Tag Archives: Philosophy

Running Towards Your Fears

I had just poured water into the heating filter for a Captain Country Chicken MRE, and was preparing to remove some layers of clothing beneath my flak vest (the weather had turned hot after the freezing night), when RPG and small-arms fire rattled the scrap iron that formed the roof of the filthy garage headquarters.

The fire directed at us did not let up. Over the ICOM, Smith learned that it was coming from a mosque on Michigan about 300 yards away. The mosque was promptly targeted for a possible air strike, and everyone began a fast march toward it.

Smith did not have to order his Marines straight into the direction of the fire; it was a collective impulse—a phenomenon I would see again and again over the coming days. The idea that Marines are trained to break down doors, to seize beachheads and other territory, was an abstraction until I was there to experience it. Running into fire rather than seeking cover from it goes counter to every human survival instinct—trust me. I was sweating as much from fear as from the layers of clothing I still had on from the night before, to the degree that it felt as if pure salt were running into my eyes from my forehead. As the weeks had rolled on, and I had gotten to know the 1/5 Marines as the individuals they were, I had started deluding myself that they weren’t much different from me. They had soft spots, they got sick, they complained. But in one flash, as we charged across Michigan amid whistling incoming shots, I realized that they were not like me; they were Marines.

“Five Days in Fallujah” by Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic July/August 2004

This is an essay that I read years ago out of my interest in history and military history. It’s by the journalist Robert D. Kaplan and details his experiences as an “embedded” journalist, accompanying the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment in 2004 as they worked to take the Iraqi town of Fallujah. The battle for Fallujah in 2004 was some of the hardest fighting in the Iraq war, and Kaplan’s article gives a good feel for what it was like on the ground.

While my interest in military history has waned some lately, I find that this excerpt has a lot of value outside of its military context. For while it’s talking about how Marines are trained to respond instinctively under fire in combat, it’s more about how human beings respond to fear and danger. And in that vein, it’s actually an important lesson and example for everyone and how we approach life and the fears and anxieties we face every day.

The simple fact is that fear is a part of being human, like I outlined in my word meditation on fear. We don’t get to choose whether we will experience fear or not. We get to choose what we do with our fear when it comes upon us.

Our reaction to fear is instinctive. Our body and mind urge us to either run away from our fear, or to hide and wait for it to pass us by. Both of those are natural responses and they have their place and purpose.

But we have another option, one that is not natural but can be learned. We can run towards our fears and face them. Unlike this example, when we run to meet our fears we’re not necessarily looking to fight them or overcome them. Rather, we’re looking to dispel them somehow. Oftentimes, once we are face to face with our fears, dispelling them is simply a matter of listening to them and understanding what they have to say. After all, fear ultimately isn’t an adversary; it’s a part of us that’s doing a job that’s meant to benefit us. But to do that, to engage with fear, we first have to run towards it, not away. And that’s no easy thing: many times we can feel that what we’re afraid of and have to run towards is something that could well destroy us.

That’s what these Marines did under fire, run towards something that could destroy them. And it’s instructive to look at how they came to be able to do it. They trained for it, they practiced it, over and over again. Through drills, exercises, and real-life experiences, they slowly developed new instincts, new responses and new habits. Until finally, the first, immediate response, without having to think about it, is to run towards rather than away.

I used to be a very fearful person. Then, I spent ten years working in crisis management. And over time, I learned to run towards things that I was afraid of, because running away only made it worse.

Over time, I learned to apply those lessons from work more broadly in life. And now, as I’m more focused once again on questions of spirituality and growth, I find that this is an important lesson for all of us. All of us can stand to learn how to run towards our fears rather than away from them.

It’s not easy. It’s not safe. Sometimes you get hurt. But it’s the right thing to do, the right way to approach life. And the lesson from this particular episode is that it can be done successfully and the key to that success is through practice.

Fortunately, being humans, we have a chance to practice running towards our fears every day.

