Remembrance of a Friend

It has been a year since the loss of one of the dearest friends of my lifetime. I wanted to write a few words.

My friend was named Marissa. We met in early 2013. It was not long before we discovered that we were both obsessive fans of the band Rush (because of that there might be a reference or ten in this post). One of my first memories of our budding friendship was when I posted on social media something about Rush (as is my custom) and she commented “Rush is the best band on the planet!” We found we had shared interests about many things and common values about life—everything from literature to advocacy and care for those with mental illness. In our brief seven-year friendship, we grew close and I think I would describe the core of our friendship as a deep mutual respect.

On June 1, 2020 I was informed that she had died. She was only 42. Marissa was healthy. She exercised rigorously, ate well, and took care of herself in every way. It was a random freak accident, in her own residence no less, that ended her life. She had moved in the first part of the year to Colorado. When we could, we would occasionally talk, text, or video chat. After the Covid-19 pandemic began, we made it a point to video chat every week or two. We had just discussed scheduling another shortly before the accident. Time is always precious, though it often takes such tragedies to remind us. As a line well known to we Rush fans says: “Suddenly you were gone/from all the lives you left your mark upon” (from the song Afterimage on the album Grace Under Pressure).

Rush composed a song titled Nobody’s Hero that was on their 1993 Counterparts album. In a Rock Icons documentary about bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, Lee said the song “is about the people that go missing from our lives and their disappearance from the world that seems like a crime.” That sums up my loss of Marissa. She went missing from the lives of those who loved her; to those of us who knew her and her goodness, her disappearance seemed like a crime. But as the song says, in this big wide world she was “nobody’s hero.” She was not the “handsome actor who plays the hero’s role.” She was not famous and known to the world. She simply lived her life always finding time to find the good in others and to do good to others—human others and non-human others as well (I think her closest companions were her “snow dogs” and felines). She was an extraordinary person who made being so seem ordinary, like the musician who can play extremely complicated parts with effortless ease.

As the song says, “When I heard that she was gone, I felt a shadow cross my heart…”

The last in-person time I had with her was in January of 2020, right before she moved to Colorado. On January 10th, we learned that Rush drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, had succumbed to brain cancer (glioblastoma) just a few days before on the 7th. Rush fans worldwide felt a shadow cross their hearts. I had been in the midst of painting my home. One evening, as my fiancée Alison and I were painting the walls of my kitchen, Marissa came by and gave us a hand. The three of us took a moment to raise a toast to “The Professor” (one of Neil Peart’s many nicknames). I grabbed my guitar and we sang Closer to the Heart—if you can call what I was doing singing, anyway. The following morning, Alison and I met Marissa for breakfast at a favorite place for coffee and crêpes. Although I would talk to her and see her via technological means several times after, that was the last time I hugged my dear friend. One never knows when the last chance to hug a friend will come and be gone. I take none of them for granted.

Our last interaction was on May 15, 2020. We were texting and planning our next video chat for that weekend. We did not determine a specific time and agreed to touch base that weekend. I do not remember why, but for whatever reason I did not reach out to her and neither did she contact me. I messaged her midweek on May 20. My message, which I have not deleted, still shows unread. I did not think much about not hearing from her, because we would sometimes stay in touch regularly and other times weeks might go by before we would talk. No big deal. Then I got the message on June 1 about what had happened. There are no words for that feeling that so many of us have felt at the unexpected loss of someone dear.

I have a million or so memories that I hold dear. Many of those are concerts we were at together. We had not met yet, but we realized that our first known concert together was Rush’s Clockwork Angels tour in Dallas in November 2012 (that show was filmed for the tour BluRay/DVD). We were yet to meet for a few months, but we were both there. Along with some others, we were at Rush’s R40 tour at the same venue in Dallas. The very last show we went to together was the Judas Priest/Uriah Heep tour when it came through Dallas and we got the chance to go backstage and meet Uriah Heep, pictured here:

Marissa and I backstage at The Bomb Factory in Dallas with Uriah Heep

The world is remarkably small sometimes. I was not aware of it, but after Neil Peart’s passing from this life (see my post on that here), Marissa had commissioned a painting from artist and Rush fan, Kelly D of  Vital Visions Art by Kelly D. The painting was to be of Neil surrounded by many of his lyrics that have inspired we Rush fans our entire lives. I follow Vital Visions Art on Facebook and one day saw Kelly D post about the painting (nearing completion) and how she had just heard about Marissa’s death. Kelly D was another life that Marissa had touched with her goodness and she—Kelly D—expressed her sorrow at hearing the news. I reached out to Kelly D as I was certain the Marissa she spoke of was one in the same as my friend. We exchanged a few messages about Marissa. I mentioned the exchange to another of my dearest friends (who is about to be my best man at my wedding next month) and being the kind of person he is, he contacted Kelly D and purchased the painting for me as a gift. So what Marissa had originally commissioned now resides with me as it awaits to be framed in the near future. What an immeasurable gift.

“For the Love of Neil Ellwood Peart #7: Read the Words that Touch my Heart” by artist Kelly D

I am blessed to have many friends. I have always liked to think of myself as an individual who prefers a few close friends to a lot of superficial acquaintances. While I still think that way, I cannot deny that looking around I am blessed with many friends who are anything but superficial. Some I have lost. The loss of Marissa will always leave its permanent mark. But how fortunate am I to have known her and how fortunate am I to have such good friends—some near some far—still here. My friend and colleague, Brian Treanor, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, recently published a book,  Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living, which I have found to be a timely and important book. Although there is, as Brian says in the book (referring to the final words of Vincent Van Gogh according to his brother, Theo) “sadness that will last forever,” there is also joy that remains. The challenge of life is to live in that joy while inevitably and beyond choice living in the sadness that comes. Anyone who knew Marissa knows that she lived in that joy in the face of every challenge. That is the Marissa I will always remember. It’s a measure of a life…

Time Well Spent

St. Augustine said that he knew perfectly well what time is…just so long as no one asked him what it was. I think we are much like Augustine. Until we have to think about it or give some kind of definition, we know what time is. But how to articulate what we seem to understand leaves us at a loss.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Time is something of a mystery. How is it that moments go by? How is it that a moment that is not yet becomes present before slipping into being no more? Physicists and philosophers explain it in different ways. My own library has a stack of books from bright minds on the subject from various disciplines, mostly philosophy and science. As helpful and often interesting as such explanations are, none of them fully scratch that itch of understanding the mystery of time.

Whatever time is, we all know that we experience it. We all understand a few simple truths. We know we cannot go back in time and change anything that has happened. We can only learn from it so that our present behavior might be influenced for the better. We also know that we cannot step ahead into the future to cause a desired outcome. The only effect we can have on the future is what we do today—in the present.

