The bright side

December 5, 2022

Looking forward to this afternoon’s capstone defense, as another student in our Master of Liberal Arts (MALA) program prepares to debrief her faculty advisors and move on. 

This one conveys a powerful personal message, that one’s attitude largely shapes the quality of one’s experience… even, and maybe especially, in adversity and ill health. MP’s quotes from the stoics* and from James are spot-on. She’s an inspiration, turning her long bout with cancer into a testament to philosophy’s relevance for life. And death. And keeping each in its place. And being happy.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding… Some things are within your control. And some things are not.” Epictetus

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius

“A sense of humor is just common sense dancing.” WJ 

I’ll raise only a couple of quibbles: she asks if anything “really causes cancer”… Cancer clearly has causes, behavioral, genetic, cellular etc. Not all smokers get cancer, but smoking is nonetheless an evident carcinogen. And yet, the fact that some smokers escape unscathed while some non-smokers succumb to other causes is maddening. Plain bad luck is also a factor. But I don’t think we should deny the science that medical researchers have worked so hard to establish, and that has saved so many lives and will save many more. But probably you’re just making a rhetorical point: life is unfair. It is. And yet, as Christopher Hitchens said: to the rhetorical complaint “Why me?!” the only possible answer is: Why not you?” If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all. That’s what luck is: random. (But I still like to quote Branch Rickey, “luck is the residue of design.” Well it is if you’re lucky.)

And the other quibble: she credits her religious beliefs with getting her through the ordeal. I’m glad she’s found solace in her faith. But as I know she knows, at least as many people of faith suffer and die unfairly as do those without traditional religious beliefs. It’s understandable that the survivors of shipwreck and natural cataclysm are inclined to credit faith with saving them, but what to say to the faithful who went down with the ship and were blown away in the gale? Surely not that they were of little faith.

In any case, her ten good years and counting are a credit to the philosophy that urges us to see the glass half full (cue Monty Python-MP once gifted me a shirt inscribed “Always look on the bright side…”). But speaking of that…

I wonder if she’s ever seen the late Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (alternately published under the “blunt” title Smile or Die) or if she has a thought about these quotes from it:

“Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

“I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

Ehrenreich subsequently wrote about her particular form of what she calls her spirituality, by the way, in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. There she writes: “if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost sixty, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being.” Ehrenreich would have liked MP’s stoic lines. Not sure she liked James as much, though he had a strong stoic streak and was fond of “Mark” Aurelius too.  And she did say positive things about WJ’s discussion in Varieties of mysticism and exceptional mental states.

I can’t mention Mark without repeating his (and my) morning meditation:

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

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…in February of 1922 Rilke finished The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things. https://t.co/N0ZRy6B7VT

December 4, 2022

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December 2, 2022

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Maryanne Wolf’s recent appearance on the Ezra Klein show resonated with me, I too have found it increasingly difficult to get beyond surface and shallows to the more immersive and transportive forms of deep #reading. Like Wolf I still buy #books. But… https://t.co/oUr36yK5WW

December 2, 2022

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“Reader, Come Home”

December 2, 2022

Maryanne Wolf’s recent appearance on the Ezra Klein show resonated with me, I too have found it increasingly difficult to get beyond surface and shallows to the more immersive and transportive forms of deep reading. Like Wolf I still buy books, kindles and book-books, but (as she writes in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World) “more and more I read in them, rather than being whisked away by them. At some time impossible to pinpoint, I had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.”

Me too.
And I too must, with great regret, sigh a string of  yesses to Wolf’s barrage of diagnostic questions:
  • Do you, my reader, read with less attention and perhaps even less memory for what you have read?
  • Do you notice when reading on a screen that you are increasingly reading for key words and skimming over the rest? Has this habit or style of screen reading bled over to your reading of hard copy?
  • Do you find yourself reading the same passage over and over to understand its meaning?
  • Do you suspect when you write that your ability to express the crux of your thoughts is subtly slipping or diminished?
  • Have you become so inured to quick précis of information that you no longer feel the need or possess the time for your own analyses of this information?
  • Do you find yourself gradually avoiding denser, more complex analyses, even those that are readily available?
  • Very important, are you less able to find the same enveloping pleasure you once derived from your former reading self?
  • Have you, in fact, begun to suspect that you no longer have the cerebral patience to plow through a long and demanding article or book?
  • What if, one day, you pause and wonder if you yourself are truly changing and, worst of all, do not have the time to do a thing about it?

Sigh.

What to do about it? 

For starters, make a holiday leisure-reading list and get to it. Once I finish Wolf’s Come Home I’ll pick up its prequel, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Then finish Kim Stanley Robinson’s The High Sierra: A Love Story and Zach Carter’s The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (which KSR said everybody should read). Then, 

  • Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House 
  • Ian McEwan’s Lessons 
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell 
  • Jon Meacham’s And There Was Light
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead…

Lists are easy, reading lots of books without distraction used to be a lot easier. Got to fix that.

But first, I’ve got to read a bunch of students’ final reports. It’s that time of the semester again. This post was self-incurred procrastination. A deliberate distraction. I don’t think I can blame digital culture for that.

Teacher, come home.

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“…treating students like grown-ups is deeply countercultural. The most empowering thing a teacher can do for her students…is to simply talk with them, face-to-face, as fellow thinkers.” Molly Worthen https://t.co/SIAHI3e2Ly

December 2, 2022

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“If someone asks me what the meaning of life is, I’ll just say it’s too early to tell.” https://t.co/W52Yr3lnZE

December 1, 2022

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“Scream into the void” https://t.co/AYbtg7MbTc

November 30, 2022

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It’s Mark Twain’s birthday. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education…” https://t.co/gjGD0vazvb

November 30, 2022

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“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal”-Einstein https://t.co/m982d4ADgi

November 30, 2022

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