Category Archives: friends

What Goes Down Must Come Up

Sunday’s Psalm invited us to go to the mountain of the Lord–which reminded me of a hill-climbing event that I wrote about not long ago . . .

PREPARATION

“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Loascent[1]rd,” asked Psalm 24 at Vigils this morning. Psalm 24 is a “Psalm of Ascent,” one of a group of songs scattered throughout the Psalms that scholars tell us were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the hill to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” “Those with clean hands and pure heart,” continues the Psalmist, answering his own questions as usual. “Those who desire not worthless things.” Clean hands, pure heart, and not desiring worthless things are pretty demanding qualifications for ascending the mountain of the Lord, I thought, except that I’m already on the mountain of the Lord.005 I ascended an eighteen-hundred foot steep incline from US 1 to the New Camoldoli Hermitage in my rented Toyota Yaris thirty-six hours ago, cautiously climbing the two-mile long, one lane switchback drive, hoping that no one was descending the mountain of the Lord at the same time. So I’m up here already, with relatively clean hands, probably not a completely pure heart and wishing occasionally for something worthless like wireless service so I could check my blog 005or cell phone coverage so I could call Jeanne.

A few hours later at ten o’clock, having just finished a new essay and feeling very centered, focused, productive, and smug, I was poking around the hermitage bookstore thinking that I should get some exercise if the fog lifts, since I am missing a week of regular torture at the gym. Good idea. At the front of the bookstore, chatting with the register-tending monk, was a woman named Aelish (a retreat going name, if I ever heard one). “I think I’ll walk to the bottom and back later,” said Aelish. “That’s an excellent suggestion,” thought I. “I think I’ll do that this afternoon as well. Who shall descend the mountain of the Lord? Me!” Bad idea.

“Well duhhh!” I hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say that the road to the top of the mountain is two miles of switchback road climbing eighteen-hundred feet up a very steep incline? Don’t you know that what goes up must come down?” 024Yes, despite my college degrees I do know that, but I’m in reasonably good aerobic shape for a fifty-seven year old, am just about at target weight, thanks to losing a few pounds due to an eating regimen my wife put me on, and if Aelish, who is undoubtedly older than I am, can do it so can I. (Note to self: stop assuming that people with white hair are older than you are. You have white hair and undoubtedly have more wrinkles on your face than Aelish).

By early afternoon the fog had lifted, but it was still cloudy and cool—perfect weather for descending the mountain. What to wear? It had been so cool in the morning that I had put my one sweater over the one other long-sleeved garment that made it into my suitcase. 002This was my long-sleeved t-shirt, a Christmas present from my son. On the front and back it says “Sons of Belicheck” and “Foxboro,” these texts framing a picture of the Grim Reaper on the back with his sickle dripping blood held in one skeletal hand and a football in the other. Down the left sleeve it says “Men of Mayhem.” Really. You have to be both a New England Patriots fan and a follower of “Sons of Anarchy” on FX to get it. These items, along with black denim pants and my “Woof” baseball cap, and I was set. I stuffed my digital camera into my pocket and off I went.

DESCENT044

 The trip down was beautiful, the mountain rising steeply on one side with strange trees and flowering plants hanging on for dear life and the vast Pacific on the other, with spectacular rocky coast stretching in both directions. I stopped every fifty steps or so to take a picture; during one of these stops Aelish went rolling on by, throwing a nod in my direction. As I walked I wrote the last paragraph in my head of the deep and profound essay I had started last evening after Vespers, hummed the catchy tune of the 039“Te Deum” that concluded this morning’s Vigils, and was generally thankful for and pleased with my place in the universe. The muscles in the back of my calves tightened up a bit as I neared the bottom of the decline and Route 1; “I’ve heard that going downhill is harder on the legs than going up,” I thought, “so if that’s all the pain I feel, I’m in good shape.” About one hundred yards from the end of the road, I met Aelish beginning her walk back up, breathing slightly harder than when she passed me earlier. “I’ll bet I pass her on the way back up,” I thought as we nodded once again.

