G.K. Chesterton wrote a letter to the editor after a newspaper requested answers to the question, “What is wrong with the world?”
His answer, “Sir, I am.” was the shortest letter to the editor in newspaper history.
St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a spirit of peace within yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
Everybody has an opinion about what needs to change after the riot.
Fortunately, with me the one political necessity is within my power: to recognize that “It is a trustworthy saying, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,'” and to repent of my sins and take them to confession.
(It may be noted that a book contest to come up with the most politically incorrect book was won by a book about Orthodox priest and monk Fr. Seraphim of Plantina: Not of This World, which was pointed out to be barely political enough to be politically incorrect: but the best politics are in fact not of this world.)
But I am preparing for something tomorrow that is more political than my voting.
I am going to confession and own up to my sin as best as I can. And try to do better.
Mr. Jenkins One looked at his watch.
Madeleine l’Engle, A Wind in the Door
- Consider screen time, and multitasking, to be a drain on the mindfulness we are seeking from the East because we have rejected it in the West.
Declaring war on the pencil
I haven’t been able to trace my sources at all, but I vaguely remember a book like Good to Great talking about a company like Intuit making a decision for a product like Quicken, a decision, not just to have a collection of really nice tools, but to declare war on the pencil.
The core insight behind ?Intuit? declaring war on the pencil when it made ?Quicken? was that accounting and finance types using accounting software would also use pencil and paper, and possibly a calculator. The company’s decision was to do user research, find out when and why finance users resorted to using pencil and paper, and then implement improvements to eliminate the need to resort to pencil and paper.
(?Intuit? has also been credited with a similar feat in making a lighter and cheaper version that was not just a more feature-limited version of mainstream accounting software, but would make sense to non-accountants who did not know all the technical terms as one would expect of finance and accounting professionals using the version of ?Quicken? made for accounting and finance professionals. Hence the change in terms to a dirt-simple “money in” and “money out.” This is an additional feat of user research and knowing your audience.)
I am interested in what might be called a “neo-old-fashioned mindfulness,” and an older part of this project relates to looking at your watch more than is necessary, an ancestor to “phubbing,” or snubbing someone socially by looking at your phone. I do not seek a new project, but articulate how we can continue an age-old Western pursuit of mindfulness with a few nuances updated to be mindful when using technologies not around when this aspect of manners came to be.
In a martial arts class, the teacher commented, “Set your foot down because you want to, not because you need to.” This was in reference to a swinging kick that started with picking up your leg from behind you and ended with setting it down in front. And in fact there is a difference between moving so that you have to set your foot down or else lose your balance, and moving so that you set your foot down because you choose to do so.
The difference is illuminating.
Face-threatening behavior and basically rude behavior
When I was taking Wheaton College’s “linguistics and anthropology boot camp for missionaries,” one theme that was underlined was the concept of “face-threatening behavior.” The core concept in face-threatening behavior is behavior that could cause the other party to lose face, and it is normally polite to try to soften or remove the danger of causing the other party to lose face. The next time the lecturer was asked a question by someone in the audience, he pointed out the asker’s politeness behavior: before asking the question directly, he offered some kind words to the person he was addressing. The social subtext? “I am asking you a question, but not because you’re a bad lecturer, and I don’t want to make you lose face.” In other words, politeness leads people to usually try and avoid getting egg on someone else’s face.
I remember visiting with a friend of about my age, some years back, where my friend had asked me to look at a printer. I looked at it briefly, but didn’t immediately see how to fix it. I then apologetically asked if I could call my brother, who worked at a well-treated internal help desk. The social message? “I’m doing something that is basically rude, but I don’t want to be rude to you.” And this was when I was acting entirely out of concern for my friend. I had made a first approach to a difficulty he asked me to look at, and when that didn’t resolve the issue, I made a sensible second approach. However, my behavior was an example of how to maintain politeness while doing something that is basically rude: calling and talking with someone else on my phone when I was visiting him.
On another level, I remember a post-graduation visit to a well-liked professor who, as we were talking, glanced at his clock and then apologized, saying that he looked at the clock because he was surprised it was dark so soon. This was a graceful recovery from a minor social blunder: needlessly looking at his clock, which is an example of basically rude behavior. When Madeleine l’Engle briefly states that Mr. Jenkins One “looked at his watch,” this is a social shorthand to say that Mr. Jenkins One was tired with the present social situation, was wishing it would be over and he could be doing something else, perhaps anything else, and that he wondered how long it would continue to drag on and on. And the professor I was visiting, who has a profound ability to enjoy and be present to practically anyone, made a social recovery after a behavior that carries a message of “I wish this conversation were over.”
Mindfulness and manners
Mindfulness as we use the term today derives from Buddhism, where Right Mindfulness is part of what in Buddhism is called “the Eightfold Noble Path,” and what in classic Western philosophy would be called cardinal or hinge virtues. (A “cardinal” or “hinge” virtue is not just a virtue, but a virtue that others hinge on, cardinal being Latin for “hinge,” with a cardinal virtue being a sort of gateway drug to further virtue. The “four-horsed chariot” of the cardinal virtues of classical antiquity lists courage, classically called “fortitude” or today “grit,” justice, wisdom, and moderation, to which Christian Tradition has added faith, hope, and love, and perhaps implicitly, humility.) Now Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path may be a different list of cardinal virtues than those in Western philosophy, and the two may or may not be two equivalent ways of cutting up the same pie. This question need not concern us here.
Different traditions have different lists of virtues, and it does not take any particularly great stretch of the imagination for a Westerner interested in virtue to recognize, for instance, India’s ahimsa, or not causing at least needless harm, as a virtue, and perhaps recognize it as a profound virtue and a cardinal virtue. It has also in my experience not been particularly difficult to get Western Christians to see mindfulness as a virtue, at least in some other tradition’s way of cutting up the pie.
However, this is not because they do not see mindfulness as an obligation. It is because they see the obligation as falling under the heading of manners rather than moral virtue.
