Monthly Archives: August 2014

Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean you should be terrible, and other life lessons

The meaninglessness of life, or, if you will, its absurdity, is a key tenant of some philosophical traditions, most notably existentialism.

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are generally regarded as early thinkers in this Western tradition, though I personally find the creative works of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett particularly enjoyable.

But the existentialists have a problem: if life is ultimately absurd, why not just act like a self-centered fool at all times?

This challenge is a step beyond the derogatory thought that those without religion are incapable of having morals. It’s more than an absence of punishment or reward that presents an issue. An acceptance of the absurd is an acceptance that life is meaningless – that ultimately nothing makes a difference. How you treat yourself doesn’t matter. How you treat others doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters.

There are, of course, ways to address this challenge.

A simplistic response is that, irregardless of deeper meaning, corporeal actions have corporeal reactions. That is – assuming a society is governed by ethical laws, people will behave ethically because otherwise they will face social punishments. Similarly, there may be social incentives to behave well.

I find this argument unsatisfactory.

In our society, for example, many people are willing to cross ethical lines to pursue a social reward of wealth, but not everyone is willing to do so. Of course, you don’t really know how you’ll react to a given ethical situation until confronted with it, but – if social regulations were all that kept people in line, it seems that we’d have a lot more unethical people than we already do. Maybe that’s just me.

I would imagine that different people are likely to respond differently to an absurd world. Depravity nor morality are intrinsic.

Camus explores these different reactions in The Plague.

A small city is quarantined after an outbreak of the (presumably bubonic) plague. Faced with almost certain death, residents react in different ways. Some turn to God. Some turn to alcohol. Some just whither away. And some try to help.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter to the universe which path a person took.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all.

If the question to an Existentialist is, “How do you make everyone moral in an absurd world?” The answer is you can’t.

The very meaning of morality becomes muddled in such a world. Each person chooses their own actions, and each person’s actions are their own to choose. There is no right or wrong about it.

But if the question is, “How can I be moral in an absurd world?” The answer is…do the best you can.

There is no clear path of morality in a meaningless world, but you can develop your own sense of right and wrong. You can create a moral code and live by it as best you can.

Other people will do what other people will do.

Your own moral code may involve persuading others to live what you would consider a more moral life. Or it may involve ignoring other’s moral inclinations.

It ultimately doesn’t matter.

But at the same time, it matters very much.

It matters to you.

It probably also matters to those around you, but – their feelings may or may not matter to you.

Seeing an absurd world doesn’t mean devolving to depravity. It means making your own choices and doing the best you can. It means trying to be the person you want to be – not because it’s the moral thing to do or the right thing to do, and not because any being here or beyond will judge you for your actions.

It means being the best person you can be because, really – in a world where nothing truly matters, what else is there?

Madness as a Social Construct

I was reading an article the other day which expressed a point I’ve often heard:

Depression is an illness.

I’m no mental health expert, but I know I’m supposed to agree with this. And, perhaps, I do. In theory.

Reinforcing depression as an illness is important for a number of reasons:

People shouldn’t feel shame for seeking help. You wouldn’t feel weak for seeing a doctor after a heart attack, for example.

People should know they can’t control depression. You can’t “snap out” of depression the way you might change an outfit. Dedication, determination, effort – these may not make a difference. And that’s no one’s fault.

So it is important to remind people that depression is an illness. An actual issue. It’s far more insidious than a bad day.

Yet, when I read this the other day, it suddenly stuck me as…judgmental.

If depression is an illness, that implies that there is something wrong with people who are depressed.

Someone who is a mental health expert once told me that depression is only a problem for a person who finds it a problem.

That is, every person has the right to be depressed if they choose to be. A person with depression only needs treatment if they feel they need treatment. If they’re not living the life they want to live or being the person they want to be.

I gather this is a contentious idea within the mental health community, and, perhaps, reasonably so.

The right of depression resonates with my support for the unconventional, but this approach raises obvious concerns as well. If someone thinks they don’t deserve to live, is it then their right to act on that belief? Are we obligated to intervene, or should we rather defer to their individual freedom?

If a person feels this way because they are ill – does that change things?

In Madness and Civilization Michel Foucault documents the history of “madness” throughout the modern Western world. Different things have been considered madness at different times, with different explanations, and, of course, different solutions.

The beauty of Foucault’s analysis is that it goes beyond the articulated scientific layer of the day.

