Going nowhere on shanks’ mare

May 5, 2016

My Stroll Thru Western Civilization course, beginning Wednesday, now has a syllabus. Meeting once a week for (up to) three hours, We’ll cover the ground in brisk strides of two or three chapters per session. We’ll mimic the peripatetic style when we can. Those of us who are able and eager will occasionally “walk up and down” while discussing our subjects.

Our focus will be on interpreting the western philosophical tradition as an ongoing response to Plato (to whom British philosopher A.N. Whitehead famously said all of western philosophy is a series of footnotes) and Aristotle (whose students were known as Peripatetics, from the Greek word meaning “to walk up and down” while learning). We’ll follow their tracks to our own doorstep, noting as we go the growing rosters of “players” on Teams Plato and Aristotle. We’ll take note, as well, of those whose thought was substantially conducted “on shanks’ mare.”

That’s a strange expression, Bruce, “shanks’ mare.”

Page xv
That was Ron Strickland’s invitation in his “Compendium of Remarkable Walks,” and it’s mine in MALA 6030 – a course I wouldn’t have been able to offer this summer if my Study Abroad course in Britain had drawn just a bit more interest. Counting on better luck (aka “the residue of design” by #42 and his patron) with that next year.

But it is a sweet irony that, as things turn out, I’ll stay put in middle Tennessee this summer to undertake a larger stroll than originally envisioned. Globetrotting travel author Pico Iyer appreciates such irony.

I’m a lifelong traveler. Even as a little kid, I was actually working out that it would be cheaper to go to boarding school in England than just to the best school down the road from my parents’ house in California… almost inevitably, I became a travel writer so my job and my joy could become one…. [But] one of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. You take an angry man to the Himalayas, he just starts complaining about the food. And I found that the best way that I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was, oddly, by going nowhere, just by sitting still.

He doesn’t necessarily mean literal seated meditation, zazen. He does mean stepping back from the immersive business of constantly going, and increasingly of staring at screens and projecting contrived personae through them. This came up in discussion in our Happiness class Monday, it’ll probably come up again as we focus on Buddhist happiness next. We all need to find time for a happy stillness. I find mine, most often, on shanks’ mare. The nectar for me (and John McDermott) is still in the journey, most often a journey to no place in particular.

Happy birthday to the melancholy Dane, Kierkegaard. He got around plenty on shanks’ mare, and probably only ever achieved a quiet mind while hoofing it around Copenhagen, before dying at 42 (not his lucky number). Wonder how he’d feel about being on screen?

The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.

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Presence, past and future

May 4, 2016

Thinking more this morning of life-changes, and dipping into Matthieu Ricard’s 2004 “Habits of Happiness” TED Talk, where he says some of us believe only in “remembering the past, imagining the future, never the present.” I don’t know anyone who really says that, but many of us act as though we believe it most of the time. That was Kierkegaard’s point, when he complained of the mania of busy-ness. We don’t stop to smell the roses often enough, to slow down, to forget the clock and the to-do list and just inhabit the moment attentively.

Others, though, “say happiness is right now; it’s the quality of the freshness of the present moment.”

They’re missing out, too. But on what?

Ricard quotes Henri Bergson, “All the great thinkers of humanity have left happiness vague so that each of them could define their own terms.” Smart. When I find a way to articulate what’s wrong with pure presence, to the exclusion of past and future – especially future – I’ll finally have defined happiness my way and identified my happiness project – which, btw, Gretchen Rubin rightly said we all should undertake. There is no single Project, just so many projects. Most of them have been allowed to gather dust.
We noted in Bioethics, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that many older people are also happier than at any earlier stage of life. Slower, sure. But steadier too, those who’ve kept themselves mentally engaged, active, and curious. There are genes for that of course, but you don’t have to have won the genetic lottery to develop your happiness skills. 
Among them: a capacity for attentive presence, a reminiscent fondness for the past of pleasant memory, and an active interest in what William James called our most vital question. “What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?” Happy people take delight in imagining the future, caring about it, building it – or at least not impeding or derailing it. 
My current cosmic leisure-reading looks forward and back, while pondering life in all its dimensions. The big picture is not an enemy of meaningful presence, and may even be one of its conditions.
  Image result for five billion years of solitude the search for life among the stars

On this day in 1675, England’s King Charles II commissioned the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the center of time and space on Earth…” And its the birthday of Horace Mann, who said we should all “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
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“Life is change”

May 3, 2016

Our first Lifelong Learning Happiness class yesterday was great fun, over in the Ingram Building across the street that used to be a Baptist church before the university bought it. The amusing irony is not lost on me, that I’m preaching happiness in a place I had to leave, to find our subject and my calling. Big change.

I had plenty of room to roam, with my mobile mic in the former sanctuary, as we introduced our topic and ourselves. It was quite a change from my usual classroom situation, to be in the presence of so many “mature” learners (not decades younger than I) who got all my dated references, laughed at my bad jokes, and weren’t at all reticient to speak up and say what they’d learned over a lifetime.

