This was an interesting one, because it made me do some research. As I read Dan’s excellent summary of situations in which we recognize cruelty, I began to wonder how cruelty might have developed historically (meaning, via evolution.) Please note that in THIS post, I will confine myself to discussing cruel actions against other people. Many of the same considerations would apply to acts of cruelty toward animals, but I’d prefer to limit the length of the post by not considering the differences between the two kinds of victims.
A search for “evolution of cruelty” yielded some interesting results. In particular, there was a fascinating paper that set out to define cruelty in such a way that it can be discussed scientifically. I did not end up agreeing with his definition, but there was a great deal of good thinking in that paper!
It seems to me that there is no evolutionary explanation for cruelty as such. There are, however, numerous evolutionary advantages to causing harm to other people in various situations. For instance:
1. War. Fighting and killing is a common evolutionary strategy to assure that a group has access to sufficient resources to survive. There are, and have been for thousands of years, clear standards about appropriate ways of making war and ways that inappropriate (i.e., cruel).
2. Revenge. According to this article in Scientific American, revenge makes it less profitable for others to attack you. Thus, it can serve to increase the lifespan — and other things being equal, the reproductive success — of a person who is known to be vengeful.
So is revenge cruel? It certainly can be; we have recently been witnesses to the beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby in vengeance for the actions of British soldiers in Muslim lands. Nearly everyone agrees that this act of vengeance was cruel. But when someone from Seal Team Six shot Osama bin Ladin in the face, this was not generally regarded as cruel.
3. Punishment. Punishment is clearly related to revenge, but is subject to more formal control. It generally involves hurting a person, though not always physically. As I discussed in an earlier Forward Thinking post, one kind of punishment called altruistic punishment can be shown in the laboratory to make it easier for groups of strangers to work together. As with revenge, punishment can sometimes be regarded as cruel, but not always.
4. Hazing is related to punishment (especially altruistic punishment), and it serves the prosocial function of assuring members of a group that they can count on each other. Again, we make distinctions between initiations that are harmless and those that are cruel.
5. Teasing. Often, teasing can involve insults that could cause real pain. They seem to serve a prosocial function similar to, but milder than, hazing. We make a distinction between those that are “all in good fun” and those that are cruel — the latter kind is often referred to as “bullying”.
6. Capture / abduction / imprisonment of women for sex. As I was researching for this challenge, this post appeared in my daily blog reading. It is easy to see the evolutionary value of this practice — it increases the number of children a male can father. It might, in many circumstances, also increase the number of children a woman produces (by preventing her from engaging in other, competing, activities). For those reasons, it is a very old and very persistent pattern in human history. But unlike the other examples I have used, we now consider this practice cruel in all cases. Why is that?
Considering these six cases, we appear to observe a sort of Aristotelian mean with regard to at least the first five ways of harming another person. We feel that one can, and perhaps must, inflict an appropriate amount of harm based on the situation, but if someone inflicts too much harm, we regard them as cruel. (In the sixth case, we seem to have decided that the appropriate amount of harm is none, so in that sense we can say that even the sixth case is an example of the same principle.)
It seems to me that the best way to define cruelty is this: cruelty is acting in a way that harms one or more people, without a proper degree of empathy for the person(s) we harm. We may or may not have a strong desire to harm the other person(s); way may have the right or even the obligation to harm the other person(s); but we must also restrain ourselves by keeping in mind the other person’s rights and inherent worth — by harming them, in effect, no more than we would think fair if our roles were reversed.
This idea of empathy restraining the desire to hurt someone is perfectly compatible with the way our brains work — it is often the case that one brain function (in this case, empathy) moderates another (in this case, the urge to harm someone.) If the governing impulse is absent or too weak, we can reasonably judge the resulting action as inappropriate, just as we do, for example, if a person gives in to the impulse to steal from a convenience store.
Although we assign blame to the individual who acts, culture plays its role here, too, by asserting that some people (either by class or by situation) are worthy of more empathy than others, and that some actions call for a response of greater harm than others.
In addition, there is a historical component in determining the correct response in a given situation. For instance, I remember that when my daughter was five, one of her friends’ grandparents groused that, when he was young, if a teacher hit a kid and the kid complained to a parent, the parent would hit the kid even harder. Everyone of my generation inched away from the poor old man…
This view of cruelty, I think, solves most of the mysteries that pop up when we think about cruel actions. For instance, under this analysis, it is clear that saving someone’s life by means of old-style surgery without anesthesia (in the days when anesthesia did not exist) cannot be called cruelty, since there is no failure of empathy. But doing the exact same action nowadays, in defiance of the normal standards of surgical practice, would still be cruel. BDSM play would also fail to qualify as cruelty, while domestic abuse would qualify.
An interesting, and possibly controversial, aspect of this definition of cruelty is that it takes no heed of intentionality. One can, under this view, be cruel unintentionally, by virtue of a failure of appropriate empathy. This, in my mind, is a feature rather than a bug: by this definition of cruelty, if a first-world company that outsourced its manufacturing to the third world and put in place layers of middlemen to make sure the company remained ignorant of horrendous labor conditions, the company cannot escape blame for cruel practices. Similarly, legislation that “just happens” to benefit rich people at the expense of the poor would be properly analyzed as cruel.
There is every reason to believe that social pressure can break down the level of empathy, which can lead directly to cruel behavior. We know from the Milgram Obedience Experiment that an authority figure can induce ordinary people to behave with cruelty. The Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us that peer pressure suffices to foster cruelty. Fred Clark (the slacktivist) wrote an extremely good post the other day about the way that fear of being punished for helping a stigmatized group can actually cause us to resent that group and stand by while they are abused:
And thus bystanders never only fear the mob or the secret police. They also fear the knock at the door. I don’t mean the loud knocking of the mob or the police — they have obediently done nothing to have to dread such an inspection. No, the knock that they fear is the furtive knock of a neighbor in need. They come to dread this more than anything.
And that dread, ultimately, becomes resentment. Guilt always leads to resentment.
When cruelty is defined as a failure of empathy, it follows that individuals must cultivate and society must inculcate an appropriate degree of empathy. We in the West have not generally considered empathy a virtue that can be cultivated, but even so, we have clearly been drifting in the direction of increased empathy extended to a broader base of persons. For instance, we no longer tolerate slavery, indentured servitude, public hangings, cock- and dogfights, and many other activities that used to be perfectly acceptable but now seem cruel. And we insist (in law if not always in fact) that poor people, blacks, women, foreigners and gay men have the same right to security and public appearance that wealthy, straight white men enjoy.
