Archive for the ‘suicide’ Category

Epicureans, Stoics, & Skeptics

September 30, 2010

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

Seneca falls

February 17, 2010

You may have thought the old injunction about being your brothers’ keeper was of strictly-Christian origin, but Seneca the Stoic said it too:  No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

That was the best response we could come up with yesterday, in A&S, when we were talking about how we as a community could or should respond to atrocities like Huntsville: attend to the dysfunctional maladaptations of our peers, be willing to get involved, to “intervene” before they act in desperation and violence. If only the Huntsville shooter had studied Seneca on anger... the world does not reliably conform to our desires. And yet, for Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.

It might not be enough, but it does defy the stereotype of Stoics as passive sideline bystanders  without control over external events. We should all do what we can.

Seneca’s also a good guy to have around when you’re faced with a scary medical situation.

And he’s probably a better source (but not a better example!) than Epicurus on death, with his glibly-dismissive attitude: it is “nothing to us, since when we exist death is not yet present, and when it is present, then we do not exist.” Seneca’s smarter to advise treating the end as something, not nothing, and to realize that living in utter denial of death is not really living at all. But neither is an unrelenting, morbid fixation on mortality. As  Jennifer Hecht says, we must acknowledge death and look it square in the eyes. Then, if we’re wise, we’ll turn our backs on the eternal dark and get on with living in the light. Of course that includes celebrating the lives of precious departed loved ones.

Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos (which is why the Stoics considered themselves cosmopolitans). “Through difficulties to the stars!”

And as Simon Critchley has also already pointed out:

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

Epicurus and Seneca make a good pair, since Monday’s weather’s forced us to double them up. They have their differences, but (recalling last week’s discussion) they have in common a commitment to unperturbed and graceful living that does not fret about events beyond one’s own control. The native human capacity to frame how we think about our experience is crucial for our happiness. In Seneca’s case, even self-inflicted death at the fiat of a crazed emperor was no cause for upset.

Still… wasn’t he way too compliant with the crazy emperor’s orders? Did he preserve his stoic calm at too great a cost? Should he have strained at the leash just a little bit? Pushed back against Fortuna’s wheel? Should it so easy, or so casually decided, to just walk away from life?

Also in our reading today, in Dead Philosophers:

St. Paul, no friend of philosophy but profoundly influential of subsequent Western thought on death and resurrection,  met the same fate as Seneca: death at Nero’s command.

St. Augustine greeted the death of his teenage  son with peace of mind. Having been baptized together a couple of years earlier, “anxiety over our past life fled away from us.” Augustine himself died at age 76, reading and weeping over the psalms of David.

Boethius, another philosopher unjustly condemned to death, imagined an encounter with Philosophia, a 50-foot woman who claims that happiness, goodness, and God are identical. But Boethius never mentions Christianity in his Consolation of Philosophy. He was  cruelly tortured before being bludgeoned to death.

They could all use a little ataraxia, no? Or at least apatheia

“Against Happiness”

October 13, 2009

grumpyEric Wilson is one of the comfortably-gloomy Gusses, the grumpy young men, leading a backlash against Positive Psychology. Here he is, participating in a round-table discussion of our right to remain grumpy… reviewed by Garrison Keillor… & on NPR.

The last page of his book is illuminating: he acknowledges friends and family and thanks them for tolerating his lifelong Eeyore-hood. eeyore1His parents have been “especially patient with my chronic gloom,” his wife has shown “remarkable endurance of my melancholy moods,” but his five-year old daughter has “consistently brightened my heart and made life worth living.”

Clearly, depressives take a toll on those they love (and probably feel bad about it), and they cast their impressionable young in a shadow of gloom we must all hope they’ll retain the strength and resources and genetic potential to avoid falling into themselves, when the spontaneous brightness of childhood dims.

A question: can pessimistic parents raise optimistic children? Should they try? You know the answer you’ll get to that, from Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman and others. (Seligman at TED)

Apparently maternal depression is a harder handicap for children to rebound from than despondent Daddys, so Eric needn’t feel as guilty as he should with the other chromosome set. But if (as Prof. Levy said… as Marty Seligman said in fact, in The Optimistic Child) we really want future generations to understand more of the human condition, and want our children to be happy, we’d better start modeling that for them occasionally. If you’re inveterately (but not uncontrollably) morose, don’t you still owe it to your kids to rouse yourself to a semblance of enjoyment at least once in  a while? Nurture’s not all, but neither is it negligible.