Yes, he explores the scientific rational behind the humors, documenting the believed impacts of hard bile or hot blood. But he goes deeper than that, connecting the medical understanding of the day with the moral beliefs that went into it – and the moral implications which come out of the diagnosis.

It is easier and comforting to think of today’s medicinal understanding as pure science, untainted by the bias of morality. But this interplay is perhaps easier to see when looking back at “medicine” which is pure quackery.

Foucault recounts stories of men whose mania was attributed to “excessive intercourse,” and of women who “invent, exaggerate, and repeat all the various absurdities of which a disordered imagination is capable.” This women’s hysteria, one doctor warns, “has sometimes become epidemic and contagious.”

And, lest you laugh this off as the foolishness of the Victorian era, remember that it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

So, there may be some legitimate science to it, but it seems there’s some social construct to it as well.

Is depression an illness? Well, it seems I don’t know.


When he was 35 years old, Siddhārtha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree. For 49 days and 49 nights he meditated.

He achieved enlightenment.

Thereafter, he was known as Gautama Buddha, or, more simply, the Buddha. The enlightened one.

The word “enlightened” here, of course, is a translation – a stand in for several Sanskrit words with subtle meanings. “Enlightened” seems to be the best English can do, and this translation is really borrowed from Kant’s understanding of Aufklärung.

But, lax language aside, Buddha achieved permanent enlightenment, a state of peace and calm, free from suffering. Nirvana.

Presumably, one who has not achieved Nirvana cannot accurately conceptualize it, but, what I find perhaps most remarkable is the idea of this as a permanent state which lasts throughout an enlightened one’s life.

One can almost imagine fleeting moments of enlightenment: I imagine renaissance paintings of light and color. Brief gasps of clarity and meaning. Synapses straining toward meaning. Rare breakthrough which fade to an ineffable haze.

To imagine this as a lasting state seems inconceivable. Eventually the details of life settle in. One gets hungry or tired or busy or distracted. If you achieve enlightenment, do you get up and go to work the next morning? Answering emails and dropping kids at soccer practice don’t seem enlightened tasks.

If you manage to experience even a brief moment of awareness, can you hold on to that state, that enlightenment, while going about your mundane tasks?

In Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, he chronicles another man’s journey to enlightenment. His hero, a contemporary of the Buddha, takes many paths in life. He is a Brahman, an ascetic, a businessman. He leads all these lives, abandoning each when he realizes he is no closer to enlightenment than he was before.

All he finds is meaninglessness.

But Siddartha is a tale of enlightenment. The end of the story finds him, near the end of his life, as a ferryman by the river.

He leads a simple life and has all he needs.

He has achieved Nirvana.

And just as Siddhārtha Gautama’s journey was a path – a moderation between indulgence and deprecation – the path of Hesse’s Siddhartha is needed to be a journey as well.

He needed to starve, he needed to feast, he needed to love, he needed to lose. It was only by experiencing all this, living all these lives, that he ultimately found that rare, lasting state of peace.

In Buddhism, we all strive towards enlightenment. It is a long, possibly endless journey, spread over many lives. We are born, we experience, we die, and we are reborn to experience more. Some lives we get closer to enlightenment and some lives we lose ground.

And, perhaps, some day, in some life we can have that crystallizing moment, that brief insight of clarity, that sacred spasm of meaning.

And if you can hold on to that moment, you become buddha, become enlightened, achieve Nirvana.

You are free from suffering and reborn no more.

In Defense of Hopelessness

Perhaps it is my field of work or area of interest, but it seems like nearly every day I hear someone proclaim – it’s important to have hope.

Now, as much as the contrarian in me may revel in flippantly calling myself anti-hope, the truth is, I have no qualms with, nor judgements of, people who embrace hope as a core need.

It strikes me as a deeply personal matter: some people have faith, some people don’t. Some people have hope, some people don’t. Some people need that something – whether they call it faith, or hope, or use some other word – some people need that. Many people need that.

But some people don’t.

It’s okay to be hopeless.

I mean, it’s okay to be hopeless if you’re okay with being hopeless. Many people aren’t okay with being hopeless, but find themselves hopeless nonetheless. That is a problem indeed.

But do we need to force hope on everyone? To consider hope a core requirement for whatever moves you as the Good Life?

I don’t think so.

It’s okay to be hopeless.

Of course, a key question here is what it means to have hope.

I often hear the term applied to collective action – to social change. It’s important to have hope that we can make a difference. That we can make the world better.

That sounds a reasonable claim, and yet – this is where I find hopelessness most noble.

