Saturday, January 22, 2011

More on Burnout

As I prepare for the start of a new semester, I have mixed feelings. I do love teaching and have some new ideas that I am excited about. But I also feel a sense of trepidation, in large part because I feel increasingly intolerant of being too busy.

Last semester, as I felt myself starting to worry about burnout again, I had a new insight about burnout.

I think that one of the causes of burnout is when we put extraordinary effort into achieving what is merely ordinary.

Now, the merely ordinary is a fine accomplishment--I’m not denying that. If our lives are spent achieving the ordinary things that contribute meaningfully to the functioning of the world, that is a life well-lived. We can derive a great sense of satisfaction from such work.

But when we continually push ourselves beyond the limits of personal health and well-being to do so (which we are doing when we are chronically “too busy”), our lives are out of balance. We suffer; those around us suffer--the cost exceeds the benefit.

There are times when it is noble and heroic to put forth great effort. Those times are times of crisis, and responding to crises is extraordinary. Those times, then, are times of putting forth extraordinary effort to accomplish something extraordinary. The cost is proportional to the benefit, and so, while tired and depleted after it is all over, we still are likely to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that aids in our healing and recovery.

But those times are rare, intense, and relatively brief.

When extraordinary effort becomes a way of life, the norm instead of the exception, that’s a problem. It is not really a sustainable way of life. You work too hard without time for recovery and renewal. And while you are accomplishing something, your accomplishments are not extraordinary enough to result in either social appreciation or a sense of satisfaction proportional to your effort.

If you are a humble and modest type of person, you may say, "I don't work hard in order to gain appreciation from others, anyway," and that's commendable, but this is not a question of the purity of your motivations, but rather almost a physics question related to the law of conservation of energy. We cannot keep putting out energy without renewing our energy as well. And so if our efforts are extraordinary, our ordinary methods of taking care of ourselves will no longer be enough to keep us going. Net result: burnout.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I was recently in a conversation with someone about the problems of the world. Even though we both care very much about the problems of the world, and were looking for real solutions, the conversation did not connect. I tried to stay focused on the problems themselves, but the person I was talking with kept attacking me. I kept trying to find common ground, but the person I was talking with kept trying to exaggerate every difference into good vs. evil, with my position being characterized as representing the "evil" side. It was only later, when I had a chance to reflect on the conversation, that I fully grasped that this was the dynamic that made the conversation so frustrating.

Once I realized this, I was genuinely puzzled. First of all, why blame me for all the problems of the world? I am nobody. I have no real power. Secondly, I care about solving problems. I devote my life to teaching and writing about philosophy and peace, and, on the side, I try to create beautiful music to uplift people's souls. Why blame someone who is trying to live in a good way? Even if I am not very successful at addressing problems or even uplifting people's spirits, the worst that one can say about me is that I try in a pathetic sort of way and fall well short of my idealistic vision. But I don't do any damage. Rather than being a grave source of danger in the world, in truth I'm pretty harmless.

So, why was this person attacking me?

I realized that this person was highly influenced by much of today's media, especially certain well-known talk-show personalities. Their style is exactly this: to draw sharp enemy lines and attack. Fellow Americans who disagree with them are characterized as dangerous, even evil. I have trouble grasping what they think is gained by such an approach.

When the shootings of January 8 transpired, I, like the rest of the country, was horrified. But in the days that followed, I was glad to see that part of the response was to question the tone of political discourse in our country today. I welcomed the calls to civility, even though I knew it was unrealistic to think that things would change that easily.

What I would like to do to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is reflect on some of what I have heard in the ensuing discussions of civility and violence.

In particular, there are two strange objections to the call to civility that I have heard a lot that I wish to respond to. A third point I wish to respond to has to do with gun laws. While this third point seems to shift from questions concerning verbal violence to questions related to physical violence, it is still a point about communication, and represents a strategy that stifles conversation instead of facilitating it.

Three Strange Objections to the Call to Engage More Productively in Debates

Objection 1. Criticizing language use is a threat to the right of free speech.

My response: No, criticizing uncivil language is to question why people wish to use the right to free speech in this way. It is to ask: what is the aim of hateful speech, and does it accomplish that aim?

