November 9, 2016

What I Don't Like About Belgium

What I Don't Like About Belgium

Another top five, as promised.

It's important to emphasize that I don't like these things as a consequence of either my personality or my cultural tastes. I expect most Belgians don't have a problem with these things because they've grown up with them. They're not universal declarations.

1) The authoritarian educational system.
To be fair, I come from a system that is, perhaps, the most egalitarian on earth. Correct me if I'm wrong: are there other countries where disagreement with professors is not only tolerated but encouraged? This feature of American education and my critical, creative personality make Belgian education almost unbearable (and barely deserving of the name).

I believe it's the legacy of Catholicism. Taking an exam here is like reciting your catechism to a bishop, except the bishops are professors. I call authoritarian education "academic clericalism." It needs to be exorcised. I won't go into the whys and alternatives in this post.

2) The lack of public space.
One might think that a country with a strong social welfare system and almost exclusively public education would have a strong sense of the public sphere. My question then: what's with your public libraries and parks? Yes they have both, but the libraries are underdeveloped and have limited opening hours, the parks are few and small.

A related question: why don't you have living rooms in your student houses? Students have private bedrooms (no roommates) and shared kitchens and bathrooms. They have no space set aside to hang out. Socializing is done almost exclusively in bars and cafes.

There's a strong boundary line dividing the private and public spheres. I find it alienating and an obstacle to cultivating community.


3) Worker first, customers second.

Customer service, such as it is, is almost guaranteed to drive a North American crazy. I don't like customer service sycophantswe get that too much in Americabut I like to be welcomed. In Belgium it's not uncommon to be ignored in a store or restaurant. Sometimes clerks will ask you to leave the store ten minutes before it closes (so they can leave on the hour), meaning opening times aren't for the customer, they're for the workers. Some places close during lunch, or on Monday, or during the morning or afternoon of an arbitrary weekday. Almost nothing is open after 6pm, or on Sunday, or on the 16+ public holidays (in Leuven, a city of 90,000). In some stores, including grocery stores, the clerks ask to see inside your bag when you leave. Let me be clear about this: their default assumption toward all their customers is that they're thieves.

4) No free water at the table in restaurants.
This is proof that the UN statement on human rights remains incomplete. I'm being dramatic, but with a hint of seriousness. Not only do you have to pay for bottled water (I used to think Belgium was environmentally progressive), there's no public water fountains or free public toilets. There aren't even water fountains at the gym! Some things should always be freely available in society: air, a place to sleep on the ground (I'm referring to wild camping), drinking water, and toilets. For me, public water fountains and toilets have the same status as due process and freedom of speech.

5) The climate.
Too warm in the summer and far too warm in the winter. I don't mind not having air conditioning (even when I wish I had it; it's just not worth it), after all, it's not often that it gets really hot. But they don't have screens in the windows. More than that, their windows are designed in such a way that screens can't be installed. So if you want airflow when it's hot you have to take all the bugs that come with it.

That's summer. Winter in Belgium is heartbreaking. I've seen snow two or three times in three years. I can't say any more about it without making me depressed for the rest of the day.

Bonus: the horrifying lack of natural areas, especially in Flanders and especially inside towns and cities.

I could go on, and I could be more vicious in my criticism, but I live here so instead I should probably go back to my top five and focus on the virtues of the place.

October 31, 2016

What's so great about Belgium?

What's so great about Belgium?

"Is a personal story really that appropriate?" This is the question I've recently asked myself. You see, I'm considering using this blog to actually, you know, talk about my life. You're probably shaking your head at me, and you probably could have given me the right answer a lot faster than it took me to find on my own: "A personal touch is exactly what you want in a blog!"

Fair enough. But let me warn you, the stuff I've been writing—abstraact thoughts on education, business, politics, creative writing, personal development—these are in fact very personal to me. It's part of what an honest blog of my life should look like. But it's only part.

The other part should look something like this.

I'm an American expat living in Europe; at present I'm in Belgium. Don't worry, I've got philsophical things to say about expat living too, but why not try something more personal, like my favorite things about living in Leuven, Belgium?

1) I'll begin with the best: national variety.
Almost everyone I've known here is from a different country from me. Since this is a very international part of Europe, most are even from outside of Belgium. Many are students, many are living and working here. I know people from both Americas, Africa, a host of European countries, and a few from Asia. Almost everyone speaks my language (I lucked into that one!), but they bring their own oddities to the language. It makes life rich.