My own, fervently humanist, belief is that we can greatly reduce cruelty by deliberately cultivating empathy as individuals, and by public debate of the appropriate degree of empathy in various situations. Buddhists cultivate empathy by the discipline known as “metta meditation”, and I have no doubt other traditions offer their own paths to the same good. And public debate is already being sponsored by groups such as Karen Armstrong’s Compassionate Action Network.
It’s time to stop drifting and start working for a cruelty-free world.
1. Ethics belongs to the model of reality, not to reality. Ethics is a construction like scientific theories or mathematical conjectures that attempt to create a systematic explanation of noisy patterns in nature. In contrast, moral choices belong to reality, as well as to the model of reality. Our ethical model(s) inform our moral choices, but moral choices also involve feedback loops with “external reality”. That is, we make choices in response to “external” conditions, we monitor the results of that choice in “external reality”, and we use our perception of the results to both adjust our behavior and adjust our ethical model of correct behavior.
2. I take it that there are two systems of inputs that inform both our moral choices and our ethical understanding.
3. First, and fundamentally, there exist various “modules” within the brain that regulate our desires and emotions. These modules are activated by certain more-or-less specific stimuli, and when activated, a module pushes the brain/body toward a particular emotional state. Some of these states (in human) include guilt, shame, satisfaction with our behavior, a sense of unfairness, desire to punish someone, etc.
3a. It can and probably often does happen that more than one of these modules is activated by a given situation — perhaps by different stimuli present in the situation. There is a mechanism by which the modules compete to affect the brain/body state. Depending on the outcome of this competition, one or modules’ effects may be suppressed in favor of a different module(s). Alternatively, the effects of several modules might be allowed to affect the brain/body at the same time, leading to combined reactions or reinforced strength of reaction.
3b. While many of these modules are present in animals as well as people, humans have a great many modules that are concerned with social interactions between humans. Probably no other animal on earth has as many social modules as humans, and therefore, the complexity of interaction of the various modules is probably enormously greater for humans than for non-humans.
3c. Humans, unlike (probably) any other animal, have the ability to observe, categorize, interpret and predict the workings of these modules. We have this ability because we can strip away the specific context of particular reactions in order to isolate and focus on factors we deem relevant. (For instance, in the midst of a complex dispute, we can project a particular phrase spoken by an opponent, along with our visceral reaction, onto the negative space of attention, and ignore the rest of our opponent’s remarks.)
4. The second system of inputs to morality is tied to our sense of agency, our ability to choose goals (imaginary states we wish to attain in the future).
4a. In order to attain our goals, we must often interact with other people, influence other people to do things that further our goals, and/or form alliances with and against other people in pursuit of shared goals.
4b. Because we have a theory of mind, we can also project the behavior of other people into negative space, and reason backward about their mental state, their motives, etc. To some degree we can also form theories of the mental states of non-human animals.
4c. We generally pursue several goals at the same time. These concurrent goals can be of different kinds (personal and shared, for instance) and may mature at different rates (long- and short-term, for instance.) We are able and required to make trade-offs among these concurrent goals.
5. Ethics then consists of an attempt to examine 1) our insights about our own mental states and those of others 2) our observations about the results arising from acting in different ways and in each given situation in order to 3) formulate rules about conduct.
5a. Rule-making is necessarily an activity conducted in the negative space of attention, making use of a simplified model of reality. Generally, rules are not flexible or comprehensive enough to completely determine our actual moral choices. However, they serve a role of “pre-calculating” options, so that (in the complex and perhaps hurried moment of decision) certain possibilities do not even have to be considered.
6. Ethics is essentially a shared activity, while moral choices are made either privately or jointly. (Interestingly, we often create “notional persons” such as governments or corporations to make such choices.)
6a. I am still trying to think through the ways the individual and collective aspects work. Clearly this duality leads to enormous complexity, but there may be certain governing limits introduced by collectivity that also contribute to making the system more ordered.
7. Both ethics and moral choices are subject to change over time, because both inputs are subject to change over time.
7a. The brain modules that control moral reactions are subject to evolution. This means that there is variation in which modules are present in each individual, how strongly each module competes to influence brain state, etc. In addition, population genetics will adjust the strength of each reaction in the population as a whole.
7b. Individual goals are subject to change as culture (both the physical commons and the commons of ideas) changes. For instance, the notion of “stealing” changes as the rules about private property change (a change that affects both the physical commons and the commons of ideas.)
7c. Shared goals also change over time; for instance, certain public goods such as education can come to be construed as individual rights.
8. Based on this analysis, it’s hard to say if I accept the idea that there are moral truths. If they exist, they are surely impermanent and not independent of human bodies/minds.
Yesterday was the monthly (now to be bi-weekly, YAY!) sutta study meeting at my temple. We discussed MN 95, the Canki (pronounced, roughly, chunky) Sutta. There is so much in this sutta, that I will probably want to make two or even three posts on it. Some of what I write is based on the lectures of Bikkhu Bodhi on the sutta. Some is based on our discussion yesterday. And some is based on my own reflection. I will try to indicate which is which.
This is a layered text, as Bikkhu Bodhi notes. It appears the first 10 verses are added to the text, and it is hard to imagine how the compilers of the suttas could have had firsthand knowledge of the material in the first 10 verses in any case (again, as Bikkhu Bodhi points out.)
What’s interesting to me is that the sutta is named after Canki, who plays a large part in the first 10 verses and nearly disappears subsequently. He only plays a role in vouching for Kàpañhika (also called Bharadvàja), who spends the greater part of the sutta debating with the Buddha about the nature of truth.
Now, as it happens, we (at the temple) have been dealing with a series of suttas that relate encounters / discussions / disagreements between the original sangha and other groups. The Buddha taught in a time and place where there existed that rarest of public goods: a free marketplace of ideas. So in MN 11 and MN 13, the Buddha explains how his teachings differ from those of “wanderers of other sects”. In MN 12 the Buddha refutes the claim that the validity of a religious teacher is demonstrated by his performance of miracles. In MN 58 (which we will be dealing with next meeting), the head of the rival group (the Jains) tries to make the Buddha look a fool with a tricky question about right speech.
But this sutta is particularly interesting for Buddhists in the 21st century, because the challenge put to the Buddha is this: What do you say when an opponent claims that “our religious tradition is truth, and all other religious views are false”? Obviously, this is a claim we often encounter, from many different people. I myself have been challenged in this way by Christians, Muslims and New Atheists.
