On Being an Introvert

I am an introvert. Many people who know me shake their head in disbelief when I say so. After all, I can talk to most anyone, I am often an amateur comedian amongst a group of individuals, and I actually enjoy being social (until I don’t, that is). Many people, it seems, have a very surface level definition of “introvert.” An introvert is a shy person who doesn’t talk much. While shyness can be characteristic of an introvert, I don’t believe it is a necessary or intrinsic characteristic of introversion.

I have defined my introversion as having a “rich inner life” in contrast to shyness. Merriam-Webster refers to the introvert as someone who is “typically reserved or quiet” and tends to prefer small groups to larger ones. In most social situations, especially among people I don’t know well, I tend to listen and observe a good deal more than I talk. I have always favored having a very few close friends than several friends with whom the relationship is largely superficial. The introvert enjoys, and even needs, time alone. I value and need certain times of solitude.

Merriam-Webster also says that it was C.G. Jung who coined the terms extrovert and introvert, extroversion and introversion. Psychology defines introversion as:

The state of or tendency toward being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from one’s own mental lifea personality trait or style characterized by a preference for or orientation to one’s own thoughts and feelings.

This is a fair description of me. Solitude and my mental life are also sources of energy and recharging for me.

This is not to say that extroverts are all noise and no brain (although I have known one or two who fit that description). I would say that just like introversion is not shyness but a focus on the inner life, extroversion is not boisterousness or merely being outgoing while having little intellect. How one lives one’s personality (extroverted or introverted) is largely due to character, the cultivation of virtue, and maturity. Following psychology, the real difference between extroversion and introversion is the individual’s primary focusing of their energy (and I would add time) on their inner or outer worlds. It is not only one’s navel that is an “innie” or an “outie.” It is also your energy.

When I was a teenager, I would go to our local mall for three intentional, self-conscious reasons: 1) To go to the bookstore; 2) To go to the record store; 3) To sit and watch people. That’s right folks. That is how exciting I was as a teenager. I liked to watch people and observe their behavior, mannerisms, and their conduct generally. Why? People have always fascinated me and I have learned a great deal from just observing folks out in public. The key is to watch people when they are just being who they are without self-awareness. The moment someone knows she or he is being watched, they become self-aware and slip into performance mode. In other words, people are most themselves the less they are thinking about themselves. You are most yourself when you are just being you, not performing for someone else.

I think my habit of just sitting down and watching people springs from my introversion. I want to know things. I want to understand things. People among those things. Do I judge people when I watch them? Probably sometimes. It would be difficult never to make a judgment about what you see, but judgment need not be understood in a negative sense. Often, I am delighted by them. I think people are basically good (despite all the evil in the world) and I see people do good things when they are unaware of being watched. Deferring to someone who was about to enter a store at the same time or picking something up someone dropped unawares to give it back to them. I often see people who are clearly anxious or stressed. In all cases, I am wondering “what’s your story?”

I suppose I really like people…from a distance!

Sometimes when I say that I am an introvert and people are surprised, they often say, “Oh, you are an extroverted introvert!” I disagree. I am just an introvert. I think the phrase “extroverted introvert” is based on the idea that the extrovert is outgoing and the introvert is not, so an introvert who can also be outgoing must be an extroverted introvert. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say anything like someone is an “introverted extrovert.” What would that look like? An outgoing person who is shy?

To return to a basic definition of the words, an introvert is characterized as one whose energy is directed mostly inward, into their mental life, and an extrovert is one who directs their energy to the outer world. Each of us are either one or the other. If we accept the definition that what defines one as either and introvert or an extrovert as where they primarily direct their energy and find gratification, then perhaps we can say that regardless of our primary orientation (inward or outward), a healthy person should have some of both in their lives.

So, while I may have that “rich inner life” I mentioned, I should also turn to the world about me and open my eyes. I think my people watching, while motivated by my introversion (wanting to think about things), it is a kind of turning outward to let the world teach me things I need to know. Likewise, an extrovert draws energy and satisfaction from turning to the outer world, but such a person should also have times of reflection and evaluation. How much inner or outer you need will be determined and balanced by your own personality and needs, but I am convinced we all need a little of each direction.

Open up to the world around you. You’ll be the better for it. Turn inward for some honest introspection and self-evaluation. You’ll also be the better for it.

That’s enough for now. I need to go read a book.

Free Speech – What It Is and What It Is Not

It is sadly too common in the world today that people know just enough about something to fail to understand it while thinking they understand it thoroughly. I am sure I have been guilty myself of the same short-sightedness. “Free speech” is one of those subjects that I think falls into this category that people like to talk about, but have little actual understanding of it.

It has now been reported that Elon Musk has purchased the social media platform, Twitter. He fired the CEO and 75% of Twitter employees according to reports. I have read many comments saying that perhaps he will restore “freedom of speech” to the platform. Regardless of what you think of either Twitter or Elon Musk, the freedom of speech, at least as it is defined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has nothing to do with Twitter. The 1st Amendment says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Relevant to this discussion are the words, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” When discussing free speech in the context of our liberties here in the United States, it is necessary to understand that its proper, contextualized meaning is that the Congress of the United States (the lawmaking branch of government) is not permitted to pass laws that interfere in any way with this right, which also implies it is the job of Congress to protect it. Nothing more. While a social media platform may be the means by which someone exercises the right to free speech and freedom of expression, whether such a platform allows a person to make use of that platform has zero to do with the 1st Amendment. The Constitution is not violated when someone gets banned from Twitter, so it is a real misunderstanding when someone brings up free speech relative to Twitter or any similar platform.

