Thursday, March 28, 2013

Does Altruism Exist?

Maundy Thursday is not a bad day to think about giving, or for the New York Times to publish an article titled, "Is giving the secret to getting ahead?"

Susan Dominus writes a profile of a 31-year-old dynamo, a Wharton School professor named Adam Grant who's so prolific he doesn't know how many articles he has published; he's the author of the book Give and Take.

He enjoys writing as many as 100 letters of recommendation for his students, doesn't mind opening 300 emails a day, and hates to relax because it makes him anxious. Is he compulsive? No, says the organizational psychologist. I wonder. I hope he doesn't collapse from overwork at 45.

His philosophy, as summed up by Dominus: being helpful to his colleagues and students spurs creativity and productivity. He is generous and preaches the gospel of service to others because it is motivational, more so, he says, than the salaries that motivate many people in corporations to endure jobs that provide little satisfaction. The old business model is turned upside down: think of others.

He tells corporate types: nice guys can finish first!  Every request, within reason, should be cheerfully accepted, every email responded to because each is an opportunity to help: but who is helped?

Others? Yes, but it comes back to the self. Grant feels important and happy, it seems, by being busy on behalf of others. He wants to be of value in the world and to be remembered; obviously, he has already made quite a name for himself.

So his generosity comes from a desire to be liked. He advocates the positive values of giving since givers are high in concern for others but also because he who gives receives in return. One can't be simply a giver or a taker; he must be both, says Grant.  Refreshing in a world of greed and selfishness.

But is this altruism? Grant says pure altruism does not exist. Perhaps he is right since those of us who are religious or spiritual have to work hard at turning our attention to others: it is called charity or compassion, or simply love.

I remember a study by Lyall Watson a few years ago in which the biologist demonstrated that genes are not selfish; they are naturally cooperative. Does this mean the creatures like us are altruistic by nature?  If so, how do we explain the inherent self-interest that drives so much human action?

At least, Grant appears to take Ayn Rand's philosophy of self-interest in a more positive new direction, and I am glad he is being heard in the corporate world.  It is essential to be reminded, in the secular sphere, of the importance of giving. But altruism for success, as a means of getting ahead, bothers me.

I am reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot about the greatest treason, which is "to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I would like to think that people in the corporate world would treat one another with a kindness and generosity motivated by love rather than self-interest. One does not have to be religious to agree with this corrective to Grant's philosophy of giving.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sound Advice for Writers

I am always glad to find well-known authors who agree with me, especially when it comes to writing.  Although this is the first year in a while that I will not be teaching a summer workshop on style, I plan to return in 2014 and, of course, continue to write and help others, when I can, mainly with editing, having spent 45 years doing so.

I always tell my adult students that writing may be impossible to teach but that revising is not: it is what excites me, the chance to re-work sentences and play with them until they are more clear or expressive or concise.  So the following statement by Susan Sontag was very welcome when it appeared in my "In" box not long ago:

"Though the rewriting--and the rereading--sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing.  Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of 'literature' in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit."

The second meaningful quote is from Sebastian Junger: "Don't dump lazy sentences on your reader. If you do, they'll walk away. You have to push yourself to find powerful, original ways of describing things."

This brings us back to revision and the time required, and the honesty, to look at each sentence we have written and see if it sounds trite or wordy; how does it sound aloud?  How can it be improved?  Not being satisfied with a draft until it is as perfect as possible requires effort and time, more  than the original drafting, in  most cases.

Just recently, I completed the revision of a story--my first complete piece of fiction--to be published soon by the Provo Canyon Review, which asked that I prune it considerably.  It took several weeks to consider which sections could be cut so that the 8,000-word story could be closer to 6,000. Painful work, letting go of sentences I had crafted a year before; yet as I finished the revision, I could see how much tighter, and better, the polished story now was.  No doubt the editor, with his own perspective, will find other sentences to trim and, as with previous work of mine, I will be pleasantly surprised by the final product.

