Practical Philosophy

It’s Not Your Fault, But it is Your Responsibility

I mercifully never really struggled with was the idea that having invisible social privileges is “my fault,” but it’s a conversation that comes up a lot. A simplistic rebuff of the very idea of unearned social privilege existing is that I — as a straight, white, male, etc — are not at fault for the confluence of societal structures that are the causes of all the invisible privileges I enjoy.

I didn’t keep slaves, I didn’t perpetrate housing segregation, I was never vocally anti-gay or misogynistic, etc. These are all claims made by people trying to show that they aren’t at fault. And indeed if they have or had done these things, then they are quite directly at fault for them.

But for most people in the modern world who benefit from privilege, it’s not something they are at fault for. Instead they’re just been given the privileges without the need to be vocal or violent to win them.

But the thing is, even if the privileges you possess aren’t your fault, they can still be your responsibility. The common pattern in productive environments is that the assignment of fault — if it happens at all — is not the same thing as the process of determining who can and should help take ownership of the problem and fix it.

The machine broke because Billy was running it irresponsibly. The machine doesn’t start to work any quicker if Billy’s fault is the topic of long discussions or an elaborate fact-finding and punishment process. It gets back to work faster if the team that runs the machine takes collective responsibility for getting it back in working order. Billy may have been the driver, but his team will perform best when they are all in charge of keeping the machine going, no ifs, ands, or buts.

It’s the same with dismantling the vestiges of privilege that make life invisibly easier for people who bear a shocking resemblance to me. I’m not at fault for the way law enforcement officers trust me more as a cis-hetero-norm-conforming white man, but I am responsible for that fact. I can and should use my privilege to make sure nothing dangerous happens as a black woman is getting arrested.

Divorcing responsibility from fault is crucial for productive action anywhere. For a complex and multi-variant problem that has resulted from literally hundreds if not thousands of years of social pressures, it is utterly essential. The existence of social privileges for advantaged groups is not the fault of the members of those groups, but they share in the collective responsibility to recognize, name, and change those privileges and preferences.

Practical Philosophy

Waiting for Super(wo)man

It’s rather alluring, the belief that some outside force can swoop in from above and set everything right. Whether we call that entity God, or Super(wo)man, or “they,” we love to quickly and easily release our agency for the sake of not having to do any work.

We imagine that at Judgement Day God will finally smite the sinners and raise us, the righteous, to our proper position. We believe that the quickest and best solution to the problem of crime is an invincible crime fighter from another world. We believe that “they” should acknowledge our genius and give us what is ours; that “they” haven’t yet is simply an indication that “they” don’t really know what they’re doing.

If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to give up agency over your life and accept your fate as existing in the hands of some outside force. “They” is frequently bandied about by people in this state: we used to have a park but then “they” took it away. If only “they” would install a traffic light, this intersection would be a lot safer.

These people are waiting for Super(wo)man. Some outside powerful force to swoop in and change the world. But the real change in the world is rarely made — with a few noteworthy exceptions — by individuals. And even those individuals who arguably were primary causal actors don’t match the comic book image of Super(wo)man.

Instead the world is made better by banal and often thankless actions of normal people. The young teacher motivated to put in extra hours making sure Tyler gets out of third grade reading at his grade level and eager to get even better. By the aging citizen who is so insistent on the need for a stoplight at an intersection that she methodically bends the unreceptive city council into submission. By the middle-aged man who decides to give a few days a months to feeding the homeless with his own two hands. By the little girl who protests hard when her high school commits some injustice that every adult would rather ignore.

Some people setting out to make these sorts of contributions stumble or fail. But they can and do push the collective of humanity forward, effort by effort. There’s a stultifying impotence in waiting for Super(wo)man, and the idea that your effort will not solve the problem is the start of that impotence.

None of us can single-handedly bring peace on earth or an end to poverty. But we can make our small effort and slowly, over the course of our lives, see the world slightly better as a result. To do so we must accept that we are the Super(wo)men we’ve been waiting for.

Three baby turtles swimming in a tub of sandy water
Practical Philosophy

All Problems Come from Ignorant Non-alignment

I believe in two things: the value of love and the danger of ignorance. I believe, as I explained recently, that those two things are related pretty profoundly.

