Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hope and the Gentle Cynic

The combination of critical thinking and hopeMaria Popova of the website Brain Pickings, in an interview with Krista Tippet argued, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two to try to carve a life out [hone of niche] there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.”
Here Popova practice provides an elegant example of a well-adjusted, thoughtful person who tackles via “a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why." It is a public example into how to live and what it means to lead a good life. 
Here I unpack the above statement a bit as it oscillates with my idea of gentle cynicism as a way of navigating the challenging territory between and to prevent full-blown cynicism while working and hope.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic (tools for critical thinking).
Here is a visual, continuum model that places “hope” as the mean good.

  Cynicism            gentle cynicism                                 Hope                     mediocrity                          Naiveté    
              -------------------------------------->      --------------------------------------------------------->                            
          Critical Thinking                                                           Unreflected Life
                 [Self-protective resignation]                                                                                                                                    [Blind resignation]

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better [telos]. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive; we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.
Hope seeks out possibility, requires necessity, and is the proper relating of self to itself.  (Paul Ricoeur).  In Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, Ricoeur writes that despair comes from the self misrelating to itself. The misrelation is not recognizing what the self is, which is synthesis of the infinite and the finite. Hope, conversely, is a proper relating of the self to itself, especially concerning the expectations one has of oneself. Expect too much of self, then one may despair of attaining one’s goals; expect too little of self and one may well despair of ever accomplishing anything at all.  
Hope theory (CR Snyder) is the perceived capacity to derive pathways to desired goals (in relation to mean goods) and to motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways. Here hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).
The trilogy of Hope:
Goals - anchor one’s thinking about the future to specific goals
Agency - those capable of pursuing goals, who believe in their own capacity
Pathways - those that can imagine or plan way to achieve goals step by step along a pathway

* *
Gentle Cynicism is a place of tension to prevent full-blown cynicism while working out or negotiating a context of time requiring a response to move more fully to a place where hope enlarges.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic.
On one level gentle cynicism is a response to an overly enthusiastic cultural philosophy that does not take into serious consideration the reality of time and chance, which smacks the face of most people, even those with the best intentions.
The ancient practice of gentle cynicism can be seen in the text of Qohelet.   Here is a recognizable line from this text (also known in its later Greek title of Ecclesiastes).
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (3.19)
While Qohelet does not completely disavow the idea of cause and effect, he genuinely recognizes that one cannot assume it is that simple. To be sure, the relationship between merit and recompense is chaotic. One is better served by exercising a healthy measure of doubt rather than just simply “having faith” in conventional thinking (cultural assumption). Take the example of medicine. Medicine indeed may be a remedy in this sphere of temporality; yet one may be better (or best) served through other unrevealed (hidden) alternatives that are in tune with perhaps more original aspects of what it means to be fully human; e.g., suffering, doubt. Furthermore, what will become of us in the end is the kind of inquiry that begs our attention.
Practicing cynicism today (not the modern concept, but a philosophical way of living with ancient classical and medieval roots) takes the form of a dynamic filter between one’s soul and the world that sifts chaff from wheat; i.e., what is accepted from what is best and what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward God’s Shalom (a vision of wholeness, peace, grace, wellness, wisdom; Greek eudaimonia).
This kind and quality of cynicism is a way of training the mind and soul (self) to discover and experience more fully the fullness of God's creative, available energy or life, and less the draining emptiness and forthcoming bitterness of the things, ways and scripts of this world that (without this training) will ensnare and pull us into its subtle downward spiral without our knowing it.
Gentle cynicism is a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices (answers) and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.
Huskey, Rebecca K., Paul Ricoeur on Hope: Expecting the Good. New York, Peter Lang Publishing. 2009.
Popova, Maria,  transcript from interview with, “Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age” accessed from On Being, 05/14/2015. http://onbeing.org/program/transcript/7584#main_content.
Snyder, C. R. (Ed.).  Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: Honoring the Truth with David Jay's Gallery, "The Unknown Soldier"

Elizabeth Blair of NPR News is right when she entitled her May 25, 2015 article, “It's Not Rude: These Portraits of Wounded Vets Are Meantto Be Stared At.”

It is deep, in your-your-face awareness of reality of war that will influence human enlightenment leading to nonviolence and genuine peacemaking. Images are clearly necessary since the ordinary, everyday person will not have contact with a real, wounded soldier.

