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Tag Archives: Self-Awareness

Hello reader,

A while back we talked about an article by a man named Jeffrey Hall. For those of you who haven’t read this, if I could summarize nineteen hundred words of absolutely unhinged free-association, I would.

Anyway so in this ARTICLE, these dudes talk about a concept which I have gone absolutely feral over: a “social diet.” In other words, the kind of social interaction people choose to ‘consume.’ They suggested that their findings quite compellingly suggested that people who had more control over their social diet (people who weren’t, uh, socially force-fed?) felt happier and more content. More nourished, if you will. In other words, if you have some ability to choose when, and how much, you interact with other people, your sense of well-being improves. I believe the actual word they used is thriving, which is a very fun choice of term for me, personally, as a closeted Aristotelian. 

We’ve talked about metaphors before. They act like convenient pocket-theories, a cognitive multitool we can deploy to explore a new idea. Let’s sink our teeth into the idea of social interaction as food. 

Suddenly, social interaction becomes not just important, but vital. Your diet influences so much more about you than we know–we’re only beginning, for example, to understand the exact role that gut bacteria play. Further, your diet is only partially under your control. So much about what kind of food is available, the quality of food you can afford, your tastes and your mealtimes, is all affected by your particular circumstances, what we call positionality, that crossroads of individual, upbringing, society, culture, and economics.

Something we also cannot forget here is time. Food takes time. So does social interaction. The connection between meals and social interaction is fundamental, and it’s something I’ve talked about before, so we won’t go into it so much today. Instead we’ll consider that time-bound aspect of food (in our metaphor) compared to modern life.

How many times have you had a quick meal because you didn’t have the time? Something just to sustain you for the rest of the workday until you could sit down and have a proper one? Isn’t that what it’s like to call a friend on your lunch break to say hi, or to send an email to a parent? Isn’t that what it’s like to get a letter?

Isn’t that part of the brutality of modern life? Having to take the things that sustain you in little, hurried bursts, glutting on something you would much rather have the time to savor? Having no time to devote to those long, lingering meals where you eat until satiety and then just a little more? We dream of friendship, of social fabric, of connection, like a starving animal dreams of food.

At the end of the first post I wrote on this topic, back in January, I asked; when we talk about wellness, all these concerned voices pipe up about meditation, hydration, diet. Why isn’t social time considered when it comes to wellness?

Because the wellness movement in the U.S. stems partially from an attempt by employers to keep their wage-slaves happy without having to shell out huge amounts of money for medical insurance and partly from a culture forming in a society where half of the population is on workplace job insurance and 8% of us just, straight up don’t have any? Because having some life outside the workplace might threaten the 100%/0% work-life balance employers want? Because social connection scares people because it has the word ‘social’ in it and reminds them of ‘socialism?’ 

Can’t think of anything. Must have just been an oversight. But let’s talk about it.

When I wrote this post in January, I had no idea that we were collectively about to embark on a gigantic, weird experiment in human social isolation. I wrote (and posted) about this article about two months before…well, You Know.

remain indoors

We feel lonely when we don’t want to be alone, when circumstances force us to be on our own. I talked about loneliness a little more on Valentine’s day this year–again, a post written before The Event.

Things are changing. Like plunging glass into cold water makes it stiff and brittle, this sudden shock of pandemic has crystallized many problems. People are asking more radical questions, discussing more dramatic changes, because we’ve already seen how much things can change in no time at all.

Food is elemental, and so is connection. Time is essential for the enjoyment of both. And so is control, the ability to determine when and for how long you are able to nourish yourself, rather than to have it determined for you. While bigger things are going on, and bigger questions and bigger demands need to be addressed first (more on that next week, I think), we cannot lose sight of the subtle problems. We were lonely before this. We are lonelier now. Starvation makes us weak and scatterbrained, even when we can eat again. Isolation does the same.

In many places, the lockdown continues. People are stuck at home, reaching out to each other through telephones and video calls and social media. Can we sustain ourselves on this alone? Maybe so. Maybe the social tools we’ve synthesized, the technology we’ve built, is enough. Who knows? The experiment is ongoing.

 

 

 

 

 

https://academic.oup.com/ct/article-abstract/27/1/21/4061217

Howdy howdy reader, we’re back in the weird theoretical saddle with this week’s post, so buckle up, there are going to be a thousand references to previous weird theoretical posts. Let’s begin.

I complain a lot about academics, in a vague, scornful tone, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually taken the time to really get into it beyond the obvious complaint: that they use big dumb words that only confuse people. It might come through a little bit when I talk about Erudition–the quality of having read a lot of stuff. These two critiques are related, insofar as they are part of the larger problem I have with academics: the distance between academic work and the real-world problems it could solve. I believe the work philosophers do should be able to enrich the lives of people who don’t have doctorates. I think that’s called pragmatism.

Now for the new content:

Academic research is narrow.

This is not BAD. Remember when I made that post about how scientific theory is socially constructed? That’s not a bad thing. Because here’s the deal about social constructs: they are a tremendously powerful tool we can use to explore the world. By constructing things which any human can learn socially, we make it possible for people to learn in a more focused way and skip straight to asking very specific questions, by relying on the knowledge that other people have built before. In other words, thanks to the theories we built, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we want to calculate the carbon footprint of an electric car. We just ask the guy who has spent fifteen years studying electric vehicle energy efficiency. We ask an expert. 

This means we are, to some extent, reliant upon other people. This is also not bad. One of our oldest strengths as a species is that we can always rely on other people, and they, in turn, on us. At the risk of being hyperbolic, that’s the whole point of society. We are reliant upon each other.

This strength that theory gives us–a focusing, narrowing, boring in like a laser–is also the source of its big weakness. The guy who spends fifteen years studying electric cars necessarily has less time to study cello. The girl who learns rocket science has less time to read poetry. The poet who writes for a decade isn’t as well versed in how to change the oil on a zamboni. We are forced to specialize, and while we gain a great deal in that process, I think we also lose something.

Specifically, I think we lose big ideas. The world used to be full of big ideas. This is related to narrowing and erudition on a fundamental level: before the different disciplines became so focused, trying to be an intellectual required a lot of study, because you basically had to re-learn all of the relevant knowledge in the world before you could make statements that people would pay attention to.  But once you did that–once you’d read all the literature (which used to be possible), you wrote a theory of, well, everything.

To some extent this is inextricably connected to the existence of academia. We picked a few of these theories of everything as bedrock–atoms and particles, evolution and general relativity, behaviorism and neuroplasticity.

Sure, not everyone can write A Critique of Pure Reason–and that’s fine. But everyone has their own metaphysics, their own theory of the world, and more people should try to write it down. Why do I think this? Glad you asked, imaginary straw person.