I believe something else too: different people want different things. But I think wanting different things doesn’t have to be an obstacle to compromise and everyone feeling like their needs and wants are understood, accepted, and accommodated in a solution to a problem that isn’t specifically what they would have chosen.

I think all of the most sticky problems in the world are fundamentally solvable. After all, we humans made the messes, we humans can solve them.

People can align their conflicting needs and wants and create compromise. Compromise is reached through a two-step process. First we have to be clear about where everyone is on a particular topic — what they understand, how they feel about it, and what they’d like to do about it — then we have to align our vision and find a solution that meets everyones needs.

This process of finding compromise by building a mutual understanding and an alignment on vision is not easy. When facing long histories of misunderstanding, it’s probably the hardest communication task that anyone has ever undertaken. But it’s both possible and valuable.

When we see other’s views clearly, fully, and with a will to help, we’ll naturally become aligned with them. We’ll find a way we can work together to make us all happy. Ignorance is tenacious, and alignment takes work. But it’s always possible to use those two as the levers by which we solve even the hardest problems.

Practical Philosophy

What If Ignorance is Love’s Only Obstacle?

I’ve got a short enemies list. If I whittle it down as far as it can go, I think it contains one item: ignorance.

But it wasn’t until today that it struck me directly that this relates very specifically to the one thing I could whittle my list of unimpeachably good things down to: love.

Because, for the first time, with the aid of Shantideva, it was clear to me that the only reasons I find it hard to love people is that I have mistaken and out-of-whack understandings of what they want,  what they can do, or what’s really driving their behavior.

If someone cannot be nice to me — be the proximate reason for that political, personal, or something else — shouldn’t I feel nothing but sympathy for that block they have?

If someone is cruel to me, shouldn’t I feel nothing but sorrow that they are in a place where they feel it is necessary or appropriate to be cruel?

And if someone is nice to me, shouldn’t I just appreciate the fact that they loved themself, and me, enough to be nice? What a beautiful thing that is!

We find it hard to love because we don’t understand the complex web of causes that leads people to be who they are and act in ways that we don’t like. But if we really understood all the causes that led another driver to cut us off, or a family member yell at us, or a stranger to run at us with a knife, wouldn’t our only reasonable response be to accept it? To understand that causes just came together such that they felt compelled to act in these ways?

There is a certain baked-in belief in the fated, rational, causal understanding of the world here. That is, if you believe that we are all rational agents making completely rational atomic choices at all times, as the only forces in the system, what I’m saying will make no sense to you. When you understand the world as consisting of completely isolated people acting in independent ways, a cruelty to another is a clear sign that a person is cruel. A nice action is a clear sign that that atomic person is nice.

But I don’t believe that people work like that. I believe all the way down to the core of my being that people are frequently ignorant agents playing out past conditioning. Some of that past conditioning points us in the direction of rational independent thought and action, but hardly a majority of it.

We do not walk, run, or drive cars with careful consideration of every muscle flex and yield. We don’t make decisions to eat a snack or go for a walk via careful, meticulously rational weighing of the costs and benefits of that act in our conscious mind. We simply are not nearly as rational as our rational mind would like us to believe.

We find it hard to love because we fail to believe in our own, or the world’s, lawful and understandable way of working. When we reject the idea that we live in a lawful world, we choose ignorance. When we choose ignorance, we’ll find it hard to accept and love as much as we should. As much as the world needs.

Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

Practical Philosophy

Increasing Human Flourishing

There are a lot of jobs in the world. Roles that we can fall into and inhabit and make things happen by doing. Though we may someday live in a world where the need for human effort is nonexistent, we’re not there yet. So we can show up, do our work, collect our paycheck, and go home.

But there must be something beyond that. When you consider what it is to be alive, I always come up with a hope to leave this place better than I found it. And to do that, something more is required than filling in a hole in a large organizational chart. To actually make an impact you must do something more than your role, you must have an impact larger than yourself.

And that impact should have the effect of increasing the amount of human flourishing in the world.

We humans can be a competitive and jealous bunch, but we find it hard to begrudge for too long the people who’ve really made a tangible, positive impact in the world. Surely we can disagree about the specific of those terms — maybe a politician can qualify, maybe a soldier can — but we can’t really ignore those who pull it off.

