Late Night Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

In 2009 I wrote an essay on the BIG question: life’s meaning. I was drawn to the possibility a better question might be found behind it.

I wondered if it could be more useful to consider how the meaning of life might change over time. Stated that way, the question would produce different answers as an individual aged and grew. My 13-year-old post, therefore, focused on the many reasons we do what we do at life’s various stages, as demonstrated by where we put our time and effort.

The ancient Greeks used the word telos, the end goal driving us from a starting point. Some of us have such a target requiring years of dedication, while others don’t. A youngster hopeful of becoming an Olympic champion is an example of the former.

In my mind, however, whether we begin aiming for a bullseye, we can give it up and substitute a different aim. Ambitions are changeable, and one’s goals depend on moments of choice in anyone’s life. A suitable target might be one thing at 15, quite another when you are 40, and still another at 65.

Whether one believes in one meaning or more meanings in any lifetime, neither strategy offers a singular purpose applicable in all situations. That is, a short answer satisfying at any age, place, or segment in your history or mine.

Perhaps that’s why I set aside thinking about life’s meaning after writing the 2009 essay. I found nothing more to say or consider, so I believed.

Until now, when a friend offered a new idea after watching a YouTube video.

The enlightenment he provided consisted of whether people might engage in actions without wanting to set a goal sparking their labor. Was there any significant activity without external ambition or intention causing exertion in a specified direction?

Put differently, is life’s significance to be found in automatic motivation without a telos, target, or aim, except for doing the activity itself? One would engage in whatever it might be without expecting some payoff or distant fulfillment.

Almost all the other possible meanings are done for reasons beyond themselves. However, the one I’m thinking of is important for itself alone. Not making money, finding love, pleasing a deity, living by heavenly rules, creating a family, achieving fame, or purchasing the perfect home.

Nor is such a singular long-term practice intended to produce life satisfaction, lasting happiness, or someone else’s approval.

The answer is affirmative and obvious, but I never recognized it.

To learn for its own sake at every stage of life.

There would be no promises of an advanced degree like a Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. propelling you toward graduation. No intention of having a worthwhile career because of what you learn. No desire to reach heaven or repair the world with your well-earned knowledge.

I am not suggesting such actions or their intended goals lack merit. Yet, if the meaning of life were to become a physician, for example, we’d have received the news long ago and flooded the world’s medical schools.

Learning is not like that if done for itself. No outside objective exists, though one woman in class acquiring knowledge for herself might be sitting beside a lady trying to gain entry to med school. They both would be learning, but not for the same reason.

Gathering understanding just for itself is as satisfactory a solution to the question of life’s meaning as I can imagine. We are, after all, creatures who spend our lives discovering more about the world.

We do it in an unconscious fashion as well as by intention. We do it even when we have no duty, desire, or calling to enrich ourselves by using what we learn, though we might grow as human beings — improving ourselves because of what we discover. Those products of our tuition would be incidental to the mastery we accumulate.

Some scientists and philosophers say reproduction is the essential task of all living things. Without creating new little creatures, our planet would be empty.

Indeed, in many cases, we learn as a means to win love and have a family, though learning and familial love tend not to be on our minds as we add to our knowledge of what we need to do in advance of those wants.

The direction toward which knowledge-seeking takes us depends on our abilities, the role of chance, and the prior experiences of our lifetimes. This includes how we were brought up, the limits of our imagination, and more. 

Among other factors are the people we encounter, the places we live, our moment in history, extant medical knowledge, and the actions of people who came before us.

After all, for any of us to be born, every one of our ancestors reproduced with just the person they did.

Think of it. Even identical twins are not perfect in their identity, and their life experiences vary. You and I are unique, one of a kind, and this world will never produce such another.

You will learn from almost everything and lead your life based upon the conclusions you draw as your train passes through the “everything of it all.” You will be the only human who acquires the precise combination of lessons you absorb. They will influence your life in thoughtful, casual, and unconscious ways, including what you order from a restaurant menu.

Moreover, what we discover will fit our lives only for a while (as aged people realize). Thus, Homo sapiens have to reconsider the same lessons over and over because the “right” answers undergo alteration, like a school exam scored with one answer key on Monday and a different one on Friday.