What is apparent is the only time we have is each passing moment, the moment as it passes. All we have is the fleeting present. So what the hell do we do with it?

We talk about spending time. To spend conjures the financial metaphor. Just as we should spend our money wisely, we should likewise be wise with the allocation of our time. We speak of saving money and of saving time. Just like money, time can be wasted, or it can be well spent and result in something worthwhile and lasting. Also, like money, we cannot spend what is already spent or what we do not yet have. The only time available to spend is the present time.

What is time well spent? I offer here no exhaustive list, nor do I presume what is time well spent for me is time well spent for you. Whatever time well spent is for any of us, I think there are some common criteria by which to measure. The philosophical life is the examined life. That is, I must examine my choices to determine whether they lead to living well. What are some of these questions?

Do the ways in which I choose to spend or pass my time make me a better person? Do I grow or do my choices stunt my growth as a human being? Is my community enriched in any way by how I spend my time? Do I learn about the world around me or become isolated and alienated from it? What should I spend more time doing and less time doing? While each of us must figure out our own specifics, here are a few things that I think are worthwhile to guide us.

More time listening, less time speaking.

We all want to be heard. It is human to want that. Speaking and having our voice heard is fundamental to our well-being. We all want “voice recognition.” Not the kind on devices such as our phones, but the recognition that we are valuable and possess dignity. Very few things are an offense to our sense of value and dignity more than not being heard or, worse, silenced. It should be evident that listening is the counterpart of speaking. If you are speaking but I am not listening to you, then the purpose of your speaking remains unfulfilled. We all know this in our experience. “Why will you not listen to me?” “You are not hearing what I am saying?” My desire to have my voice heard must be balanced by my commitment to listening.

I am convinced that this is as true today as it has ever been. From cable news to talk radio to daytime talk shows to Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone has something to say. “Everyone knows everything and no one’s ever wrong” (Show Don’t Tell, Neil Peart). There is a lot of speaking going on. It is maddening noise to a great extent. But everyday life in our encounters with others is not the same place as these platforms. We must learn to spend a good deal of our time listening and less of it speaking.

In his master work, Totality and Infinity, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “face to face” encounter with the Other. Who is this “Other”? The Other here is anyone (or thing) that is not “I.” Levinas says that we should consider the Other in her or his “infinity,” that is, a fathomless mystery to which we should be open. According to Levinas, the face-to-face relation “…involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced by the face of the other….” Besides just being the courteous thing to do, spending more time listening to the Other and less time speaking can open us to learning things we did not know, gaining perspectives that we did not have, becoming more understanding of others, and enlarging our own selves, dwelling in a bigger world than the small one we thought was already everything. It is good to learn things we did not know and to learn a few things about ourselves that perhaps we did not want to know but are the better for it. Listening more and speaking less is time well spent.

More time learning, less time judging

This one goes hand in hand with the last one. It should go without saying (yet everything that we say should go without saying is something we feel we should say anyway), but the notion of spending more time learning and less time judging does not mean that we should never judge. Making judgments is an inescapable part of life and even necessary. We cannot not judge. We should just make sure we make good judgments. I propose here that the more we learn, the better equipped we are to judge well. So it makes sense to spend more time on the learning side of things and less time on the judging side. Learn much. Judge little.

You may have prejudgments about a person, a group of persons, an event, a religion, and so on. Just as it is impossible not to exercise judgment, it is likewise impossible to approach any encounter without prejudgments and presuppositions that have up to now formed how you approach the world. To spend more time learning (as well as listening) is to take that critical attitude toward oneself to learn something new. Any prejudgment that cannot bear the weight of being subject to critical awareness and reflection is not worth keeping.

It takes intention to decide to spend more time learning and less time judging. But it is worth it. It is time well spent.

More time reflecting, less time reacting

I do not know about you, but I can sometimes be a little rash. I jump to conclusions sometimes too easily and quickly. It is all too easy to react when something takes us by surprise. Armed with all of those prejudgments that condition our understanding of the world, we already know the answer before we even have to think about what it is that we are reacting to! But then, we also might be a little foolish.

There are times to react in life. Still, I think we often react when we should reflect. Reflecting allows us that step back to really think something through. It allows us the time to notice things that would otherwise pass us by. Reflecting opens a door to call ourselves into question, which can both affirm those convictions we should keep and those we must dispense with. Valid convictions have nothing to fear from reflection and questioning. More time reflecting and less time reacting is, I believe, time well spent.

More time outside, less time inside

My inside time means a lot to me. We are all different. Some people cannot sit still and being inside drives them a little nutty. When lockdown was mandated due to Covid-19, staying inside did not bother me a bit. As I joked then, “I have been training for this all of my life!” Yes, I missed the freedom to go places, I missed people and not knowing when I could see them again was difficult. But being inside itself is not a problem for me.

I forget sometimes, as I am sure we all do, that the world is bigger than me. There is more to explore and to learn than I could manage in a thousand more lifetimes. I am an introvert. I could hide away inside the rest of my life and find contentment. But there is so much I would miss, even things that would make my inside time richer for having experienced it. How one spends time outside is different for everyone. But the value of being amongst trees and waterways cannot be truly estimated. Even being in city streets and seeing the wonders of the world (many in your own back yard) cannot be overestimated. Being among people is time well spent. Serving them or serving with them for some good cause is priceless.

Time inside and time outside are both important. But as a rule, I tend to think (the older I get) that more time outside and less time inside is time well spent.

More time loving, less time hating

Hate is a strong word, but we have so much of it. Some careers are built on having hate or conjuring hate in others. Some hate is actually good. We should hate injustice. To be mildly irritated by a great injustice would indicate the absence of a developed moral sense. Some things call for hate. But we could all do with less of it and I think most hate today is not the good kind of which I speak. Besides, it is much more fulfilling to love. I think it wise to love so much that the only time available for hate is the hatred of injustice. Love is an act and like all worthwhile acts, must be done with intent. You cannot love by accident; you have to love on purpose.

More time loving and less time hating is time well spent.

More time giving, less time taking

Like each example I have discussed, it seems that the more time given to one will ensure less time for the other. Giving of yourself, giving of your time means you will take less from others. We all have to have a little give and take. Human relationships are not and can never be one-sided. While I am giving more time to reflecting, one of the things I reflect upon is what kind of person I want to be. Do I want to be a person who gives more or one who takes more?

There is something about giving of yourself that makes you more, not less. In giving myself away, I find that there is more of me. But the more I am a taker, the more the real “I” fades away and diminishes.

Yes, more time giving and less time taking is time well spent.