Hubris (ὕβρις)

Today’s word meditation is on hubris. Often translated as “pride” hubris has a slightly different sense to it than pride as we understand the term through Judeo-Christian colorings.

Hubris is a critical concept behind ancient Greek myths and tragedy. It is best known, and most clearly seen, in the myth of Icarus, who took his gift of flight and ignored warnings not to go too close to the sun and so fell to earth.

There is this sense of overreach, of failing to respect the natural order of the world, and, typically, a sense of humans attempting to play god.

You can see how modern humans are increasingly suffering from hubris in today’s news. At one and the same time we have word of a species of rhino that is currently alive, and threatened with extinction by humans and a story about a species of plant that has been extinct for 30,000 years that scientists are reviving.

Humans reshaping the earth to suit their needs by killing things that live and reviving things that are dead.

Of course, that may be nothing compared to the new human-made “super flu” that we’re hearing about.

THAT my friends is hubris. Real hubris.

Or put another way, you can recognize hubris after the fact when you say “just because you could doesn’t mean you should have”.

Not even the gods will help us with this I fear.

τέλοϛ (telos)

Today I return to my word meditation series with a bit of a twist. Our word for today isn’t an English word. It comes from ancient Greek and is word that was once hugely important and influential in shaping classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Sadly, though, it has lost its potency with the rise of Christianity and modern science. It is, though, I think, a word and concept that we need to really look at and try to bring back.

Our word for today is τέλοϛ (telos). Telos means “end” and it forms the foundation of the philosophical idea of teleology.

“End” in English has a much simpler, and less rich meaning than telos does. This makes it hard to really get a sense of what telos is as an idea. At it’s simplest, telos is the idea that the end of something gives that thing its full purpose. And, it’s important to understand, that the telos has an influence: in Greek philosophy, the telos is one of the four causes that govern change.

This way of looking at ends is very different than we’re used to. In fact, it’s completely antithetical to our modern scientific view of cause and effect, because it runs counter to the flow of time. This is one reason why the idea of telos has been lost. And, in fact, poor thinking around causation is sometimes dismissed for being teleological.

Why is this idea of telos important? Because it gives an idea of directionality and purpose as we move through life. We humans, being story telling creatures, function best when we understand our life as a story. This is reflected in the oft-asked (to the point of cliche) question of “What’s the meaning of life”?

The psychologist James Hillman argued eloquently for the psychological need for telos in his book The Soul’s Code. In it he makes a powerful argument that this idea of telos gives people the focus and meaning that they need and helps them to better navigate life. Even if teleology may not be “true” in the scientific sense, he shows that it has utility and can fulfill a real purpose. To try and make clear what this really means, for me, when I read Hillman’s book, I realized that the teleological reason why my mother died and I found out that my father had died was because to be who I am now, I had to be made an orphan at 33. I know that need to be an orphan at 33 didn’t reach back in time and cause my mother to die of lung cancer and my father of suicide. But that framing of the events makes it easier for me to heal, cope, and make sense of it all.

One day, I was telling a friend about how I was watching the end of Kundun.

She remarked how I seem to like to watch the endings of movies. It’s an accurate obervation: I do. She didn’t ask explicitly why that is, but the observation set me to thinking on that question.

What I’ve figured out is that I like is not necessarily the endings of the films per se. Rather I like to see the telos. Especially teloi (Greek plural) that show people rising to heights that demonstrate the best things humans are capable of.

Whether it’s the flight of the Dalai Lama to India

the self-sacrifice of Batman to save Gotham City in The Dark Knight

a father’s sacrifice to save his son in Tron: Legacy

or the desperate charge of the Rohirrim before the gates of Minas Tirith into certain death to save the city in Return of the King

what moves me, gives me this curious expansive, tingly feeling is that sense that I’m witnessing a true, ennobling telos.

