The 4 Cs

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Sometimes, when I am in reading-after-a-hard-day-at-work mode, I feel mentally unprepared to tackle difficult books. On such days it is better to settle on the sofa with a glass of chardonnay and a text that entertains as well as informs. I confess that Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks had me snorting my wine a few times; her wry British cynicism kept me giggling even when her observations strongly critique some serious aspects of the culture and nation to which I belong.

In her book, Whippman finds understandable fault with the commodification of happiness, but she also threatens an American sacred cow: the concept of individual happiness that arises from our foundation document concerning our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Implied in her critique of the American “happiness industry” (including positive psychology, attachment parenting, yoga, mindfulness, Facebook…) is that maybe our nativist stance of rugged individualism and the freedom to make money on anything we can capitalize upon, thus pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, does not result in “happiness.” (Maybe Jefferson meant something else by that term. We cannot really know.) One reviewer mentioned that it is just Whippman’s “outsider” status as a person not raised in the USA that makes her book so useful. Changing one’s usual perspective, as I constantly reiterate to my freshman students, can hardly fail to be a valuable exercise in critical thinking and broadening one’s outlook.

Here is an observation of Whippman’s with which I heartily agree: “If happiness is community, then a psychologically healthy society takes collective responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable members.” I agree, however, because Whippman’s conclusion happens to coincide with my culture, upbringing, or perspective. Like her, I am willing to accept contentment–with occasional bouts of joy–rather than run relentlessly after happiness; and like her I find most contentment among human beings, though I may want them to shut up and just hang out quietly in the same room with me for awhile! Furthermore, it increases my happiness when I know that in my community (or nation), other people are cared for, not just me. In my point of view, happiness–including personal happiness–arises when I know that all human beings have their needs met.

But I recognize that not everyone will agree with Whippman’s, or my, conclusion that community is happiness; indeed, there is a good argument to be made for Sartre’s “Hell is other people,” too.

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Recent discussions on diversity among fellow people employed in academia (what it appears to mean, what it might include) and reflections on mortality, consciousness, the notion of the self–and spirituality and religion–not to mention science writing on evolution, have pushed me into a deeply introspective mode. Yet I find I want to converse with other people about these ideas, not hole up in my own head; I seek, and have been happy to participate in, discourse with others.

In another word: community.

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Here’s a paragraph from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that I want to share with my students:

If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. [italics Dennett’s]

Complexity, community, curiosity, contentment. The four Cs?

Oh, let’s add chardonnay. Make it five.  🙂

Complexity of perspective

A brief aside in which a contemporary philosopher admits of complexity among humans as social animals and implies (later on, more specifically illustrates) the challenges that individual consciousnesses create in resolving conflicts, or even in making individual decisions as to what is “right.” But what a thrilling capacity, if frustrating to theorists, our multiplicity is:

Human beings are subject to moral and other motivational claims of very different kinds. This is because they are complex creatures who can view the world from many different perspectives–individual, relational, impersonal, idea, etc.–and each perspective presents a different set of claims…The capacity to view the world simultaneously from the point of view of one’s relations to others, from the point of view of one’s life extended through time, from the point of view of everyone at once, and finally from the detached viewpoint often describes as sub specie aeternis is one of the marks of humanity. This complex capacity is an obstacle to simplification.

–Thos. Nagel, “The Fragmentation of Value”

Yes, an obstacle to simplification–but juicy and interesting, which clearly Nagel rather relishes. Viva complexity!

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For a philosophical discussion particularly pertinent to the US presidential campaign this year, see his “Ruthlessness in Public Life.” Both essays are chapters in Mortal Questions (1979).

 

 

The morbid book group

← [FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

Perspective & aesthetics

Officially autumn now–and my lawn litter consists mostly of oak leaves, though other leaves will shortly follow. The showy blossoms of late summer, such as zinnia and tithonia, have begun to fade. Even the tall, bright-yellow, wild goldenrod’s going to seed, turning the meadow into a mass of beige and fading green. Asters and chrysanthemums take their places, drawing the garden visitor’s eyes a bit closer to the ground.

We move toward yin, the earth…which is where I happened to notice that just above the sprawling petunias–still blossoming, though getting a bit peaked–an iris is in bloom, too. This particular iris would not be all that commendable a flower in late spring or early summer when most irises are efflorescing. Its stature is medium, its color a rather wan yellow, its petals unremarkable.

autumn iris

Nonetheless, it’s an iris. In autumn! Apparently, my perspective on flowers changes once the days get shorter. My aesthetic expectations evolve: any rose becomes a wonder, any iris an almost magical surprise amid the mums and ornamental kale. That’s an important observation I try to keep in mind for myself and to teach to my students: perspective alters everything.

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There are nice hybridization developments on late-blooming or, more accurately, re-blooming irises (this link from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers some useful information). I transplanted my rebloomer from an older garden that a long-ago homeowner planted; so I don’t know its heritage, though it somewhat resembles the cultivar “Baby Blessed.”

In the process of trying to track down the variety, I learned a new botanical word: remontant. Remontancy is that quality in a plant that makes it capable of blooming more than once in a season or year. There’s something generous and buoyant in that word, from the French “coming up again.” If hope does not spring eternal, may it at least be remontant. And may my perspective be flexible enough to appreciate seasonal transitions and small, un-flashy irises in autumn.

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Another sign of autumn: the gleaners in the fields.

Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

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If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

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I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd