Category Archives: philosophy

Carson and Hughes

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

Season FourIn anticipation of Season Five of “Downton Abbey” making it across the pond to PBS next month, Jeanne and I just finished binge-watching Season Four over the last few evenings to remind us, first, of exactly what is going on in the lives of the two dozen or so characters in the middle of the 1920s and, second, just why this is probably our favorite show on television. That’s saying a lot. We love good television and have several series that we keep up with religiously, including “The Newsroom” which just finished its final season (bummer) and “Homeland” which is close to the end of its fourth season. We are anxiously awaiting the return of “The Americans” next month on FX for a new season. But “Downton Abbey” is a phenomenon in our house, just as it has been for millions of other viewers. No violence, no nudity or sex, no f-bombs—just great character development and brilliant acting from top to bottom. Who knew that people would like something like that?

I learned many months ago that if I was a character on “Downton Abbey,” I would be the stodgy and formal Mr. Carson.mister carson

http://www.buzzfeed.com/justinabarca/which-downton-abbey-character-are-you

And that’s fine with me. Mr. Carson runs the staff similarly to how I run the academic program I direct, with a firm hand and an occasional adjusting of the rules when appropriate. I’m a bit concerned about Mr. Carson’s attachment to tradition and fear of new things, but he’s loosening up a bit as the seasons progress. The main reason I resonate with Mr. Carson is his penchant for pithy and insightful one-liner comments on what is going on around him, a talent rivaled in Downton only by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crowley upstairs. Here are a few Carsonian observations from the early episodes of Season Four:

I always thought there is something foreign about high spirits at breakfast.

morning personHere’s a difference between Mr. Carson and me—he’s not a morning person and I am. I’m at the gym every morning at 6:00. I would much rather teach at 8:30 than at 1:30 (which is my nap time). But the kind of morning person I am is not the sort which is inclined to “high spirits.” I love the morning because it is quiet, because if there is any time during the day that I will be able to slip immediately into “centered” mode, it is when I first get up. As I read the appointed Psalm 90 this morning, I read

In the morning, fill us with your love;

We shall exult and rejoice all our days

Mercyand a reading from Lamentations at my friend and colleague’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago reminded me that the mercies of the Lord are renewed every morning. Morning is a good time to reset and, if necessary, commit to a “redo” of previous days that didn’t work out as planned, intended or wished. As Jeanne mentioned the other day, if the Lord renews mercy every morning, then there’s no reason we cannot be merciful to ourselves. High spirits are not required.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.

One of my last classes with my Honors freshmen this semester was focused on Book Eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine on timea fascinating and complex analysis of time that no philosopher matched or surpassed for a millennium after Augustine. One of his interesting questions has to do with what it is that we are focusing our attention on when we consider past events in the present. The past event is gone, but everything that we experience leaves some sort of internal impression on us, bits and pieces that we file away, consciously or unconsciously, in our “memory banks.” Each person’s history, indeed each person, is a creative stitching together of these impressions. Because we know that these internal impressions are impermanent and fleeting, we take pictures, write memoirs, and tell stories, all in the attempt to make permanent what is fleeting. Earlier in Psalm 90 this morning, the psalmist describes what we are fighting against.

You sweep us away like a dream,

like grass which springs up in the morning.

In the morning it springs up and flowers;

by evening it withers and fades.

Which brings me to one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Carson.

We shout and scream and wail and cry but in the end we must all die

HughesAs Mrs. Hughes, the chief housekeeper who is the closest thing Mr. Carson has to a best friend replies, “Well, that’s cheered me up. Thank you.” Who knew that Mr. Carson is a philosopher? Mr. Carson is the epitome of English reserve, carrying the most British stiff upper lip imaginable; if he was a philosopher, he would be an early twentieth-century incarnation of the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Stoic reserve is just one of many possible responses to a brutal and inescapable fact—we all are going to die.

Impermanence and loss is a continuing theme throughout the seasons of “Downton Abbey,” through the ravages of World War I in Season Two to the tragic death of the heir to the family fortune in a car crash at the end of Season Three, a loss that is the connecting thread throughout all of the Season Four episodes that Jeanne and I finished watching last evening. By the end of the season some people are moving on, good fortune has smiled on others, but an uncertain future faces them all. This isn’t BBC drama—this is real life. One of the interesting attractions of “Downton Abbey” is that happiness and despair, misfortune and luck, triumph and defeat, are features of everyone’s lives—upstairs and downstairs, privileged and struggling, the family and the help. Violet and EdithAn extended study of life as it happens does not require spies, blowing things up, gratuitous torture and dismemberment, or naked boobs and butts every week. All it requires is noticing how life actually happens to us. As Violet, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham tells her struggling and star-crossed granddaughter Edith, “Life is a series of problems that we need to solve—first one, then another—until we die.” Ain’t it the truth.Carson and Hughes

