Morals and politics

Somewhere toward the end of 2017, I came across an interview on On Being of Jonathan Haidt. I had never heard of him, but because the wheels of my mind had already been put into motion on the concept of ideological thinking, the description of the interview caught my attention: ‘He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world.’ I wanted to know what that meant– I needed guidance for navigating this no-man’s-land I had found myself in, politically speaking. And what he explained fascinated me.

The basic tenets of the theory Haidt has culled from his research (more of which is described in his book A Righteous Mind) are that moral judgment is based mostly on intuitions, rather than conscious reasoning; there’s more to morality than harm and fairness; and morality ‘binds and blinds.’ Those who identify as liberal tend to have a two-fold idea of morality, one that revolves around the ideas of fairness and care. But those who identify as conservative tend to have a five-fold idea of morality, one based on the ideas of fairness, care, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. (This does not mean that conservatives are more moral because their definition of morality includes more factors— it just means that the various factors involved are weighted differently by each group.) Moreover, we do not consciously reason our way to moral judgment; rather, ‘When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.’ Lastly, our morals allow us to be part of groups outside of our kin groups; sharing values allows us to find a cohesiveness with others that we might otherwise have little connection with. But they also blind us to values outside of our own moral matrix and to the defects of that matrix.

“…[I]n one study that I did with my former graduate student, Jesse Graham, we asked liberals and conservatives to fill out our main surveys, pretending to be the other, and also as themselves, for different people. What we found is that conservatives and moderates were very accurate at filling it out as though they were liberals. But liberals were not accurate filling it out as though they were conservatives, because they just couldn’t get their mind into the idea that authority is somehow related to morality; they think it’s just oppression. So that’s one reason why there’s a difficulty, an asymmetric difficulty.”

Reading this made me think of all the times I have vehemently stated the case for something to or around my parents– how they must have rolled their eyes! Yes, yes, we can see your point, I imagine them thinking. You just don’t see oursAnd they would be right– I didn’t see theirs. Not only was I afraid to try, but my moral matrix had been whittled down to two legs, while theirs stood on five. I no longer thought the world needed to include more than what I saw. I thought I understood the Truth, and everyone else was blind.

Haidt goes on to explain how different moral matrices can complement each other:

“…[I]n doing this research and coming to see that liberals and conservatives each have a piece of the puzzle — each are really perceptive about certain moral values, about the needs of what it takes to have a humane society, and if you let liberals run everything, they tend to burn up social capital, but conservatives tend to focus more on building up social structures that actually do allow us to flourish in some ways. You do need order. You do need some restrictions. You do need some boundaries.”

So the truth is not confined to two pillars, it would seem. It’s hard for me to admit how eye-opening this was. I shouldn’t have been surprised– I grew up with a conservative moral matrix, after all. Unlike Haidt, who had never encountered conservative ideas until he was an adult, I was surrounded by them for most of my life. And yet I was just as taken aback as he was to find out that there was some value to them. (It hurts me even to write that. The absolute egoism, ignorance, and ingratitude of that statement is shameful.) It was freeing, though. I was now allowed to think outside of the narrow liberal framework I had been working within for so many years. I could appreciate other ideas without having to claim anything. I was given permission to listen to people and hear what they had to say.

I know where my liberal leanings came from, and Haidt explains it in his interview (‘…about the terrible things that happen — I mean we’re talking about polarization here — what happens when the academy itself becomes polarized, so that all the liberals are in the academy, all the conservatives are in think tanks in Washington.’) just as Jordan Peterson warns repeatedly in his own videos and interviews (for example): universities, particularly their social sciences, are often places of ideological indoctrination. I may have been primed through personal experiences and encounters with liberal-minded people, but I was baptized by my college curriculum and sent out from there as a disciple of the religion of the Left. And where did I go? To where other disciples were: grad school, the Peace Corps, nonprofits, none of which are bad in and of themselves. It’s just that the polarization happens with everything: with our online habits, with our choice of city in which to live, with our friend group. We start living in an echo chamber without even realizing it.

What I’ve found from my own experience is that breaking out of our echo chambers is not an easy thing to do. It took a long time for me to accept that some things I didn’t want to hear nevertheless made sense and that I couldn’t just ignore them. Even now, there are things that are uncomfortable (like the effects of diversity or admitting how idealistic and ignorant I have been about certain historical events, like so many people on the Left were/are regarding socialism). Ultimately, though, it’s worth it, however long it takes and however uncomfortable it is. Haidt describes his own experience:

“…[I]in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist who just — ‘I’ve got to understand this stuff’ — over time I realized, ‘Well, they’re not crazy. These ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see.’

The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

This has led me even deeper into what I now realize is the Intellectual Dark Web (of which Jonathan Haidt is part): a collection of thinkers all along the political spectrum who are devoted to discussing meaningful subjects– however much they may disagree on them– while maintaining civility and without obeying the laws of political correctness, often to the detriment of their own careers in academia or elsewhere. What has shocked me the most since discovering this ‘third way,’ so to speak, is the realization that people rarely go to the source for information. Blatant and imprecise accusations are thrown around, mostly online (and often by the Left), with as little prompting as a Tweet. ‘Alt-right,’ ‘neo-Nazi,’ and ‘white supremacist’ are slapped on people without regard to the person or group’s statements and alignments to the contrary. It frightens me to see that, rather than actually valuing other people, we are wanting to see an obliteration of any thought that differs from our own. How did that happen? And what good will that do?

I think that part of the answer– at least to how this happened– lies in the different moral matrices: if one side cannot even fathom another side’s moral framework, if theirs is the more restricted matrix, then anything beyond that will appear irrelevant at best and immoral (possibly even evil) at worst. So when someone from the more restricted matrix comes upon something written by someone outside of that, or witnesses a group gathering with values different from theirs, it is more difficult for them to see morality there. If mislabeling happens, so be it– their concerns are misplaced (or downright wrong) anyway. Right?

Something I fell prey to myself as I went from Christian conservative teen to agnostic liberal young adult was the idea that religion (and therefore, religious conservatism) was useless and in many ways oppressive. It’s clear to me now that I was in the throes of quite a different religion and that it was much more dangerous, but it didn’t hit me until I came upon Haidt’s interview just how far off I was, just how much I had benefited in my life from growing up in a religious family with a religious community. It turns out  that there actually is something to religion (again, the ingratitude!): 

“…[A] wonderful book, American Grace, by Putnam and Campbell, is the ultimate authority on this. What they find is that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, and it doesn’t matter what you believe: If you are part of a religious community, then on average, you’re a better citizen. You give more to charity. Religion does bring out the good in people. Now, secular people can be perfectly good too, but on average, they give less, and they give less of their time.”

