Practical Philosophy

Seeing Through Nouns

Nouns are a part of speech most people understand, and they’re common across all human languages. And yet we know of very fews nouns that aren’t simply an aggregate of a number of other nouns. Further, those aggregates of other nouns are, by the very nature of their compound-ness, temporary.

Recently someone presented an idea that blew my mind a bit: in reality, there are no nouns. There are bits of energy assembled and masquerading as nouns for periods of time. For some things — as fruits of a tree — this illusion is very short. The period of time during which an unharvested apple or plum remains an apple or plum is no more than a few months. So while we see the atoms of an apple taking that form for a while, we’re also well aware that it’ll form a brown sludge on the ground where it fell if left untouched.

Most bugs are living, flying things for a mere matter of days. All the parts of a fly — the eyes, the legs, the body, the wings — are combinations of atoms that will be a living corporeal creature for a few weeks. After that, they may stay together — unworking — for a few months. But eventually they’ll get processed through the digestive system of a frog, or decompose, or something else, and all those atoms will become other things.

Some things last for much much longer. Our sun has had the form we call by that name for about 4.5 billion years. But before we would have identified it as a star or our sun, all the atoms in it existed. They just hadn’t joined together into the unit that we recognize. We’d think of them as free hydrogen atoms floating near each other; the accretion of them into a cluster of mass sufficient to be recognized as a star, and to give off the energy of a star, and have the physical processes of a star, took time. But the atoms were there before. The sun, as all things, is a process that we identify much more than the concrete entity we can mistake it for.

Literally nothing that we know of in this world is permanent. Flowers, people, rocks, and planets: all of them will, in some period of time, cease to be those things we recognize them as today. There is nothing so certain as change, and the fact that things aren’t what we mistake them for.

Realizing that nouns are really just temporary assemblages that came together and are currently in the process of “verbing” that noun is a clarifying new lens through which to see the inherent ephemerality of the material world we inhabit. Nouns are comforting and useful — try to communicate effectively without them… — but when we forget that they’re not real, we set ourselves up for heartache.

Most people understand that nothing lasts. But we also forget it. A lot. And that’s why remembering the non-existence of nouns is useful. It brings us back to the reality that there are no nouns. The material world is really built out of very slow verbs.

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Life

To Live is To Be Uncertain

When everything is going your way, it’s easy to feel good. To feel like you’re in control, right where you want to be, completely satisfied with your life. To feel able to help others, to feel able to help yourself, to feel comfortable and certain about things. And so it’s really attractive for us to think that the solution to eternal happiness and well-being lies in continually and eternally having things go our way.

And to the extent you can do that, do. It’d be foolish to be able to make things go as you’d like them to and intentionally choose against that. To intentionally choose the less-certain, less-clear, less-happy path. It’d be almost masochistic, a form of intentional self-harm.

But there is another thing: sometimes you don’t really get a choice. Sometimes the wills of others, or forces completely beyond human control, will overwhelm you. Sometimes a hurricane will be bearing down on the city you’ve called home for 40 years. Sometimes a militia will have gathered size and force outside your village with clear intent to do you and your village harm. Sometimes an out-of-control vehicle will crash into you or the people you love. Sometimes you’ll just get sick. Or laid off. Or see your parents die from old age.

That is all to say: sometimes things will change on you. Unexpectedly. Sometimes things will be different than you want them to be. And you can no more change that than cheat death.  The real measure of your outlook is how it changes when things turn against you. Does a cloud arriving in a previously cloudless sky ruin your day? Week? Life?

It’s not easy to get comfortable with uncertainty. I wouldn’t claim to be. It’s unnerving to know that things may break against you. To know that you’re less secure in your world than you used to be. But it is the ultimate goal. The highest development. To be a mature adult is to be comfortable and patient with uncertainty. To accept the many shades of grey, and to keep working despite them. To remain in control when things seems to have gone a bit out of control.

It’s really the ultimate measure of life. How do we deal with the fact that it can never be perfect? Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods”, saying it better than I feel able to, ends:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

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Communication

“I’m Not Afraid of the Dark”

Dark has an interesting place in human experience. Many children’s first and most enduring fear is of darkness. I, to this day, get a little spooked in completely or unexpectedly dark places.

Mythically and metaphorically, though, darkness is a lot more than just the absence of light. Darkness is a synonym for the unknown. For the things that we’d rather hide away in places where no one can see them. For the things we’re ashamed of and scared of and feel bad for and wish were different.

