succeeded in making a fool out of the president’s daddy internationally.

The only “logic” to justify the state of perpetual war that the US has found itself in for my school-aged nephews’ entire lives thus far is that it appears to be good for business. Companies which make bombs, guns, airplanes, troop transport vehicles, armor and fuel for all of these are making trillions (literally) off of these adventures, and some small portion of the income from these government contracts is actually filtering down to American workers and voters. In this way the military-industrial interests, and those who depend on them, have more at stake, and more invested in maintaining political influence, than any abusive sector of the economy since the black slave trade of the 1850s. The military industrialists have thus eclipsed the tobacco industry of the Carolinas, the steel and railroad industries of the reconstruction era, the automotive industry with their lobbies in favor of highway infrastructure development, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry. When you consider the mammoth amounts of political corruption that went into those other lesser endeavors already, and the immense dishonest fortunes built off of them at the public’s expense, you can’t help but experience a sense of awe at the sheer immensity of the evil involved!

The number of human beings who have been treated as disposable in the process of building these fortunes –– as sub-subsistence laborers, soldiers, other casualties of war, ignorant and addicted consumers, involuntary supporters of corporate welfare programs via taxation, and tragic human failures among the homeless or imprisoned whose fate serves as a negative example to keep others in line –– cannot be rationalized away as an acceptable trade-off, an inadvertent misfortune or a hiccup in the process of human advancement. We are clearly talking about one little group of people having explicitly chosen to treat other massive group of people as un-deserving of human dignity, just because they can. This tiny privileged group has clearly made it their goal in life to prove to themselves that their excessive privileges at the expense of others are part of the way things are supposed to be. If a few million need to die earlier from causes like war, hunger and preventable disease in order to bring this about, so be it. The fact that they have succeeded in using association with certain factions of Christianity as means of constructing their self-justifications makes the situation all the more obscene.

Behind_Barbed_WireThis state of affairs is made all the more absurd by political initiatives intended to limit the extent to which public resources can be spent to reinforce the dignity and opportunities of those in the least advantaged positions in society. The idea that a society can somehow afford to police the rest of the world and force its business practices onto the rest of the world, but it can’t afford to provide food for its own hungry children and basic health care for its own ill, is quite conspicuously the most absurd political argument of the 21st century. The only argument that even comes close on the absurdity scale is that a proliferation of privately held handguns serves to make people safer. Having accepted those arguments, when the right wing faithful hear from their trusted sources sound-bite sources that they should never trust scientific claims that continuous burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage to our eco-system, it comes across sounding to them like the most basic common sense!

The thing that makes me/us feel helpless and despairing about all this then is that there are so many people who I know out there, who are not only falling for these absurd arguments, but who’ve been falling for them for so long that they have become emotionally committed to defending them at all costs! As long as that remains the basic state of affairs even for a significant minority in the United States, and as long as momentum from the last century keeps the United States in the position of being the most powerful nation in the world, human rights will continue to be downplayed in the rest of the world as well, the global environment will continue to be ignored whenever protecting it is inconvenient to business interests; and the risk of there being no future whatsoever left for grandchildren I may happen to have some day, regardless of where in the world I might try to hide them from such problems, continues to expand unchecked.

IRAQ-WAR-GAMESThe number of ways in which humanity could drive itself to a state of mass extermination if not borderline extinction within the next generation or two is deeply intimidating to say at the least. The limited number of means at our disposal for limiting these risks and promoting more positive life directions for those we care about are even more disturbing. There’s only one thing that can be said in terms of resisting the temptation of total resignation: The worst thing we can do is to give up entirely.

david-simonDavid Simon made this point particularly strongly in his last interview with Bill Moyer (here starting approximately 7:00 in). Where I would disagree with his statements in that interview is in terms of the best hope being in campaign finance reform. While that certainly can’t hurt, I believe the best hope is in improved public education, so that those who are involved in the democratic process as voters and campaigners actually understand the issues they are struggling over, and the cause and effect factors involved. Until the education system is fixed, people will continue not to know any better than voting either for whoever they find the most entertaining, or whoever appeals most powerfully to the darker sides of their natures. But in the meantime, as Simon points out so eloquently, we indeed don’t have the luxury of opting out of the electoral process and leaving voting up to psychopaths and those weaker thinkers whom they can most easily manipulate.

The same applies to all other areas of life: We can’t just give up and passively let whatever’s going to happen happen with regard to our families’ health, our children’s education, our consumer alternatives, our communal solidarity or any other aspect of life where our active participation can conceivably make a difference. We never can tell which of our actions will make a difference in the world as we know it, but we can be pretty sure that if we do absolutely nothing we will have no effect on the world whatsoever. Thus making an effort is always worth attempting no matter how bad things look.

Titanic_sinkingNow of course there are some exceptions here: The most effective tear-jerking scene in the film Titanic was the simple shot of the mother in the discount cabins, knowing they had been locked into their compartment and that she and her children were soon to die, bravely singing them to sleep as the water rose. But with all due respect for all in that sort of situation, it should be obvious why I don’t want to see people I care about adopting that sort of strategy on a broader basis.

In short the maxim I’m recommending is: Act as though your actions might make a positive difference in the world, even if that difference is unlikely to be realized through any given action you might take, because some of your actions might in fact make a difference in the world.

Thus, regardless of their overall limited impact, I keep writing and posting these things…

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Filed under Control, Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Sustainability

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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Filed under Control, Empathy, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Priorities, Respectability

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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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Love, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

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.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Parenting, Philosophy

Reintroducing KE

With what energies I’ve dedicated to my blogging this week I’ve been researching the matter of populist anarchy. That seems to be a significant new/old meme, in that many bright young people seem to be getting hooked on it these days. I want to see why, and see if I can point out the logical problems inherent in the promotion of such ideologies.

But that is going to take some time for me, so in the mean time I’ve decided to cheat: In the interest of providing fresh content here on a regular basis I’ve decided to dust off some of the more popular essays I wrote while I was still using Myspace as a blogging platform. (Yes, I know, I was terribly lame and retro to bother with them to begin with four years ago, but to quote Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then. I’m so much younger now.”)

By far the most popular thing I wrote there back in the day was an attempt at serializing an abbreviated version of an unfinished manuscript I have tucked away in various forms of storage called Kristian’s Ethics. For a few months I presented to the world some of the basic ideas about what I personally wish to pass on to the next generation, written with the intent of being accessible to any bright person with at least a junior high level command of English (or whatever other language these ideas might later be translated into).  This series raised my average hit level there by at least a factor of 3 or 4, so apparently it rang true for many. Here then is the original introduction to that series, slightly re-edited for typos and the like.

———————————————————

In fact these ideas are rather central to my thinking on a number of levels. This started as a manuscript for an ethics book for my younger son, Kristian, when he was an infant that I was struggling to get visitation rights with, after his mother had left me before he was born. I was thinking about what life lessons I would most want to pass on to him, that circumstances made it look like I would not be able to teach him in a normal father-to-son sort of way. Without going into too much detail, I am relatively satisfied with my relationship with Kris these days but I still resent the limited time I’ve been able to spend with him over the years, the absurd boundaries that certain forces have put between us and how little influence I’ve had in key areas of his life. Those who know me well personally know exactly who/what I am talking about; those that don’t shouldn’t worry too much about it.

A picture of Kris from the brief time that he and I actually lived together

In any case, I determined that the most important life lessons I should pass on to my son had to do with learning to be happy. I took two precedents in using this approach: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Taken in a holistic and balanced way, I believe that a wise search for personal happiness is the best starting point for developing personal virtues, a sense of empathy, a sustainable lifestyle and all of the other things that are generally associated with ethics. I’m happy to argue that point with anyone who might disagree, but for now I’ll just move along with the summary here.

I believe that there are five general categories for sources of happiness, and without doing too much violence to the English language, it is possible to give each of these categories a name beginning with the letter C: Comparison, Comfort, Control, Confidence and Connection.

“These are set here in what I see as a rough order of importance, from lowest to highest, but this is not to be taken too seriously.  Every one of these categories includes things that are in some respects necessary in order to lead a balanced, happy life, and any one of them taken too exclusively or too far can do more harm than good. You should also remember that these categories are only tools for general understanding. As Aristotle also wisely pointed out, we should not try to define an area with greater precision than the area itself allows for. Such a list can never completely cover every possible goal, and in fact I don’t intent it to…

“What I’m trying so hard to say is that when it comes to real life, I don’t want you to try to fit all reality into this or any other set of neat little categories. I hope that you would rather just use these categories to make life a little less confusing for you so that you can enjoy it just a little better.”

To briefly summarize what I have in mind with each of these categories I’ll give you a quick outline of the main points in the chapter I wrote about each.

Comparison involves elements of being the same as and trying to be better than everyone else. The former has to do with concepts of “fairness;” the latter, competition. These can be useful means of achieving things, but they are particularly dangerous as ends unto themselves.

