Wednesday, December 26. 2007
The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed last week that jousted at another favorite topic of season, our notions of happiness ["The Happiness Myth," by Steve Salerno]. A part of the Journal's practical, curmudeony character is that it has little use for the younger generation's endless mantras of self-affirmation and self-actualization. The editors do believe fervantly in the empowerment of the individual and energetic optimism -- this is, after all, the flagship publication of the capitalist free market -- but those attitudes are also perpetually grounded in a sense of obligation to the whole. To work merely for one's own fulfillment is, to them, self-evidently shallow. The only proper reasons for getting rich are to serve one's family, one's community, one's country, or for the sheer love of work itself.
This was one my mind because I had finished up my lecture series on ancient Greek philosophers, and I was mulling over Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, especially his take on happiness. The Greek word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (literally, "to have a good guardian spirit") and is described as "not a mood or temporary state, but a state achieved through a lifetime of virtuous action, accompanied by some measure of good fortune." I like the fact that Aristotle recognizes that virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness -- even the best of people are not guaranteed happiness, which I think is part of the current generation's malaise. Modern Americans feel guilty and insufficient for not feeling perpetually sun-shiny, which leads them to ultimately self-destructive quests for the next thrill, not to mention undermining the basis of all deferral of gratification and self-control. I also like the connect to virtue, which elevates happiness to more than mere circumstance or pleasure. And for Aristotle, virtue is (like everything) a matter of teleology -- everything has a purpose and an end, even people, and happiness is to found by best fulfilling one's purpose.
"Fulfilling one's purpose" sound suspiciously like Work. This also, I think, is the downfall of the current generation, which often equates leisure with happiness. I'm not the first one to notice the connection between work and happiness, either. M. Scott Peck went so far as to define love as fundamentally a matter of Work. Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiÂ noticed that the activities that make people feel most fulfilled (music, gardening, writing, and intellectual debate, to name a few) combined aspects of work and leisure. There needs to be purpose, direction, and active engagement with experience in order to be anything close to happy.
All of which makes me feel better when I'm itching to do some work on December 26. Happiness is the freedom to work on whatever you want.
Friday, October 5. 2007
Oliver Sacks, the pioneer of the unlikely literary genre of modern neuropathology case studies, has a new article in the New Yorker on the most profound case of amnesia ever recorded ("The Abyss," September 24, 2007.) Clive Wearing, an English musician and musicologist, lost nearly all his memories and his ability to create new memories as a result of a severe encephalitis. Just as in the movie Memento, Wearing's entire universe reboots the moment he loses his concentration. Left in an unfamiliar situation, with no cues to guide his current train of thought and no memory to guide him, he continually experiences life as a series of "waking up" moments. Sachs describes the absolute horror of Wearing's existence, as documented by his heroically devoted wife in her memoir and in several documentary films. The uncanny thing about Wearing's case is that his ability to perform music, and even conduct a group of musicians, is almost completely unaffected by his condition.
Wearing's case is full of philosophical implications. For many years Augie Turak would play excerpts from a documentary on Wearing to his classes, and then ask them: "Does his life have any meaning?" Most students would immediately conclude that it did not. Eventually, however, someone would point out that our own lives were not that much different from Wearing's. We have no memories before our birth; our deaths, presumably, snuff out all memory of what came before. How, then, do we presume to create meaning in the time in between our beginning and our end?
I come away from the story with a different koans, now. I find it remarkable that so much of our capacity to do -- either simple things like making coffee, or complex things like conduct a symphony -- has almost nothing to do with our "episodic" memory of life's events, and that narratives we weave to give those episodes continuity and significance. We can act, respond, create, and enjoy without having a past, or a future. Evidently Andrew Cohen and Eckhart Tolle were correct in saying that "freedom has no history," and that the past and the future were merely mental constructions that were often completely unnecessary. And yet, Wearing's situation is not the "timeless awareness of the present" that so many gurus have praised as the height of spiritual awakening. Wisdom is not merely the obliteration of certain mental facilities.