A friend I mentioned earlier talked about how decades back, when Walkmans were eating tapes, about how his mother or grandmother had commented that people running with Walkmans on were not paying due attention to their surroundings. I’m not entirely clear how much our society’s concept of manners extends beyond treatment of other people (perhaps manners covers being gentle with your friend’s pets, or at very least leaving them alone if they’re not bothering you), but there is some sense in her remark that you owe attentiveness to your surroundings whether or not there are other people in the picture, and perhaps even that “being off in your own little world” is another name for Hell.
I am not specifically interested in establishing that mindfulness should be thought of as a department of manners, nor am I interested in establishing that mindfulness is a department of virtue. In the interest of not holding my cards too close to my vest, I think it is mostly in an area where the heart of manners meets virtue, and I am inclined to regard it, as I am interested in virtues, as a virtue. However, this is not a point I am interested in establishing. It could be argued that if you owe attentiveness, meaning mindfulness, to nearby rocks and trees as well as other people, it is a virtue rather than just manners as conventionally understood, but possibly some reader will find in this article itself solid reasons to believe mindfulness is manners first and foremost and should not in the first instance be lumped in with virtues. I am genuinely not interested in the question.
However, I will remark, as curiously interesting, that while I’ve seen attention to mindfulness blanketing the air and I have been invited to share in mindfulness exercises, not one of the mindfulness practices I have seen talks about old-fashioned manners to pay attention to others and the situation. Mindfulness is discussed as a Far Eastern virtue or discipline. I have never heard it connected to old-fashioned Western manners.
Fr. Tom Hopko’s famous (to Orthodox) 55 Maxims include:
- Be always with Christ.
- Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
- Be polite with everyone.
- Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
- Do your work, then forget it.
- Be awake and be attentive.
These at least overlap with mindfulness; when I spoke to one martial artist heavily influenced by Buddhism and quoted, “Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings,” he said, “That’s mindfulness!”
Fr. Tom never uses the word “mindfulness,” but he calls for politeness to “everyone” and to be attentive, and it would at least be consistent with his call for unqualified politeness to say “When you are exercising, be attentive to your surroundings rather than using the time to be off in your own little world.” And I believe there are several maxims of his that a mindfulness practitioner would rightly interpret as being mindfulness or overlapping with mindfulness. And, while Fr. Tom is Eastern Orthodox and perhaps praying for all of us from Heaven, his 55 maxims are written almost entirely on terms the West should be able to make sense of, and the incredible number of search results for “fr tom hopko 55 maxims” attest that he has written something simple that people can connect to.
Manners are much more important, and much more than arcana about which is the salad fork. “The fork goes to the left, and the knife guards the spoon,” is a particular alphabet and language in which manners are translated. It is at the exterior of manners that, under some circumstances, you could be given a bowl of water to rinse your fingers in before eating. A much deeper glimpse into manners is afforded in that a distinguished visitor to a Queen picked up his finger bowl and then drunk it, then Her Majesty picked up her finger bowl and then drunk it, and then every person seated around the table picked up their finger bowls and drunk them.
Manners, at least according to older generations and according to our conversations about manners with prior generations, has a great deal to do with paying attention to other people. It was both manners and mindfulness if Boomers and Gen X’s teachers told us not to pass notes and throw paper airplanes in class, perhaps with exceptions for e.g. the last day of school, but the fact that this may have made life easier for the teacher is incidental to teachers using humble gradeschool arithmetic classes to teach a major life lesson, and a major life lesson that is not only for dealing with authorities. I remember talking to one friend with a spine of steel about children who do not respect adults, and the biggest takeaway I took from the conversation is not that children who do not respect adults grind down adult patience. It was that children who do not respect adults can hardly benefit from adult help, and it is far easier to do something that will benefit a child who respects adults than one who is hostile and disrespectful.
In Madeleine l’Engle’s day, needless attention to a watch or clock was the go-to device to avoid practicing mindfulness for a time. It changed and told you where you are. This pint of beer that Boomers tried not to drink too many of has been replaced by a pint of rum in the smartphone, and a pint of weed in the smartwatch and its successors. Mr. Jenkins One looked at his plain old pre-digital watch, probably one without a second hand, while kids now enjoy (or are bored with) a virtual acid trip quickly surfing from one smartphone app to another.
If we care about mindfulness, an excellent starting point is to drink deeply of what we can learn about manners especially from Boomers while we still can.
My own rather counter-cultural technology choices
Some people seek great merit in being counter-culture. I do not think counter-culture is too great an index of merit, and not just because I believe some countercultures, such as the Klu Klux Klan, are evil incarnate. I have sought, even if I have so far not achieved my goal, to reach life on Orthodox turf where I will not be working out a private heresy in counterculture. None the less, I believe that many of my most helpful technology choices amount to counterculture, whether or not I have the faintest desire to be counter-cultural.
I’ve tried to share some of my fruits in 55 New Maxims for the Cyber-Quarantine; here I would like to zoom in on watches.
When I was in high school, and for far longer, I made it a matter of pride not to wear a watch. It helped me evade, for a certain age, the tyranny of the clock. Since then I have worked professionally where late is unacceptable, and I’ve been bitten by the personal information management and logistics bug; I have my own system for keeping track of calendar appointment, tasks, etc., so at a glance I can see a month or more of scheduled events and when they are scheduled for. And now I own an Apple Watch.
Any freedom I have from compulsively checking phone, email, or watch is a freedom on the other side of needing to deal with logistics.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
I’ve almost exclusively used the solar watch face because, while it may be beautiful, it is less distracting than the face of my industrial strength Pathfinder watch, which changes every second and shows patterns in the numbers (to a mathematician, 11:23:58 looks familiar). I have it set to a smaller analog clock face display within the solar face because from childhood I’ve found analog clocks harder to read than digital. (If analog clocks were easier for me, I would have the digital display, and if I had the option to turn off the inset clock besides the outer solar display, I would turn it off.)
Taking a cue from Humane Tech, I have dug around in “Accessibility” settings and set the watch face to grayscale. It’s beautiful, and the analog clock face’s second hand, brown on blue when seen in color, blends in remarkably well. I have to strain to see it the one time I genuinely want to watch a second hand’s sweep. I also found, under “Display and Brightness,” how to turn off one of the key reasons I purchased an Apple Watch 5: its “Always on” display. It now takes just a little more work to check my watch, supplemented by wearing an oversized fleece whose sleeves tend to cover my watch face.