Your right to free speech simply means that you can exercise it without congressional interference. The 1st Amendment is not license to say anything you want anywhere at any time. And it certainly does not prohibit a privately owned company from prohibiting you making use of their product. Whatever Elon Musk does with Twitter, it won’t be to “restore” free speech as if Congress has abridged it.

What is the basis of free speech and why is it a matter of Congress not interfering with it? Nearly seven decades after the 1st Amendment was ratified, John Stuart Mill wrote that individual independence, as it pertains to the individual alone, is absolute. And that “[o]ver himself, his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” This absolute liberty has two aspects. First, one is free to think whatever one wishes. Second, one is absolutely free to express what one thinks.

However, and I think Mill is correct on this point, that the absoluteness of these rights does not hold outside of the individual. Mill says a person may be prohibited from the exercise of one’s rights (including freedom of speech) when it is necessary to prevent harm to others. This is why certain kinds of speech have been ruled by the Supreme Court to not be protected by the 1st Amendment, such as libel or slander, defamation, or speech that incites violence.

It should go without saying that any liberty that we have should be exercised such as to contribute to the progress of civil society and, therefore, responsibly exercised. Of course, if you have to say, “it should go without saying,” it is sadly the case that you still have to say it. Just because the law may not prohibit you from expressing something does not mean that you can say it for no other reason than it is “my right!” Great. You can say anything you like. But ask yourself whether it builds community or tears it down. Does it contribute to the cultivation of good virtues, especially that of citizenship. To borrow from Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, do you consider whether what you say is said “at the right time, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right purpose, and with the right motive”? Or do you just say it because you can?

Your answer to that question reveals what kind of person you are.

Just keep in mind, if Twitter bans you or a college or university decides to disinvite a speaker, the 1st Amendment is not being violated and free speech is not being repressed. Whether it is advisable or done for the right reasons is another conversation, but it is not a 1st Amendment issue.

The Transphobic Argument Against Student Loan Forgiveness

Transgender rights and student loan forgiveness are two entirely different topics. Yet, bigots and people with little worlds have managed to tie the two together.

Yes, that’s right folks, apparently the small minded have managed to create an argument against student loan forgiveness from gender identity. Or is it an argument against transgender rights from student loan forgiveness? Hard to tell.

Well, in truth, it is not an argument at all. It is a grossly failed attempt at being clever. While they think they are being clever, the fact is, they are being stupid. They are being disgraceful. They should be absolutely shamed. The intent of this post is to tell them how stupid they are, how disgraceful they are, and to shame them for it. That is my clear purpose, my “thesis statement.”

So, what are the “arguments”?

I have seen two varieties floating around of pretty much the same thing. One says, “My credit card debt identifies as a student loan.” Another is “my mortgage identifies as a student loan.” Both arguments are stupid. They may give all the bigots and resentful folk a chuckle and a feeling of superiority but, verily, they are just stupid.

What is obvious is that the small-minded fools who make these arguments and think they are funny do not believe transgender persons exist, and they are against student loan forgiveness. Let’s look at each in turn, shall we?

They reject that a person can rightly identify as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth based on biological sex and that there is far more to gender than simple XX or XY chromosomes. I say “reject” loosely as most of them are simply ignorant of the biological science and see no need to learn it because they already know it is wrong (it is probably Marxist ‘cuz that is what all the bad stuff is) and they already know the truth. They think this justifies making jokes about transgender persons or, worse, doing them harm. And those who say they do not condone the harm see no problem making fun of them, which fosters a culture wherein transgender people are regularly subjected to harm and even murder. Of course, they probably don’t bother to learn about violence against transgender persons any more than they want to keep up on gender science. (Hint: You can disagree with something and still stand against violence and harm to a group of people. Standing up for and protecting your fellow humans, even those who don’t fit into your little world, doesn’t have to mean you support their cause. It just means you don’t have a coal-black evil heart that accepts violence against certain groups).

These bigots also make a show of taking the moral high ground. They tell us they don’t want predatory men dressed in women’s clothing going in the women’s bathroom. Funny that they never say a word about transgender men using the men’s bathroom. Seems a bit one-sided. I guess they are just concerned to look after the women folk like the mighty men they are. One observation: transgender women do, of course, identify as women, and therefore go into the women’s bathroom pretty much for the purpose of…using the bathroom. If a male dresses up in women’s clothing and goes into a women’s bathroom, pro tip, he is not a transgender woman. Yet, as these ignoramuses would have it, transgender women are a great conspiracy and highly thought-out strategy to get into the women’s bathroom to commit assault. Stupid.

Despite all of the legislation proposed by states claiming that such legal measures will prevent such assaults, do you know (or even considered you should find out) how many incidents of transgender women committing assault in bathrooms have been reported? Zero. Yep, that’s right. Zip. Nada. Not one. This “concern” to prevent assault is a thin veil for transphobia that does nothing but fuel that fear and lead people to commit violence against other human beings because they are transgender. But you fools have nonetheless dutifully repeated the lies your masters have fed to you. On another note, do you know how many reported incidents there are of men dressing as women and assaulting women in bathrooms? I know you don’t know. You don’t care to know. You want to stay safe in your bigotry.

But you should know that studies have found that transgender and non-binary teens have been sexually assaulted in bathroom and locker rooms when these teens were prevented from going to the facilities that aligned with their gender identification. A Harvard study found it was 36 percent. Why are you okay with this? Disgraceful.

