A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn

Alone

Loneliness is a desperate thing and a thing desperately hard to capture in words. But when the wish for connection becomes reality, the heart trembles …

We are isolated for several reasons. What happens in our head is unique. Intimate communication is a struggle. We are surprised at the blunt instruments words become. The indefinable essence is too often lost, subject to the way we sound, our facial expression; and the auditor’s capacity to listen. Without his ability to identify some likeness between his experience and our own, the effort is futile.

Nor do we even fathom ourselves fully. Messaging cannot deliver a meaning unknown to the sender. The most insightful among us still are trapped looking at themselves from the inside, unable to escape a claustrophobic perspective – unable to discern the unconscious. Meanwhile, the vantage point from outside is second-hand news, told to us, but not known by us.

Self-knowledge is imperfect, not comprehensive. Humans accept obvious motivations and easy explanations to explain themselves to themselves. Who even considers the many causes of a simple task like deciding to grocery shop today? Hunger, scheduling, a sale on peaches, your child’s request for a particular food, a friend’s comment about a good meal, a cooking show you watched, or all of these? We admit, at least, that love is inexplicable, our heart a mystery.

Hope of connection lives, nonetheless. The desire for understanding overpowers the complications. And sometimes hope is fulfilled.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, understood this. Two characters in his masterpiece The Idiot – a towering achievement in reckoning with the complexities of personality – express their separation from the mainstream of society.

Dostoevsky presents an embittered young man, Ippolit, within weeks of death; who himself believes he will never be understood, yet strains to be heard, recognized, and accepted:

In any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people, though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever; you will die with it, not having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps most important in your idea.

The novelist’s title character is a casual friend of Ippolit, a saintly and open man named Prince Myshkin. Ippolit and Myshkin, despite their differences, both want connection.

The following narrated passage recalls a time when the young Prince was in treatment in Switzerland. Expressing himself was then a particular challenge. He led a life alone, separate, cut-off:

Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now (years later) how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, ever since childhood, and which he could never join. Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every ‘little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus; knows its place, loves it, and is happy’: every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.

Notice the character’s reference to a fly. He is quoting his young friend Ippolit, the man near death, the one struggling to be understood. And in this moment, the Prince recognizes his own sentiment. Dostoevsky continues:

Oh, of course he could not speak then with these words and give voice to his question; he suffered blankly and mutely, but now it seemed to him that he had said it all then, all those same words, and that Ippolit had taken the words about the ‘little fly’ from him, from his own words and tears of that time. He was sure of it, and for some reason his heart throbbed at this thought …

At such moments in the mountains – in the empty spaces of life – we wait for the voice of another to utter our thoughts, intuit our mind, touch us by understanding our sentiments. It is as close as one can come to escaping the solitude of the human species, finding a soul who matches us at least a bit, at least for a time …

Those most desolate among us, those most cut-off, quietly despair of finding such a witness: one who not only sees, but understands. The inhabitants of hope’s waiting room are on every street, in every therapist’s office. If they persist – as they often do – the moment of hope’s fulfillment is transcendent.

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

The first image is William Blake’s Ancient of Days. Next comes Jean-Jacques Henner’s Solitude. These are both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, a photo of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park.

Thirty-three Things a Man Should Know

The internet is full of lists of the skills a man should master. They are usually offered as advice to the young, uncertain male. Such articles were around in my youth and decades before. The Stoics, in particular, attempted to define what “a man” consisted of. Women need the list of manly tasks as much as men do: the better to bypass those men who don’t have “the right stuff” or any desire to learn more than they know.

I am about to ignore the wise admonition, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and offer you my own list. God help you. Not complete, but more psychological than most. You might have guessed as much. The catalog will focus on urban talents – the things best fit to the city – over rural skills or physical survival abilities, like escaping a bear attack.

Here goes:

  • Learn to tie a Windsor Knot. Most men can’t create a triangular, symmetrical knot in their neck tie. “Not” good.
  • Make eye contact: the kind that shows kind interest. You are paying attention and unafraid. Avoid the scary variety.
  • Be able to tell a clean joke. Practice until you can. Humor is sexy, so I’m told.
  • Know how to lead. If you are waiting for the recognition you deserve – for the crowd to realize a great man is in their midst – you may have time to read an encyclopedia. Raise your hand and take charge.
  • Understand investments. Do not rely on the wisdom of those who want to sell you stocks in return for a commission. Dozens of books exist to guide you. Start with A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
  • Dismiss 80% of what other people say about you, the good and the bad, but recognize the 20% you should take to heart.
  • Learn to shoot a gun. Love or condemn firearm use, as you wish, but do try to enhance your understanding of its discipline and power.
  • Be able to apologize. Don’t be one who regularly blames his failures on others.

