Category Archives: Wisdom

Letting Ideas Simmer

I’ve noticed another phenomena of not writing a post for almost two weeks now. Not only is playing good for you, as I mentioned in my last post, but I find that various ideas simmer in my head even when I’m not writing about them. I so often respond to thoughts and events by writing about them, that not writing provides a different experience. Ideas not immediately expressed simmer in the mind and slowly mix with others. Perhaps this will lead to some breakthrough or, if not, to a renewed energy to find a breakthrough.

Perhaps all this is just an excuse for not working. Still it takes time to assimilate and coordinate new thoughts. What I do know is this. The weather is beautiful here in Seattle, and it is hard to sit in front of my computer when the sunshine and the mountains and ocean call. And I know that life is too short to spend all of one’s time thinking about life.

When Should We Argue?

I have touched on this topic before, but advancing age and the the finitude of life has caused me to think about this again. A few months ago my post “On Belief and Skepticism,” elicited this response from a reader:

… I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” I’m not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do yo approach these relationships?

That comment elicited another post, “How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others.” There I distinguished between insidious and trivial beliefs, the former worth arguing about and fighting against, while the latter should usually be ignored. Next I considered disputes about relatively settled scientific issues. Here is an excerpt:

Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific ideas. Furthermore rejecting these ideas might entail someone’s jumping off a building and thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food, or counting on last years flu shot to work this year … Of course you probably won’t change their minds since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You can tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 97% certainty that humans are the main cause of global climate change. But you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken when they don’t believe in it, (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject then the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant anyway and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway. And again that’s because you rarely change people’s minds because of the emotional attachment they have to those ideas as you mentioned earlier.

In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought you should let some false beliefs about a scientific consensus slide and not others. In fact, denying climate change has more potentially catastrophic consequences for the species than denying more abstract theories. At any rate the main point was that it is important for the species to have well-founded beliefs inasmuch as they often determine our actions. (In a future post I hope to address the source of many false beliefs–cognitive bias.)

Conclusion – Still I find that disagreement about abstract issues, including scientific truths, less important as I age. I often resign myself to the world’s fate, as well as to human ignorance, including my own. On the other hand, important truths seem worthy of a polemic. Thus we arrive at a paradox of life. If we engage in it, if we are active, we fight a seemingly unwinnable fight, frustrating ourselves in the process. If we disengage, if we are passive, we give up the fight and our lives become seemingly irrelevant. I don’t know what we should do or whether it matters what we do.

I do know that as I age I find myself, as Thornton Wilder said, being weaned away from life. During this process we should try to better the world, while sustaining the hope that new generations will continue the endless fight for truth and the justice. (In a future post I hope to address two of the greatest ideas in the history of human culture–truth and justice.)

The World is Full of Damaged Psyches: You Will Live Better if You Avoid Them

The world is full of damaged psyches, as adults who learn from experience soon discover. Still, this obvious truth is not apparent to children or to unreflective adults. The unreflective are satisfied with platitudes like “she seems nice” or “he’s so sweet” or “I’m a good person.” The inexperienced peer no deeper into the the psyche. But the reality behind the mask that humans wear often differs from the appearance. The seemingly nice and ok people are often neither nice or ok—and you might not a good person either.

It goes without saying that understanding the psyches around us is important. Individuals and groups are led astray when they misread them. Woman think they’ve found the perfect man, and six months later that have bruises. Nations trust their leaders, and later die in their unjust wars. Americans wonder about the appeal of Hitler or Stalin, psychopaths full or rage and patriotic fervor, but they fawn over their own psychopathic leaders and provocateurs. We are drawn to those who make us feel good about ourselves by directing animus toward others. So many political pundits and politicians are vile, horrific human beings filled with hate and vitriol, but people listen to them intently. Without a careful reading of the psyche, the demagogues hold sway.

And this says as much about most of us as it does about them. We too are often filled with hate, anger, treachery, irrationality, homophobia, xenophobia and sadism. As Shakespeare put it: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves …” We suffer in the presence of damaged psyches that spew their psychic waste, and we suffer enduring our own psyches too. So what can we do about this?

