Sigh. I entitled this blog what I did because I am having a difficult time of it at the moment. My dad did die this year. And Trump did ascend to power this year. But $hit has really been hitting the fan, as they say. Today, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor have been caught in the thorny bramble of bad behavior. I was also a bit shocked by Louis C. K., Senator Al Franken, and Representative John Conyers. I look around and institutions seem to be tarnishing, crumbling, under attack, and failing. It feels like we are more divided and that there are more dangers than I am comfortable with. In this blog, I will try to make sense of my angst, and use reliable, positive values as a consolation.
I read last night that Facebook and other “apps” are pernicious, addictive, and brain-chemistry-altering. They are a massive, flush, multinational corporation that feels it is the best thing to happen to humanity since Jesus Christ. Yet, they peddled ads to Russian infiltrators and fed our minds with what can certainly be considered bullshit. Kids sit and stare at screens, teens obsess over likes, and Russians influence elections. Pretty dark stuff. Not exactly prosocial and positive values, is it?
The sexual harassment thing is absolutely welcome in a way. I totally get that men and their testosterone and their social and environmental influences lead a decent percentage of them to act badly. Frankly, I think half of us would take sexual liberties with women if the situation involved no real consequences (e.g., a virtual reality computer game, or a fantasy of some other sort). It’s really one of our biggest problems: the way men have used “the sword” to dominate and conquer and inspire fear over the millennia. Look at the book The Chalice and the Blade. Very instructive. In it, Riane Eisler writes: “But there was no such place left in their new world. For this was now a world where, having violently deprived the Goddess and the female half of humanity of all power, gods and men of war ruled. It was a world in which the Blade, and not the Chalice, would henceforth be supreme, a world in which peace and harmony would be found only in the myths and legends of a long lost past.”
I interviewed this creative and insightful individual about reliable, positive values, and HERE is the discussion if you are interested.
The idea that a man would do more than simply ask a person out on a date a number of times is really easy to understand. Men were largely responsible for getting us as a species where we are today. We came out of Africa and went to the moon. However, the chickens are coming home to roost, as it were. $hit is hitting the fan, big time. Women are feeling empowered to tell their stories. Men need to listen. But it does have the potential to tear at our social fabric and “weaponize” false allegations of sexual harassment. Women might not be as acquisitive, unscrupulous, and aggressive on average as men, but there are still at least a million women in this country alone who would castrate a man, take his job, and throw him out on the street given the chance. Long-term abusive situations can do that to a person’s mind. In sum, we are experiencing a fair reckoning, and I welcome that kind of reality. But it is not a panacea for society’s problems to draw and quarter guilty men. The shuffling of the deck kind of scares me, frankly.
I don’t want to write ten paragraphs, each of which dedicated to different contemporary issues, disturbing trends, and haunting developments that cause me angst. I would be here for three hours. But I can say that virtually everything Donald Trump does ranges from questionable to horrific. I think it is endemic of the entire brokenness of the political system – riven by money, ruined by gerrymandering, and wrecked by self-centered Machiavellian types. I worry about global warming, the artificial intelligence revolution that is only going to get weirder, and the technologization of the marketing industry. Police misconduct, the death of important individuals in my life and my country, and the difficulty I have selling books about wisdom all roil and depress me. We have a hard time trusting science, experts, and tradition now. Fake news abounds, and citizens just aren’t educated and mature enough to find their way through the morass of complex phenomena – especially when some industry such as the NRA or “big pharma” have their thumb on the scales. Scientists cheat on academic papers, doctors drop out and search for alternative careers, and dogs are abused. People are breaking off into ideologically-inclusive camps and the social fabric of the country seems to be fraying. There are well over 300,000,000 people in this country alone, Islam has been co-opted and has the potential to do us harm, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria exist. Reliable, positive values can be hard to see amongst the din.
Look, I get that things have always seemed dark and scary at times. Some people feel that this is just more of the same. I mean, we aren’t facing imperial Japan, we didn’t just lose a war to Sparta, and we aren’t experiencing 100% inflation a day, as Germany did in the 1930s. I know that the youth in a society have always seemed to be “off-track” and rebellious. In a factual sense, things have been worse in times-past. For example, there is less poverty now than ever before. However, the fact that poverty is so amenable to economic and social interventions, and so many are terribly rich, is an example of how things are not rosy. Americans banned slavery 150 years ago, but there are more slaves in the world now than there were in 1860.