Unwritten and untouched, our theory of the world is purely intellectual. It is inchoate. You cannot really evaluate a theory that isn’t written down; it’s too mutable. You have to make it concrete, and then you can begin the long work of assessing it, exploring it, making it more sophisticated. It’s only through practice that we learn the limits of our conception.

And it doesn’t really matter whether or not your personal theory is “perfect.” I mean, sure, great, maybe you’re the one person in seven billion who understands exactly how the universe works. But even things that are absolutely dead wrong can teach us something. We can learn life lessons from novels, and most of the things that happen in novels are fake. What matters more is that it exists, explicitly, in text, in a way which required its author to come to grips with it concretely, to really look at what’s on the page and go “yes, I wrote this on purpose.”

Maybe this is because of my background in philosophy. Maybe I’m just a pedantic nutjob. But I think that the work of trying to make sense of the world loses something when it requires ever more focused research, rather than rewarding people for trying to make sense of everything. Even if it is (as I suspect and have asserted) impossible for any single individual to really understand the universe, we should try. And in the attempt, in the struggle to present our inner cosmos in a rational, coherent way, we grow.

That’s the theory, anyway.

That’s also, in a nutshell, the point of this blog (and i swear to god this is the last time I say something about “the purpose of this blog is –)  An ongoing and personal engagement with the task of rigorously setting down what I think about, well, everything. It’s important to set reasonable goals for yourself. I blame Montaigne for this one.

See you next week.

 

 

 

It’s hard to stay productive, these days. For many of us, our daily life has, uh, changed a little bit. Most of us are now a month or two deep in a time-puddle, hours and days and weeks spent at home, in the same surroundings, in the same routine, and it’s very easy for huge amounts of time to race past as a routine begins to establish itself.

I’ve written previously about how constructive it is to talk about productivity. We could go further and interrogate what exactly I mean by saying something is constructive. But I think we shall not, at least not in this post, lest we get sucked into something beyond the scope of what I wanted to write today.

One thing you are probably noticing is that life is a little weird. I think now is a fantastic time to use this weirdness to talk about something that I talk about a lot: psychology. But I don’t mean the kind of airy-fairy highfalutin depths of the soul psychology I usually hawk on this webpage. This question is hopefully a little more practical.

What’s mental health?

The easy answer is the article that comes up when you google “Mental Health APA Definition.

menthealt

Here at JWF, we pride ourselves on making things uselessly complicated, and today will be no exception. Let’s dig into these ideas a little bit, and though I’m trying to keep this post under 1,000 words, you are under no such limitation; I invite you to consider these further than the scope of the post. I sure am.

Effective functioning in productive activities has long been a part of the way we evaluate people’s mental health. It’s closely connected to the idea of earning a living; you must be able to participate in the necessary work of society in order to be deemed a “normal” and healthy member of that society. There is a lively debate about this problem, because as you can imagine, it’s pretty important to decide how much “mental health” is connected to “productivity within capitalism.” There are solid arguments going around–I mean, on the one hand, the ability to take on and fulfill responsibilities seems intuitively to be commensurate with the idea of health, right? But if it is mentally unhealthy to be unproductive, then the way we define productivity matters a great deal, to make sure that we are using “mentally unhealthy” as an analytical term that means “people who are troubled”, and not as a variable which represents “people who don’t like their job.” There’s more to say here–there are libraries more to say here–but I’m already at 438 words and it’s not getting any shorter.

Effective functioning in healthy relationships. This one is more palatable to me personally, because I’ve previously spoken about the central place that I think socialization occupies in human happiness. It seems intuitively correct that people who are mentally healthy are more able to create and maintain relationships with others. But as always, the definitions become important, and we cannot possibly understate the work that the word healthy is doing. It’s easy to enter into an unhealthy or one-sided relationship, even if you do very little to contribute to that situation. And exactly what constitutes functioning in a relationship is worth questioning–after all, everyone has a different way of showing affection and maintaining boundaries.

The ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity, or, in a word, resilience, is something I’ve also written on before. It was actually a curiosity about the factors that go into psychological resilience that led to my modern interest in psychology, something that’s endured for years (along with the low-grade depression). This is actually the thing I have the least quarrel with; I’m a naturally more mellow person, predisposed to think that the world would be better if everyone was a little more chill, so this plays right into my biases in a very pleasant sort of way. We’d interrogate that more if I wasn’t rushing this blog post out at the last minute.

Overall the question I wanted to suggest in this post is one of normalcy. Hence the title. These psychological characteristics are all well and good–but it is only when these definitions are solidified that they begin to be at all useful as theory. How do we determine which definition is the one to settle on? For a long time, and in many sciences, these definitions are defined by normality, which is to say, data analysis. You interview 10,000 people, look at the qualities most of them have, plot that on a nice normal curve, and boom, that’s what normal is.

I’ve been snotty about this problem before, mostly because I am an insufferable proponent of particularism in all things. But it remains an important one, because there is a big difference between looking at the average characteristics in a group of 10 people over 1 year, and looking at the average characteristics of 1 person over 10 years.

827 words and I am desperately trying to get this post back on course, so here goes: as we live through what the commercials keep telling us is an “uncertain time,” we are given the opportunity to examine our behavior under a microscope, to compare ourselves a little less to others and spend more time with ourselves. Wouldn’t it be fun if, at the end of this, we emerged into our “new normal” with a more forgiving and nuanced understanding of what it means to be mentally healthy?

Thematically, we’ve been talking about this topic a lot at JWF. How we are meant to live in a time of global disaster. How we stay healthy and hopeful during crises, and how much a crisis demands that we drop the idea of health and hope and mourn, instead. But it’s been two months, and we’re not out of the woods yet, so now, we’re looking ahead.

Sure, there will be a “new normal.” But definitions are everything. What do you want your normal to be?

I’m a writer–I think.

I like writing…

…I think.

The problem with writing is that it is an attempt to translate the infinite into the finite. This is a source of endless frustration. I have worlds upon worlds in my head, enough material for an endless number of television series (including all the relevant information for casting, costume, set design, combat choreography, soundtrack, photography, storyboarding, and beat-by-beat scene direction).

I know more than one thing about anthropology. And about philosophy. That sounds silly to say–there are not many fields in the world which we can say we know only one thing about. (Hermeneutics might be one of them: all I know about hermeneutics is that Heidegger critiqued it)(that was a joke. I know more than one thing about hermeneutics).

In fact, I know multiple things about anthropology, to the point where it would take more than twelve pages to write all those things down in their simplest possible form. For any given thing that there is, I can say more things about it than I have room for–and I have an infinite number of ways to say it, ways to attack it, ways to think about the problem.

