20 March 2013

Honest Choices

Millions of choices get swallowed up by our conditioned responses each morning.  Rightfully so.  We have to live, and living can't involve millions of decisions in a morning.  We are lucky to make a handful of good choices in a row with the best of sleep, let alone after being woken by a crying baby four times in the last eight hours.  This conditioned living is important to our basic functioning, but it puts us at risk when we get to the point where simple decisions in our mind conflict with the messy realities of our actual existence.  

Some of us find our ways into positions where those decisions can have serious effects on the lives of those around us.  Others find their ways into positions where their decisions scale enormously, affecting millions of other walking, breathing, arguing humans.  A decade ago yesterday I was sitting in my barracks in Kaiserslautern, Germany, getting ready for bed.  My choice to enter the Army Reserves to pay for university had intersected with the choice of a rich Saudi construction magnate to guide the choices of impressionable young men to fly into a skyscraper and the choice of a then to me devilish, now to me an in over his head naif, POTUS to pursue an invasion of Iraq.  

Our choices are always conditioned and attenuated by the choices of others.  One young guy chose on that night to run down the halls of the barracks screaming a seemingly related but couple years too early song by a southern rap group that he obviously misunderstood.  I chose to pretend that he was just a simple confused boy playing at soldier without actually soldiering rather than face up to the probable reality that he just wasn't a decent person.  Maybe he is now, who knows, hopefully so. A guy down the hall chose to stay in his room and pray for the safety of civilians in those buildings.  A girl chose to argue about the justice of the war with another girl who was intellectually and emotionally unable to take part in that argument.  I chose to call home and seek any kind of escape from the seemingly nonsensical reality that the executive branch had thrust my life into.  It wasn't Vietnam, and I didn't have a draft number.  I'd chosen to be subject to the choices of whomsoever the electorate had chosen.  

24 May 2012


Your sanity and your ability to watch large amounts of news don't get along too well with each other.

You'd have to be overwhelmed by the enormity of humanity's suffering and your inability to do anything about it if you did nothing but watch and read news.  Either that or you'd have to desensitize yourself to the point that nothing really affected you.  Both are equally problematic.

Are we really strong enough to deal with a world where we have this much information about how people are capable of acting?

Yet we hear the exhortations over and over again.  Engage!  Engage!

Engagement is fine, but that engagement has to be attached to an actual ability to influence events.  Engagement in an issue that you have no ability to act on is at its root an exercise in abnegation.  It denies the place of the self, and the location of the self, and the ability of the self, all for an illusory feeling of connectedness.

Be compassionate for those whose lives are worse than yours. Give money to charities that help them, but don't let sorrow for their situation overwhelm you.  There's an untold amount of suffering that doesn't get our attention, and there's an untold amount of happiness which we are left ignorant of.  Neither are as important to our ability to live a good life as the forming of real, compassionate relationships with those around us.  If we cannot develop within ourselves compassion for those sitting across a table for us, do we really believe that our compassion for people half a world away is heartfelt.

I spent a good deal of my early 20's addicted to the news.  I knew that it was time to stop when I finally noticed that the life I was living and the emotions that I was feeling weren't my own.  I was vicariously living other people's lives and feeling other people's reported feelings.  The route to happiness and a good life can come through compassion and understanding, but it builds upon a genuine relationship with others and our own selves, not mediated experiences.

As my good friend, albeit 2000 years removed, Epictetus put it, everything has two handles, the one by which we can carry it and the one which we can't. I put in one of the first bits on this blog because it guides my thinking.

Disengage from those things which you have artificial connections with and engage fully with those things that are all around you, those things which you can truly engage with.

I don't advocate this as a simple selfishness; self-centredness doesn't bring happiness along with it.  I advocate it as reality, as a building up of honesty and strength and decency in ourselves so that we can have the reserves necessary to deeply engage with what is important to us.

Engaging is not the first step of the dance, it comes long after the music has started.  Being good at it requires  training our reason, developing our perspective, and coming to an understanding of ourselves.  The best dancers make it look easy, but you only see the dance, not the hours and hours of mind numbingly routine practice.  Disengage for a bit, get that practice, and come back all the better for it.