Certainly, there are numerous other examples that could be listed as to what to give more time to and what to give less time to. I find that lists help when I take the time to do them! In the spirit of the philosophical, that is, the examined, life, spend a little time thinking about time. What am I giving more time to that I should or would like to give less time to? What am I giving little or no time to that I should or would live to give more time to?

Whatever time is, it is more or less…time. Think about what to spend more of it on and less of it on.

That would be time will spent.

Getting Back in Touch

The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.

—Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost (p. 14).

Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.

—Richard Kearney, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense (p. 133).

It has been just over a year since the United States went into lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic. The phrase “social distancing” entered our common discourse. Some preferred “physical distancing.” Regardless of the chosen phrase, the meaning was clear and related to how Covid-19 was transmitted. Stay away from gatherings. When it is necessary to enter a public space, such as a grocery store, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. As I wrote early on in the first of three parts over at the blog Hermeneutical Movements, “With social distancing, we are being directed specifically to avoid the sensation of touch. Wash your hands. Do not touch others. Stay 6 feet apart so that the microscopic body of COVID-19 does not touch your body or from you the body of another.”

The situation led us to do what people tend to do as an outlet. We expressed ourselves on social media. Feeds were awash with memes and varied types of posts expressing all the differing viewpoints on the crisis and the intense emotion that accompanied those views. A very regular theme, obviously so, was about not being able to see or touch those we love who were outside of our households. It is important to note that “see” here means to see in proximate physical space. “Seeing” was something that in many ways increased during the pandemic through the medium of real-time video chat. “Zoom,” one particular platform, became the catch all word, although it was one platform among many, such as FaceTime, Webex, and others. I was reminded of when I was a kid when “Hoover,” a brand of vacuum, became the synonymous with “vacuum cleaner” regardless of the brand (“I am going to grab the Hoover from the closet and sweep the carpet.”).

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Yes, we did a lot of “seeing” each other. We were suddenly having weekly get togethers over video chat with friends and family we might have rarely seen prior to that. But when we say things like, “I am going to see the doctor” or “I will be seeing a friend for dinner” or, when we start dating someone, “I am seeing so-and-so,” what we really mean is that we are going to be in physical proximity in a shared space—the doctor’s office, a restaurant, or being together frequently with a new flame.

When people reacted to not being able to see or touch loved ones, they were reacting to having to stay physically away from them. As human beings, we need physical closeness. Whether with one another, outdoor spaces, or animals, we need the corporeal experience of an other. Back in the day, before cell phones, phone company advertisements told us that long distance was “the next best thing to being there” and to “reach out and touch someone.” These advertisements exploited our most primordial human need—the need to touch and be touched. Today, Zooming might be construed as the next best thing to being there. But there is no mistaking, long distance phone calls or video chatting cannot replace “being there.” These may be the next best thing, but we all know that being there is the best thing.

So it is quite reasonable that people would have passionate reactions to guidelines and directives that we quarantine and to distance at least 6 feet from those outside of our immediate household. I recall at the time hearing people take great offense. How horrible, for example, to tell a grandchild not to hug grandpa and grandma! The very idea! The notion was implied that somehow the state was seeking to control human intimacy and separate us from one another.

Then there were those who questioned the reality of the danger of Covid-19. Hey, if there really is a deadly virus, why are there not biohazard containers to dispose of them?! This question implies that Covid-19 must not truly be the danger it is claimed to be or there would be proper disposal containers. One need not be an infectious disease expert to answer this or similar questions. Yet, people persisted asking them anyway and, of course, such questions fueled outlandish conspiracy theories about the virus.

It would be nice, ostensibly, to live in a world without nuance, in which pesky variables in existence did not force us to use prudential judgment in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. The crucial question is whether Covid-19 is an extremely deadly virus. We know that it is (if after all this time you are not clear on that point, I do not know what to say). Of course, our “default setting” is to want to be together. We want to hug each other when we meet and when we say goodbye. We want to express our love for those close to us. But in other contexts, we all understand that there are times when because of our love for another, we do not touch. Why is it so difficult to understand why we need to refrain from touch in a Covid-19 world?

If someone is sick at work, we tell them to go home and stay away! We want to avoid getting sick. If someone has a cold, we say “don’t breathe on me!” We tell people to cover their mouths when they cough and to use their elbow not their hands. School teachers, when asking for help with supplies, always have anti-bacterial wipes on the lists to keep the classroom sanitary and avoid illness spreading in the classroom. We all understand these things. Social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gathering in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic are no more, no less than this common wisdom, only more intense, proportionate to the danger this virus poses.

So, yes. We want to touch. But sometimes we understand that we must not. Under ordinary circumstances, we express love with touch. Under out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, loving others sometimes means we express our love and care for others and their well-being by not touching them.

Consider the Žižek quotation at the top of this article. “The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.” No matter how technological we become, how much we engage in virtual activities, no matter how many Zoom meetings we participate in, our existence is in the flesh. The body must be nourished and hydrated, or it dies. Sickness is in the body. Viruses affect the body. When we stub our toe in the middle of the night on our way to the bathroom, we become very aware of our bodily existence. Living in and through the body is so basic to our existence, we go through our day without thinking about it. That is, until something, as Žižek says, reminds us. Also, as he notes, bodily life is dangerous. You can get sick. You can be in an accident.

Likewise, like so many things, when we cannot have it, we want it. To refer to Kearney’s words at the top of this post, “Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.” Kearney says in the same chapter of his book, “The more touch is impossible, the more one wants it and appreciates how vital it is to our being,” and “The rarer tactile experience became, the more it was valued.”

Kearney notes that our embodiment is primal. It is true that when we are denied touch, we become very aware of how important it is. I am now teaching all my classes online. While it is necessary for my safety and the safety of my students, I miss interacting with them in the classroom. A fellow academic told me recently that she likes to make cookies for her students and bring them to class. She is also teaching online and misses giving that simple gesture of love. But the pandemic has created a situation that the most loving thing to do is not touch.

I have students who have contracted Covid-19. What if my classes were in person? Before knowing they had it, they would have brought it to class with them, endangering their fellow students and me, their professor. While I would rather be with them, I understand that it is better that I am not. I may not like it and wish to return to normal, but wisdom says this is best for now. In order to return to touch, we must avoid it as much as possible for now.

Thankfully, we are getting closer. The vaccines are being distributed. We will reach herd immunity. When we get back to “normal” life or whatever a post-pandemic world will look like, let us not forget what it is to be “rooted in bodily existence” and how “vital it is to our being.” The world will continue to grow more virtual and technological, not less. This will benefit us in many ways, certainly. But we are never not bodily beings. While I would rather the Covid-19 pandemic had not been, there are many lessons to learn from it. Basic to them all is that we are tactile beings.