Soul and Body

One of my favorite issues in philosophy is the mind/body problem–how do they relate, are they really a different as they seem, and what are the implications of the possible answers? Last week was Saint Augustine week in one of my classes, giving me the opportunity to examine once again my favorite philosophical issue through the lens of one of my least favorite philosophers. Here’s how I reflected on Augustine week a year ago:

Upon hearing that the high temperature for the next two days would be no more than thirty degrees, feeling with the wind chill like fifteen degrees, I was reminded a couple of weeks ago, first, that late autumn in New England does get cold and, second, that I am very different now than I was as a youth. Forty or fifty years ago in my native Vermont I would have welcomed the inexorable signs of impending snow; now I just think “shit. It’s going to snow soon.” I was reminded during my winter and spring sabbatical in Minnesota a few years ago just how beautiful a snowfall can be. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHThe dazzling white layer of new fallen snow stayed a sparkling white for weeks on end rather than turning immediately into gray slush as it does in Rhode Island. Still, my preference would be for the one predictable effect of global warming to be that it will not snow anywhere I am for the rest of my life. But thanks to my usual random, six degrees of separation thought processes, thinking of snow gets me to thinking about human depravity. Really.

Many years ago while I was still in my twenties, an elderly theologian friend of my father’s (actually the old guy was probably only about ten or fifteen years older than I am now), upon hearing that images[2]I was preparing to study philosophy in graduate school and had affinity for Descartes, made what I at the time considered to be a completely uninformed comment. “The worst day in the history of Western thought,” he said, “was the day that Descartes shut himself up in his stove-heated room and started to think.” I’ve come to believe over the years that the old guy was right—except he was blaming Descartes for something that had been problematic for centuries before Rene was even born.

The problem my Dad’s friend was referring to is the idea that we human beings are, at the core, fundamentally schizophrenic creatures. In philosophy, this schizophrenia is called dualism, according to which the human being is a tenuous and on-Leaves-Where-Light-Eternal-Forever-Creation-Evolution-Explained-Life-Essense-Destination-Hell-Destroyed-Perish-Hades-Evil-Path-Up-Kingdom-Heaven-God-Path[1]temporary union of two very different things, soul/mind and body. Dualism has a long and powerful philosophical pedigree, including Plato and Descartes, two of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition. It has been highly influential and is also highly problematic. The sharp separation between mind and body is both psychologically disturbing, in that it provides little guidance as to how integration between the various parts of a person is to be accomplished, and philosophically incoherent, in that it divides reality into camps that not only are different in substance but are actually often at crossed purposes. Dualism lays the groundwork for a science that ignores the spiritual, a philosophical materialism that belittles the notion of anything other than what is directly in front of us, and a spirituality that downgrades the physical or even considers it as evil.

Christianity developed in a world in which the dominant philosophical framework, Platonism, was radically dualistic; the structure of a good deal of traditional Christian doctrine continues to carry dualistic scars. The week before Thanksgiving I was responsible for introducing a bunch of freshmen to 528548498_c09abc47c8_z[1]Augustine of Hippo, a lecture followed for the rest of the week by two-hour seminar investigations of his thought. Augustine is second only to the apostle Paul in his influence on the development of early Christian doctrine and belief. Let’s just say I am not a fan. Augustine is one of those influential figures who cannot be ignored, although I would love to. Instead, I usually am able to deflect the “Introduction to Augustine” lecture to a theology or literature colleague on whatever team I am a member of in the interdisciplinary program I teach in and direct. But this year there was no one else to turn to, so for the first time in years it was up to me to provide a imagesCA0Q6L4PFox News-like “fair and balanced” introduction to a guy I really don’t like. Oh well, that’s why we college professors earn the big bucks (or not).

The assignment for the day was Books I-III of Augustine’s Confessions, one of the most influential works in the vast sweep of Western literature. With it Augustine invented a genre of literature as well as a method of theological investigation infused by philosophical acumen. These early books of Confessions are Augustine’s selective memoir of his years from infancy to early adulthood.  As I reviewed the text I was reminded of why I find Augustine so disturbing. The focus of Augustine’s attention is always on the dark side of human nature, on whatever it was inside of him that caused him to always be attracted to what is wrong rather than what is right, evil rather than good. Ranging from his conviction that, as all infants, imagesCAWCU9UWhe showed signs of maladjustment to the good from birth, through his obsession with the simple theft of a bunch of pears during his adolescence, to his withering self-criticism over his attraction to the theater as an early adult, Augustine never moves far from an obsession with what John Calvin, many centuries later, will describe as “utter depravity.” Indeed, I told my freshmen the other day that Augustine was actually the first Protestant, one thousand years early. To seal the deal, I likened Augustine’s attitude concerning human nature to Martin Luther’s likening of God’s grace applied to human nature as similar to a fresh layer of new fallen snow covering a pile of shit. 220px-Luther46c[1]Divine grace covers a multitude of sins, and a sufficient amount of snow can cover an awful lot of shit. And guess who the pile of shit is?

