Buy The Battle for the Black Fen!

Category Archives: philosophy

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS?

After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.

 A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination.   When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something.   There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.

Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off? 

The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.

We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups.   Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.

Would making resolutions with other people work out better?  I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions. 

Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.

A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before.   Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  So I am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book,  Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.

Here’s Pinker’s TED talk on the topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_steven_pinker_on_the_case_for_optimism

Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.”  (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).

My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:

  • I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy.  Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s daily newsletter sent the following note:

Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.

Another group with lists of possible actions is Defend Democracy

  • I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote.    Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.   
  • I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming.  There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet.   My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org  and www.sierraclub.org.  Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org  or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.

Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic.   Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.



A Startling Joy

Have you ever been knocked off your feet by joy?  I don’t mean the moment when you spot your long-absent sweet heart rushing toward you in the airport with arms open to give you a bear hug, or the kind when your boss emails you that you’ve got the promotion you’ve spent years longing for.  This kind of joy that knocks you off of your feet is never anticipated, totally unexpected -a sudden surge of happiness that jolts you from the top of your head to your curled up toes.

For that moment, you know that the universe is existentially good, and that, for you, all manner of things are inexplicably well.

These days we are accosted by cascades of bad news.  Bad news is stronger “click bait,” more emotionally galvanizing, than good news; it is thrown at us to get our attention.  In the journalistic bromide, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Even news channels whose basic political bent is as progressive as I am do this: “there is much bad news to report,” Robert Hubbell explains, “but it is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude by good news that goes unreported. Good news is not reported precisely because it is ubiquitous. It is all around us.”

Plenty of philosophers consider “the good” to be the ground of reality.  Plato and Socrates assumed that a moral good underlay all social arrangements, as did Adam Smith and America’s founders.   Like them (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) Immanuel Kant insists that reason dictates a moral imperative. Christianity assumes that the universe rests in God’s hands, and that God is good.  Human error can always be corrected by attention to divine justice.  When the Reverend Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he meant (as did the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker whom he was paraphrasing) that that the presence of God behind all things calls us to seek justice.

Here is how Parker put it in his 1853 sermon: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice.”  To this 19th century Unitarian, the universe contains moral directives which we must first discern and then enact.   Universalism, a denomination which merged with Unitarianism in 1961, goes even further in its assertion that the universe is intrinsically good and that every one of us is endowed from birth with goodness, dignity, and worth.

One of Hubbell’s respondents worries that when we are bombarded by bad news we experience “moral injury”:

          “It is a moral injury to see wrong being done, legally, in an ongoing way. And to not see enough being done to stop it. Moral injuries unbalance our sense that the world we live in is basically good. They bruise our trust that we will continue as a ‘good enough; nation.”

          “The the reader has put her finger on the answer,” responds Hubbell: “We do live in a world that is basically good—a truth that is difficult to see at times. Our perception of reality is skewed to the extent that it is informed by the relative proportion of good news versus bad reported by the news media.”

These days, everything we read and hear suggests an ever-increasing power of a profoundly malignant evil.  So where to these sudden moments of joy, of inexplicable happiness pouring all through our beings like warm butter, come from?

As I am waking up I like to listen to the radio.  A few mornings ago,  I lay there being accosted by news of a  gigantic tornado tearing whole towns apart and burying everyone in the rubble, the world-wide proliferation of the omicron covid variation, cascading Antarctic icebergs raising sea levels by ten feet, school shootings and species depletion – all of that – when my dread and my terror suddenly melted away and the world became inexplicably lovely, inexplicably good.  It was one of those warm-butter-all-through-me breakthroughs when all manner of things were well in every direction and I found myself reveling in a world of total joy, of total goodness.

Where did that come from?  If it was a breakthrough, where did it breakthrough from? Do we live in more than one world, all at the same time?  Is there a space we within us, buried beneath all the bad stuff, that we inhabit unwittingly?  Is it as real as the real world?  Is it the real world?

Wishing you all happiness and joy, as often and as jolting as possible.

A Time of Darkness, a Time of Waiting

It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer.  The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang.   When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.

Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness.  Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.

Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved.  When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.”  Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”

In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort.  This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.

To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.

“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)

The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on.  And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.

When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve.  Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern.  When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.

I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.

Father Robin’s Solstice Sermon – The Worlds We Long For (annispratt.com)

Pandemic Autumn

In the spring, I still had a sense of humor.  I could write comic pieces about how my mask frightened the neighbors because I looked like a burglar. Now the weather is cool again, and the same outfit seems sad rather than funny.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year – back to school, fresh writing projects, activist tasks that refresh my spirits and lead to meeting all kinds of new people.   In the fall, even the “familiar strangers” of my daily encounters – sales clerks and grocery baggers, pharmacists and librarians – respond with more than their usual verve in the interactions I have always cherished.