2) There's so much, so close!
Paris and Amsterdam are both less than three hours away. That's ridiculous. I once took a long weekend to go backpacking in the Alps. Europe-wide transportation is so inexpensive (for the most part) that for less than 100 euros and a few hours, I can spend a long weekend at any one of dozens, even hundreds, of incredibly lovely places.

My top to-do list: Prague, Czech Republic; backpacking in the Norwegian mountains; Saltzburg, Austria on the trail of the von Trapps; the Swiss Alps; northern Germany, where the Fisher family originated; and Albania (yes, they also have beautiful mountains).

3) Everyone says it: the beer.
I didn't like beer when I moved to Belgium, but Rochefort 10 is, in a word, sublime. (It's also pretty hefty at 13.2% alcohol content.) There aren't many foods or drinks whose extraordinary complexity I appreciate—chocolate, whisky, and coffee; sometimes wine, brandy, and absinthe—but a fine, dark beer is certainly among them.

Even though Rochefort is my beer of choice, it's also worth exploring. That's how I found Black Albert. If you've had Guiness than you have a point of comparison. Black Albert makes Guiness taste like a crisp and clear cider. That may be an exaggeration, but in all seriousness, it's like beer syrup. I wouldn't drink more than one in a sitting, but I would most certainly have more than one sitting.

4) Living abroad makes me appreciate my home country.
I think this is the experience of most people, and if it isn't then you're missing out. No matter where you move to and from, an adopted home will never feel entirely complete. There's always something missing. Christmas markets in Belgium are charming, but it's not home.

Missing home isn't only negative because it helps me see the value of what I miss. That's wonderful. Some people mistake me for a patriot (I'm really not). You couldn't imagine how many times I've come to the defense of America and Americans. I'm usually the first to find fault, but before faulting I like to find a common understanding. It's been my experience that most negative attitudes toward my homeland arise from an inability to understand the culture and situation of the US.

I would add that this seems to be the case inside the US too, between city dwellers and country folk, between Christians and atheists, between black and white. You get the point.

But my primary point is that being here makes me appreciate there more. I'd like to keep liking America, so I guess I'll keep living in Europe.

5) Every day brings the chance of more adventure.
I've been quite a wanderer over the years. That's partly because I get bored with the ordinary. I've found that Belgium, and Europe in general, keeps me off balance. There's always novelty around the corner. That's the nice thing about being a foreigner, about never being able to completely fit in, which is something that I hope will never happen.

I must admit, however, my hope is that no matter where I live—whether it's abroad or in my childhood hometown—that I look for adventure, that I pay attention to the virtues of the place I temporarily call home. Every home is temporary, so it's worth loving where you live now.

Beware! Now that I've let myself be expressive, especially optimistic, I feel the need to redeem myself to the choir of cynics by following this post by the things I dislike. It won't take me as long to think of a top 5.

August 9, 2016

Against Academic Clericalism


An Early Stage Manifesto for a Democracy of Learning
Against Academic Clericalism

I’m calling this a manifesto because my goal is to propose theses without at present justifying them. This deals especially with learning from late adolescence and beyond. In later posts I’ll expand and nuance each one.

1) Assignments should be submitted in public (published) to encourage ongoing engagement with a student’s work, allow democratic evaluation by both peers and more advanced students, promote greater accountability, and be more meaningful.

2) "Teacher” is a misnomer; “lead student” is more appropriate. “Professor” would be comical if it weren’t so clerical. Hierarchies and class distinction should be minimized and increasingly eliminated as students mature.

3) Students should not be graded by a magisterium (a teacher or professor) but by a cohort of other students, including their peers, offering ratings, reviews, and the chance for critical conversation.

4) Rigid forms of engagement suppress creativity and oppress intellectual growth. Scholarship is far from the ideal mode of learning for most students. A wider variety of forms and media should be considered legitimate for active/productive learning. For example, in the humanities, a creative work (and not only academic essay) should be an acceptable form of engagement.

5) Democratic student interest, not the interests of an administrative or professorial class, should be the driving force in academic study. This goes for themes and issues as well as the form and intent of assignments.

6) When two or more students are gathered together, dialogical engagement should be the rule, otherwise it’s a waste of social potential. In consequence: end live lectures.

The principle that underlies all these points is that there is no essential difference between learners of different levels. There are young learners, those that are more experienced, and those with vast experience. Learning experience is valuable but not the only (or even highest) value in learning. It certainly doesn’t alter the original fallibility of each of us; regardless of our title, we can be catastrophically wrong. My concern is that dominant ideas and media in learning, and the irresistible temptation of egoism inherent in academic hierarchies is undermining the creative potential of learning. Cultivating creativity is the highest possible achievement of learning, and we’re squashing it. We need an exhaustive, system-level overhaul. Let’s begin.