05 May 2012

An egalitarian cosmopolitanism

One of the tragedies of humanity is that we very rarely have the ability to wholeheartedly and completely embrace our experiences.  This seems to be even more true when you think of travelling.  Experiencing new places and cultures should serve to broaden our views of ourselves and others, but they're all too often just used as a marketing tool.  They allow people to pare down their social interactions instead of expanding them.  They serve as a key to conversation for the children of the middle and upper middle class.  

No stories about your trip to Italy?  Please go sit at the poor kids' table.

The search for a good and simple life can't exist alongside those types of divides.  A simple exercise in logic by Epictetus in the Enchiridion highlights this:

"44. These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor style. 

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend."

The variety of human life and experience in one neighborhood can be as great as that experienced by an overly excited and highly guided tourist taking in the polished facsimiles of a street that locals do their best to avoid.  We reduce the value of that which is near to us, regardless of its values.  At the same time we inflate the value of that which is far away from us.  The human being, whether they be a Stoic, or Buddhist, or Christian or Muslim for that matter, who can't enjoy a walk in a neighborhood park is put into that situation because they have long ago closed their eyes to the world around them.

Cosmopolitanism in the Stoic sense is based upon that basic premise, that each place has its own nearly infinite series of attractions.  When we tune out to what is around us, we're left seeking novelty.  When we tune out to those around us, we're left judging them on superficial matters such as where they've been to.  As we come to appreciate ourselves and others for who they are, we find ourselves at home with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places.  Hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles aren't cosmopolitan, being at home wherever you might find yourself is.


23 April 2012

Do you claim all of your home?

One of the central problems with associating the idea of home too much with a place is that you're making a claim to be a part of something that you probably do not even begin to understand.

Our ignorance is unlimited.

When you say that you are proud to be from a place, you should do so knowing what that place really is and what it has been.  Pride in nationality or group often stumbles when it is presented with all of the requisite negativity that comes from the way that groups and nations work.  There is very little that is moral or compassionate in the way that a state functions, and the ways in which groups define themselves and confine themselves leave little room for the questioning and personal growth that is a standard part of the good life.

Be a human being, not a Brazilian.  There is an overwhelming history of compassion and love that comes with that humanity, and it sits right alongside an overwhelming history of brutality and hate.  That is not to say that there aren't things about your community or your people that you shouldn't stake a valid claim to, that you shouldn't be proud of.  There's little of you in that claim though, besides that which you choose to take for yourself.  And if it is a taking on of your own choice, why limit it to one place or one people?  Search far and afield for the positive.

Take all that is good, strive to be all that is good, and always keep in the back of your head the fact that goodness and decency are something to be fought for.  All too many throughout history, around the world, in your town,of your people, under your flag forgot that. That is part of being human, but it is also something that you claim when you put yourself under their banner.

14 April 2012

Where do you live?

Understanding home is pretty difficult.  We normally assign a pretty generic place name to the idea of home.  The further away we get from the place the more and more generic it gets.

Right now I live in the city of Mississauga.  If someone from around here asks me where my home is I would tell them "Mississauga".  I own a little bit of land here, have a house, just built a raised garden bed in the backyard this morning before it started raining.

If Mississauga is my home, and Mississauga is in Canada, wouldn't that mean that Canada would have to be my home as well?  Yet it's a whole different story to refer to a country as your home.  I grew up on the east side of Indianapolis, Indiana.  It was hard for me to ever even say that Indianapolis was my home.  I definitely didn't feel at home downtown, or out west, and definitely not up north.

The United States, even as it grows seemingly more and more dysfunctional by the day, still registers as home for me in the big picture.  My brain puts out alarms whenever the conversation of home and country even come up, it's a topic riven with competing psychological interests.

But when you break away from the psychological attachments and look at what I've just said, it makes no sense.  A city that is Canada is where I would call home in any normal ol' conversation, but the same doesn't stand true for Canada itself.  That word, home, like most words, has so much meaning bound up in such a small space that it's hard to treat it with any sense of greater understanding.

If the US is home, then wouldn't the deep heart of Mississippi be home?  It's the US?  If Mississauga is home then wouldn't the mansions up and down Mississauga Road be home?  They're in Mississauga.

When any of us are asked about the idea of home, we have answers at the ready.  When we start to break those answers down though, we're left without a good understanding of whether the thing that we call home is specific enough to have any real meaning.

Understanding that contradiction is one of the important parts of understanding the idea of cosmopolitanism.