Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Love, Consciousness, Moralism, Red, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

The half moon is riding high tonight.  Silver light on the lawn.

The weather is warm enough now that I can leave the doors open most of the night to let the air in through the screens.   This is the stillest part of the night.  The city is for the most part asleep, so there is very little traffic on the nearby roads.  Besides, my cottage is far enough off the closest road that passing cars are usually muted.

In a couple hours, the birds will start singing.  Then a bit later, the dawn.

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One of the very few posts on Café Philos with more than 80,000 views is The Difference Between Loving Someone and Loving an Idea of Them.

The post’s core notion is that one sign we love an idea of someone, rather than love them, is that we are trying to change them to fit our notion of them.  Especially if we are trying to change them against their basic nature.

Of course, me being me, it took 600 words, two personal stories, and one reference to beer,  to get that idea out.

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Have you noticed how some folks seem to bill you for the love they give?  Maybe they can’t seem to say, “I love you”, without expecting you to feel obligated to them for it.  Or maybe it’s not so much when they say “I love you” as it’s when they do something for you that they charge you for it.  But they always send out a bill, and expect prompt payment on time.

My second wife was like that.  I didn’t hold it against her, I didn’t hate her for it, because I knew she got the behavior from her mother.  All the same, I couldn’t live with it, and it was one of many reasons I divorced her.

She liked to go to an all night restaurant and sit up as late as four in the morning drinking tea.  Her work hours allowed for that:  She started late in the morning and worked until late in the evening.   But mine often didn’t.  Still, she felt I was obligated to go with her because, as she explained more than once, “You have a monopoly on my heart”.  Which, if you knew her, you would have recognized as a subtle threat to cheat, to break that monopoly, unless she got her way.

Now and then, we’d have a falling out, during which times she’d burn all the poems I’d composed for her since our last falling out.  The first time, it surprised me, but afterwards, I just thought it was funny.

For the longest time, I was convinced I could change her, but in the end I was only kidding myself.   She had a lot of good qualities that woman, but the price of her love became far too great a price to pay.

 One Way to Pay a Bill

 I would rather sit beside evening waters,
Feeling air lift across my arm like lips,
Smelling moisture that could be breath
From one who comes near enough to care

Than go late into a restaurant
Where air is still as dust in a corner
And light twists through incandescence,
Malnourished, to strike at shadow with a rag.

Although if I told you this
You’d accuse me of disregarding now and forever
Your right to stay up until four with your tea;

Then some weeks later you’d accuse:
I lacked an enthusiasm for sunsets
Which deprives you of romance —

“Since I have a monopoly on your heart”,
You’d say.

I’ve lived with you and noticed
When your heart flicks on, “I love you”,
It sends a bill for the energy used,
Which it feels seldom is paid for gracefully
Or on time.

I’ve willed for your love in the absence of another,
But shouldn’t your heart account in its books
The warmth you’ve taken, now and then,
From burning my poems?

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For the most part, it seems to me the relationship between our consciousness and the rest of our mind (or brain) is like that between a monkey and an elephant.

The tiny monkey is full of pride at being atop the elephant.  It sits there stubbornly trying to direct the elephant’s path with its constant chatter, hops, and gestures.  And the monkey is always deluded into believing it is the master of the elephant.  But almost invariably,  the elephant ignores the monkey to go its own way, taking the monkey with it.

Consciousness, it so often seems to me, is almost entirely a commentator on our behaviors, and almost never the cause of them.

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Beauty is the Beautiful Lie

I’m never quite sure
When I look to horizons
If it’s brighter out there
At the dawn or the dusk.

And I’m never quite sure
When I look for the truth
If its the truth that I find
Or only my own dust.

And I’m never quite sure —
But when I listen to flowers —
Their lies seem the truest
Of the lies I’ve been told.

There lies seem the truest
Of the lies I’ve been told.

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Moralistic people are not necessarily moral people, just as you can be clownish without being an actual clown.  To be moralistic, one only needs to be swollen full of moral-sounding judgments.  “By the Faith, did you hear that Sakeenah divorced her husband! And he a good provider, too!”

I think one thing that so very often distinguishes moralistic people from profoundly moral people is that moralistic people usually think in terms of absolutes, while profoundly moral people usually think in terms of odds, or probabilities.  The former tend to see things as black and white; the latter tend to see things in shades of grey — or even better — in colors.

Which do you suppose is the more realistic?

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I am still looking for great and snerklesome blogs, by the way.  If you know of a blog that has some stand-out characteristic of it, something that makes it special or unique, please leave a link to it for me in the comments.  Even if it’s your own blog.  Especially if it’s your own blog.

