PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

The Myth of Rejection

Men are disturbed not by things,
but by the view which they take of them.
| Epictetus

The Myth of Rejection

Rejection takes many forms, none of them pleasant. We may be rejected by someone to whom we’re romantically attracted, passed over for a promotion, judged harshly by an adult child who feels resentful about wrongs we had no idea we’d committed, treated with blithe inconsiderateness by someone we had thought was a friend, and so on. Clients sometimes come to philosophical counseling in the throes of rejection, tormented by unanswerable questions—”How could he/she do this?”—with their peace of mind and sense of self-worth in tatters.

Philosophically, they’re stuck in a stance that is essentially the opposite of the one adopted by the ancient Stoics, who taught acceptance with poise and equanimity of those “natural” unfoldings of fate that are “indifferent” to us. These clients themselves often realize that they’re caught up in a massive overreaction, not because being rejected by someone, especially someone about whom we care a great deal, doesn’t hurt, but because the suffering such an experience typically brings can be so intense, we may feel that we can’t survive it, that our very life and identity are at stake.

What all this drama misses is what we might think of as the “myth of rejection.” an idea that explains and even brings within reach the wisdom that allowed the Stoics to remain self-possessed and steady in the face of adversity. Seeing through the myth of rejection involves what various therapeutic and educational modalities call a “reframe,” which means a new way of looking at a situation. It’s a good word, because the “re-” prefix implies rightly that what’s being reframed is already framed. Put another way, it’s not the rejection that the client suffers but his or her story about it, the meaning and significance the client has assigned to it, which frame the experience in a certain light. Immersed in suffering, the client rarely recognizes that it is this framing that is in a real sense creating the experience as the experience it is, and that there are other ways to frame it that are far friendlier, to understate the matter. By helping the client to come out of immersion in his or her framing, the philosophical counselor reveals a hitherto hidden element of choice, so that the client, from this higher vantage, can see his or her role in creating the suffering that seemed up to that moment to be entirely a matter of factual conditions, “out there,” indifferent to the client’s anguish. To see that the hands about one’s throat are one’s own is instantly liberating, since the client is not suffering through any conscious choice, but as a result of an unwitting choice that must be brought into conscious awareness to be revised. We hurt ourselves only because we don’t recognize our complicity in turning pain into suffering. As the saying goes, “He who writes can rewrite.”

The myth of rejection begins to come into focus in a reframing that calls us to a deeper honesty than immersion in suffering has acknowledged. It takes only a few questions to make this clear to even the most deeply immersed client. In session, little more is required than asking questions that speak directly to the client’s self-respect, which gets passed over in the Sturm und Drang of having been rejected. In the case of an unrequited romantic attraction, for example, the counselor might ask the client, “Do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?” The question cuts through all the drama and goes to the heart of the truth, and no client has ever as much as hesitated to answer this question with a resounding no. “Then,” the counselor asks, “what have you really lost?” “Really” here means, of course, “in truth,” and in truth, no client who has been rejected would choose consciously to be treated that way. All that we lose when we’re rejected by someone, it turns out, is something we don’t want. What was a calamity is transmuted by the alchemy of philosophical dialogue into useful, perhaps even saving information and direction. The truth always sets us free, provided we meet it with the willingness of the student—to be shown, to learn, to move more deeply into our life and experience. There is a liberating clarity in truthfulness that allows rejection to be just another step on our journey, and beyond that, a golden opportunity to rise above disappointment and recognize the treasure buried there.

31 March, 2018

The Right to Grow Up

The Right to Grow Up

The heartbreaking problem of disturbed individuals obtaining semiautomatic weapons, carrying them onto school grounds, and in a matter of minutes, gunning down children and destroying their families, can be solved simply and readily. All assault rifles and other weapons designed for war must be banned immediately from public access, and thorough background checks be carried out before any firearm can be purchased. The right of every child to attend school and grow up free of fear for his or her life and safety unquestionably supersedes the unqualified right to “bear arms” in the mind of anyone with a conscience. Furthermore, funding should be allocated and made available immediately for mentorship and substantial mental health resources within school communities around the country with an emphasis on early detection of students struggling with problems likely to lead to violence. Going forward, the failure of Congress to take these remedial steps should be construed as an abdication of its responsibility to safeguard the innocent that amounts to enabling mass murder. In keeping with the most basic human values, any legislator who turns away from this overriding duty either through supporting the continued availability of semiautomatic weapons or through inaction should be deemed unfit to hold office.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on 14 February. No words are adequate to console you in the face of this senseless and brutal act. Know that your grief is felt by many around the country and the world. Our thoughts and best wishes for recovery are with you in this terrible hour.