That’s the infinite.

But I don’t have nine hours to spend typing out an exhaustive, nuanced exploration of every political issue on my facebook wall. No one wants to stand around for a week and listen to a 40-hour lecture on comparative religion in response to the question “So why is Princess Mononoke your favorite Miyazaki movie?” And no one will buy my novel if it is an eighteen-part epic that’s thicker than a human thigh. I’m not Alexandre Dumas, and my novel isn’t The Count of Monte Christo. 

My blog post has to be small enough that you’ll read it all without losing interest (it’s gonna be touch and go, here). My novel has to have a number of pages such that it is ecologically viable to print more than one copy. I can’t go around quoting the entirety of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics every time I want to talk about why it’s hard to do the right thing.

That’s the finite.

I have to take this: (please here imagine a Doctor Strange-style expanding wall montage where I make some grandiose gesture and reveal that we are standing in a massive chamber of knowledge which makes the Library of Alexandria look like a rural-Montana Bookmobile from the 1960s), and fit it into this (please now imagine me holding up a piece of paper approximately large enough for two thousand words, single-spaced 12 point).

How does it fit? Well, quite simply…it doesn’t. It never all makes it onto the page. I never fully say what I mean. You never get all of it. No one gets all of it, in fact, not even me, because eventually I have to eat, or sleep, or do my accounting, and then I can’t keep on thinking about this.

That’s immensely discouraging for me. I pretty regularly have a crisis wherein I wonder “what’s the point of the whole thing?” I can’t even fully articulate my own opinion of Starbucks–how the hell am I supposed to put something as big and nasty and complicated as a novel into the world?  And so, logically, I stop. There’s no point in communicating halfway, I think. No reason to engage with politics. Fruitless to write for any reason other than my own enjoyment.

I spend a few weeks like this, maybe a month or two at the most, before I think to myself: “You know…I can’t get it all out there…but I can get pretty close. And anyway…isn’t that the fun of writing? The ability to, in another man’s better words, fit a universe into a grain of sand? To gesture to the infinities present in everything?

And then, I suck it up, grab a keyboard, and start to write again.

So hi, again.

I’m a writer.

I like writing.

Hello reader!

Welcome to the ‘Cheat Sheet’ section of my blog, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the cheat sheet, I talk about my experience reading philosophy and anthropology–some of the most impenetrable reading on the planet–and try to explain how I do the thing.

To clarify: When I say I “do the thing,” I mean I read all the time.  I read things that are really quite incomprehensible.  I slam dense readings into my brain repeatedly until they start to make sense.

In fairness, it took a year of reading, several bottles of wine, and a lot of help from a man with a doctorate, BUT STILL.

This makes sense to me.

Today we’re going to talk about how to read literally anything, in any field of study, in such a way that you understand its ins and outs and all its little complexities.

NOTE that this is NOT always the same thing as reading QUICKLY; a large part of why I read stupidly fast is because I’ve been reading college-level for a vast majority of my life.  I read anthropological texts before I even knew what anthropology was, and I retained a lot of that–because I read them in the way I’m about to describe.

Before I go further, I should credit one of my professors with the inspiration for this post.  Turns out, he recommends much the same method of literary assimilation that my father does, and the same one I’ve been using for years to devour anything with words on it.

Okay, so remember what I said about me reading a lot when I was a kid? Let’s take a trip back in time to when we were seven.  Imagine we’re reading something that isn’t so complicated.  Something like this excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird: 

To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Now, first of all, we’re seven, so we might not know every single word in this sentence.  For example, we might not know what stock-market quotations are.  The Mobile Register might also be a mystery, as well as the words literate and interfere.  But we know what Miss Caroline is saying, we’ve got that shit on lock, and we can figure out the general sense of what’s going on from the words that we know.

Later on, we might come back after having learned what The Mobile Register is, and looking up the meaning of interfere, and then the paragraph would make more sense.  We might even be able to puzzle out the significance of the word literate, and decide that we really don’t need to know what stock-market quotations are in order to understand this segment.

“Okay,” you might say, “But I came here to learn how to read graduate-level texts! Why the hell are we reading To Kill A Mockingbird?”  Well, first of all, because it’s an awesome book, so shut up, and second, that’s it.  That’s how you do it.

Let’s break it down.

So now let’s go back to Bourdieu.  Take this passage:

Theory Of Practice

Don’t panic. Deep breaths. Remain calm.   Just let your eyes drift over it.  Read the words you recognize and string them together to get a sense of the general point.

“The privilege in which all activity arises never more governs that activity than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to a theory of practice which is the neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a distortion as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and to decoding operations.”

OKAY. So we don’t know quite what that means.  We can sense that there are key words missing.  But find the parts you understand.  There’s something in there about the anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study, and how that causes a theoretical distortion.  And we know that distortion reduces all social relations to…something.  Good.  See those bolded points? Those are the parts we know.  We’re sure of those.  My professor calls them ANCHORS. That’s good.

Now we can read it again, from the beginning, and try to figure out more.  Maybe we can look up some of the words, and then we realize that hermeneutics means ‘the discipline surrounding interpretation of texts.’  So that’s another anchor.   Using the parts we know, we then try to figure out the parts that are confusing.  It might take a few passes, but eventually we will be able to read the entire paragraph and understand what Bourdieu (and it is Bourdieu) is saying.

Now blow that up to a whole new level.

We have a book to read, not a paragraph but an entire book, and this is the DENSEST SHIT YOU’VE EVER READ.  You understand MAYBE 40% of what you’ve read so far, and it’s daunting.

Well:

Step 1: Scan.  Read a few chapters.   Not the whole thing, unless it’s super short.  Maybe read a fourth of it.

Step 2: As you read, find your anchors.  Find the things you understand.  Try to get a general sense of what the book is saying.

Step 3: Put down the book and wrestle with the ideas. Try to connect the ideas (the ones you understand) to other things.  [I strongly advise that you] write down the ideas that really leap out at you.  These are reading notes.   By the end of this step, you should have a pretty basic idea of what the first fourth of the book is about, and you will be (almost) certain about the meaning of specific portions. There will still be huge parts you won’t understand. This is okay.

Step 4: Return to the book. Read again, from the beginning.  It’ll be easier this time; you will recognize your anchor points as you pass them, and you’ll read what you know more quickly. Try to keep it slow and really read it, really digest it.  You should be able to start to figure out exactly what the text is saying.  Some new anchors will jump out at you.  Excellent. Write them down, underline them, whatever, and keep moving.  You might be able to finish it this time, but if not, no problem.

