Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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The Desirability of Desire

A fairly standard, but I would argue flawed, understanding of Buddhism says that the root cause of suffering is desire—and a related interpretation says even that desire itself is suffering. While those are overly simplistic and problematic interpretations in themselves, some interpreters of Buddhism go even further and say that enlightenment requires the cessation of all desire. If we take that literally as a call for having no desires whatsoever, then it is difficult to take that seriously. After all, if you think about it, it’s pretty clear that either one engages desire or one engages death. Moreover, it’s hard to understand what the Buddhists are doing if they don’t desire enlightenment. The issue in Buddhism is not so much one of desire as it is attachment to the object of desire, or so I would argue.

However, what I want to focus on is, we might say, the desirability of desire. That is, even if the problematic interpretations of Buddhism that say desires themselves are suffering is wrong, might it not still be the case that desire itself, when compared with the having of the object desired, is not so pleasurable? In other words, the answer to the following question is obvious: Which would you rather have, the desire or the object of the desire? The object, of course! But is that always right?

In my early twenties, I think I was going for a walk thinking about some girl I had a crush on, I had the thought that desire itself could be more pleasurable than the actual having of the object desired—that the pursuit/longing was more pleasurable than the attainment, the having of the object. I thought this is pretty interesting; in fact I was rather surprised by it. At the time, I proudly mentioned this realization to one of my paternal half-brothers. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember him being dismissive. I don’t mention this out of some grudge. Rather, I want to say that I can understand his dismissiveness, given that I couldn’t explain it well myself at the time and given that it may well seem counterintuitive at first. Continue reading

Pain vs. Pleasure: An Incongruity of Sympathies

If you are reading this, then I am guessing that you are not suffering too badly, nor are you having the time of your life—although I guess it would be rather flattering if either of those things were happening and you were that determined to read this. But assuming you’re not, let me ask you to imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are suffering greatly. There are people who are being burned alive unable to escape their homes on fire, who have just lost their spouse, children who are gasping their last breath from starvation, and on and on. It is hard, but imagine them. ——However, and thankfully, there are other people having other experiences, as well. Now, if I may, let me ask you to clear your mind for a moment, and imagine the most nondescript, boring thing you can. Hold that in your imagination for a few moments. ——And now, if I may be a demanding author one more time, let me ask you to once again imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are having a wonderful time. There are people who after years of trying are right now finally giving birth to their first child, people who have just settled onto the beach for the first day of their long-awaited honeymoon, people who overcame great obstacles, years of discrimination, and they have just found out that they were admitted into the University of their dreams on a full scholarship, and on and on.

Yesterday while writing a short piece on consciousness, it occurred to me that there may well be an interesting, if not also troubling, incongruity between our empathetic reactions to different kinds of events. My hypothesis is that the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel some sort of empathetic pain on behalf of those they were imagining suffering; however, the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel little or no empathetic joy on behalf of those they were imagining ecstatic or joyful. To be clear, I think this is an empirical question, not one that can be argued a priori. Perhaps it reveals something of myself; perhaps I am projecting my own responses onto others.

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Atlanta Protest 11.11.16

What happened last night in Atlanta with the protest that organized in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Masquerade club, and across from the recently developed Ponce City Market (cough, “gentrification”), and then proceeded to march through Atlanta, taking an indirect route past mlkjr-drive-protest-picGeorgia State University and the State Capital building? More importantly, why were people gathering and protesting? Why were they disrupting the traffic, tying up intersections? From a variety of sources, it’s quite clear that there is either confusion or outright misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what happened and why. Having been there from 6 pm to 9:30, this is my take. I know that I leave many issues out that the protest concerned (may I be forgiven for that).

Even though I went to bed later than usual last night (around 1:00 am), I was not able to sleep past 5:00 am. This is in part because I’m still struggling with the time change, and in part because the energy, the import, and the chants from last night’s protest and march echo in my mind. So, getting up I fed the animals and sat down listening to the National News broadcast on NPR. They reported on protests around the country. In Oregon, things were more chaotic than in Atlanta, as one person was shot and police used teargas and flash-bang grenades to try to break things up. Thankfully, that did not happen in Atlanta last night.

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The Metaphysics of Choice—How Abortion Gives Birth to Life

“If I had watered the flowers yesterday, they wouldn’t be dead today.” Such counterfactual statements are tricky because there is no way to confirm their truth, since in this case I didn’t water the flowers. For it’s always possible that they would have died anyway due to some unknown cause or because they needed watering two days ago if they were not to die today. Still, even though counterfactuals present such problems, we can still make reasonable claims about them. Consider, for example: “If Barnes had not had the flu, then he would have gone on the trip and died in the plane crash.” It’s possible something else would have prevented his going, but he could well assess for himself that nothing else simultaneously happened to keep him from going (no death in the family, for example) so that he most likely would have been on the plane if he hadn’t had the flu—and, thus, the flu saved him.

