Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Exquisite Contradiction

“He burns with spiritual intensity—and he desperately wants to be something in the eyes of the world. An exquisite contradiction, because what lurks near the center of his spiritual life, but without actually living there, is the thought that he should desire and expect to be nobody and nothing to the world.”

In my experience, this quotation fits nearly everyone* who teaches at a church-related university, or preaches to a public, or posts about faith on Facebook, or blogs about it.  I make no exception for myself.

Fellow teachers, preachers, posters, and bloggers, I would love to know what you think.  If you're moved to post in the comments here, or on your own preferred forum, you will have my admiration—and I do not mean that ironically.



*There is a class whom the quotation does not describe.  This is the cynical "pragmatist" who burns with no spiritual intensity at all.  But he has learned that if he simulates such a person, playing a role, he can acquire power for himself by exploiting those who do feel the contradiction.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Speaking in Code

I recount to you a fable, told me lately by a friend.

The meeting had been called to discuss a Technique. Strictly speaking, techniques serve external ends, and this was no exception. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in 1981 that participants in the dominant culture avoid evaluating ends, knowing only how to reason about means. Over Three decades later, we have overcome such thinking, having now figured out how to avoid evaluating means as well. It is so simple. We just designate them "best practices." Like any good candidate for a term with mesmeric force, this one has long outlived its roots, which no doubt fed in a soil of rigor, scientific study, and dedication to efficiency.

So, the people came together to discuss the Technique, which they were sure was a Best Practice, well designed to achieve its Ends. But it turns out that the attendees also had ends of their own.

After long discussion, a young woman offered a contribution. She was frustrated with the Technique, she said. She had never been wholly satisfied with her attempts to implement it, and she felt that perhaps it did not serve its Ends very well. 

An older man volunteered a reply, in a congenial tone. "Do not worry, Young Woman. After years of implementing the Technique, I too have had frustrations. You must have confidence that, in time, and with practice, your use of the Technique will improve."

The young woman failed to switch codes. As a result, two people did not achieve their ends.

Hers included: (1) arguing that the Technique should itself be questioned, or perhaps even abandoned, and (2) accomplishing (1) without offending her colleagues.  She succeeded with the second part of (2) but only at the expense of failing completely with (1). Although she had said that the Technique might not serve its ends, her senior colleague had fixated on her expressions of frustration and humility, and he had assumed that she was in distress, asking for help.

His ends included (1) helping a junior colleague in an empathetic way, and, presumably, (2) not sounding condescending. His is the tragic case: he failed in both.

It was at some point in graduate school that I realized that I spoke in a code that my male peers did not understand. Any expression of self-doubt, or hesitation, or polite demurring--they took to be expressions of incompetence or ignorance. Few of these men were jerks. They just had never learned the code that women use so naturally (though it be our second nature) with one another. And to be fair, we didn't know their code either. We assumed that their expressions of self-confidence were signs of insufferable arrogance, when they were more likely just moves in an intricate game.

At the peak of my frustration over the obstacles meeting women in a male-dominated field, I was advised repeatedly not to write about such things--at least not yet. And I sympathized with the advice. Not only did I see the ways in which such writing might keep me from being "taken seriously," I agreed with Simone de Beauvoir that the topic of women can be irritating, especially to women.

But watching interactions that resemble my friend's familiar fable have convinced me: charity requires speaking out about such things. Otherwise these poor people will never understand, will remain forever blind, will never achieve even the noblest of ends.

If women are to play the game with those who cannot hear us, we must, at least in limited contexts, learn to codeswitch, even if I much prefer the gentler tenor of our own code. But many men can and truly want to hear us. To effect this end, the codes cannot remain secret, and women cannot remain silent about themselves. Understanding silence, after all, itself requires immersion in the most advanced of codes. It is often too much to ask.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Quantified Self: Some Thoughts from the 17th Century


We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.

First, let me be clear: tracking information about the self certainly has its benefits and its place. Self-monitoring makes us aware of habits we would love to ignore, which is invaluable if we have a habit we need to overcome. And it can reward us for overcoming: there is something bizarrely satisfying about writing down a success, however small. Some of us are not above writing things on a to-do list that we've already done, just for the pleasure of checking it off.