Every soul changes over time, as we discover with an honest look in the mirror or reading the number on the bathroom scale.

A great opportunity exists to learn and accomplish something with the tuition our inquisitive nature offers us. Learning might be the one thing fate has put on our list of things to do from almost the moment we were thrown into life.

Nor do we have a choice in the matter, as Ecclesiastes 1:18 reminds us in the Hebrew Bible,

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The acquisition of knowledge is our lot.

Do you say this isn’t a satisfying meaning for life?

Who promised permanent satisfaction?

But I’d like to think, without searching for it, all our learning leads to at least one piece of awareness.

That we learn to be kind and offer joy to others along the way.

Learning can be joyous, you know.

And if you don’t, perhaps it’s time you found out.

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The first image is The Dance by Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla in 1915, sourced from History Daily. Next comes Child’s Head, the work of Albrecht Durer from Wikiart.org/ The third image is called Classic Learning, the sign for the Brown House of Learning on the TRU campus, from cogdogblog via Wikimedia Commons. Finally, King Penguins at S. Georgia, Antarctica Peninsula, 2022 by Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

Do You Believe? Your Answer May Surprise You

You’ve listened to people ask, “Are you a believer?” 

Some answer, “I trust in Him. I believe.”

The word belief is often attached to religious faith. Those who do not have such convictions are called agnostics or atheists. But the word has a broader scope.

Those who deny faith continue to believe differently.

Allow me to explain.

Perhaps unaware of it, they appear to rely on others in a manner similar to how religious people depend on a deity. This is not to say true believers lack the same everyday bolstering backstop found in non-believers.

Consider the pedestal occupied by physicians, especially those doctors we appreciate through long familiarity. They earn our trust if they are confident, knowledgeable, and kind. We turn to them for the maintenance of our lives and health. We entrust them with the well-being of our children.

Their role is godlike, without the ritual, ancient scripture, prayer, and attendance at a house of worship.

Such women and men provide confidence and strength, the ability to persist, the knowledge we are not alone, and, often, that all will be well. Healing us is their business, and sometimes we consider our survival miraculous.

Ah, but perhaps you recall times when a physician did not save you from disability or someone you love from dire illness.

Then you may have a crisis of faith in him, not unlike the intrusion of doubts about God. You might reject one or both, but not everyone does. Many recognize the medical profession’s limitations and continue to hold on to their confidence in a doctor’s value. Or, they might search for another practitioner to take his place.

The human response to tragedy is not so different in those who are religious. Blaming your God or yourself is common. Uncertainty frequently arises about why the misfortune was permitted by an all-good and all-powerful being.

“What did I do to deserve this?” can be followed by self-incrimination or pointing the finger at a deity. Just as the atheist might seek another doctor, the believer may seek another sect — or none.

Yet many — perhaps more — recover their belief and reliance, and the shaken trust regrows. The New Testament provides consolation and an alternative view of adversity:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

Regardless of the particular religion, the sufferer might accept the limitations of a superior being alongside the strengths attributed to him.

The need for assurance provided by a cosmic entity or influential person on our side is vital. To be without faith in anyone, mortal or immortal, is a lonely and terrifying human experience. 

We desire others we can trust with parts, if not the whole, of our well-being. They come to recapitulate our parents’ role as protectors in our early lives, if not to the same extreme.

Unfortunately, the urge to lean on someone or something more substantial can also be misplaced.

Some are vulnerable to the allure of charismatic, persuasive political leaders who disguise their corruption with smoke and mirrors. They offer much the same sense of caring about us, defending us from real or imaginary enemies as our mom and dad did, and offering the belief in a better future. To an extent, these individuals might be perceived as the agents of the actual deity, doing HIS work on Earth.

If officeholders are unscrupulous, sound evidence of their iniquity is sometimes shrugged off. More than a few followers find the need to believe is more essential than being alone without a worldly savior. The tricksters can appear as necessary as a God in the heavens and reinforce the thought HE has willed the anointed one’s presence.

Facts fail to defeat our reliance on a dynamic and persuasive duplicitous leader if his departure would leave us with no substitute champion to fill his role. This woman or man stands unique and extraordinary, occupying a position reminiscent of the physician or loved caretaker.