The next category, Comfort, is here taken to refer to basic biological urges to do things we are genetically programmed to appreciate and enjoy on a physical level; things which can easily be explained by a “selfish gene” theory. These would include sub-categories of at least flavor appreciation, intoxication, sexuality and smooth, painless function. The problems with this approach relate to the disconnect between the physical feelings and the practical risks involved in doing whatever physically feels good, ranging from obesity problems to STDs.

Moving on to my next category, Control, this includes many things related to the term “empowerment,” in which there really isn’t any clear border between what we call “freedom” and what we call “power.” This power/freedom can be exercised in terms of physical power––the ability to make physical items move the way you want them to, socio-political power––the ability to influence and change other people’s minds about things, economic power––the ability to buy whatever you desire, and philosophical power––the ability to formulate ideas and paradigms that regulate societies. Power trips have their own limits though in terms of the long-term satisfaction they provide. You need something worth doing with that power, more than just fulfilling your animal desires.

That leads to the matter of Confidence: having a sense of “being a good person” and “making the world a better place” according to some standard or another. The standards that are applicable here are inevitably based on some metaphysical premise of where the world comes from and what is most important in it. (This relates to chapter 8 in my book, Thinking Aloud is Allowed.) Besides all of the uncertainties involved in metaphysics though, this sort of approach to happiness doesn’t entirely work in the sense that confidence that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong isn’t a very satisfying feeling.

Kris connecting with my brother’s middle son on our last visit to the States together

That leads us in turn to the importance of Connection––with other people, other animals and the world as a whole––for enabling us to live truly happy lives. This can involve nurturing instincts, functional partnerships, an aesthetic sense of harmony, romantic feelings related to sexuality, literal or figurative kinship, Platonic mental stimulation or mystical connections related to religious experience. All of these enable us to experience a sense that “myself” goes beyond the limits of my skin. That may be as good as the human experience gets, but it still needs to be balanced out with some sort of “individual integrity factors” coming from the other sources of happiness to be stable.

Consideration of those factors makes up Part 1 of this manuscript. Part 2 explains how I recommend pursuing these factors in terms of my religious identity as a “post-evangelical” Christian. Then Part 3 –– the most essentially incomplete section as of yet –– relates to applying these ideas in concrete socio-economic situations and in terms of everyday moral decision making.

In the weeks to come, when I don’t have any particularly inspiring thoughts related to current events or personal experiences, I will continue on with summarizing the details of this theory and showing its practical application to everyday life as I see it. Meanwhile I am hoping for comments, critiques and feedback in general here to help sharpen these ideas towards the end of properly publishing them someday, or at least leaving them to posterity in some more systematic form.

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Just out of curiosity, how many readers here actually followed this series on the retro site back in the pre-Obama days? (The original blog heading was, My General Theory of Happiness.)How many new readers are seriously interested in seeing it repeated in full? Comments are still more than welcome here.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Happiness, Parenting, Philosophy, Purpose

Faith in Our Fathers — one more shot at the circumcision debate

Over the past couple weeks the circumcision debate has been heating up again in the international news and blogosphere. I don’t think I have anything further to say about the medical aspects of the procedure itself, but I basically agree with the sentiments one of my young Muslim friends posted recently: “You know what I’ve never said in my life? ‘I wish I had me some foreskin. How dare my parents make a decided improvement to my penis! And in safe medical conditions At that! Whilst I was too young to be bothered by the idea of penis surgery! Those bastards!’”

I realize that the issue of it being a “decided improvement” is controversial, but this further demonstrates that boys who’ve had this done really don’t see themselves as victims. Most men, whether theirs are cut or uncut, adore their penises just as they are and don’t long for them to be the opposite way, especially among those whose are cut. So those who claim to be defending the boy’s potential choice in the matter don’t seem to have a particularly strong case.

But there’s another underlying question that seems to be worth discussing here: To what extent do children “belong” to their parents? To what extent are parents free to physically, emotionally and ideologically do as they please with their children; and to what extent should governments be ready to step in and do something to protect children whose parents’ ideas and behavior are against the child’s best interest?

The short answer has 3 parts:

1)      A workable solution on this one will not be found in the extremes –– it’s always going to be a balance question.

2)      These situations require wisdom rather than logarithms, but that’s nearly impossible to achieve in a state free from certain cultural prejudices.

3)      Parents should be given the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. If anyone should be considered innocent until proven guilty, it’s a child’s parents.

Now let me try to unpack that a bit.

As with most political questions, there are two extremes here: those who want the government to play the role of all-knowing nanny wherever possible, and those who believe that the solution to all social problems is to just get governments to leave people alone. Let’s just say that those who are prone to be helpless cry-babies would be more inclined to lean towards the first option there, and those who tend to be bullies and psychopaths would lean more towards the latter opinion; but not everyone who takes the extreme views can justifiably be accused of being a crybaby or a bully respectively.  It might, however, be fair to say that the extreme you lean towards the most says something about what type of person you are more prone to sympathize with or relate to, and which you are more prone to reject and eject from your social circles whenever possible.

I must confess from the start that, as a school teacher, I have a distinct dislike for behavior of both of these extremes, but I tend to be more angered by bullying than by whining. So that would make me a moderate, leaning more towards the “liberal” than the “conservative” side on this one. In other words it is particularly important to me that kids do not get emotionally abused or beat up on, and I believe that the government should play some role in preventing such abuse.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are prone to take the stand that kids have to learn to stand on their own two feet as early as possible, and God has given them parents to take care of them until they are ready to do so. So governments need to largely stay out of it and let parents do their job. Otherwise we raise a generation of helpless whiners who always expect the government to take care of them.

But let’s start with some “liberal” moral principles that even the most radically arch-conservative pundits can agree with: No child should be forced to live with a parent who is a violent alcoholic or drug addict, and no child should ever be subject to sexual abuse within the home. The basis for such judgments should be rather self-evident. It should follow from there that, given the breakdown of traditional social control mechanisms within societies –– neighbors no longer automatically stepping in to take care of each other’s children –– we need specialized organizations to step in and help kids in those situations, both in the form of branches of government and NGOs.

We can probably also reach a consensus on the matter that no parent should have the right to physically mutilate or damage their child in a way that results in a diminished capacity for normal adult life later on. Any parent who intentionally scars or cripples his/her own child, even partially, certainly doesn’t deserve to be allowed to freely raise that child as he/she sees fit! Even a Fox News follower could agree to that.

The open question is, how far do we want to see controls go over the amount of dysfunctional behavior we will allow parents to exercise before someone steps in, and how strict we are going to make our automatic child protection laws? In response to that we need to ask, what sorts of parental misconduct are most likely to do lasting damage to a child, thereby justifying imprisonment for the parent and/or foster care for the child?

To be honest with you, aside from the extreme mentally disturbed types of parents mentioned above, there’s really only one type of situation where I’ve regularly seen parents do irreparable damage to their children: messy divorces.

My own parents were divorced long before it was the popular thing to do, but if there is one thing I have to give them both credit for, it’s being very careful not to fight over the children or use the children as weapons against each other.  I’m not sure how successful I was in following their example, but attempting to do so was one of my main priorities in dealing with my own divorce. I do know my sons were used as weapons against me on many occasions though and I’m sure at times I retaliated in ways I shouldn’t have, but I always made a serious point in avoiding such irresponsible behavior. I sincerely hope that my sons’ scars from that mess do not run too deep, and I have reason to be optimistic in that regard.

However as a teacher and as a friend to many children of divorce I’ve seen some serious nightmare situations, well beyond the messes I’ve had to deal with in my own family experiences. I would go as far as to say that, passing childish stupidity aside, in every case of serious behavioral disturbance among middle school students that I’ve had to deal with, there has been a divorce situation –– usually a very fresh and very messy one –– somewhere in the background.

In these nasty and painful situations parents seem to forget that the children are neither pets nor mutual property to divide up, but important individuals with their own human value that parents have the initial opportunity to nurture and care for. While looking for ways to vengefully hurt the offending ex, parents often forget that, as resilient as kids are, they are too fragile to be used as clubs to beat the other with or as projectiles to throw at each other.

Another variation on this theme is when one parent, usually the mother, becomes so lost in the pain of rejection that she grabs onto her child(ren) as an emotional flotation device –– clinging to them for dear life to keep herself from drowning in her sorrow.  There’s no easy solution for this kind of problem, but children shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of being a parent’s therapist and care-taker.

There have been many times that I have wished that social workers were more aware of these problems and on top of things –– taking the task of child protection and child welfare more seriously –– but of course I recognize that they too are human beings, with their own human limitations and prejudices. How much can I honestly expect from them? Looking at the situation in Finland, which I really know best, I can see that honest efforts are being made to overcome biases against men and against cultural minority groups within the social service system. Is there really anything more –– besides speeding up this cultural and gender diversification process –– that I can ask for in the system?  Should they be more gung ho to intervene and remove children from their parents? Should there be more laws limiting what parents are allowed to do with their children? I would actually hope not.

