Saturday, July 22, 2006

Another Trip, and Other Updates

I’m about to depart on another trip: what qualifies as a genuine vacation at last: a wonderful music camp for players of wooden flutes. I’ll talk more about it when I get back.

Meanwhile, my running continues to go well. I'm up to being able to do 11 1/2 minutes in one go. Objectively, this is not so impressive, but subjectively, I'm making progress! (I find myself chanting to myself as I run, "my own micro-marathon!" Indeed, it might be close to a whole mile!) I try not to compare my present progress with what I once could do in the past. All that matters, I tell myself, is getting out 4 times a week getting the best workout I can relative to my current level of fitness. All I have to do is internalize this as a habit in my life. I don't care about breaking any records. I just want to be fit because of how that changes my energy. When I'm reasonably fit, I face all of life's challenges with more confidence and even with more clarity. And I'm already feeling these kinds of changes.

While I haven't written directly about it here in my blog, I'm deeply concerned about the renewed violence in the Middle East.

My writing projects have gotten a bit stalled. Having a week of real vacation will do me good. During this time, I won't let myself even think about my writing projects, my upcoming fall classes, or my other work-related responsibilities. I'll just let myself be immersed in music. When I come back, I might try to start an Irish music session here.

I've been trying to find the right way to balance world-concern with self-care. Not easy. It seems like over the course of one's life, the formula keeps changing.

I won't have internet access at all while I'm gone, so don't be offended if I don't reply to comments immediately. I wish you all well, and look forward to reading the probably hundreds of new postings that will appear in my bloglines account when I return!

Friday, July 21, 2006

President Not Willing to Face Inconvenient Truths?

An Inconvenient Truth finally came to my little town’s movie theater, and I saw it. I highly recommend it. It’s gripping. It’s alarming. It’s hopeful.

I think everyone should see it. Even President Bush.

I was surprised when I heard the rumors that an AP news story reported him saying that he doubted he’d see it. How can the President of such a powerful nation refuse to see such an important film?!

He must be afraid.

I’m praying for him to have the courage and strong moral character to see it anyway.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Power of That of God within Everyone

There is an amazing discussion happening over at Brooklyn Quaker.

I got maybe a bit carried away in one of my comments in response: it's turning into an essay in its own right, and so I thought I'd post a modified version of it here:

The question is about how to interpret the Quaker belief of "that of God within everyone." Several have been arguing that the claim that the Quaker peace testimony is rooted in this belief is incorrect. Rich (author of Brooklyn Quaker), for example, has claimed that by hurting others, we could not possibly hurt God. (I agree.) And Rich believes that the real reason we should refrain from hurting each other is because of the preciousness of each person, which he seems to ground in the human capacity for suffering. I have been trying to argue that grounding the preciousness of each human being instead in "that of God within them" is a stronger basis for pacifism.

First of all, I clarified (in response to some other comments) that the claim that there is that of God within everyone is not to say that therefore everything that everyone does is justified. Many people do not at all live true to that of God within themselves. Many people let themselves be pushed by other forces in their lives, including not only the pressures of others or of society, but also their own fears, lack of understanding, or prejudices.

But I still believe that everyone has the capacity for good. And that is at least part of what it means to say that everyone has that of God within them. To live "answering to that of God within everyone" is to try to appeal to others' capacity for goodness and bring it more fully into being.

And I think that this capacity for goodness is the major reason for the preciousness of everyone. It is not just that people can suffer, and that suffering is not fun, that we ought to be respectful and nonviolent towards each other. After all, not all suffering is fatal: there is the suffering of growing pains, for example; or the suffering of compassion. And even though some suffering is fatal, each of us will eventually die. Avoidance of suffering and death is not the main point -- something else is obviously going on.

And so who we each are, at our best, is something more than our fragility: it is something positive rather than negative. The belief in that of God within everyone is a strong and powerful claim. Answering to that of God in everyone is to challenge people to come out into their best and fullest and most creative, unique selves, despite their fears and their fragility. It can be terrifying. In fact, one of George Fox's ways of putting it in one of his epistles is "and be a terror and a dread, answering to that of God in everyone."

Also, another reason I think that our capacity for suffering alone is not enough to justify pacifism is that it doesn't address one of the major counter-claims of those who disagree with pacifism. They are not moved by this argument because again they think it is okay to make bad people suffer (and in some cases even die). They believe in some redemptive power of punishment.