So I guess I bring this up mostly as a mission: I want, more than anything else to increase human flourishing in the world. I’m still not sure the best way to do that, but I know it’s the most worthy goal I’ve found.

Practical Philosophy

What Do Your Thoughts Mean?

One of the subtler but more important things that has changed in my life is that I’ve stopped believing my thoughts. It’s not that I can’t think. No, I’m not saying I’m no longer able to productively puzzle through hard problems — if anything I’ve gotten better at that. What I mean is that I’m much less prone to identify with and believe in my thoughts.

Part of this topic I’ve covered before: I explained how there is no right and final thought. I really do believe that a large part of what shifted for me was that I came to see that when I was just feeling off or low, I could never use thoughts to guide myself out of it. I literally used to sit up for hours and think and think and think hoping I’d finally find the thought to assuage all my dread or doubt or whatever. It never came.

And so, thanks to that and my study of Buddhism, I feel pretty confident that my thoughts aren’t the answer to my thoughts. The real antidote to negative or angry or disappointed thoughts is instead just feeling them in the body and not doing anything about them. I’ve gotten better and better at seeing them and just waiting for them to naturally diffuse.

It’s one of those startling things you don’t realize: thoughts just kind of drift off. If you’re like I was, that’s hard to believe. I’ve felt bad for days about some situations, if not weeks. Just in a real funk. But what turns out to be true is that it wasn’t a single thought or feeling that lasted that long. It was my continuation and revisiting of those thoughts that lasted. I’d remember the initial thought, use it to wind up higher and higher into a frenzy, then it’d soothe down, but then, troubled by the disappation, I’d build back to a frenzy… on and on for quite some time.

I was listening to the NPR podcast Invisibilia recently, and in the episode “The Secret History of Thoughts” (starting around the 10-minute mark) the narrator, Alix Spiegel, made a point about the shift in the way that pyschologists deal with thoughts. It really clarified this whole thing for me. The basic argument is that the history of Western psychology’s disposition toward thoughts looks like this:

  1. First came Freud. And Freud believed in thoughts. He believed that every thought was not only true, but was “the tip of an iceberg.” That underneath everything you thought were profound, important, and consequential drives that you had to master to understand yourself. So people would do years on the couch, puzzling at things they were thinking or had thought in the past, searching for significance and meaning.
  2. Then came cognitive-behavioral therapy. Aaron Beck and his descendants believe that thoughts aren’t inherently meaningful and can be corrected. People are prone to a lot of negative and defeating self-talk, but they can most effectively cope by explicitly refuting the thoughts they realize are wrong. Exposure therapy — slowly taking a person afraid of heights to higher and higher ones as they realize they need not fear this height — is a typical CBT tactic.
  3. Finally came mindfulness. Mindfulness — and its long history in meditative Eastern traditions like Buddhism — tells us that thoughts are mostly inconsequential noise. Some may be worth working with, but we shouldn’t even bother with those that aren’t helping us. Our experience of the world is just our experience of all of our five senses, and the thoughts that our brains throws in. Just as we don’t think things we smell are important or revealings of our inner self, neither are our thoughts. So we just work on seeing our thoughts as thoughts.

I’m a bit dubious of this narrative. It serves my prejudices well and paints my perspective in an unquestionably favorable light. But it does represent the basic way I’ve transitioned in my understanding of thoughts, and how I’ve dealt with those that aren’t helpful.

As I first remember, I’d deal with problematic thoughts by analyzing them deeply. Staring at them hoping to find value and use in them. Then I’d try to talk them down: to add enough rationality or contrary thoughts to counter-act or diffuse those negative thoughts. Today, I mostly just watch them, and (most of the time) they just float away.

Moving between these three stages isn’t easy. But the structure gives a clear progression of possible ways of thinking about thinking. And it’s a progression I’d been slowly making for a while. You are not only not your thoughts, but your relationship to your thoughts matters far more than the thoughts themselves. You don’t, as they say, have to believe everything you think.

Practical Philosophy

Be Kind to Each Other

If you accept that you are mortal. If you see all living beings as kindred spirits. If you understand the value of “the Golden Rule” and find it to be the the only path worthy of consideration. Then there is nothing left to do but be kind.