Yes, hug your loved ones. Maybe even more often. Do other things, too. Go outside more often. Put your phone away. Hug a tree. Take more walks. In whatever way you choose to get in touch with your body does not matter. Just get in touch.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Opening Up Texas—Bad Idea Gov. Abbott, Very Bad Idea

I have been a resident of the state of Texas since June of 2004, approaching 17 years now. A job brought me here and while I had not seen Texas in my future before that time, I have come to enjoy and appreciate quite a bit about this state and the area in which I live. Whether 17 years here makes me an official Texan is a matter of opinion, I suppose; but one thing is certain—as a resident of this state, Greg Abbott is my governor.  Speaking as a resident of Texas, I have to say that my governor is acting irresponsibly and foolishly.

On March 2, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA 34 opening up the state of Texas without restriction and rescinding the mask mandate. In fact, most previous executive orders related to COVID-19 have been “rescinded in their entirety.” GA 34 is rather clear that there are “no state-imposed COVID-19 operating limits for any business or any other establishment” and that there is “no state-imposed requirement to wear a face covering.” After he announced this at a press conference, the governor tweeted:

The ALL CAPS indicates it is really important, I suppose.

Governor Abbott distinguished between counties in Texas with high hospitalization rates and those without. For those without, people are “encouraged” to wear a mask when they cannot socially distance, but “no person may be required” to wear any sort of face covering. In counties with high hospitalization rates a county judge may order “mitigation strategies,” but not those that require “business and other establishments” to operate below 50% occupancy. He forbade any operating limits on religious services.

If, in these counties where a judge does impose mitigation strategies, someone violates them, what happens? Nothing much. Governor Abbott said in the order that confinement in jail may not be imposed as a penalty. If someone refuses to wear a face mask where it has been required, no penalty of any kind may be imposed. The only recourse a business/property owner has is to request law enforcement to remove the violator from the premises (under the Texas Penal Code, any property owner already has this right for any reason or no reason).

GA 34 does “strongly” encourage people to “use good-faith efforts” to follow the coronavirus health guidelines of the Texas Department of State Health and Human Services. Seriously, Governor Abbott? First, you open the state without restriction; then you ensure no real consequence for violating any requirement where such can be held up. Then you ask for “good-faith efforts” to follow DSHS guidelines? Why? If the threat is so inconsequential as to open the state entirely and to completely rescind a mask mandate, then are those good-faith efforts necessary? If the threat is so inconsequential that you think there is no need to use the power of your office in the interest of public health, why ask it of individuals? If the threat is so inconsequential, just open the state, rescind any mitigation mandates, and be done with it. Certainly, individuals can do what they want. I will be wearing a mask in public. But asking for a good-faith effort while simultaneously stating that it is safe enough to open up 100% makes no sense. If there is a reason for people to use good-faith efforts, then there is reason for you to impose mitigation efforts accordingly and proportionate to the need.

The Order goes on to say some other interesting things. Abbott says that the GA 34 does not preclude businesses and such from imposing requirements on employees and customers, including a face mask. But, of course, no one has to follow it. I suppose an employee could lose her or his job and a customer could be removed from the property, but that is about it. Employees have more incentive, obviously, to comply. The point is that there are no state sanctions. The Order goes on to talk about facilities such as nursing homes, jails, schools, etc. In a nutshell, the word is that these places should follow the guidelines of appropriate agencies (e.g., Health and Human Services, Texas Education Agency). Why those agencies and not businesses? Yes, I understand the difference between state agencies and privately owned businesses. But if it is safe to open 100% then why should even state agencies need to continue mitigation practices? If it is safe for businesses, then it is safe period. COVID-19 makes no such distinction between public and private.

In his press conference, Governor Abbott offered justifications for his actions. For instance, we now have vaccines, and those vaccines are being amply administered in the state of Texas. As of this writing, I just received my first shot this past Friday and will receive my second by the end of this month. There is no doubt that these vaccines are, as the Governor described them, “tools to protect Texans from the virus.” You know what other things are tools to protect Texans Governor Abbott? Mitigation strategies that you, by Executive Order GA 34, have rescinded. The availability of new tools does not mean we can abandon former tools.

Perhaps I am mistaken. He also said at the press conference: “Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year.” To the contrary, Governor Abbott, an executive order that, in your words, opens the state 100% and cancels a mask mandate, does precisely that! Executive Order GA 34 effectively abandons those safe practices you claim Texans have mastered. That Texans are free to continue to practice them by individual choice does not speak to what your executive order does.

Governor Abbott may reply that Texans have gotten so good at mitigation practices that he is comfortable rescinding mandates and opening up the state. But would that not indicate that such practices are still necessary? Whether by law or free choice, that is the question, is it not? Are such mitigation efforts necessary? If so, then there is no reasonable justification to cancel them by Executive Order, leaving them to individual choice. And while I and other responsible Texans may freely choose to continue safe practices, an executive order that rescinds them will mean that I have to deal with many other Texans that will not continue them, because the governor of the state gave them permission. Since the pandemic began, I do not get out much. But even in the little that I do, I have heard people, far more than I am comfortable with, say that COVID-19 is a hoax. I have heard people proclaim the virus is overblown, despite more than half a million deaths of fellow American citizens. Setting aside the fact that there is no data that would indicate that Texans, en masse, will practice safe mitigation, it is not reasonable to place the burden on individual choice if such efforts are still necessary to protect the population. Individual choice is great until it negatively and harmfully affects others.

He also stated that this executive order “ensures that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.” Do those who have died have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Do those who have recovered but now have permanent health problems and are most certainly looking at a life shorter than they would have had otherwise have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Does my freedom to determine my own destiny imply that my actions may justly impede this freedom for a fellow citizen? Governor Abbott’s statement here belies a myopic political philosophy that does not understand that individual freedom and the public good are not opposed but rely on each other. By his logic, let us no longer ban smoking in restaurants. If I may, for example, refuse to wear a mask for the health and safety of my fellow Texans, then why do I not have the right to blow cigarette smoke in their faces? Smoking in public places has been banned due to the known consequences of cigarette smoke. It is understood that the “freedom” to smoke does not extend to endangering the lives of others. Why should a virus that wreaked global havoc and killed millions be any different? Perhaps seatbelts should be a matter of individual choice. While we are at it, why have stop signs and traffic lights. Have not Texans mastered sound traffic practices? Abandon speed limits in school zones. Surely, people will drive safely to protect school children.

Abbott is correct. We have many tools now at our disposal to protect Texans from COVID-19. Use them. Do not relinquish the responsibility of your office and the state of Texas to employ those tools. Rather, use that power to make vaccines available to teachers and all employees in public education. Make those tools available to all healthcare workers. Partner with the efforts of the federal government for the good of all Texans. Yes, things are looking up. This is precisely the reason not to abandon mitigation strategies, but it is precisely the time to double down and take care of Texans.