ASCENT050

After a brief breather at the bottom of the hill, I turned to ascend the mountain of the Lord, first taking a picture of the hermitage greeting sign on US 1 and the cross behind it (I’ve seen larger crosses on the front lawns of some of the Baptists I grew up with), as well as the sign twenty feet up the drive pleasantly 051announcing “Chapel . . . Gifts . . . 2 Scenic Miles,” with an arrow pointing straight up between “Chapel” and “Gifts.” In retrospect, it would have been more accurate to copy the saying over the gates to Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

055Have you ever noticed that the return half of a round trip to an unfamiliar destination and back always seems shorter than the first half? Not this time. Five minutes into the ascent, the bratty little kid who lives in my brain was asking “Are we there yet?” After the first switchback curve, I tried to convince myself that there were only two more of them, although I knew for sure there were four. My shins started wondering what the hell is going on, while several thousand black flies and gnats in the area got the word that copious human sweat was available and decided to check it out. The ocean vista on one side might as well have been a landfill,060 as my awareness of scenery narrowed to the apparently endless incline in front of me.

The sun, which had been taking the day off, decided that now was a good time to make its triumphant return. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered with anything but reverent intent, as I tied my sweater around my waist and rolled my “Men of Mayhem” sleeve up along with its mate on my right arm. Is that a blister forming on the end of my fourth toe on my right foot? Shit! “I can’t even call anyone if I have a heart attack,” I thought, “since I didn’t bring my phone along.” Oh wait—it wouldn’t matter, since there’s no freaking cell phone service around here065. Four very large birds starting circling high overhead—probably vultures waiting for the inevitable. “I don’t even have my wallet with me. I can see it now. They’ll find me dead in the middle of the road without identification. Someone will say ‘I think I saw him at noonday mass,’ and they’ll wonder if I left a contact number with the hermitage office for my father Belicheck, since he will probably want to know that his son croaked ascending the mountain of the Lord.”

As I rounded the last switchback and the hermitage was finally in sight, I heard a car poking up behind me, the first vehicle ascending the mountain since I began my return trip. “Want a lift?” the habit-less jeans-wearing monk driving the car asked.066 “No thanks—I can use the exercise,” I said pleasantly with a holy retreatant smile. “Go to hell,” I thought. “Where were you forty minutes ago?” Within one hundred yards of the finish line, I passed a roadside bench on which the guy who was in back of me at noon mass was sitting. “Turned out to be a beautiful day, didn’t it?” he asked. “Sure did!” I responded cheerily. “Go fuck yourself,” I thought. “You wouldn’t be so pleasant if you had just ascended the mountain of the Lord.”

031As I passed the chapel on the way to my room, Aelish emerged and smiled at me. I’m sure she had received spiritual direction, said special intentions for someone, written five letters, an essay, and done fifty pushups in the time between her return and mine. I smiled back, and thought “Go . . .” Well, you know what I was thinking. I understand now why so many of the Psalms are crabby and negative—it’s tough work ascending the mountain of the Lord. But at least I got an essay out of it.

Christians in the Public Square

Not long ago, in the middle of the political campaign that ended last week, I was asked by an online publication to respond to the following question: At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? It strikes me, knowing that a large percentage of self-described “Christians” voted for Donald Trump for President last week, that the question of how–or if– to bring one’s faith into the public square is more pressing now than ever before.cross and flag

I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.

Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. capitalismAs my exchange with my friend on Facebook shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived in the real world on a daily basis. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens, while Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” progressive vs conservativewe are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christian. And Jesus weeps.

The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. The secret of lived Christian faith is that it is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines. Nor is it a social or political agenda. Given that Christianity is a way of life energized by love, it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.

micahOne way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am, particularly since people like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives are products of conservative Christianity and remain closely aligned with its accompanying leanings on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that I have now arrived at a place where my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the often very different understanding my brothers and sisters in faith share whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.flag and bible

The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that, due to the necessarily public nature of such advocacy, it is very possible for the advocate to mistake a set of political positions or the elements of a social agenda as necessary and universal hallmarks of being truly Christian. It is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith, entirely undermining the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts as remarkable because of how much they loved each other. The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. christian communityChristianity is a way of life that is not reducible without distortion to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.

By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.

DST haters

The Times They Are A-changin’

spring forwardI’m going out on a limb here—way out. I like time changes. This year Daylight Savings time began on March 13, shifting the clock to provide an extra hour of light in the evening and ended ten days ago on November 6, with the shift providing an extra hour of light in the morning. I have lived most of my life in the northern latitudes where, once DST ends and we change to standard time, it starts getting dark before 5:00, with nightfall earlier each day as we inch toward the winter solstice. I like that. I like falling back (and the extra hour of sleep once a year) and also, for entirely different reasons, I appreciate springing forward on the night DST begins (even though I lose an hour of sleep that night), because it is the harbinger of summer evenings when it will be light until close to 10:00. Perhaps because I come from stoic Swedish stock, swedish chefI don’t recall anyone in my family or our friends complaining about DST in my youth—it’s just something that happened, sometimes producing humorous situations such as the people who showed up for Easter Sunday services two hours late one year when the change to DST happened to fall on Easter; they turned their clocks back an hour instead of ahead. Spring forward and fall back, morons!