24 February, 2018

Owning and Disowning

Owning and Disowning

Philosophical counseling often focuses on “ownership” by helping the client to identify and acknowledge responsibility for the part he is playing in whatever troubling situation led him to schedule a session. Once the client is willing to do this, a great deal can change, often quickly and dramatically. This shouldn’t be surprising. Certainly much wasted effort, frustration, and suffering follow from trying to control what lies beyond our will, a simple, far-reaching truth that the ancient Stoics made the cornerstone of their philosophy—but we do as much damage by refusing to acknowledge and accept responsibility that is rightly ours, and this is something that philosophical counseling seems uniquely suited to point out and put right, sometimes in the blink of an eye.

Happiness, peace of mind—what the Greeks called the “well-ordered soul” and considered the foundation of happiness and “the good life”—as it turns out, requires a certain balance, so that we own what is ours but not what is not ours. Achieving this balance may mean “disowning” any responsibility we’ve misappropriated, a pervasive problem certainly no less serious than the problem of ownership denied. With this disowning of responsibilities that are not ours, many of the ills that plague us undergo a spontaneous remission—victimhood, enabling, persecuting, rescuing, and other elements of codependency, to name a few.

There are numerous other things that it’s a good idea to disown besides excessive responsibility. False beliefs, contradictions, a sense of entitlement, hubris, detrimental life script promptings and prohibitions, magical thinking and other exaggerations of the will, and the pernicious assumption that happiness and the good life can be found in outer conditions are at the top of the list. Many philosophical counseling sessions end up identifying one or more of these culprits hiding in the shadows of the client’s psyche, covertly wreaking havoc and relentlessly screening out the truth and the better choices that swing into view the moment the truth is faced and acknowledged.

Victimhood is always a good thing to disown. So is blame in all its forms, both obvious and subtle. Exporting our authority by blaming others or outer conditions for our fate or how we feel also is something to lose, and the sooner the better. The beliefs that lead us to embrace philosophical errors constitute what Socrates called “false knowledge,” which arises out of conceit. A belief of this sort is like a burning coal we hold tightly in our hands, suffering while we condemn the coal. It isn’t the coal’s fault that we willfully refuse to let go and end our suffering. A hot coal is a hot coal; it can’t be anything else, and only a fool would try to change its nature. This is basic Aristotle, whose laws of thought tell us that a thing is what it is, and never what it isn’t. It seems too obvious to need saying. Yet this is precisely the sort of obvious truth that we muck up when we become attached, willful, immersed in error, and so on—when we misappropriate conclusions, then assume them, then expect others to fall in step with them and complain why they don’t, until we’re left wondering why everything seems to work against us.

Max Freedom Long, who brought Huna to the West, wrote a bit of verse that beautifully expresses the wisdom of disowning what isn’t ours:

And if someone has hurt me deep,
And no amends are made,
I ask the Light to balance all.
I count the debt as paid.