But perhaps the most profound conclusion is the most disturbing -- the inescapable realization that we don't really think the way we think we think. We like to presume we haveÂ singular identity, and that our faculties for remembering, planning, deciding, and acting are all springing from some singular source that is me. It might seem like that, ordinarily . . . but cases like Wearing show that our mental life is constant interweaving of independent and inter-dependent threads. One part might be remembering and deciding, another doing, and yet another still watching it all unfold. And which part of all that is really me? When Wearing dies and finds himself in whatever afterlife you might expect, will his memories return to him? If you don't immediately succumb to a reductionistic materialism, such questions will stretch your notion of soul in unexpected ways.
But then again, that's exactly what the spiritual teachers want you to do. "Just keep asking the question, 'Who am I?' " says Ramana Maharshi. Wearing's awful example leads back, again and again, to the same question, and our own inquiry becomes like Wearing's own life, a repetition upon repetition, stretching yearningly into the inexplicable.
Wednesday, September 26. 2007
Ok, yes, that's true. I pointed out to Kenny that his "silly ideas" are pretty common, although largely unconscious, among the majority of non-religious Americans: "There is no absolute meaning or purpose, but somehow I can patch together a life that will fulfill me. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something." I wanted to stomp on that philosophy while I had the chance, with it out in the open.
But -- true confession time -- the real reason I've spent so much time hashing this book is because it tempts me. Everyone who follows a vocation has times when they wish to God they could live a normal life like everyone else. The calling that inspires them starts to feel like a burden, a chain, an impediment to their freedom and happiness. I don't think Ogilvy's book would have gotten any traction in the first place, unless people felt (or suspected) the burden of living up to a Goal. So when a voice from some postmodernist philosopher or self-empowerment guru whispers in your ear, "Imagine what life would be like without any obligations or duties . . . what would you do?" -- don't you think we'll lean a little closer? Just to savor, for a moment, the notion of "free time," and just doing whatever you felt like doing?
It is an illusion, of course. No one forces us to do anything -- we choose every role, duty, obligation, and commitment in our lives. Sometimes we forget why we were committed to something, which leads us to think ourselves in a straight-jacket when in fact we are wearing a life-preserver. Claudia Horwitz does a pretty good business with her Stone Circles organization, catering to the burned-out activists who struggle to sustain themselves in their work. The cure is almost always some combination of rest and reflection. We let go of our work, just for a moment, examine what we really want in life, and almost always find ourselves pulled right back to the life we already living, once again choosing to accept the Work we have undertaken.
Walker Percy identified the solution long ago in his self-help satire, Lost in the Cosmos: "The cure for depression is suicide." Once you have seriously considered checking out permanently, you realize that every day on this planet is a day you've chosen to be here. Suddenly everything that was a burden becomes a gift, and you walk a little lighter.
Wednesday, September 5. 2007
Man, I must have been asleep in American lit class. I vaguely remember reading Emerson's "Self-Reliance" once before, and I only took away a few sterotypicalÂ impressions. Something about the established churches "dragging a corpose behind them" . . . and a whole lot of blather about being your own man, and "imitation is suicide." Traditional religion Bad, individual Good. Ok, we got Transcendentalism under wraps -- on to Melville!
But when I read Emerson again, after many years in spiritual work, I found a much richer vein than I remembered. I still have some reservations about a completely unqualified "to thine own self be true" . . . for every person who was genuinely searching for their unique voice, I've seen dozens who were merely unread idiots who weren't even schooled enough to know that they were cliche. I suspect that most people read "Self-Reliance" five to ten years too early to be ready for that message of independence.
But the genuinely spiritual philosophy . . . it's not just knee-jerk reactions against orthodoxy. Check this out:
I suspect I read this long ago and just thought it was more of Emerson's extended metaphors. But it's actually a beautiful description of the experience of the Ground of Being. No metaphor at all -- it's as clear a description as you can get of the literal immediate Reality of life.
