Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Gifts of Grief and Fear

Dear Reader,

When I was young, I wanted to be like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, free from emotion and able to think rationally at all times. At least, that is how I interpreted the character when I was young.

Later, I came to understand that he was not free of emotion, as the alien Vulcan race on that show is described, because only his father was Vulcan; his mother was human. He was trying to be a pure Vulcan, but he was not. He had feelings, which he did not want, so he repressed them, and several episodes and movies hinged on the difference.

I followed suit in part, and struggled to supppress feelings I believed were negative, such as fear, anger, and grief. I succeeded to a surprising degree, but in doing so I incurred the liability of all those who separate their intellect from their feelings. Seeking to become free of certain emotions, I instead made them invisible to me, lost that sixth sense most people have that allows them to use their feelings like antennae to help them think, lost the ability to keep my feelings in true balance by integrating them into my personality (since I was unaware of them) and instead became controlled by them. They had free rein down in the dark places of my unconscious. For decades, it was as though I had lost a sense other people have, a kind of blindness, and also could not at times predict or explain my own behavior.

When I began counseling in April of 1987, my counselor noticed these blind spots in my emotions and struggled for years to get me to even realize they were there. For almost nineteen years despite discussing sometimes harrowing things I never cried in therapy. About halfway through that time I finally came to agree with my counselor about the consequences of my emotional blindness, and particularly came to agree that my cycles of depression were directly related to it, that escaping from those debillitating crashes was in part going to require regaining the use of those feelings. After much work we finally began to push through and find the anger, but we never did get to the grief and fear in any depth . . .

. . . until my kitty Shakti fell seriously ill in January, rapidly weakened, and died February 21st.

Her illness and death changed everything for me. It was very much like the experience of someone blind since childhood regaining sight. I cried more during that month and even since than in the last thirty years combined. I can feel sorrow and grief in response to movies and songs, in parting from friends and relatives, in thinking back on other friends and relatives who have died--in short, I am beginning to feel appropriate shades of grief now at all those times when an emotionally healthy person would.

And during my recent vacation on the Navajo reservation, I discovered fears I had never known while hiking on steep cliffs, not crippling fears, but good, healthy responses to risky situations. I am starting to feel the nuances of concern and fear that characterize emotional health.

This restoration of my so long atrophied inner senses is precious to me, a parting gift of emotional alchemy from Shakti, as her gradual loss dilated my heart. Although many people are so dead to the living world around them that they cannot imagine why a person should feel any strong attachment to a cat, Shakti is probably as close as I will ever come to having a child. We were part of a family together for seventeen years and eight months.

When I was young, I imagined that the feelings I categorized as negative were bad, weaknesses even, and I struggled to overcome them. It took me decades to undo the damage I inflicted on myself as a result. If you can help it, do not make the same mistake I did. We have our suite of emotions for a reason. We need them. We cannot think rationally without them, an idea that only sounds confusing because we have such screwball ideas about the nature of intelligence. Also, as easy as it may be for us to inhabit our feeling life so exclusively that we remain infantile and self-involved, nevertheless we cannot even perceive the world accurately with intellect alone. Reason, sanity, happiness, and health depend on integrating analysis of information with subtle and fluid assessment of our shifting emotions. We cut ourselves off from those emotions at our peril.

My fear and grief were restored to me by my cat's illness and death. If you too have lost part of your inner sight, may you also be lucky enough to receive such a gift to help you find your way back to health and wholeness.

Yours truly,

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Few New Links

Dear Reader,

If you have not yet fallen in love with Judith Martin's column for the Washington Post, Miss Manners, you are in for a treat. She explores the crucial but neglected realm of etiquette with insight and wit worthy of Jane Austen. Yes, crucial. Without the refinement and nuance of manners we must resort to the law to try to club each other into submission, that is if we don't descend outright into violence. How do you think America became so litigious and violent? We mock Miss Manners at our peril.

Speaking of Jane Austen, a team of admirers has created a snarky blog about all things Austen.

And now for something completely different, dessert from Jim Woodring, one of the few artists whose claims to originality we acknowledge trembling. He will furrow your brow, slip your moorings, and shiver your timbers.

Yours truly,

The Big Picture

Dear Reader,

Beverly just handed me the following quote:

If we would only give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life that we give to the question of what to do with a two weeks' vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days.

--Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Yours truly,

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Culture and Cultivation

Dear Reader,

Of course, even if we do cultivate our characters we will suffer the fatal consequences, since character is fate; cultivating our character changes it, and therefore changes our fate, creating new fated consequences.

Those who believe in free will do not bother cultivating their character, because they do not understand that they are constrained by it.