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a marked spike compared to previous years in the number of people complaining about DST and the inconvenience of twice-per-year hourly shifts. The complaints haven’t been just about inconvenience or because someone forgot and was an hour early for a meeting or for church—for the first time I learned that for some people the spring and fall time changes are among the most disruptive events of the year. After reading one person proclaim that “DST is total bullshit” and another post that “It’s the twice-yearly jet lag and sleep disruption that is so hateful,” I thought that perhaps a voice of reason needed to inserted into the discussion. Minor sleep disruption, yes (although one extra hour of sleep is hardly disruptive), but jet lag? Hateful?What, do you get jet lag flying from New York to Chicago? Please. So I innocently posted “jet lagTo be honest, I’ve never understood how a mere one hour difference can be such a source of disruption, dismay, and angst for so many people.” Boy, was that a mistake.

In short order I was informed that if I was not “physically afflicted” by the time change, I was not only lucky but also was “very rare.” Now I have no problem with being very rare (when I ate beef, that’s how I ordered my steak), but in this case I got the impression I was being called “very rare” as in “mutant” or “non-human.” I responded that I have an extensive network of family and friends (a bit of an exaggeration) and knew of only two who claimed to be bothered in any way by one-hour time changes, to which I received “Whereas I have only a couple who claim they don’t.” One of us is clearly full of shit—and it was on.

I posted the following on my timeline: A quick informal poll for my Facebook acquaintances–how many of you suffer from sleep deprivation, jet lag-like symptoms, or other such maladies because of the twice per year time changes? I don’t, but from what I read and hear many people do. How about you?

And as is so often the case with virtually any issue that people can disagree on, about 45 or 50 acquaintances split right down the middle. There are those like me, who not only suffer no negative effects from DST changes but also suspect that those who do are exaggerating, suffering from psychosomatic symptoms, or just like to whine. dog and childThen there are the other half who not only suffer various symptoms from DST changes but who also get quite defensive when someone reveals that this is not a universal affliction. One person wrote that “some people have small children and dogs,” implying that insensitive persons such as I should have some sympathy for persons such as she who have a houseful of DST-sufferers of various species (I wonder about how fish or turtles would do in her house). I probably did not help by responding “Of course—I have had two small children and now have three dogs, none of whom were ever effected.”

I’m sure that most everyone has had such conversations about DST as well as other issues that sharply divide human beings from one another, from politics to food preferences. For instance, a guy on Facebook recently was pissed at people piling on with negative comments about fruitcake. fruitcakeApparently fruitcake is one of his most pleasant childhood holiday memories, and people such as I promulgating negative stereotypes about fruitcake are shitting on his youth. Facebook is wonderful for generating such intractable and endless arguments, because often the people communicating have never met and know nothing about each other beyond the sound bites and bumper sticker pronouncements that are the heart and soul of social media.

There is a greater truth in play here—each of us is driven by the default assumption that our preferences, tastes, and experiences are the default setting for human normality. protagorasTo slightly paraphrase Protagoras, each of us believes that “I am the measure of all things.” Other human beings are normal to the extent that they appreciate what I like and reject what I dislike. Hence the need for real human interaction rather than colliding sound bites—there is no better corrective to “I am the measure of all things” than to find out on a regular basis that one person’s absolute is another person’s “whatever” and that my “no brainer” and “go to” in any area of experience whatsoever is something that has never even risen to the next person’s “Top 1000” things in importance.

Although I do not suffer from DST-related symptoms and do not understand those who do, I admit that one thing about DST has become more difficult in my adulthood than when I was a child—adjusting the clocks. Digital time pieces are far more challenging to move forward or back an hour than good old non-digital watches and clocks. I still puzzle for several minutes twice per year trying to remember how to change the time on the microwave and stove, and forget about the Bose machine. Our Bose machine downstairs tells time accurately six months of the year—the rest of the time it is an hour fast.

t-v-h

Life After Tuesday

facebook-friendA Facebook friend, who has helped the traffic on this blog increase exponentially over the past few weeks by sharing my posts on various Facebook pages that she administers, challenged me in a Facebook message the other day:

If you don’t already have your topics set for the next week, I’d love to see something that addresses the effect that this election time is having on relationships—family and friends—and, maybe how to move through and past it . . . to “healing.”