Augustine seriously bothers me because I grew up in a family, community and world infused with Augustine-like energies. Negative, suspicious, self-absorbed and obsessed with even the slightest aroma of sin, particularly of the sort that involved the body. My problem always was that I didn’t feel like a bifurcated being—my mind and body seemed to work together pretty well—and I sort of liked things made of matter. Painting-central[1]I didn’t find out until college that the debate about the relationship between soul and body is at the heart of philosophy from the beginning, with Plato arguing for dualism and his star pupil Aristotle saying “not so much.”

As challenging as these issues are in philosophy, they become even more pressing when considering the relationship between humans and what is greater than us. Dualism not only offers a skewed and problematic map of reality, but also fundamentally contorts and deforms the very heart and soul of Christian belief—the Incarnation. If believing that God became human means anything, it means that the greatest and most cosmic dualistic split of all—the one between human and divine—has been healed. The divine response to human failings is not to cover them up but rather to transform the human by infusing it with the divine. The mystery of transcendence and immanence remains, but the promise of the Nativity to come is all about immanence—God with (and in) us.

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lamentation giotto

That Hopey Changey Thing

CyprianCyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a few weeks ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past few years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. “And have a nice day”—except that Good Friday isn’t supposed to be a nice day, so the twenty-minute dirge is appropriate.

In last Friday’s post I was anticipating the service that would take place that afternoon in our campus’ main chapel in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving.

http://freelancechristianity.com/soon/

As I settled into my seat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

A few years ago a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Hopey ChangeySarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for me lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, then a tragic reminder that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

I spent a beautiful ninety minutes last Saturday evening at Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, which always opens with a beautiful Advent hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cup. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. NPRI also have a favorite cup in each of my offices on campus, one with a pissed-off bluebird and one that I got free from NPR for upping my monthly contribution $5 last April. This does not include my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup that sits proudly on a top shelf in my program director’s office. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over five years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces two years ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archeological dig many millennia in the future.

A bit over a week ago I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says “Hi Vance” when I have emptied the liquid (not really). I’m drinking coffee from my special cup (carefully) as I write.

I choose to consider my new monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past few years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The workshop I recently attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. Advent began yesterday, my favorite liturgical time of year because it reminds us to prepare for the greatest gift of all: Incarnation.007

Bagpipes and Cats

Today is Saint Andrew’s Sunday (which happens to fall this year on the actual Saint Andrew’s Day). This essay is in honor of the patron saint of Scotland, as well as my friend Marsue, who today will celebrate her last day of five years as priest at Trinity Episcopal Church before beginning a well-deserved retirement.

Although I am a philosophy professor by trade, I believe William Shakespeare’s body of work is more insightful about my favorite philosophical topic—human nature—than anything the Western tradition in philosophy has to offer. imagesThe Merchant of Venice is a case in point. Greed, money, love, friendship, ambition, honor, racism, forgiveness—all are on display in this masterpiece. In the dramatic Act Four court scene, Shylock insists that he be allowed to take a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, as the contract that Antonio freely agreed to guarantees if Antonio is unable to repay the loan he has taken from Shylock. Antonio’s friends have gathered sufficient money to pay Shylock three, four, even ten times the amount that Antonio borrowed, but Shylock insists on the pound of flesh. When the defense demands to know why Shylock (who everyone knows is a money-grubbing Jew, after all) insists on the peculiar letter of the contract rather than more money than he could have expected, Sbagpipe-1hylock’s response is both cryptic and illuminating.

Some men there are love not a gaping pig; some that are mad if they behold a cat; and others, when the bagpipe sings…cannot contain their urine.

People have strange preferences and dislikes. In other words, Shylock says, I don’t need to explain why I want the pound of flesh rather than the money. I just want it, and the law says I can have it. People are like that—we like some things, dislike others, and no further explanation is necessary. End of story. Not really—a loophole discovered at the last moment leaves Antonio with his skin and Shylock in disgrace,

But Shylock’s point stands. Our personal likes and dislikes frequently are indefensible—yet they define who we are. I’ve written in a previous post about my obsession with penguins

http://freelancechristianity.com/2013/09/25/well-dressed-birds/

and my inability to explain this obsession other than to say “I like penguins.”Penguins in love Jeanne has a similarly intense obsession with Holstein cows. Shakespeare’s choice of example in Shylock’s observation is inspired—he chooses a couple of things about which no one is neutral. It’s possible that someone might not care one way or the other about penguins or cows, but no one is neutral about bagpipes or cats. You either love them or hate them.

