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.


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
to let it go.

Practical Philosophy

The Essential Complexity of Life

I spend most of my professional effort these days working on and thinking about software and computer programming. I enjoy it, and it casts a whole interesting lens on lots of other things. One topic I recently discovered — I even wrote about it in the software context — is the difference between essential (or inherent) complexity, and accidental (or incidental) complexity.

On the surface, you may already understand the idea, but if not let me elaborate quickly. A piece of software will have two sources of complication: the part about the problem it solves that is just hard, and everything else. Tax law is hard, and so software that deals with tax law has a large amount of inherent or necessary complexity to it. If you’re selling in a country like the United States where many local areas have many different taxes and regulations, just pretending that there exists a simple percentage tax in effect throughout the whole country is unlikely to be workable. This unworkable difficulty of the problem is said to be essential or inherent.

Incidental complexity, on the other hand, is much of the actual difficulty with most software in the world. And this complexity isn’t coming from the complexity of the problem, but the mistakes fallible humans make while trying to solve it using computers. Some of this will come because the programming system is inadequate, some of this comes because people misuse the programing system, and some of the issue comes when people use the right tool but in the wrong way.

So what does any of this have to do about the world outside of software? A whole lot. Life is pretty simple really. All life on earth only requires a few basic elements to flourish and multiply. It needs space. It needs a supportive environment in temperature, wetness, and shelter. It needs an energy source: food and water for us humans. And it needs others of its species with whom to learn, socialize, and procreate. And that’s just about it really.

It doesn’t really need a loving relationship with its father. It doesn’t really need to have a nice car. It doesn’t really need a fancy TV or nice clothes, or even a very nice shelter. It doesn’t need to know what its future holds. It doesn’t need to have a beautiful body or a hunk of a husband. Sure those things are nice, and surely they have benefits, but we count them as essential and we’re mixing in the incidental complexity of what we want with the essential complexity of what we really need.

The more time I spend with the idea that life is simple, the truer it feels to me. Maybe this is just a long strung-out trip of self-delusion, but I think it’s actually a deep and profound truth. Life is stupidly simple. If you’ve got food, water, shelter, and health, you don’t need much else. That is a stable base from which you can draw tremendous feelings of strength, well-being, and stability. Other things you could have may make those feelings easier to cultivate, but they are not necessary.

We like to look past how few things are really essential in our life because it’s so humbling to see. We’d rather tell stories of our heroism, or victimization, or ongoing struggle. They give us a supporting narrative which can feel quite compelling. But they’re not really a necessary part of our life. Very little is.

Practical Philosophy

Simply Here. Simply Now.

We make life so complicated. We’re always ready to tell — to ourself or to others — our horror story. You know the one: where you explain why things aren’t as you really want them to be. Maybe you’re not rich yet, but need to be to be happy. Maybe you’ve been so slighted by the world that you’re owed a great debt. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But none of those ideas can really change the simplicity of what it happening right now. Continue reading


Focusing on the Right Decisions

I’ve learned a lot of things in my life. One thing I’ve only recently realized I’ve learned is this: the truly consequential decisions our lives are exactly the ones we spend the least time worrying about.

There are decisions we spend days and weeks obsessively pondering. Who should I marry? What job should I take? Which school should I attend? The answer to these questions do matter. To insist that they make no difference in your life would be foolhardy. But they matter a lot less than we think they do.

The day-to-day reality of your life is not sexy, but it’s where you really live. And decisions like who you share a home with and where you spend your days being able to pay for that home have influence. But their impact on your life can  pale in comparison to the vast number of unthinking decisions you make on a daily basis.

This is easiest to see in dieting and weight loss. Almost no big decision you make in your life really affects your weight. There are probably outliers who make a resolution that they will gain 80 pounds, or intentionally opt-in to a less-active life for the purposes of gaining weight. But for most people, most of the time, their weight is decided by the 100,000 minor decisions they make about food over the course of a year. Compare:

  • “Doughnuts in the break room?! I’ll have two, thanks.”
  • “Doughnuts in the break room?! That sounds good, but I don’t think I should have more than half of one. Want to take half?”

If you regularly choose one or the other side of that kind of dichotomy over the course of your life, you’ll wake up healthy or having gained 50 pounds. But you’ll probably never have said to yourself, “You know I think my life would be better if I weighed 50 pounds more than I do.”

These cumulative choices are everywhere. It’s no single choice, but rather 1,000 minor one in the course of holding a job that decides whether your boss secretly wishes to fire you or eagerly wants you to be promoted to be able to get even more opportunity to work with you. Your relationship with your husband is determined more by the way you choose to deal with him leaving the cap off the toothpaste, his dirty dishes in the sink, etc than by what he was like when you first met him.