We live in hope and belief.

In their search for someone or something more extraordinary than themselves, the faithful and the faithless are not as different as they sometimes think.

In a world of uncertainty, we are thereby sustained.

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Both of the photographs were provided with the kind permission of Laura Hedien: Laura Hedien Official Website. Both date from this year. The first captures a Sunrise in the Italian Dolomites in early September. The second offers the Dolomites in the Clouds.

Reframing Your Life to Recognize Opportunities

The present-day offers much talk of freedom and rights, both worth discussing.

What about opportunities?

The emotion-infused conversation of our time sometimes leaves out ways of improving our lives that are less conflictual and more within our control.

Considering the following as a reframing of how to change your personal world. It involves the art of possibility, but first, let me tell you a story:

Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa over 100 years ago by two different British shoe companies. Back then, Africa was a very primitive place, and these men were sent to its most primitive locations.

The salesman from the first company wrote back to his home office in despair:

SITUATION HOPELESS. PEOPLE DON’T WEAR SHOES HERE!

The second salesman also contacted his office, but his message was rather different:

GLORIOUS OPPORTUNITY. THE PEOPLE HERE DON’T HAVE SHOES YET!

We are talking about what is in your hands and how you look at things. You might think of the list below as an incomplete catalog of chances to be framed, chosen, and enacted by you.

You needn’t ask permission except from yourself.

YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO:

  • Be kind.
  • Share your good fortune with others if it comes your way.
  • Learn you can do hard things by doing them, not waiting until you feel perfectly ready.
  • Look at your possible errors or mistaken ideas before you blame someone else. The mirror is handy.
  • Grow in your capability and humanity.
  • Realize life is short. Make the best of the time you have.
  • Do the thing you think you cannot do.
  • Know yourself.
  • Seek support in a difficult time.
  • Make yourself known to others by speaking, smiling, and joining. Friendships will follow.
  • Know Rilke’s poetic wisdom: “You must change your life.” So he wrote to all of us.
  • Take chances without certainty of the results. Realize there is never certainty.
  • Smile at the people who serve you and call them by name.
  • Say no when necessary, but say yes to life.
  • Grow, especially from challenging experiences. Challenges are relative. Choose your starting point.
  • Make others happy and pleased to see you without becoming a doormat.
  • Tell people you love they are loved.
  • Explain your gratitude and appreciation for their presence in your life.
  • Offer help to those in need.
  • Recreate yourself as one who commands respect without instilling fear in others.
  • Defeat your fears.
  • Make yourself able to be reckoned with in thoughtful discussions without becoming rude.
  • Learn to tell a joke.
  • Laugh, including at yourself.
  • Learn how and when to become a listener. Both are important.
  • Embrace your fellow man.
  • Treat yourself with kindness.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Get used to being rejected. It is part of the human condition.
  • Seek sexual enjoyment, but do not objectify your partner.
  • Search for love and look for what is lovable in others.
  • You will be defeated. This is another outcome we all share. Keep trying.
  • Enrich your life — learn from great books and free virtual classes* where you can hear stirring speeches, discover history and nature, and follow tutorials on making things.
  • Discover visual art, stunning photography**, and music.
  • Provide your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews the gift of leaving them a beautiful home: the Earth.

Please add your own items.

Then, before the thought escapes you, begin!

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* You can enjoy and educate yourself online. Check out https://www.coursera.org/ It offers many free virtual classes taught by instructors from some of the most outstanding universities in the world.

If your local public library subscribes to Kanopy.com/, you can watch some of the greatest (and hardest to find) domestic and foreign films, both recent and classic, on the Kanopy website.

A library card will allow you to watch as many as 10 per month without charge.

**The two photos above display the artistic gifts of Laura Hedien, with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. Both date from this year.

The first offers a Summertime Sunset on the Great Plains, while the second is from the Italian Dolomites. Consider these another of many discoveries and opportunities on the World Wide Web.

Love, Fate and the Role of Acceptance in Achieving Well-being

Things happen — sometimes planned, sometimes unplanned. According to several philosophers, making the best of jubilation and tragedy is essential to a life of equanimity, given the inevitability of both.