I’ve also turned on the hourly chime, also an accessibility feature. This reminds me to check the clock once an hour, and relieves me of having to constantly check. If I need to check email once an hour (my preference is to check it once a day), I don’t need to check either my watch or my email compulsively; my watch will remind me on the hour.
Furthermore, I set alarms for when I need to do something. Besides appointments and things like taking medication, I have followed a practice recommended by sleep advocates and set an alarm for when I should go to bed and not when I should get up.
I would briefly pause and acknowledge one objection to the technique above, which is that doing things according to a preset timer and quite possibly stopping when you have momentum going is not as good as working on tasks for as long as they naturally take. For those no ancient or modern watch is needed. However, while I believe working on something for however long it takes to unfold naturally is often better than working for a fixed length of time set without knowledge of how things will unfold, I believe that use of intelligently set alarms is better than clock-watching. (One further aspect of intelligent use of alarms is to have two alarms for something: one five or ten minutes before, meaning when you look at your watch because of the “early warning” alarm, it’s time to start wrapping up; and one at the exact time, meaning it’s time to stop.)
I have almost completely unplugged logistic need to check my watch unprovoked, and I may have the most unobtrusive, if still most expensive, watch I’ve owned. Every non-Apple watch I’ve owned had a digital display, and most recent ones have been gadgety (I have owned three Pathfinders). However, the gadgetry is almost always there if I summon it, and I can take shortcuts by twiddling with complications.
The Apple Watch is designed and marketed as the next level of integrating digital and everyday life, and in my opinion that is not a wise thing to be wishing for at all.
However, it is also powerful enough that judicious choices mean it can be tamed into unobtrusiveness further than any previous watch I’ve owned.
I’m glad for my Apple Watch. For as long as I’ve owned a timepiece, my Apple Watch is the biggest friend of mindfulness to grace my wrist yet.
A few closing words
I would recall a few words from Seeing Through Native Eyes. The main speaker recounted a visit to Kalihari bushmen, who retain hunter-gatherer life unhindered today, and an elder asked him in reference to a device, “Is that a timepiece?”
He said, “Yes.”
The elder said, “Then I don’t like it.”
He said, “Why not?”
The elder said, “Every time you look at it, the next thing you do is rude.”
If you want mindfulness, cultivate an inexhaustible interest in manners.
Let there be light!
I think I would like to depart from an initial discussion of lighting, on which point I would quote Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary:
Environmentalist, n. One devoted to a particular political agenda, regardless of its impact on the environment.
A recent project at Argonne National Laboratory was working on a new generation of nuclear reactor which would be in many ways a dream come true. Its design would be such that meltdown would be physically impossible. It could run on nuclear waste from other plants, not only generating power but reducing them to material which would become harmless in a matter of roughly a century, rather than millions of years. It could run on nuclear warheads, thus not only providing a safe and permanent manner to dispose of some of the most appalling and destructive devices ever created, but so doing in a manner which would provide useful energy to hospitals and families; a beautiful picture of what it means to beat swords into ploughshares.
However, it is still nuclear, and, in the eyes of environmentalism, all nuclear power is evil and must be stopped at any cost. This project was, most definitely, stopped at any cost. It was terminated at great monetary cost; it was nearing completion, and, now that it was ready to be tested on different materials, those materials must be disposed of, at a cost of ninety-four million dollars more than it would have cost to complete. It was terminated at great environmental cost; those materials are dangerous nuclear wastes, and, though they were going to be made harmless, they must now be disposed of in established manners; that is to say, function as the nuclear waste that environmentalists so adamantly oppose. However, they stopped something bearing the dirty ‘n’ word, so environmentalists are now happy.
It is at least fortunate that environmentalists do not yet have the means to extinguish the sun.
Historically, there have been many transitions of technology. Before he came along, people were happy with the solutions they had for indoor lighting, and those solutions exist: when I grew up we had an oil lantern and various candles, which were trotted out for power outages and candlelight dinners, and I use candles in my prayers today. However, you could brightly illuminate indoor spaces with Edison’s light bulbs, and precious few people reach for candles and lanterns when they want illumination. The Amish might, for all I know, because of carefully thought out convictions. However, when the question of illuminating a building or a room comes up, people naturally reach for electric lighting, just like horses exist (and I would love to have a horse), but when the question comes of getting from one point to another, they reach for an automobile of some description, whether gas, hybrid, or electric. I’d personally love to have both a horse and a recumbent trike, and there are bicycle-friendly cities where people have made another carefully-thought-out decision, but for practical purposes I may have a say in which type of car I drive; I don’t have a say in which of these are live options for my living situation. The invisible hand of the free market has removed candles oil-burning lighting and horse riding from mainstream use.
Having Big Brother legislate a technology transition from incandescent bulbs to good LED lighting would have been bizarre enough, but the move that was actually made, at first, was at any cost to the health of the environment. I have gently twisted a CFL to unscrew it and broken it; my understanding is that there are techhical implications which make it not a live option to make a durable plastic shell for the mercury payload, but people can and do mass produce thin tempered glass sheets that will substantially protect cell phones from some pretty impressive blows. Making CFL’s that require more than being treated as if they are made of glass (something adults have learned in dealing with incandescent bulbs) is asking for environmental degradation that dwarfs the higher power consumption of an incandescent heat bulb.
Now the first white LED’s I know of were what is called “lunar white”, which looked white but (speaking as someone who used a lunar white LED flashlight to pick out clothes from a close closet) everything was a shade of grey and it was a wild guess whether a shirt and a pair of pants had matching color. Something of this has been explicitly acknowledged in LED lighting advertising that they show colors truly, and the problem has been overcome. And it is part of the normal flow for people to note that good LED bulbs don’t need to be treated like they are made of glass (or at least I have never broken one), cost pennies on the dollar for your electric bill, apparently last for ages (or at least I’ve never replaced an LED that died), don’t make a well-lit summer room even hotter, can be truthfully advertised as much more attractive for environmental concerns, and so on and so forth, and the forces of the free market would make incandescent heat bulbs go the way of the oil lantern and the horse without the faintest government intervention.