I am grateful to have been taught in my formative years: giving matters. And what I’ve been grateful for is the model of my parents in their more rural town, continuing to find ways to give of themselves to their neighbors, their church, the people in their community, my grandparents. My blinders are falling off inch by inch: I can now see just a tad bit more than I once could, and I am humbled by what I find.  

“… one of the clearest differences between left and right, psychologically, is that the left is generally universalist, almost to a fault, and the right is parochial, often to a fault. And what I mean by parochial isn’t just ‘narrow-minded and dumb.’ What I mean is — so we have a survey at yourmorals.org where we ask, ‘How much do you care about or think about or value people in your community, people in your country, people in the world at large?’ And OK, so conservatives value people in their nation and in their community much more than people in the world at large. And you might say, OK, well, that’s parochial. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people in the world at large more than people in their own country, more than people in their community. So liberals are so universalist, they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups. As my mother said about my grandfather, who was a labor organizer, ‘He loved humanity so much that he didn’t really have much time to care for his family.'”

What matters? What is really important? What morals do I consider real, do I believe are valuable? And which ones do I think are ridiculous? How many things have I not noticed simply because I couldn’t even acknowledge their presence? All these months later, I’m still left mulling over so many questions. But what I do know is that Haidt’s research has deeply affected how I see the world. And I don’t imagine I’ll stop thinking about it for quite a while.

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Not really a Handmaid’s Tale

I cannot have children. I no longer have the biological parts to do so. If our country suddenly decided to adopt the totalitarianism of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, I would not be one of the enslaved handmaids (praise be). Neither would I be one of the enslavers, as I am not married and do not have a wish for biological children to raise. (I guess that would make me a Martha.) The thing is, it was not an unhappy accident that I lost the ability to bear children: it was my choice.

On January 25 of this year, I had a hysterectomy. My gynecologist, manipulating a robot, removed everything but my ovaries: my cervix, uterus, and Fallopian tubes. I am left with two small marks (originally four, but two have already disappeared) on my abdomen that I’m hoping will fade even more over time. The recovery was a bit more of a nightmare at first than I had anticipated, but the months passed quickly enough. I don’t have to worry about periods or birth control or Pap smears ever again.

I had wanted this done since before I even had my first period. I prayed that I would never get a period, or that if I had to, it would come late, say 16 or 18. But I got it at 14, and I was crushed and angry. I didn’t want kids! I wanted to adopt them! Why did I need this stupid thing if I wouldn’t ever use it?! You would think that I would get used to having a period, as it came once a month, every month, forever after. But I didn’t. I was always angry, every time it hit. I tried reframing it to myself after I heard in a class in college that women embraced their periods and loved them for various reasons, such as being connected with all women throughout history, etc. etc. But that didn’t last long. There was no reframing for me: I never intended to have children of my own, and I hated having a period.

After I became a foster parent and was even more turned off to having my own children (and even to the idea of raising any children at all, something that has yet to go away entirely), I became more upset each month. I felt imprisoned by something I didn’t consider necessary. I was desperate to find a way out.

By the time I had the surgery, I had had a period for exactly five months shorter than the time I had lived without a period. In terms of life, though, I had lived through much more in my conscious memory with it than without. That has since reversed. Everything I do now, I do without concern about period blood or tampons or cramps. I have been freed.

It’s hard to express my excitement without worrying that I will alienate people. Both men and women often desire biological children. To express an opinion to the contrary is to invite distrust, defensiveness, and sometimes even disbelief. To state even less ambivalently that it may be morally wrong to bring children into the world at all is to transform into a monster in people’s minds. In many ways, I am an outsider. I cannot be completely frank.

However, that’s not the point. The point is that I consider myself lucky, one of the luckiest, in fact. Not in a women-should-be-able-to-choose-and-be-released-from-the-patriarchy way, and not in a divisive and narrow way of saying that women who love their periods or people who want their own children are misguided, biologically-driven, confused, or wrong, and those who break from that spell are the only true thinkers, the true heroes of the world, but just in a way of getting what I wanted and being totally content with it. I am lucky to have that, as not everyone does. I also realize that makes me sound like a spoiled brat.

All I’m saying is that I feel like I’ve escaped something, like I was supposed to serve a life sentence but by some loophole was let out after a brief stay. I obviously don’t put much stock into the notion that ‘you were given something for a reason, so you better put it to good use.’ Some things we have to learn to live with, that’s true. But if there’s something I don’t have to live with, why punish myself? Why not get rid of it? Not all crosses are worth bearing, and I’ve got enough to carry without worrying about my uterus. That’s what I think, at least.

Blessed be the fruit.

May the Lord open.

Or, you know, please just treat yourself and others with respect and all that.

On 12 Rules for Life by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Life has had me thinking about rules lately and their application in my life, how there is a place for them and a wisdom to them, yet how they can also be suffocating and soul-crushing.

I’ve also been thinking about memory, how distorted it is and how disorienting it is to realize after being confronted with hard evidence just how wrong you were about something you ‘remembered.’

When life requires a stepping back, a reevaluation of what we thought we knew, when it shows us our flaws in a way we can neither escape nor deny, what do we do? How do we proceed? Where can we go from the rubble of the destruction of what we were, and what rules do we use, when the rules we had been using are no longer useful?

Dr. Jordan Peterson has written a book that may be a good starting point. His 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is more than just a self-help book full of platitudes for living ‘your best life yet!’ It is an exploration into meaning, tradition, suffering, and our place in life. Dr. Peterson covers so much ground, from the relevance of the Old Testament and Disney movies to the dangers of ideologies, that a simple summary does not do it justice. And because I want everyone to read this book and internalize its lessons, I am sharing excerpts here to give a taste of the richness that is 12 Rules for Life.

In the introduction, Dr. Peterson explains the most elemental rule:

“[T]he foremost rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.”