As I write this, I realize that part of what I’ve been going through with the Crucible has been a loss of my old sense of my telos. The telos that I thought I was moving towards is gone; it turns out my sense of what I thought it was was wrong. And that part of what I’m doing in posts like this and yesterday’s post Dream a big dream: Time to die is figure out what my true telos is. Granted, one doesn’t truly know until they reach their telos. But one can have a stronger or weaker sense of it. And humans fare better when they have a stronger sense of their telos, it gives them purpose. You can see how a strong sense of telos gives purpose in this scene from Babylon 5, when Jeffrey Sinclair reassures Delenn and explains how he is now like an arrow, sure of his purpose.

I don’t have that certitude yet myself. But every day is a step closer.  In a way, that simple observation that my friend made has prompted this post, and that has brought more clarity and me another step closer.

That last certainly underscores one thing I know about my purpose: it isn’t one that is found or done in isolation. When I thought about paths when I was younger, I was afraid that some paths, like Buddhism, would require me to be alone and that kept me from exploring those paths. I’ve lost the fear of exploring those paths now.

Like I say: we shall see.

In the meantime, if you want a bonus clip of another moving telos for me, check out the actions of Captain Hiroshi of the EAS Churchill(love the name!) in the Babylon episode Severed Dreams.

Presence

My natural inclination for balance leaves me feeling that a positive focused posting is in order to balance out the hard emotions found in Repudiate.

I think the logical candidate to balance this is the word that gave me the idea for these word meditation postings: presence.

As a preface to this posting, then, let me give a little background to how this all came about.

I really noticed the word presence after I watched the Martin Scorsese film Kundun. If you’re not familiar with Kundun, it follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama from when he was found by party searching for his reincarnation through his escape to India in 1959.

That film has been very important for me of late in my ruminations on things. I find it very moving in many ways. And I especially find the closing scene to be a very powerful mixture of spirituality and art. It also highlights and affirms a human nobility that speaks to me. It shows how one can be strong and gentle. That speaks to me because that is how I am, how I strive to be.

The title “Kundun” is a Tibetan word (སྐུ་མདུན) that is translated in English as “presence”. “Kundun” is the title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed by Tibetans. I found that a fascinating word to use as a title for the political and religious leader of a people who is reckoned a reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (known as Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་) in Tibetan and Kuan Yin (觀音) in Chinese).

That fact started me ruminating on the English word “presence”. And that ruminating led in turn to the idea of “word meditation postings”.

Presence has a very interesting etymology. It is formed from the root word “present” and the suffix “-ence“.

“Present” ultimately comes from a Latin verb, “Praesum“. Praesum combines the preposition “prae” with the Latin verb “sum“. “Prae” means “before” and is the root of the commonly used prefix “pre” (ironic that “prefix” has “pre” in it). “Sum” is the Latin verb “to be”. Combined, they have meaning of “being before” that has a very strong, almost tangible sense of being here now in both time and space.

(If you’re wondering how we get to “present” from “praesum” it’s because the Latin verb “to be” changes in its present (again, irony) infinitive form. “To be before” in Latin is “praeesse”. And in Latin, the present participle comes from the infinitive, so “being before” is “praesens”.)

“-ence” as a suffix comes from “-ent” which is related to the Latin suffix “-entia”.  As a suffix “-entia” typically denotes a sense of the quality of the root word. For instance in “sapientia“, the “-entia” “quality-izes” “sapiens“,  “thinking”.

So, present-ence becomes presence and as a word encapsulates this idea of the quality of being here now. It’s a very powerful word that connotes a very powerful concept. It is one of those words whose rich depth of meaning and its power is lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Think on it though: the quality of being here now. That’s a central Buddhist concept. So much of Buddhist mindfulness practice is centered on simply cultivating the quality of being here now, cultivating presence.

It makes sense and is fitting that this is the Dalai Lama’s title. Through his practice he comes closest of any human being to most fully embodying the quality of being here now, of presence. But too, he is a presence because as the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva is there within him, as a part of him, in front of us, present.