Let’s start by setting the stage a bit — which, come to think of it, is what the sutta compilers did when they added those first ten verses. In these verses (which are possibly interpolated from DN 4, according to the text) we get a brahmanic view, though perhaps at second hand) of the qualities of a worthy religious teacher:
Good Cankã is pure of birth on both the mother’s and the father’s side. The purity, is without blame about birth, as far back as the seventh fore father. … Good Cankã has great wealth, is learned in the three Vedas, and the rites and rituals as officiating priest. Knows the phonology and etymology of words. Is learned in the marks of a Great Man. Good Cankã is pleasant to look at, has a beautiful skin complexion, talks politely, has nothing inferior in his appearance. Good Cankã is virtuous and well-developed in them. Speaks politely, distinctly, words full of meaning. Good Cankã is a teacher of many, teaches three hundred young men orally. King Pasenadi of Kosala reveres good Cankã. The Brahmin Pokkarasàti reveres good Cankã. The Brahmin Cankã lives in Opasàda, endowed with seven marks of a Great Man. He is supplied grass, firewood, water and grains, by king Pasenadi of Kosala as royal gifts.
So he’s from a good family, he’s got money and education, he’s attractive and a good speaker, he’s virtuous and a good teacher, and both political and religious leaders are impressed with him. The striking thing about this list is that it so closely resembles a lot of televangelists, mega-church founders, and spiritual lecturers of our own day.
But even if Canki’s friends have low standards for teachers, Canki himself does not. He might easily have been the kind of teacher who, when a rival visits his territory, he does what he can to drive him off. Canki might easily have refused to provide housing for the Buddha, or he might have made it known quietly that householders should not offer almsfood to the Buddha and his monks. Canki is obviously not that kind of teacher. Still, Canki could have refused to go to meet the Buddha. (In fact, that is what his friends advise.) In that way, he could have flaunted his status and (perhaps) robbed the Buddha of some of his luster. But Canki rejects that advice, and insists on treating the Buddha as he believes a guest should be treated. Or, in the final instance, Canki could be the kind of teacher who feared being upstaged by his students. But as we see later in the sutta, he actually defends his student Kàpañhika when the Buddha suggests that he should refrain from interrupting older Brahmans. So again we can see that, by the standards of the world at large, Canki is a true and devoted teacher.
By way of contrast (as the sutta compilers no doubt intended), the Buddha offers a still more exalted view of a worthy religious teacher:
a bhikkhu lives supported on a certain village or hamlet. A householder or the son of a householder approaches this venerable one to examine him to see whether he has greedy, angry or deluded thoughts. He examines, is this venerable one with such greedy thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such greedy thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of a not greedy one. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by a greedy one. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, has no greedy thoughts and examines him further.
Is this venerable one with such angry thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such angry thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of one not angry. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by one who is angry. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, has no angry thoughts and examines him further.
Is this venerable one with such deluded thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such deluded thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of one not deluded. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by one who is deluded. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, not deluded. Thus faith gets established in him, with faith he approaches to associate.
So, for the Buddha (and this is something he said in many places, such as the Kalama Sutta) the most fundamental requirement of a good teacher is virtue. Specifically, a true teacher must be free from the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. (And note that this teacher is living modestly, supported by the offerings of ordinary people.) This is so for a very good reason: “That one who is himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is impossible; that one who is not himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is possible.” (MN 8:16)
I know this will not please many people who wish to do without teachers (perhaps because they have been failed by — or even abused by —teachers in the past.) I think the Buddha has a point here, though. I know for my own part I left theism at the age of about 30, and I considered myself an atheist for almost 15 years. But it was not until I “met” (through their published words) true teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha himself that I began to live up to my own moral standards and even find ways to elevate those standards.
Since this post is quite long, I will end it here. Tomorrow or Wednesday I will write about the exclusivist religious claims made by Kàpañhika, and the Buddha’s responses about which claims of truth are proper and which improper.
May all beings be well, peaceful and happy! May all beings care for themselves with ease and joy!
Don’t you hate koans? Me, too! All that Zen mystification just chaps my tidy, Therevada soul. And yet…
A koan, I think, is a supremely well-designed teaching tool. It takes a problem and makes it stick in your mind like a burr, and yes, irritate your mind like a burr. After awhile, you’ll do just about anything to get rid of that pesky problem — even solve it!
Someday, I would like to write a book of koans for modern people, so let me try my hand at one right now. Here goes!
Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A. Because you can’t make the universe out of ice cream!
What do you think? I guess I should keep my day job, right?
Truth to tell, this question has never appealed to me. It doesn’t help that, every time I encounter it, it purports to be proof of the existence of God. These discussions never go that well for me; I can’t get past the fact that my discussion partner is offering proof of something they feel needs no proof, while I am being told that an extremely hinky question must be accepted as proof. I end up feeling I’m conversing with the Cheshire cat. What a frustrating kind of communication!
The nothingness question apparently goes back to Leibniz. He justifies the question by appealing to an argument from simplicity, as Jim Holt explains:
Nothingness is also, as Leibniz was the first to point out, the simplest of all possible realities. Simplicity is greatly prized in science. When rival scientific theories are equally supported by the evidence, it is the simplest of them — the one that postulates the fewest causally independent entities and properties, the one least susceptible to a trimming by Occam’s razor — that scientists favor. And this is not just because simpler theories are prettier, or easier to use. Simplicity is held to be a marker of intrinsic probability, of truth.
Scientists may prize simplicity, but it seems as if nature prizes it even more. Nearly all the atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms, after all, and of the rest, nearly all are helium atoms. I don’t know if there is a power-law distribution, or if so, if it’s a smooth one (that is, that the number of atoms of a given type is inversely proportionate to the atomic weight), but surely we can conclude that simpler atoms are “prized” above complex ones.
If we narrow our focus from the universe to Earth’s biosphere, we find that by far the majority of living things on Earth are bacteria. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould writes that
Not only does the Earth contain more bacterial organisms than all others combined (scarcely surprising, given their minimal size and mass); not only do bacteria live in more places and work in a greater variety of metabolic ways; not only did bacteria alone constitute the first half of life’s history, with no slackening in diversity thereafter; but also, and most surprisingly, total bacterial biomass (even at such minimal weight per cell) may exceed all the rest of life combined, even forest trees, once we include the subterranean populations as well.
So, it occurs to me that IF nothingness is simpler than something-ness, we ought to see quite a lot of it as we look around the universe. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find.
We know that an empty bottle actually has air in it, but eventually we learned how to make a vacuum by pumping out the air. (You can do this experiment anytime you wish, and you can readily demonstrate that you have a vacuum by extinguishing a candle, or a small mammal, previously placed in the jar.) But those vacuums weren’t really nothing, because the pumps weren’t quite good enough.
Undaunted, we deduced and then proved that there was a much better vacuum between Earth and the stars, but for awhile, everyone thought it was filled with aether, a substance that would allow light waves to propogate as air allows sound waves. Then (fortunately for the quest for nothingness) it turned out that aether didn’t exist. Space was just a hard vacuum, waiting for a blues man to immortalize it. Leibniz seemed to be justified, hooray! The universe was mostly nothingness, which is what you’d expect if nothingness was a very simple state.