This rule underlies every other rule in the rest of the book (and as such is not actually one of the twelve rules). For example, in this first chapter, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” it shows up in a physical way: literally standing up straight. But as Dr. Peterson explains, doing so also has a metaphorical importance: that of seeing ourselves for who we truly are, in all of our sometimes-ugly complexity, and discarding our naive belief that we (as well as others) are inherently good creatures.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognize in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.

[…]

Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe.

[…]

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”

Accepting responsibility for our lives can be daunting, especially when we begin to look inside ourselves and find the parts of humanity we want to distance ourselves from. Tying in the biblical metaphor of the snake and its temptations and associations with all that is evil, Dr. Peterson writes:

“The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out. Even if the fortress were thick enough, in principle, to keep everything bad whatsoever outside, it would immediately appear again within. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

We must move forward clear-eyed, no longer naive to the world or ourselves. But as Dr. Peterson explains, our vision is itself a tricky thing, ignoring most of the stimuli hitting it and focusing only on what we believe matters. What we see can tell us a lot about what we value. As a result, it is important to figure out what you’re looking at to determine where you might be off in what you’re placing value in.

“But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values. . . . If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.”

Often we look to people we admire or envy to judge how we are doing in life. We narrow our vision to value what we don’t have, what we wish we had, what we aren’t. The dangers of that should be obvious, yet not only do we all know what that experience is like, we also know how difficult it is not to do. Dr. Peterson poses the following questions to bring our attention on where it should be, on what we can do with what we have where we are:

“Five hundred small decisions, five hundred tiny actions, compose your day, today, and every day. Could you aim one or two of these at a better result? Better, in your own private opinion, by your own individual standards? Could you compare your specific personal tomorrow with your specific personal yesterday? Could you use your own judgment, and ask yourself what that better tomorrow might be?”

Again, he brings in a biblical allusion–  that of the Sermon on the Mount– to illustrate the importance of focusing on things that matter:

“The Sermon on the Mount outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you—but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good.”

Where do we learn this? How do we know what is right from wrong, what is out of bounds and what is proper? It begins in childhood, when our parents first give us boundaries and clear instructions on what to do and how to be. We internalize what they teach us to become more independent and more responsible for ourselves. Dr. Peterson writes in no uncertain terms just how important good parenting is:

“Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad guy (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain. Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.

[…]

Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted. Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.”

Contrary to the idea that no boundaries allows for freer expressions of who we truly are, Dr. Peterson argues that it is precisely the limits on us that ultimately provide freedom:

“A long period of unfreedom—adherence to a singular interpretive structure—is necessary for the development of a free mind.

[…]

A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited.”

Learning– or rather, being taught by those who care for us– how to regulate our impulses and emotions is not only important for being successful in a conventional sense but also for finding meaning in a deeper sense, for Becoming with a capital B.

“Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.

[…]

You may find that if you attend to these moral obligations, once you have placed ‘make the world better’ at the top of your value hierarchy, you experience ever-deepening meaning. It’s not bliss. It’s not happiness. It is something more like atonement for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being. It’s payment of the debt you owe for the insane and horrible miracle of your existence. It’s how you remember the Holocaust. It’s how you make amends for the pathology of history. It’s adoption of the responsibility for being a potential denizen of Hell. It is willingness to serve as an angel of Paradise.

[…]

To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.”

We must experiment, put ourselves to the test in a way, to discover who we are and what we value. We must try and fail and try again if we are to grow in any way. Meaning is hard-won, and so is our sense of self.

“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward. This is a biological truth, as well as a conceptual truth. When you explore boldly, when you voluntarily confront the unknown, you gather information and build your renewed self out of that information. That is the conceptual element. However, researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain. This means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not…you remain incomplete, and life is too hard for anyone incomplete.

[…]

What is going to save you? The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves. What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be.

[…]

Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better. Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us. In such cases, we might never recover or, if we do, we change a lot.”

However, there may not be any outward, physical markers for the changes we undergo. They are often internal, affecting more how we see the world than how the world sees us. This requires a shift in our thinking, and thinking is demanding.

“Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something.”

To explain how deep listening affects our thinking and therefore our perspective, Dr. Peterson offers the advice of Carl Rogers:

“Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, ‘The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.’ He knew that listening could transform people. On that, Rogers commented, ‘Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type I have described.’ He suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: ‘Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”’

[…]

Of this, Rogers notes, ‘Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.’”

Listening and talking– in essence, having a conversation– help us process our thoughts. They are essential to thinking, so it is essential that we practice them.

“The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.”

Speaking to the importance of talking things through, Dr. Peterson uses the example of a marriage:

“There is little, in a marriage, that is so little that it is not worth fighting about. You’re stuck in a marriage like the two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That oath is there to make you take the damn situation seriously. Do you really want the same petty annoyance tormenting you every single day of your marriage, for the decades of its existence?

[…]

Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance.

[…]

Here’s the terrible truth about such matters: every single voluntarily unprocessed and uncomprehended and ignored reason for marital failure will compound and conspire and will then plague that betrayed and self-betrayed woman for the rest of her life. The same goes for her husband. All she—he—they—or we—must do to ensure such an outcome is nothing: don’t notice, don’t react, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t work for peace, don’t take responsibility. Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order—just wait, anything but naïve and innocent, for the chaos to rise up and engulf you instead.

[…]

When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”

The same goes for non-marital situations, that we must be precise in our confronting difficult situations regardless of whom they are with:

“You must also know clearly what you want out of the situation, and be prepared to clearly articulate your desire. It’s a good idea to tell the person you are confronting exactly what you would like them to do instead of what they have done or currently are doing. You might think, “if they loved me, they would know what to do.” That’s the voice of resentment. Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs—not even you. If you try to determine exactly what you want, you might find that it is more difficult than you think. The person oppressing you is likely no wiser than you, especially about you. Tell them directly what would be preferable, instead, after you have sorted it out. Make your request as small and reasonable as possible—but ensure that its fulfillment would satisfy you. In that manner, you come to the discussion with a solution, instead of just a problem.”

In regard to heated situations, where talking has escalated to spewing at each other, Dr. Peterson shares the anecdote of what he and his wife do when they are in blow-out fights: they stop in the middle of it, go into separate rooms to calm down, and think about how they themselves were wrong. After sufficient time has passed, they come back and share their insights.