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One of the very few things I find generally irritating about women is that so many of them undervalue, underestimate, and over-criticize themselves.

Of course, I realize it’s not their fault, that they are all-too-often trained to do those horrifyingly destructive things, and they are not to blame for it.  But spontaneous irritation doesn’t pay much attention to causes: It is a response to the fact of the matter, not to the cause of the matter.

Men do it too, but women do it more often.  Both are irritating as a cruise vacation on the River Styx when they do it.  Folks really should pay attention to Aristotle on this issue.  Aristotle believed that genuine humility was claiming for yourself no more and no less than is your due.

To him, claiming more than your due is arrogance, while claiming less is false modesty.

Of course, I am not talking about self-deprecating humor here.  I almost never find that irritating.  An ability to laugh at yourself is a precursor to wisdom.  I’ve never known a wise person who was incapable of laughing at themselves.

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Red

I like the red
the red of her red skirt
Her red skirt
Her red skirt outside
outside in the sunlight
outside in the sunlight
now.

◊◊◊

A young friend has been emailing me tonight for advice with a woman he’s romantically interested in.

Naturally, I told him a safe way for him to gauge her interest in him without his having to awkwardly ask her if she is indeed interested (because such frankness is so often embarrassing to both parties) is for him to quietly spread jelly on his chest and see if she offers to lick it off for him.   “If she does, Arjun, it’s a good sign!”

I pride myself on my “being there” for today’s youth.  So many adults these days refuse to impart their hard won nuggets of wisdom to the up and coming generation.  Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

But not me!

After explaining to me that she and he had very different political views, Arjun went on: “I’m more worried about losing the potential romance along with being rejected due to being perceived as unattractive than merely losing it due to something like difference in worldviews. Both scenarios wouldn’t be desirable for me, to be sure, but being seen as unattractive and rejected due to that would be painful for me.”

How would you yourself guide him?

◊◊◊

Adriana has written a good, solid blog post on the topic of whether the feminist movement should re-brand itself as the egalitarian movement.  It is, perhaps, a surprisingly important question.

I mostly agree with her points, but I’m thinking about challenging her to a mud-wrestling match to determine the truth or falsity of one of her points — a point I happen to disagree with.  I haven’t quite yet decided whether to write my own post about it, though.

You can find her article here.  It’s quite obvious she put a lot of thought and work into it, and it’s well worth a read.

◊◊◊

The sky is a pale blue-grey wash now that silhouettes the trees.  The birds are singing, their songs interweaving like the tree branches.

And now the first pinks blush on the horizon.

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

(About a 9 minute read)

Charlie’s father, Benjamin, wanted Charlie to grow up fully capable of thinking calmly and rationally while under stress.  To make sure that Charlie actually did mature into a man able to think with great clarity while under stress,  Benjamin decided to play cards with his young son at least once a week.

Benjamin reasoned that Charlie would learn logical reasoning from “counting his opponent’s hand”; that is, from employing logic to discern which cards his opponent held.  It is said that, when Benjamin told Charlie of his plans, eight year old Charlie was overjoyed that his father wanted to devote time just to him, and to him alone.

Little was Charlie prepared for the reality of those card games.

Benjamin, you see, had not told Charlie of his fiendish plans to turn their card games into hell on earth for his young son in order to teach him, not just logical reasoning, but logical reasoning while under stress.  When Charlie showed up to play, he soon discovered that his farther had purchased an all-too-generous supply of the strongest, most vile, most stinking cigars he could find on the market.

“Concentrate, Boy! Concentrate!  You must concentrate!”  Benjamin would say while every few minutes blowing smoke directly into Charlies’ face.  And it didn’t end there, either, for Benjamin made a point of keeping Charlie up way past his bedtime, until Charlie would simply collapse, and could no longer be shaken awake.*

Naturally, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up to become a traveling “No Smoking on Our Premises” sign painter perhaps America’s greatest philosopher and logician, an innovator in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, research methodology, and various sciences.

Doubt and Belief

In 1877, the magazine, Popular Science Monthly, published a short article by Peirce entitled, “The Fixation of Belief”.  Two months later, the same magazine published, “Snoring, and How to Stop it”.  That article was by Wyeth, though, and had nothing to do with Peirce or his ideas.   However, in 1878, the magazine got around to publishing, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, which was by Peirce.   Together, the two articles by him laid the initial foundation for what became the philosophical school of American Pragmatism.