Those who believe in determinism do not bother cultivating their character, because they believe it is futile since everything is predetermined, which represents a different kind of misunderstanding of the way in which their character constrains them.

The interesting thing is that those who believe we have free will end up with the same conclusion as those who believe we do not; they are on the same side. They are united against the Ancient Greek position that only by cultivating our character can we influence the main dynamo of our fate, our own naive character, cultivate it into something more worthy, something that might truly create a small space of meaningful freedom in our lives.

This is not a difficult idea, but almost no one in the Modern world seems capable of grasping it. We all let the terms of the debate about how much freedom we have in the world be dictated to us by those who think in simplistic, polarized ways, even though out of the range of possibilities we are effectively only offered a single choice in two guises. Idiot and genius alike find themselves completely fooled by this simple and misleading framing of the question of personal freedom, and argue back and forth about which of the two falsehoods is true.

The reason we are all stumped by this is the same reason we are all stumped by most things.

Just as there is no viable species anywhere composed of a single member, so too there is no such thing as an individual person, or an individual mind. Without the help of a cultural framework, a person cannot learn to speak a language, nor even to think in any meaningful way. Our culture is so much a part of who we are that it is more accurate to say we are a part of it. Cultures frame the world for us in such a way that only certain ideas are considered possible; everything else is truly beyond the pale for us. Although when young, or tired, or feeling playful we may toy with a wide range of choices, our serious debates inevitably fall back on what seems realistic to us, plausible, and that determination of plausibility is fundamentally an irrational process that is done for us by our culture.

Each culture rules out different swaths of reality as stuff that only crazies or extremists would believe; whatever pitifully small field of possibilities remain "plausible" becomes the range of allowable "responsible" discussion in that culture. Even more clearly put, even the narrow range of ideas allowed to extremists and crazies is defined by the culture; ideas outside those bounds are not even expressible in the culture's language without extreme wordiness, awkwardness, and distortion. No matter how rational we think we are, no matter how much the scientist, the iconoclast, the rebel, the outsider, the freethinker, the genius, nevertheless our range of "independent" thinking remains within the boundaries set by our culture, or cultures if we have been deeply enough influenced by more than one.

We cannot meaningfully cultivate our character to create some kind of personal freedom for ourselves unless our culture imagines the possibility for us, unless our language expresses it, unless it comes within our limited range of conceivable thought. The reason we cannot imagine a choice other than free will or determinism is that those are the only two positions allowed within the range of responsible thought; those who want to prove how smart they are may choose from refinements of determinism, such as nature versus nurture, so that is how they express their "individualism" and "free thinking," in the culturally approved way. We pick off our culture's menu of ideas and call it creativity.

Since the Ancient Greek position on personal freedom isn't on our cultural menu of ideas, it is quite literally inconceivable to us unless we immerse ourselves fully enough in that quite different, almost alien culture of Ancient Greece, and even then it requires enough immersion in the corresponding language to even be able to express the ideas clearly. When I write "character is fate" in English, I am misusing the words, trying to bend them enough to convey something they do not naturally convey because of their culture of origin (character used to be an Ancient Greek word, but in English we have long since smoothed down its rough edges to redefine it in terms we find more comfortable). I could write a book on the problem of what Heraclitus meant when he wrote that character is fate, and still most Moderns would be incapable of grasping it, whereas most Ancient Greeks would readily appreciate the import in the original language. Each language naturally expresses a different range of possibilities to its culture.

So, the problem.

To create some limited personal freedom we have to understand it the right way, so that we can understand why cultivating our character is necessary and what that might mean, but that requires the support of a culture that conceives of fate, character, and freedom in the right ways. Our culture does not, which is why we end up splitting into hedonists and nihilists, none of whom are free nor understands why not.

We also need a culture that supports our efforts to become better people. Without that, even those who through exposure to Ancient Greece or other cultures do stumble upon the right ideas about personal freedom and how to develop it are extremely unlikely to get very far in becoming better people. For example, in Modern culture the struggle to stay afloat financially trumps all other concerns, especially anything with as negligible market value as the struggle to become a better person.

So there is some pithy saying missing here, something to add to "character is fate," something about culture framing character. Maybe that is among the many things Heraclitus wrote that we have lost, or maybe it was so obvious to the Greeks it didn't occur to him to write it down. If we want to make it easier for people to cultivate good character, we need to find the words to help them conceive of doing so, and then we need to change our culture to make it possible.

Anthropoculture must be the highest priority for a good culture, a sustainable culture, but in our culture it is barely expressible.

Yours truly,

Free Will and Determinism

Dear Reader,

We are taught to believe we have free will. We are also taught not to question that teaching. In the spirit of Modernism (i.e., nihilism--ah, the awesome power of the negative), let us question it.