Student Loans

What about student loans? I hope to get around to writing another article on the resentment at the root of a lot of opposition to student loan forgiveness, but that’s more than can fit here. The general idea is if you take out a loan, you are obligated to pay it; and don’t take the loan if you can’t pay it. “Pay your debts” is a fundamental principle of living virtuously. As with all considerations of the moral life, however, the principle is always interpreted and applied in the real-world situations in which they happen. The idea that factors such as the predatory nature of the system in granting loans, the way those loans are managed to keep people trapped in a cycle of debt, and other such things should be considered haven’t occurred to some people. They flatly do not want to consider such things. The idea that money will now go into the economy rather than repaying loans doesn’t occur to them as a good. And, further, the idea that forgiveness can be a good thing even if people have an obligation (which is the whole premise of forgiving) is lost on them.

Now, to the transphobic “argument” against student loan forgiveness. Since it is clear that these small minded, resentful people do not agree with forgiving student debt, the comment that their credit cards or mortgage “identify” as a student loan is, to their minds, a jest. But such jests are foolish and, worse, continue to perpetuate lies and disinformation. For example, when Ted Cruz was questioning Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Supreme Court nomination hearings, he kept asking whether he could decide he was a woman and then later decide he wasn’t. Could he decide he was Asian if he wanted to (transracialism in a completely different topic). What this displayed was a flippant and extreme ignorance about being transgender. And, in true Cruz form, obfuscates the conversation and the facts. Ted Cruz, the Republican from Cancun, is irresponsible and a disgraceful representative. He should resign. Basic lesson in critical thinking, Ted: if it is the case that transgender persons exist and being transgender is a real thing, and that people can truly identify as a different gender than assigned at birth, it does not follow that one can simply identify to be anything. That is a false equivocation and other kinds of “identification” would have to be considered separately on their own merits. Stick to the topic, Ted. Introducing these things into the question of transgender identities is, well, stupid. Scares me that a person with such poor critical thinking skills, combined with blatant bigotry, is in a position of power and influence.

Likewise, a mortgage or credit card debt cannot in any way, shape, or form, “identify” as a student loan. But while you small-minded people think you have found a clever way to raise your objections against student loan forgiveness, you need to know that your way of doing so is transphobic. Human beings have suffered violence and death because of the lies you have bought and continue to perpetuate. It is not a laughing matter. And even if you remain unconvinced that transgender persons exist, you should at least have the humanity not to make transphobic jokes, especially knowing that such a culture fosters violence and pain. Stop being stupid. Stop being disgraceful. It is shameful. Hell, we were all taught in grade school that is shameful to make fun of someone because they are different. It is time you people of little worlds grow up and stop being bigots. After all, didn’t you all say that All Lives Matter? With all I see, I don’t think you believe they do.

Books and History

Not too long ago, a lot of headlines were devoted to the controversies surrounding confederate statues being taken down. Those who objected did so on the basis that taking down these statues amounted to erasing history. This is not the case, of course, and never was. This is a technique of deflection that gets taken up, using language to conceal and obfuscate rather than to enlighten. Really, it is a sin against language that is intended to reveal truth not interfere with it. The same thing happens again and again. Do you want to speak out against racism in our legal system? Take a knee and you are disrespecting our flag. Black Lives Matter? Were you unaware that All Lives Matter? Fake news. Alternative facts. Language gets used to make something about what it is not to distract from what it is about. Language is a powerful tool that shapes consciousness and public response to events and issues.

Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash

This is nothing new, of course. While millennia old examples could be cited from the whole of recorded history, think back just twenty years ago when Frank Lutz, consulting for the Bush campaign, provided a now well-known memo urging language like “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it is “less frightening.” This was just one of many advisements of language use that Luntz offered to give Republicans the edge on environmental concerns of the day. Of course, not a single word on the sixteen pages had anything to do with what was true or not true regarding environments. It was explicitly about using language in order to shape perception. Of note, in 2019 Luntz said he got it wrong on climate change. But I digress.

During that time when people were upset about erasing history over statues, a friend of mine sent me a screen shot of a post she had read on social media from some guy she knew through a sibling. In his post, he expressed his objections to taking down confederate statues and his argument was of the “what’s next?” variety where he asked if we were going to begin to remove books from libraries, such as Mein Kampf or Ayn Rand books (his examples), just because we object to what they stand for.

The problems with this comparison are many and, for some reason, I think should be obvious to people of reasonable intelligence; but perhaps I’m mistaken in my confidence. When at any time in human history has any book been put on a library shelf to valorize and commemorate it? Never. At least not in the way that statues of historic figures are erected. Statues, monuments, and the like do indeed embody history, but we erect them to honor an historical figure or to commemorate an important event. We also erect statues or monuments to remember tragedy and loss, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I don’t know, but erecting a statue of a slave-owning confederate who was fighting for his “right” to own other human beings doesn’t seem to fit the bill. If you either want to valorize that person with a statue or to feel bad that he lost and want a memorial, you might be missing the point. And seriously, where were all you preserve history folk when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled after the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein from power? Sure, none of us liked the dictator, but don’t erase Iraq history! Many of us knew it was a stunt to create a particular image of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” but it was celebrated by the very same kind of people (and same news networks) that are now claiming removing statues is about removing history.

Another fault to the comparison between statues and libraries is that libraries ARE the place where we preserve history, primarily. Statues speak to history, sure, but the primary aim is to celebrate and honor a person or to help us remember tragedy. A librarian does not put Mein Kampf on a shelf next to thousands of other books to celebrate it. To think keeping a statue of a slave-owning confederate is the same as keeping a copy of Mein Kampf on a library shelf is just…weird.