But then quantum mechanics reared its ugly head. Turns out all that “empty space” is actually teeming with quantum activity; it’s actually kind of a quantum-mechanical factory churning out particles. Curses! Nothingness foiled again!
If you can’t find nothingness anywhere in the universe, could it be that nothingness cannot exist anywhere in the universe?
The interesting thing about that question, at least to me, is the vehemence with which our mind rebels against it. Nothingness seems so real, so patently, obviously real! Now granted, we can imagine things that are not real — Cthulhu, for instance, or a modest Texan. But mostly, imaginary things are variations on real things, and if you examine them, they betray their hybrid origins. Nothingness, however, has a strange purity about it. It doesn’t seem imaginary.
At this point, I would like you to perform a small experiment. Look at anything in nature — a tree, perhaps, or a bird. Or look around your hopefully cluttered room and pick an object to look at. Now close your eyes and imagine the object. Go back and forth between the actual object and your mind’s-eye view, and ask yourself, what’s different?
The answer is: context. When I look at a tree outside my window, it is situated in the midst of other trees, and their branches impinge on the branches of “my” tree. Behind it (as I scan up) is a background of grass, then of bushes, then of other tree branches, then of sky. But when I close my eyes, I see — admittedly in somewhat diminished detail — only the single tree I choose to focus on. A magic air-brush removes all the messy context surrounding the real tree.
Take it a step further, if you will. Close your eyes and imagine your object. Now erase the object. If another image comes up, erase that, too. If word-thoughts come up, turn down the volume until you cannot hear them. If you’re a patient hunter, you will catch a glimpse — or maybe a long, lingering view — of the negative space in which we isolate the objects of attention — which may very well be the only nothingness that exists, anywhere in the universe.
This is an extraordinary thing, this nothingness. It’s not cheap to produce: it requires a brain, which requires a body, which requires sources of energy, water, oxygen, etc., all supplied by an ecosphere, which is itself dependent on energy produced by nuclear fusion, as well as heavy atoms produced in the hearts of ancient supernovae. Yet this nothingness is so ubiquitous, so common a part of our thoughts that we seldom notice it.
It’s likely that lots of brains other than human ones produce the negative space of attention. But it’s also likely that (on Earth) only humans are sophisticated enough to notice the negative space itself. And we do notice it; in fact, we are constantly trying to reproduce it in the world at large. What distinguishes a garden, for example, from a meadow? Only the spacing of the plants, the bare dirt between them, the care taken to limit the items in the field of vision of a human observer. Many of our most important inventions — the virgin whiteness of a sheet of paper, the dark cauldron waiting to be filled, the hole in the center of the wheel, even the rounded perfection of zero — are external forms of this fundamental nothingness within our minds. Is it any wonder that we see an “empty bottle” or “empty space” as examples of nothingness? Is it any wonder that the illusion persists, even when we are perfectly aware that it is an illusion?
This, then, is my answer to Leibniz and his admirers. There’s nothing simple about nothingness. It’s best conceived of as a manufactured good (all that star dust and DNA and sunlight and brains and minds, after all) that can be produced and enjoyed only within a quite narrow range of temperature and pressure. It is, in short, a bit like ice cream.
And not even Leibniz would argue that the universe could be created out of ice cream!
Amid the outpouring of blogging that tried to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombing — the tiny core of solid reporting and its vast, coruscating aurora of bloviating punditry and reciprocal finger-pointing — the sanest post I read was Arthur Goldwag’s round-up of “ the people–also driven by personal demons and/or ideology–who are certain that they already know all there is to know.” Goldwag, of course, is a self-taught hate-ologist, a journalist who tracks and reports on the various hermetically-sealed worldviews that pollute public discourse (at their best) and spin out crazy people with grudges and weapons (at their worst.) And for the first part of the post, he catalogs the usual crop of conspiracy theories and predictions that hit the airwaves while doctors in Boston hospitals were still amputating limbs. (If you really want a scorecard to identify those players, go ahead and click on the link above.)
However, what made Goldwag’s post truly helpful, what moved it beyond the usual tuttuttery about “the echo-chamber of the internet and 24/7 news channels”, was his analysis of the ways we often try to squirm away from horrible truth. We find someone to blame — at worst, we blame the victim. We critique the performance of first responders. We decry some tendency of human nature, generally one that is conveniently unfixable. And we distinguish ourselves from the victim(s), pointing out that we are careful, sober, health-conscious, well-organized, ample insurance-carrying paragons of planning ahead.
All of it is true, none of it is crazy or hateful–but to me it’s revealing that so many people feel the need to broadcast those thoughts out loud. What they are saying, in effect, is that the world is still rational and meaningful, even if terrible things happen from time to time. There is always an explanation; there are never victims, only martyrs or fools, and someone is always to blame. It’s a spontaneous act of theodicy, as if they all want to let God off the hook–and/or to reassure themselves that they are too smart to ever be a victim themselves.
I’m not criticizing the tendency; I’m just noting it. Alex Jones wouldn’t have the megaphone or the resonance that he has if there wasn’t a little bit of him in all of us.
If we take care to distinguish ourselves from the victims, we are even more frantic in our efforts to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of violence. While I hate to pick on Andrew Sullivan, whose writing I admire and who is by no means the worst offender on this score, his series of posts on the subject “Of course it was jihad” pushed most of the buttons remaining in my addled brain.
His argument is that Islam is warlike because the Prophet led armies, whereas Christianity is peaceful because the Christ of the gospels is a peacemaker. (Notice he says nothing at all of the Christ of Revelations.) Speaking as a Jew, I am always tempted to call for a pox on both those religions’ houses, though, taking history as a whole, I think Islam has been less sanguinary. One wonders if Sullivan has forgotten the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the attempted genocide by (Christian) Serbs in Bosnia, or if he feels that Christianity has completely matured in the past twenty years…
One can only imagine what the New Atheists are saying — I am too easily bored by repetition to follow most of those blogs.
Everyone — Russians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Kyrgystanis, and gods help our education system, even the Czech Republic — have distanced themselves from the Tsarnaev brothers. Cambridge doesn’t want to allow the elder brother to be buried, partly, I’ll admit, for practical reasons. Muslim clerics don’t want to assist with the funeral.
But here’s the problem. While Islam (or religion generally, or ethnic identity, or colonial oppression) may provide the rhetorical fig leaves, the basic psychological mechanism is the universal tendency called “vendetta”. Someone — often a young man whose life is going poorly — adopts the pain and sense of oppression of a group, and acts as self-appointed family hero, revolutionary, freedom fighter, or soldier of God.