This is talking about forgiveness—in this context, the forgiveness of an emotional debt. Many have struggled with the implicit instruction of the verse, and found Freedom Long’s words enigmatic. What “Light” is he talking about here? On what does he base the assumption that this Light, whatever it is, can and will “balance all?” Can we really simply choose to divest ourselves of a deep hurt inflicted when “no amends are made?” It is a shame that Huna has been pressed into the service of “law of attraction” peddlers who do a great disservice by fostering the bizarre idea that the reality around us, including others, is nothing more than a construct of our consciousness, an idea made all the more seductive by the undeniable fact that there certainly is some degree of correspondence between reality as we observe it and the consciousness of the observer. But they go too far. It is the same problem stirred up by New Thought practitioners who claim that the roots of illness in others lie hidden in the healer’s beliefs about them, and that in order to “treat” the sick person effectively and “demonstrate” a healing, one need only treat whatever belief one is harboring that allegedly is showing up as the illness. “The Secret” and other popular consciousness-as-cause models capitalize on this confusion, which begins and ends in solipsism, magical thinking, the aggrandizing of the will, the denial of the otherness of others, and similar aberrations. Huna, too, recognizes the profound and liberating truth that it is not so much situations that we suffer when we suffer, but rather our reactions to them, the meanings we assign to them, the stories we keep telling ourselves about them. This truth does not count against otherness, certainly. It does not deny the responsibility that someone may carry for having inflicted a deep hurt and never making amends. All of that remains intact alongside the key realization that, while we can’t control the will or choices of others any more than we can control or perhaps even influence the moving hand of our fate, we have a great deal to say about how we engage these things. So, while our reality is forged by what the classical Greeks understood as character, it is not only that. It exists apart from us in its own right but interacts with us, and does so at the level of our beliefs and assumptions, our conclusions and paradigms, our stories and values, which reach out, as it were, to color and shape the quality of that reality.

Freedom Long’s words put us on notice that the debt is not ours to carry, or at least that we have a choice about it. Carrying a grudge is like drinking poison to punish another or holding onto the burning coal to make a point. Whether there is any “Light” that can or will balance the debt is beside the point. We have been hurt. What sense does it make to keep hurting ourselves over it? Forgiveness doesn’t let the offender “off the hook.” It mitigates the pain of the one who was wronged, letting him or her off the hook through the liberating power of enlightened disowning. “I count the debt as paid” isn’t meant to be a strategy for moving the mysterious levers of manifestation, as the law-of-attraction proponents would have us believe, not a way of effecting a change in the other or the world, but an unfailing way of effecting a change in ourselves. It means, “This debt is paid as far as I’m concerned. I wash my my hands of it.” As we are not constituted to own grudges and resentments, and as usurping ownership of them invariably throws us into the traps and snares of hubris, it makes sense to disown them, and to do so without delay. The “Light” that can “balance all” by counting the debt as “paid,” it turns out, shines in each of us, waiting to be released in the refusal to own what we are far better off disowning. When the client’s focus shifts from projection, exporting authority, blame, and misappropriated ownership to how he or she is engaging and might engage more consciously and truthfully, many things come right.

It may help to remember that good can stand in the way of better. Inevitably, we have to leave behind who we’ve been to become who we can be.

20 February, 2018

Diamonds of Adversity

No pressure, no diamonds.
| Thomas Carlyle

Diamonds of Adversity

Just as immense pressure forms diamonds deep in the earth, so it is the pressure of adversity that transforms a human life into something precious, beautiful, valuable, and rare. Remembering this instruction, we might be slow to succumb to both victimhood and enabling others, since we would recognize that it is in the fires of adversity that character is forged, and that we don’t help ourselves when we complain or resent our lot, nor others when, in relieving them of certain pressures, we unwittingly rob them of needed lessons. There is no doubt that adversity is a great teacher the moment we become willing to be its student, and that we’re made far more brilliant by what we lose than by what we win. Despite the prevailing culture of indulgence and entitlement, it is, as Lao tze noted 2,500 years ago, the “emptiness at the center” that makes something useful. Running around the world trying desperately to fill any frisson of that emptiness with banal social media “likes,” romantic and sexual encounters procured on dating sites, and distracted consumerism, we may so lose track of the diamonds waiting to be dug out of us that we suffer an odd sense of impoverishment and ennui in the midst of all our possessions and achievements, and wonder why it is that, no matter what we do, we never feel happy.

Adversity is clearly underrated and worse, made something to avoid at all costs—as though life should be free of hardship (and so, of challenges), and discomfort is regarded as symptomatic. This particular and sadly pervasive form of “soul disorder,” as the classical Greeks regarded it, produces among many other lamentable things, the bipartisan infighting and pettiness that has taken the U.S. Congress and White House hostage, producing a mounting pressure without the diamonds. This is the pressure created just before things start falling apart, when leaders succumb to unenlightened self-interest and winning at all costs, when chaos ascends to power, the world is played as a zero-sum game with no one in a position of leadership willing to take responsibility for the state of his or her soul, and even the trivial adversity of disagreement becomes intolerable.