  • Practice forgiveness, but not until you’ve dealt fully with the hurt and anger inside.
  • Become adept at giving speeches, toasts, and telling stories. Just you in front of an audience, a form of public nakedness with your clothes on.
  • Don’t merely stand up for yourself, but for something more important than yourself, too. Live your values. Recognize how you fool yourself. Trust me, you do.
  • Give a man’s handshake. Neither squishy nor bone crushing.
  • Childhood is a time to push back your tears. Maturity is a time to permit your eyes to moisten.
  • Learn how to sample and evaluate wine when the waiter presents a bottle to you.
  • Become adept at a sport no later than your entry to school. Best if you choose the most popular team competition in your region. Personal stature is enhanced by this, a standing of benefit for your first 20 years or more. The camaraderie will be cherished for the rest of your life.
  • Drill yourself on keyboarding and cursive writing. You need to communicate. A handwritten letter conveys even more weight, personal consideration, and intimacy than in the time before keyboards.
  • Learn how to do things face-to-face: job interviews, asking someone on a date, returning merchandise. Ending a relationship, too. Don’t hide behind a phone call or, worse still, your email and twitter account.
  • Become proficient in negotiation.
  • Listen to people, not only what they say, but what is not said. Psychological-mindedness must be developed, not assumed. Don’t think, in amazement, “He isn’t logical.”  You are expecting too much of the human race if you do.
  • Practical skills: ironing clothes, cooking, changing a diaper, shuffling cards, buying clothes, etc.
  • Buddies don’t count every nickel when trying for the impossibility of perfect equity over a friendly meal. Make friends and accept their short-comings or tell them the problem.
  • Learn to climb a rope. Once done, you will recognize that what first seems impossible is not.
  • Always keep a serious book in mind.

  • Do not delay your pursuit of women until you “understand” them. Rejection is part of the game and may say more about the rejector than the rejectee. In my clinical practice I encountered many ladies who first deflected a man who would become a mate. Develop resilience in the face of discouragement. Defeat is a facet of every life, except for those who hide behind the barricade.
  • Say I love you. Get to the point of being able to tell people why they matter to you, not just women.
  • Expose yourself to ideas that may not resonate at first. Learn to think critically, read critically, listen critically. If all you know is what you’ve heard – blindly accepted – you know little.
  • Become acquainted with the enormous power of waiting. There are times when people will move toward you because of the magnetic force of your stillness. And silence. Many run from a wild pursuit. Practice patience.
  • Know some expressions in a foreign language. Master in detail at least one area of knowledge beyond your work, sports, and auto racing.
  • Identify your dark side or become its victim. The things you do not acknowledge about yourself will control you.
  • Be able to make small talk.
  • Practice kindness and respect for the worth of every person.

  • Find out about making it and taking it. A man doesn’t always ask permission. The doors of life must be identified and understood. Sometimes they are wide open and friendly. Sometimes they are closed until you knock for attention and advance. Locked portals must be respected or broken down, including those inside of you. Obstacles needn’t deter you from making a claim.

Much of what I’ve written is about a life in the urban West. Were I an Eastern philosopher, the list would be different. But, at least one more Buddhist-influenced suggestion should be added.

  • When you converse with someone about ideas, try to efface your ego: lose your “self.” Listen to the thoughts and speak the thoughts (and their justification) without prejudice or attachment to your position. Permit the logic of your dialogue to be “authorless,” without concern over whose notions will “win.” What I’ve described doesn’t happen much in the places most of us live, but perhaps giving up the necessity of victory is the essential step toward learning something new.

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The top painting is A Portrait of an Unknown Man by Antonello da Messina. Next comes Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI – 1913. Claggett Wilson’s WWI painting follows: Flower Death – the Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. Finally, the Roraima Cliffs by Paulo Fassina. Wikiarts is the source of the first two. The Wilson painting comes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons is the source of the Fassina photograph.

Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

We get to see public people expressing private emotions on TV. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Not only on dating shows. Politicians do it on occasion, including George W. Bush, whose voice cracked and eyes moistened more often than any U.S. President I can remember.

Still, most of us try to stay in control. We hesitate to let down our guard for fear someone will reach into our chest and rip out our already wounded heart. In my experience, however, some of the most touching public situations occur when a self-possessed person displays the courage to live so much in the unselfconscious moment that the voice breaks or tears flow a bit. Before I tell you about my own challenge with this, I will relate two other public examples, as well as describing a therapist’s hesitancy to feel too much in session.

Fred Spector, a retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist, told this story in 2001 about an event then three decades old:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that the mother of Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor, died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said ‘They want me to come home (to Italy). What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.’ And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. ‘That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem. … and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none. … We wanted to get that feeling he wanted for his mother.

Giulini was a private, ever-dignified, old world man (born in 1914) for whom this exposure was uncustomary if not unseemly. Indeed, the orchestra and chorus had been instructed by an administrator not to say anything to him about his loss. Such a direction could only have come from Giulini or his wife.

Of course, it’s one thing to be unguarded in an empty hall and another to “lose it” during performance. Indeed, among the greatest sins of public musical or theatrical presentation is to be so moved by the words you can’t do your job: enable the audience to experience emotion while you remain in control. I am aware of one instance alone when the rule was violated, but the artist succeeded anyway.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the passing away of human life, while the world itself blooms anew every spring, “forever.” The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, ever more muted against the fading, shimmering, ethereal consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto soloist, was “unable to enunciate the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier, a 35-year-old woman soon to become an international celebrity, was then new to this composition and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unselfconsciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Where does a therapist fit in our discussion? He is not a public performer, but must empathize with his patient. Unmoved by the human suffering he witnesses, he is of no value. But what if he is moved to the extreme? Were he to experience the same level of emotion as his client, he himself would become the patient. The room would be occupied by two people equally anguished, both needing support and relief with no one available to give it.

Someone must possess a therapeutic (but not unfeeling) distance from the suffering. The therapist must.

My own challenge with public vulnerability came in toasting my first child’s marriage. Tears interfere with an adoring parent’s speech at many such events. A guest’s attention is then drawn to the speaker’s unraveling, however sympathetic or touching, not his words about the newly married couple. I wanted the assembly to know what I had to say about my daughter and son-in-law, the better to appreciate them. The language, properly spoken, would externalize the internal, convey emotion, and move the audience.

The problem was, in practicing I could not get through the speech. Time after time I tried, time after time I failed, overwhelmed. Were I to tell you the number of rehearsals I attempted, starting months in advance, I suspect you would not believe me.

The day came — the moment came — and I still had not a single run-through without the internal tidal wave overwhelming my words. Once on stage, however, — finally, finally — the elusive control arrived and the toast went well. I was not as emotionally “present” as I could have been, but the cost of unconsciously distancing myself from my sentiments was the price for moving the audience by words and delivery, not becoming overwrought and a bit incoherent.

Why am I reminded of all this? I just completed a course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School in which our instructor, near the class’s end, discovered her voice cracking with emotion. Sometimes this happens in intimate conversation, frequently in counseling, but not so often at the U of C, and not from this confident and expert guide to literature. She said (to someone else) after the session, she “didn’t know where that came from.”

But, you know what? It capped a great class discussion of a moving novel with a flourish. Sometimes one needs to go with the flow, even if the flow is both figurative and literal.

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The painting at the top of the page is called Tightrope Walker by Jean-Louis Forain(1885). The next image is Australian Artistic Gymnast, Lauren Mitchell at the 41st World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in London, UK, October 14, 2009. The photo was taken by Steven Rasmussen, Explorerdk. The following picture is Gymnast Feet on Beam, January 19, 2008, by Raphael Goetter. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes Tightrope Walker by August Macke (1914), sourced from WikiArt.org/

What Do We See When We Look Back? Another Perspective for Understanding Your Life

512px-gertrude_kasebier-blessed

Many therapies begin by looking backwards. Often, however, the deep-dive into the ocean of previous hurts focuses only on the patient and a tiny number of others. Is more needed?