As for recognizing and eradicating our own demons, we might begin, as was suggested in a recent column, by quieting our minds, re-assessing who we are, and trying to become whole, integrated human beings. There is obviously more to explaining how to do this than this column permits. It may involve professional counseling, meditation, exercise and more. But I do think that people should be continually in the process of becoming, of changing, of transforming. This pursuit should last a lifetime or, if the reincarnationists are right, multiple lifetimes. (Yes, a literal interpretation of reincarnation is silly. But in the sense that people die and others are reborn with different genetic combinations is a kind of reincarnation.) We must begin by changing ourselves.

As for changing others, that is unlikely. Instead, we should avoid those who spew their toxic, psychic waste. If you can escape their presence, do so expeditiously. They will damage you. If you must interact with them, minimize contact. But respond to such interaction not with anger but with sympathy, for others had no control over the external situations that in large part created them. All you can control, as the Stoics taught long ago, is your own mind. Try not to be disturbed, but avoid masochistic tendencies too. You have no obligation to endure the psychologically unhealthy, escape them if you can.

As for recognizing severely damaged psyches in others, be patient. Don’t conclude too quickly that someone is “nice.” Aristotle said that everyone slowly reveals their character … and they do. No one remains opaque for long. People slowly become translucent and then transparent. Just wait. I didn’t know my wife well after I’d known her for a few months, and she didn’t know me. But now, after 34 years of living together, I sleep soundly next to her as she does with me. We don’t fear the other will kill us in our sleep.

How then should we live in a world of healthy and unhealthy psyches? Through the experience of living we can slowly learn to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy psyches. We can learn to be astute, savvy, judicious, sagacious, and discerning.  We can learn to be wise, to discriminate between those who care for us, however flawed they might be, from those who don’t care for us, or from those who would hurt us. We learn that everyone, even those relatively healthy psyches, will sometimes hurt us. But this we should endure, if on balance they care for us. For solitude and loneliness damage the psyche too. Avoid then those who intend to hurt you, but love those that sometimes hurt your inadvertently, if they have shown by their past actions that they care for you.

Thus a lifetime of experience teaches us that a large part of living is psychic intercourse—that is where our minds primarily reside; that is largely what it is to be conscious. In a world of psychic intercourse, interact with beauty and avoid ugliness as much as possible, while continually trying to beautify yourself. And yes, sometimes it is good to be alone.

The Words and Wisdom of Will Durant


Will & Ariel Durant in their later years

As readers of this blog know the historian and philosopher Will Durant is one of my intellectual heroes. He was not only a great scholar but a wonderful prose stylist and a good and decent man. I first discovered Durant will perusing the University of Missouri library in 1973, my freshman year of college. There I spent my break between classes reading. The first Durant book I discovered was The Mansions of Philosophy : A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. (It was later re-published as Pleasures of Philosophy.) I remember enjoying it tremendously, probably because as a public intellectual he wrote with an accessible style. This was a welcome relief from reading primary sources by academic philosophers.

The next book I remember reading was Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography. I still remember the delight I took in learning that the 28-year-old Will had wed the 15-year-old Ariel, who had roller skated to the ceremony in New York City! Through the years I read many of his books, some of the most memorable being: The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, The Lessons of History, On the Meaning of Life, and The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time.

I have also have perused parts of his magnum opus The Story of Civilization [Volumes 1 to 11] (Hardcover Set 1963-1975) through the years and recently was reading the first volume of that eleven volume work. The first few chapters provide a foundation for the entire series by discussing the economic, political, moral, and mental elements of civilization. Chapter III of this first volume is entitled “The Political Elements of Civilization” and there, on the very first paragraph, I found this:

Man is not willingly a political animal. The human male associates with his fellows less by desire than by habit, imitation, and the compulsion of circumstance; he does not love society so much as he fears solitude… in his heart he is a solitary individual pitted heroically against the world. If the average man had had his way there would probably never have been any state. Even today he resents it, classes death with taxes and yearns for that government which governs least. If he asks for many laws, it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.