Nietzsche put it this way in The Gay Science:

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful.

Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

Of course, Nietzche didn’t live every day as he tried to, but he offers a helpful description of a much-needed way of achieving a well-balanced life. This man understood all kinds of joys and sorrows would be unexpected, haphazard, and absurd.

The German philosopher suggests we come to terms with whatever happens to us — the fluctuating experience of our human life no matter what. Positives and negatives come close to being guaranteed in any long lifetime.

Dean Martin’s rendition of That’s Amore (Italian for romantic love) reminds us that chance meetings often drive affairs of the heart. Amor (Latin) also means love but applies to many things, including fate, as in the expression Amor Fati or love of fate.

That is what Nietzche expresses: accepting the nature of life as a first signpost to the emotional overcoming and acceptance of disappointment, failure, and unfairness.

The Stoic philosophers additionally referred to the limits of what we can change and must concede. They believed our brief lifespan gives us a silent push to make the best use of our finite opportunities and a reason for adherence to the highest values.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson said the following about the difference between the worldview of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second-century Rome, and our way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy.

Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The writing of the Englishman Wordsworth, too, reminds us to make the best use of our abilities in worthwhile actions:

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers …

Camus, the French writer, Existentialist, and political activist, goes beyond the conventional notion of acceptance in The Myth of Sisyphus. His title character, a figure from Greek mythology, was a man in extreme distress who achieved equanimity, triumph, and nobility despite it. 

The gods condemned Sisyphus to spend the rest of his life pushing a large rock up a tall hill. Of course, the boulder rolled down each time, requiring him to walk down and repeat the meaningless act.* 

In the view of Camus, this man does not rage against the gods for his misfortune nor forever despair at his sentence to such a life. “His fate belongs to him” to the extent he can look at it for what it is. This target of the gods has to realize “there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

In taking on the job required of him as his own, “Sisyphus knows himself to be the master of his days.” The creative sufferer buys into what is inescapable. 

The last line of the writer’s essay reads, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Captives in war, like Vice Admiral James Stockdale, relied on the teaching of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus when imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam conflict. The brave officer thereby found a way to endure seven years of captivity. 

The following is from Wikipedia:

James C. Collins related a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese prison. When Collins asked which prisoners didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.

And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.And they died of a broken heart.

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox.

The idea of finding solace in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” so-called by the U.S. prisoners who inhabited and mocked it, also seems absurd. Yet the message is affirmative: the experience could be endured, the awfulness would cease, and life would go on. 

Think of chronic pain, another matter of endurance, as comprised of two parts. 

The first is the physical affliction itself, the signals your body sends to you from the site of the injury. The second part, however, is where your agency — your control — can be found, depending on what you do with the “idea” of suffering. 

Suppose you focus forever on your distress, worry it will intensify, think how unfair it is, rage at what caused it, and despair at what you have lost. In that event, your psychological state and unhappiness will grow. 

Instead, imagine you learn to meditate and calm your mind, concentrate on your breathing, engage in mind-capturing tasks, or distract yourself with T.V., computer games, and other pastimes. 

In that case, the possibility exists of overcoming a significant aspect of your misfortune.

One more thing. In your attempt to understand Stoicism, realize they did not dismiss the need for grieving. Rather, they added something to it.

I am not suggesting you or I share the fortitude of either the mythic Greek or the heroic Congressional Medal of Honor winner Stockdale. At times pain triumphed even for the Stoics.

I have tried to offer an awareness of an uncommon way to approach the act of living and consider whether it may include something both true and worthy. If you think it might, perhaps it will change your life. 

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*Please do not confuse the legendary Sisyphus and his punishment with the origin of “Rock and Roll.” I hope you get the pun. Imagine Sisyphus laughing from the hilltop.

The three images below the youtube video are all of the same Amor Fati Coin, available from the Stoic Store U.K. and easily found online. I have no financial or other involvement with this product or those who manufacture and sell it.

Presumably, it is used by some of those attached to Stoic philosophy as a reminder to seek the love of fate.