The circumstances surrounding any life are worth thinking about. The historical conditions in which one lives can be enormously important to a backward glance at life, yet therapists are not experts in history. Nor are we routinely specialized in philosophy, sociology, and religion, the better to understand those who visit us. A counselor might not readily recognize the significance of all aspects of a new patient’s life.

When I encountered someone from an unfamiliar religious background I attempted to learn more: not only from my patient, but from religious writings. If clients came to me with existential questions, a sense of emptiness and a lack of life meaning, we sometimes talked philosophy.

In the course of my career I needed to learn about poverty and anti-Semitism in the old Soviet Union, the arrangement of marriages among Pakistani-Americans, and the importance of loyalty and family responsibility to the Mexican-American community.

This necessity not only helped me better perform my therapeutic work, but enhanced my understanding of people and the world more generally.

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One can also fool oneself by ignoring the ideas and trials of our distant ancestors.

People of all cultures and times faced the same core issues, although sometimes in different ways. The human experience changes in terms of technique — technical knowledge, astonishing new devices, and skills — but not the basic concerns of living: love, friendship, competition, survival, loss, morality, work, and play. The same conundrums are forever present: happiness, honor, success, failure, self-awareness, self-interest, integrity, rationalization, sadness, greed, and one’s responsibilities to others.

Yes, we now face possible global catastrophe from weapons or climate change; but robbers, kleptocrats, and rape were always present. Discrimination today usually takes a different form than widespread slavery, but human rights are still an issue. War and natural disasters, famine, and disease always threatened the human race. Life was never stress-free.

We benefit by recognizing the common humanity we share with individuals who are “different,” whether they are our contemporaries or people who shared our cultural past. We risk laughter at those from non-Western backgrounds, their styles of hair and clothing. They behold us as well, however, and might share the same tendencies to mock or disapprove.

Old photos can be treated similarly. As we turn the pages of antique family photo albums it is difficult to relate to those who seem ancient, even if they lived only 50 years ago. We too will become dated creatures to newer generations. If you assume those of different times offer nothing worth learning, then you have closed your mind, blinded yourself, and reduced the possibility of self-knowledge and better human relations. Moreover, you render your personal history impotent in its ability to have any substantial impact on those who follow you.

Old words remain relevant. Even if Aristotle lacked an iPhone and wore a toga, he had a good brain, as did many others before and after. We are silly not to attend to his thoughts. Our ancestors didn’t know everything and many justified slavery and maltreatment of women, but they recognized much of importance about the human condition.

aristotelesbunt

Closer to our own time, the men and women of the last century had more than a taste of modernity. They owned cars and worked in factories, knew oppression and misuse of workers, used the telephone, and (from 1922) received regular radio broadcasts. They realized what money could buy and what it did not. Therefore, I offer you eight quotes from those who lived in the 20th century and earlier.

Our personal problems are not new. Others walked in our shoes, even if they wore sandals, wooden shoes, or no footwear at all.

And remember: we read history and philosophy not to understand old and dead civilizations, but ourselves. Perhaps you will dismiss the eight ideas by the seven people you find below. On the other hand, I expect some will speak to you, especially (I hope) the final one:

 

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.

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You will be broken. Your try to flee it, but ultimately you can’t, you can only fritter away your time on the planet. Yes, be prudent, but don’t think you will escape.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

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It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forward. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops … .

— Soren Kierkegaard, 1843.

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The following words are those of H.L. Mencken, published on July 26, 1920 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, from an essay entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” concerning the difficulty of electing good people to national office:

henry-louis-mencken

In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through … . But when the field is nationwide … and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily and adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

———–

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910: Paris.

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The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

— Hannah Arendt in a 1974 interview with Roger Errera.

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Dorothea Brooke is an admirable fictional character in Middlemarch (1871-72) by Mary Anne Evans (better known by her pen name, George Elliot). Ms. Brooke is here speaking to the young man who loves her. He has just said that without her he would have nothing to live for:

That was a wrong thing for you to say, that you would have had nothing to try for. If we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for.

At the end of the book Dorothea’s life is described in terms of her quiet impact on others:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number (of people) who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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The photograph at the top is called Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Käsebier, from 1900. The computerized image of Aristotle is the 2005 work of Kolja Mendler. A photo of H.L. Mencken follows. The final image is a sketch of Hannah Arendt by Albarluque. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Hand_drawn_ghost.png

A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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