July 27, 2016

Smart Drugs

Smart Drugs
I'm passionate about education, that should be clear. I've spent much of my adult life as a student, some as a teacher, and now I'm in the early stage of developing an educational enterprise. I'm acquainted with the controversies that rage in the academic world and I have an opinion on most of them. One controversy in particular has peaked my interest: drugs.

I'm not talking about opiates or cocaine or even marijuana. I'm talking about that specifically academic (or, indeed, professional) variety, smart drugs. Adderall and Ritalin are among the favorites but there are others. I have never tried smart drugs myself, in part because many of the side effects sound dreadful and in part because it sounds far too expensive; however, I wouldn't rule it out in principle, and given an affordable smart drug without serious side effects in the vein of NZT 48 from Limitless I wouldn't feel the slightest prick of conscious in experimenting. Here's why:

I don't think it's cheating. I don't think it's abuse.

Obviously I have to explain myself. The most common objection I hear is that it gives someone an unfair advantage, like steroids. I've never and will never take steroids, despite my passion for fitness, not because it's unfair but because it's unhealthy. The athletic world has determined strict but somewhat arbitrary guidelines for what is and is not considered doping. Creatine in, maldonium out. Caffeine for training, not for performance. But the point of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) is to maintain a fair playing field among competetors. Everyone is allowed and disallowed the same substances. The principle purpose is health and fair competition.

Health is preeminent, I agree, but if my purpose in exercise is self-improvement, than fairness isn't a factor. That's why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the gym. That's also why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the library or at work. So do many of us. We like the cognitive and performance enhancing properties of caffeine when it's not a matter of athletic competition. So why wouldn't we accept performance enhancement in school or at work (with the arbitrary exception of caffeine)?

The fact is, competition is not a good way of looking at school or work. My purpose in studying and work is to simply do the best I can do, and not to beat other people. Cooperation is much better as model of social interactions in academics and the workplace. Whereas competition is 'all against all,' cooperation is 'all for one and one for all.' When I do better, we do better. Any improvement in my performance is good for the student body, for the company, and for the community. Admittedly, many social structures aren't designed to cultivate cooperation, but that's the problem with the structure (another topic entirely).

So the mistake people make is two-fold: they hypocritically permit (and employ) the performance enhancement of caffeine but not other smart drugs, and they mistakenly think that work and school is a competition rather than cooperation.

Not only do I think smart drugs are fair, but I also don't think their use is abuse except when it damages the user's health. This is another reason caffeine is acceptable. (I have my doubts about the more powerful stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin but I haven't done enough research to speak further. All I can say is that I'm skeptical.)

I've heard people with severe disorders become quite indignant at the use of smart drugs to enhance academic performance. Why do they think that because their problems are severe, smaller problems are illegitimate? I've had plantar fasciitis in the past, tightening and pain in the bridge of my foot. I wasn't paralyzed or bound to a wheel chair, but it hurt when I walked. So I learned about the condition and took measures to improve my situation.A sufferer of paraplegia wouldn't criticize me for going to the doctor just because my problem is so small compared to his. Why can't someone do the same with cognitive issues? Adderall is prescribed for narcolepsy. If someone has a hard time concentrating, it's not as debilitating as narcolepsy, but it's still a problem. Should I object to them taking a drug to improve their situation just because it's not as big of a problem as what someone else faces?

But maybe a smart drug user doesn't even think of it as 'solving a problem.' Maybe it's just performance enhancement: I'm good, I could be better. One time I read a truck driver's argument that he used a specific medication for the legitimate purpose of long haul trucking. Writing a PhD dissertation wasn't, in his book, legitimate. Why? It's intensly difficult (and ineffective) to to study philosophy for more than half a dozen hours in a day, but someone doing a PhD will be more successful studying 10 hours a day. Why is a trucker's need to work long hours more legitimate than an academic's? I sleep, eat (relatively) healthy, exercise, and listen to music, all to improve my cognitive performance. Why can't I take a pill too?

In each of these cases, with severe disorders and trucking, we have one person claiming 'my use is legitimate, your use is abuse.' I'm unconvinced on both counts. It seems like a egoistic lack of empathy.

My point is that we need to be wary of our use of the epithet "abuse." If it's physically, mentally, or socially damaging, then I'd use the term. In my book, addiction qualifies. But 'use for self-improvement' is not in its own right abuse. (And of course, I don't take the FDA as the grand arbiter of legitimate practice.)