But what is odd, and really historically out of place, was that Big Brother decided he needed to power the change. It would have been a strange thing for the dead hand of government intervention to specify a move from incandescent bulbs to mature LED technology, but the exact inept move enforced was from incandescent bulbs, which contain no toxins to speak of, to a mercury delivery system that seems not to be intended for members of the general public to be able to handle without breakage. And again, I’ve broken a CFL by a gentle if firm twist that would have been entirely appropriate for a made-of-glass incandescent bulb.
What’s true for the goose is true for the gander
We have not directly have laws in force that require us to use any technology, and people off the grid are welcome to stay off the grid. However, the quarantine has created social conditions so that now some technologies are socially mandated. No one is holding a gun to our heads and demanding we use Zoom—but the government is holding a gun to our heads and forbidding us most normal social interactions.
What can we do?
There are several things to do, and I would point out the top 10:
Read The Luddite’s Guide to Technology and apply it liberally.
Please note that I am not jockeying for book sales, and if you don’t want to buy a copy on Amazon, email me and I will send you a free copy. Most of it was worked out before the present cyberquarantine, but the issues have long roots, and a book on how to be responsible with beer and wine has everything to do if water and juice are restricted but 151 proof rum is now placed before us and available for free.
Watch Depression is a Disease of Civilization, and implement what you can.
There are different helpful material; the full bang for your buck as far as diet is concerned is available if you change your diet to Paleo. If like me you live somewhere winter days are short, compensate for the lack of sun. I use one of many entry level sun lamps during the day (I can see it but not visualize it.)
Do what you can within the rules to live as human.
It has been said in reference to fair trade that international laws are not biased against poor countries, but for the rich. Fair trade serves as a witness that it is possible to support dignified and human life if a conscious effort to that is done.
The rules are not specifically prohibitions on all human contact; they just load the dice so a Toastmasters Zoom meeting is much more in reach than a face-to-face meeting, and it must be admitted that doing some things virtually has its convenience. However, it is still possible to have human meetings. It is still possible, if socially awkward, to have a conversation with a friend across six feet’s distance. It is possible to eat at picnic tables six feet apart. Things like this are not impossible; they just take an extra bit of reaching when virtual interaction is in much easier reach.
Limit your use of counterfeit social interactions, or at least try to consume them in balance.
I have written in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology about the goal of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. I mentioned research that cultures that have absorbed tofu use and are not harmed by it consume only fermented soy, in limited quantities, and never as a substitute for meat.
Social media (meaning anti-social media) are fake tofu. FecesBook keeps you plugged in and glued on, but it causes depression. The people who enjoy it most dip in and out quickly; prolonged use is asking for real depression.
If you are feeling lonely, seek out a face-to-face conversation with a friend. Maybe a conversation at six feet distance while wearing a mask, but don’t just reach for FecesBook when you feel lonely and want to feel better.
Make counter-cultural technology decisions.
I agreed with Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul before I read it, but reading Larchet raised the bar higher. I didn’t watch TV or movies if there was a polite way to avoid it, and I still don’t. What’s different is that instead of checking my email every hour (and watching my clock), I now check my email once in the morning and other times as needed on a case-by-case basis. I also don’t compulsively check my phone. My life is only the richer for this, and I have unplugged a drain on the human soul.
If you can get away with it, wear a gaiter mask.
I put on a gaiter mask just around my neck in the morning, pull it up to cover my mouth and nose when a mask is called for, and can breathe without feeling hot. It’s a bit of a mask lite, but all the orthochristian.com articles about COVID being a big deal were by older men. I entertain some skepticism for a situation where e.g. a motorcycle fatality is classified as a COVID death because doctors know what side their bread is buttered on.
A gaiter mask removes a strong disincentive to social interactions of the normal face-to-face type.
Consider getting a pet.
Some people are not animal people, and I am not personally in a position to responsibly own a pet. However, a friendly, good-natured cat or dog makes wonderful companionship without a quarantine, and possibly makes essential companionship with a quarantine. And if you like animals but can’t own one now, do spend some time with the pets of any friend you visit.
Vote your conscience—and your fears
A First Things feature sometime back said:
We vote our fears. And a very good thing that we do, according to the formidable Dennis Prager. In his newsletter, he lists the major interest groups of the two major parties and then suggests that we ask ourselves: “If all the listed Republican groups had their way, what would happen to America? If all the listed Democratic groups had their way, what would happen to America?” Mr. Prager asked himself and concluded that, while he supports almost none of the organizations on the Republican list, he fears them less than the groups on the Democratic list, and so he “nearly always” votes Republican. Here are his lists. Republican: National Rifle Association, Christian Coalition and Religious Right, Big Business, Black Conservatives (e.g., Clarence Thomas), Pro-Life Organizations, Conservative Justices, Tobacco Companies. Democrats: American Civil Liberties Union, Hollywood, Teachers’ Unions, Black Leaders (e.g., Jesse Jackson), Feminist Organizations, Liberal Justices, Trial Lawyers, Alcohol Companies.
The comment is dated by more than twenty years; the lack of mention of the gender rainbow alone says that the ink is far from being wet. But I would mention something to those who do vote your fears:
The quarantine will be bad under Trump and worse under Biden. That it will go badly under Trump hardly needs saying, but under Biden we are talking drones to enforce the wearing of masks, and who knows what else after federal drones have their “killer app” role of enforcing mask use. Please, have the courage to vote your fears.
Live The Sermon on teh Mount and Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims.
In Robert Heinlein’s sex-crazed, anti-Christian Stranger in a Strange Land, the grandfather-figure asks the heroine if she knows the Bible, and when she says “not much,” he says, “It merits study, it provides helpful advice for most emergencies.” And really, it does. “Do not worry about tomorrow; each day has enough trouble of its own” is very, very practical advice. If you haven’t availed yourself of this kind of resource, visit an Orthodox Church that is open (some are). If you have, dig deeper.
And in any case, give thanks in any and every circumstance, and be mindful of what you have to be grateful for.
Share this with others!
I think this post is worth sharing. If you like it, please share it with others!
And that’s all.