Ron Shirtz writes, “These should hang in the office of every congressman, senator, and President to make them think twice before sending our troops into harms' way for dubious goals . . . [and] not a bad idea to have a brochure of these photos to hand out to teenagers when recruiters come calling at their high school to give them their pitch.

Link to David Jay Portfolios 

William Stafford in "Peace Walk" conveys the perceived awkwardness of the journey of pacifism among the masses that so easily gloss over the destruction of their own people in the name of a freedom over and against other’s freedoms and the natural environment with amnesia on one hand and almost religious ceremony to pacify their distaste for the horrid reality of failed wars and fallen people.

Peace Walk
William E. Stafford

We wondered what our walk should mean,
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs— “Thou shalt not kill.”

Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . .”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.

Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”

Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:

Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.

At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Human Condition: A Theological Recollection from the Christian Tradition

Saint Paul, who was a highly seasoned scholar in the Hebraic tradition, seriously acquainted with the Hellenistic culture, and utterly committed to the vision of the kingdom of God, wrote the following to the ancient church of Philippi: "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Just blindly submitting to the dominate culture with little to no questioning of what it might mean in terms of one's true human self or journey to wholeness, is foolishness. As a gentle cynic steeped in the Christian tradition, I reflect on a full-bodied expression of sin and the fully human Jesus. This entails taking into account the reality of sin (metaphor: missing the mark).
A full-bodied expression of sin, according to James McClendon (Doctrine*), calls for dimensions of divine proportions. Sin is measured against the “full faithfulness” of Jesus Christ. Our humanness falls short of “true humanity” as measured against “authentic, undiminished humanity,” embodied in Jesus, who is “the truly human one.” And if Jesus is the archetype of a fully human person, our selfhood, as afar as it is sinful, falls short of true humanity. Borrowing from McClendon’s clever image, we are “Swiss cheese folk poked with holes from head to heel.” Possessing gaping holes, we are to be filled with human wholeness in every aspect of life through the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Taking the image further into the larger society, sin is a “puzzling vacancy or disorder in a God-created world” that is too complex for the concept like “original sin.”

This vantage point knocks the wind out of confusing sin with being human; for Jesus was human, yet portrayed without sin. Instead, we see ourselves as lacking in the vital wholeness that God through Jesus Christ fills with grace and truth. Thus the prayer of St. Paul, i.e., the answer to it, comes into play. What part does human initiative play alongside the monumental divine initiative to remedy the human condition in the fully human son of God?**

*James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 124.
**"Son of God" refers back to the original myth of humanity in the person of Adam 

Artwork: White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, January 19, 2015

Refocusing our Perspective of the United States--Barbaric?

Susan Neiman answering the questions,  "What should Americans know about how Europeans think?"

I wish they knew that they viewed it as absolutely barbaric not to have maternity and paternity leave. I wish they knew that they viewed it as barbaric not to have health insurance, not just as strange but as barbaric. I wish they knew that they consider all of these things to be rights and not privileges or benefits as they get called in salary packages. I wish they knew that it is infinitely more pleasurable to live in a place with great public transportation where you don’t have to jump in to a car every second to buy a bottle of milk. It’s not simply that it’s better for the environment, that the entire quality of life improves. I wish they knew that Europeans are mystified by the number of handgun deaths and by the fact that I can let my teenage girls go out--I go to sleep before they do in the middle of Berlin. They go out; they go to clubs; they go to art exhibits and enjoy themselves; they come home on safe public transportation. I neither have to worry about their being hit by a drunk driver nor being mugged by a poor person because you can have a functioning society if you view all of those things as rights that are well worth paying higher taxes for because they give you an overall quality of life even if again the salary- you don’t have the salary differential that you do here. You don’t have people making--  You have some people making giant amounts of money but not nearly as many but that it is infinitely worth--  Even in the terms of sheer self-interest it’s worth living in a society where rights are- also economic and social rights are distributed in that way because everybody’s life is better.
- Susan Neiman, http://bigthink.com/videos/america-from-abroad

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Psychologically, the United States is a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity. Interestingly, this is the precise description of the adolescent mind, and that is exactly the American condition in the twenty-first century. The worlds leading power is having an extended identity crisis, complete with incredible new strength and irrational mood swings. Historically, the United States is an extraordinary young and therefore immature society. So at this time we should expect nothing less from America than bravado and despair. How else would a adolescent feel about itself and the place in the world?