I responded that my posts for the coming week were written and scheduled, but I would take a shot at something shortly after the election. It has turned out to be one of the most challenging posts to write of the hundreds I’ve posted here over the past four-plus years, for reasons I’ll describe below. t-v-hBut it strikes me that it is worthwhile for all of us to think today—the day before the election that will (hopefully) put an end to one of the nastiest and most divisive Presidential campaigns in American history (certainly in my lifetime)—about how we will move forward after tomorrow. Regardless of the result in tomorrow’s presidential vote, more than forty percent of those who voted will believe that voters have made a horrible mistake, our country is swirling its way down the drain, and life as we have known it will not continue. But believe it or not, no matter who is elected President tomorrow, the apocalypse will not be triggered, Wednesday will dawn, and we will have to figure out what to do next. Good luck to us.

The philosophy department on my campus, of which I have been a member for twenty-two years (and which I chaired from 2004-08), has over the past two or three years earned a college-wide reputation for being one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus (only one or two other departments are serious competitors with my department for the title). Three weeks ago our dysfunction was on full display in an important meeting—without revealing confidential matters, I have told various people since then that the fault lines at the meeting were so deep that something like the following was regularly on display, at least by some colleagues:idiot “If you don’t agree with me, then you either didn’t take the time to become aware of the facts, you are stupid, or you are immoral.” No fourth option, such as “we have all done our homework, are familiar with the facts, have made a principled decision, and we just happen to disagree,” seemed to be available. I am always dismayed by such “discussions,” believing that the prohibited fourth option often happens to be the truth. But in thinking about that meeting, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the almost-completed Presidential campaign, I have often found myself thinking of those persons likely to vote for the major candidate other than the one I will vote for tomorrow in precisely the same ways as were on display at the recent department meeting: If you vote for that “other person,” you must either be ignorant, a moron, or dangerously lacking in moral principles.

I doubt that I am alone in having effectively constructed a political echo chamber over the past several months in which I hear only voices that I want to hear. I only listen to radio and television stations likely to lean toward my own political and social beliefs and commitments. When such stations, in the interest of “balance,” include voices from the other side of things, I mute the machine or turn it off. When my candidate is having a good week or the opponent is not, I’ve been known to watch or listen to 2-3 straight hours of talking heads on my preferred stations. But when my candidate has a bad week or stumbles in some way, game-showsI would rather watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” than news analysis. My 650+ Facebook acquaintances have been carefully culled on several occasions to weed out persons who might have the audacity to post materials and arguments supporting the other side. It’s not just that I don’t want to hear arguments intended to challenge my own—I know that such arguments are out there and I reject them out of hand. It’s also that listening to more than a minute or so of representatives of that other candidate’s perspectives literally starts making me ill. I am one of those people who has said that if my candidate’s opponent wins, we’re moving to Canada. Enough of this shit.

I should know better than this. The other day in my General Ethics class, I reminded my students of a passage from an interview that was part of the day’s assignment. Toward the end of the interview, the interviewee said that “A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of a civil society.” The interview focused on the often fraught dynamic between atheism and theism, but the interviewee’s comments have direct application to our lives as citizens of a democracy. As we discussed the interview and accompanying article, I reminded my students that when someone presents an argument whose conclusion is something you disagree with strongly, the proper response is not “that person is an idiot,” or, slightly more charitably but just as illogically, disagree“I disagree, therefore that person is wrong.” In philosophy, you have to earn the right to have an opinion, I often tell my students—and earning the right to an opinion involves careful reasoning, argumentation, and above all cultivating the ability to listen, even to those with whom you disagree most strongly. But I, along with just about everyone else during our current political cycle, have been doing none of this. Consequently, we no longer have a civil society.

No matter how things turn out tomorrow, the apocalypse will not happen, the sun will rise on Wednesday morning entirely oblivious to what happened on Tuesday, and we will all be faced with a huge question: Now what? Forget the ruptures in our national fabric; for many Americans, the problems are personal. This election has divided friends and families in ways that might seem impossible to repair. civil-war-brothersI heard someone the other day liken the problem to members of the same family fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War a century and a half ago. That’s an extreme comparison, but it is difficult to imagine these divisions healing with the simple passage of time. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do my part in helping with that healing. I don’t even want to imagine the feeling in my house if our candidate does not win tomorrow. If our candidate does win, self-satisfaction and relief may well overwhelm concerns about healing for a while. But there will be life after Tuesday–and I do have a recent personal example of how people with very different convictions can coexist in peace and love.

