Practical Philosophy

An Appropriate Response

There’s an old Buddhist story about an eager student asking the Zen master to distill the core teachings down to their very essence. The student was expecting a few dozen words that he’d not understand, but instead that master said simply, “An appropriate response.”

I think that’s something worth aspiring to. “An appropriate response.” To respond appropriately to whatever situation you find yourself in. In many ways, I see showing up as an exercise is always providing an appropriate response for the person you’re showing up for.

There’s also some substantial heft hidden in the idea of an appropriate response. It’s superficially simple, but one needn’t look hard to find places where the specifics of an appropriate response become unclear. The Nazis are knocking on your door and asking if Anne Frank is inside (she is). Is the truth appropriate? Is a lie better?

One thing that’s surely required to be able to offer an appropriate response is to know with clarity and certainty what is actually going on. If you understand the Nazis as the bad actors history now considers them, you’d behave differently than if you saw them simply as well-meaning agents of the local law enforcement.

Accurate perception of reality is where most people drop the ball on being able to provide an appropriate response. It’s certainly where I most often go wrong. It is in thinking that I understand something I don’t, or where I just don’t know a crucial thing that others do that I find my response to the world going wrong.

I forget that other people have different goals than I do and get angry that they aren’t acting in accordance with mine. I forget that my friend is doing their best, even when it sometimes looks like they aren’t trying.

But even without gaps in your understanding of the present it’s still not clear. The ethical dilemmas of life are hard, even when you’re not missing any of the facets of reality. This is what makes the idea of “an appropriate response” so simple and yet so complex. To offer one you must know both the entirity of the situation to which you are responding, and the wisest course through the mire of the present reality. It ain’t easy.

But it’s precisely because it’s so slippery and hard that an appropriate response is a good life-long target. Why it’s a sane place to put your highest aspiration, and to frame the entirity of your spiritual or religious life in terms of it. It’s real, important, and difficult: “an appropriate response.”

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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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Personal Development

Taking Responsibility for What You Control

I’d realized before that one of the most powerful things in the world is understanding the difference between the things you do and don’t control. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve really grasped the importance of taking full ownership of those things that you do control. Seeing yourself as completely responsible for the things you truly control is as or more important a skill than understanding the distinction between what you do and don’t control.

I’ve known for a while about the fact that there’re many things I can’t control. And that trying to take ownership of those things that I do not control was simply a great way to go crazy. The distinction between those things is hard to see completely clearly, but I’ve been polishing that skill for a while. That however isn’t my focus here so we’ll set it aside.

What I want to talk about here is realizing the other half of the power of the distinction between the things you can and cannot control. That is: once you understand what you do fully and completely have responsibility for, you must see yourself as the one responsible for its upkeep.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned how to really take responsibility for the things I can control. And it is in taking on that responsibility that I have become healthier, happier, and much more certain about my ability and value.

It was only when I really learned that I was the only one who was feeling the anger that I felt that I realized I was the only one who could decide how I dealt with it. It seems kind of obvious looking back, but my anger at various things in the world — my position in life, unfairnesses directed at myself or someone else, the opinions espoused by political opponents, etc — was only experienced by me. And that when I tried to spread this anger to other people they didn’t experience a conversion as a result.

I now know that it is impossible to convince someone with your anger. And I also know that being angry is a really unpleasant experience. So whenever anger starts to rise in me, I take responsibility for controlling and reducing it. It’s not an easy journey, but with time I can confidently report that taking ownership of my anger is the only thing I’ve ever found that made me less angry and more productive in addressing the causes of my anger and frustration.

It’s not easy, but knowing what you control and taking responsibility for those things is one of the most powerful things you can do as a person. I’m no master, but I know with certainty that this is something that all masters know and do.

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Communication

Why You Must Let People Check Out From Conversations

Sometimes in a conversation, especially a sensitive or heated one, you can tell you’ve hit a brick wall. When you recognize that, it is essential that you allow your conversational partner to check out of the conversation. If you don’t, it’s virtually guaranteed that something far worse than a lack of closure will be the outcome.

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Life

Taking Care of Yourself First

All my life I’ve wanted to go change the world. Make it better, more like I thought it should be. And it took my a long time, but I finally know something about that process of changing the world: it starts with you.

The single thing in the world you have undeniable influence over is yourself. Your mental and physical reality is the only thing you have meaningful control over. Getting that in order is a great first step for putting the world in order.

One of things I always wanted to change out in the world was that I saw conflict and strife cropping up in places it wasn’t necessary. Misunderstandings have an amazing tendency to become emotional or physical conflicts between people, groups, and nations. It’s always seemed an insane and unnecessary process.

And I saw the urgent need to change that in the external world. But it took me a while to realize that right in my own life this very problem, which was so obvious in the wider world, was operating. Emotionally, I’d regularly find myself out of control and blowing a simple misunderstanding well past its proper proportions.

What I came to realize is that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably expect others to respond calmly to situations when you can’t do it yourself. I wanted other people to check their understanding before they got angry, but I’d myself regularly failed to do it. I’d fly off the handle and not realize it.

So I’ve spent the last few years working on myself. I’m less prone — though I still have some distance to go — to fly off the handle and find myself out of control. It’s a gradual process, bringing more peace into yourself, but it’s made a difference. Numerous people in my life have noticed and commented on the change, so I’m confident in it even as I’m sure it’s not complete.

My whole life I’ve heard a direction about oxygen masks on airplanes: in the case of an emergency, parents should put on their own first before they help their children. To the untrained observer this may read as cruel or stupid: a child is more vulnerable and in need of help. But a parent who passes out from oxygen deprivation trying to save their child is of the least possible use to their child. So you work on yourself first.

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"Ignorance is the worst form of violence" - E. G.
Life

The Depths of Our Ignorance

When you stop to think about it, it’s shocking how little we actually understand about anything. We know only the edges of things, and use them to guide our reasoning about them. Neuroscientists and psychologist are increasingly aware how few of our decisions and thoughts are a result of careful consideration. We constantly make inferences and jump to conclusions without a lot of evidence. This is what makes it possible for us to do as many things as we do, but it’s also a big source for the growth and stability of ignorance.

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