A Bigger Pasture

Do you remember your transition from grade school to high school?  His very first day of school, when his mom left him in a classroom with some thirty other six-year olds he’d never seen before, was his first introduction to the world beyond the walls of home.

Home was claustrophobic.  His dad, the baby of his family, was born in that house in 1923.  Dad’s parents lived in the back half of the house, while mom and dad and (eventually) ten kids lived in the front.  He was fourteen years old, average height, overweight.  Smart as a whip, shy as a mouse.  He had a small circle of friends, and a sincere desire to become a Catholic priest – at least, he thought he did.  He was looking forward to a new start in a high school some 400 miles away.

The high school seminary did not have individual rooms.  About eighty-five students all slept on the same floor, freshmen and sophomores on the west end of the third floor, junior and seniors on the east end.  Each seminarian had their own twin size bed.  The metal bed frame included a couple of large metal drawers tucked away under the foot end of the bed.  Each also had their own dorm locker, about five feet tall and maybe two feet wide.

The lockers were lined up down the middle of the 70 foot wide floor, dividing the 140 foot length equally into north and south.  Because there were many more freshmen than sophomores, juniors or seniors, the upper classmen enjoyed slightly larger personal living spaces.  The older students, sophomores on the west side and seniors on the east side, occupied positions nearest the windows; freshmen and juniors were assigned the interior spaces.

Now if you had your own bedroom back home in Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago or Grand Rapids or Kansas City or wherever else in the Midwest you happened to come from, you might have wondered how the hell you were going to manage any degree of personal dignity living with a herd of teenagers not unlike the herds of cows well within sight of the high school.  But if you had shared a bedroom with at least four other brothers for the first fourteen years of your life – in his case, two or three of those years were shared in the same twin size bed with his younger brother – you could not begin to believe your good fortune.  His personal space had gone from something like thirty square feet to a hundred – with his own drawers and his own closet (locker) that belonged to him, that no one else (well, no one other than the fathers, of course) could access.  Yes, he was now part of a larger herd – and this pasture was a whole hell of a lot bigger than his last one.

Be an Owl

Do others’ feelings keep us from getting things done?  If we measure our success by the number of tasks we complete, but hurt others in the process, that’s not success – that’s pathology.  We may need professional help, but we CAN be as passionate about our relationships with one another as we are about “getting things done.”  Goals and relationships are not an either/or proposition; if we are to be truly successful, we have to do both.

I’ve often taken the “turtle” approach to dealing with confrontation:  avoid, withdraw, retreat.  When someone tells me to fight for my goals at the expense of others, my gut reaction is to punch them in the face.  This person doesn’t understand who I am – they want me to be someone other than myself.  For better or worse, I am a shy person – and for some reason, the people I am closest to don’t understand why I just don’t come out of my shell and be like them.  You never really know how alone you are until you realize how disconnected the world is from you, and you from it.

You can’t be anything other than who you are, no matter how much you may try.  I can only be who I am – to me, both thinking and feeling matter.  It’s not a matter of either/or – if you don’t have both, you’re doomed.  I’m not a turtle anymore – I will not avoid conflict.  But I’m not a lion, either – lions care only about getting things done and (when necessary) will hurt others.

I’m an owl.  Owls collaborate.  They place a high value on both their goals and their relationships.  They take a problem solving approach to conflicts and work to find a solution that achieves both their own goals and the goals of the other person in the conflict.  Owls recognize that when handled effectively, conflicts can improve relationships by reducing the tension between people.  They try to begin a discussion that identifies the issues that are creating the conflict.

Owls look for solutions that will satisfy both themselves and the other person, thereby preserving the integrity of the relationship.  They will work diligently and are not satisfied until a solution is found that achieves their own goals and those of the other person.  This also includes working at the conflict until all of the tension and negative feelings have been fully resolved.

Yes, we have to do this over and over and over again.  I still believe that collaboration is the best way of dealing with conflict and confrontation.  But lately all I see in this world are craploads of lions and turtles, and no owls.

Be who you are.  Care about your relationships with others as much as you are about what you want to accomplish.  Collaborate with others, and you’ll be amazed at what you will achieve.

The Ugly Celibate

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest.  As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks:  he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had.  For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”

Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way?  Other interpretations were possible:  he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary.  In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.

There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.”  Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance.  Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection.  And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.

Here’s the problem:  can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid?  It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.

In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this:  Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself?  Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence?  An aphorism from Nietzsche helps:  “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”  If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.

One of the Worst Times of My Life

I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program.  The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy.  Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected.  I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.

Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise.  When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly.  No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well.  I pretty much shut down for good.  They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam.  About six months later I took it.  I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied.  So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis.  Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity.  Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.

That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life.  I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess.  I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick.  My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer.  They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world.  I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.

Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.