We do not need to seek out adversity. Adversity will find us soon enough—another great lesson from the Greeks. Fate favors no one forever, and the gods seem to take special pleasure in bringing hubris to its knees. Those who, while never seeking out adversity, have nevertheless made peace with it, who can accept it as an occasion to transcend and endure, who use it to improve their character and practice resilience, who recognize that hard times compel us to find creative and often surprising solutions—they will be here, living and learning, long after the children of entitlement have been humbled and forgotten. Every dog has its day. When the dogs take over the household, they may do considerable damage before things return to normal. And while the dogs themselves are unlikely to benefit from the chaos they create, those who live in the house may use the damage done as an opportunity for self-examination, and be made better, richer, and stronger for it.

20 January, 2018

Women and the Men Who Hurt Them

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
| Lord John Dalberg Acton

Women and the Men Who Hurt Them

Recent revelations of widespread abuses of women by men in positions of power and influence seem to have ignited the headlines, leaving some of us men shaking our head, ashamed for our gender, and wondering how deep this dark rabbit hole of depravity and bullying goes. It is, of course, nothing new, and more’s the pity for it. Men in power have always used their position to exploit women, regarding and treating them as property to which they are entitled—an inevitable consequence of a bro culture driven by a Super Bowl mentality that seeks to dominate, acquire, and “win” at any cost. The younger and more inexperienced the woman, the more susceptible she is likely to be to this sort of heartless, narcissistic exploitation, endorsed by the current U.S. president on the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, and apparently long practiced by prominent men on casting couches, in the halls of Congress, and perhaps everywhere that power aggregates and so, corrupts. Donald Trump’s shrugs and grins in the matter notwithstanding, these revelations expose a chilling contempt for the most basic values of civility, a lowering of the bar of acceptable social behavior that can only be regarded as a sickness of the soul.

The frequency with which these abuses are being reported is a distressing commentary on the fallibility of human character (particularly male character) anticipated by Plato, who warned over two millennia ago that society would never be just until the king was a philosopher, someone devoted more to reason and virtue than to power, status, and wealth—what he called the “non-moral goods”—but, Plato added, this was unlikely to happen precisely because no true philosopher would want the job. Indeed, it may be unrealistic to expect men in power to live up to the high standards espoused by the ancient Greek thinkers, and there is no doubt that Athens itself was a hotbed of corruption during the decline of Attic culture, and the lesson in this should not be missed—that when the basic values and virtues of civility are thrown to the dogs, a society’s decline is already well under way. Yet, it may be less important that these things have happened and are happening and sadly will continue to happen than it is how we as a society respond to such abuses once they’re out of the shadows. The courage of many victims who have faced in some cases long held feelings of fear, intimidation, perhaps even shame in coming forward and telling the truth about Trump and Franken (for actual allegations of abuse, please, not a dated photo of a moment of rowdy U.S.O. comedy) and Spacey and Rose and Moore and Conyers and who knows who’s next has given us all an eleventh-hour opportunity to step up and reclaim and reaffirm our national character. Whatever hurts the most vulnerable of us hurts us all, but only if we’re willing to stand by and do nothing about it.

What is to be done? One of the tenets of our system of due process is that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. But we are not dealing with court proceedings here. Those who have accepted the responsibilities of power and sworn to serve the public trust must be held to the strictest standards. When four or five or more people come forward and accuse a Senator or Representative or political candidate or celebrity of sexual harassment or assault, statutory rape, groping, and the like, there are in this spate of accusations alone sufficient grounds to doubt that individual’s integrity and trustworthiness to warrant immediate removal from office or other position of influence pending the outcome of an ethics investigation, and where the evidence establishes probable cause, criminal prosecution. The soul sickness underlying abuses of power that lead men deficient in character to molest the innocent and defenseless cannot be resolved through a covert financial “settlement,” which amounts to hush money paid by cowards to avoid the consequences of their deplorable behavior. The real remedy consists rather in doing the right thing, the thing needed to uphold the values that such behavior blithely violates. The heroic individuals who have come forward to name names and point fingers at their abusers have done just that. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which we can repay by living up to the same exemplary standards of courage and truthfulness, and holding all abusers—those who admit their actions and those who deny them but have been charged by numerous accusers, fully accountable.