Earlier this year, Jeanne and I had the opportunity to spend some time with my cousins and their families for the first time in many years. They know us to be dedicated liberals and we know them to be committed conservatives—the-cousinsthese differences spread across social policies, politics, and religion. Yet a wonderful time was had by all, and nary a discouraging or inflammatory word was heard.When we left to head for home, as he helped me put our luggage in the car my cousin said, “This is amazing—you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative, and yet we haven’t argued once.” We gave each other virtual high-fives over that amazing development. How did we manage to spend several evenings together without spouting incompatible talking points? Not simply by avoiding minefield conversations by talking about the weather and sports (although we did talk about both of those on occasion). We had a wonderful time because we continually sought out what we share in common—histories, faith, pets, kids, and more. We shared decades of stories, many of which were new to some of those present, talked about common interests, and were reminded that what truly connects human beings together is far more important, with the long-term in view, than what divides us.

I need—we all need—to remember this as we look forward to our shared lives past Tuesday. Don’t define people by what they post on social media. important-issuesDon’t assume you know anything about someone simply because you discover that they do not share all of your most important beliefs. Don’t get me wrong—this is going to be very difficult for all of us. It’s not as if the issues that have divided our country so sharply are unimportant; they are crucially important. But even more crucially important is our shared humanity and the fact that we all must find ways to share our nation, our communities, our circle of friends, and our families while believing very differently on issues that matter. Perhaps a good place to start is to replace the time spent on social media and listening to radio or television analysis with spending time in the company of real human beings. We might be amazed to discover how much we share in common.

Canine Ethics

Over the years I have developed dozens of strategies for getting students to participate in class discussions; the most reliable technique undoubtedly is to get them talking about their pets. Case in point: A couple of classes ago the article for the day for my ethics classes was by biologist Frans de Waal; frans-de-waalhis decades of studying chimpanzee behavior have convinced him that we can learn a lot about the foundations of the moral life—a life often considered to be exclusively available to human beings—from observing non-human primates. Although 99.8% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees, we tend to be exceptionalist about the moral life—only human beings are capable of it. Yet de Waal points out that features fundamental to the moral life, including empathy, deference to the needs of others, cooperation, deliberation and more are frequently on display in chimpanzee interactions. He expresses one of his conclusions by asking

Would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to do so? . . . [Humans] started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

Knowing that few, if any, of my students were likely to have a chimpanzee at home, I decided to go a notch or two farther out the biological spectrum and asked how many of them had a dog or a cat at home. Almost every hand went up. How many people thought that their dog or cat was capable of morally relevant deliberation? Almost every hand went up. And the stories began.dog-on-furniture

There is, for instance, the dog who is banned from laying on the living room furniture. She is perfectly obedient concerning this prohibition until she thinks everyone is upstairs. When she believes she is not being observed, she jumps on the nearest piece of furniture—but was caught by the nanny cam. This, I told my students, is a canine version of Gyges and the ring of invisibility story from Plato’s Republic—how differently would you act from your law- and moral-rules-abiding norms if you thought no one was watching? Then there is the dog who chooses which human family member to sit with while watching television according to which one of them took him for a walk that day. He chooses not to sit with the most recent walk companion, since the dog apparently wants to make sure that everyone in the family gets equal snout time with him.dog-intelligence

Every dog owner believes that their dog is capable of high-level thought, but has also had the experience, as Daniel Dennett describes it, “of looking deeply into your dog’s eyes and realizing that no one is home.” Although dog-lovers don’t want to hear it, it is likely that the majority of our examples of canine intelligence on display are actually cases of humans anthropomorphically projecting intelligence where it doesn’t really belong. When my dog acts in a manner that, if I acted that way, would be explained by my ability to deliberate and think, I assume that she must be thinking when she acts that way. But biologists and animal behaviorists tell us that apparently intelligent behavior can almost always be explained without assuming any high-level thought being involved at all. It’s sort of like finding out that the apparent design of our world can be explained by natural processes without referring to an overall designer. Most of us don’t want to hear it—but that doesn’t make it any less true.100_0712