Kindness isn’t easy. And it’s not fun and light and uplifting all the time. Sometimes it’s the hardest of hard work. But it’s the best, sanest, most valuable course of action.

To really be good at kindness, to be skilled and able in all situations to respond with a kind response that is appropriate and doesn’t make you feel like you’re just faking it, is the work of a life.

But I know that it is work that is valid, and the only thing that feels worthy of all of my enduring effort.

I know that if I were to be told I’d die soon my fondest wish would be that I could experience the kindness of good friends and have the ability to extend as much kindness as I could back to them. When I look at it clearly, I find it hard to dispute this notion I jotted down on a sticky note well over a year ago:

After accepting his fate, he said: “There is nothing left to do but be kind to each other.”

Practical Philosophy

This is Water, This is Water

I’ve got something to tell you: you are living your life right now. Life is this thing constantly (and often without our noticing) unfolding in moments of banality as well as profundity and wonder. There isn’t some place or time when we arrive and suddenly discover what living is. It won’t suddenly feel perfect and pristine and flawless just like you’ve always dreamed “living” would be.

You are living right now the beauty, miracle, and drudgery of your life. The thing that artists glorify, spiritual traditions hallow, and the dying regretfully wish goodbye is this thing we’ve been in all along. The mythical magical thing that is the beauty of life is the water we’re swimming in. This is water, this is water.

That’s a reference to a story you’ve probably heard before. If you’ve not, here it is: two young fish are swimming along. They cross paths with an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish keep swimming a ways, and then one stops and says to the other: “What the hell is water!?”

Or there’s an old Far Side cartoon. Three cows in a field, when suddenly one stops, pauses, and exclaims “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!”

What these vignettes are pointing to is the thing we started with. There’s no magical place or time at which we arrive. There is no magical point where everything shifts and we’ll finally be clear and perfect and blissful and able to say “now this is living.” This living thing is instead going on all the time. It’s right here, flowing on while we’re too busy to notice.

To really live life, you must remember that that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it now. You’ll be doing it tomorrow when you pick your daughter up from soccer practice. You were doing it last week when you walked into the monthly meeting you dread. And two years ago when your father was in the midst of that health scare. And on that idle Tuesday of your school days when you just hoped the teacher wasn’t going to call on you. The banalities of life are, if seen clearly, filled with profound, awe-inspiring magic. When you’re distracted, they’ll all just pass you by.

I was inspired to write this by remembering my favorite speech of David Foster Wallace’s life, his commencement address as Kenyon. So it’s fitting, I think, that I give the late man the final word:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Practical Philosophy

Your Body is a Resonance Chamber

Emotions are powerful. You love so much you think you’ll die without them. You hate so much you’re ready to resort to physical violence. You want something so bad that you’ll go to insane lengths to get it. You’re so scared you’re physically shaking with muscles tense in a situation where there is no physical escape.

At their root, emotions are mental processes. Thoughts. And yet we can find them in our body too. I feel love in my chest. I feel fear in my stomach. What’s going on with that?

Emotions are thoughts that, for evolutionary reasons, it was valuable to amplify. They’re thoughts that creatures over the history of life on our planet have done better when they took seriously and acted on quickly.

A caveman who idly thought “I’m scared of that lion” was a lot more likely to die than one who felt intensely the fear of that predator. A creature that casually feels the sting of the hatred engendered by being slighted by a rival is a lot less likely to outcompete that rival than one that feels it sharply.

Today, though, these resonant intensifications of certain thoughts tend to be out of proportion to their value. Most people, thankfully, don’t have to compete nearly as violently to succeed. Don’t need to be quite as scared as it served them to be when mortal danger was around every corner.

So, as I explored around anger, there’s a use to our emotions but they’re too primitive and dangerous for us to let them drive. Evolution’s not the most exact tool, and calibrations take thousands if not millions of years. So we’re prone to be too angry, too jealous, and too fearful.

Understanding emotions in this way doesn’t make them go away. Unfortunately, knowing how emotions work doesn’t give us the ability to just turn them off. Working skillfully with emotions is a life-long process. But knowing does help. It helps us know when and why we’ll get value from overriding the crude guidance of our emotions. Helps us know better when to take the bull by the horns. To feel the fear and do it anyway.