Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Subjective Theory of Relativity

The other reason I haven't written much lately is because I've been getting ready for my big trip! I depart tomorrow for my month-long research trip to a Quaker study center, and I arrive on Thursday.

On the one hand, I have been unbelievably happy about this trip.

On the other hand, I can hardly believe I'm really doing this!

It seems both real and unreal. It seems both infinitely far away (both in space and time) and right there. The "wall" that makes it infinitely far away is shimmering and dissolving before my very eyes. Before I know it, "there" will be "here," and "here" will seem mythical and dreamlike and far away. And then when I return here again, everything will look different because I will be different, changed by the experience, and my whole sense of space and time will also have been changed by this adventure now being behind me instead of ahead of me.

We think that space and time are "objectively" real; we think we can subdivide them into intervals of equal lengths (that keep their lengths in a stable sort of way), but our lived experience of space and time is not really like that at all. Are space and time objectively real, or are they artifacts of our consciousness? Even science has challenged our usual conception of space and time. Einstein's theory of relativity shows that spatial and temporal measurements do not remain stable across all frameworks. Maybe I'll write up a "subjective theory of relativity" about the relativity of space and time in the lived experience of human consciousness.

There are times in one's life when a certain distance is impossible to cross; and other times when it suddenly melts away like nothing. I witness this transition, right now. Over the next few days, my current life will morph into something totally different.

Certain rituals and incantations will make this happen, involving saying the right words to the right person at the right time, resulting in magical gates opening before me, giving me access to special portals through space and time that will transport me to a new world -- a world that itself will magically be ready for my arrival when I appear. At the end of my journey, I will be taken to the room that will be my new home for a month.

The me of here and now looks across to the me of there and then with awe. Will I remember to look back once I get there? I think I do see that me waving happily and encouragingly!

And I just now have received word that my travel grant for this trip was approved! I took a leap of faith in deciding to do this anyway, and didn't think I would hear about the grant until halfway through my trip! I must say that I am very happy and relieved to receive this grant, both for financial reasons, and because of the affirmation of the value of my research! It means a lot to me that faculty at this non-Quaker college approve of my incorporating explicit Quaker research into my research plan! Way is opening! I sense that this trip is going to be very important for me and my research in ways I cannot yet fully imagine!

So, if all goes according to plan, my next posting will probably be from the U.K.

Monday, February 27, 2006

More Thoughts on the CPT Hostages and Jill Carroll

Sorry I have not posted lately. In part this is because I have been so troubled by the national and international news lately that I've found it hard to even know how to write about it. I’m so tired of people fighting and killing each other when they get upset with something that has happened.

And there has been no new news about the CPT hostages, or Jill Carroll, except that another deadline for Jill Carroll passed yesterday. Since I read those articles about kidnapping that I posted about earlier, I’ve been worried anew. Prior to reading the articles, I was puzzled about the motivations for the kidnappings. Then these articles offered an explanation, but not one I very much liked hearing. While news reports keep focusing on the political demands, what if these kidnappings are not so much about politics, but are about money?

I had already been puzzled because things did not match up if one looks at the situation just in terms of the publicized demands. In the case of the Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages, the demand was to free Iraqi prisoners. In the case of Jill Carroll, the demand was to release all Iraqi women prisoners. What doesn't match up is that the Christian Peacemaker Teams have already been concerned about Iraqi prisoners. According to their website, here is their mission in Iraq: "The primary focus of the team for eighteen months following the invasion was documenting and focusing attention on the issue of detainee abuses and basic legal and human rights being denied them. Issues related to detainees remain but the current focus of the team has expanded to include efforts to end occupation and militarization of the country and to foster nonviolent and just alternatives for a free and independent Iraq." And, similarly, Jill Carroll was also concerned about such issues.

And so, as soon as the captors’ sympathizers (and others) pointed out that these are not the people to kill because they themselves sympathized with the political demands the captors were making, the captors should have made a big show of letting them go as a gesture of mercy that would make a powerful statement in support of their political agenda.

But this is not what has happened.

And I have had a hard time understanding this. What does it mean? What could be their real agenda, that justifies continuing to hold them all captive? All I can think of (after reading those articles) is that maybe the real motivation is money. Maybe the “negotiations” that we occasionally hear whispers of are about money.