All this is to say that if I found another smart drug as effective (or more effective) than caffeine with side effects as slight (or less than) caffeine, I would willingly try it. I haven't found it but if I do I think I could be a better person, not only for myself but for others around me as well.

May 24, 2016

The Moral 'If'

The Moral 'If'
Our moral language is in essence the language of obligation, the 'shoulds' and 'oughts' we employ. Whether we believe that the root of morality is divine fiat, the laws of nature, an economy of utility, a socially evolved survival mechanism, or an exercise of human freedom, we always experience morality in terms of shoulds and should nots. If this normative language is what characterizes morality, it’s our misunderstanding of that normative context that I believe is our greatest error.


The context of ‘should’ is ‘if’. I would go so far as to say that every ‘should’ implies an ‘if’ before it. Should always follows, often implicitly, in the form "if you want to..., then you should..." If you want to stay dry on a rainy day, you should carry an umbrella (or wear a rain jacket). If you want to keep your job, then you should follow your supervisor's directions. If you want to graduate or do well in school, then you should do your homework (in a way that satisfies the teacher). Each of these ‘shoulds’ are directions that you need follow if you want to achieve some end given a certain set of circumstances. The end in mind and the limitations of the give circumstances are the context of moral language.


The examples I just gave above, the weather, work, and school, are amoral. The question is, what differentiates amoral and moral normativity. My simple answer is nothing. The same language-form I applied to everyday choices applies to questions about charity and poverty, war and peace, sexuality and medicine. The difference lies only in the complexity of the limiting circumstances and the end we have to achieve. (In technical terms, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative.) Take war as an example, the moral questions are immensely difficult because of the complexity (to the point of absurdity) of the ideal of a global peace in a world of seven billion diverse individuals. The complexity does not arise because morality is a distinct discourse from, say, the simple question of staying dry. Both are examples of what Immanuel Kant, and the Greeks before him, knew as practical reason. To be more straight forward, we could replacing the idea of ‘practical reason’ with ‘strategy’. Morality is as simple and as difficult as plotting a navigable course from England to Queensland – it’s a simple matter of knowing where you are and where you’re going, it’s the difficult matter of knowing how to navigate every contingent obstacle that lies in your way (and also actually knowing where you are and where you’re going).


There’s a long tradition of this kind of thinking called teleology. In short, teleology begins with the end goal and the material conditions and then derives its means from there. What I’m arguing for is a kind of modest teleology but I prefer the ‘if…then’ construction to the more typical ‘do A in order to reach B’. The reason is because the end, B, is what should first be considered. “If you want to reach B, then do A… but are you sure you want B?” It’s a question of agency.


Agency is central and irreplaceable to my view of morality and too easily ignored in the traditional formulations of teleology. I begin with "If you want..." Of course, my desires are themselves complex. I want to finish writing this post. I also really don’t want to keep writing. My desires are incoherent, but if I want to finish, then I should keep writing; if I want to relax, I should stop. My moral impulse (or strategic thinking) to do exactly what I’m doing is in a contest with another impulse. The wisdom of morality lies in the ability to clearly see what I want most of all and bend my actions toward that end. Finishing this piece is more in line with my deepest moral ideals, my values and hopes, and I’m not actually that tired, so I should follow through.


I’ll be the first to admit that there is a strong current of individualism about this formulation of morality. Some might call it nihilism and relativism, but that ignores my basic contention that we genuinely value what we want, we really do find it meaningful. We are our values, and we cannot cast them off. Agency isn’t about choosing our values, it’s about making judgments in the conflict between our incoherent values. I can’t pick and chose my values, neither do I need everyone else to share my values in order to genuinely care about them. I simply care, and that’s where value begins and ends.


Moral disagreement is then no more than a disagreement about means and, chiefly, the value of our ends. We value many of the same ends, and for many of us our ideals have significant overlap, but it’s difficult to maintain that everyone does (and therefore should) have the same ideals and values. If a sparrow wants to go somewhere quickly, it should fly; if a fish want to, it should swim. They’re so different that they should employ different practical strategies – following different normative structures – in order to achieve their ends. Two people aren’t as different as a bird and a fish are, but there is enough difference within our species that we should pause before assuming that everyone wants what we want, or values what we value. The same end doesn’t serve everyone the same way. We know this already when it comes to career choice and relationships. It would be pure folly to assume that we all need to pursue the same career. If you want to be successful, then you should attend a university: this is patently false if someone wants to be a successful carpenter. I may want to spend my life reflecting on ideas, but it makes little sense for an owl to tell a beaver to stop building and fly. It’s clear in our careers; it’s about time we recognize this in other aspects of our life as well.