“Alone, trying to calm down, we would each ask ourselves the same single question: What had we each done to contribute to the situation we were arguing about? However small, however distant…we had each made some error. Then we would reunite, and share the results of our questioning: Here’s how I was wrong…. The problem with asking yourself such a question is that you must truly want the answer. And the problem with doing that is that you won’t like the answer.

[…]

When you are arguing with someone, you want to be right, and you want the other person to be wrong. Then it’s them that has to sacrifice something and change, not you, and that’s much preferable. If it’s you that’s wrong and you that must change, then you have to reconsider yourself—your memories of the past, your manner of being in the present, and your plans for the future. Then you must resolve to improve and figure out how to do that. Then you actually have to do it. That’s exhausting. It takes repeated practice, to instantiate the new perceptions and make the new actions habitual. It’s much easier just not to realize, admit and engage. It’s much easier to turn your attention away from the truth and remain wilfully blind.”

Drawing an interesting parallel, Dr. Peterson applies this mindset to prayer:

“Perhaps that is true prayer: the question, ‘What have I done wrong, and what can I do now to set things at least a little bit more right?’ But your heart must be open to the terrible truth. You must be receptive to that which you do not want to hear. When you decide to learn about your faults, so that they can be rectified, you open a line of communication with the source of all revelatory thought. Maybe that’s the same thing as consulting your conscience. Maybe that’s the same thing, in some manner, as a discussion with God.”

Asking this, having this discussion with ourselves, with God, cracks open the door from our suffocating room of stunted, albeit certain, stagnancy to the exhilarating, albeit dangerous and uncertain, world of growth. So much is required to grow, so much is demanded of us. We must prepare ourselves well. Dr. Peterson summarizes it best himself:

“Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.

[…]

Christ enjoins His followers to place faith in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of Being. That’s an act of courage. Aim high, like Pinocchio’s Geppetto. Wish upon a star, and then act properly, in accordance with that aim. Once you are aligned with the heavens, you can concentrate on the day. Be careful. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. It is possible that you can manage, if you are careful. People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost.

[…]

What does all that mean? Orient yourself properly. Then—and only then—concentrate on the day. Set your sights at the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, and then focus pointedly and carefully on the concerns of each moment. Aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth. Attend fully to the future, in that manner, while attending fully to the present. Then you have the best chance of perfecting both.”

For even more insight and wisdom— as I couldn’t include everything I highlighted from the book here in this one post; there is so much more to share and think about and discuss— be sure to read 12 Rules for Life.

The best books that I read in 2017, pt. 2

Back in June, I posted the first half of this year’s ‘best of’ reading list, and now that 2017 is coming to a close, I think it’s a good time to post the second half. As I wrote in a recent post, these lists are by no means full of ‘must reads.’ If you try one of these and don’t like it, put it down! My only hope with my book lists is to point the way to some books that (in my opinion) are well worth the read for those who actually want to read them. So with that, I give you my favorite books from the latter half of 2017.

 

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum

selfish shallow and self absorbed

A collection of sixteen essays by sixteen writers on why they have remained childless in their lives, it was not at all redundant. Some I could relate to more than others, but mostly I was just thankful to be reading about people like me— people who are the weird ones in the room anytime the topic of having children comes up, people who have to face the pressure and disappointment of almost everyone for a choice we made as we go about our lives. I found it heartening.

“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe. But when I looked around, from what I could tell, this could have been said of a lot of people. It was not that I thought most people were bound to make terrible parents, only that the group that would make ideal parents was surprisingly small—especially given that those who chose to have children far outnumbered those who did not.”

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“Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal—and I believe it is—perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.”

 

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

May Sarton

Sarton kept this journal over the course of a year while living in the countryside of New Hampshire. She follows the natural seasons and also the changes in her mood and emotional life. Flowers and animals affect her, mostly for the positive, and human interactions often drain her. I felt so connected with her writing– it was the type of journal I keep, much more internal than external. I felt in her a kindred spirit, and I appreciated her honesty about people and solitude/loneliness. (It has to mean something– this I learned after I had read and loved this book– that she and I share a birthday, as well…)

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange– that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”

 

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson

art of cruelty

Based on a college course Nelson teaches, this book covers various forms of art, artists, and art pieces/performances that allude to or invoke cruelty in some way. It had my mind going so much– I loved how unsure it made me of my own thoughts and inclinations. Is it ok to agree with that quote? Is it bad to disagree? She would present these ideas and opinions of others and then come at them from a completely different angle. It’s how I want to think and see things.

“It is unnerving to realize how much one’s compass or tastes can shift throughout a lifetime, how one’s sense of “okayness” is contingent on a host of factors, including the simple question of whether one is experiencing something for the first or the second time, not to mention the twentieth.”

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“So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.

By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths. […] Worse still, because of its episodic nature, art offers the passing impression of truth, without the promise that the truth revealed will have any lasting power. For however powerful any given artistic truth might seem, a new, contradictory, or at least adumbrating truth might appear in the next instant, the next installment, the next frame, the next line, the next chapter, the next canvas.”

 

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

hallelujah anyway

Does Anne Lamott ever disappoint? In this book, she covers the familiar topics: grace, living through the difficult moments, surrounding yourself with people who are honest yet loving and humorous. This book was small, but it was good. I copied lines from almost every page into my notes. There were stories from her life I hadn’t read before, and everything she wrote about mercy resonated with how I want to live my life (just as her problems with it resonated with my own flaws and difficulties).

“This is the greatest mercy I know, a loved one hearing and nodding, even if over the phone. Thomas Merton said, ‘No matter how low you may have fallen in your own esteem, bear in mind that if you delve deeply into yourself you will discover holiness there.’ But this is not my experience. I find silt and mental problems. My only hope is to delve deeply into a friend.”

 

Nothing Twice: Selected Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

nothing twice

This was Szymborska’s first collection of poetry that I actually liked. I highlighted several lines, like this one: ‘Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different. Or a little bit different– which is to say, completely different.’ She is cheeky and clever while appearing naive and simple. I appreciate her commentary on the state of things that is always laced with humor.

“Life, however long, will always be short.

Too short for anything to be added.”

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“Poetry —

but what is poetry anyway?

More than one rickety answer

has tumbled since that question first was raised.

But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that

like to a redemptive handrail.”