And Eckhart Tolle's notion of living the NowÂ doesn't seem all that revolutionary, once you read this:
No wonder Steiner saw in the TranscendentalistsÂ a naturally-arising appreciation of "spiritual science". They really did get it.
Sunday, May 20. 2007
Time Magazine described the new high-tech means students use to plagiarize essays for their assignments (e.g. affordabletermpapers.com) and the counter-measures that universities are using to suss out the cheaters (e.g. turnitin.com). Some students have objected to their own papers being added to turnitin.com's massive database of term papers that it uses to identify non-original work, claiming their intellectual property is being scooped up without their consent. Why, they ask, should some for-profit company make money off their work? Some professors, too, were skeptical about pursuing draconian measures to catch cheaters, fearing it might actually undermine the honor code spirit that insists and expects ethical behavior from its students.
Two questions arise from this debate: can high-tech anti-cheating measures be taken (is it technically and legally possible), and should they be taken (is it morally correct and realistically advisable to do so)? I hope the answer to both is obvious.
As far as the legal case goes . . . those students are dreaming if they think they can squeeze concessions from turnitin.com. No expectation of copyright control ever existed before in the schools, so it's useless to pretend it does now. Reading a text in order to identify possible plagiarism is going to be way, waaaay inside the bounds of "fair use" in copyright law, anyway. Any school that wants to cover its butt can simply make the non-expectation explicit: "When you turn in your papers, you give us the right to share it with whomever we please to verify it's originality." Case closed. If students still feel like they want to opt out of such a system, let them vote with their feet: transfer to a school that doesn't use the systems. Or, perhaps, let them come up with their own alternative for verifying the originality of their papers -- like, say, writing them in a controlled test room . . . and paying the fees of the proctors who administer them. I have a feeling all the high-minded objections from students would vanish if they were actually asked to pay to defend their precious term papers.
Should we try to catch the cheaters? This is a slam-dunk for reducto ad absurdum. If you think that rigorously pursuing cheaters will compromise a spirit of integrity, we might as well close down all the police stations, disban the SEC, and dismantel all the accounting firms' audit departments while we're at it. A presumption of individual innocence does not mean a presumption of collective innocence. We know that over half of students admit to cheating at some point in their college careers. Anyone who wants to defend the validity of their grades should be willing to accept a level of oversight . . . especially if it's as non-invasive as an automated plagiarism test. It's like the sleazy suspect on Law & Order who refuses to provide a DNA sample -- they claim all kinds of high-falutin' moral reasons for refusing an invasion of privacy . . . while the police, and the entire audience with them, says, "Uh-huh. Something to hide, huh?"
What I find even more sad is that people don't see how terribly important these ethical matters are. Academic misconduct is not a small matter. Look around at all the countries were free civil society has completely broken down: Iraq, third-world Africa, etc. The common denominator in all these places is corruption. Once corruption becomes commonplace and accepted as a part of life, you are condemned to world in which there is no trust at all . . . which is to say, a world in which all collective effort for collective good is utterly doomed. Is this what we want to school our children in? That success can be bought? That all that matters is what you can get away with? That personal success and fortune matters more than personal integrity and goodness? If corruption (and that's what we should call it -- not cheating, not misconduct, but corruption) prevails in the university, we will have planted the seeds of our society's destruction.
I also think, coincidentally, that this whole debate only exposes the arbitrary, unrealistic, totally bogus nature of most school assignments and tests. I heard of a Duke business school teacher who told his students: "In my classes, anyone who is asked for help, and refuses to give it, is a cheater." The dean of the school heard of this policy, rushed to his office and said, "We can't have this. What kind of a world do think this would be if everybody went around helping everyone else?" (Beat . . . .wait for laughter.) If, instead of working on individual essays that are canned and arbitrary, students worked collectively on real-life problems with real-world benefactors, the problem of cheating would not be so much of an issue.
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