Archive for the ‘emotions’ Category

Cicero, an honest Stoic

February 1, 2013

I may have come across in CoPhi yesterday as hostile to the Stoics. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.

But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

Anyway, I still think Roman philosophy in general gets a bad rap and Cicero in particular is way underrated. He’s also underrepresented in our Little History. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean,Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.

After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.”

Feeling ambivalent about feelings

January 28, 2012

Rachel in A&P the other day read us a quote she found on Julian Baggini’s blog, averring the joint testimony of both modern philosophy and psychology as to the irrelevance and unreliability of feelings in establishing truth.

Responsibility is one area in life where philosophy and psychology leave us with the message: do not trust your feelings. You carry responsibility for whatever is within your control, whether you feel its weight or not.

If so, this represents a real shift – a stunning and almost patricidal development in the history of thinking about feeling. William James, father of modern psychology and of pragmatic philosophy, thought and felt very differently. He defined rationality as a sentiment, a “feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment,” and the divine “only such a primal reality as the individual feels.” In Principles of Psychology he wrote:

In its inner nature, belief or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than anything else.

In Varieties of Religious Experience James says, as I reminded some friends in Maine a few years ago,

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. Varieties of Emotional Experience

And he commenced “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” with the declaration that

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only thing our minds could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes  at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

So it’s in that light that I continue to waver over JMH’s tenth quiz question, about evidence.

Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

No, I don’t. But I do think feelings matter, and while they’re not evidence per se, speaking strictly and empirically, they still have a great deal to do with the evidence we allow ourselves to see and act upon. Reality is not simply a feeling, nor does it depend on your feelings or mine. Reality is ultimately mind-independent. But our feelings are nonetheless inseparable from what we take for real, for how we establish our personal sense of reality (deluded or not). So, is that a good thing, or do we need to aspire to a more “radically feelingless” regard for truth?

Yes. No. Not sure. And that, I guess, is why I’m a humanist of the pious variety.

No stuck-up sticky beaks here in our classroom

December 2, 2011

I love days like yesterday: wall-to-wall final report presentations, every one of them thoughtful and enlightening, preceded by quality time with Younger Daughter (home on a sick day, asking for a story) and capped with an excellent James tutorial.

In SOL, Bonnie reported on grumpy Eric Wilson’s contrarian stand “against happiness.” Melancholy has its place, he says, especially other people’s melancholy. It’s “the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation,” a “wellspring of creativity.” I was reminded of Peter (Listening to Prozac) Kramer and his counter-contrarian screed “against depression.” And of Lou Marinoff’s Plato, Not Prozac. Can philosophers ever replace drugs, at (say) $75 an hour? I don’t have my philosophical counseling license yet but I’m still willing to give it a shot, if anybody wants to give me a hire.

And you might, if you heard Erik’s catalog of Celexa side-effects:

Abdominal pain, agitation, anxiety, diarrhea, drowsiness, mouth, ejaculation disorders, fatigue, impotence, indigestion, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, painful menstruation, respitory tract infection, sinus or nasal inflammation, sweating, tremor, and vomiting, Amnesia, attempted suicide, confusion, coughing, decreased sexual drive, depression, excessive urination, fever, gas, impaired concentration, increased appetite, increased salivation, itching, joint pain, lack of emotion, loss of menstruation, low blood pressure, migraine, muscle pain, rapid heartbeat, rash, skin tingling, taste disturbances, visual disturbances, weight gain, weight loss, and yawning.

Ah, the miracle of modern medicine. But I think I can get most of those on my own for free, without a prescription.

Rebekah talked about self-help, to which she confesses an addiction even though she knows it doesn’t really “help.” Specifically, Scott Berkun’s Mindfire challenges us to “learn from your mistakes.” I’ve learned a lot. Seriously, as James says in “Will to Believe,”

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

Connor reported on Andrew Newberg‘s neurotheology. Are some people simply born to believe? And some of us not? And does the putative existence of a “G(od)-spot” in the brain discredit or strengthen religion’s credibility? What if peyote activates it? (“If you really want to see God, try some of this.”) We may need to talk some more about that on Tuesday.