Although the “virus meme” metaphor is overused, I think of vendetta as a bit like shingles. The original infection may be an armed invasion by conquerers or colonizers, sparking an outbreak of resistance and revenge that can be compared to chickenpox. But while the original situation is eventually resolved, seeds of buried resentment build protective cysts in the culture and wait to infect susceptible people.
Revenge and vendetta are not, at base, religious urges — they may be among the few human customs that pre-date religion. They are responsible for most of the most horrifying examples of inhumanity. A small initial injury can cause cascades of violence, with the level of violence rising from one incident to the next. It is in this context that the lex talionis — an eye (rather than a life or a village) for an eye — was a step forward for justice, despite our disdain for it today. Religions have generally condemned revenge, but have not been notably successful in preventing it.
Revenge is not usually strictly proportionate. “For every one of us you kill, we’ll kill 100 of you” is a pretty common sentiment. Worse, revenge is often taken against someone who is considered somehow equivalent to the original offender, meaning that it targets innocent people. If you doubt that this tendency still continues, ask yourself this: why, after 9/11, did Americans allow themselves to believe the justifications for going to war in Iraq? I submit that it was because immediate revenge was blocked in Tora Bora, but SOMEBODY had to suffer.
All the bad characteristics of revenge are amplified in vendetta. Vendettas can continue for centuries — remember, for instance, that the Bosnian Serbs were “avenging” offenses that occurred about 800 years earlier. By definition, the perpetrators of the original offense are dead, so vendetta never proceeds against the actual offending parties. And one of the reliable human tendencies is to improve the technology of killing from one generation to the next. (If we are killing tens of people at a time with drone strikes, can’t we expect to see the poisoning of major municipal water supplies or the bombing of huge stadiums in reprisal, twenty or fifty years from now?)
I have a spiritual practice I use to try to avoid distancing myself from either victims or perpetrators of violence. It is a variation on the charnal ground meditations described in the Satipatthana Sutta. We don’t generally have charnal grounds today, but we do have plenty of examples of horrid violence, often with graphic images. I hold it to be a duty to engage with these situations, and their images.
When I am confronted with such things, I focus first on the victims. I remind myself that I am subject to death, subject to injury, subject to illness, subject to the loss of those I love, etc. Nothing separates me from the sufferings of the victims except circumstance.
When I come to understand this — and practice does, in fact, wear down the barriers to recognizing the facts — then I have every motivation to do what I can to help. Can I help this victim? Can I help other people in similar circumstances? If there is something to be done, that it is possible for me to do, I go ahead and do it. If not, I resolve not to forget. (After all, it might become possible to do something later.)
The second step in my practice is equally important. If there is a perpetrator, I think carefully about them. I remind myself that I am not a fully-enlightened Buddha, and that, therefore, I am subject to delusion, to hatred, to greed. What separates me from the perpetrator is… circumstance. I am fortunate that I have not lived that person’s life. I am motivated to practice toward enlightenment (when I can truly be free of bad inclinations.)
Also, I remember that there is no fixed self, and no immutable character. Yes, there are people genetecially lacking some of the important elements of morality, as psychopaths are lacking empathy. But for the most part, people’s character and moral choices are products of both individual tendencies and cultural norms. (If you doubt that a rotten culture can destroy the morals of ordinary people, I direct you to the scientific work of Philip Zimbardo.) For that reason, I have to do what I can to contribute to a healthy, humane culture.
Obviously, I am not advocating for specifically Buddhist practices. But I offer this example because it is one way of addressing what I feel is our main duty, not only in the aftermath of violence, but at every moment — resisting the tendency to squirm away from unpleasant truth.
The final post is due before the 15th. I want to cover:
Let’s talk about “family” rather than “marriage”. Point out Peter Berger’s excellent observation:
Against conservatives, I would point out that what they call “traditional marriage” is in fact bourgeois marriage, a little older than the steam engine, and with little resemblance to a Biblical view of the institution (if you doubt this, just refer, no less, to the last of the Ten Commandments, where a wife is counted among a man’s possessions, along with his slaves and domestic animals).
What is the purpose and value of family for (adult) individuals? For children? For the state? For religious groups? For (other) social groups?
Family and property. Family and education of children. Family and mutual care. Family accountability for individual actions. Individual accountability for family actions.
Sexual activity inside and outside the family — privacy vs. accountability.
Do I even like the term accountability? Is responsibility better? Or do the terms serve different purposes — the first for discussion of results in the public sphere and the second for private actions?
As it happens, this is a question that I can address from a position firmly rooted in Buddhist psychology. Pride — as I will define it below — is an unskillful habit that leads to unfortunate results in daily life.
Let’s begin with distinctions, since the word “pride” is used in various ways. For instance, in this country (the US), one is censured for having pride in one’s birth, but not for having pride in legitimate accomplishments. So, for the sake of argument, I will confine myself, at least initially, to arguing against the idea of taking pride in accomplishment.
To start with, let me say that it is natural and unproblematic to feel pleasure when we have set ourselves a worthy goal and, through sustained effort, without harming anyone, accomplished that goal. This pleasure is one of the gifts of human nature and, if we enjoy it in the proper way, it can spur us on to set ourselves new goals and put in the effort needed to accomplish them.
Now this pleasure, like all feelings, has the nature of arising and passing away. If we observe any feeling with sympathetic but dispassionate interest, we can observe its arising and, after a relatively short time, its passing away. That feeling might then arise again when we are reminded of the original conditions for it. But generally, its arising is like that of a bouncing ball, at first very energetic in arresting our attention, but gradually less and less energetic, and occurring at longer and longer intervals.
The problems begin when we try to hang on to the pleasure of accomplishment, to re-stimulate its arising and to feed it energy to prevent it from fading away. This is a very common, even stereotypical, response to pleasant emotions of all kinds. (There is an opposite, but parallel, stereotypical response by which we suppress negative emotions.)
When we re-stimulate and re-energize the feeling of pleasure in accomplishment, I would call that the first stage of pride. It is problematic in that it fixes our attention on a past state of events, and therefore distracts us from the present moment with its various opportunities and requirements for active response.
Being distracted is bad enough, of course: we not only miss out, we can make mistakes when we are distracted. But there is another level of misuse of pleasure-in-accomplishment: we can use it to prop up our sense of self.
Usually this comes about because of wounding, often social wounding. We generally imagine that each of us is a self navigating a sometimes-hostile world. We reinforce our self with various kinds of armor as a defense against wounding, and pride at least seems to offer a particularly strong kind of armor. We transform our quite natural and organic pleasure in accomplishment into something rigid or tool-like — a way of defending ourselves (“I did something worthwhile, and no one can take that away!”) or even of attacking others (“Yeah, talk to me when YOU have done something worth talking about!”)