In Josh Ritter’s song “Long Shadows”, you’ll find the lyrics:

Every time that they start
I’ll be right here with you
I’m not afraid of the dark

One of the big blockers in communication and understanding is that we are scared to talk honestly and openly. We’re scared that other people in our life will be scared off by our darkness — be it a past action we regret, a thought we have a lot but never act upon, whatever — that we close down and cut off the conversation and journey of mutual understanding.

Unconditional love is not easy, but when really achieved I think it contains one really important trait that most lesser kinds of love do not: a cofindence in the loved person that the lover will “be right here with you, … not afraid of the dark.”

Communicating that kind of love is not something you can do in sentence, or a day, or even probably a year. It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of time. People are aware of the gaps between what people say and what they really mean. And so we have to, to communicate something as big and monumental as a fearless steadfastness in our love, demonstrate it regularly and repeatedly. Then, and only then, is the receiver likely to slowly warm to its truth. That “I’ll be right here with you, I’m not afraid of the dark.”

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Productivity

It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.

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Practical Philosophy

What Good is Anger?

Hearing someone lash out in anger, near me but not at me, often makes me contemplate the foolish impotence of anger in modern life. Anger is a very intense feeling, and it’s so common there must be something to recommend it. But I often struggle to find that benefit.

The Downsides of Anger

The most potent and sure thing about anger is that it’s spurred on by a feeling of sharp intense pain. I think of it a bit like a hot coal, surely burning someone. And who’s it definitely burning? The person possessing the anger.

Now it may be the case that an angry person is able to successfully transfer some of that seering pain onto someone else. Surely there are many stories of the weak being made to suffer the anger of the powerful — whether that be through wars between peoples, or the prototypical angry father lashing out at his helpless wife or children. But even in those circumstances, there’s scant evidence to support the idea that the initially angry person is made less angry by having spread their frustration around.

Aside from the obviously problematic transference of anger, it’s got another really bad quality: the angry mind is off-balance; a roiling cauldron of unreason that’s ready to do stupid things. How many dumb choices throughout history were made because someone was angry? When anger made it impossible to reason correctly? Almost certainly too many to count.

So, what good is there to be found in anger?

There are a couple upsides to anger. The most potent is probably evolutionary: anger is a clear and animalistic corrective to slights to an individual. Imagine a pack of monkeys where the most powerful male has dispropiatate breeding rights to all the females in the group. If he doesn’t get angry when his dominance is threatened, he’s likely to not be dominant for long. And so he’d have fewer offspring than those males more jealous in the protection of their role and power.

That sways me: anger is an effective low-intelligence impulse to beneficial social competition throughout the history of life. It also, in a more subtle but not trivial way, impels even meaningful correctives to problems of injustice in modern societies. While we idealize the struggle against British rule of India, for civil rights in the USA, or against apartheid in South Africa as rooted in a deep sense of love for justice, we’re being foolish to pretend that all three of those moments weren’t fueled by righteous anger.

But in those three movements, there is the paradox of anger in modern human society. Those movements are remembered fondly by people on both sides of them not because of the righteous anger or impulse to violence that started them. The troubled and largely unsuccessful history of the America’s militant Black Power movement (and specifically the Black Panther Party whose manifesto you see above) — rooted more deeply and completely in righteous anger than its predecessor — makes clear that while anger is an effective impulse to create action, it’s not a very successful way to fight systemic injustice in the long term.

The Strategic Use of Anger

The civil rights movements that are most fondly remembered on all sides — from those in power, and those fighting that power — were not violent or overtly angry. They were quiet and slow and deliberate. They thus allowed the powerful space for learning and understanding the scale of the injustice. They allowed the oppressors a period for growth (or culture-driven democratic replacement), and made space to cultivate wide understanding of complex ideas like love, justice, and forgiveness.

Anger’s use, then, is in sensing and finding the places where wrongs are being committed, and being sharply aware of them. Anger’s risk is that it convinces us that it knows the most effective response to that wrong. And if history shows us one thing, it’s that the violent and angry response, even if justified by the facts, is unlikely to lead to meaningful stable change in the long term.

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Practical Philosophy

“Turns to So Many Shades of Grey”

One of the things I’ve started to believe is that it’s very hard to trust people who profess everything with confidence. They know their team will win, they know you’ll pull through, they know everything will work out fine. The also know that a company is great, a person is a hero, and a cause noble.

The reason it’s hard to trust this level of certainty is pretty simple: reality cannot hold it. The world made by human society is many things. But it is not a clean and transparent system in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve, turns out to be exactly what they presented themselves as being, and achieves exactly what they set out to do.