This quote, like as so much of Durant’s prose, conveys sentiments that my sixty years of living confirm. Yet the human male (and female) change over time and the above is much less true of their older versions. Anarchy, war, and competition appeals less as vitality declines–people do generally mellow with age.

More than 600 pages later in the same volume, after Durant has made his way through the political and economic machinations, the wars and the cruelty, as well as the triumphs of Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Judea, Persia and India, I came to China and the old master Lao Tzu. There I found another kernel of wisdom in Durant’s assessment of Taosim:

There is something medicinal in this philosophy; we suspect that we, too, when our fires begin to burn low, shall see wisdom in it, and shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. Life oscillates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Confucius and Lao-tze, Socrates and Christ. After every idea has had its day with us and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods with Jacques, Jean-Jacques, and Lao-tze; we shall make friends of the animals, and discourse more contentedly than Machiavelli with simple peasant minds; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform. Perhaps we shall burn every book but one behind us, and find a summary of wisdom in the Tao-Te-Ching.

One lucky autumn day in 1973 I strolled into a public library and found Will Durant. I thank him for being there and I thank the civilization that made him accessible to me.

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1. Will Durant. The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, (New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1932) 21.
2. Will Durant. The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, (New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1932) 657.

Human Relationships on a Sliding Scale

Kahlil Gibran

We never have perfect relationships with others. We might find that we can discuss sports or the weather with some acquaintances, but any more substantive topics get us into trouble. We might say we can have a “2” relationship with them.

We might also have good friends with whom we can discuss a variety of things, perhaps we are even close with them, but religion, politics, and personal critique are off-limits. We may wish that we could be more honest with them but decide that avoiding conflict over these more substantive or personal issues is wise. With these friends or family members we might have a “5” relationship.

With our closest friends or confidants we might find that we can share almost anything without either party becoming upset or defensive. Still there might be a few personal topics or activities off-limits. Perhaps you have a “8” relationship with them. With our spouses of many years, we might find that they are almost another self; perhaps we have a “9” with them.

You might claim that you have a “10” relationship with yourself, but this is false. We all engage in self-deception, we are all motivated by irrational and unknown forces as Freud taught us a century ago. In fact others often know you better than you know yourself. I’m sure this ultimately has to do with our lack of complete knowledge about the world.

So it’s not possible to have a “10” relationship with anyone—unless you undergo a Vulcan mind meld with them! But is this a good or a bad thing, this lack of complete unity with others? Kahlil Gibran’s poetry seems to suggest it makes for a lonely life:

Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness, an island whose rocks are hopes, whose trees are dreams, whose flowers are solitude, and whose brooks are thirst. Your life, my fellow men, is an island separated from all other island and regions. No matter how many are the ships that leave our shores for other climes, no matter how many are the fleets that touch your coast, you remain a solitary island, suffering the pangs of loneliness and yearning for happiness. You are unknown to your fellow mean and far removed from their sympathy and understanding.

But perhaps it is not so bad either. Gibran concludes his little section “on life” with the following:

Your spirit’s life, my brother, is encompassed by loneliness, and were it not for that loneliness and solitude, you would not be you, nor would I be I. Were it not for this loneliness and solitude, I would come to believe on hearing your voice that it was my voice speaking,; or seeing your face, that it was myself looking into a mirror.

So Gibran thought that separation and loneliness are the price we pay for individualism. But is this price too high to? I didn’t think so when I first read Gibran more than 40 years ago, but I do now. We can be joined or separated. The more we are separated the more individual and lonely we become; the more joined the less individual and more connected we become. In the end we must hope that it is possible to remain a separate raindrop while merging into an ocean of being. (If we are allowed such a metaphor.) Thus we could experience both individuality and unity simultaneously. Perhaps our transhuman descendants will find a way to do this.

But there is a deeper problem here. And that is that we simply don’t possess the intellectual wherewithal to answer these questions. Life remains a mystery despite our best efforts to understand. We must live without answers to many of our queries. In the meantime we should accept whatever relationships we can have with others and be thankful we have them. Without them life is very lonely.