Free how? Free from what? Free to what?

The answers to all these questions are the same: Don't ask. The implication is that we are infinitely free because we say we are. This is patently false.

First, nothing is true just because we say it is, or because a document says it is. Belief that we can dictate terms to the cosmos--I can fly because I say I can fly; you are a bad person because I say you are--is properly called nominalism, and it is a common and obvious fallacy, bad logic.

Second, we are obviously not infinitely free. Your freedom interferes with my freedom, and vice versa, and once you spin that web of interferences out across six billion people you find quite a tangle of unfreedom. Further, reality intrudes on our precious fantasy of infinite freedom. The sun will not rise one instant sooner just because I will it to, nor will I live one moment longer than the cosmos permits. We are profoundly bound. And finally and most importantly, we obstruct ourselves. An alcoholic reaches for the bottle even--especially--when that is exactly the wrong thing to do to achieve what he believes he wants, and we are all special cases of the alcoholic: the neglected child, the victim of bullies, the overachiever, the exhibitionist . . . the more psychology identifies the patterns of human behavior, the more we realize these patterns constrain us.

So long as we believe the choice is between free will and determinism, any reality-seeking person has to choose determinism, because there is no good argument to be made for free will in the face of a cosmos of evidence to the contrary.

But why should we believe free will and determinism are the only options for explaining the human condition? Contemporary writers may lack the profundity to imagine any more than two explanations, but fortunately we have the far more insightful authors of the past to consider.

The Ancient Greeks did not believe in free will because they weren't that stupid, but neither did they settle for the simple determinism of Moderns. Put more bluntly, contrary to what the brilliant Philip Rieff writes in Sacred Order/Social Order Volume One, My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, the Ancient Greeks believed in fate but not in fate alone. To characterize them as fatalistic is one of those partial truths that is better characterized as false than true.

The Ancient Greeks believed that Man is ruled by his character, and that character is fate--Êthos anthrôpôi daimôn, wrote Heraclitus--but what is the source of character?

Each of us inherits a character (whether by genetics, or upbringing, or some combination, or something else, really does not matter for this discussion) from our parents, and by the time we figure this out (if we ever do) we have been living under the rule of that character for some years, usually decades. If we are lucky, we have eudaimonia, a good daimon, giving us good character; if unlucky, dysdaimonia, a bad daimon, giving us bad character. Our character is a daimon that rides us and steers us as a man rides a horse, nudges us through our unconscious mind, through our appetites, desires, urges, and impulses, toward certain ends and away from others. Because, as psychologists have known for over a century, the conscious mind, the ego, although it imagines itself to be in charge of the self is really just the plaything or tool of the unconscious mind that does all the steering, we often find ourselves doing things we never would have imagined, living lives quite different than those we consciously chose when we were younger. The intersection of fates where the teleology of our character meets the web of causes and effects of the cosmos steers us on an unpredictable but (from a divine perspective) fated path.

So far this accords with Rieff's dismissal of the ancient world view as organized around fate, but here is the crucial ingredient missing from his perspective: the Ancient Greeks believed in a second source of character as well.

Just as a gardener, regardless of whether the garden begins as glory or travesty, may either let it go to pot or may carefully coax it into a wonder, so each of us may cultivate our own character or not, may give in to our worst impulses and so strengthen them or may work to improve ourselves internally. We act upon our own inner cosmos or character, and thereby shift it continuously. Heraclitus wrote that all things change, and our innermost character is no exception. Our character is not software or genetics, it is more like an organism that learns and responds, changing. In the end, our character when we die may be unbelievably different than when we are born, depending on how we tend to our character, on how the cosmos treats us, and on how our character reacts.

This is a far more complex relationship to both freedom and fate than is embodied in the trivial, reductionistic, childish, Modern opposition of free will and determinism. The Ancient Greeks believed that although our character drives us to our fates, the forces both internal and external operating upon our character were so complex that not even we can know ourselves well enough to predict for sure what we will do until submitted to the trials of life. Indeed, this was the sacred purpose of story, to put a protagonist under just the right pressures to compel the truth about that character to emerge, to remind ourselves of the limits and liabilities of character and self-knowledge in an attempt to keep cancerous ego in check.

Thus, the ancient worldview is not about strictly fate but about nature, which is a domain of fate and choice, each of which influences the other in complex and changing ways. Here, in this endless dance of powers, we can imagine forces of human nature intricate enough to explain the complexities of observed human behavior far better than with any trivial choice between free will and determinism.

Character is fate, so we must cultivate our characters or suffer the fatal consequences.

Yours truly,