All the Best,
From Falstaff to Herodotus, grace: I send your excellence my manuscript, as revised again, and have returned the Imaginarium. I have tried to envision what life was really like in The Setting, but yet also keep things contemporary. Please send my boots and cloak by my nephew.
Here is the story:
Oct 8, 2020, Anytown, USA.
Anna looked at the sky. The position of the sun showed that it was the ninth hour, and from the clouds it looked like about four or five hours until there would be a light rain.
She stood reverently and attentively, pulled out her iPhone, and used a pirated Internet Explorer 6 app to spend deliberate time on social networks: first Facebook, then Twitter, then Amazon. It was the last that offered the richest social interaction.
Technology in that society underscored the sacred and interlocking rhythm of time, with its cycles of lifetime, year, month, and day, right down to the single short hour. But there was a lot of technology, and it had changed things. The road had for ages been shared between pedestrian man and horse. Now, decades after automobiles had taken root, it had to be shared between man, horse, and motorcar. A shiny, dark Ford Ferrari raced by her on the sidewalk. She paused to contemplate its beauty. Then she listened, entranced, as a poor street musician played sad, sad music on an old Honda Accordion.
And in all this she was human. Neither her lord nor she knew how many winters each had passed when they married; neither she nor her lord for that matter knew that it was the twentieth century. She cared for birth and mirth, and she loved her little ones. She did not know how many winters old they were, either. And there was life within her.
And she was intensely religious, and intensely superstitious, so far as to be almost entirely tacit. She knew the stories of the saints, and attended church a few times a year. She lived long under religion’s shadow. And her mind was tranquil, unhurried, unworried, and this without the slightest effort to learn Antarctican Mindfulness.
And in all this, she was content. Her family had lived on the same sandlot; more than seven generations had been born, lived, and died without traveling twenty miles from this root. The stones and herbs were family to her as much as men, but this was, again, tacit.
She was human. Really and truly human, no matter what others thought the epoch was.
Then a crow crowed. She looked around, thoughtfully. It was well nigh time to visit her sister.
“But how to get there?” she thought, and then, “I have walked in the opposite direction, and she will be upset if I am even two or three hours late.”
Then a solution occurred to her. She reached into her pocket, pulled out her new iPhone Pro, pulled up the Uber app, and ordered a shared helicopter ride.
Why did we call ourselves the Katana? It was in the excitement of a moment, and a recognition that our project has some off the elegance of a Katana to a Japan fan. We were more current than today’s fashions and for that matter made today’s fashions, but representing an unbroken tradition since Plato’s most famous work, what they call the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke: The Republic. Things would have been a lot easier if it weren’t for them. They obstructed the Katana.
The Katana have a dynamic thousand-or-so goals, but there is only one that counts: the relentless improvement of the Herd. Some of the older victories have really been improving agriculture what seems like thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, with mechanized engineering for farming and a realization that you can have meat costing scarcely more than vegetables if you optimize animals like you’d optimize any other machine, under conditions that turn out to be torture for farm animals. There are some lands where the Herd has been imbued with enough progress that the middle class has about as many creature comfort as there is to be had, and for that matter among the poor the #1 dietary problem is obesity. Maybe we made the Herd look more like pigs, but please do not blame us! We aren’t eating that much!
And we are altruists through and through.
We have been providing the Herd with progressively greater “space-conquering technologies”, as they are sold, which neuter the significance of their having physical bodies and the structure of life that was there before us. First we gave gasoline-powered Locomotives and great Aerobirds, devices that could move the meat of the human body faster. Now we are unfolding another wave of body-conquering technologies, which obviate the need to move meat. They are powered by a kind of unnatural living thing. Perhaps the present central offering in this horn of plenty, or what we present as a horn of plenty, is a Portal: a small device carried by many even in the poorest lands, that draws attention to itself and such stimulation it offers, disengaging from ancient patterns of life.
Things would be so much easier if it weren’t for them. We tried to tell people that they hate women; now we’ve told people that they hate gays. They still get in the way of progress.
Yesterday there was a planned teleconference, a town hall among the Katana after an important document from them had been intercepted. It was encrypted with a flawed algorithm, but cryptanalysis is easy and semantics is hard, and we gave the document to the semanticians for analysis.
The title of the document was straightforward and one that the Katana was happy to see: “How to Serve Man”. But the head semantician came late, and his face was absolutely ashen. It took him some time to compose himself, until he said—”The book… How to Serve… How to Serve Man… It doesn’t contain one single recipe!”
[With apologies to Damon Knight, To Serve Man.]
The importance of standard critiques
I remember one ethics class where I commented with deliberate wary tentativeness, “One comment that has been made about the atom bomb is that it didn’t just save lots and lots and lots of American lives, it also saved lots and lots and lots of Japanese lives,” and then added something very important: “…but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are,” bracketing that claim in a considerable degree of unknowing. And I was not surprised, nor did I argue, when a later resource in the course had someone comment in reference to just war, “The claim is not, ‘If we do not do this, this is what they will do,’ but ‘If we do not do this, this is what we will do.'” I have heard some people point out that American politicians had campaigned on a platform of unconditional surrender by the Japanese, but this assertion is a detail of American culture and an irrelevancy if you are going to claim to be within just war theory. (Another unintelligible point on just war terms is the choice to make civilian cities the ground zero of an experiment.) “We campaigned for unconditional surrender” is not a consideration that factors into the principles of just war. Neither jus ad bellum nor jus in bello explains why it is justifiable to reject any surrender short of an unconditional surrender, a condition tantamount to letting infidel trample on the holy city. I do not know what the terms are on which the Japanese emperor sued for peace before the use of the atom bomb, but he did sue for peace before we dropped the bomb, and the burden of proof falls on people who assert it was a matter of just war to detonate nuclear weapons in a push for unconditional surrender rather than try to work with the Japanese emperor for terms of peace, perhaps not all those originally proposed by the emperor, that would deal with the threat but not insist on unconditional surrender and consent to let the infidel trample on the holy city as much as they saw fit.
(It might also be commented that Albert Einstein asked that his theory be used to develop nuclear weapons to stop Hitler, and he was horrified that his work was used against the Japanese, which he did not consider to be picking on someone our own size: “Should I have known, I would have become a watchmaker.” But, culturally speaking, once we started to develop nuclear weapons there was essentially no way culturally we were not going to use them, and if we did not have nuclear weapons available in time to use them against the Nazis, Japan was next in succession.)