Faced with overwhelming injustice and so many wrongs in the world, I select two kinds of battles to fight: those I can win and those worth fighting.

I’ll admit to having a bias for practicality, so I’ve certainly been known to evaluate efforts in terms of probable impacts – to favor a strategy or approach that will work.

But pursuing the fights you can win is not enough. Sometimes it is just as important – perhaps more important – to fight the battles you’ll never win.

Of course, one may hedge here, arguing that even a statement of hopelessness is bolstered by a deeper sense of hope. It’s like the argument that that all altruism is ultimately self-interest.

And yet – is there not something compellingly beautiful in the image of someone fighting for justice, fighting for what’s right, but knowing they’ll never win? Knowing they’ll never move the needle, nor make any difference, nor even be remembered for their efforts? Fighting only because it’s the right thing to do.

There’s something remarkable in passion without hope.

Hope can also be seen at a much more personal level. Hope that your life will have meaning. Hope that you’ll make it through the day.

Questioning the universal need for such individual hope is much less socially acceptable.

And the demand for hope here is reasonable. Terrible things happen to people without hope. They feel terrible things, experience terrible things, perhaps even do terrible things.

Hope should not be denied. No life should be lost to hopelessness.

And yet –

Does a widespread need for hope translate to a universal need for hope? Is hope so essential that hopelessness should be removed as an option? That no person should be welcome to stand up and proudly declare their hopelessness?

It’s the pursuit of that universal hope which worries me.

Hopelessness should always be an option.

Perhaps not the right option for the vast majority of people, but an option nonetheless. There is nothing wrong with people who need hope, and there is nothing wrong with people who need to be without it.

There is, after all, something dangerous in hope. It doesn’t help to proclaim that it gets better if, indeed, it never gets better. Shattered dreams can be worse than no dreams at all.

But I digress. For, really, the conversation about individual hope comes down to one question – imagine that person laying in bed. Staring blankly at the ceiling. Too broken to move and swallowed by that dark cavern of despair. Hopeless.

The real question is what gets that person out of bed. What heals them.

Hope, perhaps.

But, I think, not necessarily. There is power in hopelessness. Not just the power to destroy, but the power to repair. Embracing hopelessness can ease that despair.

Perhaps not for everyone. Perhaps not for the vast majority of people. But, perhaps, for some.

Hopelessness should always be an option.

Did you hear about Pluto? That’s messed up.

I recently ran across MentalFloss’ list of 6 Angry Letters Kids Sent Neil deGrasse Tyson About Pluto.

The content for this 2013 article came from a 2010 PBS slideshow, which in turn came from deGrasse Tyson’s 2009 book “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.”

This, of course, all came after the International Astronomical Union (IAU) revised it’s definition of a planet in 2006.

The revised definition notably excluded Pluto.

Eight years later and people are still upset.

Numerous books and articles have been written on the topic – exploring the history of Pluto’s 1930 discovery, the more recent discovery of numerous “Trans-Neptunian Objects,” Pluto’s eventual declassification, and, of course, the uproar that followed. And that continues.

Alan Boyle, author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference,” explained in a 2009 Wired article:

Throughout most of the history of that little world, we’ve thought of it as a poor little oddball that didn’t fit in with the rest of the kids in the solar system and really needed to be protected. So to my mind it’s really not so much about [love of Disney’s dog Pluto], but it’s about the underdog.

And everybody loves an underdog.

I’ve always been a big fan of Pluto myself. Just like me, Pluto has an eccentric orbit. All the planets travel in ellipses – as stated in Kepler’s first law of planetary motion – but Pluto’s orbit is an elongated ellipse, while other orbits are relatively circular. Furthermore, Pluto’s orbit is inclined at a 17 degree angle relative to the essentially flat plane the other planets travel.

The best part of this crazy orbit is that Pluto is sometimes 9th from the sun and sometimes 8th. Sometimes Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune.

Pluto breaks all the rules.

Not to mention that it’s a Terran body beyond the Jovian bodies. Madness.

So, I guess I always did think of Pluto as an oddball. As an object that didn’t fit in with all the so-called normal planets traversing their orderly paths, sitting all neat and pretty, always doing what they’re told.

But an underdog? Something that needs to be protected?


Pluto does Pluto. Pluto doesn’t care what the other planets do.

The scientist and astronomer in me appreciates the IAU’s revision. I might quibble with some of their language – the qualification that a planet must have “cleared its orbit,” for example, is startlingly imprecise. But at the end of the day, I agree that we need clear, formal definitions and classifications.

