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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

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

To Be A Man

Not for ourselves alone are we born.
| Cicero

To Be a Man

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” But what is it to be a man? This is a question that philosophers have sought to answer for millennia. The word man, in its fullest sense, is existential, something the Greeks understood in a deeply practical way, as the attainment and embodiment of numerous virtues including heroism, truthfulness, social responsibility, temperance, and others that lately have gotten lost in the shuffle of “alternative facts” concocted to whitewash gloves-off opportunism at the highest levels of government. For the time being, the worst of us have managed to seize the microphone and the limelight through brazen acts of irresponsibility, moral cowardice, ignorance, deception, and a flagrant abdication of the most basic dictates of human decency, yet the higher vision that the Greeks strove to embody remains as close to us as our willingness to recall and embrace it, like an echo emanating from deep within us, calling us to come back to ourselves.

To be a man is to be truthful, even when the truth is distasteful. It is to lift others up, not tear them down; to build consensus and community, not destroy them. To be a man is to be patient rather than reactive, to bring understanding and empathy to those who are suffering or struggling, not censure and criticism. It is the willingness not only to own and admit one’s errors but also to do one’s best to correct them, not the willful denial of responsibility through blame-shifting, excuses, and half-truths. These various virtues are all elements of a practical wisdom that the Greeks called phronesis, a word that implied skillfulness in living. Being a man presupposes maturity, self-possession, courage, fairness, and self-restraint, an open mind and heart, and above all else, that humility in the face of how little we know at any given time that saves us from complacency, dogmatism, and self-aggrandizement—failings that mark the death of dialogue and cut us off from saving truths. A man is someone who can listen to others with interest, hear them, feel their predicament, and collaborate with them on solutions; he does not always immediately change the topic of conversation to himself, his achievements, his trials. Narcissism is not manly. Recklessness is not manly. Neither are name-calling or bullying or posturing. A pathological disregard for others is a confession of unmanliness, and what is unmanly can never be made manly through tiresome, arbitrary, neurotically repetitive complaints and protests. The Greeks also had a term for those who exhibited such unmanly qualities, whose petty self-absorption precluded social responsibility and political involvement for the greater good. They called them idiotes.

It should be clear that the ennobling qualities of manhood are the same as those of womanhood, for what we have here is not an issue of gender but of excellence in humanness. To be a man or woman, in the sense that can be trusted to be the “measure of all things,” to safeguard the planet and the future and to consider the interests of all, is first and last to be a person. Without these qualities of character, these virtues, an individual fails the defining test of personhood, and by his or her words and actions betrays that he or she is something less, an arrested psyche with no thinking life and no sense of others, incapable of measuring anything beyond perceived self-interest; a being who reacts impulsively to inner and outer urges, unpredictable, unreliable, a clear and present danger to all.

30 September, 2017

Amor Fati

My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity.
| Friedrich Nietzsche

Amor Fati

Rooted in the wisdom of the ancient Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium, the Latin term amor fati translates to “love of fate,” or “love of one’s fate.” For the Stoics, this state in which one is in friendly acceptance of fate was the consummate achievement of human life, and the only path to happiness. The logic of this is fairly straightforward. “Fate” comprises all the events over which an individual has no control, events that, as the Stoics describe it, are “indifferent” to the will of man. The “sage” accepts with equanimity every situation, whether it obliges his desires or presents him with the greatest adversity, because no good can come from doing otherwise. To resist what is beyond our control is futile and the greatest ignorance, for it condemns us to suffering, compromises our strength, and squanders our resources.

One might take this to be promoting a kind of enlightened resignation, but the Stoics went further. They proposed that everything that happens unfolds with necessity, and that this necessity, described in some Stoic writings as the causality of Nature, in others as the Will of God, moves with inevitability toward some good if unseen end. To resist any event or situation is to set oneself against the whole, a futile and exhausting stance that cannot be justified in light of the inevitable limitations and fallibility of human vision, knowledge, and understanding. Thus, loving fate, given the necessity with which every event takes its place in the great causal unfolding, implies loving every “indifferent” thing that happens as necessary in the longterm evolution of the greater good. Free will is left intact within this “compatibilist” model, because our choices, while subject to the eternal chain of causes, are themselves proximate causes that are at least to some extent determined by our character. The Stoics described this through the idea that some things are “up to us.” This preserves free will experientially, even if one holds that our character itself is the ineluctable effect of all the causes that brought us forth and made us who we are. Put another way, fate unfolds with necessity through our participation in the causal chain. We do not choose, then, in the sense that we are free to choose otherwise in the moment, but rather because free will, too, is determined. In hindsight, it will turn out that we always choose as necessity dictates, but in the moment, because we do not see the imperatives of that necessity, we have no choice but to choose, and to make the best choice we can, all things considered that are available to us to consider.

There are, of course, any number of objections that could be raised here: How does the Stoic know that life is deterministic, that events occur with necessity? On what does the Stoic base the assumption that, even if one grants the assumption of determinism, the causal sequence has a purpose, let alone a good one? Furthermore, isn’t the compatibilist version of free will really just a clever denial of free will? And if philosophy were nothing more than reason and theory and the sort of endless wrangling one finds in philosophy departments in universities everywhere, such objections might be hard if not impossible to satisfy. But it isn’t. Especially for the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a living thing, a lamp that illuminated one’s life and one’s way. Its value lay not in scholarly proof or polemics but in the degree of happiness and excellence in living conferred by its practice.

The directive to “love one’s fate” has much more to offer us than simply a method for avoiding the pointless, frustrating, and often self-defeating attempt to control or manage circumstances that enter our experience without our permission, affect us greatly as though with a will of their own, and move on only when something greater than our will has spoken the releasing word. If we look more closely at amor fati, we see an invitation and a challenge—to find in the events of our life, however adverse they may be, a meaning that we can embrace and affirm, one for which we even will feel grateful. A practical, if general, example shows how this works. Suppose that something adverse happens to you, something that in the moment you would regard as “bad.” Perhaps it tests your strength, your courage, your resilience—and as a result, you emerge from the experience stronger than you were, or wiser, or more enlightened. Was the adverse event bad? Or was it made good by what you took from it? The answer depends on whether or not you can find it in yourself to love your fate, to find the redeeming value or meaning that reveals the telos of a greater good.

We might allow that this resolve to see the good in even the most daunting adversity makes sense in hindsight. After all, who hasn’t bemoaned some turn of fate only to look back, perhaps years later, and see the diamond that was hiding in the lump of coal? But to do this before the fact? Or during the fact, while under fire? To anticipate and trust that the good is working out when everything is falling from our hands—it seems to be asking too much. It is indeed a great deal to ask of oneself, something the Stoics understood only too well, but it is not too much, because as they saw it, there is nothing in life more worth achieving. The practice of amor fati places in one’s open hand the key to happiness, quickening the ability to meet life and its many challenges with head high, and even to meet death with equanimity and that sanguine expectation that, in the heart of the sage, performs the ultimate alchemy of transmuting suffering and complaint into joy and gratitude.

10 August, 2017