One of the things that annoys young people — generally in their teens and early twenties — about older people is how washed up and apathetic the elders seem. One of the things that annoys older people — those comfortably ensconced in the quiet understanding of advanced age — is how certain and energetically wrong young confidence can be.

If you stay in it a long time and pay attention, you’ll just come to accept and expect that human societies aren’t meritocracies, that right doesn’t always win, and that some times unexplainable and infuriating things happen. This is the nature of the human experience of reality. This is the human condition.

Now I should clarify a few things: there are plenty of young people who aren’t too certain, and plenty of older people who are. Not everyone learns and understands at the same rate, and some people are so desperate to believe unreal things about the world that they simply never learn its nuance.

Another thing that this whole argument — that “what once was black and white turns to so many shades of grey” — can lead people to is a kind of self-satisfied nihilistic apathy. And again I don’t think that’s either necessary or appropriate. I believe deeply that to really change reality you must deeply understand it. I also believe that nuanced understanding and nihilistic apathy aren’t complimentary, or even related. Nihilistic apathy comes from a misreading of nuance for irredeemable brokenness. Nuanced understanding sees that things are never completely broken, nor completely whole. (Relevant: a recent essay about optimism without delusions.)

To change things well, you must really understand them. Where you see anything as a simple story of good vs evil, or black vs white, you’re probably missing something. Look really deeply at the story and chances are good you’ll find some nuanced coloring in there. And while it can be frustrating and disorienting to discover the white turned grey in the short term, it’s the color of truth. And the stable understanding of grey reality is so valuable I guarantee it’s worth it.

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Practical Philosophy

The Hourglass Neck of Now

Time expands out away from us in either direction. In the present moment, right now, there aren’t all that many possibilities you need to consider and worry about; there isn’t really much to do. Now is simple because it’s so close. As we get further away — in either the past or future direction — we get the option to entertain all kinds of possibilities like “What if…?” and “It would be nice if…”.

Time, in this way, works a bit like an hourglass. And the present is the small narrow neck of the hourglass through which everything that was the future travels on its way to becoming the past. But when you really sit and stay and live in that hourglass neck, you realize you don’t have much to worry about or stress. After all, grains of sand will keep coming down the hourglass until they don’t. You just need to rest in that present moment and the sand will go about its business. Where each grain ends up? No need to worry. Where exactly this one came from? Not something you have to know.

The power of “now” is that you really can, if you open fully and accept it, rest comfortably in it forever. We find this very hard to do because we get distracted. We find it hard to stay because all these curious grains of sand are floating by. If we want, we can follow and chain out into an imagined future forever. If we want, we can follow those grains back into their past forever, or in any of a million directions of fantasy.

A common objection we raise to the idea of hanging out in the “now” is that we can’t  strategize there. That it blocks us from learning from the past or projecting and planning about the future. And there is wisdom in the complaint. But it is worth recognizing how little actual time we spend doing those things — learning from the past and planning for the future — and how much time we instead spend idly speculating and entertaining ourselves (or worse yet, getting ourselves worked up and worried) instead of wisely using the past and future for places we journey to for guidance from time to time.

The neck of the hourglass is narrow. But it’s got a beautiful and reassuring simplicity in its narrowness. It can be a great source of confidence and comfort. We can rest there and be safe and secure, knowing that trouble is busy elsewhere. It’s not easy, but when you really are able to stay, many other things become quite clear.

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Communication

Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”

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Life

What Is Love?

Love has a number of forms. There’s the love of a parent for their child. The love of friends for one another. The love of two people who are committed to each other romantically. The love of a keeper for their dog, cat, or other animal. But all of them, I think, have something in common.

Quite simply, love is the recognition and appreciation of what is beautiful in another. And just so there’s no confusion, what is beautiful in another is not only their form. It includes their actions, feelings, pain, and quirks too. Everything can possess beauty, and when we love something we’re perceiving its beauty.

One of the keys to my spirituality, if not the whole of it, is figuring out how to love everything. I want to love the flowers and the clouds and the birds and the rocks. And I want to love the beautiful celebrity defamed on the cover of the latest tabloid, and I want to love the defamer working at that tabloid. I want to love the victims of crimes, but I also want to wisely love the perpetrator.

When you really love something, when you fully see and appreciate what is beautiful about it, you want to what’s best for it. You want it to never suffer unnecessary harm, you want it to be safe and happy, you want it to get what it wants. In some sense, you want it to be protected.