My mother was diagnosed with what was then called manic-depressive illness early in my childhood. I didn’t understand why she had to live apart from us for long stretches of time, in a cold and cavernous institution that was (but yet wasn’t, somehow) like the hospitals I’d known as patient and visitor, when Mom was still relatively healthy and working as an R.N. Nor did I understand what “electro-shock therapy” meant. Then, when she came home, I didn’t understand why she wore a blank, emotionless expression and couldn’t remember or muster interest in, or enthusiasm for, much of anything at all.

My father, I learned eventually, despite his own challenging childhood, was blessed with a spontaneously-sunny, optimistic disposition that had been clouded through much of my youth by the sad shadow of my mother’s affliction. I didn’t see much of it then. I wasn’t a happy kid, or college student. It would be years until I discovered James’s discovery of Renouvier, and began to think that my own pursuit of happiness was something it might be worth looking into. As my bumper sticker proclaims, falsely in many situations no doubt, but gratefully in my own: It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood.

In his own teenage wasteland, Wilson says, “I longed most to spend my days, especially in summer, lolling about in my dark bedroom. With my blinds dimming the morning sun to a gloomy beam, I would lie on my floor and stare at the stains on my ceiling [with] a tremulous air of failure… embracing blackness while the world sprang into light. I loved my cold seclusion… this winter of my mind’s own making.”

And then his Dad would barge in, raise the blinds, and encourage him to go play ball or swim or call a girl. What a spoilsport.

Most of us grow out of that particular form of adolescent self-indulgence, if we’ve been cursed by it. The mature Wilson is right: “those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different…  happy types, bent only on bliss, always take flight [from ambiguity]. But those who have committed their lives to dejection are no different. These sad types– those black-clad poseurs who identify only with the darkness– choose sullenness as one picks a religion or a haircut… They too live only partial existences.”

Good of him to admit that, and to encourage his little daughter to live in the light. If she ever finds herself thrown by life into the gloom of a real shadow, this attitude is probably not going to work for her. Hope she reads Rapt.


September 24, 2009

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?

more congenial

July 17, 2009

Thoreau’s congeniality reminded me of James’s. This one I recalled correctly.

A linchpin of his commitment to humanism, pluralism, and free will was the conviction that we have the capacity (“power”) to do what needs to be done. We are not without resources to meet the challenges of living. All great periods of progress and achievement attest to it:

“Each and all of them have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.'” (“Sentiment of Rationality“)

We can do it if we try, maybe. The world might just match and multiply our exertions, you never know. It’s worth an effort. Nothing ventured etc.

A useful conviction, whether we intend to do great things (like launching a rocket)  or small (like getting out of bed to face another dawn). Some of us sometimes need reminding.

But is it true? It better be. That’s the audacity of hope, whose opposite (for those of a certain temper) is despair. As a twenty-something, James would literally have killed himself if he couldn’t have justified (to himself) his right to believe this.

That’s the center of his pragmatic pluralism: believe what you must, then make appropriate revisions and course corrections when you see where that belief has taken you. It’s not epistemologically correct. But then, the world may not be safe for epistemology. Or congenial to it.

Taking a dive

June 18, 2009

I learned about this while in St. Louis, from the Times.

Isadore Millstone built old Busch Stadium and outlived it, and two wives, and his only two children. He was 102 when he pitched himself from the Daniel Boone Bridge into the Missouri River last month.

Such an inglorious exit, for such a generous man. More than changing the architectural face of the city, he was remembered for his civil rights advocacy and for countless private acts of kindness. The only time he ever got angry, said his Rabbi, “was when people with wealth wouldn’t use it to help others.”

His suicide, “committed in daylight from a well-traveled bridge- has provoked reflection” on end-of-life issues, and it should. A devoted swimmer, he tired of life and took a final plunge. “He wanted to remain in charge of his own destiny.” His last decision, rational or not, should not mar a marvelous legacy of service to community and humanity.  As he said of his own architectural creations, the time inevitably arrives when their purpose has been served and they need to fall, as old Busch Stadium did in 2005. And for people too, there comes a time. Sadly, we as a culture still don’t do a very good job of anticipating that time and preparing as gentle an exit for people as for buildings.