In the first article, Peirce took a close look at the psychology of belief.  Now, the opposite of belief is doubt, and Peirce was just as aware as any of us that doubt is typically an emotionally uncomfortable state to be in.  He argued that, because doubt was uncomfortable, we humans naturally try to escape from it into belief — a much more emotionally comfortable state for us.   And we seek not only a belief, but a firm belief.

Peirce next argued that it was misleading to say our species seeks truth, when in reality we are content with any belief that we are able to firmly hold, whether it’s true or not.

That, of course, was too large of a lump for many people to swallow.  The common wisdom of the day was that humans — at least some of us — nobly pursued not merely a firm belief, but a true belief.  Yet, there stood the appalling Peirce, stubbornly insisting that we seek to escape doubt, instead of seek to find truth.

Two Reasons to Value Uncertainty

Whether or not we humans ever seek truth might be an open question for many of us, but I think it’s pretty evident that (1) doubt is usually an emotionally uncomfortable state, and that (2) we usually try to escape from it into a belief, the firmer the better.   Most of us seem to enjoy doubt or uncertainty about as much as we would enjoy a vigorous sandpaper massage.  Few of us see it as the 14th century monk, Kenko, did, who wrote, “Uncertainty is the most precious thing in life”.

Moreover, I think Peirce was also right that, when we have a firm belief about something, we tend to stop challenging it.  For instance, I was once of the firm  belief that solipsism was logically unassailable.  I arrived at that view decades ago, and for decades I looked no further into it.

To be sure, I did derive some ideas from it during those decades.  And while some people might consider those ideas to be “further explorations of solipsism”, I myself don’t because none of those alleged “further explorations” challenged the basic notion of solipsism.

Only recently did I delve into it again.  And that was mainly by stumbling my way into taking a fresh look at it.  It wasn’t something I would have done had it not been for a series of special circumstances.  Having taken a second look, however, I have come to doubt that solipsism is logically unassailable.

I have yet to fully evaluate solipsism so it is possible that I might yet return to a belief that it is logically unassailable.  However, if I do, it will be a much more fully informed belief than the one I had before.  The thing is, when we think we know something, we usually stop looking into it — really looking into it — and that sometimes means we stop short of any great insight.

Thus, it seems to me that one of the ways in which uncertainty can be “precious” is by motivating us look deeper, which is not always a bad thing.  Everyone of us, I’ll wager, harbors a whole lot of beliefs — and not always intellectual beliefs — that ought for our own sake to be given a good shaking now and then.  Even if we end up retaining the belief, we are likely to come back with a richer, more accurate understanding of it.

A second way uncertainty might be valuable to us is in “keeping us young and flexible”, so to speak.

Back in early March, I wrote a post explaining how our firmly held beliefs about who and what we are can lead us into limiting and restricting ourselves such that “we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way”.   This can have a devastating effect on the quality of our lives.   As the saying goes, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”.

How Best to Become Uncertain

Yet, how can one overcome such ossification?

As you might by now suspect, I believe it is best to overcome it by uncertainty.  Yet, that is not often an easy thing to do.   An attempt to create doubt about our beliefs through some sort of contrived and artificial speculation that they might be false seems to me as likely to produce real results as burning a match three feet from an ice cube is likely to thaw it.   What is needed more than mere speculation is a genuine reality check.

There seem to me at least two ways of checking a belief against reality.  Basically, to either do it yourself, or to get help.  Doing it yourself is the least effective of the two ways, in large part because each of us is prone to error — and even delusion.  If one must rely on this route, it’s probably a good idea to do things like keep a daily journal in which you note any events or other things that challenge the beliefs you wish to genuinely question.

But perhaps the best reality checkers for us are our friends or trusted other people.  Among “trusted other people”, I am including books, articles, podcasts, and so forth by authors you trust, in addition to people you might actually have some form of contact with.   [Note to frequent Café Philos  commentator Teresums: The category of “friends”, however, does not include your imaginary friend, Wildfire, the Rainbow Colored Unicorn.]  Other people, though just as prone to error and delusion as ourselves, often are not prone to precisely the same errors and delusions.  Hence, they might see things we don’t (and vice versa).

Truth is Often Hesitant, Uncertain

Peirce was extraordinarily prolific, but published only a fraction of his ideas and insights during his lifetime.  For instance,  on at least one occasion, he created a whole multi-variable logic, then tossed his papers on it into a desk drawer, and apparently forgot about them — leaving his work to be re-invented decades after his death by other logicians.