When we take this second step, enter this second stage of pride, we create an entirely new set of problems. Besides being distracted from all that is offered by this moment of existence, we have strengthened the barriers between ourselves and other human beings. We thus miss out on opportunities to learn, and to give and receive support. And in addition, by tying our status to our past accomplishments, we have made it harder to take risks that might lead to future accomplishments. We put ourselves at risk of becoming one-hit wonders.
Suppose we use the very common metaphor, in Buddhism and elsewhere, of life as a wide river with strong currents and many dangerous rocks, both obvious and hidden. Our selves can then be imagined as vessels — ships or rafts, perhaps — that allow us to stay afloat and avoid or survive crashing into the rocks. A person defending him- or herself with pride would then have a clumsy, over-large ship, and this proud person would spend most of his or her time making sure that the hull was not leaking. Small wonder if such a person did not have energy to spare for navigation!
An important thing to note is that this predicament doesn’t have anything to do with whether the source of the pride is unacceptable (for instance, pride in one’s ancestry), or whether the source of the pride is acceptable (for instance, pride after winning a Nobel Prize in medicine for reversing aging.) The problem, from a Buddhist perspective, is that a natural feeling has been turned into something ill-suited to its natural function — as armor, or as a weapon, or as a guarantor of status.
Americans have, in the past forty-some years, fallen into the error of believing that the best and most productive state of being is that of “high self-esteem”. This is usually attributed to Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, although the idea could perhaps be traced back to Hume. The theory of self-esteem is that, in order to function at a highly productive level, we need to have an appreciative awareness of the excellent qualities that are part of our very selves.
Now, in Buddhist thought, the sense of self is, at best, a useful illusion. It is unreal in the sense that we are never really as separate from “outside” reality as our sensed self insists we are. If we carefully examine the inputs (from our senses, from other people, from culture, from the mysterious and inaccessible functions of our own brains), we can get a somewhat better measure for how much of our selfdom comprises continuous interaction with “outside” reality. Also, our strongly-felt sense of self-consistency is an illusion, as we can readily perceive by comparing today’s self with that of our childhood, or the self we were when our beliefs and understandings were different than they are now.
But if we examine self as a function, rather than as a felt subject, we can see its usefulness, and the reason that evolution has allowed it to persist, despite its very large metabolic cost. It is, after all, very useful to be able to, in imagination, wrench events from their actual context and examine them in isolation, or even in a different, hypothetical context. These are very powerful advantages that confer selective advantages on our species, and even on those individuals who are best at applying them.
Still, despite recognizing the very real advantages of possessing a self-function within our brains, Buddhist thought is radically opposed to ideas — such as the self-esteem movement — that perpetuate the illusions of separation and consistency that are part of our experience of self. In place of such ideas, Buddhist thinkers advocate a strong sense of agency.
Agency is the ability to choose our actions in the world, and to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Situations that can be analyzed in terms of self-esteem can often be better analyzed in terms of agency. For instance, it is sometimes asserted that the reason that an abused woman does not leave the abusive situation is that she lacks self esteem. A better analysis is that a key component of agency — the confidence that one’s actions can have the consequences we aim at — has been crippled for her. The technical name for this crippling of agency is “learned helplessness”, and it is one of the favored and most effective tools abusers can use against their victims.
Why is it better to frame the problem of the abuse victim as one of agency rather than self-esteem? Because what an abuse victim needs is not assurances of her good qualities, but rather a safe space in which she will have the opportunity to make choices and discover again the possibility of getting the consequences she desires. Even a surprisingly small space can often make a big difference, as, for instance, when creative writing classes or Buddhist meditation retreats are offered in prisons. Although being able to write down and read aloud one’s thoughts, or even to spend time in silent contemplation, might seem like a very small amount of control of one’s life, these are significant improvements in an environment where every action from wake-up call to lights out is dictated by others.
The two essential aspects of skilled agency are these: first, a person understands that all his or her actions have consequences, and it is impossible to evade those consequences. The second requirement is that a person be willing to take whatever actions he or she judges will be beneficial. These two aspects of agency curb the tendency to impetuousness, on the one hand, and indolence on the other. When the focus is changed from one’s innate qualities to one’s choices, a person begins to experience freedom. If one sees clearly the way action begets consequences — that is, if a person does not fall into illusions such as separation from “outside” reality and failing to recognize internal change — then skill develops, and skill and freedom continue to increase together in a virtuous cycle. Someone who practices agency in this way does not fall into pride, first, because he or she takes responsibility for managing emotions, and second, because armoring one’s self does not contribute to either aspect of agency.
To return to our analogy of the river, those lumbering sailors in the big, leaky boats might have the opportunity to look over their high, splintered gunwales and notice that not everyone is so burdened. Keeping them company on the river are many small, maneuverable rafts whose pilots are busy learning seamanship — that is, they are engaged with the river, discovering its dangers and opportunities. Often, they travel in groups, sharing what they have learned and giving warning of particular dangers.
And if the prideful person can look still further, he may catch a glimpse of the great-souled ones, whose skill in agency is complete. Those are the ones who have dived naked into the stream and are cavorting in its currents like dolphins. They have left behind even the minimal self of the rafts; their understanding of the currents and rocks is perfect; they have no need even to choose their actions, since they act from simple necessity.
These are the ones who have no pride, but whose actions and words survive the centuries.
When I first read this prompt, my reaction was visceral and immediate. We owe our parents our very existence — this human lifespan.
Libby Anne raises the issue of whether we have a religious obligation to honor our parents. I would say yes, but my religious assumptions are quite different from hers. It seems to me that if you agree that a human lifespan is valuable, then that confers an obligation.
So, is a human lifespan something of value? I have read that some Christians view it as debased, a mere “anteroom to heaven”. I don’t know if that is true — I have never met a Christian who believes this. I mention it because it is diametrically opposed to the Buddhist view. The Buddha insisted that even the denizens of the highest heavens wish to be born as human beings, because only human beings have the opportunity to attain enlightenment. A human life, he insisted, is precious and rare, as he explained with the parable of the turtle: Suppose a turtle lives in a vast sea, and surfaces only once every hundred years to draw breath. Suppose that on the surface of the sea, floating here and there with the currents, drifts a small ring. A human life, the Buddha explains, is as improbable as the turtle’s likelihood of putting its head through the ring as it comes up to breathe.
Religion aside, is a human lifespan something worth having? I think so, and I think most people agree with me. Suicide, after all, is the exception rather than the rule. And while there are a few people for whom life is so unbearable that they are willing to throw it away, most of us do not make that choice. Most of us, in fact, cling to life even in trying and painful circumstances.