If so, this adds a dimension that is very hard to sort out morally. Should families and/or governments give in to demands for money, if there’s hope that this would result in the release of the captives? What if that money inspires and funds future kidnappings? What if the money is used for other acts of violence? But what if everyone refuses to pay and the captives do end up getting killed?

It’s a classic case of a moral dilemma, and some would argue that in these cases it is important to choose the lesser of two evils. But part of the evil of such situations is the forcing of innocent bystanders into looking like they are the ones with the ultimate moral choice in their hands. This is, however, an illusion. Any harm that gets done from this point on is still the full responsibility of those who set up the dilemma. So I think if I were a family member, I would keep saying, “it is you who have the power in this situation to do the right thing and free my innocent family member. By taking my family member hostage, you have already broken trust with me. There is no way I can know whether you really will release [her or him] unharmed even if I do pay the ransom. You are the only one who really has the power here, and I hope and pray that you will do the right thing. I hope and pray that your soul is noble and good. It is you who must choose, and the right choice is to choose to do good for the sake of goodness itself.”

Certainly if I ever am kidnapped, this is how I would hope that my own family and friends would respond.

But this is not about me, or any of my own family members. So I don’t blame any of hostages or their family members if they think and do otherwise. All of them are victims to evil in this situation: and the evil is in large part the way that they are given choices that are not really choices—no matter what they do, it is not really their own choices that determine their fate, but the choices of the captors. This is why I pray for the captors – I pray for their moral insight and moral strength. Although the situation they have created is evil, I do not regard them as evil. I regard the word “evil” as applying only to actions and situations, not to people themselves, because I believe that there is the potential for goodness within everyone, and it is that that I try to draw out in prayer.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on Kinds of Scholarship

Continuing from this recent posting on kinds of scholars: But it's even more complicated than that. In philosophy, the line between primary scholarship and secondary scholarship blurs. This may not be so much the case for other disciplines. For example, the distinction between literature and commentary on that literature is generally pretty clear. And the distinction between primary sources in history, and the later writings that reflect back on that period, forming interpretations based on the primary source material, is also generally pretty clear.

In philosophy, it is different, because even those scholars who work historically by referring back to early philosophical works are usually doing something different from what historians of ideas do. In fact, throughout history (at least in the Western philosophical tradition), philosophers have tended to refer back to others' ideas as part of developing their own. And so many "primary sources" in philosophy tend to include "secondary" commentary on earlier "primary sources." Yet they still count as primary sources in themselves because they offer new philosophical insight.

And this pattern traces all the way to the present.

In a way, this blurring of lines may in fact apply to literature and history too. If there is literary criticism of literary criticism, for example, then the literary criticism now being criticized would count as primary source material.

Or, if a historian were to engage in a study examining old history books, in order to gain insight on how a culture in a previous time understood itself historically, then the old history books would count as primary source material.

But now add to both of these latter examples the additional expectation that the writing produced might later on count as its own primary source material! Some day in the future, a scholar might study "the literary criticism of literary criticism" and use that first literary critique of other literary criticism as a primary text. Or, a historian might study "the historiography of historiography," examining that first historical study of past history books as a primary text.

All of this is already the case in the academic discipline of philosophy.

So, the distinctions I drew in that previous posting were over-simplified.

And I'm even more overwhelmed as I try to clarify precisely my own philosophical scholarly identity. I have a lot of different ideas I am working on, but what exactly do I really hope to accomplish in my scholarly work?

Good ideas can be helpful. Good ideas can change the world. Sometimes new ideas emerge that help clarify a situation and offer new strategies or new direction. Sometimes old ideas, re-shaped to show their applicability to present times, are transformative. The question of "old" vs. "new" is not so important as the question of relevance and applicability (that is, if one's task is presenting ideas in an attempt to be helpful).

What gets complicated is how to do justice to all of the good thinking that has preceded your own efforts. When do you decide to stop reading and start writing? When are you sure that you have something new to offer that hasn't already been said (at least in a way that matches up with current issues and problems you are trying to help solve)? If you have a hunch about what would be helpful, when do you stop searching for whether someone else has worked on this angle, and pause from reading to develop the ideas more fully yourself?

And more complexity: there are so many arenas for publication. There are scholarly publications. There are mainstream, popular publications. There are alternative presses. And, of course, there are publications that straddle these boundaries.