So, as Donald Murray has preached, there is no writing without rewriting.

I have encountered a number of wannabe authors who seem in a great hurry to get published, but they have not yet honed their own style.  Perhaps they have not read enough to know what sounds right in a sentence.  This brings me to my third quote, from fiction writer Jennifer Eagan:

"Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do."

If there is no writing without rewriting, there is also no writing without reading.

How can anyone write a crime novel or children's book without having read the best in the genre? This is not only professionally necessary but a source of stimulation in the ongoing interwoven web of reading and writing that is at the heart of the literary life.

If you are a writer reading this, I hope this advice, though perhaps familiar to you, will help you along the way.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How Useful is Shame?

As a teacher, I have always been keenly aware that many of my students had experienced ridicule or some form of shaming in their earlier education, and so I went out of my way to avoid ridicule, reassuring them that there is no such thing as a dumb question--that is, if they did not understand a term or idea, they must ask without risking laughter or sarcasm.

We have progressed, thank God, from the days when the dummies wore dunce caps and sat in the corner. Today, I hope, they are given encouragement and help since everyone learns at a different pace.  And when I hear about bullying in schools, I react with empathic understanding: it is the teachers and coaches and schoolyard bullies who should be ashamed of themselves.

So when I came upon an article by Richard V. Reeves in the New York Times (3-15-13) on the value of shaming as a weapon to combat teenage pregnancy, I was shocked.  He contends that shaming is "an essential ingredient in a healthy society," and that shaming has worked well in curbing smoking.  He says that drunken drivers should be shamed into mending their ways.

If smokers now feel bad because of societal pressure, the result is good but they have experienced guilt rather than shame, it seems to me. Guilt cultures are very different from shame cultures.

If I want to get a friend to stop smoking or drinking excessively, I should use facts and reason, presented in a gentle, logical way to convince them, for their own good, to change. I would do all I could to encourage them to give up the bad habit. I would not want to shame them. I would not want to harm their inner lives.

Reeves believes that when people make bad choices, "they ought to feel bad about them."  He cites John Stuart Mill as advocating the kind of moral disapproval we call shame.  Does this mean Reeves wants us to mock and shame the obese smoker by laughing or name-calling--or bullying? He doesn't specify what form the shaming should take.

He clearly does not appreciate the psychological damage done by shaming. As one who was shamed as a child and still has the scars, I have to reject the argument of Reeves that a powerful emotion like shame is more effective than calm reasoning or gentle persuasion. I much prefer the kind of love that leads to caring about the person in need of reform.  The unwed teenage mother is not helped by my calling her names and driving her, as some victims of bullies have done, to despair and suicide.

Reeves concludes by saying that, although shame can be a negative force, he still believes that "we need a sense of shame to live well together." I wonder how he would react to Shirley Jackson's chilling story, "The Lottery," in which the villagers in a small community annually stone one citizen to death because they are afraid of changing their tradition.  They exorcize their own shame in a primitive ritual of savagery with Biblical overtones. No one there has the courage to speak up and change things.

And what did Jesus say to those men about to stone the woman caught in adultery? The men in that account had done everything possible to shame the woman, dragging her to the temple and throwing her down to the ground; and they wanted to complete the shaming process, like the villagers in Jackson's story, ignoring the man who was equally responsible and ignoring the lesson of love and gentle forgiveness.

I hope Reeves re-thinks his argument about the value of shaming. I can't think of any situation in which I would recommend it. It may get results, but at what cost?  I am happy that people have been persuaded to stop smoking, but I don't think they were shamed into doing so.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Symbolism and Pope Francis

When he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's, he wore a simple cross. It caught my eye right away. Was it wood? Probably not, but it was not bejeweled and ornate. He avoided the ermine-trimmed cape favored by his predecessor and wore plain black shoes. He bowed to the faithful, asking their blessing in silence before he blessed them. And, of course, he chose the name Francis.