The Importance of “Showing Up”

As the world has become digitized, the possibility of being recognized as “worth knowing” has challenged many. Masks, however necessary, also prevent one from “being seen,” known, and noticed.

If we hope to move forward, possessing an impactful presence and enough comfort to stand out are personal and professional requirements. Similarly, finding friends and making a living are each difficult without a large personality, a touch of genius, or an appearance striking to the eye.

My repost of an essay on this subject might help you make yourself more of what you want to be: a person who can be distinguished from the crowd.

Dr. Gerald Stein

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/68/Reporter_raising_hand_at_US_Army_press_conference.jpg/500px-Reporter_raising_hand_at_US_Army_press_conference.jpg

Woody Allen denies he ever said, “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” Still, someone did.

Regardless of the author, what does it mean?

It refers to taking chances and working hard; if not welcoming challenges, at least not shying away from them. They often come without an announcement for those who listen for their call.

In and out of my clinical practice, I’ve met people who don’t “show up,” sometimes literally. Such individuals fail to put time and effort into therapy or whatever they “claim” is important to them.

How many people say their family is the essential thing in life but allocate their hours as if loved ones were second, third, or even lower on the list?

“Showing up” means stating you value something or someone and striving for consistency between your words and deeds. Of course, when acknowledging a person or thing has worth, you are taking…

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The Occasional Value of Looking Away From Reality

You might have noticed that many of us don’t accept the truth, no matter how much “proof” is offered. I’m not talking just about politics but our daily lives.

In fact, “looking away” has its uses.

Years ago, I believed one could convince someone else with a persuasive, logical, well-organized argument. There would be an “aha” moment, and the speaker would have shown the light to the other. Not simply displayed it but caused the illumination of another mind, without which the brilliance of the day or cloudlessness of the sky made no difference.

Few of us always want the truth, and some don’t want uncomfortable truths for multiple causes of which they possess little awareness. We are often metaphorically blind at those times. Our emotions play with the possibility of clear-eyed consideration of ideas without our knowledge of having done so.

Why might that be? Many reasons.

  • When you are a child, you need your parents. Best to recognize them as the ones who guarantee the well-being of your tender life rather than as people who haven’t mastered the job, especially if they are unkind. Even adults can carry their childhood desire for their parents’ love in the hope of obtaining it … finally.
  • We want to get along with others: neighbors, friends, co-religionists, family members, and co-workers. Well-functioning relationships often require compromise and depend on seeing the best in those near us.
  • If unsure of what to think or believe, it’s nice to go to experts who claim to be more learned. Financial advisors and almost all other professional disciplines rely upon this to make a living. Trust is necessary unless we wish to go through life alone.
  • Counting on those exuding confidence and a record of success transmits assurance to us. Relief and appreciation upon hearing their apparent truths are byproducts.
  • Our high-speed lives and responsibilities are pressured with complexities. Simple solutions relieve stress and doubt.
  • Not knowing the proper direction to go is troubling when the map of life is confusing. Happiness and satisfaction appear attainable if we receive straightforward instructions, “the” solution (so we are told) to problematic issues.
  • We are prone to perceive people as if they are one thing. Good or bad, bright or dull, kind or harsh. Once placed in a category, humanity tends to stick with such impressions despite future contradictory information. No one is great, generous, loving, and self-sacrificing in every circumstance. Halos are for the divine.

  • Most of us not only wish to be seen but care about being recognized, accepted, and admired for something close to the fullness of our personhood. Con-men figure out this vulnerability and exploit the qualities that enhance their value to us.
  • Truth can be painful. When discerning a devastating or costly truth, the draw of fantasy is powerful.
  • Certainty in your spouse’s fidelity sometimes lasts longer than the actuality of it. Few mates seek to break up families, hire lawyers, and face this challenge to a historically loving foundational relationship. Looking away may be a comforting alternative if we succeed in self-persuasion and ignorance.
  • Passionately spoken untruth, if repeated many times, often seems more convincing than raw facts.
  • Imagine telling a friend about someone you both know and reporting the fellow’s deceit. Assuming your comrade did not witness the misbehavior, his hesitation in accepting your observation is understandable, all the more if your buddy has a long positive history with the miscreant.
  • As death is not considered a fun topic, many avoid the issue, including some of the implications that demand our attention in creating a fulfilling life.
  • Homo sapiens must envision the world’s doubtless beauty and capacity for enhancement. If humans consider the planet beyond repair, it would be harder to sustain any sense of optimism or find courage when difficulties arise.
  • Some knowledge also fails the test of usefulness. Assume you require surgery. Not everyone can understand all possible side effects, make wise choices among different types of procedures, and interpret medical research that helps inform such decisions. Nor is the ability to choose doctors always easy.
  • Sometimes, the patient might enlist a friend or loved one to take over a good-sized portion of the task, ask questions, process information, and make suggestions. Doing so might reduce the stress of those in need without endangering the medical outcome.