Step 5:  After this point, you should have a confident idea of certain parts of the book.  Not all of it.  You should be able to talk pretty definitively about most of the first half of the book.   Take a break again. What I like to do now is to find a summary of the piece.  For philosophy, try The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Ask someone who’s read the book.  Look it up online.  You already know the first half–if you pay attention to the summary, you can try to start figuring out how the first half leads to the second half, even before you actually read it.

Step 6: You already know a lot about this book!  Getting to step 6 can take anywhere between half an hour and six hours…or more.  Some books are SUPER DENSE, even for people with a doctorate.  A Ph.D doesn’t give you magical powers.  But now that you KNOW the first half, and now that you have a very basic idea of the second half, stop and think about the book. Try to think about how its ideas are similar to other things you’ve read.  We learn by making connections.  Think of knowledge as a spiderweb: THE MORE CONNECTIONS YOU DRAW, THE STRONGER IT IS. 

Not to mention, the more you do this seven-step process, the faster it goes.  You will learn to read faster, because your brain will learn to start picking out key points and wrestling with what you don’t understand.

Congratulations; you can now talk about this book fairly confidently! You know the majority of the first half (and you have pretty good notes, if you took my advice), and you know roughly the arc of the second.  But we’re not done yet–we don’t just want to skim, we want mastery. 

So now for the final step.  You’re going to re-read the first half, and then go from there to the second half–reading from the first page to the last.  As you venture into unknown territory, remember to plant anchors.  Find something that is beginning to make sense, and slow down and make it make sense.  When you do, WRITE IT DOWN IN YOUR NOTES.

But now you should have an idea of what it feels like to read a text and digest the softer parts.  It should go faster than before, smoother. That doesn’t mean it won’t be unbelievably painful.  This could easily be the longest part of the process, time-wise.

But it does mean that by the time you make it to the last page of the book, you will know your shit. You might not know it backward and forward–you might not be able to cite pages from scratch–but you will be able to write an essay on the book now.  You can have a real, intelligent discussion, and you’re on your way to mastery.

So it’s not really a final step. But it is for now.  If you started this book and made it to the final step in the same day, then stop.  Take a break.  Relax.  Go do something that doesn’t involve thinking about this. The most important rule of reading academic texts is this:

It is impossible to master a book in one day.* 

*it’s not, but you really don’t want to do that if you don’t have to.**

**but if you decide to try, just do this, but without taking breaks.

CONGRATULATIONS.  You now know how to master a book–and in the process of mastering it, you will also produce a killer set of reading notes.   Those will be INVALUABLE.  When you write a paper, or a blog post, or anything really, you can just go back to your reading notes and drop them straight in.   And you will seem UNBELIEVABLY smart.  You will know. your. shit. 

This has been the Cheat Sheet.  Thanks for reading this 1776-word monster. Next time,  I will try and set down some other snippet of cutthroat academic trickery from my arsenal of mind games.  Until then, good luck, happy reading, and make sure to use adequate light sources!*

*if you’re reading on a computer screen, make sure the brightness is set so that you can clearly see the text, but not too much brighter than the surrounding environment. That will reduce eye strain, which means you can read longer.

Hey nerds,

I’m back.

You can blame my anthropology teacher for this one, guys.  No, but seriously.

Well, among other people.  Brain Trust, Horsemen, y’all are in there.  And youyou are in there twice.

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED, my blog was on a brief indefinite hiatus for most of the school year.  But thanks to a perfect storm of schoolwork finishing, work ending, and my own life kicking things up a notch, I’m BACK, BITCHES, and better than ever.  Also, fair warning, some profanity.

A new year is a perfect time for reflection, and that’s what I’m doing.  I’M GONNA BE LIKE A GOD DAMN MIRROR UP IN HERE.

There will be posts occurring with nigh-weekly frequency once again! I’ve said that before.  But just like the bad half of an abusive relationship, I TOTALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME.

That was in poor taste. Oh well.

Blast from the past time:

Let me be the first to welcome you to Jung, Wilde, and Free—a blog which relates the life of an American teenage dude, homeschooled and obsessed with C.G. Jung and Oscar Wilde. Expect frequent discourses upon the topics of marine biology, internet memes, music, films, Dungeons and Dragons, and astrophysics. Beware of frequent rants related to politics, lax food safety standards, or the rampant emotional retardation sweeping whichever benighted metropolis I happen to inhabit at the time.
And, bring your thesaurus—the words will fly fast and thick. Most of these posts, I hope, will be family-friendly—but if you’re going to show them to younger siblings or children, please screen them first, as sometimes I get a bit carried away.

I was a precocious eighteen-year-old.

Many things have changed since that first post four years ago.  I am no longer entirely homeschooled—now, I am a college student at a prestigious college located in a warm, sunny part of our country.

hell froze over

 In the last four years I’ve had great successes (like my enthusiastic and headlong involvement in the Sustained Dialogue movement) and equally exciting failures (the reason I can make relationship jokes in extremely poor taste).  I’ve made great friends and people who rate too low on the food chain to be allowed to breathe.  I’ve learned many things, forgotten things that were once important to me, and rediscovered them with great enthusiasm.  I’ve fallen in and out of fortune, favor, and love. It’s been a hell of a ride.  

In the course of those years, I’ve come to realize a few things.  Things which I wish I had known before.  Things which I think I could always stand to be reminded of.  So without further ado, here they are: the top five things I’ve learned in the last four years, accompanied by COOL MOVING IMAGES.

5. Go for the throat.

Do you want something? Then go after it full throttle.  (get it? Throat, throttle? Ha ha ha. I’m hilarious) But seriously.  As long as you’re going to do something, do it all the way.  Whether it’s something long or short-term, there’s no reason to do it if you’re not in it to win it.  You’ll learn the most (and grow the most) if you’re working at the very edge of your own ability.  So fling yourself headlong into work, school, life, or love.  If it’s what you want to do, then fucking do it.   Only lesser life-forms hesitate.  Trample the shit out of them.

4. Who gives a shit?

I loathe the term “guilty pleasure.” Despise it.  Don’t be ashamed of what you enjoy.  Do you like “girly” music? Do you like a movie that’s “problematic?” GOOD.  ENJOY IT.  Love it intensely.  Know its limits, learn it inside and out.  Take true pleasure in it, and take pride in being able to explain why you love it.  What is your guilty pleasure? Drop the guilt.  Keep the pleasure.  Especially when it comes to fashion, music, and film. Example from my own life: I love shiny things. Of every variety.  One of the sparkliest, shiniest things I own is a lavender-purple bracelet studded with rhinestones.  I wear the shit out of that bracelet, and it looks damn good.  I love nerdy clothing, and I have one of these fuckers.  No “normal” person owns one of those.  Do I care? No.  I love that damn jacket.  And guess what; it looks amazing, because when you’re doing what you love, that passion radiates from your every pore.  Leak passion everywhere. Get it all over what you love.  Own your happiness.