Bagpipes: Over the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to scrape two decades worth of rust off my organ skills and play at services, weddings and funerals on occasion. noackorgan8-2013One afternoon while practicing for an upcoming service that included “Amazing Grace,” I experimented with various settings on the pipe organ until I achieved a sound somewhat similar to bagpipes, without the grinding, scary elements–call it “Bagpipes Lite.” I used it at the service and received so  many positive comments that I’ve found a reason to use that setting just about every time I’ve played since.

Hitchcock,_Alfred_02I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig. Alfred Hitchcock

 

In the calendar of saints, November 30 is St. Andrew’s Day. Marsue, the rector of my Episcopal church chooses to celebrate St. Andrew’s Dayimages 2 every year on the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), even if November 30 doesn’t fall on a Sunday. This is her prerogative, but St. Andrew is not a top drawer saint and Marsue doesn’t similarly celebrate St. Peter or St. John or St. Anybody Else yearly on Sunday. Marsue does this because St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and she is a lover of bagpipes. St. Andrew’s Day gives Marsue the opportunity every year to import bagpipe_pda bagpipe player to start the service by scaring the shit out of everybody as she winds the best up in the back of the church and then processes. I heard once that when a new, very loud trumpet stop on the organ at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan was used at a Sunday service for the first time many years ago, a woman in the congregation was so shocked by the unexpected noise that she had a heart attack and died. I hope this does not happen on some future St. Andrew’s Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Pawtuxet.

Some are inspired by the otherworldly sound of the bagpipe—others think something else is going on, as 2013735-59654_bugs_bunnyBugs Bunny does when he ends up unexpectedly in Scotland.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xo1q1_my-bunny-lies-over-the-sea-scene_fun

“How many of you like bagpipes?” I asked my after-church Adult Christian Education seminar after the St. Andrew’s Day service? Half enthusiastically raised their hands.” How many hate bagpipes?” The other half expressed their opinion just as vigorously; one of them commented “I always vow that I will never again come to church on St. Andrew’s Sunday, but I always forget!”

Bagpipes—you love them or you hate them. images.3A regiment of Scottish soldiers became known as the “Ladies from Hell” or the “Devils in Skirts” during World War I, not just because of their enormous bravery and fighting spirit, nor just because they wore kilts into battle. They were led into battle by soldiers playing an instrument that both looked and sounded as if it had been dreamed up and constructed in some deep, dark circle of Hell that Dante forgot to tell us about. I’m sure that many soldiers on the enemy side were unable to “contain their urine.”

The Irish gave bagpipes to the Scots as a joke. The Scots still haven’t gotten the joke.

Cats: I learned something very interesting the other day on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”04brenn_CA0 (a Saturday noon tradition and the source of much of my current events information). Recent research indicates that domestic cats believe that their owners (people, fellow inhabitants of the house) are large, mostly hairless cats who are useful primarily because they have somehow figured out how to use a can opener. For those who have or have had cats in their lives, this is not a surprise.

In any group of more than five people, ask “How many of you like cats?” Half will raise their hands. “How many of you hate cats?” The other half will raise their hands. And cats know the difference instinctively. cat rubbing legA cat will pick the most dedicated cat-hater out of any room, go directly to her, and immediately start rubbing against her legs. To the cat hater the cat says “You don’t like me? Fuck you—I don’t give a shit. Let me leave a bunch of cat hairs on your pant leg to remember me by.” To the cat fans the cat says “Whatever. Do you think I’m here for your amusement?” Cat haters want to know why the hell cats think that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason. Cat lovers find it amusing and cute when cats decide that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason

Cats are low maintenance. Whenever Jeanne and I leave for a day or two, extensive coverage for our three dogs has to be arranged. The safe window for leaving the dogs alone and unsupervised is about five hours. AtmpphpfkKNbwfter five hours, all three of them think “I guess nobody’s ever returning” and all hell breaks loose, beginning with tipping over wastebaskets and relieving themselves in inappropriate locations. Cats are different. With sufficient cat litter, food and water, a cat can be left for a month with no problem. Upon return, the cat will look at its people and say “Oh, were you gone?”