One of the points they seemed to concur with: happy people aren’t afraid to make a change. Gretchen Rubin, for instance, whose ongoing Happiness Project (not to be confused with Project Happiness, also dedicated to positive change) is happening because she found life in the legal fast lane insufficiently gratifying. She acknowledged the necessity of change.

Chris Phillips also comes to mind. He left a lucrative advertizing career to launch Socrates Cafe.

And then there’s Matthieu Ricard, the molecular biologist who left France for Tibet, became the Dalai Lama’s French translator and “the happiest man in the world.” We’ll talk about him next week. Can’t wait.

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“Felt Time”

May 2, 2016

An opening day in May, before the old grading’s done. Not used to that. Feels like time has come a bit undone.

All the Happiness authorities say it’s good, though, to vary routine and seek novelty. Time and memory have much to do with happiness, and the more variety we can squeeze into our lives the deeper our well of memorable experiences to draw on in later life.

“Two millennia after Seneca’s acutely timely treatise on how to extend the shortness of life by living wide rather than long,” Maria Popova notes, Marc Wittmann in Felt Time examines the psychology of expanding our experience of time:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time. (continues)

Hence the tragedy of Alzheimer’s and its anticipation, as featured in the Times yesterday. And yet, it’s possible to mute the tragedy’s early stages with a little help from your friends in the support group.

“It’s like a party,” she would tell others. “Everyone’s laughing. And everyone is happy they are with people just like them who can’t get the words out and can’t find the bus pass.”

Sitting there in the bubbly ambience, she would sometimes think, We shouldn’t be this happy.

It was as if they were all high. High on Alzheimer’s.

Good for them. When that high wears off, they may want to consider other possibilities for generating new life-expanding situations and novel experiences. 
Live wide and long, and prosper.

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Sacred space

April 29, 2016

Happiness, the Briefer Course commences Monday. I’ve billed it as a distillation of the course I’ve done many times before, but deciding what to distill and what to leave out of our four May sessions is a challenge. And, how to begin.

I’ve lately been concluding some of my classes, on the last day, with a quote from Joseph Campbell about following your bliss and not following a guru. Maybe he’ll be good on Day 1, too.

[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen. Power of Myth, Brainpickings

Something like happiness may even happen there, and may be mobile – so long as you remember to make your way back to the sacred space again tomorrow and the next day and the next, and don’t bog down in unreasonable expectations of personal perfectability. Errors and false starts happen, inevitably, but they’re not irrecoverable. Or so I think I’ve learned.

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Lucky as Lou

April 28, 2016

Grading time again. Best way to learn? Practice, practice…

“Mature” learners, like those I’ll be meeting Monday in my Lifelong Learning class on happiness, know that practice counts.

They (unlike Calvin) also know that “youth’s a stuff that won’t endure,” and that “to see the daylight still under any conditions” makes us lucky as Lou Gehrig. He died at 38, had a horrible disease named for him, and considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Lou knew. We’re all lucky and, happiness researchers confirm, happier when we know it. Happy people are grateful to be alive. They treasure their good health for as long as it lasts, and turn it into gratifying experience. Many of them practice gratitude, some even keep a gratitude journal. I guess that’s kinda what this blog is, though I sometimes use it to complain about politicians and ungrateful students.

What else will I tell my mature students on Monday? For one thing, that happy people know what they know, but don’t pretend to know it all. They’re Socratically humble and self-effacing. They live and learn, remaining always open to new possibilities and perspectives. I probably don’t need to tell them that. I’m looking forward to learning from them. I always do.

And the happiest mature people know that so-called little things matter a lot, like Grandpa at the softball game last night with Coach’s toddler. He couldn’t stop effusing over how smart and cute and clever she is. It’s when we stop to look and appreciate the promise of the next generation that we really get it: “Oh, but the long, long time the world shall last,” after we’re gone.

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The End

April 26, 2016

An unexpected trip to the emergency clinic, after Younger Daughter’s inelegant slide at second base last night, is another little reminder that things can end more suddenly than expected. (It was just a sprain, fortunately, and her team swept the doubleheader.)

It’s suddenly semester’s end today. We wrap up CoPhi with questions about the future of life and intelligence (the AI debate between Turing and Searle) and, prompted by Peter Singer, what we all owe one another.

In Atheism, Russell’s last words both affirm and swipe at American philosophy, disputing de Tocqueville’s judgment that Americans are the least philosophical of peoples but also repudiating the pragmatic suggestion that truth has anything essential to do with utility. Then, a look at how Russell’s heir Hitchens handled his own sudden end.

In Bioethics, Atul Gawande’s touching farewell to his father reminds me of one of my last hard but healing conversations with mine, and of something else William James said as his own time grew short in the summer of 1910.

…youth’s a stuff that won’t endure, in any one, and to have had it, as you and I have had it, is a good deal gained anyhow, while to see the daylight still under any conditions is perhaps also better than nothing, and meanwhile the good months are sure to bring the final relief after which, “when you and I behind the veil are passed, Oh, but the long, long time the world shall last.”

Gloomy perhaps, but as Sam Scheffler says, the collective afterlife on this side of the veil gives us all a lot to live for. Like Lou Gehrig, we’re lucky – the luckiest – to have seen and felt the daylight at all. Life goes on, nothing is concluded.