Determining what dangers parents should be allowed to subject their children to is in itself a dangerous thing for authorities to do.

We don’t need more rules to substitute for thinking and active involvement where children’s well-being is concerned. This is a point that Barry Schwartz has made extremely well. What we need is social workers and other public employees who are deeply and personally motivated to help both children and their parents deal with problematic situations. In doing this they must learn to set aside certain cultural prejudices, such as belief that women are inherently better care-givers than men, or that members of religious minorities should not be trusted to love and care for their own children. They need to look at what is actually causing children harm and reducing their chances of flourishing as human beings later in life. While there are continuous studies in the field of youth research in particular to help identify such risk factors, and to enable concerned parties deal with such risks more wisely, ultimately each case will be unique. Tolstoy may have said it best: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We need public servants who recognize this and cultivate personal wisdom in dealing with the needs of each unhappy family.

Not that I expect to see that happening any time soon though. Many who get into the field of social work, in both the public and tertiary sectors, do so because they have a certain zeal to see things operate according to their own preconceptions and prejudices. A classic example would be the American missionary group that was attempting to remove a bus load of children from Haiti after the recent earthquake there, to keep them from evil of being raised in a Voodoo culture. It’s not as though public sector social work has succeeded in weeding out morally equivalent motivations among its own. Thus there is probably a greater shortage of morally objective people in this field than any other which I know of. System-wide, I don’t see much hope of this changing within my lifetime, but on a case-by-case and worker-by-worker basis there is hope that some individual children and families with problems who would have slipped through the cracks before might start to get the sort of help that they really need.

Meanwhile though, we have a number of parents who are trying to raise their kids with the loving hope that they can make these little people as much like themselves as possible –– only smarter, prettier, healthier and richer. This includes parents doing everything in their power to pass on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), their political perspectives, their ethnic cultural identity and often their professional identity to their kids. These kids are sent to religious confirmation classes and political party youth gatherings, brought to holiday get-togethers with others of “their kind,” and even hauled along to their working parents’ “office” or “shop” with whenever possible; while being given little say in such matters. Sometimes this form of social conditioning can be rather restrictive or even abusive towards the kids in question. Parents’ desires for their children can be an incredibly bad fit for the kids themselves; and at times it seems like the worse the fit, the less likely the parents are to acknowledge that their expectations might be problematic. This can happen regardless of what religion (or lack thereof), what profession (or lack thereof) and what sort of ethnic identity the parents have. All parents are capable of screwing up at times by trying to make kids into something that they’re not. Does that mean that we should the model of Plato’s Republic and prevent parents from raising their own children though? Hell no!

There is no cultural system that can be proven to outsiders to not entail risks of traumatizing children every now and again. Human life is inherently messy, right from the start. The best we can do is to bond with those close to us and choose to respect those who differ from us, who still share our goals in terms of trying to mold in their children in their own image.  If we have valid scientific, medical proof that parents are preventing their children from enjoying a significant part of human life through their traditions (e.g. in the case of female genital cutting) or if we see that due to significant life management problems in their own lives parents have lost track of trying to do what is best for their children (e.g. in the cases of divorce trauma or alcoholism) then yes, we need to do something about it. But other than that we need to put the human rights of those of other cultures ahead of our tastes as far as how we would like to see them raise their children.

So getting back to the matter of traditional infant male circumcision, what is the case against it? Does it disable the boys in question in any significant way? Does it emotionally scar those who have undergone such an operation? Does a lack of foreskin cause widespread resentment towards parents who chose to have it removed? If not, where’s the problem?

Yes, like any medical procedure, if those who perform it are fundamentally incompetent it can result in serious damage. But the obvious solution there is simply to make sure that, as with any medical procedure, there are adequate controls in place to keep incompetents from performing the operation.

Beyond that the objection seems to be that since it is a matter of (trivial) body modification, based only on masculine identity within religious minority communities, it shouldn’t be allowed. I’m sorry, but to me that stinks of prejudice against both men and religious minorities. It assumes that any group that differs from the cultural mainstream should not be trusted to decide things regarding their own children, especially where masculine identity is concerned.

Another argument, which is stressed less in public debate (though I did hear it mentioned on BBC this week) but which has probably has as much practical effect as any in terms of grounds for attempting to ban circumcision, is that mothers often feel traumatized about having this done to their little boys. Fathers want their sons to be like them in this regard, but mothers are more hesitant to go along. The implication here is that when it comes to decisions regarding children, female perspectives are inherently more important than male perspectives –– even with regard to the treatment of the male organ. Anyone else have a problem with this sort of cultural assumption?

As I’ve said before, for me, at the end of the day, foreskins are a fairly trivial thing. The bigger issue is cultural freedom and control. In particular there is the offensive matter of German courts now telling Jews and Muslims that they are not allowed to maintain what they consider to be an important part of their tradition –– involving one of the oldest, safest and most harmless medical procedures known to mankind. Given that, when done competently, this does not in any demonstrable way reduce the boys’ quality of life, I really do believe that governments should leave this matter up to parents to decide on (together). Rather than attempting to outlaw this practice, civil authorities should be working to insure that it is always done professionally and under safe conditions.

If someone really wants to help insure quality a high quality of life for the boys in question and prevent them from being traumatized by parental mistakes, there are much bigger things than infant foreskins for these “helpers” to worry about.

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Politics, Religion, Social identity, Tolerance

A quick shout of Respect

I’ll be posting another “proper” entry later this weekend, on a subject having nothing to do with it being Father’s Day in the US, but before that I wanted to take a moment to state my respect for my father here. I don’t think I’ve actually done that on this blog platform.

For those here who don’t know it, my father and I have had a rather close long distance relationship since I was about 10 years old. Given the geographical distance and physical difference between he and I, many consider it to be remarkable how alike we are in many respects.

Some semi-coincidental similarities: Each of us straight out of high school was seriously planning on becoming a Protestant clergyman — in rather different churches and for rather different reasons — but God saved both of us from all that. Dad went on to do his bachelor’s with a major in sociology; I went on to teach sociology. We began debating religious philosophy with each other when I was about 12 years old, and we each have a reputation for being particularly tenacious debaters of such matters. Both of us have been seriously “challenged” in our efforts at domestic life, and attacks on how we’ve each faced our responsibilities as divorced fathers have cut both of us deeply; yet caring for our children and working for peace have been central goals in both of our lives. The other similarities between us I am rather too close to see, but I’m always proud to have such things noticed by those with an outside perspective on the matter.

So as he is celebrated for his 50th Father’s Day this year, I hope you will join me in raising a glass for — and/or saying a prayer for — the old fellow I was named after: David Robert Huisjen, Senior.

I love you, Dad, and I don’t want you to ever doubt it or forget it.

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Filed under Parenting, Social identity, Uncategorized

Masculism?

Gender roles and the strains and benefits associated with each are a never ending subject of dispute. Nor does the crisis look to be set for resolution any time soon.

The essence of the problem, as near as I can tell, is a two-fold result of the industrial revolution which we still have not completely come to grips with. The first factor is that “work” and “home” have become increasingly isolated from each other. For soldiers, sailors and bureaucrats this has always been the case –– they’ve never really worked at home –– but for peasant farmers and artisans of most sorts work and home used to be entirely intertwined, with children diving in and helping out with the family business as soon as they had the strength and coordination to do so. But with the advent of mining conglomerates, factory work, office cubicles and industrial scale farming, work became something that the “bread winner” left home to do each morning, and came back from whenever the day’s work was finished. Thus fatherhood in general became a much more detached phenomenon.

My great-grandfather’s business, which he operated at home together with his wife and children back in the day…

The other factor that changed with the industrial revolution was that the difference between men’s and women’s working capacities became far less self-evident in practice. It wasn’t the man’s physical strength that mattered any more; it was his capacity to manipulate the controls of machines powered by waterpower or burning fossil fuels. It didn’t take too long to figure out that most of what men were doing for work could just as easily be done by women. This has led to women progressively becoming able to move further and further into areas that were previously controlled exclusively by men. Consequently there are no longer self-evident men-only areas of commerce, industry, logistics, military operations or government.

This last factor has left two questions broadly open, however: Are women really entirely as good as men in all of these areas, and could men as well do what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” as well as women themselves can? This in turn has led to a number of heated discussions about the fundamental nature of justice in society, and the essential nature of masculinity and femininity. There is a strong movement which remains powerful and popular to this day, stressing the basic idea that a feminine identity should not be considered in any way inferior to a masculine one: feminism. But from there the question remains open, is it also necessary to demonstrate that a masculine identity is not inferior to a feminine one? If so, what name should be given to a movement reinforcing such values? Masculism?

Here in Cape Town a professor of philosophy by the name of David Benatar has recently published a book attempting to establish himself as a leader within the field of masculism: The Second Sexism. I read a review of this book online and was interested enough to go and attend its official publication lecture. It was interesting in many respects, but overall I was less than impressed. Not that I consider the essence of his position to be wrong, but he didn’t really come across as the most articulate spokesperson for the cause.