In the past, I've tried to fit myself into niches that are clear. But what I have come to realize is that my scholarly agenda does not really fit clearly into any category I already know. There may well exist niches in which I would fit well, but I just haven't found them yet. Or maybe there are not. Maybe I am trying to do something too new.

Young scholars just starting off may find this idea of breaking new ground exciting and romantic. I'm just getting old enough that this is not how I see it at all. I feel like I've been swimming against the tide all my life, and, well, it gets lonely and tiring. It doesn't feel like an efficient use of time and energy.

It comes back to a question of faithfulness vs. effectiveness, that I've also written about in a previous post. I've done well in trying to be faithful in how I feel called, but I haven't broken through to being effective in getting my scholarly work that most excites me finished or published yet. So, I want to do both: continue to be faithful, but also start to become more effective.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Recovered Now

The electricity's back on. There's a nice new layer of snow on the ground. It's seasonably cold out. The sun is shining. And I've turned off the news for a while. So, I feel better: no longer suffering Weltschmertz (though I continue to be concerned about the state of the world in all the ways I'm usually concerned).

Just thought I'd let you all know, in case anyone was worried.

Friday, February 17, 2006


"Weltschmertz \Welt"schmertz`\, n. [G., fr. welt world + schmertz pain]: Sorrow or sadness over the present or future evils or woes of the world in general; sentimental pessimism."

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

This morning, the news tells me (yet again, but even more so than usual): the world is coming to an end. A village in the Philippines has been buried by a landslide. Doctors may have “mercy” killed patients in a hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit. Our vice president shot someone, but our president is satisfied that he has handled everything just fine. More revelations of torture to detainees; more international pressure to stop; more denials and defensiveness. Innocent hostages still being held: very little news about them.

And looking out my window is no better. I live in a northern clime. We usually have cold winters with snow on the ground from Thanksgiving until, oh, April. But this year we’ve had ping pong weather – one day it snows convincingly; the next everything melts. Two days ago, everything melted again. Yesterday, it snowed and covered the ground again. I went for a very cold walk. In the evening – yes, the evening – and through the night) it warmed up. Yes, it warmed up. Everything melted overnight. I wake up to a brown and dull green world. Fierce winds whip through. People’s garbage cans and recycling bins are strewn about. Big branches are down. The weather forecast: the temps are supposed to now drop to “arctic temperatures.” Yet, what does even this mean, when the glaciers in Greenland are melting away?

And just then in my writing this morning, our power went out for most of the day. I huddled in the chilling house wrapped in a blanket until even then I was cold to the point of distraction. Then I decided to set off in quest of a place still warm. But my automatic garage opener wouldn’t work (because the electricity was off). After much numb-fingered, dusty, fumbling about, I figured out how to unlock and open it, but couldn’t get it locked again. I left anyway, feeling strange and lost, unsettled, ungrounded.

So, today I suffer Weltschmertz.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Kinds of Scholars

I have this special notebook in which I capture all of my fragments of thoughts jotted down here and there -- new insights that crystallize in class discussions or in conversations with friends; clarifications of ideas that I write while waiting for appointments or while grabbing quick meals between scheduled events; thoughts that come to me while I am preparing for class or working on a writing project: thoughts that are sparked by what I'm working on but that do not immediately fit into the task at hand; etc.

In fact, these thoughts get jotted on any scrap of paper I happen to find. But I've tried to have the presence of mind to keep putting these scraps of paper into this notebook.

Now I have been going through that notebook like a treasure chest. It's a great way to be clarifying my writing goals for my sabbatical.

And as I've been going through it (feeling a little overwhelmed at the complexity of my own thinking, to be honest), I had this thought yesterday.

There are different kinds of scholars:

  1. There are "secondary-literature scholars" who barely read the primary scholarship but are very well acquainted with the secondary literature and mostly respond to that, referencing the primary scholarship only when absolutely necessary to check it against competing claims about it in the secondary literature.
  2. There are "primary-literature scholars" who barely glance at the secondary literature but read the primary literature in depth and interpret it on their own, making connections to contemporary issues and their own experience of life.
  3. There are "comprehensive scholars" who work well with both the primary literature and the secondary literature, and thus are able to understand more fully the context in which the primary literature was written, and know the appropriate and responsible ways to make connections to the contemporary world.