Note that there’s nothing in holding to this higher standard that should be used to justify either the punishing of the innocent or the disempowering of women. Again, we are not in a court of law here, and we have the right, given the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse, to err on the side of caution without that constituting an assumption of guilt. It should be clear that women who were sexually harassed or abused, the risks and potential losses notwithstanding, had no less responsibility then to come forward and expose the guilty than they do today—and no less power, unless they themselves chose for whatever reason at the time to remain silent and victimized. Doing the right and courageous thing does not require the permission of a hashtag. We always lose, all of us, when we let fear dictate how we show up. That said, it is fair and reasonable to require that those in positions of power, influence, and the public trust be men and women of unimpeachable integrity with sufficient maturity to recognize and respect the rights of others, which includes handing their sexual impulses responsibly. Where multiple allegations surface that point to their having failed to do so, it makes sense to limit their ability to do such harm (or further harm in the case of the guilty) until the matter can be settled by an impartial investigation, however long that takes. Finally, it needs to be said that age is not a factor in character. There are countless young men who would never dream of sexually bullying someone else or engage in “locker room” talk, a pathetic defense offered by those looking to deny culpability and avoid consequences.

25 November, 2017

Architects of Tragedy

Architects of Tragedy

Ancient Greek philosophy is a trove of wisdom and insight into human nature that stands unrivaled in the long march of history since. The truth of this prompted Alfred North Whitehead to remark that all of European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of all human failings, the Greeks regarded hubris as the most heinous and dangerous—especially hubris before the gods, those dialectically governing forces that lie outside the control of our will, erupting into our experience and determining our fate as though with a will of their own. Any man or woman who exaggerates his or her will, refusing to recognize such forces and defer to their greater authority, becomes an architect of tragic outcomes that at some point are inescapable. Sophocles’s perennial play, Oedipus Rex, in dramatizing this vital piece of instruction, placed posterity on notice that the only safe path is the path of humility in the face of how little we can control or even anticipate the great unfolding of causes and consequences.

Over and against the wisdom of acknowledging and living in humble cooperation with the limits of human will is the modern “post-truth” view. In a world where relativism and subjectivity have achieved a kind of stolen primacy, nothing is true anymore in the old sense. The warning of the Greeks recedes into one position among many, all equally true or false, since those terms no longer have any meaning, and the only thing regarded as ultimately true is relativism itself. It doesn’t take a graduate degree in philosophy to recognize that in asserting itself to be true, relativism becomes self-contradictory, and thus is no longer a “position” at all, since the only way that relativism can avoid this fatal mistake is to admit that its own central claim is only relatively true, and that the non-relativist view of truth is equally true, at which point the conversation falls into nonsense.

The mythical king Oedipus had his day. Every dog does, as the saying goes. But the Greeks knew that there are subtle forces at play in every life—call them “the gods,” or “chaos theory” or anything you please—that no man can elude forever, however infatuated with his will he may be. Most importantly, the Greeks knew that these forces somehow play out according to a person’s character or lack thereof, such that our fate is a lever balanced on the fulcrum of our hubris or humility. “A man’s character,” writes Heraclitus, “is his fate.”

Sadly, there are those who have risen to positions of political power in the U.S. on the crest of runaway hubris, men and women who would have us believe that any revelation of truth that exposes them is “fake news.” Demonstrating little if any interest in learning the lessons of even their own history let alone those of the ancients, they protest their innocence while indictments are being handed down and the seeds of tragedy they have planted for themselves have begun to take root and germinate. They posture and bully and dissemble and retaliate against every slight, turn on those who have the courage to stand up to them, defend the indefensible, and in all ways blithely assert their will as though there is no truth moving behind the scenes, in the shadows, biding its time. Such individuals, whatever their rank or title, are the architects of tragedy. At the end of even the longest day, they are fated to learn the lesson buried two millennia ago in the sands of Athens, the terrible lesson learned by Oedipus, who was king for a short time.

30 October, 2017