Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Happiness as Freedom

Reading recently about the tormented life of T. S. Eliot, who was often paralyzed by fears of various kinds, has made me realize again the importance of living and trusting fully in the present moment.

And of being grateful, each day, for the good things around us as we try to free ourselves from self-preoccupation. For me, this is a daily struggle since my own physical problems send up alarm signals about my life in the future: how will I be six months from now, a year from now?  What will I do about X?

Realizing the good things that are around us seems to be part of statement I recently found by Seth Goldman, CEO of Beyond Meat, an ecologically friendly company:   "There's a easy formula for happiness. It's when what you have is greater than what you want.  Most people would say the way to be happy is to have more. I say the way to be happy is to want less."

It's interesting that a relatively young entrepreneur would take the "less is more" philosophy of Thoreau and E F. Schumacher, author of 'Small is Beautiful.'   Happiness is not all about acquiring more and more; it is, as Richard Rohr has said, realizing that life is not all about me. He would go beyond Goldman's notion, which seems limited to money and material things.

"You can have political and economic freedom, but if you are not free from your own ego, from your own centrality inside your own thinking, I don't think you are very free at all. In fact, your actions and behavior will be totally predictable. Everything will revolve around your security, survival, self-preservation. . . ."  In other words, around yourself (Rohr).

This self Rohr speaks of is what Thomas Merton called the false self: the public face we present to the world ("the face to meet the faces that you meet," as Eliot's Prufrock says).  The false self is mainly a creation of our own mind and so is an illusion; it is that part of us that feels offended, critical, agitated or worried about what others will think and how we will be judged. The false self needs approval.

Happiness, we might say, is the freedom from this false self, from self-preoccupation. It is by staying fully in the present moment that we can let go of the ego and prevent our emotions and obsessive thoughts from controlling us.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The problem with lone wolves

Among the to-read books on my to-do list is the latest study by Sebastian Junger, Tribe, which, like all of his books, deals with an important topic in a thoughtfully done, wide ranging manner, in this case combining history, psychology and anthropology.

Junger explores our all-important human connection to the community into which we are born or live: our tribe. This in itself makes it noteworthy for me, concerned as I long have been by the dangers of extreme individualism, at the expense of the common good, an individualism that underlies so much American culture (consider the Second Amendment furor). And having taught courses on masculinity, I remain interested in studies that deal with the lives of men as men.

Why has tribal society captured the imagination of people, men in particular, for centuries? The answer is, apparently, found in our evolutionary past as a communal species. Those who study the tribal cultures of earlier times, such as the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf, inevitably realize the emphasis on loyalty and belonging rather than individual bravado that typified such a society.

The practical application of this to the contemporary American veteran, especially young men returning from combat in the Middle East shell-shocked, as they once said, or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we say today, calls out for the attention that Junger has devoted to the issue.

So many men in our  society are disconnected from families, who live far  away, from religious affiliation, from other social organizations: they go it alone, often with disastrous results: drugs, alcoholism, depression, maybe violence.  This syndrome lies behind the many young men drawn into terrorist groups: they are desperate to belong to some group that gives them a reason to live.

Carl Jung wrote that a man alone, without family or faith, is prone to evil (my paraphrase).  The evils involved are often psychological: violence to the self as well as to others.

The famous Swiss psychologist knew that the individual, a social being, cannot be divorced from some form of community; and that he must find his role in the world as part of that society, not as a lone wolf. The life of the lone wolf is unnatural.

We are destined to be part of something larger than ourselves.  Men in particular need intimate bonds, not merely sexual, but bonds of sharing and friendship--no group more so that the combat veterans returning to American shores and finding a lack of closeness. The intimate bonds of platoon life are suddenly gone, and they drift because the society they return to values individual achievement more than communal life.

I'm glad that Sebastian Junger has given attention to men and tribes since, every thinking person is concerned about the increase in violence in the world, often perpetrated by young, rootless men.

As someone once said, a man alone is in bad company.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Time to Go

Ignorance, according some of the ancient Greek philosophers, was one of the great evils. And in a public figure, like Donald Trump, is a source of alarm.

A recent piece (Aug. 1) in the New York Times by Max Boot, a conservative, lists some of the numerous statements Trump has made, indicating the level of his ignorance.  Boot does not repeat Trump's statement that he loves "poorly educated people." 

Trump seems proud of his lack of learning. He's a man whose source of news is TV, not reading; he told the Washington Post that he reaches decisions "with very little knowledge." He thinks the Constitution has 12 articles rather than seven and, for his own devious purposes, traffics in the conspiracy theories that Obama was born in Kenya and that the father of Ted Cruz was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

Trump seems to be the monster born out of the right-wing media, such as Fox News, with its emphasis on news as entertainment.  Well, Trump was a bit entertaining at first, but now his extreme statements are as unacceptable as he is.

Here is ignorance at work: He knows he is right and doesn't care about the truth. He has taken the anti-intellectual element in American politics to new heights--or depths.

If it were merely a matter of his being poorly informed, I would not be worried so much about the American election. It is Trump's willingness to say anything to insult and ridicule people, especially Khizr Khan, the father of the Muslim soldier killed in Iraq; this man, saying Trump had a "black soul," has the kind of moral courage Trump, with his five deferments from military service, lacks.

There seems to be no one he will not insult in an effort to dominate the news; and the media are foolish enough to play along with him.  Just as the GOP looks more and more foolish with Trump as their standard bearer.

Why do his party leaders, while try to distance themselves from his statements, not disown Trump?  How can they vote for a man with a black soul, lacking compassion? This ignoramus is not only a national embarrassment but the most dangerous demagogue ever to seek the White House.  As an American, I feel ashamed.