But here is where it gets really strange. Among the headlines frequently dominating news in the U.S. is the removal of books from school libraries. WHERE ARE ALL YOU SAVE HISTORY PEOPLE?!?!?! WE COULD REALLY USE YOU NOW!!!!

Not long ago, a Tennessee school board banned Art Spieglemen’s Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, on the basis, according to the NPR report, of “eight curse words and nude imagery of a woman, used in the depiction of the author’s mother’s suicide.”

If I thought that the concern of books in schools was really about material that is not appropriate for certain age groups, I might be willing to entertain a discussion. Much like what I wrote above about using language in order to deflect and distract from the real issue by creating a substitute one, I think a technique of deflection is happening in the book banning as well. The technique here is to take a moral high ground, to claim to be standing for decency and morality. From what are those who want to ban books deflecting?

The fact that they are engaging in erasure. Erasure from what? Two things. History that either makes them uncomfortable or, for whatever reason, they wish to eliminate from our social consciousness (not to mention “conscience-ness”). Even more wicked, they are engaging in the attempted erasure of people—people that make them feel uncomfortable or people who do not fit into their ideal picture of society. These are human beings they do not wish to recognize.

Philosopher Axel Honneth wrote of a kind of recognition that he refers to as “social esteem.” Recognition as social esteem, as Honneth defines it, is a kind of recognition in society based on difference. In other words, whereas there is a recognition that says “I recognize you as a legitimate member of this community because you are like me,” recognition as social esteem says, “I recognize you as a legitimate member of this community because you are a human being regardless of your differences from me.” What we are seeing today is a purposeful refusal to recognize certain persons precisely because they are different from how some people think everyone should be.

Just a few days ago, the state of Texas pulled over 40 books from school libraries and classrooms to “review” them to see if they met new standards. One of those books was a graphic novel of style adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Can things be any more absurd? I recall reading The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school and it instilled in me a sense of injustice in society and what sort of horrors we human beings are capable of committing; and that such things should not happen. It taught me to consider all persons with respect and compassion. I shudder to think that children might no longer be given this gift that I was given.

I have not seen it personally, but I was recently told about a Texas eighth grade history book handout that does indeed talk about slavery in U.S. history, but painted it as if slaves were happy, slave owners were benevolent, and things were not all that bad. Everyone was treated like family.

I would seriously like to know where all you “don’t erase history” folk are. Ironically, some of the same who are ordering books pulled or support those books being pulled are precisely the same people who opposed removing confederate statues on the basis that it was erasing history. Those who yelled “don’t erase history!” are intentionally engaging in erasing history.

For the record, those of us who think the anti-American confederacy should not be celebrated, do not want it erased from history. We want it taught. There is a difference between teaching history and celebrating it. It all should be taught. Not all of it should be celebrated. This is not difficult to understand.

I am a philosopher, not an historian, so I have a sincere question for historians. Is there any free and open society in the history of humankind that ever forbade, banned, or pulled books from schools? In my admittedly limited knowledge, it seems to me that taking away books was always a constituent part of creating a social order that would eventually persecute and even murder people. Is there a free and open society that was ever created or remained free that took away books?

Dating Apps Suck!!! (Except this one time…)

June 26 will be the first anniversary of marriage for Ali and me. I still sometimes wonder if I am going to wake up and this is all a dream. Following my divorce 6 years ago after 21 years of marriage, I just wasn’t interested in marrying again. Companionship, sure. Marriage? No thanks. Mind you, I am not and was not against marriage. I just wasn’t interested in that for me.

As often happens over the years, there are ways I had changed over the decades. My worldview underwent some significant modifications. I valued different things, or maybe valued some things differently. One thing about me hadn’t changed. I didn’t mind being by myself. Actually, more than not minding it, I liked it. A certain amount of solitude is necessary for my well-being.

After finding myself single again, I didn’t feel lonely. That being said, while I have never really struggled with loneliness, I do enjoy time with people and, of course, the companionship of a romantic relationship. At the least, to find someone to spend time with and do things together was desirable. What might grow out of it would have to happen on its own and that was okay.  

So, I did what most people do in the times which we live—I got on dating websites and dating apps. If you have never been involved in the world of modern tech dating, dear reader, let me assure you of one thing. It is hell. Pure and utter hell. I’m not exaggerating for effect. The dating scene is hell. Not hell-ish. Hell.

Like many, I am sure, I had numerous first dates or “meet-ups,” the majority of which left me with the sad realization that an hour or two of my life that I can never get back is now gone. The coffee meet-ups weren’t too bad as aside from the time, I was only out a few bucks. First dates that involved dinner and drinks were a loss of time and a bit of money. But if you want to meet someone, I suppose there is the inevitability of some bad investments.

It is not all dark and gloom. I met women who I truly enjoyed getting to know. Perhaps there wasn’t a sense of potential compatibility for a relationship (either on one or the other’s part or, often, mutually), but I made a friend. I am told I am somewhat abnormal in this (among many other abnormalities), but some of the women I met on apps I have remained friends with. I have always had women friends who are just friends. In a couple of cases, I would ask them to read a message I wanted to send to someone new I wanted to meet, and they would ask me to look over theirs. I considered myself a decent dating app message composer, but I received some invaluable advice from my women pals.