If the short history of the past year is any indication, opening up now and rescinding mandates, especially mask wearing, is a guarantee that cases will surge when it does not have to be that way. Maintain mitigation strategies. Anything short of that is, as I said at the beginning of this post, irresponsible and foolish. The real message here is that Governor Abbott is willing to sacrifice hard working Texans who make substandard wages for “the economy” (read: profits).

Another irony here is that the day after he says that Texas is in good shape and that we can open up the economy, Abbott tweets this:

Could it be that when the inevitable spike in cases and deaths results from his irresponsible governance, the Governor of Texas has already prepared a scapegoat?

Texas, in my 17 years here, I have come to love you. We can do better. Governor Abbott, a resignation would be the right thing to do now.

“Hermeneutics in Real Life” – Report on a New Project

“Consequently, hermeneutics cannot remain a technique for specialists—the technē hermēneutikē of those who interpret oracles and marvels; rather hermeneutics involves the general problem of comprehension.”

—Paul Ricoeur

“The principle of hermeneutics simply means that we should try to understand everything that can be understood.”

—Hans-Georg Gadamer

One of the most prominent misunderstandings about philosophy I encounter time and again is that philosophy is esoteric and does not apply to “real” life. As with any discipline there are aspects for the specialist, to be sure, but philosophy has far more to do with so-called real life than it does with the esoteric. Those who believe philosophy has no worth in day-to-day life simply do not understand what philosophy is in the first place.

If what I just wrote is true about philosophy generally (spoiler alert: it is true), then it is even more so with a particular field of philosophy known as hermeneutics, which, going back to Aristotle at least, hermeneutics has a history as old as philosophy itself. Hermeneutics studies what it is when we interpret the world—that is, when we comprehend meaning and gain understanding. Questions such as the universality of interpretation, the role and function of language, and the conditions for understanding are all things hermeneutics engages.

As such, hermeneutics has a broad application to any number of things. In my years of studying hermeneutics, I have seen hermeneutics brought to bear on several different disciplines. I have read, for instance, articles on the application of hermeneutical principles to medical professionals communicating with comatose patients. I have read (and written a few) texts about hermeneutics and environmental issues. The more you understand hermeneutics, the more obvious it becomes that there is almost no human activity that does not involve interpretation and, thus, can benefit from hermeneutical insights.

The foregoing is why I am particularly excited about a new project from Dr. Todd Mei called Hermeneutics in Real Life (HINRL). The HINRL project is aimed at the application of hermeneutics to life outside of academia. There are several resources already available. Of particular interest and value are the upcoming “Conversation Sessions” on a variety of topics beginning March 7 with Professor Richard Kearney of Boston College. Professor Kearney will be talking about The Guestbook Project, which is an initiative aimed at peacebuilding and conflict resolution throughout the world through storytelling (i.e., narrative).

In subsequent months, other topics will be discussed from a variety of speakers. Everything from “What is Sex?” (that got your attention) to “Narrative Medicine” to “Meaningful Work” and others. The sessions are free to attend via Zoom but require pre-registration to get the Zoom link.

I encourage those interested to look at the HINRL website and explore the pages and resources there. If you are wondering what this business of “hermeneutics” is all about, take a look at the “New to Hermeneutics?” page on the site.

I hope this new project has great success!

On Being Political

We have just gone through quite a tumultuous season of politics. As I write this, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took place a few days ago. On January 6, the constitutional certification of the 2020 election was violently interrupted by a seditious mob with no regard for truth, democracy, or justice. I wrote about that here. It would make sense to assume that a post about being political was motivated by these events and the general political climate in which we have been dwelling. The fact is, to the contrary, it is just coincidental. I planned to write a few posts about different words and, specifically, how we use them in a way that tends to obfuscate their meaning; and, thus, obfuscating how we understand (interpret) the world and how we conduct ourselves within it. The first on my list is what it means to be “political” or to engage in politics. That said, if what I write here has any merit to it, it might reflect a better body politic than we have recently endured.

I am sure most of us have heard someone say something to the effect of, “When the family gets together for the holidays, best not to talk about politics.” We have all also heard someone say, and perhaps said ourselves, that some public official or another is “playing politics.” Or how about “Whoa there! This is getting too political!” We talk about the political in companies in which we work. In these and similar uses, all of which are quite common, politics and the political are cast in a negative light. Being political is bad. Being political means to be cunning, clever, and wily so as to have the upper hand in advancing one’s agenda (without regard for ethics or goodness).

But is this the best way to look at being political?

Politics or the political is rooted in the Greek concept of the polis, that is, the city. When a group of people choose to inhabit the same space and agree on rules for sharing that space, they become “citizens” in contrast to a grouping of isolated, autonomous individuals where the only rule is power and survival. I have liberty, but my liberty ends where yours begins. If I hold my liberty to be a good, then I must hold that yours is, too. If we are to inhabit the same space, it is good that we protect the liberty of all individuals. This means that we are going to have to have some rules and to organize ourselves in such a way that every individual can live free amongst all the other free individuals who share the same space. It is a false dichotomy to pit individual liberty against the collective good. Each contributes to the viability of the other. Individual liberty is protected in an environment of the collective good and the collective good is made healthy when the individuals within it have liberty. The “one” and the “many” are not competitors, but necessary counterparts.

How we define the collective good and individual liberty is what it means to be political. That we dwell together is unavoidable. How we dwell together is the art of politics. Being political in its truest sense means to act like citizens. In Latin—civitas. Civitas can be described as the bunch of us all living together, willingly bound by the same rules so we can live together in relative peace. If we have disagreements, we have things like courts, for example, to settle disputes. I may not like the outcome and courts can make mistakes (no one is infallible, which is why we have appeals), but such a fallible apparatus is to be preferred. It helps us remain “civil.”

Granted, everything I have written here should be understood by anyone who has had 9th grade level civics in high school. However, if my social media feeds are any indication, there are a lot of grown adults who need to revisit 9th grade civics. A little revisit to the humanities, such as literature or philosophy, would not hurt them either.

Certainly, there are much more nuanced discussions to be had. There are sharp disagreements in political views, economic views, and morality for which easy answers are not available. It would be naïve to think otherwise. But the greatest chance of success we have is when we learn to be political in the truest sense of the word. If we cannot get “political” at the family gathering, especially when divergent views are present, it is because we are not good at being political. Like everything, politics has its proper place and time, and recognizing that is itself good politics, good civitas.