My natural inclination is #2 ("primary scholar").

But my aspiration is #3 ("comprehensive scholar"). No wonder I'm overwhelmed!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

My Next Adventure

Hmm, no one ever responds to the questions I pose. Methinks it is because I pose very difficult questions.

Anyway, during my last writing, I was feeling burdened by decisions. People continue to keep asking me to do things (see High Demand), and each request requires a decision and a response, and I was starting to feel like I was spending too much time thinking about and responding to things that other people wanted me to do -- hence my question about whether having decisions is a state of freedom or a kind of captivity.

Meanwhile, all of this was bothering me a little because I was in the midst of my own meta-decision. I call it a meta-decision, because it was the kind of decision that I needed to make before I could adequately respond to many of the other requests that were coming in. And my time was running out -- if I delayed any longer making my meta-decision, the opportunity might slip away.

The meta-decision was whether or not to take a month and go visit my very favorite Quaker retreat center! Making the decision to do this would require a leap of faith, and would complicate my life in the short-term, but in the long-term might do my soul a whole lot of good. After almost deciding not to -- it would be too complicated! -- suddenly I did an about-face and decided to do it. In a flurry of activity, I got a plane ticket, booked the visit, and ordered a laptop computer so that I could continue my research and writing while away.

Of course all of this requires a significant outlay of money, and spending large chunks of money scares me. It's possible my university might give me funding since I will be working on research -- I finished and submitted my application for this today. But it is also possible that they won't give me the funding.

Leap of faith. Even if the funding does not come through, it's not the end of the world, and I do have a strong sense that I must do this. It's not just about me and the renewal I seek, though I'm finally willing to admit out loud that this dimension is quite important. It's that I sense that something important is going to happen on this trip.

I cannot yet tell what it is that will be important about this trip, but I can share some of the more concrete reasons why I'm so happy about this:

  • It will be so good to travel among Friends again.
  • I'm very eager to leave the U.S. for a time and see what the world situation looks like from abroad.
  • I'm very excited about the prospect of immersing myself in good Quaker libraries and digging through archives of the writings of the early Friends.
  • I'll be reconnecting with one of the most important times of my past -- a time when I had dropped out of college for a while and ended up spending a most amazing year at this very same study center. That year helped launch me upon the trajectory that turned me into a college professor, and so it is very meaningful for me now to go back now: as a tenured professor on sabbatical. The me back then wanted this to be my future, but could hardly believe it could ever be possible. (I expect when I get there, I'll just cry and cry for a bit. I hope they understand!)
  • It's an environment that I will find very supportive for contemplation and writing.

So, I'm very excited about this. I will leave in just a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, as I try to get myself (my writings, and my new laptop) organized for the trip, I also now have a new good excuse to keep saying "no" to the requests that keep coming in: "I'm departing soon for an extended research trip and need to get organized and get some things done before I go!" I don't always say that, exactly, but I think it, and thinking it gives me strength to stay my course.

But it did actually get me out of jury duty. I called on the Appointed Day as I was asked to do, to check on whether the case was actually happening as scheduled. The woman who answered said that it was posponed for a month, and so I would need to call back then. "But I'll be out of the country," I said. She asked how long. "A month," I replied. "Well, I'll mark you down as 'excused' then," she told me.

"That was easier than I expected!" I thought to myself. (And it's rare these days that I find this to be the case!)

Is this a sign that Way is Opening for me at last?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Indecision: A State of Freedom or A Kind of Captivity?

If I've gone kind of quiet again recently, it's because I've had a lot of decisions to make. Having decisions means having choices, which in turn means having freedom -- and this is good, yes? Especially when I think of people who are held in captivity, or who simply feel trapped in their lives, I remember that freedom is a privilege, a gift.

But even so, having too much to decide can feel like a burden. Maybe it is because the act of making a decision is an act of letting go of the freedom offered by having a range of possibilities -- once you make your decision, you now lock into a specific course of action.

Or maybe that's not it at all. Maybe the problem is that the state of having to make decisions is a state in which your attention is seized and controlled. It's hard to think about other things when you are preoccupied with important decisions. So the state of indecision is not actually freedom, but it can be a way of feeling held captive. You are held captive by having to think about something and being unable to actually act until you have finally decided.