Even admitting that a human lifespan is a valuable gift, another objection to my view was stated in the comments to Libby Anne’s post, namely: “I did not choose to be born, and therefore, I do not owe anything to my parents.”
Here, I think, it’s useful to distinguish between two conceptions of “owing”. One view is that an obligation requires an act of will — it is a species of business contract, an exchange between two consenting individuals. At the fulfillment of the contract, both individuals are free to go their separate ways, perhaps never again to meet. This is a relatively modern and very narrow idea, but it is built on the broader, ancient base of communal obligation.
The ancient idea of obligation was more generous and more circular. Each of us is born into obligation — obligation not only to our parents, who give us life, but obligation also to everyone in our community, who give us care and education and help when we are in need. We, in turn, are responsible for paying back, paying forward, and paying sideways by shouldering our responsibilities as members of a community. It is impossible to walk away from this sort of obligation — or perhaps not impossible, but it requires a sort of exile, a species of communal death.
This older view of obligation is, in my opinion, much more humane than the newer view. I try to cultivate a sense of gratitude to everyone and everything around me. If someone performs a service for me — let us say, they cut my hair or serve me a meal — I am grateful for that. Of course, I pay them, but that, in my view, is not simple recompense. It is a small gift I offer to them. Ideally, we are each enriched by our exchange, and instead of going our separate ways, we are bound more closely, by gratitude and by the pleasure we find in helping each other.
This is a deeply joyful way to live — I can recommend it!
The final issue raised by this prompt is this: what if, after giving you the gift of a human lifespan, your parents failed in their duty to give you the care and nurture needed to live well? Does that negate your obligation to them?
In my view, it does not. It may, however, make it difficult or impossible for you to attempt to offer care to them as they age or get sick. If that is the case, you can still find ways to pay your debt to life, perhaps by helping others who have suffered as you did. Even the remedial work of caring for oneself — supplying, painfully and imperfectly, the foundation that are the birthright of more fortunate children — is a form of repayment. We do what we can.
It is a matter, finally, of intention. Every action we undertake in the spirit of service to life is a kind of repayment of our debt to life. Such actions are the ultimate store of value, on which we all depend.
One of the ubiquitous questions asked of atheists by theists is this: if there is no divine Judge meting out punishment, why would anyone behave in a moral way?
Like pretty much all other non-theists, I have answered this question by asserting that moral behavior does not depend on punishment. People, I have asserted, act morally because we are intrinsically motivated to act morally. I supported this statement with scientific studies that show evidence of moral judgment in even pre-verbal children, as well as sociological evidence from non-theistic societies.
When I first read this challenge question, my inclination was to spin a version of that answer in response. Better to reason with people, I was going to write. Better to appeal to their innate morality. The aim should be to help them become better people.
However, the other day, I discovered that, well, cough, cough… my answer above is not entirely correct. And this discovery happened JUST in time for me to make this confession in public, in answer to this blog post challenge. Aren’t I the lucky girl??
It turns out that, despite the fact that we ARE intrinsically motivated to act morally, punishment serves a very important purpose. It turns out, in fact, that without punishment, we would very likely still be wandering about in small, genetically-related bands and fighting (with rocks and stout branches) when we encountered the small, genetically-dissimilar-to-us band in the next valley. (Chimps — our nearest relatives — have a social structure like that.)
Humans, however, have managed to overcome this tendency to band together exclusively with kin, at least well enough to send help-desk jobs from the US to India. How did it happen? One well-regarded scientific model suggests that we did it by creating and harshly enforcing rules, in a process called “altruistic punishment”. Altruistic punishment is exactly what this challenge question asks about: it is punishment meted out, not to stop harm, nor out of personal revenge, but simply to enforce rules. Often, the person who metes out the punishment actually pays a price for doing so. Consider, for example, a labor strike. Workers band together to punish the unfair practices of their employer, even though they will not be paid for the time they are on strike. A moment’s thought will provide many other examples of this behavior, some ugly (think of Westboro Baptist), some nearly saintly (think of hunger strikes to protest bad treatment of prisoners.)
Here’s the science, beautifully explained on this blog post:
[According to] Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002… Altruistic punishment, Fehr and Gachter reasoned, might just be the spark that makes groups of unrelated strangers co-operate. To test this they created a co-operation game played by constantly shifting groups of volunteers, who never meet – they played the game from a computer in a private booth. The volunteers played for real money, which they knew they would take away at the end of the experiment. On each round of the game each player received 20 credits, and could choose to contribute up to this amount to a group project. After everyone had chipped in (or not), everybody (regardless of investment) got 40% of the collective pot.
Under the rules of the game, the best collective outcome would be if everyone put in all their credits, and then each player would get back more than they put in. But the best outcome for each individual was to free ride – to keep their original 20 credits, and also get the 40% of what everybody else put in. Of course, if everybody did this then that would be 40% of nothing.
In this scenario what happened looked like a textbook case of the kind of social collapse the free rider problem warns of. On each successive turn of the game, the average amount contributed by players went down and down. Everybody realised that they could get the benefit of the collective pot without the cost of contributing. Even those who started out contributing a large proportion of their credits soon found out that not everybody else was doing the same. And once you see this it’s easy to stop chipping in yourself – nobody wants to be the sucker.
Rage against the machine
A simple addition to the rules reversed this collapse of co-operation, and that was the introduction of altruistic punishment. Fehr and Gachter allowed players to fine other players credits, at a cost to themselves. This is true altruistic punishment because the groups change after each round, and the players are anonymous. There may have been no direct benefit to fining other players, but players fined often and they fined hard – and, as you’d expect, they chose to fine other players who hadn’t chipped in on that round. The effect on cooperation was electric. With altruistic punishment, the average amount each player contributed rose and rose, instead of declining. The fine system allowed cooperation between groups of strangers who wouldn’t meet again, overcoming the challenge of the free rider problem.
When I read that, whole regions of my worldview exploded. (For one thing, I owe a lot more respect to the theists who worry about what happens to morality in the absence of punishment.) A bit of web searching convinced me that this experiment was not only valid, but it made sense. For instance, it turns out that altruistic punishment
activated the dorsal striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of rewards that accrue as a result of goal-directed actions. Moreover, subjects with stronger activations in the dorsal striatum were willing to incur greater costs in order to punish. Our findings support the hypothesis that people derive satisfaction from punishing norm violations and that the activation in the dorsal striatum reflects the anticipated satisfaction from punishing defectors.
(The fact that there is a neurological underpinning convinces me that this behavior is part of what makes us human.)
So, it seems that innate morality, in the absence of punishment, is insufficient to gain us the fruits of non-zero-sum interaction between bare acquaintances. For that, we need rules and punishments for those who transgress the rules.