But if we think of the United States as an adolescent, early in its overall history, then we also know that, regardless of self image, adulthood lies ahead. Adults tend to be more stable and more powerful than adolescents. Therefore it is logical to conclude that America is in the earliest of phases of its power. It is not fully civilized. America like Europe in the sixteenth century is still barbaric ( a description, not a moral judgment). Its culture is unformed. Its will is powerful. Its emotions drive it in different and contradictory directions.

Cultures lives in three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way the live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption and destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those that believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Civilization is the second and most rare state. Civilized people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and that their cultures approximate those truths. At the same time, they hold open their mind the possibility that they are in error. The combination of belief and skepticism is inherently unstable. Cultures pass through barbarism, to civilization to decadence, as skepticism undermines self-certainty. Civilized people fight selectively but effectively. Obviously all cultures contain people that are barbaric, civilized, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle.

Europe was barbaric in the sixteenth century, as self-certainty of Christianity fueled the first conquests. Europe passed into civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and then collapsed into decadence in the twentieth century. The United States is just beginning its cultural and historic journey. Until now it has not been sufficiently coherent to have a definite culture. As it becomes the center of gravity of the world, it is developing that culture, which is inevitably barbaric. America is a place where the right wing despises Muslims for their faith and the left wing despises them for their treatment of women. Such seemingly different perspectives are tied together in a certainty that their own values are self-evidently best. And as all barbaric cultures, Americans are ready to fight for their self-evident truths.

This is not meant as a criticism, any more than an adolescent can be criticized for being and adolescent. It is necessary and inevitable state of development. But the United States is a young culture and as such clumsy, direct, at times brutal, and frequently torn by deep internal dissension – its dissidents being united only in the certainty that their values are best. The United States is all these things, but as Europe in the sixteenth century, the United States will, for all its apparent bumbling, be remarkably effective.”

- George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. New York: Double Day, 2009. 28-29. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Moving from the thin idea of “Happiness” to the classical pursuit of Eudaimonia

I found the article below over a year ago on a blog I occasionally frequent and found myself again contending with the notion of “happiness” in our Western, American “thin” manner (myth) of thinking. The more I hear people mention the idea of happiness, I recognize that they are often referring to a cheap positive psychology that does not take into consideration the seriousness of suffering, intellectual pursuit, nor an awareness of the harsh realities that surround us on a daily basis. For this kind and quality of “happiness’ is like the weather, it comes and goes; it may stick around for a brief time, but then move on when a low pressure system pushes in darker, thicker matter.Then what do you do?  

We can better work with Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson’s  notion that one can compare happiness to a muscle that can be developed with practice. Like developing athletic skill, the practice and skill building with respect to “happiness” will result in noticeable gains and growth leading to thicker and more  sustainable awareness of something weightier—a deep gladness and more fully human capacities.  

We can begin to acquire this kind and quality of deepening, sustainable gladness as long as we go back to the classical philosophical understanding of an idea that is often translated “happiness”, eudaimonia (eudaimononia). A more accurate translation is human flourishing which per Aristotle results in virtues that nurture human flourishing (see “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification”).

I interject “Teilhard de Chardin on the Power of Creative Life” as a way of illustrating with imagery the level of “practice” necessary to create human flourishing.[1]  (The bold face terms below in the shared article are interjected as connecting imagery.)
Fire kindles life—
    identify . . .

Rhythm of reality:
     tireless thought
     dilated heart
     intensified toil . . .
Thus labor creates—
          purify affections
          remove opacities
                that impede the light

Here are 10 exercises provided by Randy Taran, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Project Happiness.[2] I have linked terms from the above imagery in verse to emphasize the profound practices, which without this linkage, they could be easily translated into cheap happiness (my hunch) versus the deeply sought reality of eudaimonia or human flourishing.