So, is the state of having a lot of decisions to make a state of freedom, or a kind of captivity -- or, paradoxically, both?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Blurred Vision and Rays of Light

I went to the eye doctor today (first time in a long time), and had those drops that make everything blurry for a few hours afterwards. So, I took a walk. Then I practiced music (Irish traditional music – no need to look at music for that, because this kind of music is learned by ear). Then I listened to some recordings of good Irish flute playing.

Several hours had now passed. My eyes still were blurry.

It was very disconcerting, actually. It showed me how much of my waking life is spent looking at text. I felt very lost being unable to read or write for such a length of time!

Even finding friends to hang out with and chat with was hard, because everyone is so busy all the time!

I took another walk. It was now dark out. Because my eyes were not yet back to normal, the street lights and car headlights had these amazing rays shooting out from them in all directions. It was beautiful, in a wild and surreal sort of way.

So this experience had me take a new “look” at my life and the kind of world I live in.

Now I revel in my newly regained clarity of sight. I notice the miracle of sharp vision with heightened awareness. I look at my looking, with new eyes.

But even so, I feel a sense of loss as well. (And might every gain bring also a kind of loss?) By regaining my "normality," I lose the special perspective that "abnormality" offers.

For several hours today, I had a good excuse to step aside from my usual routine, and could be forgiven for not being "productive." If my friends or colleagues had seen me wandering about, squinting oddly at the lights, I could have explained, and they would nod, and remember, yet not be able really to relate, and they'd scurry back to their own busy lives, leaving me on the corner squinting at the lights, and I'd feel both left out and relieved. I'd watch their vanishing blurry forms, no longer myself being able fully to relate to them either. "What's all the fuss about? Why all the rushing?" Surprised by the new ways that light shimmers when my eyes do not sharply focus everything, I vividly realize that things are not always what they seem. And, I experience my own being in a new way.

Here I am, immersed in light. The light has rays, that people usually cannot see.

But tomorrow, with normality restored, the usual will be expected of me again. The rays already, in fact, have retreated back to invisibility.

But I know that they are still actually there.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Some Background Information on Kidnappers in Iraq

Here is an illuminating, but sobering, article:

Identity of many kidnappers in Iraq remains vague (csmonitor.com), by Tom Regan (Christian Science Online, January 30, 2006).

Here are some quotes from the article:

"Slightly more than 300 foreign civilians have been kidnapped in Iraq since the US-led war began in March 2003. ... Of those 300-plus kidnapped, 39 have been killed by their abductors."

"According to a senior member of the Islamic Army, kidnapping aid workers often generates more media attention than when journalists or contractors are taken."

"Ordinary Iraqis are being kidnapped too, though many of these cases often go unreported." "The Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington estimates, in its Iraq Index, that in December kidnappings of Iraqis were taking place at the rate of up to 30 per day."

"Potential victims, both Iraqis and non-Iraqis, are 'well researched' before any action is taken."

The article has a link to another article that gives further information. This article is entitled "How to Deal with Kidnappings in Iraq" (by Michael Rubin and Suzanne Gershowitz, originally from Rivista di Intelligence, December 2005; posted on the Middle East Forum web page; accessed 1/30/06). The article explores motivations for hostage taking, an assessment of hostage taking as a strategy, and recommendations for how to combat hostage takers.

The authors of this article claim that kidnappers regard their kidnapping as successful when they get a lot of attention and when people occasionally do bow to their demands. The best strategy to combat hostage taking would be if governments ignored kidnappers' demands and if hostages were defiant. Hostages who cry and plead for their lives make videos that kidnappers regard as useful and effective. But hostages do have the power to ruin these videos and undermine the kidnappers' hopes, as in the case of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who defiantly stood up instead of bowing down before his own grave just before he was killed. Defiance requires considerable courage, however -- and can lead to death.

So, what do those of us who wish to learn effective nonviolent strategies for peacemaking do with this? The article represents one analysis of how to respond to kidnappers: a response that does not serve the best interests of those currently held captive, but might diminish kidnapping in the long run, if the authors of this article are right. But I don't want to believe that their recommendations represent the only possible way to stop kidnapping.

What would be effective nonviolent responses to kidnapping -- responses that could both save those currently being held hostage and discourage (or, ideally, prevent) future kidnappings?