Hence my moral ambition is not to tell you what 'ifs' are worth starting from (which goals are worth pursuing, which values are truly valuable). My pretensions are more modest. At most I’ll suggest what means is best employed in order to achieve a given end. After that I only want to encourage you to think about the ifs on which you build your shoulds. Each time you tell someone else "you should...", each time you extend it to politics and say (as politics is wont to do) "we should...", first ask yourself: toward what ends are my prescriptions directed? Why is this end worth pursing rather than that one, and do my own goals need to be shared by others? If you think a politician should drop out of the race, consider that you might not understand the end goal he has in running. If you think your son should study something vocational, consider that his learning and career goals might not be yours. (Also, for the son, consider that you need to feed yourself.) We don’t share all of our ifs, and if we want to be at peace with other people, we should be aware that they might want something very different from us.


To be sure, being more conscious of our morality would never eliminate moral disagreement. Our values will still face irreconcilable differences with others’. In fact, through all this I’m not even saying that we should think about morality differently. I’m saying that this is how our moral thinking always operates, either well - if we remain critical and reflective when we connect ifs and shoulds – or poorly – if we mistakenly pursue lesser moral values like relaxing over finishing this post.

February 18, 2016

Don 't Forget to Make Your Art Good

Don't Forget to Make Your Art Good
The Cost of Beauty
When I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris a few years ago, I had an surprising experience of ambivalence. It was impossible to not be in awe of its beauty, but I couldn't shake a feeling of disgust.

Everywhere I looked I recognized that the beauty before me came at an immense cost. For every stone lifted, a field row was left untilled. For every window pane stained, a coat was left unwoven. The cost was paid by the poor, twice over. The first was the price paid directly in labor and taxes; the second was the opportunity cost incurred from using materials and exploiting labor that might have been used toward more essential ends. If everyone in Medieval Europe was wealthy and at ease there would be nothing to object to, but that wasn't the case. The beauty of Notre Dame came at a cost, and it's one that I find difficult to overlook.

The best justification that I can imagine is that the beauty displayed by a cathedral uplifts the spirit of everyone in a community. A noble thought. Alexander Pope wrote that the calling of tragedy is,
To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,
To raise the genius, and to mend the heart.
This, it seems, could be said of architecture as well, so also with literature, painting, or any of the arts. Art does a great service to us all, but the virtue of beautiful art doesn't exempt artists and patrons from their more basic human call to be good. M.K. Gandhi said (although it may be an apocryphal attribution), "There's no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness." Likewise, it's hard for someone to appreciate the uplifting intention of a cathedral when his body is crushed with hunger and exhaustion.

Beauty and Goodness
I've concluded that I needn't forget my ambivalence toward sublime cathedrals, powerful fortresses, castles, and châteaux. In fact, I ought to allow that internal conflict to flourish. It's a conflict that rages between our aesthetic and our ethical sensitivities—between beauty and goodness, and it's a conflict that we too often pass over unmarked.

I want to continue visiting the places that spark this conflict within me. It's worth remembering again and again that something can be both beautiful and ethically depraved. Beauty can be wrought at a great human cost. It's a lesson with significance more contemporary than the construction of Notre Dame.

In actual fact, I'm not interested in involving myself in a critique of Medieval architecture. I'm really concerned about today, but again, not merely with architectural practice. Rather, I'm concerned about the ethics of our beauty standards in general.

The Question of Ethics in Art
I'm not saying that I have a doctrine to follow to ensure that the art we make remains ethical, I'm only saying that in our creating and producing—whether artistic or otherwise—we should never forget our responsibilities to other people. I could never come up with an adequate definition of art, but I'm confident in saying that any definition should include the pursuit of goodness.

That's not to say that art needs to represent good things to be good (I'm not so old-fashioned). Art is good by doing good; making us aware of suffering and confronting us with what's terrible in the world is one of the many virtuous services that art can perform. Even ethically considered, tragedy is among the best art. Even the most horrific pieces can be both beautiful and good.

Neither am I arguing that art needs to be primarily concerned with actions and effects. But art can't help but produce effects, and it can't avoid acting on those who experience it. I'm arguing that we should remain mindful of what it does.

