On the Necessity of Following One’s Still, Small Voice

July 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | 1 Comment

Changing one’s life — addressing the most thorny issues of a given existence — would be a lot easier if you could just follow a handful of strict rules unwaveringly. Or, better yet, if others would enforce good behavior. Sometimes change does work this way, of course: Kicking a chemical addiction is the most obvious example, since you cannot use at all when you’re in recovery.

So often, though, our problems stem from relationships — whether to things or to people — that we need to modify, but can’t eliminate. People who have problems with overeating do eventually have to learn to eat responsibly, for example. Even radical gastric surgery leaves most people with enough latitude to fail. For many people, sex, too, must be controlled. If you’re in a poisonous sexual relationship, you can cut off a given lover. Most of us aren’t called to chastity, though, and eventually we must learn to moderate this most primal urge without denying it entirely.

We know in our hearts what we need to do. To put it in Christian terms (which I prefer to the language of psychotherapy), we know where our sin lies. In his Mere Christianity, a brilliant explication of fundamental Christian beliefs, C.S. Lewis points out that living a blameless life is not a matter of following clear-cut rules. Even the Ten Commandments require a surprising amount of interpretation. (That interpretation remains abstract to me, since I have never had any potentially legitimate occasion to kill anyone.) How much more difficult, then, is the fundamental Christian requirement that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves. I am sure I’m not the only person who has little idea what loving God entails, and the difficulty of figuring out who counts as our neighbor provides the subject of many a sermon in my parish church. The law, religion, and ethics will always disappoint when we try to apply these blunt tools to our muddy, intricate lives.

The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy. It’s our duty to discern in our hearts what is right, and to act accordingly. As Kierkegaard was fond of pointing out, right behavior may look radically different in different people — for one man, it might mean marrying a woman he loves, while another might be called to abstain from marrying. Social norms are not a reliable measure of what each of us needs to do (though, of course, any decision to violate laws — or, to a lesser extent, conventions — requires the highest possible level of self-scrutiny combined with willingness to accept the consequences).

It is incredibly hard to behave well even 60 percent of the time, I think. Every day we make hundreds of tiny decisions — to put off a boring task or a potentially uncomfortable confrontation, to refrain from eating nasty food, to maintain even the most minimal spiritual discipline — and, sad to say, I’m often not conscious I’m making a decision. When I am aware of what I’m doing — procrastinating, say — I still often talk my gullible self into all sorts of self-indulgent behavior. I do have some ingrained good habits — I am unfailingly prompt, and am disciplined about emptying out my email in-box regularly — but those good habits live under a deep, cold drift of accumulated tendencies to laxness.

More later.

Love to all.


Excellent Suggestions from The Happiness Project and Illuminated Mind

July 30, 2010 at 6:47 am | Posted in Links | 1 Comment

I don’t know about you, but I’m often overwhelmed by my blog feeds. Every morning I’m confronted with more good advice and information than I could implement in a lifetime. Today, though, I found two entries that justified slogging through the happy tips and lists.

The Happiness Project is still one of my hands-down favorite blogs — Gretchen Rubin gives excellent advice made palatable by a charming tone. Here, she gives a list of actions that may tempt you in the moment, but that will actually intensify your unhappiness in the end. Like all excellent advice, it’s simple but it’s not easy. Learning to avoid just the first two — treating yourself and letting yourself off the hook — is a life’s work.

This guest post from The Illuminated Mind gives a quick list of ways to jolt yourself out of complacency and pay more attention to your life.

I would add a fifth item: Take care of a task that you know will suck, but that will be life-improving in the end. For example, almost daily I regret that my iTunes collection is too large for my iPod, and that mediocre songs have crowded out some of my coolest play lists. Sadly, this is not one of those things that I’m putting off for no rational reason, that will prove gratifyingly easy in the end. I’m pretty certain that I’ll hate every minute of it the hour or two of frustration and tedium. How nice it will be in the end, though! (Of course, the real challenge is to do something hideous when there’s no particular reward — I think of wading through endless voice mail menus to straighten out the unjust hospital bill I got last week. That takes true dedication.)

More later, and love to all.

Free Will Moment

July 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I found this New York Times blog post interesting, and I submitted the following comment:

I don’t see why (iv) above must be true — that is, that we must have chosen how we are in order to be held responsible for the actions that follow from that being. In fact, it’s commonplace and probably morally necessary to hold ourselves responsible for actions and states that we did not explicitly choose.

This concerns me because I am manic-depressive, and though I didn’t choose to be that way, I have remarkable latitude >and< responsibility with regard to my actions (though perhaps not to the extent that a person with no mental illness has). No one would seriously argue that, since I haven't chosen my mental state at any point in my adult life, I can't be held responsible for anything that I do. Or, to look at a more specific instance: If I suspect that my medication is making me dangerously ill — perhaps even exacerbating my illness — I may go off my medication. If, as a result, I have a manic episode and, say, steal your car or seduce your husband, it seems to me that I could (and should) be held responsible for my actions, even though I didn't choose to be manic, or to experience side effects from my medication. I acted according to my best judgment; as it turns out, I still hurt people. Did I have free will? Even the most minute examination of the circumstances will not prove that I did or didn't. Am I responsible? Following David Jones above, I would say that, yes, I am.

My point is this: It's fruitless to try to reason out free will and responsibility without considering the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, and acknowledging that we cannot predict the results of our actions.

Love to all.

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