 

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí by Salvador Dalí

secret life of dali

Dalí reveals and confesses to his own megalomania in the introduction, and the rest of the book supports it– but somehow that only endeared him to me. He was ever only entirely himself: antagonistic, alone, experimental, exhibitionist, honest, obsessed, and in love with his wife, Gala. Even how he would always add ‘my best friend’ whenever talking about ‘Mademoiselle Chanel’ was adorable to me. He was against -isms of all kinds, politics in every vein, and being part of a group. I know I’m not like him in most ways, but I do want to be more like him in certain ways, such as thinking for myself at all costs and doing life in my own way no matter what anyone says. (I came to love him so much that I went on to read his Diary of a Genius and even his cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala.)

“In this book I want to dissect one and only one person— myself!— and this living dissection of myself I am performing, not through sadism, or through masochism. I do so through narcissism.”

 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

pleasures of reading

A book in praise of reading and of the effort of returning to reading after drifting away, it spoke to me on so many levels: as a lifelong book-lover; as one who reads quickly rather than slowly, as I should; as one who also believes in reading by Whim rather than by plan or force or status or ‘ought.’ I loved it so much that I wrote a post about it here. I just want to hand the insights and encouragements inside this little book to everyone.

“Thus Rudyard Kipling: ‘One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.’

In such a context of friendship and mutual interest, the making of recommendations is a pleasure. Outside of that, it quickly becomes an onerous (and perhaps pointless) duty, and I don’t like mixing reading with onerous duties. Moreover, in many cases these requests have little to do with actually reading anything, but rather with having read— with the desire to say, ‘Yes, now I can check that one off.'”

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“…we should not underestimate what can be accomplished by those who are willing to read more slowly and with greater care.”

 

Dancer by Colum McCann

dancer

This is a novel about the famous (and infamous) Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from Communist Russia to dance around the world and who died at the age of 54 in 1993 from AIDS-related complications. He was beautiful, volatile, charming, mean, hard-working, and hard-playing. Just like he did in Let the Great World Spin, McCann wrote from different characters’ perspectives and voices to tell the story (and the different, but connected, substories). As someone inexplicably fascinated by both ballet and Russia, I was easily drawn into this book.

“Perhaps, then, you should forget everything I have said to you and remember only this: The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.”

 

How to Think by Alan Jacobs

how to think

This is a relatively small book, but it is filled with so much goodness. It is all about thinking well, which includes being skeptical of your own positions and generous with others, being wary of the pull of the Inner Ring rather than the inclusion of true membership, and resisting reliance on myths/metaphors/trigger words that do the intellectual heavy-lifting for you. There was so much more than that, and I think that everyone who leans in any direction politically/philosophically/religiously would do well to keep the insights in this book in mind during any and every interaction. (It inspired a post I recently wrote here.)

In particular I’m going to argue that we go astray when we think of our task primarily as “overcoming bias.” For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?”

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The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.”

 

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

meditations

For such a slim volume, it took me so long to finish, mostly because I had to stop at least once per page– and often more than that– to write out an excerpt into my notes. The Stoic principles outlined in every point (the book is basically several lists of life advice the author felt were important to make note of) reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, both in how they are written and what they say. True to the book’s name, these principles are truly worth meditating on and incorporating into daily life: not to be bothered by what happens, to remain kindly disposed to even those who act poorly and do wrong, to examine myself first (and continuously) before examining others. (I compiled the excerpts I really liked in posts on change, facing death, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity.)

Judge every word and deed that are naturally fit for you, and do not be diverted by words of blame or criticism; if it is good to do or say something, do not consider it unworthy of yourself. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; ignore them and go straight on, following your own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.”

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When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”

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It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.”

 

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

girl named zippy

I bought this years ago– maybe even in high school– but put off reading it until now, when I expected to find it terribly written and to finally have an excuse to get rid of it. But I was charmed into rethinking my position: this was actually a hilarious, endearing memoir of an independent-spirited little sprite of a kid and her relationships to the residents in her small hometown (population: 300) of Mooreland, Indiana. Every story was captivating in its own way, and while I’m so glad I decided to pick it up after procrastinating for so long, I’m a little sad I didn’t pick it up earlier.

“I had to lie straight down in the dirt. Oh, my god. This explained so many things. I couldn’t think of any right offhand, but I knew my life was about to become tragically clearer to me.”

 

Runners up:

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi

Marcus Aurelius on equanimity and playing the cards dealt to us

The philosophy of Stoicism can pretty much be boiled down to one word: equanimity. I love this word, even though it is possibly the most elusive principle to live by. Maintaining an evenness of emotion and reaction, no matter what happens, has a profound impact on our ability to deal with what life throws at us yet is incredibly difficult to achieve without continual practice. This is the entire premise of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: to put down in writing what we should all be doing. I have collected some excerpts on change, accepting death, and guarding our thoughts, but here are some on the broadest (and maybe even most important) subject of Stoicism, our good friend equanimity:

 

“It is natural that certain things should be done by a certain kind of person; it is a matter of necessity. And if a man will not have it so, he will not allow the fig tree to have juice. But by all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both you and he will be dead; and soon not even your names will be left behind.”

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“That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse, nor does it harm him either from without or from within.”

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“Love the art, poor as it may be, that you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.”

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“. . . Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.”

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“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am going to do the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?”

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“You say, ‘Men cannot admire me for the sharpness of my wits.’ So be it: but there are many other things of which you cannot say, ‘I am not formed for them by nature.’ Show those qualities then that are altogether in your power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with your portion and with a simple life, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity. Do you see how many qualities you are immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet you still remain voluntarily below the mark? Or are you compelled through being defectively furnished by nature to grumble, and to be stingy, and to flatter, and to find fault with your poor body, and to try to please men, and to make great display, and to be so restless in your mind? No, by the gods: but you might have been delivered from these things long ago. Only if in truth you can be charged with being rather slow and dull of comprehension, you must exert yourself about this also, not neglecting it nor yet taking pleasure in your dullness.”

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“What then is there that still detains you here? The objects of sense are easily changed and never stand still, and the organs of perception are dull and easily receive false impressions; and the poor soul itself is an exhalation from blood. But to have good repute amidst such a world as this is an empty thing. Why then do you not wait in tranquillity for your end, whether it is extinction or removal to another state? And until that time comes, what is sufficient? Why, what else than to venerate the gods and bless them, and to do good to men, and to practice tolerance and self-restraint; but as to everything that is beyond the limits of the poor flesh and breath, to remember that this is neither yours nor in your power.”