There are important choice-points in life. But balanced on a scale, the slow drip into your life from the thousands of thoughtless or minor decisions you make vastly outweighs the large volume of the big choices. If you fail to bring your attention to all the small decisions in your life, you’ll suddenly wake up with a life you never chose. Life really is just a sequence of small decisions; a life can be shaped without realizing.

Practical Philosophy

The Two Most Important Truths I Know About the Universe

Here’s something I know: both of the following seemingly contradictory statements are profoundly and undeniably true.

  • I am utterly inconsequential to the universe. It is so incomprehensibly large and vast, its time scale so unfathomable, that it is utterly certain that I don’t matter.
  • Everything in the history of the universe, this entirely galaxy, this entire solar system, this entire planet, and all the people and creatures that have ever lived on it have led to this. This thing — right here, right now — when I’m sitting here writing this, and you’re sitting reading it.

To me, this is a remarkable and important pair of facts. Continue reading


Good Leadership, Good Life?

In a former job — at a company large enough to have thought a lot about institutional support materials and goals — I was being preened for a promotion. In this company, you become a “leader”, not a “manager” and so the conversations focus around the values of good leadership. I was handed a document called “Leadership Expectations”, and at first I was dubious. But as I read, I was shocked to see almost exclusively qualities I cared about outside of the workplace listed. Things like “listening attentively”, “being resilient”, and “collaborating effectively”.

It took a while to coalesce, but now I’m pretty sure of a few interesting details about this. Continue reading


The Long Game of Kindness

Living creatures, by their nature, find it hard to think, plan, and act for the long term. For millennia life on this planet has survived because it acts, first and foremost, to do what it is best for it in the short term. This near-term greed allows living creatures to keep being alive, and that’s really their most important quality. Anything else they may or may not accomplish is secondary.

As I’ve been spending time thinking about why kindness is so difficult to do on a consistent basis, one of the things I’ve realized is that it has little benefit in the very short term. Surely there is some small short-term glow after an acknowledged kindness, but even that is rather fleeting.

And almost necessarily, to be kind you must also give up something else of value to you in the act. Whether it’s time, energy, money, or all three, kindness is never free. Definitionally, an act that is kind cannot serve your short-term self-interest. If it did it wouldn’t be an act of kindness, but of greed.

Kindness can have tremendous benefits in the long term. When it comes back to you, if it comes back to you, it’s almost certainly in the form of someone making for you the same trade that you made initially. They forfeit some short-term energy, money, or time so that you can have a better day, year, or life.

Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from your kindness.

And it may be the case that you kick off a chain of kindness that doesn’t affect you, but has a positive effect for others. And while such a chain could come back to you, it’s never certain to. If it does, it will almost never do so immediately. Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from any single act of kindness.

That is one of the central obstacles to kindness. As we move through the world, we’re characteristically short-sighted. We’re focused on the next activity, obligation, or event and not on the longer term questions of what will help others and ourselves to feel better and more satisfied as we move through the world.

We’re far more likely to bask in the warm glow of a received compliment than ask ourselves how we can increase the likelihood that we and others can bask in such a glow more regularly. While giving unprompted compliments on a consistent basis is almost certainly the easiest way that you can receive them regularly (people love to bounce compliments back) it’ll almost never cross our minds.

This shortsightedness has served living creatures well for thousands of years. But it makes kindness harder. The best way we can cope with it, I think, is just to be aware of the tendency. Awareness in itself doesn’t change anything, but it makes it much easier to see and change your behavior around this misplaced focus. If practiced regularly, awareness can shift your attention to the longer-term.

Another idea is to keep a memory vault of all the good that’s come of kindnesses you’ve done. Kindnesses done for you, or even those you’ve witnessed and felt were commendable can help. This vault may be light at first, and can be hard to fill, but remembering the long-term good that has resulted from short-term sacrifice can be a powerful way to be more aware of and ready to do similar kind actions.

Kindness is a long game. Maybe the longest of all. That makes it really hard for us bumbling myopic humans to do it all that well. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth learning to do. And well.


Why Kindness is Hard

I wrote last week about how important I think kindness is. And about how its truest form is a positve action rather than the mere absence of negative actions. That, and a few other things I’ve seen lately has lead me to get thinking a little bit about why this thing called kindness that we almost all agree is important is so hard to do.

Part of why kindness is hard is just the intractable and inevitable gap between what we wish we would do and the reality of what we do. No matter how much we think in idle time “I should do it like this” we’re always coming face to face with the fact that the way we typically do things is different than our ideals.

But I think there are more subtle and specific qualities of kindness that contribute to the problem. I intend to spend some time thinking and writing about them in the coming weeks.

To get the series started, here are some of the reasons that I’ve come up with:

I’ll write about each of those bullet points, one per week. If I find more they’re going on the list. I feel pretty confident I’ll learn something from the exercise, and I hope you’ll accompany me.