My reason for mentioning this is that I added an important qualifier: “but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are.” These are not weasel words. I am no fan of weasel words nor slippery rhetoric: see a dissertation focused on slippery rhetoric. But in a very real sense, what I was saying was that I didn’t understand the right import of the assertion (that nuclear weapons were mercifully quick, and had a far lower body count compared to the anticipated bloodshed of a land invasion where women and schoolchildren were doing combat drills and preparing in every way for a fight to the death), because I didn’t have a situated understanding, in particular knowing what lines of standard critique would be. (I have not heard anyone deny that assertion; the critique I saw essentially said, “No contest that it would be less bloody, but you are using the wrong standard and here is why.”) More broadly, understanding an assertion in the Great Conversation is incomplete if you do not grasp how it is situated in the Conversation, and part of that is understanding standard critiques.
Two senses of nature connection
I did a search for “nature connection critiques” on Google and DuckDuckGo, and Google got very quickly into academic articles having those three keywords but no connection to the nature connection movement, and DuckDuckGo gave nature connection pages without any critiques I could discern.
So I may be blazing a bit of a trail here in trying to situate nature connection.
I would like to begin by making a distinction between two significantly different senses of “nature connection.”
The first sense is an engagement with nature across many times and places, usually without any sense of nature connection in the second sense.
The second sense is an engagement with the nature connection movement’s tools, core routines, etc. The distinction between these is the difference between a general first category and a specific second type. The concerns I raise here mostly regard the second specific type.
I desire greater connection in the first sense, and it is one of the things I hope for in Orthodox monasticism, an arena that normally exposes one to nature a great deal and reaches further. (Perhaps I should say a third and other specific type centered on such things as virtue.)
A glimpse into a larger pattern
One place to start is Coyote the Trickster. Coyote is described in the pages of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, or at least what he does is described, and I’m not sure how to pin Coyote down (if he even should be pinned down). Is he only an animal as materialist science would understand an animal? That one possibility is the one I would be quickest to reject. Perhaps a coyote, the animal, is special, but what is Coyote? A spirit? A god? An archetype? A familiar? A patron saint? A Platonic Idea? An astrological sign? A totem? One god who is part of a henotheist God or Greatest Spirit in vaguely Hindu fashion?
I think that all of the possibilities above are at least illustrative, but this choice of the coyote writ large is perhaps not best for Christians, and not just because Coyote is coyote writ large. The text asserts Jesus and Buddha represent the Trickster; Jesus the trickster is illustrated by the cleansing of the Temple. Now it would perhaps be unfair to ask the work to do serious Biblical exegesis, but the cleansing of the Temple was one of the least prank-like actions he took. He wasn’t manipulating people; he was deeply offended by irreverent use of the Temple and drove people and animals out without the faintest mercurial intent. Not to say that there is nothing like the trickster in Christ; the story of Christ and St. Photini (“the Woman at the Well”) has St. Photini enlisting Christ’s help in fleeing from her shame, and Christ opening things up until she has been pulled through her shame and runs with no further shame saying, “See a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Christ?” Christ was mercurial enough that if you tried to catch Christ the Word in some trap of words, you always, always lose. And, perhaps, it is an exegesis of Christ that Orthodoxy has what are called holy fools. But the use of the cleansing of the Temple gives a sense that the text has been conscripted to fit the Trickster archetype. (For that matter, the story of Buddha has his father trying very hard to ensure that he would be a political leader, and he chose instead to go on a quest and found a religion. Perhaps in the cornucopia of Mahayana Buddhism we have Zen masters who may use trickery to teach, but I do not see that Buddha was being a Trickster to choose a divergent career path from what his father wanted.)
And I was trying to think of a good way to present a companion aspect, and I’m not sure I’ve found one. When I was in middle school, one Social Studies question was, if we had lived in the 19th century, we would have braved the hardships to settle the West. And I, little schoolboy that I was, said that the question was irrelevant because the West was already settled by people who had a right not to be killed. My teacher didn’t like that and tried to push me to answer the question on the terms that it was posed, and none of my classmates said anything like that. But to Native Americans, apart from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerns about Europeans carrying diseases Native America had no defenses for, how should Christianity be seen? It was the religion of white Americans who disregarded as basic interests among the Native Americans as life and not being subjected to needless and major suffering, and so it is not a surprise that my brother, a historical re-enactor, talked about one re-enacting group who re-enacted a first contact between white and Native American and who were explicitly Christian, calling themselves The King’s Regiment or the like, and were distinguished for all other re-enactors in that they did not engage in native American spirituality which was understandably laced with something anti-Christian.
Nothing I have listened or read from the nature connection movement is explicitly or directly anti-Christian. Critique may be implied in assertions that reject Christian practice, however nothing I have seen appears to be there for the purpose of facilitating attack on Christianity. However, nature connection is largely grounded in Native American figures, and even if nature connection is mostly secularized, people who dig into nature connection roots beyond nature connection will sooner or sooner run into this. We have, perhaps well outside of Native American culture, seen T-shirts saying:
But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.
I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.
I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.
A body without a head
The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.
I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.
The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!
Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.
Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.
The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.
There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.
The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.
Epilogue, written some time later
I have backed away from the nature connection movement.
The core reason why, besides noting whether I have business in the tradition’s core routines, is that when I listened to Seeing Through Native Eyes and read much of Coyote’s Guide to Nature Connection, it seemed like as a whole the offering made sense, but at each particular point along the way I held my nose about the particular part I was reading.
That kind of squeamishness is something I don’t consider wisely ignored.
I’ve realized one thing about my Protestant roots that I had not recognized before.
I grew up a Protestant, and there are many good things to be said for Protestant Christianity and about Evangelicalism. Among these are a belief that faith should be strong, and an emphasis on reading the Bible.