I found all this stunning and unforgettable.

Critics may claim that the new pope from Argentina is not doing enough to reform the church, but his initial gestures, like his humble lifestyle, are themselves signs of reform.  Symbols are significant, especially in an ancient religion.

It seems that Pope Francis will transform the papacy in some ways, making it less regal.  He may not ride the public transit in Rome, as he did in Buenos Aires, but his very name signals in a powerful way solidarity with the poor.  He has, in an old interview, called the clericalism that sets priests apart in their own world, beholden to no one--the issue at the heart of the sex abuse cover-ups--sinful.

Many Catholics have found the Vatican cold, formal, distant--and for good reason. Nuns have been investigated, dissenters excommunicated, and cardinals guilty of civil crimes sheltered in Renaissance palaces. Clergy      who rape children have been protected by clericalism.

It is time for a change at the top, and the Jesuit from Argentina may not change doctrine but is already changing the image of the institution he has inherited.  He is bringing a simple, human style to a Vatican prone to grandiosity, a daily reminder of the Gospel message: "Blessed are the poor in spirit...."

The example of the poor man of Assisi, the original Francis, has been a gentle rebuke to the worldly power and wealth of the institutional church for 800 years.  He was a man, too, who met with the sultan during the Fifth Crusade, providing a model of Christian respect for Islam--another symbolic gesture that is important to remember at this time. Another reminder that symbols are important: they can speak more powerfully than words.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A new literary journal

After years of claiming that I write only non-fiction, I completed a long short story last year, "Opening Doors," which will appear in the first issue of new literary magazine, The Provo Canyon Review.

It is edited by Chris and Erin McClelland, Chris being an old Florida friend and ex-student, an assistant editor of Narrative magazine and a skilled fiction writer.  They moved to Utah and hope to have some printed copies of their new journal for the Sundance crowd, even though most readers will access the Review electronically.

I wish them the very best.

And, with their blessing, I am happy to invite writers of fiction and non-fiction, who may wish to submit something to a new review that is looking for talented writers, to visit and see what happens.

It's an interesting coincidence that I finished editing "Opening Doors" on the very afternoon when the media were abuzz with news of a papal election that may well open some new doors in the Catholic Church. At least, with a man named Francis, it is hopeful.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fighting God and Religion

A. C. Grayling has joined Richard Dawkins and other militant British atheists by publishing a book, The God Argument.  Bryan Appleyard provides a valuable perspective on it in The New Statesman.

I suppose that theists like me should welcome such books, even though their attack on all religion sounds surprisingly less sophisticated than what one would expect from an intellectual. 

Any debate about the meaning of life is of value, and the history of philosophy is a record of such discussions.  In the case of Grayling, who seems to be replacing the late Christopher Hitchens as a publicity-seeking public atheist, the argument, as Appleyard views it, sounds simplistic.

Grayling does not want to admit the lesson of history: that religion is here to
stay, that the emotional as well as rational needs it fulfills are deep in human nature, attested by evolution. He argues that religion is kept alive by political power and he seems to equate it with superstition or the belief in fairy tales.

To quote Appleyard: "Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic, and historical power" that are deeply embedded in human nature. This has been attested by scientists in many fields.

To dismiss religion as meaningless or immature is to accept ignorance, and it makes impossible an appreciation of great art, be it the poetry of Donne or Eliot, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the Gothic cathedral, or the music of Bach.  Religion is not only fundamental to our inherited civilization but offers, as Appleyard notes, "a mountain of insights into the human realm."

It is always too early, too dangerous, too simplistic to say that science has moved us so far into secular humanism that the idea of God is both irrelevant and silly.  Books like these by Grayling may sell copies and get their authors on certain TV shows, but their ideas go nowhere, do nothing to advance our self-understanding.

Even non-believers have much to learn from religion and respecting the role of faith in human life is expected of a sophisticated, well-educated person, even if that person chooses to dismiss God and religion.