So, let me turn the corner and tell you what I want to share about reliable, positive values being a consolation. I use the word consolation the way that two interesting authors did (and I think it is a Christian tradition to talk of consolations, though I am not sure). One is the Christian philosopher Ancius Boethius and the other riffed on that with his Consolations of Philosophy; namely, Alain de Botton. Botton says this: “In Ancient Greece or Rome, philosophers were seen as natural authorities on the most pressing questions. However, since then, the idea of finding wisdom from philosophy has come to seem bizarre. Enter a university department today and ask to study wisdom, and you will politely but firmly be shown the door. The Consolations of Philosophy sets out to refute the notion that good philosophy must be irrelevant and gathers together six great philosophers who were convinced of the power of philosophical insight to work a practical effect on our lives.” Imprisoned during the time of the Romans, Boethius adds this bracing look at wisdom: “In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”
This quotation by the late, great mensch Howard Zinn, Professor of History at Boston University, will ring the bell of what I am trying to say: ”
What do I do when pessimism strikes? I get together with other people. I’m encouraged when I get together with other people who feel the way I do about things, and I realize I’m not alone. Or I’ll turn to the arts. The great poets and the writers were almost always progressive people who saw beyond the politics. So I’ll read Mark Twain and Helen Keller and Upton Sinclair and Tolstoy and Thoreau. I’ll read things that are encouraging and uplifting.
That is what I am going for. I was sitting on the couch, watching the news, and was just over it all! We seem to be in such difficult times as a society, and with global warming looming, money irrevocably ruining our democratic republic, and some of society’s most familiar faces being defrocked for sexual harassment, I was longing for something that I could lean on (besides my wife, of course). In a time when two ignorant strongmen are exchanging insults on a daily basis – both of whom are capable of launching a nuclear bomb – I think we need to focus on reliable, positive values.
Here is the ultimate in optimism, hope, and love:
“In spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
Let me share an analogy. Traveling through this difficult time in this mottled country of ours can be likened to piloting a ship. I don’t know if you have ever captained a vessel, but one technique for locomotion is to simply use a map and follow your compass. A compass, as you may know, is a black sphere in a clear, spherical container full of liquid. Essentially, the ball inside is marked with 360 degrees. If you know where you are on a map, and where you want to go, you can calculate easily which “heading” you should follow. Eventually, you will get where you’re going. It may be dark; it may be raining; but as long as magnetic North stays true (as it has as long as human ancestors have been out of the trees) you just point your bow in the right direction and hold the wheel.
Do you see where I am going with that analogy? I feel like it is a dark and stormy night on the sea; no lighthouse can be seen; the sailors are showing nervousness on their faces. Times are tough. We may or may not make it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” as Thomas Paine said during his own frightening and tumultuous time. However, there are stars that sometimes come into view; a map exists; and we have a compass. Those are represented by reliable, positive values that are ever-available to us. Like a person who meditates or believes in God, solace – consolation – is at the ready. We can always “find that place” we need to if we see what is worthy. There is a wellspring of strength, confidence, and virtue within. It is our previously-determined, positive values. They are like a friend who never leaves us. Boethius was languishing in prison, and he felt philosophy was his consolation. It made him feel better to love wisdom, to find insight. He envisioned Philosophy as a she; like a goddess on high looking down on him, loving his miserable self.
Howard Zinn was a leader during the Civil Rights struggle, as well as the horrible Vietnam War and its pernicious and deleterious effect on the social fabric here at home. He understood history and was a really genuine and insightful guy, but he always seemed to have a fairly optimistic attitude. His humane and positive values were easy to see. It’s reassuring to watch him speak. I miss him. I want to give him a hug. I also want to hug John Marshall, my dog Atlas, and my father. They are all long-gone, though.
It’s up to me. And my support system, and the values on which I can base my life. Values and virtues such as truth, meaning, and generosity can guide me. I can find consolation in peace, liberty, and progressivism. I can connect with like-minded individuals, and I can look for the best in others. I can set my trajectory at 342 degrees, hold the wheel tight, squint out the driving rain, and hope for the best. It’s better to die on the vast sea, subjected Poseidons’s rage than to live on my knees or take advantage of others. I know what I consider to be reliable, positive values.
Humor can help deal with a difficult situation, and be very diverting and relaxing. Helping others is universally known as a wonderful tonic to combat depression, hopelessness, and self-centeredness. Optimism is a key component of health, well-being, and happiness. Meaning can take dismal circumstances and make them a little better. Hard work can be a balm for a busy mind.
What are your reliable, positive values? How do you weather the storm and deal with adversity? Try this tool I created to get a better grasp of this preliminary and challenging step.
There are many inspiring examples and exemplars you and I both can turn to for an example of august consolation, as did Botton, Boethius, or Zinn. Here are a dozen of them:
To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not, rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common – this is my symphony.
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.
Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.
Many successful people have benefited from working in one field by day and in another in their spare time. Churchill and Eisenhower painted. William Carlos Williams, a doctor, wrote poetry, as did Wallace Stevens, a lawyer. Einstein played the violin. Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, a writer, and a statesman.
He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.
A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. ~ Grace Hopper
No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see the possibilities – always see them, for they’re always there.
I myself don’t know how to be in this world without expecting a confident future and getting up every morning to do what I can bring about. I confess to always having been an optimist.
Optimists take action and have healthier lifestyles. Optimists believe that their actions matter, whereas pessimists believe they are helpless and nothing they do will matter. Optimists try, while pessimists lapse into passive helplessness.
In a mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book. I am a writer, and I take up my pen to write.