3. The worst thing you can do when you’re unhappy is stand still.

Feeling down in the dumps? Depressed? Lonely or sad? Move. I don’t care if you don’t feel like it.  I fought my own god damn brain every single day for the whole of last semester, fought tooth and talon to keep moving. Did I “feel like” getting up every morning? HELL FUCKING NO.  Did I anyway? FUCK YES.

This is ESPECIALLY important if you have any kind of tendency to depression or rumination—any kind of tendency to sit and get lost in your own thoughts and insecurities.  We ruminators are like sharks—if we sit still too long, we will sink and suffocate.  Get OUT of your head.  Play an instrument.  Find a new job.  Exercise. Dance.  LARP.  Do something.  Don’t worry too much or sit still too long; this world can’t afford to lose even one of us, for we are the thinkers, the sensitive ones, the artists.

2. You’re yourself, and your self is awesome. Do you know what happened when you were born?

Oh, not much, just a COSMIC SHIFT.

The entire fucking universe aligned itself for you.  The stars slid into place, the galaxies turned into position, every planet set itself along its course, and all the billions of humans in the world ran madly through one another’s lives so that your parents could meet and produce you at the exact second of your birth.  You are the child of the universe and its heir both, and the fire of your life-force is the fire of creation.  Don’t hide or apologize for that fire; wear it proudly.  There is no reason to be ashamed of who you are, and if anyone tells you differently, burn them to the ground.

 

And last but not least:

1. Say what you feel.

Humans are very good at social interaction—but none of them are telepathic.  The most important thing to know about a relationship—any relationship, be it family, friend, academic, workplace, or romance (or all five, bow chicka wow wow)—is that you are responsible for what you do and what you say.   How you feel is independent, and while you should never apologize for how you feel, you should always try to convey how you feel as accurately as possible.  Is your love going “unrequited?” I’ve got news for you; that shit would get a whole lot clearer if you just told them.  Does another person keep saying something that hurts you? Explain why.  Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself—especially with those close to you.  You should never be afraid of the people you love, and if they love you back, they won’t want you to be.

This goes for everything.  Explain how you feel.  Explain it using that most potent and misunderstood word: “I.”  That “I” will take the edge from your anger and give warmth to your reassurances.   It’s scary as hell to talk about your feelings, but it’s a skill that will serve you well.

There is more I could say, of course.  More I could say about each of those, and more things that I’ve learned.

I’ve grown a lot in the last four years.  But the core of this blog—and the core of myself—remains unchanged.  I am still me, a unique face of the universe playing at an individual life. And I’m having loads of fun.

And this blog is still the site of discourse on biology, psychology, anthropology, Dungeons and Dragons, comedy, and astrophysics.

So ave, lector, and strap in; it’s gonna be a wild ride.

Until next time.

So remember a long time ago when I posted a complete list of logical fallacies? Wasn’t that great? Well, I was thinking, it’s high time I posted these again.  Here they are, for your viewing pleasure—a list of the ways that we tend to screw ourselves over when we argue, debate, write, or form opinions.  These are for my education as much as yours—we all commit these errors from time to time.  But as with all things unconscious, giving them names and knowing they exist helps immensely to make you better at not doing them, and plus it feels really good to shout Latin across the room at people who are being annoyingly wrong and stuff.  SO here is a revised and reposted version of THE LIST OF LOGICAL FALLACIES.

Oh, and if you see anything that looks like it needs clarification or just straight-up seems wrong, let me know! I’m all for dialectic and dialogue and stuff!

 HERE THEY ARE: 

LOGICAL FALLACIES

  • Argumentum ad baculum: Appeal to force. More literally, “argument by stick.” “Do you know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command!”
  • Argumentum ad misericordiam: Appeal to pity.  Also known as “The Smeagol Fallacy.” 
  • Argumentum ad populum: Argument by the people. In other words, argument by social pressure. The people are in favor of X, therefore X is good. “Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”
    • (ad populum) Celebrity endorsement: “Kanye West is in favor of new Bay-B-Lite, the delicious energy drink made from babies! It can therefore only be a good idea!”
    • (ad populum) Snobbery: Also known as the Grey Poupon Fallacy*.
  • Ad hominem: Argument to the man. Making the debate about the other person rather than about the argument itself**.  “You’d basically have to be a husk of a person to hate unicorns.”
    • Ad hominem abusive: Cicero said it best. “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.”
    • Ad hominem circumstantial: someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position.  But just because the person arguing to legalize same-sex marriage is gay, doesn’t mean their argument is any less valid (assuming it’s valid in the first place). 
    • Ad hominemTu quoque”  (“You too”): Pointing out that your opponent’s rants in favor of radical veganism have been interrupted frequently by bites he’s taken from the wad of beef jerky in his hand.
  • Fallacy of Accident (a dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid) (destroying the exception): Cutting people with knives is illegal. Surgeons cut people with knives. Surgeons are criminals. What went wrong here? We ignored an important exception to the rule about cutting people with knives.  
  • Straw Man: Arguing with a position that the other person didn’t take. For an example, review the comments section of any Youtube video.
  • Ignoratio elenchi: Missing the point entirely.  Usually the key marker for this one is that the conclusion comes completely out of nowhere.
    • (Ignoratio elenchi) Red Herring Fallacy: Deliberately missing the point to lead the discussion astray.  Can easily segue into a straw man.
  • Argumentum ad vericundiam: An appeal to some authority that happens to be completely unqualified for the situation at hand. Example: bringing Doctor Phil into any discussion of psychology***.  Exception: Aristotle is always relevant.
  • Argumentum ad ignorantiam: The appeal to ignorance.  The absence of evidence is taken to be evidence of absence.  “I’ve never seen Switzerland—I don’t think it exists. It’s a government conspiracy.  A comforting myth, like Santa Claus or Canada.”
  • Converse Fallacy of Accident (a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter): A hasty generalization. “Dobby the House-Elf wanted to be free of his master! The same must hold true for ALL HOUSE-ELVES!”****
  • False Cause (Non causa pro causa) (“Non-cause for cause”): A false causal claim.  Examples below.
    • (False Cause) Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”): Causal claim about a vaguely correlated fact. “The number of true swashbuckling pirates decreased after global temperatures increased.  Thus, GLOBAL WARMING KILLS PIRATES.” 
    • (False Cause) Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this”): “I wore my yellow Argyle-Paisley socks to school today, and I got 100% on everything I did! I’m gonna wear these things all week!”
    • (False Cause) Oversimplified Cause: Pulling out one specific cause for a complex event. The blame game applies. “You know whose fault it was that the hurricane destroyed the train depot? STEVE. He didn’t lock the doors when he left on Friday! GOD DAMN IT, STEVE.”
    • (False Cause) Gambler’s Fallacy: “I’m due for a big win any time now!” Actually, that’s not how probability works: You’re just as likely to get heads as tails regardless of how many heads come in a row.
  • Slippery Slope: A leads to B, B leads to C, C leads to D and so on, until one finally claims that A leads to Z. While this is how arguments actually work, slippery slope fallacies occur when this is not done properly—when, for example, there is nothing that supports the link between C and D.  You see this in politics all the time–at first there are some good steps drawn out about cost of education, some less grounded steps follow, and the next thing you know the gay communist Mexican mafia is running our schools and teaching Meth 100 in first period.  
  • Weak Analogy/False Analogy. The term “false analogy” was coined by none other than JOHN GODDAMN STUART MILL. The example is paraphrased from his. Arguing by analogy is how we reason normally. Unfortunately, in this case we’ve just done it wrong. “Person X is lazy. I don’t know their sibling, Person Y, but I can only assume that they are lazy too.”
  • Petitio principii (Assuming the start; begging the question): A statement is assumed to be true without further proof than the statement itself. E.g.; (in simplified form) “I think he is unattractive because he is ugly.”  You’ll see this a lot in those stupid debates between religion and science; “I know the Bible quote is true because the Bible says it’s true, and the Bible, being the word of God, is never wrong.” Or “This objective fact is absolutely true, because it is tested using the scientific method, and the scientific method is based in objective fact.”
  • Complex Question: A loaded question. “Good morning, Dave! Have you stopped beating your kids yet?”
  • False Dichotomy: Some issue is presented as having only two possibilities. “Mom, either we go and get ice cream, or THE COMMUNISTS WIN. You’re not a communist, are you, mom? I didn’t think so.” In actuality there are more options: they could not get ice cream, the communists could in fact lose anyway, or they could get frozen yogurt and promote gastrointestinal health while beating back the Red Scourge.
  • Suppressed Evidence: ‘Cherry picking;’ taking only the evidence that supports your case, suppressing information that could be sufficient to disprove your point without further ado. For further details see the Global Warming “debate.”
  • Fallacy of Equivocation: Playing with the meanings of a word, using it in a different sense from previously. This can be as simple as “Something must be done.  This is something. Therefore, this must be done,” or as complex as making a subtle change to the connotative meanings of ‘environmentally sound.’
  • Amphiboly: A fallacy resulting from an ambiguous or lazy grammatical structure.  Often quite silly. Simple example: “No food is better than our food.”  To interpret this as meaning “our food sucks” is to commit the fallacy of amphiboly. 
  • Fallacy of Division: Assuming incorrectly that something true of a thing must be true of all its parts. “This chair is green. All its component atoms must be green as well.” Similar to the hasty generalization, but don’t assume they’re the same.
  • Fallacy of Composition: Assuming incorrectly that something true of all the components is true of their sum. “All these atoms are invisible.  The chair they form must also be invisible.”

