We Just Don’t Matter Anymore

Poverty hurts like hell.  I walk by people every day who beg for money, and hate myself that I can’t do much of anything for them.  But I least I can give witness, and say this:  In this country of infinite wealth, don’t the poor matter at all?  Anyone one of us can be poor – may be poor now – by no fault or action of our own.  One health issue, one accident – and our meager savings would disappear faster than a drop of water on a hot griddle.

None of us (except maybe the über-rich) can be so clueless to believe that it would never, could never, happen to us.  There but for the grace of God go any of us.  So even if you or I can’t give the poor what they need, we can at least let them (and everyone else) know that we know they matter.

Staked out my corner on a busy street
Asking folks to please give to the poor
But I’m just someone they don’t want to meet
I guess we just don’t matter anymore.

It’s not my fault that you don’t have a job
What is there that I have to answer for?
It’s no excuse for you to steal and rob
I’m sorry you don’t matter anymore.

The soup kitchen is full of hungry kids
They’re tired of sleeping on a dirty floor
Their moms and dads have really hit the skids
Looks like they just don’t matter anymore.

We’re sick and tired of “won’t you help us please?”
Your dirty filthy clothing we abhor
Now go to church and get down on your knees
We’re happy you don’t matter anymore.

There are some things that / We don’t conquer alone
Even warm and well-fed / We’re still empty inside
If the poor are blessed / It’s because they know
Everyone is hungry sometime

You see the poor and hungry every day
Mothers, sisters, brothers, many more
No one deserves to suffer in this way
Please don’t think we don’t matter anymore.

A Student Request

“With the midterm fast approaching I am growing increasingly concerned about my progress in the class.  I am not fully grasping the concepts of the religions we have studied and I am afraid I will not do well on the midterm.  The readings are difficult and I am not getting an accurate comprehension of them.  Do you have any suggestions of how to break the book down on my own to help improve my grade?“

I thanked the conscientious student for writing and praised them for wanting to improve their understanding of the material as well as their course performance.  Then I answered:

Have the study questions in front of you when you’re reading the selection for class.  In my experience, this is the ONLY way to “break the book down on [one’s] own.”

a) Before I read something, I go over the study questions to give me some idea of what the reading is (supposed to be) about.  My first reading aims for a general understanding, along with how it compares with the study questions with which I’ve acquainted myself.

b) I ALWAYS read philosophical material at least TWICE:  the first for understanding things generally, the second for some thoughtful analysis.

My first philosophy professor insisted on this.  If we said we didn’t understand the material, he asked us, “Did you read it twice?”  If we said no, he was done with us.  If we said yes, he’d start in on other ground work:  did we have the questions in front of us as we read?  Did we try to write out the answers to the questions for ourselves?  Etc.

c) If we said yes to all of these questions and we still didn’t understand, then he’d go over it with us carefully in class.  Very rarely did everyone do everything they possibly could and still no one understood the material.

Item “c” points to the issue of understanding readings down on one’s own vs. gaining an understanding of the readings in connection with weekly class discussions.  Discussions can and sometimes do go off course, but with this preparation you will understand the material better at the end of a class than you did at the beginning of it.

In addition to carefully preparing every week on one’s own and participating in the class discussions to better understand the material, I recommend a third strategy:  find classmates outside of class and talk about what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense.  Can’t do it face to face?  Use the Blackboard discussion board.

If all of this sounds like an awful lot of work, congratulations – we’re on the same page.  There is only so much time, and (I have no doubt) some students will insist it is far too unrealistic to expect to accomplish these tasks in the amount of time available.  I’d respond, “Probably … but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  (I’m full of clichés …)

This is Why People Don’t Talk to Me

Some time ago a student of mine wrote me with a request to respond to a personal survey.  They were upset that “someone” they cared about had called them vain, conceited and self-centered, so they sent a short survey to a few people whose honest feedback they could trust.  The survey asked, “Am I vain?  Am I conceited?  Am I self-centered?” – with a request to answer yes or no to each of these questions.  Ever my philosophical self, I replied:

“It’s not clear to me how the results of your survey will help improve your relationship with this other person.  Keep in mind, I don’t have clue one about who this “someone” is – and I prefer not to know! – so that my remarks can at least attempt to be as objective as possible.  Whoever this someone is, ask yourself:  “Will this survey and its results improve my relationship with this person?  Will it help bring us closer together?  Or will this survey only worsen that relationship?  Will it only drive us further apart?”  The kind of relationship YOU want to have with this person has everything to do what your survey means for that relationship.