A classification which included Pluto as a planet would doubtless be too broad. The other Dwarf Planets – for that is what Pluto now is – would be planets as well. Eris would be a planet, and that would be chaos. Pluto’s moon, Charon, might end up as a planet, and who knows what other Kuiper Belt objects or extra-solar objects might end up as planets.

No, that would surely be too much.

But Pluto will always be a planet to me.

Or perhaps, more accurately, I don’t think Pluto will ever care about the classifications of some carbon-based organic matter on the third planet from the Sun.

Haters gonna hate, but Pluto doesn’t care.

Pluto just keeps doing Pluto.

Stay Angry

Because just like the Incredible Hulk, I’m always angry.

It seems the storm has passed in Ferguson, MO. As the Washington Post reported this morning, “hugs and kisses [have replaced] tear gas.” And that is truly great. The worst of this crisis, it seems, is behind us.

But there’s so much more to be done. So much to still be angry about.

For example, Mother Jones today examined the data on how often police shoot unarmed black men.

I was particularly stuck by the data from my hometown of Oakland, California:

In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities.

(For those unfamiliar with Oakland, it may also be helpful to know that during that same time period, there were a total of 582 homicides in the city.)

Mother Jones attributes the discrepancy to racial bias in police officers. That’s something to be angry about.

Of course, I get a little persnickety about data interpretation, and I’m not quite ready to accept Mother Jone’s explanation.

Oakland isn’t nearly as segregated as some cities, but it’s still fairly segregated. The wealthy (well, wealthier, I really mean middle class) people live in the hills and the poor people live in the flats. Most of the wealthy people are white and most of the poor people are black and Latino. Most of the crime happens in the flats.

I don’t have the data to map where police shootings in Oakland take place, but if I were to venture a guess, I’d bet most of them take place in the flats.

So if the crime happens in the black part of town, and the police shootings take place in the black part of town, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that more shootings of black people is the result of racial bias.

Of course, the fact that “weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases,” does seem to indicate a level of racial bias. But then again, perhaps it’s equally possible that there is more police activity in the neighborhoods with more crime – thereby generally increasing police/civilian interaction, and police in those areas, knowing there is more crime, are more swiftly moved to action. Biased not by race, but by the higher crime rate.

While I personally believe that racial bias is an important factor, not only in Oakland but in cities around the country, let’s just go with this for a moment and assume that the Oakland PD is nothing but perfect in this regard.

But wait.

I’m still angry.

Even if you can attribute that disparity not to the racial bias of police officers but to the demographics of the area –

Isn’t that essentially saying: the problem isn’t with a hundred guys on the police force, the problem is with deeply ingrained, shamefully historic biases and disparities which have continually privileged everything white and degraded everything black to the point where all social, emotional, educational, and health outcomes are noticeable tipped in white people’s favor.

How is that argument supposed to make anything seem better?

Oh no, no, no. There is much to be done.

And I, for one, will stay angry.

Police Ethics in 1829

Sir Robert Peel is widely credited with the creation of modern policing. As the British Home Secretary, Peel passed the Metropolitan Police Act (MPA) of 1829, which created the first cohesive police force for London’s metropolitan area.

The Act was intended to diminish crime in this rapidly growing, urban city. But the effort to create a police force was a delicate one, which had to be careful of public opinion. As the U.K.’s National Archives explains:

The government was anxious to avoid any suggestion that the police was a military force, so they were not armed. Nor was their uniform anything like military uniform.

Every new police officer was issued “General Instructions,” outlining the ethical expectations of their post. These “Peelian Principals,” which may not have been developed by Peel himself, were as follows:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

To be fair, there will still issues with this inaugural police force. As the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection describes, “there was a high turnover of men, with many dismissals and resignations. Dishonesty, indiscipline, drunkenness were not tolerated.”

Which is to say, police officers were constantly being fired for being drunk, dishonest, or undisciplined.

So things were not perfect.

But in the nearly 100 years since these guidelines were published, I’d like to think we’ve advanced a little as a society. Improved ourselves and our methods. Built upon what seems like a good foundation to find even better solutions and more just approaches.

But clearly we have not.

The more things change…

In 1892 the National Guard was called to Homestead, Pennsylvania.

8,500 National Guard forces came to town because 300 Pinkertons had already failed.

Workers in the steel mills were trying to unionize, you see. Henry Frick, chairman of Carnegie Steel Co., couldn’t let that happen. So, he had hired the Pinkertons – a move which left seven workers and three Pinkertons dead. Then he called in the National Guard.