As a pacifist, I disagree. I think that the willful infliction of pain upon another is never redemptive. But what makes it wrong to deliberately inflict pain is not just that it causes suffering; what makes it wrong is also the way that it is an attempt to forcibly control another's behavior, which is sin of pride coupled with the denial that (a) they might have been trying to do the right thing all along, or (b) they can be persuaded to choose good -- in short, a denial that there is that of God within them.

Maybe what I am trying to say comes down to this: while I am compassionate because I realize that everyone is fragile and mortal, I am a pacifist because I respect the amazing goodness and uniqueness and holiness inherent of each person, and I am committed to trying to draw out the best of everyone I meet. Our relationships are not just to protect each other (which implies regarding each other as essentially weak), but ideally to help each other live from that special kind of strength that is rooted in the seed of goodness in our souls.

Monday, July 17, 2006

My New (Old) Obsession

I’ve started running again. (Yes, I know, I said I started running again last year. Alas, it fizzled once the school year got going.) It feels real this time.

Here is the history of my Quest for Fitness:

When I was young, I was a bookworm. They picked me last for teams in gym class. One of my gym teachers in middle school liked to publicly humiliate me. “Not Athletic!” got branded firmly in my psyche.

When I dropped out of college, I took up bicycling. I was living at home again and Dad drove me the 10 miles to town when we’d both go to work each day. My parents started hinting that maybe I should think about getting a car, but I was secretly plotting to go to England and was trying to save money for that. A friend of mine suggested getting a nice bicycle instead of a car, because I could take that to England and save on transportation costs there.

I knew my mom would freak out. So I quietly arranged with my Dad one day not to pick me up from work – I was going to buy a bicycle and would bike home. I explained that when my mom saw that I could do it (and it was too late to stop me), she’d adjust to the idea.

Dad said, “ok.”

I walked from work that afternoon to the bike shop, which was run by a French man who had been a former racer. I thought he would laugh at me. But he had a lot of respect for what I was doing. He said that the bike he sold me (a Peugeot 12 speed) would be wonderful. He checked it over and carefully adjusted it for me. He wished me well. I took off. I cannot begin to describe the sense of freedom and accomplishment I felt as I rode that first 10 miles. I was thrilled (“I can do this!”) and anxious (“what will my mother say?!”)

When I got home, my father looked both sheepish (for conspiring with me on this) and proud of me. My mom just kind of shook her head in a resigned sort of way. (When I did break the news about going to England too, after I had already bought the airline tickets, she surprised me by saying, “well, good, I was hoping you wouldn’t just stay here and get stuck in a rut!”)

So, I bicycled to and from work every day. I loved it.

And I did take that bicycle to England, and bicycled around. That bicycle is still the one bicycle I have.

I stayed in pretty good shape, mostly through bicycling, throughout the 3 ½ years that I wasn’t in college. But when I went back to college, bicycling receded again.

I picked up running for the first time after college, when I was working. I was living in an urban area, and I found that bicycling in so much traffic rattled me, so I needed a new form of exercise. I was always drawn to running, but found it extremely hard. Finally, I hit upon a week-by-week training program for women taking up running for the first time, and I followed it to a T. (First week: walk 30 minutes 4 days of the week – simple enough!) To my genuine astonishment, it worked! By the 11th week, I was running 3 miles!

In graduate school, my commitment wavered a bit but never fully fell apart during the first few years of heavy coursework. But at the dissertation phase, I was totally addicted and obsessed. I think it is because running presented a concrete alternative to the abstract mental work I was devoting most of my time to. All I had to do was go out for 30-60 minutes and cover a distance, maybe even tracking my time, and I’d steadily see improvement. Dissertation writing was different: I could not measure my progress very easily. I could write for days, only to throw that whole draft chapter away a week later. Each new book I read threatened to undermine my thesis. A sense of clarity and progress one day could dissolve into confusion the next. I still did enjoy dissertation writing, but having the running as something steady, predictable, and physical was refreshing. I’m sure it kept me sane, and is largely responsible for my finishing the dissertation.

But once I started teaching, the running fell away, alas. I relocated for the job, and moving is enormously disruptive of well-established routines. I would have to find new running routes! But what was most disconcerting was what I quickly re-discovered about small-town life: you can’t go anywhere, at any time, without facing the very real possibility of seeing someone—or five people—you know. Had I still been a graduate student, this wouldn’t have troubled me. (“Huh, I’m a runner! Yeah!” I would have thought to myself.) But now I was trying to establish myself as a dignified professor, and the people I’d run into would be, er, my students – young and sleek and fast.