There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. Their habits are random and individual. tumblr_m7mfonbU481qz582yo1_500My last cat, Spooky, was an introvert extraordinaire but would at least once per evening make a royal appearance in whatever room people were gathered to make a slow, always counter-clockwise stroll through the room, then leave without comment. Dogs are obsequious—cats are not. Dogs need human affection and approval to assuage their natural canine insecurity—cats have no such insecurities. Whether a person loves or hates cats reveals a great deal about the person. I was pleased to find out on yet another Facebook personality quiz the other day that liberals prefer cats and conservatives prefer dogs.

I am a cat loving hater of bagpipes. So sue me.

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”

mindfulness

Going on Retreat

I begin with a confession. As recently as a week ago in a Facebook posting I have been telling people all semester that in the middle of November I was going to be away for four days at a conference (I might have called it a “workshop” once or twice). out of officeI put up an “away” message on Outlook announcing my absence for four days from the administrative saddle because of travelling to a conference, let my “inner circle” blog circulation list know that they would have to do something other than wait expectantly for my usual 7:30 AM Friday blog post on a particular upcoming Friday, arranged for my teaching teammates to cover the Friday afternoon seminar on the Aeneid that I would be missing, and generally covered my academic ass. No biggie—everyone know that giving papers at a conference is part of the academic life that requires rearranging classes and office hours on occasion.

cyprianExcept that I was not giving a paper. I wasn’t even going to a conference. I was going to a retreat, which in most corners of academia is tantamount to going to a 60s love-in. The name of the retreat, located at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the campus occupied by my beloved Saint John’s Abbey run by the Benedictines in the middle of Minnesota, was “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart,” led by a Benedictine monk who is the prior of a hermitagehermitage in Big Sur that I spent a week at a year and a half ago. It’s a good thing that I have not needed tenure or promotion points for a while now, because participation in such an event would have carried negative academic weight. The value of going to such a retreat in the middle of the semester in the eyes of the Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure on our campus would be similar to what the Psalmist says about the ungodly: “Placed in the scales, they rise.” The fact that I perceived several months ago that this retreat at this point in the semester would be good for my soul would be irrelevant to CART—“But will this produce a peer-reviewed article? Probably not? No tenure or promotion for you!” Too bad, CART. I’ve been around long enough to have been on that committee myself for a couple of years, convincing myself every Friday afternoon that I was qualified to mess with other people’s lives. If I determine that a trip to the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is what is needed to keep my spirit, soul and body centered and willing to inhabit the same room, you can’t do anything about it.

Human beings are funny creatures; human beings on retreat are even funnier. The average age of the twenty-four people gathered at this one was probably a bit over my fifty-eight years, with women outnumbering men two to one. The women all looked alike—tall, thin, wearing glasses, with approximately  the same short haircut (with the exception of one woman with a long braid who looked like a refugee from the Sixties and who was the only person of either gender attending with hair longer than mine).ND Turns out that four or five of them were ordained Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of North Dakota. The guys were a bit more variant in appearance, beardless and bearded, bald and haired, thin and not so thin, including one heavyset guy who fell asleep during meditation in the oratory and snored really loudly. Twice. Everyone on retreat walks the same way, with a slow and intentionally reverent gait that actually looks a bit like how zombies walk when they are staggering toward you in the movies. Everyone and everything slows down at a retreat, at least at the ones I go to, which is a good thing.

Just as the other two times I have attended retreats at this establishment, silence was observed from the conclusion of evening prayer around 9:00 until the end of lunch the next day, the only exceptions being when were in teaching sessions with whoever is running the retreat. In these sessions we were allowed to ask questions, but only if they were good ones. I love silence. Silence is good. But not when packed into a small dining room for breakfast silenceand lunch seated six to a circular table, for breakfast and lunch during what is quaintly called “the Great Silence.” The sounds of people chewing their food while uncomfortably looking anywhere but at each other may be an important part of some people’s spiritual practice, but it doesn’t do anything for me. There is no one more introverted than I am, but even I breathed a sigh of relief when lunch ended and we all were allowed to speak for the next nine hours or so.

WardOther than the leader of the retreat, who came from California, I was the person who travelled the farthest. My flights were such that I was the first arrival early on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the retreat officially began at dinner. After touching base with Ward, the director of the retreat house who is a friend (largely because between us Jeanne and I have been to five retreats at this place over the past five years) and moving my stuff into my room, ehopI went into the beautiful large living room area with a glass wall overlooking the adjacent forest, made a cup of tea, and sat down to read Anne Lamott’s latest book. TEA?? Since when did I start drinking tea?? As I have discussed in the past, I have been a dedicated coffee drinker (more like a coffee swiller) since my teenage years.