*Although Grey Poupon mustard is indeed delicious, the method by which they sell it is an ad populum appeal to elitism.  It is marketed as “the gentleman’s mustard,” which (a) sounds like a euphemism and (b) has no bearing on its actual quality.

**While the nature, actions, and background of the other speaker may have some bearing on why they are making a given argument, they have no effect whatsoever on the actual validity of the statement.  When Dick Cheney lectures about the huge losses of life in the Middle East, he may be a horrible hypocrite, but that doesn’t affect the facts of what he is actually saying.  A key portion of logic is the ability to pull the irrelevant away and focus only on the argument.

***OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH SNAP WHAT NOWWW

****I am actually an outspoken activist in the matter of House-Elf civil rights, and a proud member of S.P.E.W.  One of the first Slytherin members, as it happens.

This has been another overly wordy blog post, and I apologize.  Have a spiffy day.

Ave, lector.

You may wish to skip down to the picture of Morpheus.  Read the following at your own risk.

During the previous session of my seminar on consequentialism (a class which I greatly enjoy participating in at this particular undergraduate institution), wherein we were discussing the finer points of Kagan’s Limits of Morality—specifically, his section regarding the vividification of beliefs on a global scale, and its implications for individual action.  As we were in the midst of this discussion, we were briefly interrupted by the parents of a student, who wished to sit in on the class and were cordially invited to join us.  While they sat in the corner with expressions of some interest, we returned to our dialectic, and as we spoke I became conscious of a point that had troubled me for some time.  I, being a student of anthropology, would characterize this as a linguistic point.

Within the academical world, if in possession of a modicum of learning, one can be uniquely situated to unpack the subtle intricacies of an intellectual nomenclature, expanding the meanings of a relatively unassuming sentence to their fullest implications.  However, despite this positionality which I possess, situated as I am within the folds of anthropological science, I am unequivocally repulsed by a specific tendency within the current scientific (and indeed, academic) institution.

Within the following paragraphs, I shall strive to set aside the cumbersome locutions which so spark my ire, and generate a more perspicuous representation of my own qualms regarding this flawed discourse—a discourse which is present not merely in my own studies, but in any scholastic setting, contributing perhaps to the alienation of the intellectual within our broader culture.

Image

Simple version.

I was in class the other day.  We were talking about philosophy stuff.  One guy’s parents came in (they were visiting) and they decided to sit in (they wanted to see the class, and embarrass their son).  We said hi—and then we went right back to talking.  And as we were talking, I was thinking about what we sounded like.  We must have sounded crazy.  We used sentences much like the ones above, and it got me thinking: Why? Why do we make this stuff so complicated?

Once you drop into that ocean of big words, it’s easy to be hypnotized by it.  Easy to forget that not everyone can understand what it means if you say, for example –

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

That was Bourdieu again.  Some of you may recognize him. And what he’s saying is that it’s very common for people to get wrapped up in science, to forget that all those things that they know aren’t known by everyone else.  Which can lead a lot of the time to conversations that go like this:  A well-meaning academic says “Excuse me, I think that this one thing has potential implications hidden beneath its simple indexical meaning that make me uncomfortable with the ways in which it reinforces a patriarchal system of power.”  And the person they’re talking to has no idea what they’re saying.

I’ve always thought that the best way to learn a subject is to explain it to an eleven-year old.  It doesn’t even have to be a kid.  But whether you’re explaining Plato’s Myth of Gygas, Bourdieu’s critique of the concept of social rules, the interactions of subatomic particles, or the inner workings of a vintage Daimler-Benz twelve-cylinder engine—if you can explain any one of those things, or anything else you know a lot about, in the smallest words possible? Then you don’t just know how to say the idea—you know what it means.