So, then, how SHOULD we punish people for moral failures? Should we, for instance, punish our friends even at the risk of losing their friendship? That would seem to be a form of altruistic punishment, aka, social glue.
For myself, when I contemplate a question like this I often think in terms of stance. That is, what stance — posture, facial expression, tensed and relaxed muscles, etc. — do I associate with the act of punishing my friends? Do I want to assume that stance?
For me, punishing someone implies looming over him or her, with or without angry expression, clenched fists, etc. And no, that’s not a stance I want to take with friends… or with anyone, really. I prefer to approach every person with a relaxed, open stance that conveys interest and goodwill.
So I think my approach still has to be to reason with my friends about moral failings. (This assumes that no one is being hurt at the moment of confrontation — but even then, my concern in such a case has to be helping the victim rather than punishing the perpetrator.) I find that my preferred actions are not different than they were before I learned this scientific information.
Perhaps I am thereby shirking my duty to enforce pro-social norms. But I suspect that the optimum number of punishers within a population will not be 100%.
About all I can do is continue to think about this new information… oh, and be a bit more sympathetic to people who express a desire to punish people for their transgressions!
Libby Anne writes:
I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s utmost to persuade of scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right. And so, without further ado, I give you this month’s Forward Thinking discussion question:
What would you tell teenagers about sex?
Teenagers and sex, lol. I have to say that Libby Anne’s purity culture might seem exotic to those much younger than me, but in fact, I’m old enough to have grown up with those same standards. It wasn’t until I was in high school that it was legal for single American women to receive a prescription for the pill. Fear of pregnancy kept most young women committed to a version of the purity culture, even for those of us who were not swayed much by religious strictures.
That was not the case when my daughter was a teenager, but she was not a sexually adventurous teen, and she has since settled into a happily monogamous relationship with her girlfriend of several years. (I was clueless until she came out at twenty, lol). Although I talked to her about the physical aspects of maturing into womanhood, we never really had occasion to talk through less cut and dried concerns.
I think other bloggers will have many wonderful things to say about autonomy and bullying, gender identity and expectations of parents and society. But the thing I would like to talk about, that I wish I had understood when I was a teen, is the sad synergy of sexual feelings and what we Buddhists call “craving”. So much of sexual morality has been discussed in Christian terms that I feel another perspective might be useful.
The perfect example of pure craving is the toddler in the grocery store who’s about to throw a tantrum because his mom won’t buy him something. As we get older, craving gets more complicated, more mixed in with other feelings. And in particular, when we’re teenagers, craving gets mixed up with sex.
My first taste of sex mixed with craving was my adoration of Davy Jones from the Monkees. By today’s standards my fantasies were incredibly innocent. The worst you could say is that I wasted a lot of time (and, oh yeah, annoyed my family by affecting an English accent.) But I was also learning about the first element of craving, which is obsessive, repetitive thinking.
The second, more destructive element didn’t show up until I had my first sexual crush on a real person, a guy I met at summer camp. After we were separated, I made and sent cassette tapes to him. When his responses stopped coming, I experienced the most crushing fear of being a worthless person. Every good, “feminine” characteristic seemed to me to be lacking in myself, and every image of unfeminine, unlovely behavior seemed to fit me perfectly. I probably spent six months in despair.
(This, by the way, is the malign signature of craving — obsession combined with an underlying fear. Craving mobilizes our survival instincts against us, insisting that if we will DIE, we will absolutely never recover if we don’t get that dress, that part in the show, a date for prom. Craving also tends to blind us to the legitimate feelings of those around us… including, sometimes, the person we crave. I have come to believe that there is no self-centered little shit like a Romantic-with-a-capital-RRRRRR little shit!
There are people — mostly, but by no means exclusively, male — who, rather than feel fear, transmute that fear into anger. When craving strikes, these can be dangerous people. These are the people who demand self-abasement of those who care for them. These are the people who, if they feel rejected, start vicious rumors about the object of their “affection”. These people are abusive — sometimes verbally, sometimes physically. These people sometimes explode into violence. It’s a problem that seems to get worse, year by year.)
Most of what I knew in my teens about feelings and dealing with feelings was wrong, as it turns out. I welcomed craving, under the mistaken impression that it was “falling in love”. And I believed that if love was real, if it was “meant to be”, then it would overwhelm me. Under the influence of songs by Schubert and Schumann, I convinced myself that my melancholy was the sign of an artistic soul.
At least I didn’t attempt suicide. I did get sent to see psychologists and counselors a couple of time, and they gave me plenty of hearty advice about paying less attention to my feelings and just, for heaven’s sake, getting ON with life.
What I would like to say to my former self, and what I think that a lot of kids today could profit from hearing is this: feelings are comprehensible and manageable. There’s no need to ignore or suppress them, nor do they have to control your life.
The trick to managing feelings — the technique I was never taught — is to pay attention to them without being drawn in. It took me decades to learn that, but it needn’t have. Because here’s the thing: at that point, I already understood that to sing well, I needed to simultaneously feel the emotions of the song and also keep a sort of analytic attention on technique and musicality — the placement of this vowel, the preparation for the next high note, etc. This bifurcation of emotional and analytic attention, letting both run at the same time, was something I already knew how to do. Why did no one suggest it could be applied to managing feelings?
The answer, probably, is that Americans believe they have a god-given right to their feelings. And if anybody doesn’t like our feelings or the way we express those feelings, well, they should just get OVER themselves.
But the truth that has taken me decades to learn, is that when I pay close attention to my feelings, but avoid getting sucked into them, I gain a whole dimension of freedom I never had before. I gain a wellspring of understanding that gives depth to my singing and my speaking and my writing. I gain a steadiness of purpose that lets me treat disappointment and triumph as lessons outside myself instead of proof of my worth, or lack of worth.
Ultimately, what got me through those years (and I think what also helped my daughter at a similar age) was that I was steadily working toward a goal. Certainly one of the things that dismayed me about a couple of my daughter’s friends was that they seemed so aimless. I cannot remember being aimless.
Thinking about this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although sex is THE big, attention-snagging feeling for teenagers and their parents, pair bonding is not really the main task of the teen years, at least not in the twenty-first century. A more immediately important skill is the ability to look out over the world and find work that needs doing, that you want to do, and that you think you could do well. It might not end up being your life’s work, but if not, you will be able to choose again, with some confidence in your ability to choose.
And when you are engaged in satisfying work, or in preparing for satisfying work, then finding a life partner is very much simplified. You will naturally gravitate toward someone who shares your values and is willing to help you, and receive your help, as each of you pursue your vocations. Oh, sexual feelings will play a part in your choice, of course they will. They should! Sex and love and satisfying work — when you can manage to do all three, you are truly an adult.