Being mindful, being present: these are important things that I am working on. And I find that a good place to start in this practice is to be mindful and present in the face of language. We forget that words have power. Speaking aloud of our experiences is hard but liberating sometimes. Those of us who have stood in silence out of fear for so long can speak to how scary and liberating it is to finally speak. And speaking and communicating is how we really make our presence known to others.

The Moral/Ethical Test of a Generation

I don’t write on current events like I used to. There’s many reasons for that, and enumerating those is perhaps for another posting.

But the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden is more than current events. It is one of those critical moments of history that shape not only the news and current events but we ourselves. What we make of it, what it makes of us: these are all critical questions and ones that we all by rights should grapple with.

Moments like this become logical points of reflection too. For example, there is this very interesting and astute analysis of that photo from the situation room during the raid. It looks at that photo as a snapshot of who we are as a country at this particular moment.

But most of all, this whole event is really a moral and ethical test writ large in the real world. Many of us have gone through the “what if” exercises around critical ethical and moral dilemmas in history. “You have a chance to go back in time and kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you”? “You’re Harry Truman and have to decide whether to use the atomic bomb or force an amphibious invasion of Japan, what do you choose”?

Whatever one may think about Obama (and me being me, my thoughts are complex), there is no denying that he had the unenviable task of answering this class of questions and having it count in the real world. He had to decide whether to kill bin Laden or capture him. He had to decide what to do with the body. He had to decide how to speak of it and frame it. He had to face a host of difficult moral and ethical questions. He had to answer the biggest moral and ethical test of this generation and do it where the answers really count.

I have to say that my own feeling is that he rose to the occasion and answered them with an appropriate mix of realism and nobility. As I say, my feelings on Obama are complex, but on this particular issue, I have nothing but admiration for his handling and gratitude for having someone in charge who handled these challenging questions so well.

I think there was no choice but to kill bin Laden. I am not happy for that fact, I don’t celebrate it. Robert E. Lee once remarked “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it”. Nietzsche famously wrote “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”. One of the foundations of the Buddhist point of view around forgiveness is that hate and anger themselves cause harm in those who hold on to them. Mark Twain summed that point up when he noted “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.

And yet, we live in a real world. And the fact is that bin Laden and his followers were not going to stop until they or we were dead. We didn’t choose this fight but the way he joined the fight made it a fight to the death. And so there was no choice: we had to kill him. Even the Dalai Lama has spoken to the necessity of “counter-measures” here.

With that heavy necessity, with the choice of what to do essentially made for us by necessity, the focus of moral and ethical questions then move to the how. How do we set out to do the needful and avoid the dangers Lee, Nietzsche and Twain all spoke to.

Obama’s choices around these questions where solid ones. They were grounded in the necessities of the real world but strove to do only as much harm as needed. The entire operation and handling is a strong lesson in the idea of proportionate force. Choosing to take the risk of sending American troops in rather than bombing the complex minimized civilian casualties, collateral damage and the risk of mistakenly killing someone else. Taking bin Laden’s body and disposing of it in a way that left no shrine for followers was necessary. But choosing to not make a trophy of his body, to not bandy it about in victory, and to not release the photos are all important choices that temper and humanize the harsh, necessary actions. They are, too I will note, choices that bin Laden and his followers haven’t made: witness the terrible murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl beheaded and his head raised as a trophy all on video tape. Burying bin Laden at sea was not something that is generally within Muslim practice. But preparing his body and giving it rites and respect in accord with Muslim practice tempers that fact. And the simple fact is that burial at sea is the only generally accepted means of disposing of a body to leave no trace that isn’t viewed as desecration in Islam. Here again, Obama gave Osama merciful treatment that the latter certainly wouldn’t have given the former.

In the days that have followed, Obama has struck a tone of grim determination and necessity. And that is the right way to speak of these things. We did what we had to do. We are not proud of it, we do not like it. But it had to be done, it has been done, and now we move forward.