Asiyah’s report in H1 on Anne Rice’s vampires took me one step closer to understanding the strange world of the undead (and of the living who find it so compelling). Who knew there were Existentialists and Stoics among the bloodsucking crowd? Guess I’m naive. They’re everywhere. [“Monsters We Love“]

Shannon’s discussion of linguistics and the philosophy of language clarified the pragmatic approach: why we communicate matters at least as much as how, and ambiguity makes interpersonal life richer and more interesting. Wish we’d talked more about puns, and those things… what do you call them?… that are the same spelled backwards and forwards? (“Notlob? That’s not a palindrome!”)

Tim told us all about Auguste Comte’s positivism. Was he also in charge of the sheep-dip? No, that was Bruce.

And then Matthew and Dean and I had a nice discussion about “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” as the Philosophy Club across the hall rolled a screening of “Life of Brian.” (What have the Romans ever done for us?”)

All in all, it was a day of philosophy in middle Tennessee the way it was meant to be: no stuck-up sticky beaks here, just Pythons and happy collaborators.

So: when we hire new Bruce to teach comparative religion, in the next month or two, we’d better take care. And ask the padre for a prayer.

gulls

December 4, 2010

It’s cold and gray out there this morning. A good day to pull out a favorite piece of inspiration from William James, and hang it up with the holiday decorations:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached.

I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Sure beats Barbara Ehrenreich and “Dr. Steel,” Jamie. Go gulls!

talked out

April 10, 2010

Thank goodness it’s Saturday, and I can shut up for a couple of days! A week of croaking and gasping through stressed vocal cords has me really feeling the truth of James’s complaint that it would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.”

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  “dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.”

But for those of us who don’t sign or read minds– (I loved the Tim McGraw line to Sandra Bullock in “Blind Side,” our family Friday flick last night: “Tell me what’s on your mind, so I’ll know what I’m supposed to think.”)–  communicating with people, in person, still requires vocalizing.

So if I’m going to vow silence for the weekend, it’d sure be nice to swap the conceptual shotgun for the POV gun. Give me that thing.

Passion

November 23, 2009

I’ve been using this little book, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece in my Intro courses for many years. This semester I’ve saved it for last, hoping to provide a bit more historical perspective than the same authors’ topically-arranged Big Questions achieved. I’ll be going back to the old approach next time. (I know where to find a much cheaper version of at least one “big question.”)

The  brooding thinker doesn’t really represent my idea of philosophy anyway. A little sitting-and-thinking is fine, but I prefer the perambulating, peripatetic spirit of motion and activity. The best ideas come while walking, said Nietzsche (who showed, in spite of himself, that the worst ones do, too).

Philosophy is something you do, not something you just ponder. I did enjoy the art history lessons.

I’m a big fan of the late Robert Solomon (his widow Kathleen Higgins, still at the University of Texas in Austin, published the latest edition of Big Questions just after his untimely death in a Swiss airport a couple of holiday seasons ago). He also wrote Spirituality for the Skeptic, which we’ll be reading in the “Atheism & Spirituality” course next semester. In that book, love of living is the simple essence of spirit– made poignant by our knowledge of the author’s own foreshortened fate, which he would remind us is inevitably our own. We must not take a moment of life for granted.

Solomon: “Whether or not there is a God to be thanked seems not the issue to me. It is the  importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.” Thank who? Thank God, thank goodness, or thank pitchforks and pointed ears. But give thanks. Gratitude is a renewable resource, and then some. It’ll leave you feeling gratified.

He was a critic of overly-narrow, technical philosophy that, with “mind-numbing thinness,” fails to speak to ordinary human concerns. He was the sort of academic philosopher you might look for, if you were inclined to look for one,  in a popular film like Waking Life:

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

vital living

October 15, 2009

coleridge5“We want to be able to stay up late”– like the poet Coleridge, “frenzied with grief,” past his prime, meditating into the wee hours on life’s meaninglessness— “and think through our confusions.”