The Responsibility of Art
And certainly I'm not suggesting that I or anyone can assume the role of ethical arbiter in art. On the contrary, the moment we politicize or govern art is the moment we transform it into an instrument of power and ideology rather a conduit of ethical practice. Obviously what I've proscribed only truly succeeds in resolving the problem if we all agree on what's good, which we don't. But this actually concerns me less, at least for now.

The weighing and measuring can only be done by the artist himself. As long as we remember that what is beautiful—whether in nature, art, economy, or in other people—cannot help but involve itself, for better or for worse, in ethical questions. Crafting a standard of beauty that is also good and virtuous is a personal and individual responsibility. Both the beautiful and the good are ultimately mine and yours to discover or to determine. We each have to decide; that's the weight of moral responsibility—it lies on my shoulders alone, and on yours.

Of course the problem remains: undoubtedly the architects of Notre Dame believed that what they were doing was good, righteous, even glorifying, while I consider it oppressive and abhorrent, though beautiful nonetheless. My values, thoroughly 21st century as they are, question their values. All we can do, then, is to keep asking the ethical question: is this good?—continuing until it's a grand series of questions, and finally an omnipresent moral attitude from which we approach everything in life including our art.

This isn't a guarantee that we'll be good, but in lieu of being good with certainty let's at least work to be better. I'm confident at least that the result will lead us in the right trajectory. It's a modest proposal but weighty enough to keep us constantly occupied.

February 6, 2016

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are:
Procrastination is a Fear of Inaction

A while ago I made a rule that I'm not allowed to sit at my desk unless I'm working. It's my strategy to defend my work space from distraction. If I want to browse online I have to go sit somewhere else. A side-effect of my rule is that I no longer have to 'get to work', 'read a book', or 'write a post or essay'; I only have to sit at my desk. Once I'm there I'm working by definition. But I discovered that my rule has a reciprocal effect. I don't avoid work anymore, I just avoid sitting down. Avoiding my chair has become a symbol of my work avoidance in general. So I had to ask myself, "Why am I afraid to sit in my desk chair? Why am I afraid to work hard?"

Almost everyone can empathize with the burden of procrastination, but I'll wager that almost no one knows why they do it. I'll be so bold as to say that not even the psychologists and productivity experts know why. Consequently they only compound the problem.

I'm usually told that I procrastinate because I'm afraid of failure, or rejection, or my own high standards. Conventional wisdom tells me that my neurotic perfectionism overburdens me: I've spent too much time studying history and now in my heart-of-hearts I've become convinced that either I'll be remembered for greatness or I'll evaporate into the oblivion of historical irrelevance. Conventional wisdom tells me that my fear of failure and rejection paralyzes me. Both are devastating to the ego, and if I never try then I'll never fail.

Inaction is the only way to fail
The conventional answers aren't only wrong, they're destructive. They convince me that I'm afraid to try or to work hard but the opposite is actually true.

I've spent hours hovering over my desk, my books, and my notebooks thinking about working but not quite committing. I've told myself that because my ambitions are daunting the prospect of beginning is too intimidating. But I've told myself a lie. In fact, at its core procrastination is the false belief that I'm afraid to act. The truth is, procrastination is an extreme fear of inaction.

I'm not afraid of merely failing, I'm afraid of not achieving. The two are completely and radically different. Success or failure is not a binary state, we always fail and succeed by degrees. In simple quantitative terms it's indisputable: if a score of 50% is failure, it's only partial failure; it's still better than 0%. There's no world where 0% is anything but absolute failure, and 0% is only the consequence of not acting. If my standards are perfection — and it's well, they should be — then I fear non-achievement, inactivity, and nothingness. When I try and fail, when I work hard and I'm rejected, then I've achieve something, just not enough. Not-good-enough is better than not-at-all because it's a first and necessary step toward real success.

The great self-deception
I'll use a concrete example: one of my goals this year is to write 100 pages of a novel. If I write 50 pages I haven't completely succeeded but I'd be a fool to think that I've completely failed. I only genuinely fail if I don't write at all. The fear I have to face in the pursuit of my goal is the fear of not trying.

In fact, I fear the failure of inaction so much, my mind comes up with a defense mechanism to deal with it: denial. The idea that I'm overburdened by the weight of perfection and accomplishment is one of my mind's most destructive denial strategies. When I avoid sitting at my desk to write, it's not the thought of getting to work that weighs on my mind. Instead, I'm afraid to admit that I've been wasting my life by not working, so I don't do anything that will force me to admit it. I avoid starting because starting confronts me with my past and present inactivity. It's just too difficult to face the fact that I'm already living in the midst of my fear. It's easier to say, "I actually fear that other thing, action." What a lie.