“To be human is to be vain, self-centered, conceited, spiteful, nasty, mean, ruthless, disgusting, ignorant and rude.  To be human is also to be valuable, nurturing, humble, just, pleasant, joyful, caring, appealing, curious and polite.  And to be human is to be all of this, a walking, incomprehensible bundle of contradictions, and much more besides.  If we are human, we have to keep in mind that the shadows of our existence highlight, emphasize, and “make stand out” what is truly outstanding about this same existence.  In other words, until we can acknowledge and accept the failings and frailties of being human, we can never appreciate how human beings manage to overcome such obstacles again and again.  Our efforts, our struggles to prevail, give meaning to our lives and make them worth living.

“Clearly being out of the classroom for so long has caused me to preach endlessly!  Thanks for letting me ramble on.  As always, know that you have my care, concern, and support.  I look forward to hearing from you.”

I never heard back from them.

Is An Examined Life Worth Living?

Those of us who love philosophy cannot help but wonder, at least once in a while, whether philosophy is relevant, even necessary, to live today. But we may be blinded by our love of the discipline—to the contemporary world’s eyes, philosophy is at best a plain, dull, and uninviting subject.

It seems there isn’t anything our contemporary world cannot do better or with greater satisfaction in spheres of human activity than philosophical reflection. When the goal of human action is “results,” like those we expect of science, or art, or commerce, philosophy pales by comparison.

We might want to argue for the claim that philosophy’s only value, the only reason why anyone should spend extended amounts of time and energy with it, are the practical benefits its students can bring to a shop-weary world.

While most folks may not have any formal, “professional” acquaintance with the discipline, they do have a natural preponderance for reflecting upon the ordinary, everyday world. That is, upon their ordinary, everyday worlds. When academics try to remind us how much better our lives would be if only we would set just aside a few tasks that are not nearly as important as the life of the mind, we shrug and tell them they don’t have a clue what the “real world” is about.

Humans have a natural inclination to ask why. If we can do that at our leisure, in the small, quiet moments that give us a chance to put together the stories of our lives, we are (for lack of a better word) happy. Academics annoy the rest of us when they refuse to recognize that: 1) in the great curriculum of life, philosophy is an elective, not a required course; and 2) we already examine and critique our lives, we don’t want or need your “help,” thank you very much.

Aphorisms and Other Curiosities

Is the universe indifferent?  Who the hell knows?  Don’t use it as an excuse to hide from living.

Women’s roller derby team + religion:  church of the most holy rollers.

Intersection of solemn and playful:  serious.  See Nietzsche.

What makes for good comedy?  “It’s finding that fine line between smart and silly.”     — CBS Sunday Morning, 3/30/2014

From some TED talk somewhere:  How to make choosing easier:

Cut — less is more
Concretize — make it vivid
Categorize — more categories, fewer choices
Condition — move from less complex to more complex

We live in a world of paradoxes:  you’re special, and you’re no different from anyone else.  She likes you, but she doesn’t LIKE like you.

Check your judgments at the gates of hell — you can pick ’em up when you come back to stay.

Reverie, rumination — a blessing and a curse.

Life is neither black nor white / It’s full of joy and sorrow
Whatever fears we have today / Might all be gone tomorrow

A calm came over me.   Then something said, “We just wanted to know whether YOU knew we were here.”  That was the first time I really listened to my feelings in a long, long time.

“How do you make people feel good?
You have sex with them, or you make them laugh.
If it’s both, you marry that person.
People shun people they have sex with.
They never leave the people who make them laugh.”

— Chris Rock (paraphrase),
CBS Sunday Morning, 11/30/2014