Perhaps the least defensible position that Benatar espouses is that of putting “female genital cutting” entirely on par with male circumcision. His basic claim is that both operations are essentially matters of cultural aesthetics, and that the male version is far more widely practiced and it removes far more flesh. Thus this demonstrates that men are the ones in the disadvantaged position here.  In attempting to orally defend this position, Benetar stated that there was a proposal in the US to have doctors perform a nominal form of female cutting for Somali families –– effectively “just putting a nick in the clitoral hood.” This would have provided a cultural compromise which would allow the Somalis to honor their ancestral traditions while not doing any serious medical damage to the girls, but to his chagrin feminists managed to shut down such a proposal.

The point he’s not recognizing at all here is that this is not in essence an aesthetic procedure. Yes, it makes a penis look different, but there are very few –– men or women –– for whom penis-gazing is a significant pastime. It is the tactile sensations of the penis rather than the sight of one that really matters, and so its re-shaping isn’t all that big a deal aesthetically. As to the difference in sexual sensation caused by circumcision, I honestly don’t believe receivers of penal penetration notice a significant difference between the cut ones and the uncut ones. The differences they might notice from prick to prick have relatively little to do with whether or not it has that extra skin on it. As to whether or not it makes any difference to the penetrater, I don’t know many who have had it both ways, and those that I do know have no serious complaints about the loss. Thus there isn’t really an argument to be made for male circumcision making a difference in terms of sexual satisfaction one way or the other.

There are two ostensible purposes to male circumcision. One, which is rather silly actually, was to reduce the boy’s temptation to masturbate by sliding the foreskin around on the penis head. Suffice to say, if anyone seriously believes it might be “helpful” in that regard they are very obviously wrong. The other purpose is to avoid problems with a build-up of bacteria and other impurities under the foreskin. Such problems can be taken care of by regular washing, but it would be fair to say that in terms of preventing infections and spreading disease foreskins in general do more harm than good. Overall this “primitive practice” is still subject to considerable debate for its practical pros and cons then.

Now if we compare this with the practice of female genital cutting there is only one similarity: it is intended to reduce the level of satisfaction gained through non-reproductive sexual activity. But there is a huge difference: in the female case this actually tends to work, and not only in terms of preventing masturbation. There isn’t any hygiene advantage in cutting girls down there; just a significant increase in risk of infection. Nor does it make the vagina aesthetically more pleasant to gaze at. What it does do is give a man a certain added sense of assurance about his future wife’s “purity”: If she’s cut in such a way that sex gives her no physical pleasure it’s far less likely that she would have tried it out before getting married.

I’m sorry, but continuing on with a cultural tradition based on that sort of motivation –– even in a modified “harmless” form –– is just plain repulsive to me. Thus I am rather disturbed by Benatar’s willingness to take this on as a gender equality issue.

Benatar’s fundamental weakness in this whole subject area seems to be a lack of “sociological imagination”. He is trained in an abstract theoretical branch of academic philosophy, and as such he seems to have little understanding of what might cause particular social phenomena to occur and what we might do to alter situations we find objectionable. In practice he wishes to complain about feminists, but not to set about changing the status quo in any other significant ways. He thus comes across as just one more white man, born to privilege, who needs to complain about being complained about. Not that I’m in a particularly good position to complain about that myself; I just can’t imagine looking to him as the leader of a movement.

But that does not mean that I dismiss the issue of masculinity being considered by some to be inherently inferior to femininity, or the need to stand up in defense of my dignity as a man. This issue as well involves two significant questions: 1) Are there valid grounds for considering masculinity practically, functionally and/or morally inferior to the femininity? And then 2) are there female forces in power which serve to limit men’s opportunities to thrive in their lives in our day and age? Feminists in general would say yes in answer to the first question and no in answer to the second. This would include some of the male feminists I have recently been debating with. I in turn would answer to the opposite on both accounts.

With regard to the former I would acknowledge that through much of human history, in virtually every society historically known to us, men have been the ones officially in positions of authority. The answer to why this would be is quite simple really: in a primitive state of affairs if a man and a woman get into a physical fight the man usually has the advantage in terms of size and muscle strength. It takes a much more complex organization of things for authority to be based on factors other than physical dominance, so that a woman to have the possibility of taking charge, and before they could get to that point societies would already have centuries’ of male-dominated tradition providing an assumed basis for what is assumed to be “normal” for each sex.

Feminists would argue from there that the de facto position of power that men enjoyed for most of history would then entail moral responsibility for everything that happened within those societies. On this point –– while I would acknowledge that power and responsibility should ideally go hand in hand –– in practice I have to disagree. First of all there is no reason, other than untested feminist theory, to assume that female dominated societies would have been more compassionate, less confrontational and yet more sustainable than the male dominated ones we have seen throughout history. Secondly there is no reason to assume that women were entirely without influence in even the most patriarchal of societies.

Boys and girls both go through a process of mutual socialization: sometimes kindly and sometimes cruelly making each other aware of what they find socially acceptable. Boys learn to inflict more physical pain on their enemies; girls, more emotional pain. After this process there comes a matter of mate selection, where boys look for the most fertile looking girls and girls look for the most powerful acting boys. So boys try to be dominant for the same reason girls try to act sexy: to impress those whom they might theoretically try to have children with. So rather than saying that things would have gone better in history if women were in charge it might be more reasonable to say that things would have gone better if men hadn’t been trying so hard to live up to female expectations.

By and large men, like women, have been struggling individually to find acceptance, to succeed in making their children like themselves, and to leave the world a little better for their children than what they found it. Their strategies might vary, but neither sex is entitled to any moral higher ground in the matter, and both have contributed to the other gender being what it is in cultural terms.

When it comes to the other question –– whether such a thing as “matriarchy” exists in our time, and how this female power might restrict the extent to which men are able to thrive –– we have to make some effort at being careful in our definitions. I’d be willing to make the dangerous generalization of saying that it is broadly acknowledged that the term “patriarchy” has suffered a fair amount of inflation in feminist discourse, to the point that it serves more as a marker of rhetorical resentment towards things masculine than a name for a social malaise to be remedied. In debating the “proper meaning” of this term with a feminist friend of mine, however, we agreed to the following functional definition:

Patriarchy: Any system that assumes that men and masculinity are rightfully superior to women and femininity, and actively operates to reinforce this assumption by subduing the latter.

Operational terms are italicized there. To count as patriarchy first of all we have to be talking about something systematic, not just a random bastard or two with nasty attitudes. Secondly there has to be an assumption of superiority as part of the natural order of things. Thirdly this needs to be something that the bad guys are somehow reinforcing, sort of like South African whites were doing with their theory of racial superiority under Apartheid. Reverse the genders then and we have a functional definition for matriarchy as well.

Are there any circumstances where all of those criteria are being met these days in terms of men’s domination of women? In Arab and Oriental countries for sure; in Western countries it’s a far harder claim to justify these days. To say that women get raped more often than men do demonstrates that there are men violently subduing women, but not that this is part of a socially accepted system, nor that it is based on an assumption of superiority. (Those who hijack cars do not assume that they are fundamentally superior to the cars’ owners.) To say that women are earning significantly less money than men on average does say that there is something about the social system that rewards women less than men financially, but not as a means of subduing them or asserting superiority over them. The fact that it is more important for men than for women to be economically successful in terms of mate selection criteria would actually pretty much explain the whole difference. The income gap then should be no more surprising than the observation that women put more effort into their physical appearances than men do. In terms of medical care it can be argued that more money is being spent on male complaints and health problems than female ones, and that is worth improving on in many regards, but that still does not negate the fact that men are dying an average of 10% younger than women, so any claim of gross systematic injustice there would seem to be rather exaggerated.

What of women operating in positions of power to their own advantage and to the detriment of men then? Are there areas in which women are able to systematically prevent men from being recognized as their equals, and where they are able to actively reinforce this state of affairs? Besides the feminist assaults on male character in general and assumptions of male guilt for all of the ails of mankind, the most obvious place in which men are discriminated against strictly for being men is in relation to any form of nurturing functions in society. It is broadly assumed that men are inherently inferior care-givers, parents, nurses and teachers for young children. The unjust and severe bias against men in disputed child custody cases following divorce in any Western country is hard to dispute statistically. The difficulty of being a man in a female-dominated field is the stuff comedy films are made of (e.g. the male nurse in Meet the Family), but for those of us who have actually struggled to fit in as kindergarten teachers –– or done time as cafeteria workers in places where the only work uniform available is a dress –– the humor of a man fighting for respect in a women’s world wears rather thin. Nor is this a matter of patriarchy backfiring on men, as feminists would like to believe. The abusive bosses in the particular social service agencies, service-provider companies, schools and NGOs where men are regularly belittled are quite consistently women who believe that their sex is one of their major qualifications for their position. So yes, women really do put men down quite significantly and systematically at times, based on an assumption that men are in significant ways their natural inferiors, and this is done in ways that serve to reinforce such assumptions as far as possible. Those who don’t believe that this is the case need to get out more.