Saint Keurig

Jeanne was a tea drinker when we met years ago and still drinks tea on occasion as well as coffee, but not me. Tea is for pussies. coffee or teaWho can be bothered with the precious seconds wasted with opening the tea bag envelope, waiting for the tea to steep in hot water for an interminable minute or so, then figuring out how to drink it with a tea bag floating in it? By the time all that happens I will have swilled a paper cup of coffee, black since I can’t spare the time to add cream and sugar, and be back to the important business of whatever I’m doing—since everything I do is obviously important business. I don’t drink tea.

Except on retreat. I said earlier that human beings on retreat are funny creatures—I am no exception. Making myself tea instead of coffee for my first of many hot drinks over the four-day retreat was not a conscious decision—I didn’t even notice I had done it until I sat down to read. But my body knew something my mind didn’t know. mindfulGoing from an 80-100 hour week of work to a four-day retreat is not as easy as flipping a switch. Slowing down, mindfulness, deliberation and attentiveness—all those good things that I’ve begun to incorporate into my life but that slip through my fingers easily when swamped by real life—need practice. And taking the time to make a cup of tea (which I actually really like the taste of) rather than throwing another several ounces of coffee down my pie hole was a good place to start. Take the time to pay attention to what you are doing, do each thing as it comes, and wait to see what comes next. mindfulnessDo what you are doing and be where you are. I know this. Sometimes I even do it. But a retreat is an opportunity to drop fully into that space that I’ve been skimming over or dodging around for weeks. And to notice that it’s always there waiting—my deepest (and best) me.

I was even thinking that I should start drinking tea at work. Until I remembered that thanks to Saint Keurig I can now make a cup of tea as quickly and mindlessly as a cup of coffee. I don’t even need a tea bag. Oh well.

Hedda and Paul

t. Williams“There is a famous anecdote about an out-of-town tryout of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Thornton Wilder was in attendance and remarked afterwards to Tennessee Williams that he thought Blanche DuBois was too complex a character for the theater. Tennessee is said to have replied, ‘People are complex, Thorn.’”

I read the above anecdote in the program notes as Jeanne and I waited at a local theater for Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to begin. hedda gablerWhat I know about the great Norwegian playwright has been gathered over the years from teaching in a team-taught course where my literature teammate has occasionally chosen one of Ibsen’s controversial and fascinating plays for the students to grapple with, ranging from An Enemy of the People to The Wild Duck and A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s penchant for ripping the veil off late nineteenth-century bourgeois Norwegian society, pushing his readers’ and audience’s face up against topics that decent people would just as soon not consider, and especially his willingness to populate his plays with female characters who explode the stereotypes of dutiful wife and devoted mother caused his plays to not only be banned in several countries during his lifetime ibsen(he was nicknamed “Ibscene”) but make them sound to a twenty-first century audience as if they were written yesterday. I probably read Hedda Gabler as an undergraduate, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it on stage and only the second Ibsen I had ever seen performed; reading in the program notes that the role of Hedda has been described as the “female Hamlet” raised my expectations even further.

Over the past few months I have been immersed in things Norwegian as I read through Jo Nesbø’s mystery series set in Oslo and environs. Nesbø is the hottest writer to come out of Scandinavia since Steig Larsson; I started his ten-volume-and-counting Harry Hole series in early summer and am currently plowing through Phantom, the ninth entry in the series. Were it not for my usual commitment to reading everything an author has written in the order written once I have discovered their work, I might not have made it this far—phantomNesbø’s incredible popularity has caused him to crank out books at a pace that outstrips consistent quality—but when he’s good, he’s very, very good. As with all of my favorite authors of mystery series, I particularly enjoy how the repeating characters become more real from book to book as I learn incrementally more about their history, their peccadilloes, their shortcomings, their successes, their relationships, their failures, their inner lives—in short, I enjoy observing them become more and more recognizably human. Because Tennessee Williams was right. People are complex.

Nesbø and Ibsen both prefer shadow to light and seldom go far before revealing something dark and sinister lying beneath the surface of even the most banal and pleasant persons and circumstances. Hedda Gabler, a newlywed just returned from her honeymoon with her husband George, a newly minted PhD (philosophy, no less!) expecting a plum appointment at the local university, finds herself situated in a large new house ready to be furnished with whatever furniture she fancies. George is clearly infatuated with his beautiful new wife, who everyone describes (to her increasing annoyance) as “glowing.” Hedda 2But appearances are deceiving; only a few minutes into the play we find that Hedda is complicated to the core. Another short essay in the program guide reports that Hedda has been described by critics as “sinister, degenerate, repellent, lunatic, a monster in the shape of a woman, with a soul too small even for human sin.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but she actually is just about all of that. But she is also charismatic, has a razor-sharp wit, crackles with energy, and as if by magic causes everyone in the room to dance to her tune.