And these second order out-growths of the pure thing that is love are where people get confused. For times in my life I believed that to love was to worry. That to report to your child that you really were concerned about their safety because you didn’t know where they were or how they were doing was to love them. But it’s not. That worry actually blocks the pure love which is the appreciation of what this person is and thinks is appropriate for them to do.

Don’t get me wrong, to love is to care for. And sometimes to care for is to take action to protect. You don’t care for a criminal by blithely allowing them to continue to commit their crimes. You care for a criminal and protect him from harm by teaching him why in a just society he cannot continue to commit such crimes. You don’t care for a family member prone to self-harm by allowing them to continue to do so. You care for such a person by helping them move beyond the pained psychology that makes them feel that self-harm will solve any of their problems. But you shouldn’t think that those caring actions are the substance of love, they are merely a result of it.

People get tired out by what they think love is. They get bored and frustrated with it. The idea that they could love something they don’t like feels wrong to them. But typically, they’re misunderstanding the substance of love. They’re thinking it’s about something — fealty, commitment, worry, etc — that it’s not.

You can love a lamp. You can love a dirty rug. You can love a dangerous predator. You can love your father. You can love them all — see all that is worthy and good and praiseworthy in them — and still know what they are. Love is not transformational. Love is not a reciprocal relationship. Love is not a conditional state. Love is just the purest expression of appreciation that we know how to talk about.

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Practical Philosophy

The Obligations of the Lucky

Every once and a while, something makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. After I was born and before, a lot of fortunate things broke my way. A short list:

  • I was born as a naturalized citizen in the United States, at a time when the country was near its height in world prestige and importance.
  • I was born a white-skinned person in those United States.
  • I was born to comfortably middle class family, which fast-tracked me to a comfortably middle-class debt-free existence.
  • I was never abused as a child, nor made to quietly suffer any meaningful injustice.
  • I was never told by the dominant society that my sexuality was unacceptable or disallowed.

I could go on, but you probably get the point: I’ve had a privileged existence so far. And very little of it is a result of any specific actions I took, qualities I adapted, or hard work I put in. I’ve just been lucky.

I think one of the hardest things about being so lucky is that you become blind to how many good breaks you got. If you see people struggling where you’ve never struggled, and you miss your luck, you’re not very empathetic to their hardship. You’re likely to think that everyone else should just work as you did and would have success as simply and painlessly as you’ve had.

I think that way sometimes. I think “Wow, everyone should just do the things I do and see the things I see. Then they’ll be as well-off as me.”

But then, usually, I catch myself. I recognize how much random good-fortune and the privileges of traits about myself I never really picked factor into my success.

Any anger I publicly display is — as a white man in America — likely to be read as legitimate and worthy of consideration. It’s not really more likely to be well-founded than the anger of a black woman, but her anger is likely to be read as pedestrian and misguided by the world at large. She’s much more likely to be considered touchy, angry, or disagreeable than I am, because of her unchosen characteristics.

When I’m pulled over for speeding, there’s a high likelihood that I will safely and effortless make it through that traffic stop with nothing worse than a ticket. I’m not likely to suffer the indignity of being pulled from my car for an unnecessary road-side sobriety test. Or have my car searched for drugs or other contraband. I will not, as a browner skinned man might, see a police officer leer at me a little too hard and work unnecessarily to find something else to ticket me for.

The world I live in is a privileged one. And my first obligation is to never forget that. To remember that I didn’t earn all that I’ve got. I did work hard and I did earn some of it; it’s foolish to pretend that I’ve not had some impact on my own life. But I was also given opportunities, and the benefit the doubt, a lot more than others, and I can’t forget that.

Because I remember that, and because I know the subtle injustice of a society that makes it a little more likely that I succeed than most others, I owe it to them to keep the difference in mind. To do my best to listen and understand. To do my best to share to others like me, who fail to see their invisible good fortune, my understanding of the ways in which the system is failing those who haven’t quite had such luck. Privileged people seem to hear a little easier when their privilege is explained by similarly lucky people. Because I possess a straight, white, American, cis-gendered male form, my speech is more likely to be given a respectful hearing.

The world we have today is probably the fairest one to have ever existed. The rates of unstructured violence, of enslavement, of arbitrary decisions passed off as justice, are lower than they’ve probably ever been in history. But that’s a long distance from saying that our world is completely fair, just, and free of coercion. The obligation of those lucky enough to have it easy is to work extra hard — specifically because they don’t need to — to make the world fairer and more just still.

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