At one point, however, I was simply tired of it all. I was extremely close to cancelling my accounts, deleting the apps, and committing to the life of a bachelor scholar. I was in my mid-50’s, nearly done with my Ph.D., so the bachelor scholar life was starting to sound exceedingly attractive!

Then…it happened.

I had sent a message to a woman two or three weeks before and hadn’t heard back. This could be for a couple of different reasons: 1) She got the message, maybe looked at my profile, and just wasn’t interested. That happened a lot. 2) The app I was on had this thing where the other person wouldn’t see your message until she “swiped right” on your profile. It seemed all very random as I had times when I would “swipe right” on a profile only to discover that the person had sent me a message months ago. I much preferred when you could send a message and get rejected right away rather than after several months. Fortunately, however, in this case, she swiped right after just a couple of weeks, got my message, and replied.

Around that same time, a different woman had also messaged me. Just a few days before I would meet the woman who would become my wife, I met this woman. It was lackluster. And then she sends me a text afterward telling me she had a great time but “the jury is still out on you mister!” Well, geez, after one afternoon meet up, I wouldn’t expect a verdict! What a thing to say! So, I ceased communication and was only strengthened in my resolve to abandon the modern dating scene forever. I wasn’t necessarily opposed to meeting someone randomly and without trying, the good old-fashioned way, but that was it.

However, I still had this one other date scheduled at a coffee place I liked (and turns out it was one of her faves also). And I did want to meet. Her profile was exceptional, it hit all the right points, and our messaging back and forth before deciding to meet had been a blast. She also seemed unusually grounded and together, which made her all the more attractive. So, I would do this one more time. If she turned out not to be as remarkable as she seemed to be, I was done. This was May 27, 2019.

Afternoon coffee turned into evening dinner. The weeks and months that followed were made up of sharing time together, sharing a lot of laughs, and falling in love. I knew I wanted to be with her and share a life. There was even the great joy of deleting the dating apps! (That was awesome). But I started having this very strange and uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to share a life with her, but I wanted to do so as her husband. Damn her! She made me want to have a wife again!

More time passed. Then the pandemic struck. We started meeting at one of our favorite locations where we could stay outdoors all the time and keep our distance from others. We would have breakfast at one spot and then spend afternoons playing board games or just talking. Between the pandemic and other factors, we didn’t have a clear view of how our future would unfold.

But…I plotted.

I secured the engagement ring, and on one hot and sunny afternoon on our usual walk in a nature trail, we came to a bridge. I had been looking forward to this moment and knew I would execute it confidently and gracefully. Then I took the ring out of my pocket, got stupid nervous and proceeded to propose with zero suave. Despite my less than stellar proposal performance, she replied in the affirmative. We were engaged! This was June 14, 2020. We went back to another favorite spot and shared a glass of champagne to celebrate.

Picture credit: Me on my smart phone

We still did not have a clue as to when we get married or what the future held, but it was a step forward! By early 2021, we decided to take more steps and knew we would figure it out. We decided on a wedding date and then decided we had better get to work! I guess when you get married, even in a simple ceremony, there is planning involved. So, we got to planning and managed to bring it all together by the date we had set. That was June 26, 2021.

Our first anniversary is just a little more than a week away. I intend many, many more years. I figure at age 57, I have around 50 or so more good years left (color me optimistic). I intend on sharing those with Ali until death do us part.

Yes, dating apps and the world surrounding them sucks. But it worked out this one time and that was all that mattered.

Photo by Stephen Brown

The Being of Silence

Many, many years ago, I picked up an old used copy of a book, The World of Silence, by Swiss philosopher, Max Picard. At the time, I didn’t know who Picard was, but the book looked interesting and had a preface by Gabriel Marcel, a philosopher whose work I did know. So, I bought it.

Max Picard wrote in The World of Silence, “Silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself.” He goes on to observe, “One cannot imagine a world in which there is nothing but language and speech, but one can imagine a world where there is nothing but silence.” Similarly, in a much more recent book, Seeing Silence, Mark C. Taylor observes, “Not merely the absence of noise, silence is the stillness that sounds and resounds in all sounds and echoes in every word.”

Not a mere absence…

To say that silence is not the mere absence of something else—whether of speech or even more so, as Taylor wrote, “noise”—is to say that silence has a kind of Being of its own. Silence is not nothing—i.e., a no-thing.

There is too little silence in the world we share in these times. I think first of Ukraine and all places consumed by violence, where there is the constant noise of aircraft, explosions, and gunfire. I think of children who bury their heads under their pillows to try to drown out the yelling and screaming of arguing parents. All too often the absence of silence is marked by fear or frustration, hatred and anger.

Outside of the noise of fear, the world itself is just very noisy. I live in a major metropolitan area where the noise of traffic is commonplace. It seems to me that so often people need to live in noise to drown out something else, perhaps the voice of their own mind or conscience. We need noise to drown out our silence.

I have observed people who turn on the television for background noise while paying no attention to what is on, simply because they need the noise. Before texting became limitless (without charge for exceeding monthly allowable characters), I would count the number of people on their way to work in their cars who were NOT on their phones talking with someone, because such were very few. It seemed people could not be alone with themselves, even for a brief time.

Silence is lacking in the world of the everyday. It is too intimidating. In silence we have nothing else to do but contemplate. Maybe that is too hard.

Then there are those anywhere from war torn areas to a mother raising children alone who would give anything just to have a few moments of silence. Time to hear nothing. Just to be.