If the aim is cathartic venting, then maybe it accomplishes this aim, but probably only temporarily.

Isn't the deeper aim some kind of real improvement? Isn't it that we want to solve real problems in the world? If so, then it is highly questionable that hateful language ever actually accomplishes improvement. Instead, it draws and reinforces enemy lines, which tends to exacerbate (rather than resolve) conflict.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that," and also: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

Objection 2: Those who blame those who use hateful language are just as hateful.

My response: There is an important distinction to be made between language that attacks the being of a person or a group (either by wishing them dead or eliminated, or by casting them as irredeemably evil), and language that criticizes specific actions as being either morally wrong, or pragmatically not likely to achieve their intended effects.

The latter: the questioning or criticizing of actions, constitutes the critical inquiry that is crucially important to a well-functioning society, and is why we value the right to free speech.

It is only the former -- attacks on people or groups of people -- that can be called "hateful." I doubt that it ever accomplishes anything good.

Objection 3. Because people are mourning, this is not the appropriate time to discuss gun laws.

My response: That's like saying when someone dies from cancer, "because people are mourning, this is not the appropriate time to talk about the urgency of finding a cure for cancer."

But if not now, when? Some mythical time in the future when everything is going swimmingly well? Some unbelievable time in the future when people lovingly treasure their guns for their aesthetic beauty and for the fun of shooting at tin cans, and no one ever shoots other people with them (even accidentally), and no one is still alive who has ever suffered the effects of gun violence? Then finally it is appropriate for people to "objectively" decide whether it is appropriate for ordinary people to have their own assault weapons? And until then -- during this time when people do in fact kill other people with guns -- it is "inappropriate" to bring up the question, and the default should be to just let people have their guns? Why? Do we really think that gun owners' fears and insecurities (and gun manufacturers' desire to make money selling guns) are more important that gun victims' desire for safety?

Related: I am increasingly amazed at the mythology of guns. While the reality of the situation of January 8 was that (a) the gunman failed to kill his main target (even after succeeding in shooting her through the head), and (b) the gunman was taken down by unarmed civilians, we still hear people surmising that the whole incident could somehow have been prevented if only more ordinary people happened to have assault weapons handy!

I think it is highly unrealistic to assume that there was time for a person to identify what was going on, pull out a gun, and manage to kill just the person responsible (without accidentally hitting innocent bystanders) before the first gunman had managed to kill all six of his victims. I've seen estimates that it probably only took 6-10 seconds for him to shoot that first round. But, even if a second gun-wielder managed to shoot only the first, now imagine how this looks to everyone else: there are two gunmen shooting. In the chaos and confusion of the moment, is it realistic to assume that people can tell who is the "good" gunman and who is the "bad" gunman? Now imagine even more people with guns, all increasingly confused! I cannot believe that a situation of several gun-wielders shooting at each other in a panicking crowd would have been "safer" and would have resulted in fewer deaths!

But my main point here is that incidents like this should inform our discussions of gun laws. We need to consider the actual data of how guns are used. We need to take into account the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of per capita gun murders in the world. This is relevant information that should inform our discussions. The claim that it is "inappropriate" to talk about this now is a rhetorical strategy intended to stop conversation at a time when gun-rights proponents are (rightly) worried that this latest incident raises important questions about the wisdom of our current laws.

Lessons for MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr., had a vision of not only racial equality and justice, but a wider vision too of economic justice and of people respecting each other across all lines of difference. He had a methodology of bringing this vision to reality by engaging the power of love -- a power superior to hatred and violence. He could see that hatred only creates enemy lines, which foster resentment and inspire violence. He could see that violence creates more problems than it ever solves. If we are serious about addressing problems and creating a better world, we cannot indulge in the temporary catharsis of hatred and violence while hiding in the illusion of safety created by walls and guns. That does not really solve the problems. It does not really keep us safe.

To solve problems, we must do the hard work of building bridges, crossing those bridges, and genuinely meeting those who are different from us. To solve problems, we must engage in the intellectually and emotionally demanding work of trying to understand issues and situations from multiple points of view. To solve problems, we must be willing to admit we might be wrong. But we also must be willing to stand up for what we believe is right. We must be willing to admit that others may be right. But we also must have the courage to respectfully call others out when we feel they are wrong.