Run from fear
Of course, this is entirely irrational. Instead of avoiding my desk, I need to recognize that if not sitting at my desk is what I'm afraid of, then the solution is to sit down as fast as I can.

Our fear is not always destructive (though I won't deny that it can be). As a basic instinct it keeps us alive. But why not manipulate that feeling when we can? In the case of procrastination, I don't need to learn to live with my fears, I need to run from them. I fear inaction, I'm afraid of kicking back on the couch and watching TV; so I need to escape the situation, I need to retreat to the only place I'm not afraid to be: at my desk, working. The more time I spend working, the less I have to live in a world of fearful inaction and destitute failure. And action has the added incentive of being enormously rewarding.

I fear a blank page. So what have I done? I've refused to open the notebook. As long as the cover remained closed I didn't have to face the blank space that I fear. I'm afraid to acknowledge the fact that as I stand and ponder writing, I'm not writing. But the page is still there. Leaving my notebook closed only avoids the fact that the page remains blank, but it doesn't do anything to solve the problem. In this case the only way to avoid my fear is to eliminate the blank page by filling it with words.

And now, as soon as I submit my final period I'll be faced with the renewed terror of inaction. There's only one escape: I need to find something else to write.
Post script: This is only a concrete application of a theory of phobia that I believe is very general. I plan on working out this notion of fear to help understand a myriad of human behaviors and phenomena from relationships to addiction to death.

January 28, 2016

Strive and Seek, But Never Be Satisfied

Strive and Seek, But Never Be Satisfied

Passion and Hunger
I've been thinking about the difference between passion and hunger. On the face of it the difference seems obvious. In their ordinary senses, passion is erotic and hunger is dietary. Scarcely comparable, I know.

But beyond the obvious, their meanings become blurred. We can be hungry for more than food — for success, for change, for victory. Likewise, we can be passionate about art, adventure, or work. Can't we even be hungry for love and passionate about food? So what indeed is the difference?

Here's my simple definitions: hunger is a drive for satisfaction; passion is a pleasure in the pursuit itself. To put it another way, hunger is occupied with achieving its end, passion is preoccupied with the experience itself.

Hunger is nothing to glorify. At best it's an inconvenience, an urge to satisfy; at worst it's a tragedy. Whether it's our belly, our mind, or our heart that gnaws at us, starvation is agonizing. It's a hollowness that we strive to fill. In every case, hunger is something to overcome.

Take the example of travel. If I'm hungry to travel it's not the roaming I long for but the end goal. The goal isn't necessarily a destination, but often just the fact of getting away from home. Most of us are familiar with the sentiment, "I need to get away." That's hunger. Once I get away I'm satisfied regardless of where I end up or what I do there.

But if I'm passionate about travel, it means I love discovering new places. Then again, it's not simply the places themselves, but the act of discovery that attracts me. It's not the destinations but quite literally the journey that excites my passion.

Diving Into Passion
To be sure, passion isn't about looking for greener pastures. Contentment is an essential part of passion and not, as it might seem, equivalent to a satisfied appetite. One of my passions is the wilderness. When I'm there I take the greatest pleasure — I'm genuinely content — in being where I am. But in the midst of my contentment I also feel an excitement to reach the next valley, to climb the next mountain, and to catch a glimpse of the next pristine lake. 'The next thing' is valueless without a full appreciation for what's present before me. Without being fully present I run the risk of reaching whatever's next and failing to see it because my attention is trained on the horizon beyond. Without contentment, ambition is utterly stupid. My passion to journey onward can't take away from the awe of my present place, it can only add to it because contained within that pleasure is something more — inspiration.

This is what sets passion and contentment apart from hunger and satisfaction. When we're hungry, the best we can hope for is to be filled. When we're passionate we can hope for an abounding present and an open future before us. The future and our discovery of the unknown can never be satisfied. That's what's so thrilling. It's something to cultivate. If you reach your destination on a trip, if you're satisfied with a relationship, if your professional drive plateaus, or if your love of life is sated, then you've lost your passion and stalled in the economy of hunger and satisfaction. That's not always a bad thing because our hunger is legitimate, but it's not enough to make life rich and beautiful.

I would encourage you to never be satisfied with life. Instead, make an effort to be content, taking the greatest pleasure in what you've been given and what you've achieved, and then allow it to inspire your passion to accomplish more, to explore further, and to draw closer to others. The beauty of passion is that it continually enriches the present while yet remaining an eternal pursuit.