Now while I disagree with many feminist assumptions, there is one thing I am willing to fully agree with their egalitarian branch on: the goal here isn’t to reverse the domination, but to enable partnership and mutual respect between the sexes. When men are fully respected for who they are –– not belittled because of our sex as parents, care-givers, lovers or spiritual beings –– we will have achieved our goal. Is that actually happening in our day and age? Of course not! Is there hope for this in the coming generation? For my sons’ sake I certainly hope so.

Of all the men who would try to lead such a movement there is really only one that I have come across thus far whom I would proudly declare myself a follower of: Rob Becker. Over 20 years ago Becker wrote and performed a one-man stage performance of a piece called “Defending the Caveman”. It has since been performed in front of millions of people, in 45 countries and over 30 languages. If you have a chance to see it you certainly should. In it Becker and those following his script make some rather humorous yet profound observations about the nature of the assumption many women have that “all men are a**holes,” and the show concludes with a statement of hope that some day he will be able to stand proudly and say, “I am a MAN, not an a**hole!”

Not the most philosophical statement of the cause, but probably the most eloquent.

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Philosophy, Sexism, Social identity

On Not Being Gay

This blog is going up late because for the past week and a half I’ve been traveling around the more rural parts of South Africa, seeing parts of this country that are more exotic to my western eye: sugar cane fields ripe for harvest, cows and goats wandering the streets, zebras and giraffes in their natural habitat, economies based on frantic informal buying and selling everything on the side of the road, black children in school uniforms flooding the dirt paths through villages together with their livestock, women cutting marsh reeds for making wicker items, mothers of all ages with babies strapped to their backs and large parcels balanced on their heads…

I never did see any elephants crossing the road though.

It would be too easy under these circumstances to associate the international headlines coming out of rural South Africa at the beginning of this month with this same sense of things here being radically exotic and non-western: Over the May Day holiday weekend among the younger high school boys of this province there was a particularly nasty gang rape of a retarded girl, that one boy shot a cell phone video of that started getting passed around on line; and then on the eve of May Day, in the same sugar cane fields I drove past a few days later, a teenage boy brutally raped a girl just more than half his age, attempting to strangle her and gouge her eyes out in the process. In the latter case the girl survived –– barely –– blindly crawling out of the sugar cane fields in what remained of her school uniform, so badly mutilated that her family didn’t recognize her. The prognosis is that she will eventually regain sight in one eye, but beyond that hope for a normal life for her is fairly limited.

It feels natural to try and distance ourselves from such atrocities. We can’t be talking about normal teenage boys here! There must be something profoundly messed up in the culture which leads to these sorts of inhuman actions among those who are still effectively children.

From enough of a distance it may seem that this is part of childhood being stolen from African children by guerilla fighters and underground armies and the like. People like Kony are making children into monsters that do horrible things to each other. But in these cases civil tensions really have nothing to do with the situation. South Africans regularly march in protest about their poor and risky lives, but there is no risk of civil war here. So far the most radical left wing politicians here have just been big mouthed clowns who talk about state takeover of larger businesses; but their campaigns remain purely democratic at this point, and their conspicuous incompetence is seriously limiting their potential impact in that arena even. (For further perspective on this see my Julius and Rick blog from a couple months ago.) Children in South Africa are not being trained to commit atrocities, especially against other children.

How then can we explain the messed up motivations behind these particularly heinous and obscene crimes, committed by those who aren’t even men yet? One journalistic analysis of the eye gouging rapist has brought out two factors that might explain matters somewhat: The boy was being raised by his grandmother, with little by way of masculine role models in his life; and he was being bullied at school in the typical way that other boys jokingly accused him of being gay. This makes the problem a distinctly African one in some senses, but not so exotic or different from Western culture any more.

A lack of positive male influence in life is a tragic problem in many parts of the world. Men have been isolated from families by the economic demands of industrialized working life, and where they have not been able to find work outside of the home their value as men has been severely marginalized. Thus to prove that they are “real men” many fathers resort to drinking, violence and other testosterone boosting activities that destroy what little chance they might have of building a relationship with their children. This leads to a matriarchal network of young mothers and intense grandmothers doing the child rearing, and boys having little idea about how their masculinity is supposed to (or allowed to) work. If all forms of masculinity –– other than “providing for the family” and other than that staying out of the way –– are just as thoroughly disrespected within a boy’s childhood home, it is little wonder if he starts to express his own masculinity in highly anti-social ways.

This problem is particularly acute in Africa, but it is a well known dynamic in all industrialized nations really. Across the world school boy cultures are increasingly polarized between the “tough guys” who make no apologies for their anti-social masculinity, and “wimps” and “faggots” who do what women tell them to and are thus accused of acting like women themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with women, per se; it’s just that no self-respecting young man wants to be one. If someone finds a functional solution for this problem they should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for the century.

Bullying is something we all know about from personal experience of being bullied, or taking part in bullying others before we knew any better, or from watching it happen and not really daring to do anything about it. It’s a near universal form of competition for dominance within a group, particularly among more immature individuals: bullies trying to win social acceptance by proving to others that they would be more valuable allies than the “oddballs” they have singled out for torture. This can be particularly brutal at times, and sadly many of the other evils we find in society trace back to the emotional scars left by school bullying, sometimes generations ago even. This can be the first link in a chain of violence that escalates and becomes cyclical, leading to all sorts of other evils.

Kids get teased for any number of reasons at school: for being fat, for being foreign, for having weak hand-eye coordination, for being physically or intellectually under developed or over developed for their age group, for having speech impediments, for having unusual coloring… or for having the wrong sort of emerging sexuality. This last one is particularly nasty because it is so indefinite, especially in the years immediately following puberty. You can pretty easily tell when a kid is unusually tall, or clumsy, or of conspicuously different ancestry from the rest of the group; you really can’t tell when a kid will turn out to be more sexually attracted to his or her own gender than to those using the bathroom on the other end of the hall. If suspicion of this is grounds for social rejection, isolation, public humiliation and physical abuse –– if neither the tormentors nor the tormented can be entirely sure about whether the assumed grounds for this nastiness is real or not –– that makes the seditious evil of the bullying all the more destructive.

If a kid is bullied for being of the wrong “race” he can usually figure out what it is about him that the idiots tormenting him have used as a basis for singling him out for torture, that it’s not something he can change, that it’s not something he did anything to deserve and that it’s actually a not a flaw. From there the emotional adjustment process is a lot easier. Such kids still have to deal with the brutality of the attacks they are subjected to but they know they are on higher moral ground than their attackers, and with the sense of confidence this gives them they can fight back or ignore the abuse far more effectively. But when a kid is bullied for “acting gay”, it’s actually not always clear where such an idea comes from, whether or not he’s voluntarily doing anything socially unacceptable, whether it’s a matter of simply learning to act more “normal”, whether he actually is more sexually attracted to members of his own sex and whether that would be something horrible if he is. A young victim of homophobic bullying cannot be sure whether he should lash out against his tormentors or against himself, or against someone else entirely.

Other grounds for teasing are things kids outgrow in one way or another. Size differences even out considerably when young people are finally full grown. Those who are less coordinated either develop the necessary coordination as they get older or they learn to compensate for it in other ways. Those who are too bright for their peer group either dumb themselves down or find new circles of friends that can relate to them better. Immigrant kids learn the new language and culture and find ways to fit in, and others come to see the variety that outsiders bring as a cool thing. Kids with who have been marginalized because of doubts about their sexuality have it much worse. If they are in fact homosexual by inclination in most parts of the world they will suffer lasting social stigma and moral condemnation for who they are. If they are in fact heterosexual by inclination, having suffered such abuse can seriously damage their chances of finding a desirable partner, and of building a stable relationship –– sexuality is always a matter of proving something, not of enjoying the depth of personal inter-connection it can bring.

If I relate this all to my own personal experience, I was teased in school for being different, but not for any serious suspicion that I was gay. I’ve had friends among fellow bullying victims who were gay, some of whom may have had a crush on me even, but it never occurred to me to have any sort of romantic interest in another guy. In retrospect I wish I could have been a better and more supportive friend to some of them, but of course there were things I just didn’t understand back then. At first I saw gay men as just clowns, in a tradition running from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Gomer Pyle. They were nothing more to me than a silly joke. When I came to know a few gay fellows of my own age at first I was almost always the last one to believe that it really was the case; labeling someone as gay was something that left a very bad taste in my mouth. When it became clear that someone really was gay my immediate reaction was a mix of nervousness and pity.