Above all, we must listen, in an unending search for common ground, using that as the foundation from which to build new solutions -- new and better ways to live together and work together. Above all, we must look for the best in each other, and try to draw that out, and give it strength, for that is the material out of which we build a truly just world.

Happy MLK Day, everyone!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Workaholism

I came across some articles on workaholism, and read them, in part because I am sometimes accused of being a workaholic. I am not sure that I am a workaholic, though. I think that there is a difference between a positive way of having a strong relationship with one's work, and a negative way of having a strong relationship with one's work. The articles I have read seem to support such a distinction, to some extent, and yet still lean heavily on the side of being suspicious of those who work long hours.

If I am honest with myself, I must confess that my own relationship to my work is mixed. On the positive side, I like my work and am devoted to fulfilling its ideals. I try to do a good job, not for problematic reasons (wanting praise, esteem, power, or money), but because I care about the actual effects on other people: I want people to learn, and through their learning, become happier and better people in the world.

On the negative side, I realize that I do have pathological tendencies that I must constantly be on guard against, especially a tendency to feel I have to prove my worthiness as a human being by doing good work. That's there, but while I do have to struggle against it, it's not the sole motivation for work. I also have to make a living, but that is not my sole reason for doing this work, either. Related, I have deep-rooted fears of letting people down. So my work can get a bit fear-driven if I am not careful to watch this as well.

But, I try hard to keep the good reasons in focus, and front and center in my daily consciousness.

I tend to regard workaholism as a compulsion-driven addiction. If I were primarily driven by esteem or financial considerations, or fear, I would confess to being a workaholic.

But because I do have positive reasons for devoting myself to my work, and try to prevent the more problematic reasons from controlling me, am I right to conclude that I am not really a workaholic?

How do you define the term?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Happy New Year!

A somewhat belated Happy New Year to all of my readers! (At least it is still January!)

My last posting was about my research plan to write at least 200 words a day. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep that up through the fall, not so much because I was too busy, but because I floundered a bit in finding a good schedule of times each day to work on my writing. Then my schedule sort of settled, but time for writing remained unresolved. Can I learn from that experience and do better this coming semester? We shall see!

Three additional factors inhibited my efforts last semester: (1) I had more students than usual (larger classes); (2) I had someone working on a translation project for me, and so every time I did have time for research, I found myself proofreading versions of the translation, and (3) my music schedule unexpectedly became very busy.

What makes me more optimistic about the spring is that: (1) I'll have smaller classes again.

And (2): the good news about the translation project is that it's pretty much finished now, and so I've been working this January break on following up on the research I intended to do with this document now translated. I'm hoping that the enthusiasm and momentum I have generated will carry me through to a productive writing schedule through the upcoming spring semester.

Regarding (3), I do have performances again in the spring, but I think not as many. I really love music and am glad that I have had so many opportunities to perform again. Just when I was starting to worry that maybe it is taking too much time, I came across this interesting article noting that a large percentage of "geniuses" have serious artistic hobbies.

What is encouraging about that article is its suggestion that having a serious hobby can be good for your main work, because making connections across different areas of interest enhances creativity. I already realized that having two main strong interests makes me happy and makes my life feel better balanced. But the thought that the two strong interests might be mutually benefiting each other removes all lingering traces of guilt about how much time I do put in to my music.

Yet, if I face the full complexity of my life honestly, is it really just two main interests? That is, is it:
  1. My intellectual work
  2. My music
Or, is it:
  1. Philosophy
  2. Peace Studies
  3. Music
  1. Writing
  2. Teaching
  3. Administration
  4. Music
Or even:
  1. Writing philosophy
  2. Teaching philosophy
  3. Writing peace studies
  4. Teaching peace studies
  5. Administration of peace studies program
  6. Music
The last one expresses best why I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity of my life.

Right now, in January, my life feels ideal, because it is simplified to:
  1. Writing (philosophy)
  2. Music
This, for me, is the perfect life.

What is your perfect life?