Category Archives: Personal – Grandchildren

Letter To New Grandchild

Crying newborn baby
A New Life

It’s early morning on May 16, 2017. About two hours ago my wife and I picked up our four-year old granddaughter who is now safely with us. The occasion is the imminent birth of our new granddaughter, who should be born in the next few hours.

It is hard to know what say about a new birth. There are about 353,000 births each day worldwide, about 255 each minute and 4 each second. That places what seems so special to you in a larger context. Still, if the birth directly affects you as a parent, grandparent, or sibling, the event is momentous.

What Kind of World Will There Be?

What I think about most is what kind of world awaits my new granddaughter. Will the world improve, will we we progress, we will overcome the legacy of our Pleistocene brains? Or will we remain ape-like, driven by out-group hostility and destroy ourselves?

Cosmic Evolution

I know one thing—the Gods will not save us. They either don’t exist, don’t care, or are impotent. (They almost certainly don’t exist.) Thus only we can save ourselves, for we are now the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To save both ourselves and our planet, we must enhance our current moral sensibilities and intellectual capabilities. There is no other way. If we are important at all, it is as links in a chain leading onward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. If we succeed, the universe will become increasingly self-consciousness. This is the story of cosmic evolution—the universe becoming self-conscious through the creation of conscious beings. Our obligation is to aid this upward march.

Now I don’t know if we can make it, if we can create heaven on earth, but we can try. Perhaps the chance to try is our greatest gift. Here is a favorite poem to express these sentiments:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

Keep Striving

And when you get down, my little grandchildren, take comfort in these words:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Life Is Good

Remember too that the world is full of beauty and truth and goodness. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and many other things that make life blissful. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Hope

I’ll conclude by giving my best advice. We should adopt a hopeful attitude—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt a wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

Still, we don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. We don’t know if our wishes will be fulfilled, or our hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

All of my advice best comes together in a famous passage about from William James’ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me. I hope it provides comfort on life’s often rocky road:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

With love, your grandpa

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.

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.

Grandchildren (Oh Very Young)

My two-year old granddaughter sees the world differently from most adults—the commonplace is extraordinary to her. Every tree, bush and rock, every ant, dog and butterfly are objects of fascination; every ball, stick, and swing immerse her in play. Being in her presence I find, that I too pause to find the ordinary … extraordinary.

But there is a darker side to being with her. I sometimes tell her about my mother or my father, and soon she will ask “where are they?” I could give a comforting answer, but I must tell her the truth—they are gone and will never come back. And when she asks, “what of you and grandma? Then I will have to tell her that we too will someday go and never come back. And the same with her mom and dad. And the same with her.

I now see why parents either deceive both themselves and their children—to protect them all from this sinister truth. But we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or lie to our children. We should tell them the horrible truth, face it courageously, and then do our best to change it. We should make death and suffering optional, which science and technology may well do in the very near future.  And then we won’t have to lie to our children anymore.

Children help us to see both what the world is … and what it could be. And for that, thanks little one. Oh, and here’s a song for you, my little granddaughter. I remember when I was young enough I thought this song was about me, and then it became a song for my children, and now its a song for you …