Knowing what I know now, I should not have been daunted by that. Of course they would admire me for running! But, back then (not so long ago really), I was insecure, sure that they’d be laughing at me for thudding along so slowly. And, to be honest, maybe some would, but the me of now simply doesn’t care. The me of now thinks: “Well, where will they be when they’re my age? If they’re lucky enough to live this long, then they’ll see what it’s like!” But I was too insecure then: adjusting to a new role in life is a rather traumatic experience for someone with chronic low self-confidence.

So, I lost it. Besides, I was working 15-16 hour days, and had picked up music again seriously and it was all I could do to squeeze in the hour of practice I needed for that. I remember sharing with some of my new colleagues at a gathering one evening my “radio button” theory of “extracurricular activities”: if I push one button in, the others all pop out again. So, now that I’ve integrated music back into my life, the “running” button has popped back up. I can’t do both. My new friends (who neither ran nor played music, but did seem ever so much more confident about their new professor lives than I was) laughed at my quaint theory, and I, ever insecure, suddenly felt even more like a failure.

I’ve not been happy about this somewhat inadvertent reclamation of my “Not Athletic!” identity. One day, in trying to get a grip on my complex life, I was working through some Franklin Planner exercises on roles and goals, and realized that the abandonment of my “runner” identity was a real loss. Really, I am much happier when I feel fit. So that re-ignited the aspiration to bring that back into my life. That was, oh, about two years ago.

It’s hard of course: when you remember that you once had a level of competence in something, and now it feels impossibly hard, it’s demoralizing.

So, I’ve been living with this aspiration for years. First I postponed it until after tenure. The year I came up for tenure, facing that challenge was absolutely all I could handle. Then I did try last summer and made a start, but it fizzled again. Of course I had great aspirations for sabbatical. But all of the anxieties about running into people I knew were intensified and complicated by the fact that my being visible to others made them keep asking me to do things. And besides, winter here is a hard time to start. I live in a cold clime.

So I put it off.

As spring unfolded, the thawed paths became muddy and temperatures bounced dramatically back and forth, continuing to put me off. For a while, it seemed to be raining every other day.

Finally, the weather became undeniably perfect. I had no more excuses. “Now or never!” I thought to myself. But this was when I began having chest pains. But while the chest pains frightened me anew from starting, they also had a paradoxical effect. I found myself facing a new kind of panic, a panic that surprised me immensely: what if something was seriously wrong?, I thought to myself. What if I can’t run, ever again? It’s one thing to choose to let it slip; it’s something else altogether to be forced to let it go. I realized in a powerful new way how to appreciate good health. I realized that it’s not an obligation but a privilege to be able to take care of one’s physical health and cultivate one’s fitness.

I knew then that if everything checked out all right, this time I’d do it.

And I was right.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Science and Natural Mysticism

I’ve been reading Arthur Eddington’s Science and the Unseen World, the 1929 Swarthmore Lecture.

I love this kind of writing and this kind of thinking. These were the kinds of issues, questions, and ideas that set me on fire when I was in high school and college; this was why I started studying science; this was why my science professors kept telling me, with a bit of exasperation in their voices: “you ask philosophical questions!”; this was why I then dropped out of college and wandered about amongst British Friends until I reconciled myself to studying philosophy and religion (at a Quaker college) instead of majoring directly in a science.

Being a philosopher of science, I do still have high regard for science.

So, I would like to offer the following quotations from Eddington especially to any young scientists out there who may feel uncertain about how to understand their faith in relation to their fascination with science.

“The scientist who from time to time falls into [a mystical] mood does not feel guilty twinges as though he had lapsed in his devotion to truth; he would on the contrary feel deep concern if he found himself losing the power of entering into this kind of feeling.”

“In short our environment may and should mean something towards us which is not to be measured with the tools of the physicist or described by the metrical symbols of the mathematician.”

“What I [am attempting] is to dispel the feeling that in using the eye of the body or the eye of the soul, and incorporating what is thereby revealed in our conception of reality, we are doing something irrational and disobeying the leading of truth which as scientists we are pledged to serve.”

(From Arthur Stanley Eddington, Science and the Unseen World, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930, pp. 47, 49.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Does God Exist?

Inspired by a passage in Arthur Eddington’s Science and the Unseen World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), here is a thought:

Consider the statement: “God exists.”

Some people think that that statement is true. Others think that it is false.