Not everyone will be political in the same way. Some will become politicians and leaders. Others will simply get out and vote when it is time while being a good citizen each day in the workplace and at home. You and I each have to find our way of being political, but not being political is not a choice. As a writer/musician whose use of words I am very fond of wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” He also wrote that “the men [and women!] who hold high places must be the ones who start,” but the blacksmith, the artist, the philosopher, and ploughmen must also do their part to bring us “closer to the heart.” (Neil Peart).

Let us not avoid being political. Let us learn to be good at it. It is long overdue that we put being a citizen back in the citizenry.

“If I could wave my magic wand”…a remembrance of Neil Peart.

Neil Ellwood Peart passed from this existence one year ago today. When the news broke and I heard, I involuntarily got choked up. I have no pretensions to have felt anything approaching the grief felt by those who knew him. I am a fan, that is all. A Rush fan, though, is a little bit of a different breed. Our love, respect, and admiration for this band is not only because we love the music that has meant so much to us for (in my case) nearly half a century, but also because of the human goodness one finds in the members of this band. As a fan—just a fan—I want to remember Neil Peart.

As a fan, I cannot talk about Neil without talking about Rush. My introduction to Rush came when I was 11 years old. I know this because the album 2112 had been released, I do not think the live All the World’s A Stage had been released; and by the time A Farewell to Kings was released in 1977 I had already been a devoted fan for some time.

From the moment the needle dropped on side one of 2112, I was mesmerized. Rush became my favorite band immediately. Listening to a Rush album was a different experience for me than listening to many other bands. I could simultaneously isolate each instrument in my mind as well as taking in the orchestral goodness of the combined power. Just three guys in this band and all three of them were masters at their instruments. Alex Lifeson was my inspiration (among others) to take up the guitar. If memory serves, the first song I learned to play was In the End from the 1975 album Fly By Night (incidentally, FBN was released February 15, 1975, which was my tenth birthday). As my talent on guitar has never been overly astounding, I can say I have learned to play parts of several Rush songs, but a precious few in their entirety!

Neil is known as “the new guy” in Rush, having joined the band on July 29, 1974 (Geddy Lee’s birthday, incidentally) succeeding the original drummer, John Rutsey. Rush’s debut album was with Rutsey. After Neil joined, it was not long before he became the band’s lyricist. With just a few exceptions (and, yes, this Rush nerd can name them all), Neil has written the lyrics for every Rush song since he joined the band. For Rush fans, Neil’s lyrics have spoken to us, inspired us, challenged us, touched us, and, well hell, shaped our lives in many ways. I would give examples, but once I start, I would not be able to stop myself and I am afraid you would not go on to read a 100,000-word post. So many songs have meant so much and still do.

Like I said, I never met Neil or had any personal interaction with him in any way. As with all the members of Rush, however, having feverishly and nerdily followed this band my entire life, I cannot help feeling a sense of the kind of person all three of them are. They are deeply involved in charity yet never wear that on their sleeve or make a big deal about it. Their reputation in the rock and roll world can be described as one young crew member put it in the documentary, Time Stand Still: “…the nicest guys in rock and roll.”

Recently, I have had the incredibly good fortune to have befriended Dr. Donna Halper and have shared a handful of conversations with her. Rush fans will know immediately why this is ridiculously cool. It was Donna who, as a Cleveland DJ in 1974, discovered Rush and because of whom they got their first major American tour supporting Uriah Heep (another of my all-time favorites). She is now a professor at Lesley University in Massachusetts. As fellow academics, we have a fair amount in common and in our conversations have spoken about a wide variety of subjects. Friends and family will not believe me, but we have spoken relatively little about Rush. However, one question I did ask her was about what kind of fellows they are in “real life.” I said that I had a certain impression and their genuineness seemed, well, genuine; and that I guessed that in their daily lives they were the kind of people who they seemed to be in the spotlight. What you see is what you get. Donna confirmed my suspicions. The members of Rush certainly never forgot where they came from and never let fame destroy their humanity. My question is one she receives from Rush fans regularly and wrote about it on her own blog. Give it a read.

Neil, of course, was known to have a few social boundaries (“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long- awaited friend”). Yet he still inspired us for a lifetime, with his lyrics and his life. He wanted to be the best at whatever he set himself to do, drumming especially. While already an incredibly accomplished drummer who influenced many who came after, and widely regarded as one of the best in the world, he never decided he had learned it all and could no longer be taught. He became a student of the late and very great Freddie Gruber. Neil’s line on Rush’s final studio album, Clockwork Angel’s, “I can’t stop thinking big,” is an apt description of Neil himself. Neil Peart gave us so much just living the life he wanted to live for himself.

Neil died on January 7, 2020 of glioblastoma. Private like he was, very few people knew he was sick. The news of his death became public on January 10, just a few days later. I had just opened Facebook and there it was. This man, this musician and great human, who I had admired since I was a kid, who had filled my life with so much goodness, was gone. Yes, I got choked up. I am just a fan. I did not know him. But I cried. It is hard not to think of Neil daily, especially when a day does not go by that I do not listen to at least some Rush. But on this first anniversary of his death, I am thinking of him, thankful for the many gifts that he gave. Also, on that final album, he penned the line, “the measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.” I feel like he wrote those words, not as a description of himself, but as a challenge to himself; to always live your life in a way that is the best you can possibly be.

I will close with a line from the song Presto from the album of the same name: If I could wave my magic wand…I’d make everything alright. Well, Neil Ellwood Peart, you did wave your magic wand and made a lot of things alright for a lot of years for a lot of people. You most certainly did for me. Thank you, Neil.

A Sad Day in American History

I interrupt my regularly scheduled posts, a short series on words we use poorly, to write some words about the events of yesterday here in the United States of America. Ironically, the next post on misused words is on the use of the words “political” and “politics.” The events of yesterday are symptomatic of our failure to truly live politically in the sense we should.

After every presidential election, Congress comes together on January 6 to fulfill their Constitutional duty to formally count the electoral votes and certify the election results. This event is presided over by the Vice President of the United States who is addressed here, per the Constitution, as the President of the Senate. Although it is a sacred event in terms of American Constitutional democracy, it is never newsworthy. It is a formality. The People have already voted, and the states have individually, through meticulous processes, certified those results. The electoral votes are declared and counted in the presence of the Congress and certified by them in this formal process.

January 6, 2021, by stark contrast, was exceptionally newsworthy. But to understand what happened yesterday, let us back up a little bit.

It does not take a professional psychologist or psychiatrist to observe that Donald J. Trump lives in his own world in which he is always the best and he never, ever loses. His language on everything, without exception, is always to the extreme. Examples of things he has said: no one loves women more than he does. No one has ever done more for black people that he has. He knows war better than all the Generals or “no one is bigger or better at the military than I am”. No one loves the Bible more than he does. On any number of topics his achievements are the greatest in the history of the country. Trump always must be the best of the best. He alone, he has said, can fix the system because no one understands it better than him. Here is a small sampling of what anyone who has been listening has heard for the past 4 plus years.