In a quiet way, this whole episode has made me proud of being an American. Not in the “USA” chanting way of some. Rather, proud that we did something difficult in the best possible way. Wherever else I may have issue with Obama (and I do, like I do every politician), on this matter I am truly grateful and will never forget.

8400 Days

On this day and date, Thursday April 21, in 1988, I lost a friend to suicide.

I think it’s important to remember those who have gone: we who carry their memory ensure a part of them is still alive.

So, I always try to mark the date of her passing (as I do all those I have lost). Being a bit superstitious about days and dates, I consider anniversaries that fall on the same day to be particularly special. This year, the day and date coincide with that day twenty three years ago.

In reflecting on this, I realize that she’s been gone now longer than she lived. And I find, interestingly, that it has been exactly 8400 days that have passed since she passed.

I note this here not out of sadness, really. As I get older I am more and more reconciled with death as a reality. My readings in Buddhism over the past year, my experiences of multiple hard losses in the space of a year: all of these have made me find a new accommodation with death. I take very seriously the idea in Tibetan Buddhism that at the end of each day we die when we go to sleep, and at the beginning of each day we are born anew when we wake.

And so today I reflect not just on Kathy’s passing twenty three years ago: I reflect on the 8400 times I have died and been reborn since that day. I reflect on the unknown numbers of deaths and rebirths that await me yet in this form. I work to look forward rather than backward, for I have lived my life in a melancholy past for much of my life and want instead to live in a joyful present and a hopeful future.

I am listening to Arvo Pärt’s work for organ, Trivium I – III. Its sparseness has the proper reverent tone for a reflection like this. But, too, it has a delicate beauty that mirrors life. Beautiful, fleeting, passing in the blink of an eye.

In addition to keeping alive the memory of those who have gone, perhaps the greatest honor we can do them is to simply live and feel all that beauty that life has.

Perhaps the most poignant statement to that effect is made by Kevin Spacey at the end of American Beauty.

So today, I honor the memory of Kathy: I think back to her dark and blasphemous sense of humor, her beautiful dark eyes, the skirts and the hat she always wore, and I celebrate it all. And I celebrate the joy of my life, all the good in it, all the joy and pain and aliveness I have been gifted with these 8400 days.

Magister Ludens Irae

or: Master of the Game of Wrath (with tip of the hat to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game)

I have been thinking rather a bit about my posting talking about how angry and resentful my work has made me.

It was one of those posts that was written quickly, driven by the energy of realization and the power of the underlying emotion realized.

It is in some ways one of the most open postings I’ve ever made. Unlike other postings about myself, it’s me showing something I’m not proud of or happy about. It’s me showing how my circumstances have made me other than I want to be. And that’s a very vulnerable thing. It’s natural after sharing something like that to have worry and regret: should I not have posted it, will people like me less now that they see this side of me.

But as I thought about that all, I realized that my feelings about this post is misdirected. The post only shows what’s already there. If I’m going to feel worry and regret about this at all, I should feel it for those feeling being there in the first place and not for talking about it.

And so it was that I found myself feeling worry and regret about the anger and resentment that I find in myself from work after the post.

But then I started to think about the post before that, The Game where I closed by saying:

So, yes, I do desire this all once more and innumerable times more. Yes, thank you, for all of it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, I can’t wait to do it all again, and again, and again, and….

How can I say “yes” to what I had been thinking about in that earlier post and yet feel worry and regret about my work. Shouldn’t I be saying “yes” to what I’ve been through? Am I being a hypocrite?

Well, to a degree, yes, I was. Though more accurately, I would say that when I wrote Dies Irae I was still focused on the acknowledgement stage in coping. But having taken the thesis of Dies Irae and had it collide with the antithesis of The Game, I realize now there is a synthesis of the two pending. And I realize that synthesis is of critical importance for draining off the poison and the venom. For the synthesis is going and looking at this whole painful, damaging experience and learning how I am better for it, how the me that is emerging from it is so much more than I was before, for the better.