But the author of our article for class the other day wasn’t claiming that non-human animals use high-order reasoning when they behave in ways that reflect moral sensibilities. His claim, rather, was that their moral behavior comes from their ability to feel—to empathize, care about things other than themselves, even to sacrifice their own interests in deference to the interests or needs of others. It is this capacity to feel—an ability that we share with our animal brothers and sisters—that arguably serves as the foundation of moral behavior, whether the animal in question is capable of high-order reasoning or not. When I asked my students for examples of canine empathy rather than rationality, there once again was no shortage of stories. Many of the stories were strikingly similar to what Jeanne and I have observed over the past several years in our three dog pack at home. friedalinaOur dachshund Frieda, for instance, behaves in an obviously empathetic manner when someone in the house, dog or human, is in distress. Several years ago my youngest son Justin was diagnosed with cancer (fortunately he has been cancer-free now for a few years). When he returned from radiation sessions, he would collapse in exhaustion on his bed or on the couch. Frieda, who under normal circumstances did not give Justin the time of day, would immediately burrow herself next to him so he could absorb her warmth and positive vibes. Frieda acted similarly when Jeanne was recovering from hip-replacement surgery and, most recently, when I broke my leg in a bicycling mishap. Frieda, who under normal circumstances is all about herself and manipulating others to her will, becomes an ambassador of empathy and caring when someone is in need.

But just as with human beings, not all dogs are created equal with it comes to the empathy scale. Once Jeanne and I were walking Frieda with our other dachshund, Winnie, when, a couple of blocks from home, I tripped on an uneven portion of the sidewalk and fell flat on my face. Literally—my forehead bounced off the pavement. Frieda’s reaction was, on the one hand, to stick her face in front of mine, lick me, and sit next to me as I woozily tried to get up. 100_0870Winnie, on the other hand, said “I’m outta here!” and galloped the two or three blocks home as fast as her three-inch legs could carry her. It was the difference between “Dad! Are you all right???” and “Every man for himself!!”—just as we find in the human world.

I finally had to call an end to pet stories in class or we would never have gotten anything else done. I then asked my students to consider which is more important to the moral life: Reason or sentiments? Our ability to think or our ability to feel? After some discussion in small groups they reported back, predictably, that both are important—but if forced to choose between reason and sentiment as more important, feelings won out. Although this flies in the face of some of the most powerful and influential moral theories ever proposed by philosophers (Immanuel Kant, for instance), it squares well both with what some other philosophers have thought (David Hume, for instance) and—more importantly—with our experiences and intuitions. Our shared evolutionary history with other animals laid the foundations for our complex and sophisticated moral capacities. When we want to see where morality comes from we need only observe our canine family members. It turns out that someone is home after all.100_0595

A Halloween Frame of Mind

As a 60-year-old guy with no small children in my life, I don’t do Halloween. Often Jeanne and I celebrate the day by going to a late afternoon movie, followed by dinner, so we can be conveniently away during whatever time the parental units deem it safe for the children to be trick-or-treating. Halloween grinchI know that I sound like a Halloween Grinch, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I think Halloween is a generally useless and stupid holiday, although I participated in it fully in my youth and faithfully put in my time as a co-organizer of trick-or-treating in my house when my sons were young. I’ve been seeing Halloween stuff in stores since August and will be glad when today is over so miles of shelves can be cleared for the display of Christmas stuff two months before the day. Not—I’ve written about that before as well.

Get Thee Behind Me, Santa!

But thinking about Halloween puts me in a reminiscent mood about both persons and times long gone.

In rural Vermont, there was no walking from house to house for trick-or-treating. Our closest neighbors were at least a half mile away; accordingly, my mother logged 20-30 miles of driving every October 31 as my brother and I filled a grocery bag each with an amazing haul. This was long before the scares of razor blades and poison in Halloween treats—we collected unwrapped caramel apples and popcorn balls, maple sugar candy before it went on the market, freshly baked pastries, and more. candy cornPeople who gave only a candy bar or a little bag of candy corn were losers. Our haul filled several large bowls at home; despite my mother’s generally futile attempts at rationing, the Halloween proceeds usually lasted until close to Christmas.