Another challenge to the Being of Silence today is that anything but the hustle and the bustle (and the noise that accompanies it) is viewed as non-productive and lazy. The idea of balance and symmetry in life between production and creativity on one hand, and rest and rejuvenation on the other, as a way of life, is lost on the “hustle culture” of today. Taking a vacation is a reward for hard work, not the other side of the coin of mental and emotional health. Even worse, embedded in our collective psyche is the idea that retirement is a reward for a lifetime of input into the system. Something that you only should have if you have earned it. Yes, retirement from a lifetime of labor is certainly a just reward to a lifetime of labor. But what does retirement represent? How about freedom to wake up each day and determine yourself, not be determined by your employment? How about the idea of the value of rest and relaxation, for itself, and the pursuit of personal interests?

Why are these things only a reward for the later years of life and not goods that we should experience as a part of life?

(Side note: I find it strange that the same people who idolize and absolutize individual freedom are also remarkably resentful of those who do not, or are perceived to not, “produce” and put into the system. It seems there is no “collective” until they think themselves as having to do something you are not. Let us be clear. The “economy” is the collective today—entirely depersonalized and in which you and I are a commodity).

A world driven by obscene profit for some strives to convince the masses that their only value is their productivity. And “productivity” is defined as contributing to a system from which they are the beneficiaries. Anything other is less than productive or not productive at all.

But what if silence, what if simply doing nothing to contribute to the machine, is something that is necessary to well-being? What if your value as a person demands that you take time away from the noise?

We can’t change the world without changing ourselves. But we can change ourselves even if we can’t change the world. Venture out from the noise of contemporary life. Find silence. I have no prescription as we all have our own circumstances and escaping the noise cannot be achieved in the same way for us all. Another irony is that we escape into noise from the heaviness of life, and we even hide from silence. Yet, it is into silence that we can find the escape we need from the burdens of life. Yes, it can be hard. We have been taught and conditioned that silence is wrong—unless you earned it.

But it is in silence that we can find ourselves. It is in silence that we can finally hear a world far more beautiful and meaningful than the one that is trying to drown it out. Mark C. Taylor is right. Silence, not the mere absence of noise, it is the stillness that sounds and resounds in the deepest depths of our being. Silence can exist without a word. But it is only silence from which word can come forth.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Joy, In Spite of…

A friend of mine wrote a book. Well, he has written a few and edited some more on top of that. But one of his most recent is, in my estimation, a book that pretty much everyone should read. If you are looking for fluff, shallow affirmation, or a feel-good self-help sort of book, move along. But if you would dare look into the dark depths of human existence, stare it in the face, and still find meaning and joy in life, then read my friend’s book.

 A great thing about this book is that while it is chock-full of philosophical, literary, and artistic depth, it is accessible and readable for non-specialists. My friend is Brian Treanor, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. The book to which I refer is  Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living.

Disclosures and disclaimers: Brian has not asked me to write anything here on his behalf or to promote his book. I am choosing to write this here because I think this book is very important and certainly worth reading in our times. My thoughts here are my own and, while I think I interpret Brian reasonably well, any shortcomings here do not reflect defects in the book, just my ability to articulate its meaning. All that said, this post is not a review of the book. I did a full review for the journal Worldviews. Here, I want to focus my attention on a sole sentence at the end of chapter two.

“Joy does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil; it denies their absolute significance.”

Brian Treanor, Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living (p. 45). Emphasis original.

A little background will be useful. Most of us come into this world being cared for, our every need being attended to. We experience love from parents, siblings, family, and friends. The world is a beautiful place. We are dwelling in light. This is a naïve joy that has not yet encountered the darkness or the weight of hardship. Inevitably, though, we have that youthful, naïve joy snatched away from us. The darkness finds us. Reality is not the least bit fun and it, as Brian writes, “would counsel despair.”

But he asks whether despair is the “last word” or even the “only word.” We can remain in the dark; but, in hope, Brian proposes that it is possible to live “after dark” and that it is likewise possible that we can teach ourselves to do so. After the dark, perhaps we can find a “second naïveté” after that initial one has been shattered and consumed by the dark. Brian says that “goodness, beauty, life, and meaning” are stubbornly persistent. So, while we do not try to slip back into innocence and deny that the darkness ever was, we nonetheless stubbornly persist in the belief that joy remains.

With that background (first naïveté → darkness → second naïveté), I return to the quotation cited above. Joy in life does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil. Joy denies the absolute significance of these things. First, I want to point out the importance of the word absolute here. The character of the reality of death and evil in the world is truly absolute. It is simply not possible to sidestep them. But while the reality of death and evil is absolute, their significance is not. Death and evil cannot not be real, but what they mean, that which they sign-i-fy, is not all there is.

Significance, here, is a loaded word. Significance is what something means, the truth to which something points. Death and evil do indeed have significance—undeniable (and dark) truth. Death points to our finitude and absolute contingency in this world. Evil in the world points to so many things, such as our failure to live up to the best of our humanity; or that often bad happens and there is no “why” that, if we could just find it out, we could find solace. But this significance is not absolute. It is not the only meaning in the world or even the greatest, most powerful meaning.

Yes, from the moment we are born, each and every one of us is on a short journey to the moment of death. But there are many more moments in between those two moments! There are moments of joy and moments of sadness. But shall we let the sadness deny the persistent reality of the sources of joy? Perhaps the joy that we can have is what Brian Treanor has called melancholic joy. Melancholic joy does not deny the sadness, but neither does it allow the sadness to deny joy and force us to despair (despair denies any and all hope).

What good is good anyway?