1. Know Your Strengths: Ask 1 or 2 people who know you well and care about you what they see as your 3 greatest strengths. Do the same for them. Then find ways to use those strengths every day.   Adopt

2. Choose your Mindset: When something bad happens you can either choose to put yourself down and succumb to the "inner critic" or recognize that the "inner critic" is trying to get a foothold. Instead, look into what there is to learn from the situation. Let's say a presentation didn't go well. You can either say: "I'm always bad at this type of thing" (Dr. Carol Dweck calls this the fixed mindset) or: "Next time I'll prepare and practice more." (The growth mindset) 
Which perspective will you choose?  Assume (a virtue)

3. Gratitude: Before you go to sleep, think of three things that you are grateful for: a good conversation with a friend, a yummy dinner, finding that thing you thought you lost ... whatever it is – whether small or large. Believe it or not, this simple acknowledgement will actually change your perspective -- and your brain!  Model

4. Clean your Lens: People that look at life through anger often encounter anger in others. By the same token, happy people tend to bring out more happiness in others and attract more of the good stuff into their lives. Keeping your lens clear by being on the lookout for happiness [signs of eudaimonia] makes it show up in the most unexpected places.  Remove opacities

5. Know your Happiness Triggers: Think of the top 5 times in your life that you have felt happy and figure out the reason why these situations were "happiness triggers." Which provided short term happiness, and which ones give more long term meaning to your life? Try adding more happiness triggers into your daily life. Identify

6. Connect: Share an experience with a friend; tell each other the best thing that happened last week and why. Relationships rule. Dilated heart

7. Altruism: Do something nice for someone else. The fastest way to make yourself happy is to make others happy. Purify affections

8. Affection: Hug someone or be hugged, pet your pet, hold hands, cuddle. Intensified toil (“Hugs” is a simple way to point to the practice of touch physically and emotionally; perhaps compassion)

9. Take it down a notch: SIMPLIFY! Instead of multitasking, put one LESS thing into your day!  Purify affections

10. Remember your Body: Give your body a break. Walk it around, give it some real food that has not been turned into a sugar puff, pretzel or processed creation. Get some sleep -- your mood, mind and body will smile.  Remove opacities that impede the light

[1] Daniel Seifert, Based on ¶ 45 of “Pensées” in Hymn of the Universe by Teilhard deChardin, 2012.
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randy-taran/10-easy-ways-to-be-happy_b_597573.html

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Veterans Day: A Question

On Veterans Day

Kings of Convenience
“Rule My World"
Declaration of Dependence

You set yourself above
that all forgiving god
you claim that you believe in
your kind is gonna fall
your ship is sinking fast
and all your able men are leaving

only someone who's morally
superior can possibly
and honestly deserve
to rule my world

I talk before I think
You shoot before you know
who's in your line of fire
so somehow we're the same
we're causing people pain
but I stand and take the blame
you scramble to deny it

only someone
who's morally
superior can possibly
and honestly deserve
only someone
who's morally
superior can possibly
and honestly deserve

to rule my world

explain to me one more time
when they kill it's a crime
when you kill it is justice

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Character, Strengths & Virtues: A Handbook and Classification

Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and ClassificationFinally, a handbook and classification of positive attributes (strengths, virtues) from years of work and research in "positive" psychology that capture the human being in a living, dynamic tension between inherent brokenness and a capacity to flourish. Practitioners have had to work too long with just the DSM-IV (now V) as a primary set of "labels" to describe our clients while having to advocate for their strengths among the naysayers surrounding client cases. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification is founded on ancient roots of virtue ethics, an array of universal virtues that cross religious traditions,  and growing research and evidence-based practices which have evolved from positive psychology; e.g., developmental schemas, resilience factors, strengths-based perspective.  
This text will now be a primary source at my disposal to support engagement with clients, exploration among clients and to help clients identify their signature strengths by which to grow, work at change, and to flourish when many around them are stuck in the mud, wagging their heads in apathy.

Christopher Peterson & Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Oxford University Press, 2004. 

* * *
“[A]lmost anything can be considered a strength under certain conditions”

Saleebey, D. (2006). The strengths approach to practice. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. (82)

* * *
“By suggesting an alternative ‘at promise’ view [as opposed to the “at risk” paradigm], I have attempted to convey the importance of considering the possibilities in all children and the promise of partnerships with parents and community members of diverse backgrounds….By viewing parents and children as ‘at promise’ we enhance the possibilities of constructing authentic relations where we actively listen to and learn from one another.”
Beth Blue Swadener, Children and Families “at Promise”: Deconstructing the Discourse of Risk (State University of New York Press, Albany, 1995)