And my lifelong learning Happiness class begins on Monday. It almost never ends.

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A better life

April 21, 2016

Busy day ahead: Wittgenstein, Arendt, and Rawls in CoPhi, Russell on “nice” people and sexual ethics in his day, in Atheism (what would he say about our culture of sexting and oversharing?), Gawande on autonomy and “A Better Life” in Bioethics, then a pitch for my summer course “A Stroll Through Western Civilization,” and finally a talk to the Students for Environmental Action I’m calling “Earth Day 2016: A Glimmer of Hope“.

John Muir is an Earth Day hero, a self-described “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc.,” an early-riser, thousand-mile walker, and inventor of “a bed that set him on his feet every morning and simultaneously lighted a lamp, then opened each of his textbooks for a set length of time.” He wrote his address: “John-Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.”

Image result for mark twain halley's cometThe Almanac also reports that this was the day in 1910 when Mark Twain went out with the comet he rode in on.

Twain wasn’t quite old enough then, at 75, to join my collection of inspiring older people. If I get to the end of my Earth Day slideshow this evening, I’ll mention one of them: the late, great environmental steward Stewart Udall. He wrote a wonderful letter to his grandchildren (and he was one of those magnificent citizens of the planet and universe, like John Muir, who considered us all his grandchildren).

This is the most important letter I will ever write. It concerns your future—and the tomorrows of the innumerable human beings who share this vulnerable, fragile planet with you. It involves changes that must be made if environmental disasters are to be avoided. The response to this challenge will shape the future of the entire human race…

Why am I so optimistic about your future? Because the world has had its fill of fear and is hungry for hope. Because an educational revolution has been underway for the past two decades in several countries and has enhanced the capacity of nations to deal with unprecedented challenges… the doubling and prospective tripling of the number of highly trained, selfless scientists and engineers has produced a pool of brainpower and moral power that is ready to create the building blocks of a new and better world.

The challenges that your generation faces will test your ingenuity and generosity. Your eyes will scan horizons that human beings have never contemplated. Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care.

Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!

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Glimmers of hope

April 20, 2016

A New Dark Age Looms,” says a currently-popular Times op-ed, on the eve of my Earth Week talk to the Students for Environmental Action which I’m calling “Glimmers of Hope.”

Inveterate optimism may not sell newspapers, may in fact be delusional – “Drumpf Wins New York” is today’s big headline – but we’ve all gotta be what we’re gonna be. My glass remains half full.

Why do I discern hopeful glimmers where others detect only the impending darkness? I follow the same prompt that fills William Gail with Gloom, but it takes me to a better place. “Picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence.” My grandchildren are going to be geniuses, maybe yours are too. Deep pessimism is an indulgence we owe it to them to forego, out of loyalty to their genius.

That’s not to deny the truth of Gail’s analysis, “that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts” on the predictive models that allow us to project and manage food production, develop adequate infrastructure, anticipate oceanic impacts, and generally just stay a step ahead of catastrophe.

But it is to insist that while “our grandchildren could grow up knowing less about the planet than we do today,” they could also commit themselves more intelligently and willfully to new and better patterns of living that we’ve not even imagined, and to technologies we’ve not taken seriously enough. Electric cars, rockets to Mars, the wind, the sun, and who knows what else are all theirs for the harvesting. I’m betting on them, on the future. As Mr. Faulkner said, it is the poet’s, the writer’s, the philosopher’s

duty and privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. [His] voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

A glimmer of hope is still hope.

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Existential vertigo

April 19, 2016

In CoPhi today, a raft of Existentialists plus Freud and Russell.

Sarah Bakewell’s Existentialist Cafe nods at founding forebears Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. “Both were individualists, and both were contrarians by nature, dedicated to making people uncomfortable. Both must have been unbearable to spend more than a few hours with.” People who assert their radical freedom to reinvent themselves perpetually and unpredictably, the eternal prerogative of youth, do tend to make others uncomfortable. “This constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that comes from looking over a cliff.”

Kierkegaard, as we noted the other day, was a peripatetic. Bakewell says he was hard to walk with, as he “considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride.” A comfortable rhythmic gate, he thought, makes us forgetful of existence and “the dizziness of freedom.”

That’s one way to look at it. But Sartre’s companion Simone de Beauvoir saw that existential freedom can also correct and arrest the dizziness that comes from gratuitous socially-imposed and self-imposed gender restrictions.

Citizen Tom Paine also took a different approach to freedom, emphasizing less its capacity to induce vertigo than the way it empowers us all to resist dogmatism and servility to one’s own thoughtlessness, and to think for ourselves.

In Atheism today Russell writes of Paine, who was also one of Christopher Hitchens’ contrarian heroes. Hitch cites Paine‘s Voltaire-esque advocacy of free expression:

“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

In Bioethics, we consider “Assistance”: the idea of Assisted Living, and how it’s been compromised by charlatans who like the sound but not the reality of acknowledging the freedom of older people. What would Tom Paine say about that?

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