To put it a little simplistically, a multi-variable logic is a logic that goes beyond just the binary values of “true” and “false” to include a potentially infinite number of other values.  Think of those others as varying states of uncertainty, as “maybes”.   For there are times when, instead of seeing things as either true or false, it is best to see them as, say: true, maybe true, maybe false, and false.  In fact, I think that’s the case with most things in life.

So often, the deeper you get into something, the more obvious it becomes to you that the truth of it is uncertain.  There are almost always far more ways in which any notion we might have about reality — including the reality of ourselves — can be wrong than there are ways in which it can be right.  Add to that other facts, such as we don’t know everything (hence, most anything is possible), we are born with innate cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking, and sometimes we just goof up even under the best of conditions.  The list could go on and on.  In the end, one is so often wisest when one treats the truth as uncertain.

Glorious Summary and Rousing Call to Action!

Two of possibly many ways in which uncertainty can benefit us are by motivating us to probe for ever deeper insights into things, and by helping to prevent or overcome the natural human tendency to become emotionally and mentally inflexible, closed off to new ideas, ways of doing things, and life adventures.  Of course, there are also  downsides to uncertainty.

Besides the fact that uncertainty can be emotionally uncomfortable, it can also cause us to hesitate to act when we very much need to act.  That can be a huge issue at times, but rather than address it here, I am going to save any discussion of it for another post.

At the moment, however, you yourself should not be hesitant to donate vitally needed dollars to Uncle Sunstone’s Emergency Shelter for Wayward Dancing Girls.   Uncle Sunstone’s Shelter is a non-registered charitable organization focused like a laser on gorgeous women who tragically cannot afford clothing beyond a g-string or two.  Your generous donation will go towards buying those unfortunate women the clothes they need to hang out at Uncle Sunstone’s cottage.  Clothes like French maid’s outfits, sheer nightgowns, skimpy bathing suites, chicken outfits, and other dignified evening wear.  Simply call 1-888-CELEBRATE and please have your credit card handy!  Act now!


  • Most of the story of Peirce’s father, but not all of it, was told to me by my professor, William Davenport, who as a graduate student, was one of just three such students allowed to study Peirce’s collected, but unpublished papers.  Davenport said his version of the story came from Peirce’s writings, but I don’t recall now whether from his published or unpublished writings.

Are We Humans Better Liars than Thinkers or Sages?

I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language.  That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.

I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins,  or — most likely these days —  a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve,  it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.

Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language,  various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.

There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on.   Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two:  Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us?  Why are we so good at it?

It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.

It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.  There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom.  That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.

Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot.  Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.

It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people.  Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.

So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying.  And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom.  In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.

For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”.  The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.”  But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it.   How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely?  At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely.  Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”

Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”.  But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth.  In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal.  Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.

For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice.  Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel.  But that question can be answered objectively.

The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal).  And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.

In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”.  Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome.  If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question:  Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?

The Incompetence of Elite Classes

An argument made against democracy is that the people are incompetent to govern themselves.  That may be true.  But history shows the same is most likely true of the elites.

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t a well run country.  Nor was Mussolini’s Italy — it was a lie the trains ran on time.  It took the Third Reich’s elites about ten years to reduce their nation to rubble.  And we’ve just been offered evidence that government by elite Wall Street insiders does not work all that well in the US.

One could go on and on: Elites down through history seem to be no wiser than anyone else when it comes to government.  The notion that a privileged class is better at governing a people than the people themselves does not seem to have rational support.

Accepting Ourselves, Accepting Our Lives

Our entire life — consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.

— Jean Anouilh

The Death of Self-Esteem

Helen’s face launched 1000 ships, and I used to think that was impressive.

But that was before I heard that a single bad idea — just one bad idea — had launched 15,000 scientific and scholarly studies.   Fifteen thousand?  According to some quick calculations, it would take over seven years to read a stack of 15,000  studies — assuming you could read one each standard business hour.

In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon published a paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”  He argued that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”  His ideas soon became the hot new thing in education, and they launched the self-esteem movement.

The now dead self-esteem movement.

Killed by 15,000 arrowsThose 15,000 studies show that high self-esteem (.pdf):

  • Doesn’t improve grades,
  • Doesn’t reduce ­anti-social behavior, and may even facilitate bullying,
  • Doesn’t deter alcohol drinking or drug abuse, and may even encourage it,
  • Doesn’t reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, and
  • Doesn’t make a person more likeable or attractive to others.

“In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly (source).”

The Most Significant Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance

If the reports are true that the self-esteem movement is dead — and I am only repeating here what I’ve read — then it will be interesting to see whether folks also reject a closely related concept.  The concept of self-acceptance.