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“Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm, if you are doing your duty; and whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act by which we die: it is sufficient then in this act also to do well what we have in hand.”

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“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”

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“In the gymnastics exercises suppose that a man has torn you with his nails, and by dashing against your head has inflicted a wound. Well, we neither show any signs of vexation, nor are we offended, nor do we suspect him afterward as a treacherous fellow; and yet we are on our guard against him, not, however, as an enemy, nor yet with suspicion, but we quietly get out of his way. Emulate this behavior in all the other parts of life; let us overlook many things in those who are like antagonists in the gymnasium. For it is in our power, as I said, to get out of the way and to have no suspicion or hatred.”

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“It is a shame for the soul to be the first to give way in this life, when your body does not give way.”

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“Whatever any one does or says, I must be good, just as if the emerald (or the gold or the purple) were always saying ‘Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.'”

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“About pain: The pain that is intolerable carries us off; but that which lasts a long time is tolerable; and the mind maintains its own tranquillity by retiring into itself, and the ruling faculty is not made worse. But the parts that are harmed by pain, let them, if they can, give their opinion about it.”

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“From Plato: ‘I would make this man a sufficient answer, which is this: You are mistaken if you think that a man who is good for anything at all ought to consider the risks of life or death, but rather should consider only in all that he does, whether he is doing what is just or unjust, and the works of a good or a bad man.'”

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“Everywhere and at all times it is in your power piously to acquiesce in your present condition, and to behave justly to those around you, and to exert your skill upon your present thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”

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“Love only that which happens to you and is spun with the thread of your destiny. For what is more suitable?”

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“The art of life is more like a wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”

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“It is your duty to order your life well in every single act; and if every act does its duty, as far as is possible, be content; and no one is able to hinder you so that each act shall not do its duty. But something external will stand in the way. Nothing will stand in the way of your acting justly and soberly and considerately. ‘But perhaps some other active power will be hindered.’ Well, but by acquiescing in the hindrance and by being content to transfer your efforts to that which is allowed, another opportunity of action is immediately put before you in place of that which was hindered, and one which will adapt itself to this ordering of which we are speaking.”

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“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.”

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“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in your own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion? And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing that seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain? ‘But some insuperable obstacle is in the way.’ Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you. ‘But it is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done.’ Take your departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased, too, with the things that are obstacles.”

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“To my own free will the free will of my neighbor is just as indifferent as his poor breath and flesh. For though we are made especially for the sake of one another, still the ruling power of each of us has its own office, for otherwise my neighbor’s wickedness would be my harm; and this was not God’s will, in order that my unhappiness may not depend on another.”

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“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

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“Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter.”

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“To her who gives and takes back all, to nature, the man who is instructed and modest says, ‘Give what you will; take back what you will.’ And he says this not proudly, but obediently and well pleased with her.”

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“At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding men of the things that happen to them, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with what takes place on the larger stage. . . .”

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“How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.”

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“If the things do not come to you, the pursuit and avoidance of which disturb you, still in a manner you are seeking them out. Let them your judgment about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and you will not be seen either pursuing or avoiding.”

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“Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves at which we are angry and vexed.”

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“The Lakedaimonians at their public spectacles used to set seats in the shade for strangers, but they themselves sat down anywhere.”

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“Practice that also wherein you have no expectation of success. For even the left hand, which is ineffectual for all other things for want of practice, holds the bridle more vigorously than the right hand; for it has been practiced in this.”

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“How ridiculous and what a stranger he is who is surprised at anything that happens in life.”

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“Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner who has rounded the headland, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.”

Marcus Aurelius on guarding our thoughts and not comparing ourselves to others

From thoughts come actions, reactions, and fixed judgments. Much of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations focus on the importance of thoughts: on our controlling them rather than letting them control us, on judging our own thoughts before judging others, and on being humble enough to change them when it is right to do so. I’ve posted some excerpts from Meditations on change, accepting death, and equanimity, so here are some excerpts that serve as reminders to be wary of our thoughts and to stay true to our own paths:

 

“Wrong yourself, wrong yourself, my soul; but you will not much longer have the chance to honor yourself. Every man’s life is sufficient. But yours is nearly finished, and still your soul reveres not itself, but seeks your well-being in the souls of others.”

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“Nothing is more wretched than a man who traverses everything in a round, and pries into the things beneath the earth, as the poet says, and seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the daimon within him and to revere it sincerely.”

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“Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, when you do not refer your thoughts to some object of common utility. For you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have such thoughts as these. What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power. We ought then to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the overcurious feeling and the malignant; and a man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, What are you thinking about? With perfect openness you might immediately answer, this or that; so that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is simple and benevolent, as befits a social animal, one that is unconcerned with pleasure, sensual enjoyments, rivalry, envy, suspicion, or any other thoughts that you would blush to admit.”

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“A man then must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.”

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“Take away your opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed.’ Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.”

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“A man should always have these two rules in readiness: one, to do only whatever the reason of the ruling and legislating faculty may suggest for the use of men; the other, to change your opinion, if anyone sets you right and dissuades you from any opinion. But this change of opinion must proceed only from a genuine conviction about what is just or of common advantage, and the like, not because it appears pleasant or brings reputation.”

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“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”

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“. . . nevertheless let that part that forms opinions about these things be quiet, that is, let it judge that nothing is either bad or good that can happen equally to the bad man and the good.”

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“Judge every word and deed that are naturally fit for you, and do not be diverted by words of blame or criticism; if it is good to do or say something, do not consider it unworthy of yourself. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; ignore them and go straight on, following your own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.”

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“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

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“The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.”

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“If it is difficult to accomplish something by yourself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by you, too.”

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“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”

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“When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as possible. Hence we must keep them before us.”

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“It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.”

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“Accustom yourself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, try to inhabit the speaker’s mind.”

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“In discourse you must attend to what is said, and in every action you must observe what is being done. And in the latter you should see immediately what end is intended, but in the former watch carefully what thing is signified.”

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“About fame: Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events that go before are soon covered by those that come after.”

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“No joining others in their wailing, no violent emotion.”