Speak for yourself, Eric Wilson. Staying up late, sleeping past dawn, waking in angst and trepidation to worrisome, interminable days of hand-wringing regret followed by dark nights of desperate journaling and substance-abuse… that’s the unhealthy, unhappy profile I’m picturing here.

A better plan: read your Poore Richard, bed down early and rise “when there’s a dawn” in you. (And btw: despite your sneaky attempt to claim him through his “quiet desperation” line, Thoreau was not one of you. He was a morning person, always and cheerfully up at dawn.) I confess I haven’t researched this, it’s just a prejudice at this point, but I’m betting there are fewer depressives amongst us early-birds. That doesn’t make us “shallow” persons, does it?

Rhetorical question, never mind. I ought not to take any of this personally, I know… But I do begin to resent the insinuation that people like me and Willy James, who’ve fought for nearly every inch of contented flourishing we’re managing to hold against the charging darkness, are somehow more “passive,” simple, comfortable etc. than those who habitually frown and weep and congratulate themselves for being so “capaciously complex” in their “durable melancholia.”

They’re sounding the depths of “life’s insoluble mysteries,” the constitutional melancholics, working harder to maintain their anhedonic edge than we do to get over ours? They dwell (with Emily Dickinson) in “a fairer house” of possibility than we, “more numerous of windows, superior for doors”? Doubtful.jameschocorua(James once bragged of his summer home in Chocorua, N.H., that it featured 14 doors “all opening out,” a personal resemblance his sister was quick to notice. I have fewer doors myself, but make frequent, eager egress through them. And unlike Leibniz, Mr. Superficiality Incarnate, I do windows.)

And did you just call us “trivial liars”– ?!– but I’ll let that pass.

It does seem, though, that the stereotypically happy person is a straw-stuffed caricature , as drawn here: someone foolish enough to think it possible to “escape melancholia in an existence in which we are doomed to suffer physical and psychical pain… If we are honest, we cannot.”

The reality is that hard-won happiness must suffer at least as many blows to the spirit as reflexive sadness. No Exit. Nobody thinks so. Save your straw.

Reflecting on Beethoven, Wilson writes: His “simultaneous detachment from and attachment to death is an essential dimension of the melancholy life.”

That’s interesting, but it’s not the exclusive province of melancholia. Jennifer Hecht, speaking to and for us all, says: “Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.”

It finally dawns on me: Wilson is a Sartrean in American clothing, even echoing the author of L’Être et le néant‘s contempt for “the perfectly happy American life” and concluding that non-melancholics prefer “a world in which everyone simply accept(s) the status quo… a dystopia of ubiquitous placid grins… a flatland.”

They, we (the indictment continues) “hide behind the smile” out of “fear of the world’s complexity” and of death.

And here’s the biggest surprise: melancholics like himself are holding out for something much better than happiness: “ecstatic joy.” He’s joking, right?

No. Invoking Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) Wilson insists: “We (melancholics) know that we are going to die… this very death is a spur to vital living.”

Indeed, an honest and unblinking acquaintance with your own mortality can be the clarion moment of awakening for those traveling the path of real happiness. (Joy, sorry.) It’s just that nothing in Wilson’s screed to this point has remotely resembled such a journey. This late and sudden ode to joy is out of left field, and is about as stirring as Matt Holliday’s recent acrobatics there. So Wilson, too, now drops the ball. And the world still turns.

Poor John Lennon. “You’re born in pain, and pain is what we’re in most of the time.” If he’d known how it would all end for him, tragically, stupidly, absurdly, would his pain have been intensified? Or would he have noticed and savored all that was not painful in his eventful, impactful, foreshortened life? We’ll never know.

But how ironic, that pitiable, pathetic, effortlessly-munitioned Mark David Chapman— like all the Mark David Chapmans of the world, they’re sadly legion– confused, disturbed, up late outside the Dakota, Salinger’s Catcher in hand– misperceived his victim as charmed, exalted, unburdened by life’s demands… until its senseless, sudden obliteration at Chapman’s uncreative, melancholic impulse. Hardly a “spur to vital living.”

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.

prine

Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.

“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.