January 21, 2016

Stop Trying to Change the World

Stop Trying to Change the World

This unassailable fact confronts me: I am finite. Before introducing the shoulds and should nots of morality and politics I have to begin with the facts that dictate the possibilities of my action. It wouldn't make sense to say that a sloth should fly (as amazing as that sounds) because they don't have that capacity. Likewise, it wouldn't make any sense to argue that I should do more, be more, or effect more than my finitude allows. So why do I, why do so many of us, insist on denying our finitude? Why do we think we have the capacity to be the arbiters of a universal morality?

The war to end all wars
This issue runs deeper than the immortality of the soul, and it goes further than the impulse we feel to leave our mark on the world. It masquerades as humanitarianism and good-faith efforts to improve the lot of others; it acts as if it wants only to curtail the wrongs in the world. Our world is filled with people trying to change others, govern others, improve others. And I'm guilty. Are you?

The battles we witness and the wars we promote — wars of ideology, of religion, of civilization; even well-intended acts we call social justice — these are all based on the conviction that 'the other side' is wrong or evil or oppressive or decadent. It requires an utterly naïve, unconscionable lack of perspective to not be humbled by the fact that the other side thinks the same of us.

This is the rule of all conflict: quite naturally, every side thinks that they're right; quite perversely, every side is certain that the people who are wrong need to be 'fixed'. In the 17th century the Catholics and Protestants tried to 'fix' each other, the Bolsheviks tried to 'fix' the aristocracy and proletariat, the Nazis tried to 'fix' Europe, and the Allies tried to 'fix' Germany. Even today we see the West and Islam, capitalists and socialists, authoritarians and libertarians, Christians and atheists trying to fix each other.

I guarantee that every belligerent act in history, whether outright war or the insidious activities of ideology and politics, are predicated on the belief that acts of violence or coercion are a force for good in the world. War and politics are the two grotesque manifestations of this same need to fix others and improve the world, always for the best, of course.

Who among us is good?
This is the greatest moral fallacy — that we have a responsibility to fix more than ourselves. It reminds me of the famous proverb often attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Since Burke was a statesman, among other things, it's often used to justify and motivate political action.

I want to agree while turning this quote upside down. I would say instead, "the only way for evil to triumph is for men to think they're good enough to change others." You can be sure that in any conflict between good and evil, both sides are thoroughly convinced that they're good. My question is, to whom does the proverb apply when all of us think we're on the side of good? Adolf Hitler infamously asserted in Mein Kampf, "I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord." Hitler, the archetype of evil in our day, could have hung that Burkean quote on the wall of his bunker and smiled with the satisfaction of moral certainty. He believed himself a good man, and he would not idly watch the triumph of evil. Any similar assurance of our own normative righteousness should surely give us cause for a cold-sweated pause.

Can we do anything but change the world?
I admit, my title overstates my point. I believe that everything is connected, that nothing is truly independent. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Spain, then a typhoon in Fiji, et cetera — the butterfly effect and all that. I can't help but change the world when I change myself. In actual fact, it's impossible to not change the world. Deciding not to act has as much consequence on the future as deciding to act.

This means that the operative word in my title is "trying". I can't stop changing the world and to argue that I should would be ineffectual. By the same token, I can't change the world beyond my finitude and to argue that I can or should is dangerous. I should, however, stop TRYING to change the world. Focusing on the changes I effect will do the world no favors. It'll do me no favors either.

Our limits are opportunities, be content with virtue
I would recommend that instead you focus on trying to improve yourself. It's not a modest effort. We can't make people better because the character of other people is far beyond our limits. Change yourself and be content with the fact that it's all you can do to change the world without resorting to violence. Even the character of a child is beyond our reach. We're finite, so live with it. What we can do is be encouraging, loving, sharing, and helpful, not in order to change someone but in order to give them tools and opportunities to act in their own right. You'll find that to focus on the task within is the most practical way of changing the rest of the world at large, but only if that's not what you're trying to do.

And yet I don't want this conviction to excuse us from the weighty obligation inherent in our finite reality. A lifetime is more than enough opportunity for a full-throttle commitment to all the potential that lies before us. Creativity, service, charity, hope, compassion, generosity — could we ever exhaust the opportunities that such demanding, such bountiful responsibilities afford? We could never complete the task set us in our finitude. This is the paradox of our moral existence on earth: we are so radically limited in what we can change, but even so, this task set before us is an eternal endeavor.