So, in his mind, losing is impossible. As Trump is also known to repeat himself constantly, claims of voter fraud are not exactly new. After winning the electoral college in 2016, he made sure everyone knew he could not lose the popular vote unless there was illegal voting:

Even after winning the election to become the President, in his solipsistic alternative reality he could not accept having lost the popular vote. It could only have happened if he was cheated.

Also in the run up to the 2016 election he said, “The only way they can beat us is if they cheat.” Likewise, in the 2020 election campaign he said that the only way he would lose is if the election is rigged. As far as I am concerned, this is a kind of grooming; a grooming to which far too many people in the United States are disposed to succumb. Theodor Adorno published the book, The Authoritarian Personality, in 1950 about this phenomenon. The book was a massive study, drawing methods from several disciplines. In the 2019 republication of the book, Peter E. Gordon noted in his introduction that in the original introduction, Max Horkheimer (a colleague of Adorno), wrote that a certain kind of psychological disposition, consumed with its own individualistic notions of independence will “submit blindly to power and authority.” Trump groomed thousands who have this sort of disposition. There is no doubt in my mind.

It came as no surprise, then, that after the election Donald Trump cried foul. The election, he said, was rigged and fraudulent. There is no evidence for the claims he made. Court after court dismissed cases because of the lack of evidence. His own Attorney General acknowledged no evidence for massive voter fraud existed. Yet non-legal hearings were held that continued to make these false claims and Trump himself continually claimed he had been cheated because of a rigged election.

Up against this backdrop came January 6. The day designated in our democracy for Congress to certify the election results. A cornerstone of our freedom is the peaceful transfer of power. Yet Trump refuses to concede standing stubbornly is his claim that he won “by a lot.” While his Vice President was discharging his Constitutional duty, Trump held a rally wherein he told his mob that if they do not “fight like hell” they would not have a country. Trump told them to march on the Capitol and that he would be with them (he was not).

Americans and much of the world then watched in horror as a violent mob of insurrectionists breached the Capitol. This was not a protest protected by our Constitution. It was an insurrection. Calling it what it is, the invasion of the Capitol during the Congressional certification of a presidential election was a fascistic attempt to overthrow that election. It was an affront to everything our democracy represents. It was an attempted and, thankfully, failed coup. It was not patriotism. It was not a fight for freedom. It was sick. Moreover, it is a culmination of the kind of rhetoric and behavior Donald Trump has exemplified for years and should not be surprising. This mob violently stormed a building that is symbolic of our democracy on a day that is itself a symbol of our democracy and all it represents. These people are domestic terrorists and should be treated as such.

After inciting the violence, Donald Trump did not formally at any point address the nation. He has never been “presidential.” Instead, he posted a video on social media essentially telling everyone to go home because the election had been stolen and was a fraud. He told them he loved them. Donald J. Trump, while in the office of the U.S. presidency, incited a violent insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building. He endangered his Vice President and attacked him openly for not doing what he is Constitutionally unable to do. Donald J. Trump, by whatever legal means available to authorities, should be immediately removed from office. His actions are those of a seditious traitor to American democracy.

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, is the closest in our history that America got to fascism. Fortunately, however feeble and imperfect it may be, the wall of American democracy stood strong against those who would seek to breach it. Breach the Capitol building they did. Breach our democracy they did not.

Language and Understanding

In my last post I spent some time talking about interpretation. I wanted to convey that interpretation has to do with the process of how we understand the world about us. Interpretations can be valid or invalid—that is to say, a good interpretation or a not so good interpretation. What we understand something to be can be a reasonable understanding or a poor understanding. What is certain is that we are always making sense and meaning of the world about us. Even when we misunderstand, we are seeking to understand. Misunderstanding itself presupposes the possibility and the promise of understanding.

Language plays a central role in how we understand. In fact, we cannot understand without language. Hans-Georg Gadamer (one of the most important hermeneutic philosophers of all time) wrote, “Being that can be understood is language.” One of the things he meant is that anything that can be understood discloses itself in the language of the one who understands. What we understand something to be is articulated and communicated in language. I was presenting a paper at a conference a few years ago in which I was making similar points about language. In the Q&A one of the audience members took issue with what I had to say about how everything we understand is understood linguistically. I asked him if he could communicate his point to me without using language. Needless to say, he could not.

To be sure, we have what philosophers refer to as pre-linguistic experiences. Whether an event, a feeling, an encounter, or anything else—while the thing itself is not language—our understanding of those things takes place in language. Another way to look at language (especially human language) is that we give things names. Suppose I tell you the sky was orange last evening at sunset. Presuming you have been taught colors, you understand me when I refer to an orange sky. The phenomenon we call orange is articulated by a set of symbols and/or sounds that refer to it. There is nothing at all particularly orange about those symbols or sounds, but we have housed a certain phenomenon in those symbols and sounds. The being of that phenomenon that can be understood is in language. After telling you about the orange sky, suppose I ask you if you would like to eat an orange with me. Although the symbols and sounds are the same, you understand without even thinking about it that the “orange” of the sky and the “orange” I invite you to eat are different beings. You have learned the word “orange” and the different things to which that word can refer. But your understanding of either would be limited to non-existent without language.

 Language is not only that which we articulate and communicate about things. Language also does a great deal to shape how we understand things. That is why language is so important and why understanding how language works is even more important. For example, I think of how in the past year how there were worldwide protests against police brutality of black citizens in the United States. Many commentators and political leaders refused to use the word “protestor” when talking about the protests. Instead, we heard of “rioters” and “looters,” with no distinction at all made between the activities or an acknowledgement of protestors. The effect that this had on many was to characterize any and all involved in those events as rioters and looters. If we remove the word protestor from our language concerning these events then we do not have to consider the reality of police brutality in the United States and we quickly associate anyone involved in such events to be bad people. If my social media feeds were any indication, the power of language to shape understanding, when misused, so easily allowed (or manipulated) people to dismiss a very real problem and even demonize those calling for the country to address the problem. People who like their world to be black and white, who do not like complex and nuanced thought, and who cannot or are too bothered to make necessary distinctions tend to fall for these sorts of linguistic tactics pretty easily.

Language does influence perception. Political campaigns, for instance, invest plenty of time and money in crafting language to influence and shape perception. A now well-known example is a memo crafted by Frank Luntz, a consultant advising the first Bush campaign in the early 2000’s. Luntz was advising Republicans how to talk about environmental issues. Probably the most widely reported part of the memo is where Luntz advised Republicans to refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming.” The term “climate change” was not a new term Luntz created. Climate scientists have long used this language. In popular culture, especially at that time, the term “global warming” was more common as it referred to the specific way the climate was changing. Why did Luntz suggest changing terms?