But could it be that both groups in fact really believe the same thing—but it is just that their use of language differs (i.e., they have different definitions of “God” and “exists”)?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Distribution of Power

There was an opinion piece in my local paper by Daniel Gilbert (that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 2, 2006) about why we (or, our leaders) are not doing more to address global warming.

Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, claims that “the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features—features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.” We clue in to (1) what other people are doing, (2) what “violates our moral sensibilities,” (3) immediate threats (rather than long-term concerns), and (4) what changes quickly (instead of slowly). Because global warming does not seem to be maliciously designed by enemy human beings to wipe us out quickly, in a way we immediately recognize as threatening, we pay little attention to it. “Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed,” Gilbert writes.

But I know that I’m worried about global warming, and so are many people I know. It seems to me that plenty of people do take this seriously. They just happen to be people who are powerless to effect the kinds of change that would really address the problem.

So, why is it that the people who are in power are not paying attention, and people who are not in power are the ones who care?

Or, put another way: why is society such that power is distributed to people who are primarily concerned with their own self-interest and the short-term gains of an elite few, but withheld from those who would wish to use it for the benefit of all?

Friday, July 07, 2006

My Office is a Total Nightmare!

When I began my sabbatical, I just left my office in its end-of-semester messy state. This was both because I was very tired, and because I was afraid that once I started in on The Piles, I'd get lost in them forever and never get any research or writing done.

During my sabbatical, I'd come in every week or two to check my mail, and I'd go through it quickly to make sure nothing urgent had been delivered to me by accident. (If so, I gave it to the department secretary or forwarded it to the interim chair of our department.) The rest I just left piled on my desk.

Meanwhile, a retired philosophy professor has been sorting through his own books and papers and offered three boxes of philosophy books to me and the department. I said, "sure!" and he came by and dropped them off in my office.

So my office is a hopeless mess.

After having a dreadful dream last night of getting trapped in a strange and narrow elevator, I woke up deciding that I needed to tackle the nightmare mess that is my office. To make it manageable, I set myself a modest goal: just go after the desk; just sort through enough to fill one recycling bin full of paper.

Happily, I succeeded and am starting to feel significantly better.

Or, from another perspective: tragically, I easily succeeded.

There was a point at which I paused to consider what I was doing. I looked at the brochure in my hand: a postcard beautifully announcing that soon I would get a catalog of philosophy books by a certain publishing house, and if it didn't come in two weeks, please call or visit their webpage. I studied the artwork on the postcard. I read the description of the focus of that particular publishing house. I thought of all the people who work there, and all the authors who write for them, and the graphic design artist(s) who designed this card and the promised catalog (which turned up in my Pile as well). And what was I going to do? Toss it in the bin.

All this wonderful work out there; all of this good effort. But I am overwhelmed by it.

I can't save everything. I don't have time to process it all adequately. I don't even have time to remove myself from all of those mailing lists; nor do I want to, because sometimes this is how I learn about an important new conference or an exciting new book.

But, still, I am dismayed at all the time, effort, and resources that go into producing all this mail that I end up throwing away. People work so frantically hard. And here, on my desk, are the fruits of so much of that effort, and yet much of it just gets tossed.

What is this world we have created?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Quaker Bloggers Meet

Quaker bloggers are meeting each other at the summer gathering of Friends General Conference. I feel left out...but it's my own fault for not being there too! I'm glad to read this posting about it, and it's fun seeing the photographs and putting some faces to names!

Turning workshops into worship (Quaker Ranter)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Meditation on a Potted Plant

One day I found myself staring at one of my potted plants. I admired the way the light shone translucently through some of its leaves. I thought about all that I knew about this plant, and whether I was sure about this knowledge or not, and how I knew. But mostly I just looked at it, caressing the curve of each leaf and branch with my eyes. I stopped thinking and just looked.

And suddenly, to my total surprise, I was overwhelmed with the realization that this little plant I had here in my house was a miracle. Right here, in my house – right before my very eyes – a miracle!

There is this being that miraculously takes sunlight and water and nutrients in the soil and transforms them into beautiful growth. Yes, it grows. It is alive. Quietly, slowly, all by itself, it grows.

It reaches its roots into the soil and chooses certain molecules and takes them into itself, turning those molecules into stem or leaf or flower. Slowly it bends to catch the light better, and reflects that light as a beautiful shade of green.

How does it know how to do all of this?

It just does. It just is.

I give it water; and I love it. It may not know that. It just is what it is, and does what it does.

But I give it water, and I love it.