I have an acquaintance who, after experiencing a tragedy, nearly slipped into despair. After her tragedy, she fell into the temptation of believing death and evil had an absolute significance. She would point out other horrible tragedies, such as a news report of a man who had shot his wife and child, and then turned the gun on himself. Citing every bad thing she could find that happened day to day, she concluded that there was no point in doing good because we can never eradicate evil. Why volunteer at a soup kitchen, for example, or donate to good causes when evil would just keep pushing, insisting on itself. Doing good had become meaningless.

But is the primary point of doing good to eradicate all evil? Is it an all or nothing situation where one or the other must be absolute? If it is, then it is indeed pointless to do good because it will not succeed. The point of doing good, however, is no more, no less than doing good is a good thing to do and it is good to do it! Every good we fail to do is good that may have been, but never was. Or worse, a good that is not done leaves a gap to be filled by evil. For example, every hungry person that we do not feed when we could have, is a person that remains unnecessarily hungry. Every act of kindness not done robs a fellow human of being reminded that they have worth.

This is not a quantitative game or an aim to aggregate good. Good is just done for itself, even if that good is the only one that ever was. Embracing that “stubborn persistence of goodness, beauty, life, and meaning,” even in spite of evil, ugliness, death, and absurdity, is worthwhile for itself, and the alternative is only to add to the latter. I think Brian is right. Entering into a second naïveté is something we should make every effort to do. Perhaps our joy must be melancholic, but it is no less joy. We do not deny the absolute reality of things we wish were not, but we can and must deny their absolute significance.

I will take melancholic joy any day over no joy at all.

Hermeneutics and the Anthropocene: Notice on a Recent Publication

I am pleased to pass on to those who may be interested a notice of a journal article published in Analecta Hermeneutica, Vol. 13, 2021, titled “(Environmental) Hermeneutics at the Heart of the Anthropocene: Ricoeurian and Gadamerian Perspectives,” authored by me and Dr. Cynthia Nielsen of the University of Dallas. The issue can be found at the website for the International Institute for Hermeneutics.

Dr. Nielsen also manages the blog Hermeneutical Movements.

Be sure to check out the entire issue! There are excellent articles by Richard Kearney, Jens Zimmerman, and many others!

The Euphoria of Teaching

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash

Next to being with my wife and family, I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than teaching. The feeling I get can rightfully be described as euphoric and, to be honest, a little high. I pondered choosing the word euphoria to describe the effect that teaching has on me and considered finding a different word. “Euphoria” can have negative connotations, such as when a feeling that is created is not based in reality. Hence, it is only temporal and will pass when reality sets in!

I chose to stay with the word “euphoria” for two reasons. First, despite sometime negative connotations, one can feel euphoric for quite legitimate, reality-based, reasons. Physical exercise, for instance, can produce feelings of euphoria immediately afterward. Achieving some important and hard-won lifegoal can create euphoric elation and deep satisfaction. Such can feel almost unreal as it may have come only after a long and arduous journey in life. Euphoria simply means happiness and can come from either valid or invalid sources.

Another reason I chose this word is its etymology. It comes from a Greek word that means “healthy” and that word comes from another Greek word, which means “to bear.” In medicine in times past it can refer to the successful administration of a treatment, so when a patient who was ill recovers, the treatment is said to be “well-bearing.” Happiness and good health are often thought of together. All things constant, a healthy person is typically a happy person. Unhappiness of any kind can have a deleterious effect on the body. The body and the mind are intimately connected and interwoven. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Vessel Van der Kolk, M.D (2015), is a profound and scholarly, yet eminently readable, study that demonstrates this connection.

So, I chose to relate euphoria to teaching because, for me, teaching is “well-bearing.” Teaching is a cause of happiness and well-being for me. It is not unusual that, following a class, I frequently tend to feel euphoric—that is, a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. I would also describe the feeling I have as calming and grounding. Sure, sometimes I am simultaneously physically drained. Unless you teach, you don’t know how teaching can really take it out of you. But it can! Even amid the tiring effect of teaching, the euphoria is present, nonetheless.

Why does teaching create euphoria in me? I don’t really know for certain. I enjoy teaching, of course, but I enjoy lots of things that don’t make me euphoric. So, I don’t really know but I will speculate. One possible source of the euphoria I experience is that teaching is performative. When you teach you must know your audience and know what response you want to draw out of them. To teach is not to merely transmit knowledge from my mind to the minds of my students. Teaching is not listing out all the points or facts for the students to memorize that they will later regurgitate on a test. When you teach, you want your students to learn, which also means you want their lives to be transformed for the better (hint: learning is more than coming to know things, it shapes character). Especially when teaching philosophy, as I do, or any of the humanities, seeing students “light up” or “get it” and knowing that it is going to stick with them throughout their lives is what you are aiming for.

It is true, very true, that to teach is in some sense to perform. I want my students leaving class thinking about wanting to come back to the next class. When I teach it is necessary for me and my style of teaching to interact with my “audience.” When there is a connection made between a teacher and students, a connection rooted in the content of the class, an environment is created that facilitates learning. So, I suspect that one source of euphoria in teaching for me follows a “performance,” especially when I perform well, and the “audience” responds well.

Another source of the euphoria, I am sure, is that my life has been forever transformed by teachers I have had. Knowing that I am now in that position and something I say or do, even small, will stay with a student the rest of their life, making a positive difference for them, is at once a trepidatious and deeply satisfying part of teaching. As with the performative aspect of teaching, a teacher is giving something of themselves to a student along with the knowledge and wisdom they seek to impart. My teachers did that for me, and it is elating to me that I can honor them by giving of myself for my students.

