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.

~

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.

~

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.  🙂

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OWS: Trust and the need to revel in difficulties

Why I support the Occupy movement

First, I need to explain who the Occupy supporters and protesters are. These people are my friends. I respect the values of my friends; my friends are well-educated, experienced, thoughtful, and often wise. If they support an action or a cause, I don’t necessarily jump on the ol’ bandwagon just because I like them; but I do take a good look at their claims. The description that follows is based upon my own experience and may not be statistically accurate.

There is no way to generalize my friends and colleagues who support the protests. They range in age from 18 to 86, and they are of both sexes and numerous “races,” a term to which I object on scientific grounds but which serves a purpose here. Sexual orientation among these friends varies, but the vast majority of them are heterosexual people involved in long-term committed relationships. Many attend religious services regularly. While I may be acquainted with a few more radical liberals than the average citizen is, I do not know any Communists involved with Occupy and most of the people I know who support the movement are moderate, middle-class or formerly-middle-class taxpayers. None of them are homeless. Although one or two are “underwater” with their mortgages, most of them are managing to pay their loans and make ends meet; they are all employed or under-employed (a term I shall define below).

The vast majority of my Occupier colleagues have college degrees, but not all of them are employed in white-collar jobs. Many, many, many of my friends and colleagues who support OWS are working part-time, or working at jobs for which they are over-qualified, or working free-lance on a less-than-regular basis; or they own and run small businesses such as consulting practices that don’t always generate income when the economy is stale. They are educators and artists and even young lawyers right out of grad school. These are the under-employed, and there are so many of us out there that the government statistics are bound to under-count us. They are recent college grads who have mountains of debt to pay off and who now realize the career for which they’ve trained has, at present, no place for them…so they pick up some retail work or start a part-time small business or try to earn a living however they can, often swinging two or more jobs just to pay the bills. They are not lazy lay-abouts who want a government handout for free.

The majority of these people support capitalism, yet they feel our nation’s government has not quite lived up to its role of protector and defender of the people. Most of these folks feel that a government “safety net” or a more equitable method of taxation is not the same as a socialist agenda and that a moderate level of social support is not incompatible with democracy. They are willing to pay taxes for the kinds of support they request, but they want fair taxation and fair wages and a chance to serve the world through diligent and profitable work. The lack of fairness is what irks them; they want to live in a nation that is “just.” The idea of justice is not only something that pertains to the judicial branch of government but to the idea of fairness across the board, in all endeavors, including economic endeavors.

I have friends and colleagues who are atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Wiccans, Muslims, and agnostics; but the majority of the people I know personally who are involved in OWS identify themselves as Christians. I think this is relevant on many levels: it messes with stereotypes of Christians as “right-wingers,” for one thing. Jesus’ teachings tend to focus on caring for the least among us— Jesus was not a supporter of oligarchy. He did remind us that we need to be grateful for whatever we have, to love the world that God gave us; the implicit and explicit reminder is that each human being is part of that world.

There’s a slogan with which we are all familiar: “In God we trust.” Some Americans have chosen to focus on the Big G-word of this slogan. Some citizens think it should not appear on the legal tender of a nation where there is separation of church and state. Others claim that God is what the country should be all about and that we need to rewrite or re-interpret our laws to reflect that idea.

Suppose, however, we were to focus on the T-word instead? Trust. My diagnosis—and I admit, I am basing it only on the people I know personally (and I know quite a few) among the loose collective movement that is OWS—is that people feel a loss of trust. Protesters often use the word “betrayed” when they are interviewed about why they are sleeping in Zuccotti park. For many years, Americans have been naively but wonderfully trusting:

–why didn’t you read the fine print, Grandma?

–because the banker was trustworthy on my last two mortgages; why would the bank want to take all my money now?

Does this country really want to move from “In God we trust” to “caveat emptor”? That would mark a huge change in the collective character of the US citizen. I hope that legislators and politicians will pay attention to the people of the Occupy movement and hear how vital trust is. We cannot move forward until there is trust on all sides of the discussion.

The press has made much of the OWS movement as being vague or aimless, and it is true that the anti-war protests of the 60s and 70s seemed to have more purpose. Still, “End the War” was not the only demand of those protesters, and some of the protests were both obscure and misdirected. The protests that made up the War on Poverty were composed of a cacophony of different and often dissenting voices, too. Certainly, there was little agreement on the specific ultimate aims of the Civil Rights movement or on how to attain those rights. In retrospect, it’s always easier to say what the purposes were.

I’m not out on the streets with a sign and a sleeping bag. I have classes to teach and I desperately need to keep my day job. But being silent doesn’t show support or argue for trust and fairness in a nation founded on rational goodness which, idealistic as that is, was one of the aims of Thomas Jefferson. My sense is that specific aims will be synthesized from all this discontent. People are brainstorming. This is what I tell my students to do when they have to write a paper: revel in difficulties for awhile. Figure out what your purpose is going to be.

Then go for it.

Here’s another take on OWS, with some quite reasonable analogies:

Lemony Snicket on OWS