It took quite a while before I could start to relate to openly gay acquaintances as friends without really worrying about their sexuality. For me a lot of it had to do with my time in the restaurant business: in all types of food service establishments I encountered a continuous stream of both fellow workers and customers of that persuasion, and learning to relate to them in a friendly, cooperative and unreserved manner was a functional necessity. Sometimes their ways of expressing their identities still came out as a bad joke but more and more it became clear that they were just people like all others: trying to do good to others in hopes of receiving good in return, defensive regarding things over which they’ve been attacked in the past, looking for acceptance wherever they can find it, hoping to find love of many different sorts as life goes on.

I’ve come to realize quite thoroughly that a fear of homosexuality is a far more dangerous thing than homosexuality itself. Sexuality of any sort has its own beauties and dangers to it, and we all have to find a balance between enjoying our drives and restricting our urges. This applies quite equally to both women and men, both gay and straight. The fact that we tend to more easily accuse those who are different from ourselves does not give any of us the higher moral ground in these matters. Yes, the majority of the human race will continue to be heterosexual and sexuality will continue to be a source of strife within the human race for as long as we succeed in avoiding extinction. That doesn’t mean that any of us are justified in issuing blanket condemnations towards others’ sexuality. The most important thing is to stop kids from bullying each other on such a basis, and to keep them from doing horrible things to themselves and each other to prove something about their sexuality.

 

 

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Filed under Education, Ethics, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity

Go Together like a Horse and Carriage

There have been some interesting debates going on lately among my virtual friends regarding the whole subject of marriage and all the ethical considerations that it entails. In some ways this ties into the question of the traditional value of religion as such. In some ways it relates to the ever sensitive subject of gay rights. In some ways it hinges on the justice of gender roles in society. In some ways this relates to the capacity for personal commitment in a social system that does little to enforce personal responsibility. It also relates to individual sexuality in a very direct and potentially embarrassing way.

I feel a certain duty to say something about this subject, but I also want to avoid the classic “too much information” syndrome. I want to speak to the issues here frankly without infuriating my sons and lovers. Please bear with me then if you find this particular entry vague or insufficiently argued; I’m pulling my punches on purpose and trying to exercise a fair amount of restraint while still giving the matter some serious consideration. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

I’ll start with a very personal consideration though: I often wonder what difference it would have made in my life had I not, like my parents before me, followed the traditional Christian prohibition on pre-marital sex. I married as a virgin, as did my parents. Both marriages ended bitterly, in part due to disillusionment over “having done things God’s way” and discovering to our complete despair that that system doesn’t always work. I did not lose my faith over this issue, and neither did either of my parents for that matter, but it raised a number of important questions that I continue to wrestle with to this day.

To say that the images of marriage we provide to children are problematic is a mild understatement.

Depending on whether you perspective is a religious one, a psycho-analytical one, a libertine one or an agnostic traditional one, you probably already have some ready opinions and advice for me after reading just that much. The fact is that I’ve probably heard it already, and even though you may be correct in many of the perspectives you’d have to offer, that doesn’t keep it from being a complicated issue for me. All I know for sure is that the traditional value system of only allowing sex within the context of marriage is no guarantee of happiness or social stability. It probably doesn’t even improve one’s chances of finding happiness or making a useful contribution to society. And if that is the case perhaps the greatest reason for people to still get married these days is to conform to religious or antique cultural traditions, regardless of the personal harm it may cause them. That’s sort of sad in its own way.

Of course there are other reasons why, ideally speaking, a couple would want to be married to each other. One is a sacramental view of marriage, which might be said to relate to a Tantric view of sex. The idea is that for sex to operate at its maximum potential, the connection between the lovers has to go deeper than just a physical union. One might also hope for an emotional, philosophical, even spiritual connection with one’s lover. Along these lines some of my Catholic friends in particular still believe that the church is capable of magically creating the necessary spiritual union between (soon to be) lovers through the sacrament of the marriage ceremony, and that only the proper ceremonies before the fact can prevent sex from being obscene. Conservative Orthodox and Protestant Christians (and Muslims for that matter) tend to have a similar belief even though they are not so firmly convinced of the magical powers of the church, but still somehow… And if it works for them I’m cool with that.

Then there are those who are just overwhelmed with the sense of emotional connection they feel with each other, and they want to lock in on that sensation for the rest of their lives and proclaim to the world how wonderful it feels. In other words they want to get married because they are deeply and blindly in love. Been there; done that. It’s hard to say whether the wedding as a ritual or marriage as an institution does much to deepen or improve the chances of permanence for such a relationship, but there is a strong belief that starry-eyed lovers should at least be allowed to give it a try.

Sometimes marriage can even be an act of defiance: the couple standing together in the face of opposition from society, family, religious authorities or political turmoil and saying, “We are going to be together –– part of each other –– whether you like it or not!” There are innumerable variations on that theme, but the most popular ones have to do with couples of different races, or different religions, or from countries at war with each other, or of the same gender with each other. It’s the Romeo and Juliet ideal: hope that love will conquer all… if it has the right rituals involved. The fact that there are no accepted rituals available to bond many such couples together makes it all the more exciting and challenging for them.

What has unquestionably changed within western civil society in the last couple of generations though is the idea that sex outside of marriage is inherently shameful and that children resulting from such unions are less deserving of care and respect within society. The term “bastard” has ceased to have any practical relevance in its literal sense. That’s a bit of a long story, but as a school teacher I know that kids from unmarried parents, kids from divorced families, kids from traditional families and kids from remarried families don’t really have an issue with each other’s parentage unless there are crises at home that the kids bring to school with them. And while some novel combinations as couples can still raise eyebrows, whether or not they are officially married makes little difference in terms of how acceptable someone is considered to be as a neighbor these days. There are aspects of tax law and right of attorney, for instance, in which marriage still makes a difference in civil law, but those issues are being progressively eliminated on a case-by-case basis. The places that marriage as such continues to be relevant to life as we know it are within conservative (and controlling) religious communities and among those for whom social acceptance of the legitimacy of their relationships is a sensitive issue: for religious fundamentalists and gay rights activists. So ironically it is those who are on the extreme right and the extreme left politically who are really worried about marriage these days; those in the middle couldn’t really care much less.

It could quite plausibly be argued that marriage as we now know it has evolved from a system in which the woman was considered to be the property of the man, and the contract involved was effectively designed to insure that as his slave she still had certain rights and protections. The wedding ceremony still has the leftovers of this ancient system in terms of the woman being given to the man and then vowing to submit to him, but those elements are quite optional and hardly taken seriously or literally these days. Marriage is theoretically seen as more of a mutual enterprise or partnership these days, but with the obligations of that partnership falling quite heavily on the man’s side. The wife is no longer the husband’s property, but the husband is still obliged to care for her as though she would be.

Not terribly surprisingly then, when you think about it, the vast majority of divorce proceedings are initiated by women. Women’s rights activists might argue that this is because husbands are still too power-hungry and not loving enough in general, but I reject such a generalization as blatantly unfair. It implies that the only morally virtuous man is the one who does whatever his wife expects of him. I don’t believe that either sex is inherently entitled to the moral high ground in such matters.

But besides trying to yet again re-balance the power struggles between the sexes, is there really anything to be done to save the institution of marriage? In response to that I would ask, is the institution really worth saving for its own sake? Unless it is a matter of maintaining the role of religious rituals within our social structures I really don’t think so. But setting aside the crisis in the social institution of marriage for the moment, just what do we think it is that makes a romantic/erotic relationship “legitimate”? What is it that really makes a couple’s union viable in the long term, regardless of who approves of it and who doesn’t?

“Yeah, what would he know about that?” I hear readers (especially family members) mumbling to themselves. Fine, I have a dismal personal record on such matters. So let me ramble on a bit about what I’ve figured out by trial and error anyway, and then you can tell me if you think I’m missing something.

As I see it there are two competing dynamics within any close, one-on-one interpersonal relationship –– be it romantic, sexual, platonic, comradely, parental or whatever: partnership and power struggle. On the one hand any two people who sincerely care about each other on any level have a certain desire to come together and cooperate in a way that brings out the best in both. When you say that you love someone, in any sense of the word, part of what that implies is that you would be ready to do many things for that person entirely for their own good, with no benefit for you other than the sense of satisfaction that you get from being able to help them. In that sense everyone wants to be loved; it gives you a certain level of control over the other person. Being able to sincerely love someone enough to relinquish your own personal control in the relationship is the hard part. Many people find themselves unable to do this; not having a capacity for love and trust in this sense. Thus many are quite afraid of the prospect of loving more than they are loved, and they want to make sure that they the other person is surrendering at least as much control in the relationship as they are. This process of self-defense and strategic control –– frequently using the cliché line, “Don’t you love me?!”–– often becomes more important than the love itself as a dynamic force in the relationship.

Again, as I see it then there are effectively three sorts of lasting spousal relationships:

  • those where there is an on-going power struggle that both get a certain kick out of (whether or not they care to admit it),
  • those where one partner has succeeded in subduing the other –– where the Shrew has been tamed, or where the bull has become an ox, and
  • those where they both remain deeply in love –– where they both would feel miserably incomplete without each other and where each considers the other’s happiness and well-being to be the most important part of their own.

In many cases traditional marital bonds have had the effect of enforcing commitment within a relationship by preventing either person from escaping the power struggle that their relationship has become. There’s a lot to be said for not running away when things start to get difficult, and any relationship worth having is worth struggling with to make it stronger, but that doesn’t mean that commitment to a relationship for the sake of the commitment itself is always a good thing. It could be said that many committed relationships –– marriages in particular –– have been power struggles to the emotional death of one party or the other. Traditionally, in the days before divorce became socially acceptable, either the husband or the wife, or both, would eventually give up on all their personal hopes and dreams, and grudgingly do whatever the other demanded. Or maybe the loser wouldn’t resent this loss, feeling too dead inside to resent anything.

Divorce is a form of retreat from a power struggle within marriage. Sometimes it is more justifiable than others, regardless of whether or not there are under-aged children involved (a factor weighing heavily against) or there are substance abuse or physical violence issues involved (factors weighing heavily in favor). Sometimes divorce is the social equivalent of the nuclear alternative: mutual assured destruction on personal and emotional levels. Sometimes the threat of divorce is used like the threat of suicide: a desperate means of crying out for attention, never actually meant to happen, but sometimes followed through on regardless when the mere threat doesn’t achieve the desired effect. But is it really any less nasty a business when a non-married couple break off a long-term intimate relationship? Hard to say.

Meanwhile there is the question of what is ultimately best for children. Tradition dictates that children should be raised within a supportive nuclear family: biological parents maintaining a life-long commitment to working as partners to provide for the material and emotional needs of their mutual offspring. That undeniably makes a certain amount of sense, as long as the power struggle between the parents doesn’t do the children more harm than the parents’ support does the kids good. So really the operational question is, what can we do to keep such power struggles from getting out of hand? In terms of legal structures relating to marriage itself, not much. So in addition to laws relating to marriage itself we also need child protection laws. Sometimes those work better than others.

For individual couples though, all is not lost. There countless ways of learning to manage power struggles when they arise, and sometimes a relationship can function fruitfully and compatibly on the level of a continuous power struggle for years on end. And just because two people are continuously trying to manipulate each other doesn’t actually mean that there isn’t any love between them.

Beyond that there are at least two ways of keeping these power struggles from becoming an issue. First they can agree to work together for the good of some cause which they can both agree is more important that either of their selfish interests. In this regard any “meme” will do, but the more spiritually oriented it is, the more effective it is likely to be as a form of glue for the relationship. The other alternative is to just focus on the value of the loving connection itself. If, regardless of all the struggles and challenges a couple faces, one of the ultimate sources of satisfaction for each of them is joys that they are able to experience together, keeping the relationship going is just a matter of focusing on what is ultimately most important. There really is something about love that is worth believing in. And in spite of all the odds stacked against it, in some cases even today erotic/romantic love can be a lasting thing.

I’ve reached an age where the idea of my marrying again and/or potentially having more children is becoming less and less relevant. I still want to be able to experience romantic love in a more stable and lasting way than I have thus far, but my greater priority is to find something to offer by way of helpful advice to the next generation. I want my sons and former students to be able to build lasting and satisfying relationships, whether or not they get married and/or have children. If they each find someone with whom they can achieve mutual sexual satisfaction regularly enough so that no further release is needed for either of them –– in my opinion the ideal situation to be in, and the one which most people should be looking for –– there needs to be a basic understanding that they will remain physically faithful to each other, hopefully deepening their connection to include other aspects of life. If they end up having children, I hope they will be able to raise them in some sort of functional partnership with another parent (or two) –– not getting torn away from their own kids in nasty custody battles; not having the kids caught in the middle of bitter power struggles between former lovers.

If marriage in one form or another enables them to achieve these sorts of goals more reliably and efficiently, so much the better.

So now it’s time for you, dear reader, to tell me: what am I missing here?

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Love, Parenting, Religion

My Thanksgiving Massacree

 

Did I actually celebrate Thanksgiving this year? Sort of. Not really. It’s a matter of definition.

In terms of traditional gluttony I didn’t bother. The fellow Americans at work arranged a mini pot-luck lunch on Tuesday, so I got the basic trimmings and traditional tastes into my system then. For my Thanksgiving lunch at work I just had a bowl of mass-produced spinach soup with some mass-produced meatballs tossed in for good measure. For the evening meal I got a little closer to tradition: sliced turkey over Karelian pastries and cranberry juice to drink, with some leftover chicken soup for a starter and a few veggie pancakes as a chaser. My doctor would have been proud of me.

I was supposed to make sure that our international school’s morning opening had a certain Thanksgiving flavor to it, but getting there just two minutes before it was supposed to start, I found that my colleague Jay had it under control, and all I needed to do was help him feed The Turkey Song from his laptop into the PA system. Probably the most Thanksgivingy thing I did then was to sit and listen to Arlo Guthrie on Youtube for a bit, since, as my sister pointed out, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without  hearing him sing about Alice’s Restaurant.

Having been an expatriate for just over half of my life already, Thanksgiving traditions feel like they are slipping further and further away from me. Not that I was ever particularly traditional in that sense to begin with, and in one sense the more I’ve learned about those traditions, the more cynical I’ve become about them. The idyllic picture of indigenous and immigrant communities coming together in the primeval woodland around Plymouth Rock in peace and harmony–to enable a new society to take shape, later to become the glorious United States, was a warped bit of nostalgia for its time, and Hollywood glosses have done nothing to improve the situation. One of the little native boys who would have been at that legendary cross-cultural feast grew up to be chief of his people, and in that role he (rightly) believed that his people would be better off if the pale skinned new-comers went elsewhere; but in his process of trying to convince them of this idea he ended up with his head on a pole at the gate to the new security fence they had installed. Thinking back on those days as good old days to be celebrated and commemorated takes more than a little bit of willful ignorance then.

But that being said, there are still three things that I consider to be particularly valuable about the American Thanksgiving celebration, even nowadays. For starters, personal friendships across cultural borders are a particularly valuable thing. As sad as the history of the relationship between the two ethnic groups turned out to be, some of the natives and the whites did really become friends, and some of those friendships delayed the wars that eventually came, and even endured through the wars in spite of the hostilities between their little groups. In some ways there is a re-telling here of one of the forgotten lessons of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: your “neighbor” is not necessarily the one who shares your skin color, your religion or your tribal identity; your neighbor is the person who helps you when you need help, even if they remain totally foreign to you in other ways. Especially as an expatriate, and in working with internationally mobile and immigrant students, I find this lesson more and more worth reminding ourselves of.

Beyond that, the next lesson I draw from Thanksgiving is that it became a holiday because of the political action of people who didn’t actually have voting rights: women. In the nineteenth century a woman’s greatest area of power and influence was in the kitchen, and so the more ambitious women of the period decided to capitalize on that and lobby for a holiday based largely on providing them with a showcase for their talents. The fact that the influence women could influence at home resulted in the institution of a new national holiday for the United States, which in turn further reinforced the value and power of women within the society, serves as a moral example still today of what people whose rights are being trampled on can still accomplish when they band together and capitalize on their strengths. In our generation this can apply to undocumented immigrants, homeless people and religious minorities which are still seen as having limited right to exist within particular societies. By showing what they are good at, and by getting those in power to recognize the contributions they are making, these people too not only get the satisfaction of making a positive contribution; they build momentum in the direction of the society some day giving them in practice the full human rights they’re already theoretically entitled to. Thanksgiving provides us with a sense of hope that even the marginalized can have influence and gain recognition.

But perhaps most important of all, Thanksgiving provides us with an example of the possibility to enforce some limits of “good taste” on even the most crass manifestations of capitalist market forces. You just can’t start with Christmas parties, Christmas decorations and Christmas shopping binges until after Thanksgiving. Face it: Christmas has become an ecological and economic absurdity, especially in the US. This year Christmas sales are expected to be 2% greater than last year, in spite of the fact that 2/3 of American families will end up paying absurd credit card service fees and interest in the process, and a full percentage point (or two) of these will still be in debt from this Christmas a year from now. In encouraging this sort of potlatch, American retailers have initiated an annual buy binge aptly referred to as “Black Friday”. Fortunately this year no one was actually killed in the mass hysteria this produces. But the fact that they are at least waiting with this insanity until after Thanksgiving says something. It says that there really can be limits placed on commercialism; that there can be greater concerns in life than what is good for the market. Even if some break the spirit of this by spending Thanksgiving evening lining up to get into “super discount sales” at the stroke of midnight, Thanksgiving does set a useful limitation of good taste. This is something else that the world really should not give up hope on.

My childhood being what it was, we never really got into watching the big parades or major football bowl games. We never had the big sit down family dinners at home either for that matter. In fact the greatest number of memorable Thanksgiving dinners took place at my father’s little escape farm up on the Massachusetts/Vermont border. He bought that place when he was in his early 30s, sort of at the end of his quasi-hippie period, as he was getting ready for his second marriage. He kept it until the first year of his third marriage, when both its location and its style failed to fit in with the sort of lifestyle that new wife had in mind. But by that time I had already got married myself and moved to Finland, so it didn’t make much difference to me. It was a greater blow to my younger siblings, but that’s another story.