Now it is all deliveries to my porch or the brief, unsatisfactory encounters of curb pickups.

My state of Michigan has managed Covid 19 very well, and I have not caught it, but a gang of white militiamen who are furious about masks, social distancing, and (especially) bar closures laid plans to kidnap our governor.  Our terrifyingly dictatorial President caught the virus, but, far from being sidelined, he has lurched back into the last weeks of his campaign with spooky intensity, wearing a superman undershirt.

There is dread in our world.  There is dread for our world.

There are sleepless nights.  There are tearful mornings. There are long, lonely stretches as the afternoon dark comes early.

A November without Thanksgiving and a winter without Christmas are upon us. We plan to gather around the Zoom hearth and eat our solitary feasts with some (remote) semblance of festivity.  I do feel rather clever to have purchased two electric lap robes for the porch, so that I can still have friends over for a chat.

My neighbors have been more neighborly than before the pandemic: they buy me groceries, swap extra supplies, go for walks and sit on the porch.   My friendship groups offer heartwarming support on Zoom, and I deeply cherish long phone calls with my dearest old friends.  

But we are dying – two of us are gone now (dear Rheba just a few weeks ago) and though I have a good, solid philosophy of mortality  along the lines of “What a life! What a lark,” it doesn’t keep timor mortis from my door every time I have a fever or feel a bit flu-ish.

My father was quite a recluse, as is one of my grandsons; I worry that being shut in so long might turn me into an agoraphobic.   I am unused to company:  last Saturday, with two real people coming over (distanced walk/with masks, distanced porch-sit/with masks) plus a densely populated Zoom meeting, I freaked out and crawled under my bed.

I have always talked to myself, but now I am talking to people who aren’t there.  When dear Rheba died (as Mozart played in a Canadian hospice where she was given an injection to the heart – what verve! what courage!) I fell right over keening, like a ululting Arabian widow.   Then her last words (filled in on the “motto” line of her Canadian end of life form) got through to me –

“Disturb the universe!  Rejoice!”

– So I got to my feet and brought her along on my household chores, chatting all about them with her.

This morning I had a long discussion with the bathroom spider about where he planned to secrete himself while I took my shower.

I bet I am not the only senior citizen arguing with her stuffed animal about who will sleep where in my bed.

I say good morning to the squirrel and to the nuthatch, and goodnight to the moon and the stars and to my picture of the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso – 14th Dalai Lama

He is just my age and has this enormously engaging grin; he seems to find everything funny.

I plan to work on that.

The Covid Stoic, and How to Become One

If ever there was a time for figuring out what our philosophy of life is, it is now, when our job and household routines are stood on their heads and  the economy is in free fall, all because a tiny little virus is rampaging through the world, leaving people deathly ill and many dying, all around us.

My Socrates Café is still going during the pandemic – albeit on Zoom – everyone as eager as ever to engage in spirited discussions about “what is the truth,” “how do we form values in a free thinking society,” “are there practical ways to become open-minded,” “are being alone and lonely the same or different,” and “where does the universe end –  what is it, anyway?”

Sometime in the dark of our nights, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about?  Is Covid 19 a random happening? Is everything on earth mere chaos, whirling about every which way without rhyme or reason?”

It is a good time to get out pencil and paper to review our personal philosophies.

I have been thinking a lot about Stoicism lately.  I once devised a questionnaire for both my high school and college reunions where I asked them to make a list of the worst things that had happened in their lives and then to write down the quality of character that got them through.  We had survived divorces, deaths of husbands, suicides of children,  cancer, and the general mayhem of life by calling up a quality we called “grit” or “stiff upper lip” or “keeping going.”

I knew my classmates well enough to realize they were not just shoving aside the bad things that happened to them. They survived through a quality much deeper than denial: an inner balance or equanimity they described as facing up to their tragedy,  “seeing things through to the end,” and then ” bouncing back.” Equanimity is a stalwart presence of mind, an inner strength that enables us to endure all things while staying heart-whole.

You don’t get that way from taking your world as a random collection of atoms bouncing around chaotically: my classmates were living by  an idea about how human beings should behave that, in the world of philosophy, is best expressed in Stoicism.  My father had been a student of philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the books he kept with him was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When my seas of anxiety rose and stormed during my thirties I bought a copy, and became very fond of that beleaguered Emperor, jotting down his rules of life while surrounded by wild tribes of Germans at his outpost on the Danube, his empire ravaged by plague, flood and constant war.

Marcus, who became Roman Emperor in 161CE,  was a Stoic  This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control.  Looking at these realities squarely, you develop an inner balance and the apply your chosen  values to a course of action.

