Category Archives: Personal

To My Grandchildren on the Eve of the 2016 American Presidential Election

“The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

~  Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism

I have no illusions that—despite a life dedicated to careful, conscientious, and critical thinking, a lifetime of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing—one can change the mind of those who suffer from cognitive closure. If you can’t convince people of the truth of biological evolution or global climate change for example—about which there is no reasonable doubt—then good luck convincing them of much else.

But I want my grandchildren to know that I vehemently opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump for the office of the American Presidency in 2016. I want my grandchildren to know that your grandfather was on the side of progress; he was with the women and the young and the immigrants, who disproportionately embrace a better future, not a bitter one.  

And I want you to know that I was a public signee of the Scholars and Writers Against Trump. (To read a roundup of tweets, blog posts, and other mentions of that document click here: https://storify.com/andrewhazlett/scholars-and-writers-against-trump)

I have written multiple posts in the last few months on this issue because Trump represents a unique danger to our political system. Here are a few excerpts from those posts, and here’s to a better and more civilized world.

From, “Is America on the Verge of a Civil War?

… Trump is obviously unqualified for the office of the presidency in every conceivable way—from his personality and moral character, to his psychological instability, to his lack of experience and knowledge of virtually anything relevant to the job. Trump is a poster boy of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which the ignorant assume they are knowledgeable about things of which they are ignorant. His supporters no doubt suffer from a similar malady.

And while the American Psychiatric Association prohibits its members from offering a psychiatric diagnosis of a public official without their having conducted an exam on that person, I’m not a member so I’ll take my shot. (I have studied abnormal psychology in some detail.) I’d say a cursory glance at Mr. Trump reveals that he suffers severely from a number of psychological maladies including: bi-polar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and quite probably borderline personality disorder. He also suffers psychologically from the lack of sleep he brags about. Among the big 5 personality traits he would be rated very high on neuroticism and low on emotional stability. There are also plausible but unproven claims that he is a child molester.

Putting such an unstable individual at the helm of the nuclear arsenal is just one unintended consequence (and a particularly scary one) of a broken political system, especially today’s dysfunctional, obstructionist Republican party. The Republican party, especially its Tea Party wing, is in fact a Confederate party, a white, racist party whose power is most prominent in the American south. As the basic functions of democratic government are eroding, the ignorant look for a strongman to save them. Needless to say this does not bode well for the republic or for international peace and prosperity.

And here is an excerpt from the historian Ken Burns‘ 2016 commencement speech at Stanford which I quoted in my post, “Summary of Ken Burns’ 2016 Anti-Commencement Speech at Stanford,”

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and—they feel—powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that—as often happens on TV—a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

Finally, an echo of my sentiment can be found in this wonderful post by a fellow blogger titled “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation.”

So in conclusion I say again to my grandchildren: I want you to know that your grandfather was on the side of progress; he embraced a better future, not a bitter one. I will never accept our current medieval, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance and superstition will not save us. We must reject the influence of our reptilian brains and reconstruct ourselves.

50th Wedding Anniversary

My parents on their wedding day in St. Louis, October 27, 1938

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. ~ Kahil Gibran

The last wedding anniversary my parents celebrated was their fiftieth, in 1988. I remember all my siblings and I pitched in to send them on a vacation. They never made it; my dad died just two months later. But they had a good marriage; their love satisfied and comforted them—it was sufficient in its own time.

As for marriage in general, it is hard to talk sensibly for, as George Bernard Shaw noted, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Will Durant wrote somewhere that no institution was so designed for unhappiness as marriage—and this from a man happily married for 68 years.  All I can say is that anyone happily married for 50 years has succeeded in one of the hardest jobs in the world: living and loving a single person for a half a century. That is no small feat. They have instantiated in their microscopic world what is so desperately needed everywhere.

So if your parents or friends are celebrating 50 or more years of a happy marriage, think to yourself “in at least one respect, they are worthy of respect.” Remember too, as Will Durant said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”

As for how to have a good marriage, the most poetic advice I’ve ever heard was from Kahlil Gibran, an almost embarrassingly sentimental (some would say mawkish) poet whose work I encountered as a teenage. In his most famous work, The Prophet, Gibran says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mom

Nana

Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (1919 – 2005)

The tenth anniversary of my mom’s death has just passed. Eventually, like every one of us, she will be forgotten. But in another sense those who came before us aren’t gone; they pulsate through our being in ways unknown.

I have written about both her and my dad before, and it is difficult to add to those sentiments. But there is something about remembering, that which motivates the ancestor worship of the Far East, which is valuable. Worship is too strong, but we should remember that, as Santayana put it, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.” I am a futurist; I find the only hope for our species and their descendants in the future. But the future will be built upon the past as surely as it is built upon the present.

As for my mom there what I can say is that she loved me and my siblings unconditionally, showed us with her affection, and lived for her family. There are many stories to tell about her, but her is a simple one from my childhood that I remember vividly. Our near unbeatable St. Ann’s grade school soccer team had just suffered a devastating loss in the semi-finals of 6th grade division of the CYC. We lost because of bad luck—multiple shots of ours hit crossbars and goal posts—and an incredibly bad play by me as goalkeeper—on the only time the opponents got near our goal. Even a couple of my neighborhood friends came with me and mom to watch our expected victory. I was devastated. I had cost the  team the game singlehandedly. What did my mother do? She bought me and my friends ice cream on the way home. And not just any ice cream. That rare treat of 1960s St. Louis—Velvet Freeze!

And what better way to comfort an 11-year-old than ice cream. What she was really comforting me with was love.

35th Wedding Anniversary

JohnJaneMesserlyWedding

My wife and I on August 9, 1980

I was married 35 years ago today. My wife and I were both 25 years old. We believed we had unending time and joy in front of us. It turned out we had neither. Time is finite; joy real but impermanent, oftentimes quickly morphing into its opposite. My father used to say that “life was a series of joys and sorrows.” I have found this to be true.

We began naive in the ways of love. At our wedding we dance to a popular song which captured the feelings of both young and mature love with its beautiful melody and romantics lyrics:

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I’ll be in love with you, I’ll be in love with you

Music adds much to lyrics, but words sometimes say more. Here are the words penned by Will Durant, when thinking about Ariel, his wife of almost 70 years.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station.[i]

Yet there is something beyond both words and music … action. Loving is doing things you sometimes don’t want to do, because that’s what your beloved wants. I hope I can do that, because I know my wife can. Thank you Jane for all these wonderful years.

Oh, and here’s a silly song one for you:

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[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.

More About Grandchildren

A perceptive reader commented about my recent post “Grandchildren.” First he pointed out that grandparents should ask their grandchildren’s parents about how to answer when their grandchildren ask important philosophical questions. I basically agree, except in those cases where parental advice harms children. Of course it is hard to judge what advice is harmful. For example, some see any kind of religious education as a form of child abuse while others see it is healthy. Liberal democracies, including the United States, were set up to allow parents the freedom to indoctrinate their children into any religion, but not the freedom to force compliance with the religious beliefs in the public domain. Unfortunately, conservative legislatures and courts have been increasingly reversing these trends in the United States since about 1980.

Second, my reader suggested that what we teach children often says more about us than it does about reality—whether we teach them Catholicism, Islam, racism, or misogyny or whatever. Of course, any instruction we give is obviously from our perspective. However I believe that it is more likely that our ideas correspond to reality if they are based on a scientific worldview which proportions assent to evidence. In the case of afterlife—the topic addressed in the previous post—this belief has no basis in reason or evidence. I understand the value of the noble lie, but I think the truth is more likely to make us free.

And of course I believe that death and suffering should be optional.