Although self-esteem and self-acceptance are by no means the same thing, they seem to be closely entwined in a lot of people’s minds.  So if one of them gets thrown out, maybe the other one will too.   And that would be folly.

The biggest difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance is that, while self-esteem is not necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal, self-acceptance is necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal.  It’s possible for self-esteem to be out of whack with reality.  There is no rule that says you must be highly intelligent to possess wonderfully high esteem for your intelligence.

On the other hand, you can truly accept yourself only to the extent you are realistic about yourself.  If I accept that I’m a genius, but I’m actually the village idiot, then I am not truly accepting myself.  To genuinely accept myself, my acceptance must correspond to the facts.

That is quite a significant difference between the two things.

Who Are Your Friends?

If you want to know who your truest friends are, you should ask yourself who encourages you to accept yourself as you are.  For it is all but the very mark of true friend that he or she encourages that in you.   Yet,  most of us have few friends of that caliber.

We seem to need them, though.

One Reason Why We Do Not Accept Ourselves

There appear to be several reasons why we do not always accept ourselves as we are, but I will only discuss one here.

The single most forceful reason seems to be the one noted by Jung: Accepting ourselves can be terrifying.

Perhaps we now and then try to take advantage of those we love, or who love us.  Maybe we are arrogant, or maybe we are more foolish than we wish to be. Sometimes it is nothing others think we should worry about, but which disturbs us.  And sometimes it is something that would destroy our social standing with everyone but our truest friends — if it got out.  How often in our lives have we wanted to kill someone?  How often have we wanted someone’s possessions?

To completely accept oneself is like completely accepting nature.  You do not accept nature when you accept only the beauty and not the stench.  Nor when you take sides with the fly against the spider, or the spider against the fly.

A while back, my friend Don was on his way to work when he noticed a commotion in the timber beside the road.  He pulled over and watched as a doe frantically tried to distract a black bear from killing her fawn.  The bear had two cubs to feed, and the doe was unsuccessful — her fawn’s life ended that day.

When I asked Don what he thought of it, he didn’t say it was right.  He didn’t say it was wrong.  He said he felt awe, humility, and an acceptance of his own mortality.  To accept yourself is sometimes more difficult than watching a bear tear apart a fawn to feed her cubs, but the principle of refusing to condemn remains the same.

A Persistent Myth About Accepting Yourself

It is a myth that accepting yourself — even your so called darkest side — leads to acting on your every impulse.  We are taught that we must condemn certain feelings or impulses or we will end up acting on them.  But that appears to be nonsense, and we would see it as nonsense if we were not too afraid to look.

Humans sometimes use condemnation to control themselves — even though it is a relatively ineffective means of self-control (e.g. why are we so hypocritical?).   But more often we use condemnation to control others.  It’s one of our ways of manipulating people.

You’ll find it easier to accept yourself if you do not condemn others.  And easier to accept others if your do not condemn yourself.

Yet, it is possible that no one but your truest friends will accept that you do not condemn your “darkest impulses”.  The rest of the world is reluctant to give up that means of manipulating you.  Yet, if you are a healthy person, you will discover you have plenty of reasons not to act on that impulse to steal money from your aunt’s purse — even without condemning your desire to do so.  You will feel empathy for your aunt.  You will have compassion for her.  You will not wish to do an unkind thing to her.  And so forth.

Liberation

There can be a remarkable feeling of liberation that comes with simply accepting yourself.  It is not the liberation of one who has decided he or she is free to pillage, but the liberation of one who is no longer wrestling with him- or herself, who is no longer wasting energy on internal feuds.

I doubt self-acceptance ever catches on as a movement in the way that self-esteem did.  And if it ever were to become popular, then it would quickly be made into a slogan for why you should join the Army, buy this or that car, or vote for a scoundrel.

All the same, it seems to me that when someone says they don’t like life, then about half the time, the root cause of their dissatisfaction is an unwillingness or an inability to accept themselves as they are.

What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?

My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised.  For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house.   A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.

To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim.  She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel.  And mom really did compromise in a way.  She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.

Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.

You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom.  At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us.  Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”

Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe.  But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.

“Because you would ape me.”

“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”

“But when can I know?” I’d whine.

“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”

I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.

Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes.  No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire.   For instance:  We were free range kids.  On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper.   She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.

Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us.  People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long.  After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town.  Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one.  Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.

The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course.  She refused to “take counsel of her fears”.  For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”.  A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today.  That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs.  And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.