But notice the funny mixture of reason and absurdity here: we may reasonably track our exercise habits, for instance, to serve an important and attainable health goal. But we are not above playing silly tricks on ourselves to encourage this reasonable enterprise.

When I started running, I put gold stars on a calendar every time I made it out the door for a run.

I was an adult.

Thus we come to Pascal, expert on dualities of reason and absurdity. Lest we think that we have finally invented something new under the Sun, it is worth noting that a contrary Frenchman diagnosed all of the central problems with self-quantification in the 17th century. To wit:

Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).

Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.

Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).

Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .

Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).

Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.

One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Little Story About Humility

Not long ago, while visiting a friend in Denver, I came across this charming anecdote in Goethe's Italian Journey. It's stuck with me, so I thought I would post it. "Neri" is St. Filippo Neri (1515-1595), founder of the Oratorians.

[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”

Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787

(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Disillusionment

Can a state of disillusionment ever be coherent?

As a feeling, it is difficult to experience as anything but painful. It seems defined with the bad: it is a poignant sorrow, arrived at only when one realizes that a previous pleasure--or a previously pleasant part of one's life--has passed, and can only be partially recaptured at the expense of intellectual or moral honesty.

Yet such honesty itself requires us to appreciate being set free from an illusion. We cannot but feel, after such an experience, that having seen that illusion from both in front of and behind the curtain, we are now competent judges, in John Stuart Mill's sense. Knowing both sides, we have moved beyond an immature stage. This is progress, and it is to be celebrated.

Aside from such vague dissonance, however, disillusionment occasions a new problem, when we encounter those who have not yet seen behind the curtain: do we attempt to rip it aside, or not?

If we are at our best in such moments, we want to help, to offer the benefit of our experience to others. Yet this is a path--well, not really a path at all. It is a wall topped with razor wire, and it's not clear what's on the other side.

To tell a story of one's disillusionment is, very likely, to tell a story of one's failures. (For I have sworn thee fair, after all, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.) Such a story is a gracious offering. At the beginning of his essay on discussion, Montaigne notes that he learns better "by counter-example than example," and offers his own reflections on his imperfections in hopes that he "may teach someone how to fear them." But he also, too truly, notes that "when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are."

More importantly, life in front of the curtain feels comfortable for those who are living there. Efforts to tear it away can fail, and they can fail badly. One attempting the operation may well do more harm than good.

I struggle with this every once in awhile, particularly since my job and other aspects of my life bring me often into contact with young adults--many of whom have and are about to act on the same illusions I once had and once acted upon. And I don't have any great ideas about how to handle such situations, but here is a proposal for three rules of thumb. I truly welcome additional suggestions:

1.) Do your best to know your own motives. In these situations, I know mine are often mixed. The thing about which I am disillusioned, after all, is something or someone who has hurt me. That means that I might be making a little speech to myself about looking out for this young person's good, when in fact I want the pathetic revenge that comes from trash-talking a perceived enemy. If that's the dominant feeling, everything else I'm trying to do is suspect. Good advice, it seems to me, is more likely to come from a soul at peace with itself.

2.) In addition to suspecting your motives, suspect your experience at both the widest and narrowest margins. Your disillusionment about something as broad as, say, marriage, is unlikely to provide good guidance to anyone in a particular situation that does not resemble yours in numerous respects. (In other words, it's probably silly to be disillusioned about something this broad.) Likewise, your disillusionment about a single person may really be about your problems, or your problems in that relationship, rather than the other person's. (Remember this is a rule of thumb; I do not mean this to apply to anyone's disillusionment with any genuine abuser or other social monster.) Disillusionment about cliques of people, or institutions of various sizes, on the other hand, may well be instructive.

3.) If you really know that the "illusioned" person cannot hear you, or if this is really the kind of lesson one must learn for oneself, it is probably best to curtail the attempt. I think we probably know this more often than we like to admit, because we like to believe that we have more power over people than we do. But if you just met someone, and she has stars in her eyes over some institution that is woven into the fabric of her life, chances are that you cannot help. And if you know that the person you're advising has little respect for your opinion, chances are that you cannot help. And if you've offered the same caution before, and it has fallen on deaf ears, chances are . . . .

But it is difficult. Because at least sometimes, one really wants to help.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Love Letter to Brasil (and Brasilians!)