Try it!  Think about what you’re good at.  Try to explain it to someone—a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend.  Use small words.  Personally, I hate all this fancy-ass academic language.  I mercilessly make fun of it.

The whole purpose of writing and speaking is to have someone understand you.  Some of my own blog posts have gotten technical in the past, and I apologize for that.  But thinking about this reminds me of another point—remember where you’re speaking from.  I think the word ‘positionality’ is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.  But luckily there’s a word with a very similar meaning: POSITION.

Remember who you are.  If you know words like “heteronormativity,” chances are that you are situated in a position of privilege not enjoyed by every individual in our culture.  And if you understood that sentence without rereading it, the same is still true.  Not everyone has had a chance to learn big words—or to learn the ideas behind them, like “heteronormativity.” And even if it seems intuitive to you, getting angry at someone for not understanding this is like someone yelling at you because you don’t know how to secure the hydraulic clutch in a restored Daimler-Benz DB601.

So check your damn privilege.  And use tiny words.  I’m sure you have something important to say—everyone does.  But wouldn’t it be better to say it so that everyone can understand?

Stay spiffy, my friends.

SUP NERDS

I’m not even gonna pretend that I’ve come back permanently for any predetermined length of time.  Just keep checking; I’ll post something at some point in your life. But onward to the point!

My school has an anonymous ‘Confessions’ page.  This is basically what it sounds like.  It’s a Facebook page run by an unknown individual at the college (theories abound, but we won’t investigate them at the moment), with a link to a survey site.  Fill out an anonymous survey and the page admin reads it (anonymously) and posts it on the site without your name ever being involved.  Anyone who sees the page can post on it, write on it, read it, whatever.  Many colleges have this exciting feature.

It’s a shit show.

We can pretend otherwise, I can dress it up with fancy psychological terms, but it’s basically a shit show.  People talk about booze, bowel movements, pet peeves, relationships, and personal problems.  The audience is sympathetic to the first two and the last one.

It interests me.  First because some of the commentary is hilarious, to say nothing of the posts themselves.  The usual anonymous online dickery ensues—people passive-aggressively calling one another out anonymously for being too passive-aggressive, and so forth.

Sometimes, someone will post something that looks serious.  They’ll talk about their self-harm issues, suicidal ideation, PTSD, body image problems, etc.  And by and large the response to these is good—not a lot of people shaming, condemning, hating, lots of people encouraging, offering phone numbers and emails and websites.  My school still seems to have nice people.

The other day I read a post on there.  I don’t remember what it was about—some personal issue.  I was about to join the chorus of positive responses, but I thought to myself, “You know, I don’t know who this is.  I know who it might be, though.  It might be someone I don’t know.  It might be someone I don’t like. It might be one of the people who, were I to meet them, I would strike repeatedly with a blunt object. I don’t know if I want to let this person know I care about them when I don’t know them.”

I then immediately felt uncomfortable.  I wasn’t quite sure why, but I felt repulsed by the thought.  I replied to the post, encouraging, positive—after all, they were going through something rough.  Fast forward a few weeks.

The other day I watched Les Miserables. The film adaptation is a remarkable and striking experience.  It’s intimate in a way a stage production cannot be, and arresting in a way the novel cannot be.  The writers did a remarkable job of fine-tuning the story, and granting it an arc which seems much more plain in the film than it did in the novel.

Les Miserables, to give a quick, bare-boned sketch for those who have not seen it [SPOILERS] is the story of a convict named Jean Valjean.  He is released on parole and commits a minor theft—for which he could be returned to prison for decades.  However, the victim intercedes for him, corroborating his alibi, and enjoins upon him to “become an honest man.” Valjean, his life spared and his moment of wrongdoing revealed, is stricken with shame and uses the stolen goods to become an honest man—a very honest, wealthy man, in fact.  But he is still haunted at every turn by the constable who released him from prison, a man known as Javert.

A man is captured who resembles Valjean, and this hapless lookalike is set to be tried and sentenced in Valjean’s stead.  The disguised convict is transfixed by this moral quandary—does he give himself up, or allow the innocent man to be condemned?

But he does the right thing, regardless.  And this is a theme that repeats throughout the novel—Valjean is faced with a dilemma, to save himself or to help another, and each time he chooses to do good.  And each time it turns out better and better.

This is what we call ‘fiction.’

(if you’re a Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder nerd, keep reading—otherwise, you may want to skip this paragraph; it has a distinctly nerdy flavour)

(then again, if you’re not a nerd, why are you reading this blog?)

The conflict between Valjean and Javert is not one of good vs. evil, morality and immorality—for Valjean and Javert are both potent forces for good in the world (even more so in the novel).  My brother likes to complain that Javert is one of the irritating paladins, the lawman who sticks to the letter of the law and seeks to bring all to salvation through enforcement of his code.  But my response is that Valjean is also a crusader, a paladin, but with his code being one of pure good.  He desires only to help everyone and be as good and honest a man as he can (while protecting his daughter).  And in this clash between Good and Law it is (in the end) the Good that wins out—for Good can adapt and change to whatever form it finds itself in, but when Javert finds himself in a scenario for which no law has been written, he self-destructs in a moment of existential crisis.

AND THE POINT OF THIS LONG DIGRESSION IS

We watch throughout the (film/operetta/novel) as Valjean helps people.  Some of them deserve it.  Some of them don’t.  Some of them wish to do him harm. Some of them want to bang his daughter.  He helps them all indiscriminately, because that is how he rolls.  He doesn’t make judgments about who he helps and who he doesn’t.  Homey don’t play that.

And when I watched Les Miserables the other day, my intuition about that pesky train of thought came clearer.  “I don’t know if I want to let this person know I care about them when I don’t know them. It might be someone I don’t like.”

But it doesn’t matter. There are people I don’t like.  There are people I don’t know.  There are people who I want to strike repeatedly with a spoon.  But they’re people. They’re human, as most people are. The ones that aren’t human (a) kill people and eat them or (b) think they’re a macaque.  Hitler liked to talk to children, hold dinner parties, and dick around with oil paints.  The people I don’t like are people too.  And I don’t dislike people all the way through—how could I?? You can’t dislike everything about a person! We share the same basic, fundamental needs and wants.  That’s how empathy works, understanding how your desires are similar to the desires of others.

In real life, there are people I would throttle with a mink stole or beat with a spoon.

But in real life, if they came to me for help, or told me about a problem, one that was life-threatening and miserable, then no, I would not hit them with a spoon.  I might lecture them, loudly and repeatedly, but I would do it while helping them, while directing them to the nearest counselor or tying on a tourniquet. And a couple of you know that’s true, so don’t scoff at me. Nerd.

