Category Archives: Advice

How To Cope With This Stressful Presidency

What prepares men for the totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness  … has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. ~ Hannah Arendt

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 6, 2017.)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American political situation, I’ve updated a previous post from about a month ago, as things keep getting progressively worse.  My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, have been expressed over and over in previous posts.  Trump is essential an amygdala with a twitter account.

My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, deportations, expediting environmental degradation and climate change, increased likelihood of war, etc.

Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of the nuclear arsenal; Perry running the department of energy; Tillerson and Exxon managing diplomacy; Sessions the chief law enforcement officer; Devos in charge of the education department, Price the secretary of health and human services—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Executive officers of departments they either know nothing about, open dispise, or both. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; ignorance is strength and no lie is too bold.

If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.

And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy, as Aristotle told us long ago. 

Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward. It is a dark time.

How To Cope 

My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.

It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.

As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so many of our worries waste our energy. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.

What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or simply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals running the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.

Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world, remembering that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.

This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and are responsible that perfection.

Note – For more on this topic see yesterday’s excellent article in Salon “Beware the Trump brain rot: The cognitive effects of this administration’s actions could be disastrous.”)

These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature 

The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.

Here is Descartes:

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):

Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in a chain that links us to the more subtle and advanced forms of life that will, hopefully, arise in the future.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I at least hope that life was meaningful? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, ever be anchored, ever be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life, he thought, is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.

In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors struggling bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it courageously and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

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[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.
[ii] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

Does Everything Get Boring?

Do we get bored with everything? Do friends and lovers, work and play, and even life itself eventually become dull and tedious? Does dissatisfaction with people and projects always set in? If so, should we quit what we are tired of, and try something else? Or should we accept the familiar because that’s our duty, or because we know that what’s new will become boring too?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve written about many times in this blog, (here, here, here, here, here, and here) famously thought that boredom was the essence of the human condition, which we experience when life is devoid of its usual distractions. We keep busy so as not to experience this essential boredom. But are we bored because life is boring or because we are bores? Some are bored by everything, others find simple things fascinating. So boredom is not inevitable, nor is it essential. Schopenhauer was wrong.

Do particular activities that were once fascinating later become boring?  Yes. As a teenager I played competitive table tennis; after a few years, I was bored with table tennis. Later I played high-stakes poker; within a short time, I was bored with poker too. Later I learned to play golf; once I played reasonably well, I found golf boring. Does my boredom say something about me, or does it say something about these activities? Maybe I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating. I know that stimulating persons need stimulation, and both our minds and bodies will atrophy without it.

Fortunately, some activities are more stimulating than others. I have never ceased to find the pursuit of knowledge interesting. Yes, I grew bored teaching introductory college ethics classes for the one-hundredth time—literally—but if you master philosophical ethics to your satisfaction, then find another topic.  Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to do and learn. Might we eventually know everything and get bored? I don’t know. If I become omniscient I’ll let you know.

How about people? I have known people who have few thoughts, and others who have shallow thoughts. Such people ask few questions. And they already have their answers—usually the first ones they were exposed to. I find such people boring. By contrast, people on a journey are interesting, they are evolving. With them you never encounter the same person, they are as petals unfolding. They are like ships that sail in the ocean rather than being stuck in dry dock. How can you tire of their constant surprise?

Still you may find yourself disappointed with someone you previously respected, or discover that someone is not as good as you thought they were. What then should you do? This is a difficult question and relates to a previous post about “settling,” especially for intimate partners. If your expectations for such partners are too high, you are bound to be disappointed; if your expectations are too low, you will settle for a bad partner and be discontent or even traumatized.

Here’s my advice. If you are almost always bored and you find your friends or lovers boring, it’s probably your problem. If you are usually interested in people and you find your friends or lovers boring, you should probably find more stimulating friends and lovers. If we could live multiple lives simultaneously we could discover which friends, lovers, activities, and projects were best. (A theme explored in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose. As Sartre’ said we are “condemned to be free.”

Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves; for we are too close to ourselves. We don’t know if we deserve better friends, lovers or jobs, or if we are lucky to have our current ones. The best thing we can do is ask others who know and love us what they think. Should I try something or someone else? Do I deserve better? Or should I be satisfied with what I have? Those who love us can’t know with certainty the answer to these questions, but they can be more objective about us than we can—for they stand outside of our subjectivity. In some ways, they know us better than we know ourselves. So ask those you trust, those who care about you, and ask yourself too. Then listen.

Unfortunately, this is not a complete answer, since we can never know for certain which road to travel. In the end, we don’t know which life is best, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps this is what Viktor Frankl had in mind when he wrote:

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.

I’ll end by leaving my readers with some advice I received long ago from Walt Whitman:

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

The World Desperately Needs Better People

When I went back to graduate school, I gave up making good money as a casino dealer for the poverty of graduate school. But what was the point of dealing cards no matter how good the tips were? I didn’t want to spend my life that way. I wanted to do graduate work in philosophy. I didn’t want to die and know Buddha’s or Aristotle’s names, but not their philosophies. And I knew that I I would succeed, since it was what I really want to do. Most of us do best and are happiest doing what want to do.

Of course the chance to do what we want to do, rather than what we have to do, depends in large part on whether we live in a society which provides an opportunity for all its citizens to flourish—that is what makes a society a good one, as Aristotle taught me. But if one is lucky enough to have the opportunity and ability to do what they want—then they should seize the moment, accept the challenge and grow. The world so needs people who have grown, who have evolved, who have increased their awareness. The world desperately needs better people more than it needs anything else. To those embarking on this journey I say—go forth and travel.

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

Let me begin by stating unequivocally that we are all flawed psyches; we are all damaged, we all deviate from psychic harmony. The world is full of damaged psyches.

If we learn from experience, we soon discover the above truths. 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 psyche. But the reality behind the mask that humans wear often differs from the appearance. Seemingly nice and ok people are often neither nice or ok—and you might not be 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 they 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 when they direct 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, rigorous study, 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 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 them. We can learn to be astute, savvy, judicious, sagacious, and discerning.  We can learn to discriminate between those who care for us, however flawed they might be, and those who don’t care for us or 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 you 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 largely what it is to be conscious. In such a world, 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.