I often think about such cases because I think they point out how the smallest seeming choices and occurrences ripple forward in time to great consequence. One such example in my own life was in October 2008. My then wife, Jennie, and I had in July moved to San Marcos, Texas from Iowa after I graduated with my PhD but could not find a tenure-track position anywhere. We moved so she could do an MFA in creative writing (poetry). But then we decided to get divorced in early October. While I was feeling alone, and impatient not to be, in late October when I was asked whether I wanted to go to Austin for dinner and drinks with a few friends and a woman visiting one of them from out of town, my initial response to myself was, “no.” I’m not much for going out, but then I reconsidered and decided to do it after all. Having made that choice, on March 15th, 2009, I ended up moving into an apartment in a row house basement in Washington, DC, with that friend of a friend. I’m fairly confident that that would not have happened if I had not changed my mind about going out with them to Austin, for she was leaving the next day and I would not have seen her again otherwise, at least not under those same conditions.

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Trump’s Words, Trumps Deeds

Perhaps you or someone you know has said some version of, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” in regard to Trump’s 2005 hot mic recording in which he brags to Billy Bush about groping and kissing women without consent because he can get away with it as famous and rich as he is. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that his denial of ever having done such things is true. We can still see a horrible problem with what Trump said if we consider that words are in fact deeds.

When someone says, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” they seem to be thinking of this kind of case: “Bob always talks about climbing Mount Sumeru, but Sara actually did it!” In such a case we can easily see the point of emphasizing Sara’s actually having done it. But consider how the Trump example differs:

1) In the context of loving relationship, if one person says to another, “I love you,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying, “I love you,” the one person expresses and affirms their love, models the kind of behavior they want to see in the relationship, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the loving relationship.

2) In the context of a culture that regularly devalues women, treats them as mere sex objects, denies their needs and wants, etc., if a person says to another, “I grope pussy when I want because I’m famous, ha ha, isn’t that great,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying those things Trump expresses and affirms the culture of misogyny, models the kind of behavior he wants to see, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the misogynistic, rape culture.

The point here is not to compare whether 2) is worse than anything either of the Clintons has ever done; the point is that Trump is not merely speaking, he is doing something in the hot mic recording, just as he is doing something every time he opens his mouth.

Does a Robustly Just Society Require Just Citizens?

Yesterday in one of my Introduction to Philosophy classes we were discussing the introduction to Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? It’s an engaging read and great for the classroom, particularly as he adroitly handles a number of real world examples. One of them concerns the issue of price gouging in the context of Florida post hurricane Charlie. After considering several arguments for and against laws against price gouging, which he uses to illustrate the way in which discussions of justice hinge on people’s ideas about the nature and role of welfare, freedom, and virtue, he writes:

So when we probe our reactions to price gouging, we find ourselves pulled in two directions: We are outraged when people get things they don’t deserve; greed that preys on human misery, we think, should be punished, not rewarded. And yet we worry when judgments about virtue find their way into law. (9)

One of the main issues he’s concerned to clarify is the problem of government legislating conceptions of who we ought to be, i.e., virtuous people or not, and what conception of virtue (or not). One problem is that when the government legislates the kind of person we are to be (virtuous and what counts as virtuous), our freedom to make of ourselves what we will is limited. As he goes on to write immediately after the above passage: Continue reading

Nietzsche and the Slaves of American Culture

A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.

At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:

In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)

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How Not to Regret Your Hindsight Judgments

As anyone who knows me or who is familiar with this blog likely knows, suffering and death are preoccupations of mine. And, so, when I saw on Facebook this morning an article—one I think I’ve seen before—on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, I shared it without looking at it again—something I do far too often, i.e., share without really looking, simply based on the headline and blurb. A friend and former colleague, Joshua Miller, commented by sharing his piece, The Fetishizing of the Dying, in which he calls out Ware on a number of points. I’m grateful that he did.

After reflecting on her experience in palliative care for the dying, Ware enumerate these five regrets as most typical:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These are judgments that I find myself easily able to imagine having. However, like Miller, I take issue with certain aspects of these regrets, particularly the idea that they might be action guiding for our own lives. Again, I’m thankful to Miller for calling me out on the post. Miller’s first criticism of it is:

Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life? A regret is just an act of hypocrisy, a wish to have had our cake and eaten it, too. Because we don’t really know what regrets we would have had in the counterfactual, regret is largely a fantasy of another, unknown life, more desirable because it is foreign, its pleasures more easily imagined than its pains. There’s no particularly good reason to believe we are wiser when faced with imminent death, chronic pain, and possibly clouded by drugs.

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