Finally, I think my teaching euphoria comes from the fact that my students also give something to me. They may not know what they give to me, but sometimes I have no doubt that they benefit me far more than I do them. They give me many things, truth be told, but one thing is hope. Students in the world today have so many things to struggle with and against. The world they are being given can be ominously bleak in many ways. Sure, we can find things to complain about with “those damn millennials” or “those Gen-Z kids and their attitude.” But don’t let stereotypes make your perception of reality become misshapen.

Interacting with my students, I see people who care about things that need caring. Despite all the struggles in the world and their personal or internal struggles, they have mettle. I always finish a semester with a hopeful sense that knowing this group is growing and going out into the world is a good thing. That is a flame I want to fan, not extinguish. And when I know that simply by being present to my students, I gave them a little more juice to go be good in the world, I am content.

That, my friends, is the euphoria of teaching.

Personal Choice and Freedom of the “We”

Can an act that affects other people be “my personal choice”? This is an important question today since “personal choice” is regularly invoked, especially on questions related to Covid-19. To wear a mask in public or not to wear a mask in public? It is my personal choice. To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated? Also, my personal choice. Many say, “I have medical freedom” or “my body, my choice.”

First, let’s define some terms. By “choice” it is understood that there is at least more than one option available to the individual doing the choosing. That is easy enough. “Personal choice” gets a little more difficult because it can be understood in more than one way. One way speaks to personal agency and subjectivity. A person has a range of options from which to choose and has the capacity to view those options and pick what she or he wants. The choice is “personal” because a person freely made it.

That is not the sense I mean here when I ask the question, “Can an act that affects other people be my personal choice?” Here I am not referring to the chooser—the person who chooses—but rather the nature of the choice itself. When made, does any outcome or consequence of the choice remain bound only to the chooser or are other persons involved, especially if unwillingly. For example, it may be my personal choice (in the first sense) to smoke cigarettes in a public venue, like a restaurant; but the fact is my choice is not strictly personal inasmuch as I am not the only one the choice affects.

Not very many years ago here in North Texas, cities around the Dallas area began to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Most restaurants already did not allow smoking, so the ban mostly affected bars and clubs. I recall the discourse around those bans, mostly from those opposing the bans, who argued that businesses should not be told by government what to do and that if a business allowed smoking and someone didn’t like it, they could go somewhere else. In the name of freedom of choice, a business owner could choose to allow smoking and a non-smoker could choose to go elsewhere. Ironically, if a business voluntarily (even without a state mandate) requires you to be vaccinated or wear a mask, these same people cry foul, claiming that their freedom of choice to go where they choose is being taken from them.

Wisely, in this case, it was understood that this was not an issue of personal choice, but a matter of public health. Someone may make a personal choice to smoke but smoking around others or admonishing them to leave if they do not like it, takes smoking in that context out of the realm of personal choice (in my second sense) to that of the public good. In the smoking example, the personal choice of the smoker strips personal choice away from others. Claiming “my personal choice” here is not valid, I argue.

I think the same applies for requiring masks or vaccines (whether mandated by government or by owners of public spaces). Not doing so affects others in ways that, in the second sense of personal choice, individuals cannot make a personal choice, because the consequences of that choice do not remain in the realm of the personal—i.e., others are affected.

But wait, you say! Why can a business say wear a mask and if you don’t want to, you can go elsewhere, but a business can’t say that about smoking? One reason is simply that it is a false comparison. The focus is misplaced. It is not about the mask or the vaccine. It is about the fact that you cannot rightly or morally subject someone to a deadly virus just because you think that it is your personal choice not to mask or get vaccinated.

The problem is that we have a deeply flawed view of freedom. When you are talking about your personal choice, you are talking about freedom. In a recently published, and excellent, set of essays called  On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson observes in her introduction:

This book takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ that we are dependent upon each other, as well as upon nonhuman forces that exceed our understanding or control…. The question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.

Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (pp. 10-11).

I have personal freedom and personal choice. But what am I going to do with it? What values inform my choices? Freedom built upon an “I” focuses only on values of personal gratification. It places the person at the center of the universe of importance. It measures freedom solely in terms of wants of the isolated, autonomous individual.

But as Nelson’s words suggest, the individual is not isolated. We are “enmeshed” and that is not something that can be brushed aside. Thus, any concept and ideal we have of freedom, it must be built upon a “we” and our choices take the “we” into account. So, I have freedom and personal choice. But informed by the “we” means that I use my freedom and make my choices with care, compassion, taking thought of my fellow citizens. In his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre insisted that “existence precedes essence,” by which he mostly meant that in our freedom, we are responsible. In light of this he wrote:

When we say that man [sic] chooses himself, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all people. In fact, in creating the person we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of humanity as we think it ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

When it comes to wearing a mask in public or being vaccinated, one cannot say that those are in the realm of “my personal choice” unless that person thinks his freedom to choose is all about himself. The self-centered “my personal choice” represents a rather immature, even childish, temperament. Freedom without obligation, freedom without responsibility, freedom without care and compassion, is anything but the freedom that creates a union.

So, is it your personal choice to not wear a mask or get vaccinated? Yeah, sure. But that kind of personal choice ends at any point your contact with another human being begins. At that point, it is no longer personal. You cannot subject me to a consequence of your choices. Mask and vaccine mandates represent a freedom built on the “we;” where freedom is exercised with regard to those with whom you are enmeshed. Referring back to Sartre, a choice that cannot be good for all, is not good for you.