Two unrelated issues caused the Halloweens of my youth to be fraught with cognitive dissonance. First, Halloween was my mother’s birthday. My mother was an “everyone else first” person by nature, and my brother and I took full advantage of her deference to all as the day was all about us rather than her. I’m having a difficult time scrounging up any memories of celebrating her natal day, a cake, a present, anything—my brother and I were selfish little bastards, apparently. Jesus pumpkinSecond, I had a sneaking suspicion that observing Halloween each year was putting me on the fast track to hell. We regularly heard at Calvary Baptist Church, where we spent most of every Sunday and Wednesday evening, that Halloween was the devil’s holiday, that participating in an evil holiday that celebrated pagans and demons and witches was a slap in Jesus’ face, and so on. Jesus-WeenBut I was never worried, because my mother—a very devout conservative Baptist—was even more dedicated to common sense and her sons having as much of a normal childhood preacher’s kids could have. So we did Halloween, but we did not trick-or-treat at the houses of anyone who went to our church.

It may be due to his usually being on the road during the fall, but I have only one Halloween memory related to my father—it was the year that the communists tried to take the holiday over. In the middle of October during one of my early years in school—probably second or third grade—the teacher announced a new plan for trick-or-treating. Instead of gathering the usual tonnage of candy, this year we were asked to “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF,” hitting people up for money instead of sweets, money that would be sent to help children in need around the world. In art class we made boxes out of pint milk containers to hold the money; there would be a blow-out party (with candy, presumably) at school in the evening where we would turn in the proceeds. UNICEFI dutifully made the container and innocently reported the new twist on Halloween to my parents at home. Dad went ballistic. I was too young to know much about politics, but I discovered during my father’s rant that among other things, “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” was a sign of creeping socialism as well as the UN’s ungodly push toward one world government, and a sure prophetic glimmer of the beast from the Book of Revelation. For all we knew, they might be imprinting a “666” on us when we brought in our money on Halloween evening. halloween and christmasTrick-or-treating for UNICEF was apparently more ungodly than taking “Christ” out of “Christmas.” Needless to say, that year we trick-or-treated for ourselves as was our custom and did not go to the party.

If I needed such evidence, I became fully aware of just how much the world had changed the first time I encountered Halloween in a city. Halloween 1988 found Jeanne and me with my nine and six-year-old sons in Milwaukee where I had just started my PhD studies at Marquette University, living on the upper floor of a duplex in a reasonably safe urban neighborhood. As the Monday holiday approached (my memory is not that good—I just looked it up on Google), newspapers and television newscasters announced that for purposes of safety and community solidarity, trick-or-treating would occur on the previous Sunday afternoon, October 30, from 3:00-5:00 PM. city t or tI completely understood the reasoning, given yearly reports of after-dark Halloween mishaps and tragedies across the country, but as Jeanne and I walked a few blocks of our neighborhood with Caleb and Justin in broad daylight along with a hundred or so other families, on a Sunday afternoon that wasn’t even Halloween, I thought “this is really fucked up.” What would my childhood Calvary Baptist Church pastor have said about my language and about participating in pagan activities on the Lord’s Day afternoon? Probably not too much, since he regularly spent his Sunday afternoons worshiping at the altar of NFL football on television. To each their own pagan activity!

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

evilclown7bc8

Preparing for the Clown Invasion

I suppose that, given that Halloween is only a couple of weeks away, we should not be surprised by reports that more and more clown sightings worldwide have caused people to become nervous. Where are they coming from? What are they up to?

Increased clown sightings

Concerns about clowns have been part of my life for the past thirty-five years or so, as I reported not long ago . . .

Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

I get most of my news piec2072985-e6f7-5e3e-994a-74990d3f595b.preview-300cemeal from NPR while riding in the car. Since Jeanne has the car most of the time, this is not a daily event. Even when I am “listening” to “Morning Edition,” I generally am only paying slight attention. It takes a lot for me to listen carefully. Civil war in Syria? Whatever. The Ukraine is falling apart? Yawn. Ted Nugent calls President Obama a bad name? What else is new? But when Renee Montagne reported this one morning, I was all ears.

Circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon. Membership at the country’s largest trade organizations for the jokesters has plunged over the past decade as declining interest, old age and higher standards among employers align against Krusty, Bozo and their crimson-nosed colleagues.