Answer: for the express purpose of changing perception.

He wrote: “‘climate change is less frightening than ‘global warming.’” Whereas global warming seems to point to a more catastrophic problem, climate change suggests “a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” The overall tenor of the memo was to come across more positive. Instead of being “environmentalists” or “preservationists,” a word such as “conservationist” put a more positive spin on the Republican position. Luntz said, “The words on these pages are tested—they work!”

One may argue that the change in language suggested by Luntz corresponded to the truth and the intent was to communicate the truth more effectively. Whether that is the case is another conversation. The point here is that language shapes perception. We know this. The use of language, ethically speaking, entails a responsibility to use it well.  

With this post and the previous one, my intent is to set the stage for the next few posts where I will be looking at a few different random words that I think we do not use as well as we could be. Being attentive to language and how we use it, I am certain, fosters better discourse between us and can make our civilization…perhaps a bit more civil.

Stay tuned…

Interpreting Interpretation (Or, Understanding Understanding)

I have been thinking about writing a post or a small series of posts on words and language. Specifically, I want to talk about how words tend to become devoid of useful meaning when repeatedly used or misused. I am not speaking of how a word or a phrase can have multiple meanings or connotations. After all, language is not stuck in the mud. Think of it this way: Sometimes there are words or phrases that are meant to encapsulate more nuanced or even complex ideas; shortcuts, if you will. That is fine as long as the word or phrase actually is a shortcut to understanding the larger idea, when it actually communicates something that meaningfully adds to a conversation. But then the word or phrase catches on and becomes a trend. At this point, the word starts getting thrown around and inserted into any and every conversation without regard or intention to use it meaningfully. Sometimes (at least in my observation) such words not only fail to advance a conversation but are used with the intent to stop it in its tracks. People seem to not want to reason together to come to mutual understanding (mutual understanding does not imply mutual agreement), but only to defeat an interlocutor to whom one is opposed.

But really, all this is a just a matter of interpretation, right? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that there are “no facts, only interpretations. And this, too, is only an interpretation.” Here I am not going to explicate what Nietzsche meant in this quotation. But in common parlance the word “interpretation” is a substitute word for “opinion.” By the way, that is not what Nietzsche meant.

Opinions are not inherently bad. We all have opinions, and it is rather difficult to be a being with the capacity to reason and not have opinions. The issue is whether an opinion is justifiable or reasonable. But let us face it. No one ever says “that’s just your opinion” because they have sympathy for what you are saying. We typically (and wrongly) tend to say that as a way of saying “I do not agree with you and I am not going to take the time or effort to counter you.” We dismiss the claim of the other by diminishing it as just their opinion. So “opinion” is presumed to be something inferior.

I could write another post just on opinions. But what I am getting at here is that I have noticed people sometimes use the word “interpretation” interchangeably with “opinion.” Of course, there is a sense in which an opinion is an interpretation (or more so an articulation of an interpretation). You cannot really offer an opinion without having interpreted that which you have an opinion on. My concern—what really gets to me—is that the word “opinion” has been reduced to its most negative understanding and that, when substituting the word “interpretation,” a very poor understanding of the word “interpretation” results. But interpretation is really about how we understand the world about us and the conditions that create understanding. I am of the opinion that the word “opinion” has been greatly abused and perhaps I’ll write about that sometime. Here I am going to write about what interpretation is, why you cannot not interpret, and why getting that is a very good thing.

Hermeneutics is what we call the field of philosophy that studies interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to hermeneutics as the art of understanding and in his writings used the word “interpretation” and “understanding” interchangeably. Thus, to interpret something is to attain to an understanding of it (right, wrong, or otherwise). Further, interpretation and meaning go hand in hand. To interpret something is to come to some sort of idea what something means.

To be clear, interpretation is not something you simply choose or choose not to do. Whether you are reading this blog post, watching a game on the television, engaged in a conversation, looking at a piece of art, walking through a beautiful landscape, arguing with a spouse, or…well, name any activity you can think of, you are interpreting. That is, you are making sense out of it and drawing meaning from it. This is one reason it is important to understand that an interpretation is not just an “opinion,” especially when opinion is taken to mean simply a personal, subjective belief. To suggest to someone that their view is “just their interpretation” is unaware of what interpretation is. Of course, it is their interpretation! It is what they take whatever the subject matter happens to be to mean! What else would it be if not their interpretation!

The irony is that when someone says another’s view is just an interpretation, they are giving (in light of their own interpretation of interpretation)—wait for it—an interpretation! Believe me (or not), but when someone says that is just your opinion or interpretation, do not expect them to offer, by contrast, a carefully thought out, fact-based, reflective position. Make no mistake, however. You do not utter any thought or conviction that is not an interpretation. I think Richard Palmer said it best in a book published in 1969 on hermeneutics. He said, “Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed, existing itself may be said to be a constant process of interpretation.”

“Wait a minute!” you exclaim. Once I look at the facts of the matter, am I not simply speaking the truth? I am either wrong or right, but that is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of the facts, right? The facts do not care about my interpretation! Not exactly. Okay, some things are more apparent. 2+2=4 is not a matter of opinion (actually, it is, but that is for another post). Consider this, though. You do not simply understand the bare fact of 2+2=4. You think you do, but you do not. If I say to you that 2+2=4, but you have no concept of what 2 is, what 4 is, what addition is, or what equals is, you simply are not going to get it. So your understanding of 2+2=4 is conditioned on your pre-understanding of the concepts that make up the equation. You can shout at me all day that this math equation is objective truth whether I understand it or not. My simple response is this: “A lot of good objective truth does you if you do not understand it!”

Hermeneutics (interpretation theory) does not concern itself with the objectivity of objective truth. Hermeneutics is a lot more concerned with how you understand. Because any truth that cannot be understood does precious little good for anyone. And the rather interpreted fact of the matter is, understanding (interpretation) is a process that accompanies you whether you know it or not, like or not, understand it or not. And if you have any opinion on what I am writing, you are interpreting what I am writing or there would be nothing for you to have an opinion about. You have a take (an interpretation) about what I am saying and you have something to say about it.

Alright then. What does this have to do with pretty much anything at all? Well, it has to do with pretty much everything. But since it is hard to write about pretty much everything and you do not want to read about pretty much everything, I will talk about a little something. Refer back to the first paragraph. In the posts that follow, I want to talk about words and language and how their misuse, disuse, and abuse is really making reasoned discourse an exercise in Sisyphean frustration. Interpretation, in the philosophical sense, can rescue us from pushing the stone up the hill only to have it roll back again, making us feel as if we are forever at the start.