As I watched the play unfold on the stage fifteen feet away, I realized that Hedda is not necessarily a bad person bent on the destruction of everything she touches. In this performance she was brilliantly played with the energy of trapped animal, like a tiger or lion in a zoo cage pacing back and forth restlessly, looking everywhere for a way to escape, and devouring everything unfortunate enough to fall within her reach. She finds herself in a world in which the only acceptable roles for a woman are roles that she not only would reject if given the opportunity but that she also knows she is completely unsuited for. caged tigerIn a twisted version of Socrates’ observation that some lives are not worth living, Hedda strikes out more and more desperately as she feels the walls closing in. When there is no more room to move or breathe, she makes the only choice available and dies rather than living under these circumstances.

Two sets of sixteen freshmen and I encountered another trapped human being the next day after I saw Hedda Gabler. These Monday seminars were the culmination of New Testament week, in which the students had already read Mark for a setup lecture; the assignment for seminar was Luke, Acts, and Romans. We spent the bulk of both seminars considering various passages in both Luke and Acts where the very clear requirements of following Jesus set the behavior bar so high that clearly no normal human being could reach it. Iris Murdoch once commented that it would have made sense if in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said something like Iris“Be ye therefore slightly improved,” but he didn’t. Instead he said “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” My mostly parochial school educated freshmen, many of whom had been taught from a young age that the Christian life is about trying to be a good person as often as possible, were shocked and disturbed when they encountered what the texts actually say. Even at eighteen or nineteen years old, each of them had enough life experience with themselves and other human beings to know that the gospel standard is one that is impossible for the flawed creatures that we are to meet.

No one has ever described the human predicament more effectively than Paul at the end of Romans 7—I took the students there toward the end of seminar.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate . . . For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?machete

Hedda found herself trapped in circumstances in which she could not flourish, grow, survive, or even breathe. Paul finds himself in the same situation, but with much greater scope. Knowing what must or should be done and finding myself completely incapable of doing it. Bottom line, this is the human condition. No wonder we often strike out in frustration and anger at whatever is within reach. However we came to be in this predicament, we cannot work or will our way out of it.

Then in a masterful reversal of just a few lines, Paul provides a way out so compelling that it is hardly to be believed, a way whose energy coincides with the hope and promise that is at the heart of Advent that makes its welcome yearly appearance in a couple of weeks.

Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law could not do: by sending his own Son . . .Romans 8

For me, it is this hope and promise–fulfilled by the incarnation–that both uniquely defines the Christian faith and can keep a flawed, seriously damaged creature from descending into Paul’s despair or Hedda’s destructive rage. For every frustrated “I can’t do this!” there is an “Of course you can’t. But help is on the way.”Calvin and Hobbes

imagesCA3Y08VL

Death Is Nothing Terrible

We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Anne Lamott

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to engage with various groups of people in the classroom on occasional weekends. I’ve had a couple of these opportunities over the past three weekends. The topic is always the same–How to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world largely outside of our control?

As the centerpiece of my college’s extensive required core curriculum, the Development of Western Civilization Program that I direct is of great interest to many more people than just the faculty and students who are in the trenches of the course every day. Parents of prospective students, alums and donors, parents of freshmen students in their first semester—004all of these and more are interested in exactly what takes place in the program’s classrooms, experiences that are the signature shared experiences of all students at Providence College. This is a program so daunting as to generate horror stories of mythic proportions, yet whose importance is revealed by its being the center of pedagogical energy in our new humanities building.

In order to give these various constituencies a taste of the DWC experience, I often am asked on a Saturday afternoon to give a “mock DWC lecture” for fifty minutes to visiting grownups. These lectures are a lot of fun, because the room is full of adults rather than eighteen and nineteen year old adult wannabes. The people at these lectures love to participate, they get my jokes, and cause me to think that maybe I am a good teacher after all. This semester I have given mock lectures four times—twice on the afternoon of the dedication of the new humanities building, once for an Open House for prospective students and their parents, and one for images[1]Freshman Family Weekend. My “go to” lecture in such situations over the past few semesters has been an introduction to Stoicism, one of the Roman world’s unique contributions to Western philosophy, a lecture that I call “Death Is Nothing Terrible.” Why the esoteric topic and depressing title? Because Stoicism is a philosophy for grownups, for human beings who have been run over a few times by life, are a bit frayed around the edges, and are ready to converse briefly about strategies concerning how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that apparently lacks both. What better to talk about on a Saturday afternoon?