A clown shortage?? Really?? Apparently Renee wasn’t privy to the email exchanges flying around campus during the most recent controversy and brouhaha last week. Who knew there were so many clowns with PhDs?  I dismissed the clown report as the sort of filler that even NPR has to come up with on occasion. indexBut then the music for a South Korean skater’s short program the next evening was “Send in the Clowns,” and last Saturday the panelists on “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite radio program, started the show with a couple of minutes of hilarity concerning the impending clown drought. The panel suggested, for instance, that the art history majors dissed by President Obama the other day might want to look into enrolling in clown school as a backup plan for their current careers as Starbucks baristas. Clowns are in the air.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

652223575f794d7cad2bd5347a0f10This is very strange. There seemed to be plenty of clowns around in my childhood, from Howdy Doody’s Clarabell to Bozo, with whom I spent many afternoons after school. I actually thought the Bozo part of the Bozo-the-Clown-300x206“Bozo the Clown Show” was insufferably stupid and boring, but was willing to put up with it for the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The next generation has its own clowns, most memorably Krusty from “The Simpsons.” There are a number of possible explanations for the looming clown shortage:

KrustytheClown

  • Young people who in the past were interested in clownhood are now going into politics.
  • The procreation rate of clowns is very low. The oversized baggy clothing makes clown sex very challenging.
  • Clown traffic mortality rates are extraordinarily high. Clowns are poor drivers to begin with, and piling twenty-five to thirty clowns into every clown-driven vehicle drives the death rate up exponentially when accidents occur.

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.
 

I know one person who will be very happy to hear about the clown shortage. My son Caleb has suffered from a close-to-terminal case of coulrophobia (fear of clowns) since birth. A little over 30 years ago, five years after my BA, I found myself living in a tiny town in an isolated Star Valleywestern Wyoming valley, working in a grocery store, with four- and one-and-a-half year old sons in a marriage that was sure would not survive. Don’t ask.

We had almost no money, but that was okay since in Star Valley virtually nothing worth spending money on ever happened. So when a pitying friend gave me two tickets to the upcoming county fair, I was pleased to have something to do with my older son other than read Dr. Seuss books or watch television. I knew that Caleb was not amused by clowns, but this was a county fair, not a circus. Horses, pigs, cows, a petting zoo—what could go wrong? As we got out of the car and started crossing the parking lot to the entrance gate, I noticed that the ticket taker was . . . a clown. A stereotypical clown with a bald white pate, a bright orange fringe of hair, checked shirt, polka-dotted pants, oversized grin, exaggerated  eyebrows, size forty-two shoes. pennywiseMaybe Caleb wouldn’t notice. But he did. As we approached the entrance, Caleb protested repeatedly in an increasingly loud and panicked voice “DON’T LIKE IT! DON’T LIKE IT!! THERE’S PLOWNS!!!” In order to short-circuit the dragging-a-screaming-kid-with-his-heels-dug-in scenario that is the bane of all parents’ existence, I sighed, we turned around, got back in the car, and drove away.

evilclown7bc8A few weeks ago I told this thirty-year-old story to Caleb’s younger brother. After several moments of uproarious and uncontrolled laughter, Justin realized that he just been given the greatest gift a younger brother can receive—a completely and devastatingly embarrassing story about his older brother. The next time the three of us were together, Justin sprang into action. “Caleb, are you still afraid of clowns?” Justin asked, mimicking in a high voice Caleb’s plaintive “Don’t like it! There’s plowns!” To Justin’s surprise, Caleb not only did not consider this story to be a threat to his carefully protected manhood, but instead doubled down on his lifelong judgment concerning clowns. “Clowns are evil. I hate clowns. Clowns are fucked up.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

What will a clown-less world be like? Probably the same as the one we’ve got—I have to admit that other than the above-mentioned adventure with my son, clowns have not been on my radar screen very often. But generations yet unborn will eventually wonder what the hell Judy Collins is singing about.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is my brother’s birthday in a few days; I am several months older now than the age at which my mother died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-eight years ago; amazingly, sometimes it seems more like twenty-eight weeks.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of his freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a rock star in Jeanne’s and my estimation, speaks in ten days. I remember a couple of years ago when my friend and best-selling author Kathleen Norris was resident scholar on my campus and gave a late afternoon talk. At the beginning of Q and A , Kathleen mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Last Sunday we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the Animals.” I went to the early show with Frieda, who along with five other dogs held center stage and generally behaved themselves.

Three years ago

Five years ago

This year

Two years ago

For several years running I was lector for Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who was rector of our little Episcopal church for those years, made sure I was scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always brought Frieda to the lectern so she could stare people down while I was reading.

During October the weekly readings are still stuck in Ordinary Time, where we have been since Pentecost. This year the readings from the Jewish scriptures have wandered through various prophets yelling at whoever would listen about various shortcomings.  Last year we were walked through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. In Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll begin again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life not long ago in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, October.love october

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person