The National Guard forcibly removed the strikers. The town did not unionize.

Two years later, railroad workers in Pullman, Chicago, led by Gene Debs, initiated the first national strike. Rail service across the country came to a standstill.

With support from then-President Grover Cleveland, thousands of U.S. Marshals and 12,000 United States Army troops were called in to break the strike.

As many as 30 strikers died. U.S. citizens killed on U.S. soil by U.S. troops.

The strike was successfully crushed.

These are the stories I grew up with.

So, when I see stories of SWAT teams on the streets of Missouri, called in to “deal with” protestors…I am saddened, but not surprised.

This is how we – the people in power – have always dealt with those who would dare call us out on injustice, who would dare challenge the norm, who would dare question our might and right. We control the armed services and we put the rabble-rousers down.

In Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed black man was shot and killed for walking down the street.

It’s happened in countless other cities, too.

To call that an outrage, to recognize that this happens again and again and again, to fight against such tremendous injustice, is to question the power dynamics in this country, to question the status quo. And those in power can’t tolerate that.

A working-class Irish girl, I’ve been raised to identify with the striking workers from the turn of the last century. Taught to admire the men and women who gave their lives fighting for justice, who were continually crushed by the machine of power, wealth, and industry.

Perhaps now I am the elite. I am those in power. I may not have the power alone to stop what is happening, but I have the power to walk down the street unharmed by police. I have the power to speak up.

And above all, I have a responsibility to stand with those who demand justice. Who demand change. Who fight every day to ensure that tomorrow is better. Who do everything in their power to stop the cycle of violence and who insist that a government of the people should serve all the people.

So I stand with the people of Ferguson, as I stand with the people of far too many other cities.

But I’m taking suggestions on what more I can do. Speaking out is not enough.

Richard Cory

Richard Cory was perfection.

As Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote in 1897, Richard Cory was richer than a king. Schooled in every grace. And he was always human when he talked.

In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

Yes, Richard Cory was perfection.

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

What are we to think of Richard Cory now?

Perfect people don’t commit suicide.

The story is an old and tragic one. Just as shocking now as it was then. We wished that we were in his place –

Richard Cory was perfection.

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. How could we not have known? How could that happen?

We wished that we were in his place –

We might still be a little jealous.

Richard Cory was perfection.

We never knew Richard Cory.

What pain he must have felt. What horror. What unbearable emptiness that calm summer night –

How could we not have known?

Afterwards there are always discussions and debates. Memories and memorials. Sighs for prevention and scorns over cause.

But nothing changes that calm summer night –

Nothing can explain it or undo it or change it.

But perhaps – perhaps the world will be different. Not only absent a soul, but with added awareness:

This is normal.

This happens all of the time.

This happens to people we know – and we rarely know its happening.

We don’t know, but we imagine perfection. We imagine perfection and we don’t make the effort to know.

We just imagine perfection and wish that we were in his place.

An Ideal Civic Community

A few weeks ago – during this year’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies, in fact – I was able to join an afternoon session where we were asked to draw an ideal civic community.

We weren’t supposed to use text – which I totally cheated and did any way. It was an interesting exercise for a group of non-artists to express themselves through art.

Some people found drawing easier than talking or writing. Some people found it harder. Everyone was bashful about their artistic skills.

Words are my medium, so I found it a struggle. But it was an interesting exercise nonetheless.

Here is quick sketch of my ideal civic community:


I found myself overwhelmed at all the things I wanted to include. People debating. Open space. People building. People using different modes of transportation. There are a number of things I left out.

But as we went around the room and shared our creations, there’s one thing I included which I didn’t see elsewhere:

People protesting.

We didn’t have a lot of time for our drawings, so that’s not to say no one else thought protesters were ideal, but presumably they weren’t top-of-mind.

I drew people debating first, but somehow, that didn’t seem sufficient. It was too…easy.

As I’ve said, I struggle with Utopia. The image of everyone happy and agreeing seems somehow horrific. Nightmarish, perhaps. On the surface it seems good, but underneath it is all wrong.

I’d take dissent and conflict over easy consensus any day. The latter may be easier – I may even yearn for it some days. But I like to imagine I’d always opt for the former. Disagreement and challenge make us each better. Make our work better.

We can still be civil, of course. But somehow, healthy debate didn’t seem like enough.

So, the protesters stay. At least in my ideal society.

That’s right, I say. Give ’em hell.