The most noted Stoics over a couple of centuries were not professional philosophers—their day jobs were remarkably diverse. imagesCALBM2ZLCicero was a lawyer and politician, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. What do a politician, slave and emperor share in common that might explain their attraction to the same philosophical framework? Each of them is a person who, at least in theory, lives a life that is primarily answerable to others, a person who is largely not in control of her or his own life. And this, the Stoics say, is actually the situation that we all find ourselves in.

Epicurus_bust2[1]Epictetus, the Stoic I usually focus the room’s attention on, was a well-educated Greek slave owned by a wealthy Roman landowner. Epictetus’s role in the household was to tutor and educate the children of his owner, a task he carried out so effectively that his master freed him in the later years of his life. Epictetus begins the Enchiridion, a short text that—according to legend—Roman soldiers on campaign carried with them while away from their homes and farms for years at a time, by asking us to do a brief thought experiment along with him. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on a chalkboard). At the top of the left column, write “Within my control.” On top of the right column, write “Not within my control.” Start with the right column and begin listing all of the things that you encounter or interact with on a daily basis that are not in your control. At a lecture, people immediately start calling out

The Weather! No kidding!

When and how you die! The only thing we know for sure is that within 100 years, everyone in this lecture hall will be dead! But how and when—we don’t know.

Other people! “How much time do you spend in a day or week trying to influence what other people think or do?” I ask. “A lot!” “How’s that going for you?” “It doesn’t work!”

Your family! You may have participated in activities likely to produce a child, but you didn’t ask for this child! How often when younger did you think or say “I didn’t ask to be born into this family”? You were right!

Your health! You may spend a great deal of time exercising and eating right, then get run over by a bus this afternoon!

My gender! My race!

After a few minutes of information gathering and general hilarity, it is clear that many, indeed the vast majority, of the things that define and shape our lives are in the right-hand “Not in my control” column. Enchiridion-Epictetus[1]What’s left to go in the left-hand column? Someone will immediately call out something like “My attitude about everything in the right-hand column!” This person not only is correct, but has also identified the core insight than energizes Stoicism. “Some things are up to us, and some things are not,” writes Epictetus in the first sentence of the Enchiridion. We spend the vast majority of our time and energy messing around in the right-hand column, trying to change and control things that are not up to us. Better idea—transfer all of that energy to the left-hand column. I cannot control what hand I have been dealt in terms of gender, race, family, place and time of birth. Nor can I control or manipulate what other people do or the vast forces of fate. But I can (and must) take control of how I process these matters, how I will consider and shape my response to what jumps out of the right-hand column. My inner life is within my control. 002[1]The Stoic slogan is “from inner tranquility comes outer effectiveness.” By taking control of my mind, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts and my attitude I can respond to an out-of-control world from a place of serenity and peace. And that might just make a difference in the right-hand column.

Of course the proof is in the application and the details, which I spend the second half of the session with my “students” exploring. Epictetus ranges over family relationships, friendships, dynamics at work—just about everything normal human beings encounter from the right-hand column on a daily basis. But one of the greatest Stoic obsessions is with something that we generally don’t want to think or talk about. Death. This is not because the Stoics were depressing or morbid (although they often are caricatured as such). Rather, this is because the Stoics knew that despite all evidence to the contrary, the garden variety human being lives her or his life as if all the time in the world is available. We live our lives as if we are immortal. But we know, deep down, that human beings have a shockingly short shelf life. work on paper by Laurie LiptonSo why do we try to avoid this inexorable truth from the right-hand column?

Epictetus suggests that what we are afraid of is not death, but rather our thoughts and attitudes about death. “Death is nothing terrible . . . but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible.” And my thoughts and attitudes are in the left-hand column—shaping these is within my power. Rather than obsessing about how I will die and what might happen (if anything) after I die, imagesCA3Y08VLI might want to pay attention to the classic Stoic mantra: Carpe diem. Epictetus expands in a memorable thespian analogy:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

Don’t waste timeimagesCA2WWW18. Be the best that you can be. Seize the day. These are, in many ways, annoying caricatures of a very rich and complex Stoic world view. But I think Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be fine with bumper sticker expressions of Stoicism, just so long as they are reflective of inner work that is more than a molecule deep. Don’t wait another moment to get serious.

For how long will you put off demanding of yourself the best, and never to transgress the dictates of reason? . . . From this moment commit yourself to living as an adult . . . Remember that the contest is now, that the Olympic Games are now.

Postscript: After one of my mock lectures last fall, my lovely Jeanne came up to me and said “From inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. That sounds like prayer.” Hmm. I think there might be an essay in that.imagesCAKB0ODG

no complaining

Educating the Uneducated

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. :-)time will tell