Thanksgiving traditions at the farm included a different mix and match batch of friends and extended family each year, the challenge of getting the drafty old place up to a livable temperature using wood heating alone, a respectable sized roast turkey with plenty of stuffing, “Anne’s crans,” candied yams, various salads and steamed veggies, chunky mashed potatoes and sauces and gravies to suit different tastes, and a variety of deserts, one of which had to be pumpkin pie; and then of course Arlo singing about Alice on the radio as we got it all set up.

I’ve tried to introduce my sons to as many of these sorts of traditions as possible, but without the farm-like setting, and without that time off from school for any of us in this country it just hasn’t been the same. They have developed a taste for turkey and pumpkin pie, I can proudly say, but that’s about the extent of it.

But for all that the lessons of cross-cultural friendship, unofficial political activism and limiting commercial excesses have remained with me from my youth, and they have become more ingrained in my thinking as I have aged. Together I believe they would be worthy of genuine Thanksgiving movement––the kind of thing that Arlo says today’s twenty-somethings are too young to know anything about. Let’s get a good old neo-hippie style protest going against xenophobia, marginalization and crass commercialism! Let’s show the world we’re made of better stuff than that! And then let’s each in our own way thank God for the possibility that life goes on, and continues to have its own mysterious beauty, in spite of all the human stupidity we continue to see around us. In that spirit we can enter into the Christmas season with sincere hopes and goals for peace on earth, good will towards mankind.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Parenting, Philosophy

Previous Week’s Post

former symbols of manhood

This was originally published elsewhere on November 15th.

The Death of Cheerios and the Search for the New Manhood

The first car that I remember my family having was a beige Ford Falcon. Older relatives talk about a VW Beetle my parents would have had right after they got married, but that one is entirely missing from my conscious memory. In any case, as pressures towards respectability and our size family grew, a still larger car than the Falcon was soon in order. One of my stronger early childhood memories then is of the day when the dark blue-green ’65 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88 pulled into our driveway. That became the real car of my childhood. Through my parents’ divorce, three changes of address, countless beach trips, all of my pitiful Little League career, some wild family camping adventures and the rest of my pre-teen life, that was our family car. It was one of those living rooms on wheels, with a simple AM radio, bench seats front and back, a big V-8 engine, automatic transmission, power steering and no frills beyond that. Even after its U-joints started to fail and it sat in the gravel lot behind our apartment building for over a year, that chunk of Detroit heavy metal remained in my mind the model of what a “normal car” should be like: substantial, powerful, roomy and protective.

My own first car turned out to be a ’69 Ford Galaxy 500, which I never particularly loved, and which has actually caused me to avoid that brand ever since. Objectively speaking it wasn’t the manufacturers fault, but the engine, transmission, body and suspension system on that beast proved to be pretty much equally unreliable. I did have a beautiful girlfriend for most of the year I had it, and thanks to its tank-like bulk I did live through the time I fell asleep driving it, but that’s about all the positive things I can think of to say for that old beater. It was dubbed “Battlescar Galactica,” and by the time I junked it there was no love lost.

The next car I got was a ’70 Pontiac Lemans. That was a much sweeter machine. My father actually picked it out for me, bought from a retiree in his neighborhood in Connecticut. The gear ratios were a bit high for country roads, and the two-door body was a bit awkward to get groups of friends in and out of, but it was fast, stable, reliable and sporty. It was the closest I ever had to a true muscle car. I had one minor wipe-out with it in a snowstorm, but other than that I never had any significant mishaps with it. My sister got her driver’s license in that car, and along the way there were more interesting adventures with it than I have time to write about this weekend. I wish I could have afforded to keep it for longer. For all I know the lady I sold it to could still be driving it.

Over the years that followed I also owned a full sized Buick and a full sized Chevrolet. Those were less successful discount purchases, but they were better for me than the Ford at least. So it was with some nostalgic melancholy that I listened to the radio news last week that GM was retiring its “Mr. Goodwrench” service division. Their Pontiac division also bit the dust this fall. Oldsmobile was already long gone. Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac remain, but the GMs that left the most positive early impressions on me have now gone the way of the dinosaurs whose decayed bodies provided their fuel.

Some industry pundits have said that a big part of GM’s mistake was to keep four different brands of cars which were virtually indistinguishable from each other. To provide respectable competition for the Mopars and Mercs on the NASCAR circuit, the Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldses started popping in Chevy motors. A Chevy-Olds became known as a “Cheerio” and the same label got tacked onto its Buick and Pontiac sisters. Meanwhile, out on the street, the Camaro, the Corvette, the Firebird and the Goat maintained a certain credibility among those addicted to the sound and feeling of a four-barrel kicking in, but that dwindling group was becoming less and less capable of supporting a full sized market. So GM tried unsuccessfully to morph these makes into things things that middle-aged baby boomers could justify buying on practical grounds. The result was the equivalent of seeing the girl you had the hots for in your sophomore year turn into a saggy, baggy divorced leftover. The magic was gone. By the time these brands were discontinued it was hardly a surprise to anyone.

Not that these beasts ever really made much sense. The best that could be said of them is that they gave men a certain sense of power: production cars that embodied the hot rod spirit in grand scale–tons of steel roaring forward at speeds never before available to the common man, and with a sense of even greater possibilities. Many allowed themselves to start believing the  “American Graffiti” style myth that this mechanical power would also make a man influential and sexy. For a lot of guys that just rang true, all evidence to the contrary. This sort of masculine success didn’t depend on social politics or conforming to anyone else’s standards. The rumble of that fine tuned V-8 made you a man’s man. You perfected this symbol of your power within the sacred chamber of your own garage or workshop, and then you could take it out and gain respect for this symbolic masculine power, confronting any fools who might dare to challenge you man to man, machine to machine. It was almost like being a knight errant, only not so bloody.

According to the myth these contests were capable of charming women, but in the end that was hardly the point. It was ultimately a matter of proving your manhood to other men. If women didn’t get it, well… the standards of whatever planet they came from didn’t necessarily apply. In some respects this was the masculine equivalent of what the fashion industry is for women: such things are supposed to help them impress men, but ultimately that’s not really the point; the main thing is to prove that one is as powerfully feminine as the next girl. If men don’t get it, or if they fail to be impressed, that’s their problem.

In some regards then the loss of the Pontiac brand for men who have used it to bolster their manhood is the rough equivalent of what it would be like for “Sex in the City” fans if stiletto heels were no longer to be produced. In terms of practical utility and enabling someone to be a better partner or spouse, they are worse than useless; but in terms of giving the person a sense of confidence in being able to stand out as a woman’s woman or a man’s man, and attract those of the opposite sex on the basis of that sort of feeling of confidence and power… its easy to see how some might become emotionally dependent on such things.

Of course every generation has had its own abstract symbols of power and success for each gender. Some day stilettos and muscle cars will entirely go the way of whale bone corsets and powdered wigs, to be replaced by only God knows what. Whether the opposite sex will find these new power symbols attractive or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we have those of both genders who are not out to win over those of the opposite sex so much through a display of power as by a display of submissive appeasement. For women this can be the soft-spoken, contented little home-maker image; all the things true feminists have tried so hard to stomp out. For men, on the other hand, this can be the role of the undemanding and supportive “bread winner”, or that of the general household assistant. This too can be something that others of the same gender might look down on as beneath the dignity of someone with self-respect. So both men and women are forced to think about who they really want to seek approval from: those of their own sex or those of the opposite sex? And what are they willing to sacrifice to gain this approval?

One thing that can both provide personal satisfaction in terms of reinforcing a solid, self-respecting gender identity, and at the same cement an attraction to the opposite sex, however, is active parenthood. This too can be a battlefield, but it shouldn’t have to be. When women have the opportunity and feel empowered enough to live on their own terms as mothers, there is nothing more reaffirming for their femininity… or so I’ve been told. And when we men are able to build relationships with their own children on their own terms, or even within moderate matriarchal restrictions, there is nothing more reaffirming of our masculinity, says the voice of deeply felt experience.

It is now the wee hours of the morning following the day designated on the Finnish calendar as Father’s Day. I’m running considerably behind schedule with many things, not only this blog. When I wake up in the morning I’ll have to hit the ground running to catch up on many matters of boring and existentially meaningless routine responsibility, which are byproducts of my semi-chosen profession and lifestyle. With any luck at all my car will get me to all the places I have to go, but it won’t prove anything to anyone about what an important man I am. But regardless of all that, today my adult sons made a point of spending a bit of quality time with their crazy old dad, and for now that gives me as much personal reinforcement as I can ask for. In this respect at least I really am valued for who I am as a man. Of course I still keep hoping for more, but for now I’ll content myself with having that much.

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