Taking in too much of the world carries the potential to disable us. The challenge for everyone is knowing how much we can handle and under what conditions.

Whether we comprehend it or not, prioritization or triage is required, thereby recognizing what is essential to face and what can wait. This is easier than it sounds, of course, because the unconscious plays its shadowy role.

Not everything must be known, and not every battle be fought to have a good life.

You might consider this … every so often.

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The first image is a Dark Matter Map from Hyper Suprime-Cam survey, 2018. Beneath is a Blindfold Hat by Dale and Kim Schoonover. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When We Stop Thinking

Something has happened, and few are thinking about it.

We live in a time of more books, movies, and accumulated knowledge than ever. The world should be ripe for thoughtful discussion, yet nuanced ideas are in short supply, if not dangerous. 

Not necessarily a danger of physical harm, but sleepless nights, depression, and anxiety. Lost personal connections, too.

We don’t want to look outside after dark. I’m not speaking of the time when the sun goes down. Instead, differences among friends and relatives who we believe have gone over the edge.

It doesn’t matter what side. Neither tribe (and maybe more than two) takes enough time to move beyond surfaces.

When a statement conflicts with our beliefs in conversation or public debate, friction starts and sometimes stops in two seconds. Our brains turn on the mute.

Better not to think about it, some would say. Better to search for distractions. Better to rely on authorities we believe in, news outlets who echo only what pleases us, and topics unlikely to cause trouble at work or home.

The current remedy is to grasp simple answers acceptable to the folks we live near, attend our church, and like our spouse.

Of course, there are other things to think about. Getting the groceries, raising the kids, saving money, and looking forward to a Saturday night date.

Are the Chicago Cubs a lousy baseball outfit? At least, that is something about which we can agree.

But the questions don’t go away because we don’t want to enter the dark space inside or outside ourselves.

My take is that while some of the “other guys” are opportunistic and deceitful or worse, not all are, and not everyone on our team is pure. Nor am I always a paragon of virtue.

The talking heads have mostly made up their minds and ours along with theirs.

I like to learn more than what a closed mind offers.

It won’t take you very far to think that the other party or clan is full of stupid or evil people. Better to ask why they take the positions they do and what is important to them and read books that tell us things we don’t know.

In other words, get past comfortable explanations to those that might enlighten us.

And, once we’ve thought through the present and learned the unsettling lessons of human history and experience, to take responsibility.

Consider action intended to make the world better for everybody, not just your team, club, party, religion, race, country, gender, or tribe. That’s where the best possible future is to be found.

But first, you must focus, ask questions beyond what you are told, and move past the madness of the crowd.

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The late 19th-century painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior is Girl with a Book. The bottom image is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babble. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why Does Suffering Happen?

Good and bad, up and down, things happen. We prefer wins over losses and joy rather than sadness. While treatment often helps with suffering, reducing distress isn’t sufficient for a thoughtful therapist or client.

Most of us attempt to understand why we suffer. The attempt to reckon with this fact of life is called a philosophical approach to suffering, as described by Professor Edith Hall in discussing ancient Greek Tragedy.

Many answers have been offered, of which Dr. Hall mentions the first two below:

  • The individual who experienced a tragic event did something “stupid.” The person made a mistake. “He should have known better,” we might say to ourselves. In other words, the man made an error in judgment.
  • The misfortune goes far beyond what can be fully explained. The Professor cites Oedipus as an example. This king is arrogant and impulsive, not inclined to listen to advice or display kindness, but hasn’t earned the horror that befalls him.

