Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fear, trust, and happiness

I am something of a sucker for new books dealing with happiness and inner peace, especially when they present the findings of neuroscientists about how the brain works.

And so I had to bring home from the library "Hardwiring Happiness" by Rick Hanson, who says that we must learn to take in the good things around us because we are hardwired to recall what is dangerous: evolution apparently turned the brain into "Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive."  So it is easier to mull and review past and present hurt feelings while letting positive, even joyful, experiences pass us by.

Hanson presumably shows (I have only skimmed the opening so far) that we can change the brain itself by positive thinking: sound familiar?

Another book I glanced at is "The Truth about Trust" by David DeSteno, another psychologist headed for the best-seller list. He focuses on a topic little studied: the fact that a great deal of our mental energies are expended in determining who and what to trust. The mind, he says, is constantly trying to figure out how reliable other people are as well as the need to be trustworthy. Much of this is unconscious, such as the daily encounter with uncertainty and risk-taking, so essential to any creative process.

DeSteno does not seem to emphasize fear, yet the way trust relates to our relationship with ourselves brings up the topic of anxiety, in particular a revealing article in The New Yorker by Louis Menand: "The Prisoner of Stress" (What does anxiety mean?).  The article is essentially a review of the book by Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety, which I read and commented on earlier.

Menand's take on the complexities of crippling fear is that it is an illness without a cure, not a problem to solve despite the years and years of time and money Stossel and people like him have spent on various psychological approaches and medications.  Why some people seem to be fearless and others panic remains a mystery.

Are people who can speak easily in public born lucky?  Consider the comforting (to anxious people like me) reality of those celebrities who have been tormented by social anxiety, from Charles Darwin to Laurence Olivier and Hugh Grant; the latter two, like Barbra Streisand, seem to have experienced stage fright after they became stars, that is, when they were aware of being judged by a critical public whose image of them was different from the very human reality.

The more talented and creative we are, the more anxious?  Perhaps.  We can imagine the worst with a vivid intensity that paralyzes us.

Basketball legend Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics vomited before every game. So, apparently, did the brilliant and handsome operatic tenor Franco Corelli.  One might think these accomplished, brilliant performers would have nothing to fear, but reason and fear have little to do with each other.

However beneficial anxiety may be, like primal fear as a means of self-protection, it can wreak havoc on the mind and body, as Stossel indicates. How it works remains unclear.

Many things can help, but we are left in the end to deal with the mystery of the mind and of the panic button in the brain that registers alarm, requiring us, day by day, to counteract this as best we can with memories and experiences of beauty, love, and happiness.

And so the struggle with the mystery of who we are goes on.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Is Lying Necessary?

Valentine's Day is not a bad day to think about our human propensity to lie. I have received cards this week full of statements of undying, flowery love from friends and with verses created by Hallmark and other card makers full of romantic exaggerations that many of us either like to hear or smile at. I can't help recall Jon Stewart's crack during the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal: Isn't lying basic to sex? he asked.

A recent article by Clancy Martin takes issue with a new book on lying by Sam Harris, who argues that all lies are wrong, even white lies, which can lead to greater deceptions.  Harris is in line with Aristotle, Dante, and Thomas Aquinas, who say that the essential trust necessary for communication is broken by deception. didn't Merlin tell Arthur that truth is the greatest virtue for a knight? It is no wonder that Dante places the deceivers in the 8th circle of Hell, near the bottom: they have undermined the truth and the trust that society depends on.

They have also, as Martin does not mention, hurt others. My social lies are mostly harmless. Invited to an event I do not like or wish to attend, I say politely, "I'm sorry, but I have another commitment." If I told the truth--"I don't want to waste my time in the miserable company of people like you"--I would hurt my would-be host.

Calling in sick to work, a daily event, is more serious, it would seem than a social white lie; it might well impact other employees in addition to misleading the employer. So, as Augustine recognized, there are many types and shadings of lies, so Harris's blanket condemnation comes as a surprise.

Martin mentions in passing an important point that he does not develop: that deceit is basic in the animal world. He refers to self-preservation, presumably, and says that deception, trust, and communication are all interwoven so much so that "truthfulness, rather than being the rule, starts to look like the exception."  Is that why we so value the truth?

Maybe, he says, in a short piece full of such qualifications, we prize the truth because it is rare. People in sales and politics, among areas other than romance, lie to us all the time, yet we continue to trust them, says Martin. Do we?  In matters involving flirtation, he goes on, we often hope that the other person will lie to us, and we often lie to ourselves (that's something of a mystery to me).

Perhaps, says Martin, we insist that lying is wrong because "lying only works if we flatter ourselves that...we are telling the truth."  I would like to see more discussion here before I am ready to accept this thesis. Is moral truth, a topic discussed some years ago by Sissela Bok, among other contemporary philosophers, essentially a matter of protecting our own pride?  What about the harm deception does to others?

If deception harms no one, as in a Valentine, it is not a moral issue; if lying does harm, it is wrong.

Monday, February 3, 2014

On Gratitude

I was surprised recently to find Cicero quoted as saying, in my paraphrase, that gratitude is not only the greatest virtue but the parent of the other virtues.  What did this "pagan" (pre-Christian Roman) know that many of us today have forgotten?

Some good answers have come from David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, most recently of A Deep Bow: Gratitude as the Basis of a Common Religious Heritage. He has made gratefulness the heart of his spirituality and prayer life.

His key point is important for people turned off by religion who turn to various forms of spirituality in their search for meaning: the link between religion and spirituality is gratitude.

I paraphrase Brother David:  We cannot possibly be grateful to ourselves; gratitude necessarily implies another person. We cannot be grateful to things or to impersonal powers like nature. And as soon as we omit the personal element, gratitude ceases. why? "Because gratitude implies that the gift I receive is freely bestowed, and someone who is capable of doing me a favor is by definition a person."

There are theological implications here about God that I won't explore. I am thinking instead of the freely given gift and the need for thankful recognition. In other words, a positive response in an often uncaring world.

At a recent funeral I attended, the speaker said: amid the tragic loss and grief, we must be grateful for the life that has now ended, for all the good he did.  That, for me, is an essential element in any memorial service or funeral:  a sense of gratitude to God for the uniqueness of each individual life.

So perhaps what motivated Cicero's assertion 2,000 years ago was the optimism implied in gratefulness--and the self-giving, because giving thanks is not always easy or automatic. It requires us to reach beyond our own concerns to recognize the reality of the good in others, even amid all the pain and horror that surrounds us.