No human being deserves absolute condemnation—and that’s why I think this article is amazing. It’s about a revolutionary new approach to school discipline being implemented in Washington—not yelling at troubled children. It sounds so obvious when I sneer at it like that, but GUESS WHAT, our school system today pretty much consists of doing just that. And, funny thing, turns out when you give troubled children a safe, supportive, caring, stable environment, THEY DO PRETTY WELL.  And not just in terms of grades—socially, psychologically, emotionally—across the board, better.  “Problem children” improve, become nicer.  Formerly ‘delinquent’ children, ‘troublemakers,’ stop lashing out.

Prison systems in Norway are the most humane in the world.  Guess where some of the world’s highest rehabilitation rates are for criminals? Did you guess America? Not quite, but thanks for playing—the answer’s NORWAY.

Now, I’m not Jean Valjean.  For one thing, I’m not French.  And I can’t sing.

But what I can do is do good.  And do better.

I’m not proud of the thought that came to me some weeks ago as I sat before an anonymous confession page, but I’m not ashamed of it either.  It led me to a (slightly) deeper understanding of myself, and now I’ve inflicted it upon all you lot as well.

So I suppose the moral of this story, this little blog post about doing-good-no-matter-what, the moral of this story is READ LES MISERABLES.  YES, YOU.  It’s magnificent.

COMING UP NEXT TIME, an EXCITING RANT about why IGNORANCE IS NOT IMMORAL.

LATER NERDS.

I’ve dealt with bullshit in my life.  Mine and other peoples’.  People’s? Whatever.  Brief and overarching examples of such bullshit include trauma, abuse, terror, panic, lies, anger, cruelty, judgment, scorn, intolerance, narcissism, pettiness, and poorly-cooked pizza.

When your bullshit intake is pretty steady on a daily level (read; when you are an adult and/or college student), you become introspective. You tend to walk around a lot listening to ‘Dust In The Wind’ and staring off into space.  You experiment with dangerous things to deal with the bullshit—dangerous things like anger, hate, and condemnation.  Possibly also alcohol and chocolate.  If you’re an artist, you art even more than usual—perhaps you start a novel, or compose music, or both.  You apply yourself vigorously to your work, because work usually doesn’t contain any bullshit.

You feel old.  Older. Ancient, old as the hills, as if you’ve walked the same streets forever.

And, if you’re me, this introspection takes a reflective turn.  You turn to books, to film, to famous figures, for inspiration, comfort, and guidance.  You talk to parents and professors and listen to words from men and women long dead.  You read Aristotle’s friendly books of advice for young men entering adulthood.  You listen to Jung’s discussion of mortality and the human life, watch the keen intelligence in the eyes of Bertrand Russell as he discusses forgiveness and mankind’s future on Earth.  You learn the unpredictability of life not only from your own travails but from the calming voice of Alan Watts, who assures you that all is not as bad as it seems—that the universe has a harmony of its own.

You drop-forge your own spirituality in fire and cold water, in anger and sorrow and hour after hour of worry.

And slowly, it works.

You stop staring at the ceiling for hours every night.  Your dreams cease to be saddening and become bittersweet.

Your music stops being angry.  Stops being sad.  It sounds more right than before, deeper, with anger and sorrow in their rightful places—not dominating, and not absent.  Your characters take on a depth and power that you haven’t known before, and (after hours of exposure to the drama that unfolds in human lives) story developments come easily.  You get better at managing your temper, at making measured judgments, at managing stress, at not falling apart under the weight of your own rumination.

Suddenly, though you haven’t gotten any busier, you have plenty of time.  You start humming happier songs.  You have more patience for everything from schoolwork to nonfunctioning computers to people.

And then, on a quiet afternoon in a nearly-empty study space, you run a search on Martin Luther King Jr., and you read his words.  You get a glimpse of the man behind the rhetoric, and you see the power in them.  It falls into place all at once; Taoism, Nietzsche, psychology black swans, action with intention, cultural relativism, even the Wizard’s oath…and the result is a profound calm, and a renewed vehemence.

I refuse to believe in the worst parts of humanity.   People can be better, though there might not be any one person or thing that changes them.  It might not be me that causes a person’s life to turn around—but I cannot turn my back on the possibility that it might be.  Two quotes by MLK inspired me today.  One of them was this:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

People will be petty, and afraid, and angry—and that includes me, because I can be petty, and nervous, and angry too, just as well as anyone else.  But you can’t meet human failing with more human failing.  You can’t beat intolerance with intolerance.  You can meet cruelty with anger, in the moment.  You can fight abuse fist-to-fist if you have to.  But when it’s done, when the moment ends, then you have to rebuild, and you can’t rebuild with anger.

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies. ”

Powerful words.

As a society, and as individuals, we can’t be lost in the moment of anger.  Yes, people do awful things.  There should and will be consequences for that.  But we have to step back, and think.  Yes, the murderer is a monster.  But we have to step back, and think, and wonder who made her that way.  Yes, rape is evil, and disgusting, and should never be tolerated among our number.  But we have to step back, and think, and realize that we have a chance to help a victim before he is a victim.  That we have a chance to save the innocent, before they become the guilty.  And that while we can fight day by day, in the end, it will be not the many battles but the one, the only, that changes the course of humanity—and that is the battle of our culture, of our time, of our universe, and our lives.  And in the end, it is the fight of inclusion over intolerance.  It is the fight of self-knowledge over self-denial.  It is the fight of integration over repression. It is the yes of life against the no of time and entropy.  And in the end, it is the fight of love over hate.

So I refuse to believe that people cannot change.  People can be better than this.  The world can be better than this.  Life can be better than this.  And I will fight every day, through spoken and written words, through actions and thoughts, to make it so.  Because that is the only fight worth fighting.

Because in the end, that’s the only fight.  There is no good and evil beyond what we make, beyond what we choose, beyond what we do.

We are Nietzsche’s supermen.  The world is what we make of it, and I, for one, want to make it something better than this.  Because we can be better than this.

The world is full of bad things. But we can make it a little better.  We can always be a little better. Because deontology is not starry-eyed idealism.  A perfect end is not impractical.  Am I an angel? No, not by any means, what I am is something darker. Does that mean I can’t hold myself to that standard? Not in the slightest.  Will we ever achieve a perfect world? A world without murder, fear, rape, hatred? Maybe not.  Does that mean I can’t fight for it?

Hell no.

And besides, I’ve a fondness for impossible causes.

So if I seem unexpectedly nice…I’m just doing my job.  If I call you on hateful rhetoric, I’m just doing my job. And trying to help you do yours.

Because, after all, the basic idea of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics can be condensed into this:

Be the best human being you can be.

That’s my response to your bullshit, life.

Your move, motherf*****.