Since my reception into Orthodoxy, there have been something like seven major battles of will I have fought to establish a simple boundary. (I do not mean “boundary” in some technical sense in formal Orthodox theology; I mean “boundary” in the everyday sense that a counselor would mean.) Every one of those, and priests included, has been with a former Evangelical. No Orthodox Christian who grew up Orthodox, and for that matter no Catholic received into the Orthodox Church, has decided to persistently overrule one of my boundaries. I am intentionally refraining from providing details that would be way too much information, but we are talking CEASE AND DESIST letters as sometimes the only way to stop a power struggle with someone pursuing overbearing attempts at “help.”
I’ve looked mostly at genotypes, of Protestants (who, Catholics allege us to believe, do not have valid orders or valid sacraments, or an Orthodox doctrinal basis for intercommunion), Catholics (who, Catholics allege us to believe, have valid orders and sacraments, but contrary to their opinion do not have the doctrinal basis for intercommunion, and whose ecumenism is annoying to Orthodox: some Orthodox believe ecumenism is the ecclesiastical heresy of our day), and Orthodox. And I certainly wouldn’t disavow that now; I’ve written some pretty harsh things. However, including in convert parishes, there is a certain class of conflicts I’ve never had from someone born in the Orthodox Church, or received into Orthodoxy from Catholicism. When I was at UIUC, Newman’s priests showed patience with me being an idiot and a jerk, but neither devout Roman clergy nor laity assumed command and tried to straighten me out. However, here I am interested in phenotypes now. Not so much “What are the internals?” but “What is the external manifesting behavior?”
There is (I believe) a profound clue into the heart of Protestantism in that former Protestants in Orthodoxy have tried to overrule my boundaries, and only former Protestants in well over a decade of contact with Orthodox of numerous different backgrounds (my godfather, who was rightly respected, was a former atheist).
I am intentionally refraining from analysis, however, I believe that this is of interest in situating an understanding of Protestantism, particularly as conservative Protestants make a major practical emphasis on morals.
(Perhaps I should found an organization called “Ex-Protestants for Christianity?”)
Readers familiar with my site might have read Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion, which complains about attempts to resurrect the glory of ages past (and willing, to do so, break from a nearer past), such as the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Vatican II’s ressourcement and aggiornamiento, and perhaps I should have included neo-Paganism, on the assertion that they bring a decisive break with the recent past and ultimately from the older past they seek to resurrect as well. So what is my point about asking for the ancient ways now?
Simply this: the cyber-quarantine for Coronavirus has brought us to a newer and virtual way of doing things, and however much we may long for the real thing in the moment, they are in some cases convenient, above and beyond a field training exercise for the next level of virtual living.
When we can, we would do well to resume what we were doing, in for instance meeting with people face-to-face and perhaps driving to do so. I applaud Civil War re-enacting, not specifically as a means of resurrecting something long past, but because it is a kind of face-to-face meeting (and community!) that has been part of our present and that we would do well to resume. And participate in church life as you are able, and the door remains open. I am not at all impressed that my own governor has decided to keep churches closed, but in Orthodoxy there is a very simple rule: in matters pertaining to the Church, obey your bishop first and Caesar second. That is all. (I do not know other bishops’ positions to comment on them, nor perhaps should I comment on them). My own archbishop has said to obey the law and work within the quarantine, which has now included having online services and allow one person at a time to enter the cathedral building to receive communion. It is a hardship, perhaps, but the Orthodox position is very simple.
There is something ancient and beautiful in a real (not virtual) hug, a picnic on the lawn, seeing your co-workers face-to-face (some places are discovering remote work now, which gives people a private office such as has been banished from mainstream businesses, first for cubicles and then for open plan offices, and discovering that employees work remarkably better when they can hear themselves think, but this is a separate issue). In the “Old Technologies” section of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, I wrote:
There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)
I remember one time when I was visiting a friend, and his son and two best friends were holding close to each other and each playing a video game on a portable device. I’m not going to endorse video games, but I will comment that three little boys were having fun together face-to-face, and if they were all playing video games, they were still playing them face-to-face, friends like in time immemorial.
So some of the things we can do when the quarantine is relaxed (or lifted) include ordering a paper book from Amazon, reading it outside and putting it on a bookshelf and taking care of it so it is available afterwards, or driving to a new restaurant via GPS to have a meal together, or just go to church, or spending some days in the office face-to-face to maintain social connection with your co-workers. Note that I am commenting less on using or not using new technologies (but really it is also possible to do purely older things like take a stack of blank sheets of paper and hold a physical brainstorm about how to make paper airplanes, or origami—which I mention not because it is of Asian origins but because it is a recognized thing in my time and place). Or build something with Legos, old or new (I might comment that the decidedly new-school Lego Mindstorms robots offer a whole new dimension for creativity). What all of these share is that they are sharing something classic and organic, regardless of how much (or little) they use technology. Churches may have signs saying, “Cellphones that go off in the service will be dunked in holy water,” but while some avoid or minimize digital technology usage while fasting for the Eucharist, there is presently little policing of cellphone usage in getting to the church.
We have one more doors open, doors to something unclean. Perhaps now there is not legitimate choice, and if our bishops say “Obey the quarantine” we should obey the law. Those inclined to increasingly virtual life have had a good practice at handling things virtually, and so have those not so inclined. And there is something practically good, if not always in trying to recover long-lost glory, at very least at continuing in living traditions we know how to do, and to be able to get up from the new normal, get off our back ends, and reclaim ancient and still living glory that remains open to all of us, even if it turns out to be surprisingly more convenient not to drive (another technology) and meet people face-to-face.
For what it’s worth…
When I was at a friend’s wedding, his father mentioned a surprisingly sick story about a boy whose older brother committed suicide, and for Christmas the boy was given a gun as a gift: more specifically, his older brother’s suicide weapon. (I should clarify that my friend’s father was not being sick; his conversation with me on the topic was entirely appropriate…)
In the book he mentioned, Scott Peck’s People of the Lie talks about a personality profile that was characterized by narcissism and several other warped things; surprisingly, at least to me, the single defect the author chose to crystallize what was wrong was that they were characterized by lies. We tend to think of lies today as not the most serious evil, perhaps using an idiom like “not the end of the world.” Peck meant something very serious by characterizing these patients as “people of the lie.”