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“In everything that happens, keep before your eyes those to whom the same things happened, and how they were vexed, and treated them as strange things, and found fault with them: and now where are they? Nowhere. Why then do you, too, choose to act in the same way? And why do you not leave these agitations, which are foreign to nature, to those who cause them and those who are moved by them? And why are you not altogether intent upon the right way of making use of the things that happen to you? For then you will use them well, and they will be a material for you to work on. Only attend to yourself, and resolve to be a good man in every act that you do . . .” 

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“. . . for it is very possible to be a divine man and to be recognized as such by no one. Always bear this in mind; and another thing, too, that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life.”

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“It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.”

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“You have not leisure or ability to read. But you have leisure or ability to check arrogance: you have leisure to be superior to pleasure and pain: you have leisure to be superior to love of fame, and not to be vexed at stupid and ungrateful people, nay even to care for them.”

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“Let no man any longer hear you finding fault with the court life or with your own.”

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“Speak both in the senate and to every man, whoever he may be, appropriately, without affectation: use plain discourse.”

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“It is not fit that I should give myself pain, for I have never intentionally given pain even to another.”

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“Neither in your actions be sluggish nor in conversation without method, nor wandering in your thoughts, nor let there be in your soul inward contention nor external effusion, nor in life be so busy as to have no leisure.

Suppose that men kill you, cut you in pieces, curse you. What then can these things do to prevent your mind from remaining pure, wise, sober, just? For instance, if a man should stand by a limpid pure spring and curse it, the spring never ceases sending up potable water; and if he should cast clay into it or filth, it will speedily disperse them and wash them out, and will not be at all polluted. How then shall you possess a perpetual fountain and not a mere well? By forming yourself hourly to freedom conjoined with contentment, simplicity, and modesty.”

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“Do you wish to be praised by a man who curses himself three times every hour? Would you wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does?”

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“When you are offended with any man’s shameless conduct, immediately ask yourself, Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of the knave and the faithless man, and of every man who does wrong in any way. For at the same time that you remind yourself that it is impossible that such men should not exist, you will become more kindly disposed toward everyone individually.

[…]

But most of all, when you blame a man as faithless or ungrateful, turn to yourself. For the fault is manifestly your own, whether you trusted that a man who had such a disposition would keep his promise, or when conferring your kindness you did not confer it absolutely, nor yet in such way as to have received full recompense simply from having done it. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you have done something conformable to your nature? Do you seek to be paid for it? It is as if the eye were to demand a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking. For as these members are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their separate constitutions obtain what is their own, so also as man is formed by nature to acts of benevolence; when he has done anything benevolent or in any way conducive to the common interest, he has acted conformably to his constitution, and he gets what is his own.”

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“When you have assumed these names— good, modest, truthful, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous— take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them. And remember that the term “rational” was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every object and freedom from negligence; and that “equanimity” is the voluntary acceptance of the things that are assigned to you by the common nature; and that “magnanimity” is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things.”

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“Inquire of yourself as soon as you wake from sleep, whether it will make any difference to you if another does what is just and right. It will make no difference. . . .”

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“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.”

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“Accustom yourself as much as possible, on the occasion of anything being done by any person, to inquire with yourself, For what object is this man doing this? But begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.”

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“As those who try to stand in your way when you are proceeding according to right reason will not be able to turn you aside from your proper action, so neither let them drive you from your benevolent feelings toward them, but be on your guard equally in both matters, not only in the matter of steady judgment and action, but also in the matter of gentleness toward those who try to hinder or otherwise trouble you. For this also is a weakness, to be vexed at them, as well as to be diverted from your course of action and to give way through fear; for both are equally deserters from their post, the man who does it through fear, and the man who is alienated from him who is by nature a kinsman and a friend.”

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“Fourth, consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.”

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“Fifth, consider that you do not even understand whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. And in short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man’s acts.”

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“. . . for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts.”

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“Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae [ghouls], bugbears to frighten children.”

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“Neither in writing nor in reading will you be able to lay down rules for others before you shall have first learned to obey rules yourself. Much more is this so in life.”

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“If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it. For let your impulse be in your own power.”

Marcus Aurelius on focusing on the present, living simply, and not fearing death

If ever we should forget our own insignificance, Marcus Aurelius is there to remind us: we don’t matter much at all in the scheme of things; we might as well do the best we can in this moment we were given; and when we must return to whence we came, we will be able to do so with acceptance and equanimity because it is just a natural part of life’s cycle. In addition to my posts on change, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity, here are some excerpts in his own more eloquent words on the transitory nature of life from his Meditations:

 

“For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose something he does not already possess.”

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“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

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“Occupy yourself with few things, says the philosopher, if you would be tranquil. But consider if it would not be better to say, Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquillity that comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things. Since the greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary, dispensing with such activities affords a man more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of those unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.”

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“To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in contentment, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced I and thanking the tree in which it grew.”

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“. . . Although the interval is small between birth and death; and consider with how much trouble, and in company with what sort of people and in what a feeble body, this interval is laboriously passed. Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind you and to the time that is ahead of you, another boundless space. In this infinity, then, what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?”

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“You are not dissatisfied, I suppose, because you weigh only so many pounds and not three hundred. Do not be dissatisfied then that you must live only so many years and not more; for as you are satisfied with the amount of substance that has been assigned to you, so be content with the time.”

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“In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.”

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“Think not so much of what you lack as of what you have: but of the things that you have, select the best, and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them. At the same time, however, take care that you do not through being so pleased with them accustom yourself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if you should ever not have them.”

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“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine yourself to the present. Understand well what happens either to you or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal (formal) and the material. Think of your last hour. Let the wrong that is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”

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“From Plato: ‘The man who has an elevated mind and takes a view of all time and of all substance, do you suppose it possible for him to think that human life is anything great?’ ‘It is not possible,’ he said. ‘Such a man then will think that death also is no evil.’ ‘Certainly not.’”

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“Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you.”

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“The perfection of moral character consists in this, in passing every day as if it were the last, and in being neither violently excited nor torpid nor playing the hypocrite.”

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“See that you secure this present time to yourself: for those who rather pursue posthumous fame do not consider that the men of tomorrow will be exactly like these whom they cannot bear now; and both are mortal. And what is it in any way to you if these men of tomorrow utter this or that sound, or have this or that opinion about you?”

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“This, then, is consistent with the character of a reflecting man, to be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature.”

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“All things are the same, familiar in experience, and ephemeral in time, and worthless in matter. Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried.”

