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,

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

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.

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)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and Ana-theism

If I lift out of Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and discover in my reader response a narrative, it seems to follow a philosophical schema conveyed in Richard Kearney's Anatheism: Returning to God After God, which explains a journey from theism to atheism unto anatheism (an underlying experience of enlightened individuals).

Wiman's prose provides ample meditation regarding his east Texan upbringing that formed a loose or vulnerable yet profound grounding in theism. He conveys a wonderful way of holding together and moving beyond the discontinuity and continuity of faith at various levels, such as reflecting on the language of his grandmother and his own well informed language that emerges from his imaginative consciousness and unique poetic style.  Wiman moves to college in the north and is propelled into unraveling the sullied Christian language of modernity and America through the language of poetry exploring themes of spiritual faith and doubt. His doubt we can presume is heightened as he grapples with the reality of having a rare form of cancer. Wiman's journey in this region feels and sounds very much what Kearney describes as atheism, which includes dealing with the bracing and amplifying oscillation of faith and doubt.

Wiman does not disengage but continues to track his existence with language by writing and reading poets, other sophisticated writers and a few well informed theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is little to no denial of death on Wiman's part; he rather takes it on without illusion as an "unbelieving believer", a person whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who has within him a strong spiritual hunger that cannot be contained. This hunger is fed partly through his weighty experience of love that has grown out of meeting a woman who is now his life partner. Wiman seems clearly to have come full circle moving into anatheism where God may come back to us in the future in a new and radical way.

Wiman portrays with his life in meditation what many American Christians cannot traverse due to the numbing, anxious and blinding dominant scripts that surround, hold and oppress the masses and are co-opted by Western churches. Poetry and other forms of insight (e.g., the cited philosophical works as Kearney and the prison letters of Bonhoeffer) are necessary for penetrating the illusions that surround us, to propel us along and invite us to touch the reality of God with human kind, the kind that echoes, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Brief Musing from Qohelet: Egalitarian Leanings

Wealth and equality are modern themes that have ancient roots. While Qohelet has much to say about and around the issue of economics and justice, its overall message seems to advise toward cultivating our lives and society where the masses live and being content somewhere in the large middle between the dualism and language of extremes—rich and poor.  This follows the prayer in the oracle of Agur (Prov. 30:7-9).

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.

The vital relationship of enjoyment and death and the corresponding commendations in Qohelet affirm an egalitarian sort of ethos that is best described as grass roots in nature (internal good). At the same time Qohelet warns against the habits that encourage oligarchic structures (see Ecclesiastes 5.8-17, “The Problem with Wealth”). This gets close to a common complaint about capitalism—it breeds greed and a consumerism that enslaves the masses, and contributes to a maddening effect of “meaninglessness.” While advertisements (modern day “oppressors”) on the surface point to what is important, in the end they provide only an empty promise that what they offer will make us safe and to make us happy.  Without the investment of charity (a fundamental logic of generosity, 11.1-6) a society grows apart into “those who have” and “those who have not.” History teaches us that such rigidness will only lead to uprising and revolution.

What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. (Ecclesiastes 2.22-24a)

It would seem that the various, repeated commendations of enjoyment in Qohelet point to a simple and profound solution in the form of an egalitarian culture without a total decentralized ruling class. Living thus is not about everyone having the same amount of money or distributed wealth per se. It is more a collective psychological achievement where people with different economic lives are able to get on well with each other, and status is not tied to one’s bank account. Hence, life (the way of life) itself is richer and deeper (i.e. "good life"). It attaches to more important things; e.g., whether you are good at camping, riding a bike, enjoy art or a good beer, make time to be with a few good friends, or willing to put in an honest day's work. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Most Anxious Nation on Earth?

The Most Anxious Nation on Earth

                Population                                                        Military Spending
US           317,655,000                                                  $682 Billion (4.1 times greater)  
China      1,360,720,000 (4.3 times greater population)     $166 Billion

Who’s the most anxious?
In the maxims of ancient wisdom, who’s the most foolish? 

I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
    than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
    but one sinner destroys much good.
(Qohelet, Ecclesiastes 9.13-18)

When the world follows the Way, riding horses are retired to fertilize the fields.
When the world strays from the Way, war horses are bred even in the cities.

No crime is greater than having precious things;
No disaster is greater than not knowing when one has enough.
No defect is greater than desire.
The contentment of knowing that you have enough, is truly enduring.
(Te-Tao Ching, 46)

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race. If we have a will- and determination- to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment. (Martin Luther King. In a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967)