A week has passed since Margaret and I were in Brasil. To convey what it was like is not possible—but a failed attempt strikes me as better than none at all. Before the trip, I had absolutely no expectations. Which is funny, since as a small child, I would check out books about S. America and imagine what life in the continent must be like, gazing at pictures of mountains, rivers and jungles. But adult life came perilously close to destroying my capacity for such wonder. So my attitude was "another plane trip, another conference." I had no idea what I was in for.

What was so striking about Brasil? First, the sensation of being in a land with very few English-speakers. Had we gone to Rio or São Paolo, things might have been different. But the site of the conference was Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. BH (bay-ah-GAH, as the locals call it) is Brasil's third largest city, but not exactly a tourist destination. Because of this, I hazard that BH gave me something more akin to "the real Brasil," as distinct from the side of the country carefully prepared for tourist consumption. Not that I exactly blended in. That my dress and my demeanor screamed "Americano!" from miles away, I have no doubt. ("You'll be marked as a tourist the moment you get there," an old friend of Peruvian heritage assured me.) And my Portuguese has very little going for it, beyond my general willingness to take some risks and make a fool of myself. (The brasileira at the airport thought I was trying to buy chocolate on credit, rather than proposing to use my credit card. The fault was certainly mine...) But the locals were so warm and so receptive to my bumbling efforts, that after a while I found myself spontaneously exclaiming "Amo Brasil!" This had the double merit of being true and being ingratiating. When the true and the useful coincide in this manner, one can only feel grateful.

Another unforgettable thing about Belo Horizonte—the sidewalks. Here in the States, or at least where I live, the sidewalks are mostly charmless paths of dull and drab concrete. In Belo Horizonte, they were typically colorful mosaics, with fascinating and unpredictable patterns. I wish I could describe these better. One of the more remarkable patterns was a hopscotch (see photo below).

Quite a large proportion of the local buildings, as well as the streets, are named after famous writers. On the first day, I found Montaigne and Stendhal. The last day presented me with a building calling itself "Edifício Montesquieu." There was also a condo (I think) sporting the name "Federico Fellini," as well as a salon called "Nixon," which I can only assume was not named after the former U.S. President. But it's difficult to be sure.

Anyone who appreciates food should certainly try the Brazilian cuisine. The buffets are generally much better than the typical American buffet. Our second night, Margaret and I went to a restaurant called "Amadeus." In addition to offering all the cheeses, fruits, and meats we could dream of, as well as the most splendid array of desserts I'd ever seen, Amadeus featured a wine cellar that we were able to personally inspect. Perhaps my favorite type of Brazilian restaurant is the rodizio. A rodizio invariably begins with an antipasto bar, full of olives, fruits, cheese, nuts and other delectables. Here the trick is to eat about half as much as you'd like to, since you need to leave room for the main courses. These consist of "endless meat." The server brings one kind of meat after another, about every seven minutes, and carves it for you at the table. He does not stop visiting your table, armed with juicy meat begging to be consumed, until he is explicitly instructed to do so. The rodizio we visited was a Lebanese place—"Vita Araba." I managed to stay just this side of the famous "meat coma."

Scenery, architecture, food—such are the standard fare of travel writers. No experience of travel should be without them. But how to write about them vividly, with imagination and flair? Obviously, I've got no idea. My strategy in the above paragraphs was to pick relatively two non-obvious items of interest—buildings with strange names and sidewalks with strange patterns—before debauching into the usual discourse about food. It would be a mistake, however, to leave you with the impression that scenery, architecture, food were what made Brasil for me.

What did make Brasil for me, if not the impressive scenery, buildings and cuisine? The answer: its people.

I love Brasil—but what I really love are brasileros and brasileiras. In every location in which I encountered Brasilians—whether at the conference, restaurants, shops, museums, gelaterias, or the airport—they were some of the warmest and most welcoming people whom I've ever met, in any country. They were so willing to converse with a none-too-impressive American who tried, however poorly, to speak their language. Seeing my somewhat confused look in a bookstore, an employee approached me. After we talked a little, partly in English and partly in Portuguese, he led me to two sections. "Here are some classics in Portuguese!" he said proudly. "And here are some books"—gesturing to another shelf—"in your language." When I (sincerely) told him I was far more interested in the former, he looked at me with a mixture of surprise and respect, and proceeded to ask me where I was from and what my name was. After purchasing an inexpensive Portuguese edition of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, I decided it was time for some chocolate. The chocolate was fine. But what I really remember was the woman behind the counter beaming when I told her that her English was good, after she had asked me which state I was from. When I give a true answer to this question (i.e. "Texas"), I am no longer surprised when I receive a look of contempt. None of the Brazilians whom I encountered exhibited any such small-minded nonsense. They are not so provincial as to believe that Texans are just one thing.