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“What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade and her, without tragic show.”

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“Not even death can bring terror to him who regards that alone as good which comes in due season, and to whom it is all one whether his acts in conformity to right reason are few or many, and a matter of indifference whether he look upon the world for a longer or a shorter time.”

 

Marcus Aurelius on change

A couple weeks ago, I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It has fewer than 100 pages, yet it took me almost the entire week to get through it because I kept stopping to copy down something from pretty much every page. (The book itself is basically a few long lists of reminders on how to live well.) I wanted to soak up the entire thing, let it seep into my body so that I just emanated the Stoic principles. As it is, I have to work really hard to keep them in mind and even harder to put them into practice. To help, I am compiling the excerpts I collected in some loosely-categorized posts: change, accepting death, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity. (Technically, all of the principles could be filed under the header of ‘equanimity,’ but I tried teasing it out a bit to prevent having just one, long post that would inevitably end up being an abridged version of the book.)

To start, here are some words of wisdom on change and its ever-presence in life:

 

“In human life time is but an instant, and the substance of it a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of certainty. And, to say all in a word, everything that belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapor, and life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What then can guide a man? One thing and only one, philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daimon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from the same source, wherever it is, from which he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil that is according to nature.”

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“But among the things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from inner opinions. The other is that all the things you see around you change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”

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“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”

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“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things that are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

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“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?”

Some thoughts on thinking

After my post a few months ago about no longer identifying with the label of ‘feminist,’ the response was swift and mostly silent: I felt a virtual chill, telling me that I had become a pariah to the circles that once accepted me. With as small of a reader/follower base on any given social media platform as I have, it is not hard to notice when the numbers fluctuate or when the comments and likes slow. Slow they did; down the numbers went. It stung, but I had tried to prepare myself for it: it comes with the territory of changing your mind. I have to accept the consequences.

Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking more about thinking and about how my group affiliations have stood in the way of my truly examining something rather than sharpening my thinking skills. This bothers me. I don’t want to have ready-made, knee-jerk reactions. I want to have thoughtful and generous responses. But that’s also scary, because a thoughtful response does not always align with the group’s approved set of responses, and standing outside of the group is a cold, lonely place.

Alan Jacobs (I guess I’m on an Alan Jacobs roll right now) writes about the importance of thinking and the effects it (or its opposite, not thinking) has on life in How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Much of the book is about how we bypass thinking in favor of our social group and at the expense of the outgroup(s). I say ‘bypass’ because what often happens is that we rely on words, phrases, or subjects not only to convey meaning but also to signal our membership in the group. Jacobs writes,

“The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against—well, against any kind of standard. People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.”

Of course, not only can we not escape thinking within of a social context, but we are made for and by the social world. Everything I believe, everything I think, I learned from someone, even if it was someone who lived hundreds of years ago whom I’ve encountered only through books.

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

The painful part (or one of the painful parts) of being written off so easily after writing my post on feminism was that my change of heart was attributed to some corruption done by ‘the enemy.’ I was accused of falling prey to the mistaken and destructive ideology of the Other. Before I was an independent thinker; after I was brainwashed. It felt like I was only seen as human as long as my ideas aligned with everyone else on the ‘right’ side. Once the ideas starting differing, I became at best a weak victim, at worst a repulsive, dismissable piece of scum. Jacobs addresses this phenomenon:

“This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say ‘she really thinks for herself’ when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.

[…]

And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.”

I should point out that the response to my post was not entirely negative. My fear exceeded the severity of the response, and those I was most afraid of disappointing, for the most part, didn’t seem to be disappointed at all. They were able to hear me out and love me all the same. Jacobs describes it well:

“I had chosen to interact with people who had very little in common except that I knew—from experience—that they wouldn’t write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with.”

Thankfully, those in my closest circle don’t write me out of their Books of Life when I say things that are wrong, offensive, or merely different from what they think. Jacobs goes on to differentiate ‘true membership’ from the deceptive and potentially dangerous membership of groups based solely on like-mindedness. Because my family is the base from which I function, I especially identified with the definition of true membership as C.S. Lewis put it:

“Lewis explains: How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself….If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.”

As I have wrestled and questioned and challenged myself to hold a little less tightly to my own thinking, I have begun to appreciate the beauty of a social network that consists of varying political, religious, and philosophical perspectives, “…for there can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.”

The facelessness of the Internet and dichotomization of our political climate in general leans less toward kindness and generosity, though, and more toward dehumanization and argument-as-war. We easily slip into ideology mode, actively seeking out what we already agree with and ignoring (or attacking) what we don’t.

“When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.”

I am working on understanding better, which means listening more and reacting less. I’d love to have more interactions styled after the debates described in this post by Robin Sloan, in which one person states her position, then the other person must re-state the first person’s position to that person’s satisfaction, then the second one states his position, and then the first person must re-state the second person’s position to his satisfaction. Even if I don’t find people who want to engage in an actual debate or listening session like that, I still love having it in my mind– a mental practice of truly hearing the other side, almost embodying it, before pushing my own viewpoint.

“After switching back and forth for a while, you may find one of [the viewpoints] philosophically or practically superior to the other, but the one you like less won’t be totally alien to you. It’ll be a world you could live in if you had to, even if you don’t particularly want to.”

We must have patience to listen like this.

“This matters because it’s when our forbearance fails that the social fabric tears. The key to strengthening this necessary forbearance . . . is that you have to be willing to switch codes. You have to be willing to inquire into someone else’s dialect, even, or especially, when it’s a moral dialect. You have to risk that impurity.”

This brings me back to where this post began: my own perceived impurity from writing my post a few months back. Impurity, to the ingroup, is cause for expulsion and excommunication. Though I am trying to think better, in some ways it feels like I’m walking alone in the wilderness. Even Jacobs, who advocates for Learning to Think, warns that the effects may not be wholly positive:

“I can’t promise that if you change your mind you won’t lose at least some of your friends—and that matters, because if you learn to think, genuinely to think, you will sometimes change your mind.”

My hope is that this process of seeking understanding and of genuine thinking catches on, that it becomes less lonely than it has been. More than anything, I am not trying to close people out with my ideas, even as they change. I am just trying to be true to the truth– whatever that is– rather than to the precariousness of social acceptance. As Jacobs says, “Thinking is hard.”