  • A more satisfying answer can be found in the New Testament. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” In other words, something positive will come from misfortune.
  • What is commonly referred to as Bad Karma is thought to be the result of your behavior in present or previous lives. Hindu sects suggest you must improve your actions and thoughts through successive reincarnated lives until you reach perfection. Doing so allows you to escape the cycle of death and rebirth on earth.
  • Some fundamentalist religions ascribe misfortune to a failure of your personal faith. They sometimes point to your misunderstanding of what God requires, leaving the directives of their “only true religion” unfulfilled.
  • Stoic philosophers tell us misfortune occurs within the regular unfolding of human existence. We suffer because we are mortal, subject to worldly events. Hurtful challenges offer opportunities to improve ourselves but aren’t fashioned by divine authority. We are left with the necessity of growing and taking on life as it is, not as we wish it could be. The Stoics encourage reminding ourselves of life’s brevity, living with the urgency such awareness imposes, and focusing on what we control. Since we cannot change the conditions, they suggest we accept them.

  • Speaking in a general way, Buddhism tells us life is suffering. To endure the pain and reach an elevated state (Nirvana), one is advised to empty himself of wanting and desire, two sources of unhappiness. The aim is to surrender our sense of individuality and merge with a higher state of being, a spiritual awakening known as “no self.” Meditation helps. Hinduism and Buddhism take various forms, as many religions do.
  • Let’s not forget the devil, a creature sometimes blamed for our catastrophes. Unfortunately, once we begin calling people “evildoers” or similar names, we move closer to harming them and becoming like the individuals we hate.
  • I’ll limit this list to one more cause of adversity: poor luck, randomness, or a lack of discoverable reasons. You walk down the block, and a falling brick strikes you. A shame.

Any solution to the “why” question must offer comfort. We’d probably be less inclined to keep asking such questions if they provided a satisfying and lasting answer. Watching dramatic enactments or reading books that keep the issue before us indicates we don’t easily let go of our preoccupation.

One way we try to quell our worries is to find heroic defenders. A strong mate, a gifted physician, and a charismatic political leader can serve this purpose. History tells us about injured soldiers in every war crying for their mothers.

Outside of reliance on others, most attempts to quiet the fear of suffering require regular “practice.” For example, Bible reading, the Stoic’s daily reminder of his mortality, and the Buddhist’s quiet meditation. All attempt to soothe or dismiss the looming possibility of future hardship.

Still, we are left with some related concerns. When misfortune occurs to someone else, do we feel better? Perhaps, if we believe their “mistakes” offer us the confidence we will not duplicate what they did.

The religious answers suggest some order exists in the universe. On the other hand, the presence of random unpredictability tends to be unsatisfying at least, terrifying at worst.

Do we blame others more than we blame ourselves when things go poorly? That is consistent with my observation, though not true of everyone. Humans are gifted with psychological defenses against full awareness of their flaws.

Is there any advantage to asking the question of why we suffer? I’d say yes. It can prepare you for unexpected events.

Considering the question may also raise your level of compassion and kindness, not setting you above the remainder of humanity.

Thus, the topic inclines us to embrace our universal circumstances as fellow suffers. As one might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We are all mortals — every living being on the planet. We share the need to join together to make enlightened use of our fleeting time on earth. To do otherwise will leave us vulnerable to circumstances beyond individual control.

The question of philosophical suffering is optional, of course. There is no requirement to think about it or provide a specific answer.

One could argue too much preoccupation with such thoughts carries its own distress. If you think about how we live, no small part of our time is spent worrying about trivial issues. Much of our attention is put into self-distraction or various forms of entertainment.

It is your life to do as you wish. Choose wisely.

This fellow human wishes you the best life possible.

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The top image is a Question Mark Choice created by quimono. After the brief youtube video featuring Dr. Hall comes Meditation at Empty Cloud Monastery by Rikku411. The final photo is called Reading in Solitude, the work of benwhitephotography. All are derived from Wikimedia Commons.