My encounters with brasileros and brasileiras on the streets and in the shops were a daily source of joy. I should add that the Brazilian academics at the Hume Society conference were equally lovely. Professor Livia Guimarães, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), did an excellent job coordinating the conference as a whole. Though I had met her only once, Livia remembered me and embraced me (literally) as if we were old friends. Particularly memorable was the Hume Society's banquet, held the last night of the conference. I was quite fortunate to be seated next to two Brazilian academics, Luiz Eva and Cecília Almeida. Margaret and I had met Luiz the day before, and so knew that he and I both love Montaigne. Luiz spoke excellent English, and in a distinctly American accent, perhaps because he spent half a year at Johns Hopkins on a post-doc. Now he teaches at the Universidade Federal do Paraná. We spoke about everything from the style of philosophy most influential in Brasil, to why more people don't fathom that Montaigne is a philosopher, to why Hume remains a figure of interest and fascination, to the impossibility of translating the Portuguese term "saudade." After a while, Cecília joined our table. From what I gather, Luiz and Cecília had both studied philosophy in São Paolo. Cecilia is also interested in French skeptical writers—she specializes in Pierre Bayle—and recently accepted a position in the philosophy department at the Universidade de Brasília. In addition to encouraging my fledging efforts at Portuguese—her English was so much better than my Portuguese!—she gave me invaluable advice about where to travel next time we're in Brasil. (Not trusting my own ability to remember, I asked her to write it down, which she did.) Cecília also mentioned the prospect of yours truly coming to Brasilia to give a lecture. This I did not get in writing, but I am optimistic that it will happen. In any case, Margaret and I will be making another trip to Brasil.

In conclusion … but I won't conclude, since my time in Brasil has hardly concluded. In lieu of a conclusion, here are some photographs.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Regarding What We Do on Airplanes

This morning's reflection on Martha and Mary acquainted me with an idea that, I confess, was wholly new to me--that the story is in fact controversial, that some find the praise of Mary, at the apparent expense of Martha, unfair and dismissive of the contributions of women to hospitality and domestic life. Given my profound ignorance of this debate, I cannot presume to adequately represent the nuances of this criticism. But I would like to consider one version of it, which I take to reflect a nearby complaint that I can certainly understand.

Let us suppose that the complaint goes something like this: Martha's activities in this story reflect true charity. In keeping with her role in this society, and reflecting a deep commitment to neighbor love, she works to prepare her home as a welcoming haven for an honored guest. Meanwhile, Mary selfishly lets her sister do all the work of this preparation, while delighting in the company of this guest. Martha sacrifices for others; Mary satisfies her own desires. Why, then, has Mary chosen the better portion?

Does this gripe sound familiar? Does it not ring the note of ressentiment that we all sometimes feel as we work to maintain our homes, our workplaces, our cities, while others engage in activities that we claim we would like to be doing--as soon as that work is done which is never done? 

The problem with this other-self interpretation of Martha's story, however, is that Mary is not actually focusing on her self. She is listening to a beloved friend, soaking up in rapt attention what he has to teach her, perhaps simply marveling at the peace that he seems to carry with him. This friend tells Martha, in response to her complaint, that she is fragmented by many things. Mary, on the other hand, has focused on the one necessary thing.

Might part of the point be that Mary is focusing on one thing?

Perhaps the divergence here is not between selfish isolation and altruistic sociability, but between dedicated vision and anxious fragmentation. Such fragmentation can make one feel alone when engaged in social activities, or destroy the genuine goods of solitude. Often, in solitude, we can hear the better voices in our heads, or access the well of our creative potential, or feel the resonance of the call of something higher than ourselves. We consume those opportunities when we fragment all our time alone, whether by our electronics, our busy work, or our anxieties. It is like setting fire to what Virginia Woolf called 'a room of one's own.' We must protect such rooms, even if doing so means leaving other rooms untidy on occasion.