Stoic philosophers were quite scientific, using their reason to study nature, which included human nature.  Like America’s founders, they sought truths that were reasonable and “self-evident” and then worked out principles to apply them.  In an age when personal satisfaction or “self-actualization” is a paramount value, it is hard to grasp that both classical and enlightenment thinkers took “the good” as a social rather than an individual aspiration. Or, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “The mind of the universe is social.”

Begin each day  “by telling yourself today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness….”

How did he figure that out?  It is really very simple – try it yourself:

1. What do I think is good?

2. What do I think is evil?

I am serious: in a few short sentences or single words, write down your answers.

“Are you distracted by outward cares,” asks Marcus. “Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, say, their whole thought, is focused.”

 Years ago, I was flying back from a carefree vacation in England to my frantic life as a commuting professor, gazing down upon icebergs sparkling on the Greenland sea,  with my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations  in my hands.  In response to his request to “make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals,”  I worked out my (mid-career) principles on the facing page.  For my “Good,” I took “enlightenment,” the reasoned perception of truth; in that literature resounded with “great clarity” I would use it to lead my students to the service of truth in their lives.  I took “oligarchies” as my Evil, and so determined to do my best for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” I resolved to quell the inner turmoil roiled up by academic nastiness by “not taking things personally,” and I would follow Marcus’ advice to withdraw into “the little field of self” when things felt overwhelming.

Your turn: on the basis of your list of What is Good and What is Evil, write down some principles by which you intend to achieve Stoic equanimity in these perilous times.

1.

2.

3.

How did it come out?  Would you like to share your findings in the comment section?  For further ideas about how to apply Stoicism to your life, you might want to check out www.dailystoic.com.

Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless? You might consider Cynicism, a classical philosophy based on the idea that people only pursue their self-interest and that adhering to social norms is ridiculous.  Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the word derives from “Dog” and you will get to lead a relaxing dog’s life doing your own thing – like chasing your tail and lying around in the sun all day long.

Everything is Talking Back

We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?

Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”

In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.

Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.

I am beginning to worry.

This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”

Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”

A PHILOSOPHY FOR CLIMATE GRIEF

Dear Friends,

There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.

I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.

 It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.

https://bit.ly/2sUuGeq

It Is 2034, and Trump is Still President!

“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”

 Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort.  Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.

Here is the Book Review and Author Interview I wrote for Impakter, a European online magazine full of interesting articles. 

Socrates and Me

When I was getting ready for college, I expected that everyone would be sitting around under the trees discussing Plato. I could hardly wait; but when I got there, everyone was sitting around under the trees discussing “boys.”

When, after long years of graduate school, I finally landed a job as an Assistant Professor at a big university, I expected intellectual conversations among my peers.  Although I facilitated  philosophical discussion among my students, as the years went by my fellow faculty developed lockstep loyalty to a theory called deconstruction and were impatient when I refused to adopt it. If I asked a question like “What do you think is the meaning of life,” they  answered that all meanings are “socially constructed” and reprimanded me that,  if I thought otherwise, I was being deplorably “essentialist.”

When I  quit all that to become a full time writer, I  discovered, from a book by Christopher Phillips, that I might find stimulating intellectual conversation if I started a Socrates Cafe like his.  He also developed Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes,  conducting them not only on campuses but in elementary schools, prisons, and public squares.





That was in in 2007, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed probing, explorative discussions on every topic we could imagine.  Where in universities (and especially, in law schools) “Socratic Dialogue” involves such intense argumentation that it easily slides into attack mode,  in Phillips’ style of discussion we avoid  challenging, interrupting, or rebutting each other.  As a teacher, I insisted that my students avoid that kind of viscerally verbal competition because  it stirs up such strong fright and flight emotions that their brains are flooded and they can’t  think at all.  Phillips also finds that respectful discussion and active listening,  rather than scheming your rebuttal in your head, opens rather than closes the mind.

The resulting atmosphere of open-mindedness, where opinion gives way to thought and one question leads to another,  makes every participant a true intellectual.  Anyone who wants to submits a question anonymously; then we vote for which one we will pursue that day. We don’t expect to find a final answer to our questions,  just leave with a lot of new ones.

Here’s a random pick –

Where is your center?  What is the center?     What determines belonging?     Define  normal?     Which truth is “truth”?    What is Common Sense?     What did Jean Paul Sartre mean by being “condemned to be free?”    What is a fact?     What is a good death and do we have a right to one?    Why are we here?  What is integrity?     If we each have “our own worlds” how do we manage to get along?     What is character? Can it be taught?  What is “doing the right thing” and what is that all about?  What is time!

And what do you think?