What Money, Sex, Time, and Food Tell You About Anyone

It is hard to get away from thinking about money. How about sex? Are these related to each other? Please read on for my thoughts on this ever-present subject.

Dr. Gerald Stein

512px-Sexy_Mouth_transparentMany of us spend a fair amount of the day wondering what makes people tick. It is an amusing spectator sport, the stuff of daydreams, and hard to avoid in a world of inexplicable human behavior.

Here’s a little help in performing this pastime.

You capture a lot about his essence if you understand how a new acquaintance deals with money, sex, time, and food. The same is true of your boss, date, or co-worker. Anyone.

Let’s begin with MONEY. The dollar takes on layers of meaning beyond the commercial exchange.

I had a tall, thick-wristed uncle who quickly lifted and paid large bills on a restaurant table. He wanted to be the “big guy,” the successful man with a reputation for generosity. He had a wad of folding money in his pocket, as seen in a “man’s man” who wants to leave an impression. No pencil-necked, uncertain male…

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Our Judging Selves: The Problem of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson has not come out well in our black-and-white age. Once upon a time, we defined him as one of the courageous and eloquent founders of the U.S.A., the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and the designer of the University of Virginia. A man who was twice President, too.

But there was another side of him, not so rosy or principled — including actions that have darkened and complicated our opinions.

He enslaved people and broke up families when selling some of them.

He was the lover of one of those kept in bondage, Sally Hemings, beginning a sexual relationship with her five years after the death of his wife.

Jefferson loved fine wines and books but left many debts owed to unhappy creditors.

The word genius is diminished when we compare several of today’s “geniuses” to this former President.

John F. Kennedy invoked his predecessor’s brilliance when he held a dinner in 1962 for the Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere:

I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.

And yet, if we admire him, we live uncomfortably with his contradictions. For the most part, he did not share all our discomfort and therefore is called a hypocrite and worse. Yet, the same man wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How does this involve you and me?

One of the (shall we say) truths many believe is that the real heroes are pure or close to it. Having encountered a few thousand people in my professional and private life, I am waiting to meet someone kind, brave, knowledgeable, self-aware, generous, and every other positive quality in one body full time.

However, I will say I endured a few too many who were far lower on the evolutionary ladder: cheats, liars, bullies, molesters, bigots, and even murderers. Nor do I always rise to my standards and, occasionally, have fallen well beneath them.

We live with ourselves — at least most of us — by avoiding the shadowy parts of our behavior and rationalizing much of what others might deplore.

If we and the planet are to be civilized, we need laws, courts, and judges. But the ice is thin beneath us when our tendency toward heated finger-pointing often fuels us to vilify the part of humanity we believe is inferior to ourselves.

Nothing I can write here will persuade you to give up your self-satisfied certainty if you are one of those who feed on the rage in the world.

For the rest of you, let me remind you of a comment made by a 20th-century investigative journalist, I.F. Stone. The writer was asked how he could be sympathetic to Thomas Jefferson in light of his slaveholding.

Stone responded,

Because history is a tragedy, not a melodrama.

Think about those weighty words. The Collins English Dictionary tells us that a Greek Tragedy “is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.”

Oedipus and Antigone are examples.

Melodrama is a different story.

According to Kyle DeGuzman, “Melodrama is a dramatic work in which events, plot, and characters are sensationalized to elicit strong emotional reactions from the audience. In literature, theatre, and cinema, melodramas are focused on exaggerated plots rather than characterization.”

As Stone suggested, history displays various versions of our all too human failings, especially if we are trying to live “good lives.” Our hearts break at the fault line where such an individual is overcome by his weaknesses and external forces bigger than he is.

Melodrama is not a tragedy. It is an exaggeration and overstatement intended to take our emotions to extremes, even to the point of overpowering our judgment with anger and other feelings.

An ancient Greek view of Jefferson’s complex life is more likely to recognize his imperfections than any melodramatic rendering of his biography set 200 years ago in circumstances we can only imagine.

To me, he was a greatly flawed great man, though I would like to think I might have lived some of his actions differently than he did.

The truth is, however, I don’t know.

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Below the Jefferson painting are Scales of Justice by Johnny_automatic. The latter was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.