He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At Year's End: The Limits of Discipline

For the past several years, discipline has played an increasing role in my life, a role it had only played in my martial arts training and meditation previously.  It started when I became aware that I had a problem with my blood sugar.

I immediately began to discipline myself to eat a healthy and balanced diet; almost overnight I became skilled at keeping my blood sugar balanced appropriately.  I consistently denied myself sugary treats and carb-heavy starches and breads.  This high-nutrient diet gave me more energy, an energy which eventually propelled me to train for an hour each morning and an hour each evening, going far beyond the 30-45 minutes a day I was managing in my teens on a really terrible diet.  I became a new man (physically); my weight returned to what I weighed in high school and my physique looks in various respects as good or better than it did when I was in high school.

This physical discipline sharpened my mental faculties and made for clearer analysis, more coherent synthesis, and more precise evaluation.  My philosophical writing improved as a result, as did my political analysis.  My ability to work through philosophical problems in a methodically logical fashion reached a new height, and I continued to discipline myself to fight against my confirmation bias and work on developing mental habits which cut against various kinds of cognitive errors and fallacies.  I became a new man (mentally); in the past year I have begun writing a description of my unique political philosophy which transcends both anarchy and its hierarchical opponents.

This mental discipline helped to improve my emotional discipline by strengthening my ability to fight against the overwhelmingly negative event bias that has pulled me toward depression since my early teen years and culminated in a very unhealthy focus on my own death while getting my first degree in my early twenties.  I still hear the siren's call to wallow in misery, but the call is much softer each passing year and I can shut it out much more easily.  I am also much more able to discipline myself to act with loving kindness even when my emotions would incline me to do otherwise and strive to treat my family members more as they should be treated.

This emotional discipline has bolstered my spiritual discipline; my prayers are more fruitful and my will ever more inclined to virtue.  My desire to avoid vice has grown in proportion to my desire to acquire virtue.  The value of discipline has been immense, permeating all aspects of my life with many good fruits growing out of it.  To express its value more eloquently than I could in my own words, I will quote Matthew Kelly.

"Contrary to popular opinion, discipline doesn't stifle or restrict the human person.  Discipline isn't something invented by the Church to control or manipulate the masses, nor is it the tool that unjust tyrants and dictators use to make people do things they don't want to do.  All these are the lies of a culture completely absorbed in a philosophy of instant gratification.
"Discipline is the faithful friend who will introduce you to your true self.  Discipline is the worthy protector who will defend you from your lesser self.  And discipline is the extraordinary mentor who will challenge you to become the-best-version-of-yourself and all God created you to be.
"As loyal and as life-giving as discipline may be, its presence in our lives is dwindling.  Whether we are aware of it or not we are becoming spiritually ill without it... Without discipline, the soul dies.  Slowly, perhaps, but surely."

But discipline has its limits, and this year I ran up against them. Discipline cannot provide the passion for life and delight in its wonder which leads to the most fulfilling and fruitful sort of life this world could use a great deal more of.  That passion must come from a deep wellspring of love.  That's the task for the coming year, to stoke the fires of love and cultivate a passion for a life in the service of the good of others.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Killing Masculine Compassion

Today I stumbled upon a very interesting video regarding the ways in which the social construction of masculinity is harmful.  I began drafting this post quite a while ago, and I'm glad to encounter a video that effectively illustrates some of what I want to cover.

The sort of socialization experienced by boys as demonstrated in the video are couched in contemporary language, but this type of socialization for males is incredibly ancient, probably existing long before we could even be called hominids.The value in socializing men to have reduced empathetic behaviors to one another is that they will be better able to kill or injure other males without remorse or with minimal remorse, a useful capacity when under harsh survival pressure and in fierce competition with other species.  A male needs to be able to do horrible things to others in order to protect his mate and his children under those sorts of conditions.

As a disclaimer, this is not to be mistaken for maligning my fellow hominids of past ages; I'm well aware that without doing those terrible things needed to survive, I would not be able to sit here in my comfy folding chair in reasonably comfortable temperature conditions writing about this.  The suppression of masculine empathy made a great deal of sense in the past, though it was obviously not without cost.  Males with little to no empathy can turn on those they are supposed to protect, become abusive to their mates and children, and even kill themselves.  The examples of these problems in contemporary human societies are far too numerous and obvious to list.

To contribute to the betterment of our societies now that many of us no longer operate under quite the crushing survival pressure experienced by our ancestors and in far greater proximity to others, it would be wise to socialize males in a way which fosters empathy rather than discourages it.

Unfortunately, in some cases we are just finding new ways to suppress masculine empathy.  For example, the typical male expression of compassion is the protective instinct.  This has come to be viewed as a negative behavior by those unable to distinguish between protective behaviors rooted in natural empathy (or internalized altruism) and protective behavior rooted in unhealthy possessive attitudes.  By stigmatizing it regardless of the roots of the behavior, we are in effect providing a negative incentive for men to be compassionate even where it would be beneficial.

And because we frequently make no distinction between positive and negative motivations for protective behaviors when socializing males, it's extremely difficult for them to understand what behaviors are acceptable and why, making it likely that they will simply reject the stigma wholesale rather than arriving at a principled conclusion about what sorts of motivations are appropriate for their behaviors toward women and what sorts of motivations are inappropriate.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Making Peace: The "War" on Christmas

This morning, I stumbled upon an article by Chris Stedman (he happens to be an atheist) entitled Why atheists should quit the War on Christmas, an article which usefully points out that two groups (Fox News and American Atheists) are simply using the manufactured controversy to generate revenue.  There is no war being waged on Christmas, but there is a conflict between some atheists and some theists over public expressions of Christmas cheer, a conflict amplified and made even more juvenile by those in search of deriving funding from it.

I join Chris Stedman in his call to quit the billboards, the placards, the childish jabs, and all the rest of the insecurity-driven nonsense that's all too common in the public discourse over the a/theist debate.  I ask my fellow Christians to focus on spending our efforts this Christmas season on cultivating loving relationships, thereby doing the most profoundly productive thing we can do toward keeping Christ in Christmas.

Let's all quit the War on Christmas, because it's the only way any of us win.