In one statement that the author does not unpack (probably more because he did not want to slow the text down rather than a failure to understand what was going on), the boy’s mother said, with what I would call narrower entailment than implicature, “Most sixteen year old boys would have given their eyeteeth to have a gun!” This statement is, of course, in an almost literal sense true, in that literally speaking, most sixteen year old boys would be delighted to receive a gun for Christmas. However, it was in a deeper sense false and a lie in that it idiomatically conveys that it was reasonable under the circumstances to believe in good faith that this sixteen year old boy would have been delighted to receive that gun as his Christmas gift. (Interested parties may read me unpack an “emotional plea” with discussion of entailment and implicature in a dissertation.) Such lies, once analyzed, shed light on what is sick in the discussion. An (almost) literally true statement here conveys a lie; the “almost” does not specifically amount to deception but using a metaphor that does not lie, about giving one’s “eyeteeth.” Elsewhere the author complains about a half-truth that conveys a lie. Here I would say that no matter how literally true a statement is, lying is in the author’s mind deeply, deeply characteristic of what has gone wrong.
My specific reason for bringing Scott Peck and People of the Lie has to do with something else, the surprising rationality of the lie. In his book, and in my own life, I might accuse people of lying, but I cannot interpret their behavior as clumsy, random, or unthinking. Scott Peck complains about the “cheapness, laziness, and insensitivity” of making the gun the boy’s Christmas gift. I would speak differently, and here please do not accuse me of speaking against the spirit of Peck’s book, even if I attempt “change from within” (as C.S. Lewis uses the term in The Abolition of Man).
The choice of gift was the result of the parents’ solution to an optimization problem, of what under the circumstances would best advance their campaign. It might have been horrifyingly insensitive to buy him a new, bigger and better gun, but the gun they gave really leaves no doubt. If they had seen an opportunity to make the gift sicker by gluing camouflaged razor blades to the outside of the gun so he would (in a literal sense) cut his hands when he innocently picked the gun up, they would have done so. This was no mere case of giving an ashtray to someone who doesn’t smoke. They could have given him, without thinking, a used Barbie doll from a garage style or a new book in a language he doesn’t read. Or, for that matter, shaved his head and given him a set of combs. A gun, or more specifically this gun, does something else exquisitely well. It says, “Your turn.”
Behavior that seems thoughtless or irrational, from people of the lie, is usually nothing of the sort, perhaps because we assume rationality is a rationality of good faith. So that gun is seen as an astonishingly bad failure in an attempt to give an appropriate Christmas present: cheap, lazy, and insensitive. It is in fact nothing of the sort. Much seemingly irrational behavior is in fact perfectly rational in an attempted solution to the problem of finding a seemingly socially appropriate way to pursue socially inappropriate goals. Behavior may be rational and sick, or rational and treacherous, or rational and warped. But offensive behavior, in a People of the Lie context, even or especially when it seems puzzlingly irrational, is usually rational in the pursuit of a wrong goal. I do not find the young woman’s behavior mystifying, who behaved in seemingly inexplicable ways in receiving therapy. She had plenty of IQ and her behavior makes perfect sense as amusing herself by toying with, mystifying, and frustrating a psychiatrist. Her behavior seems irrational on the assumption that she was approaching a psychiatrist with the goal of bettering herself by receiving real psychotherapy. Once we discard the assumption of good faith seeking psychotherapy, all of her making the psychiatrist sexually uncomfortable (for instance) makes perfect sense as a very intelligent person rationally pursuing an inappropriate goal. (Possibly, though I remember no direct evidence of this, in her mind, she was killing two birds with one stone and getting even, after one or more people insisted she get treatment.)
Elsewhere, if I am recalling the book correctly (I may be conflating two stories), the author complains about professional parents whose line of work required empathy were surprisingly unempathetic in dealing with their children, and appeared to comment that it’s almost as if their goal was to break their son’s spirit, but despite the allegation the author does not take seriously this possible goal. I submit that this guess is right on the money. At one point, their son worked with disabled people and was awarded a trip to a conference which his parents confiscated on the assertion that his room was not clean. The author commented that he would be worried if a son of his age didn’t have a somewhat messy room, and appeared to believe that they believe that confiscating such an award was genuinely proportionate discipline for a messy room. I submit that they found a seemingly socially appropriate way to implement socially inappropriate behavior, and they confiscated the trip and honor because it was a seemingly, or at least arguably, socially appropriate way to break his spirit on terms that even the author of People of the Lie would not equate with a naked and obvious effort to break their son’s spirit.
What this means for the profoundly gifted, or many who are gifted but happen not to be at that echelon, is this. “Confucius say that elevator smell different to dwarf.” Maybe, but Confucius should also say eight foot tall elevator feel different to nine or ten foot tall intellectual giant. In cases where he was treating a child of “people of the lie,” the author usually found the child much less sick, and more of a victim, than parents guilty of aggression. (He talked about the “identified patient,” meaning that in a dysfunctional situation the person labelled as a psychiatric patient may well be the least in need of psychiatric treatment.) Furthermore, as I explored in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, meeting someone who is by far the most brilliant person that someone has ever met brings out some insecurities in people. Most of the parents he discusses succeeded in social situations where success requires some genuine sensitivity. The author wonders and is mystified that they didn’t apply their well-developed sensitivity to dealing with their child. I submit that they were perfectly sensitive, but applied their sensitivity in the service of a warped goal.
If you are dealing with a People of the Lie situation, a couple of things. First of all, it may defuse some frustration to move from believing “They are trying to behave in a socially appropriate way but doing a mystifying and painfully bad way of doing it (and reasoning with them doesn’t work),” to “They are rationally pursuing inappropriate behavior in a way they are presenting as socially appropriate (and the results of reasoning with them are inline with this.” It defuses some of “They are being painfully irrational and defy attempts at being rational.” And if what they want is to get your goat, standard psychological advice may apply. Second, it is more effective to work with people on grounds of their actual motivation than a motivation falsely presented. Not a panacea, but it is surely not a panacea to tell people who want to get your goat, in perfectly good faith, “You are hurting me.”
I submit that being willing to consider the possibility of encountering the rational behavior of “people of the lie” can be part of a constructive exercise of Theory of Alien Minds.