It’s not yet time for that. I need to close this chapter. But there will come a reckoning of what I’ve been through and out of that will, eventually, come the realizations of why I’m better for all that’s good and why I will say “yes” to that all again and again and again.

The Game

About all things, the question can and should be asked:

Is it worth playing the game?

No matter how much we win, by equal measure we will lose. The greater winner becomes the greater loser.

Is it worth playing the game? If you are looking at the game for payoffs, then the answer is no. There is no payoff, really. You walk out with what you walked in with: nothing.

But, what if you look at the game not for the payoff but for the experience itself? No one can take that away from you. The highs and lows you experience as you win it all and lose it all: those are yours and always will be until you are no more.

It is worth playing the game? I can say yes it is, because I’m learning to love the game and not worry about the payoff.

Today is one of those days I thank the Universe for all the pain, suffering and loss in my life. Because without them, I would fail to recognize and appreciate all the pleasure, joy and richness.

It is a day that reminds me of the powerful courage it takes to say “Yes” to Life, to look at at it all and say “Yes, thank you, for all of it, I wouldn’t change a thing”. This is what Nietzsche tries to evoke in his talk about “eternal return“. As he says in The Gay Science, Aphorism 341:

The greatest weight

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

So, yes, I do desire this all once more and innumerable times more. Yes, thank you, for all of it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, I can’t wait to do it all again, and again, and again, and….

The Coming, Quiet Social Revolution?

Despite all the hyperbole, I think it’s fair to say that the credit crisis represents the most serious loss of trust in the finance system since the Great Depression (and maybe even a more serious loss of trust than that).

It is a true “credit” crisis in that the word “credit” comes from the Latin verb “to believe” (credere). Another related word is credible, for instance. And the root of this all is that the system of transparency and oversight failed in regards to mortage backed securities. A whole system of financial checks and balances that exists to enable investors to intelligently manage risk failed to apply here. The net is that when everything unravelled, no one knew (or knows) who to believe and thus who to trust. No one is lending because no one trusts anyone.

As we get further along in this, though, businesses are starting to hobble through and figure out who they can trust “good enough” to get done things that must get done. It’s standard risk assessment: faced with a choice between certain bankruptcy due to no business activity or a gamble that lending money might actually not lose you money, the finance machine is starting to come down on the latter side of the equation.

That’s not all that surprising. It means that life is going to go on in some ways here soon.

But, the bigger loss of confidence has yet to be really remarked on. And that is the loss of confidence by the average investor. Those of us who have done all the things we’ve been told all our lives we should do: save money, put it away, invest it, plan for retirement and then, and only then, do you get to do what you want to do. We have seen years of  work evaporate over the course of a year and a half with no warning and no way of knowing it would happen. We followed the rules and lost for it, really.

Do people think that we will be returning to the status quo ante when things pick up again? Do people think we’ll rebuild the retirement savings machine now that we know that the system can take it all away with no warning and through no fault of our own?

I have my doubts. I know for myself I’ve decided to stop delaying gratification so much. I won’t blow all my money but I’m also not following an obsessive savings path trying to get to a magic number in the future either.

I tend to think that the finance system that comes out of this will be smaller. I also suspect that people will be working less obsessively. Maybe people will be working less and living more. Is that a bad thing? I remember the 1970’s as a time of horrible economics but also a time before the “your work is your life” movement of the 80’s reset the culture. If this is as big a time as the recession of the 70’s – 80’s was, then we should be starting to look for the social impact of this all.

De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace

The title of this post is from Georges Danton. It has been misattributed to Frederick the Great and Napoleon (including in the movie Patton). It means, “Audacity, and more audacity, and always audacity”.

It’s been used many times by many people.

Even if misattributed it’s still a good saying to keep in mind.