Monday, September 03, 2012

Labor Day

Lately, I have been thinking about how there are two basic ways to make money.  One is by working.  The other is by investing.

Working is the more obvious way to make money.  Not all work makes money, of course.  But we tend to assume that peole who have money get it largely by working for it.

Investment, however, is a strange case:  if you have extra money you do not immediately need, you can invest it, and by investing it, potentially get even more money without having to actually work for it yourself.  Even more amazingly, this extra money you do not have to work for is taxed at a lower rate than the money you actually work for.  This means that if you already have more money than you really need, you can use it -- instead of your working -- to make even more money.  The money is still produced by work, but it is other people's work.  Because you are taxed at a lower rate by not working for it yourself, you can then make more money faster this way than if you just worked for it.

The very wealthy have such huge amounts of money that these amounts are almost inconceivable to the rest of us.  I think money just means something very different to them than to those in the middle and lower classes.  For the middle and lower classes, money is largely about survival and a little about access to meaningful opportunities and experiences.  For the very wealthy, I think it other meanings are at play as well, although I am not sure I know what those are, but I think they have something to do with security, status, influence, and maybe also protecting themselves from having to see what poverty and desperation look like.  And I also have come to think that money that goes to the rich does not trickle back down:  those huge amounts rotate slowly in some upper stratosphere largely inaccessible to the rest of us.  The super-rich pay each other, and largely do not touch the economy of the middle and lower classes, except to draw more money away from them and into their own pockets.  After all, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer -- obviously it is a "sucking up" economy instead of a "trickle down" system.  If "trickle down" economics worked, the disparity between the rich and the poor would not be growing.

A famous wealthy person about a year ago invested $5 billion in the Bank of America.  Suppose you manage to save $50,000 per year (unthinkable for most Americans).  It would take you 100,000 years to save up enough to do the same!  Even if you could save $500,000 per year, it would still take 10,000 years.  Or, if you could save $5 million per year, it would still take 1000 years.  Even Old Testament Biblical figures did not live that long!

So, my question on Labor Day is why we have created a system that allows some people to benefit enormously from other people's labor, while those who actually labor struggle just to survive?

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Value of Loneliness

Before I get to the intended topic of this post, I wanted to share a couple of new observations as the semester starts without me while I am on sabbatical:

On the first day of classes, I came out of the faculty carrel section into the main library, and was enormously surprised to see several students already hard at work at their studies!  They were reading their brand-new textbooks (at least new to them -- some were used copies), well equipped with notepads, post-it notes, and multiple pens, pencils, and highlighters.  I loved their dedication, self-discipline, and enthusiasm!  I hoped they were feeling that special joy I had felt as a student, that thrill of the first plunge into a new subject of study, eager to discover the insights it would bring!

Today I finally finished my annual report for last year.  While it is a very good idea to do this right away when the previous year ends, the Dean's office always promises to get us our course evaluations "as soon as possible" so that they can inform our reflections, and so we wait.  Besides, the deadline is not until September 1.  September 1 approaches, and usually by then we are hard at work getting a new semester going.  Meanwhile, there is still no sign of our course evaluations.  Sometime after September 1, we get another note from the Dean apologizing for this but insisting that we still should have submitted our reports by September 1, and at any rate, we should do so as soon as possible now, really!  And so we finally do, once we are in that golden period between starting the semester and receiving the first batch of Big Grading.  (And often, the course evaluations finally do reach us by then.)

I decided to just go ahead and get mine in on time, to completely reach closure about last year and feel I could enter into sabbatical with nothing more hanging over me.  And it turned out to be good to do this.  First of all, it helped me to see just how much I accomplished last year, and how much I have accomplished in my thirteen years at this university:  I've taught twenty distinct courses, fourteen of which were new to my university; I played a key role in starting a Peace Studies program here, and last year also played a key role in starting a Mediation Center on campus.  (I also noticed that I have participated in over 70 musical performances, about 44 of them on campus.  Although this is not really part of my CV, I do maintain a separate music CV and so I did compile this information, for myself, as I combed through my calendars looking at all of my activities.)

But what I have not accomplished is getting very much of my writing published, although I have in fact written a lot.  And so the second benefit of doing my annual report was to use it as an opportunity to clarify my writing and publishing goals for my sabbatical.

I realize I am blowing my own horn a bit by listing some of my accomplishments, but it is an attempted antidote to the ominous threat of loneliness, self-deprecation, and depression building like storm clouds on the horizon of my soul.  Splendid Opportunity opens up for me, and, keenly aware though I am of how rare and precious this opportunity is, it is distressingly easy for the demons of Self-Doubt to come rushing in to undermine one's great plans for oneself!  Even though I have accomplished what I have accomplished, I can become dangerously down on myself for all that I have NOT done.

And so, as I transition to Sabbatical Proper, I need to cultivate the self-discipline to remember I am worthy (that is, I must not indulge in self-fulfilling fantasies of personal worthlessness), and to give myself full authority to set a clear plan for myself and believe that it is possible for me to get my writing into print.

One of the demons is a kind of loneliness.  In the busyness of the normal semester, at least you are forced to keep in lots of high quality contact with lots of interesting people.  As an introvert, I can become emotionally exhausted by all of that people-contact, but it is at the same time fulfilling, I must confess.  But now I am seeing that even introverts can become lonely.  Writing is a lonely activity!  I have, this week, taken good steps to ensure that I remain connected to people.  So, I do think I will be fine.  I am feeling better now than I did earlier this week.

But here is what I wanted to write about the value of loneliness:  the sacred potential of every interaction with every person becomes much more vividly apparent.

In my normal life, I try always to remember this, but in the press of a busy schedule, it can at times be hard to actually see:  you have to take it on faith (if you remember, that is!).

But in these past few days, it has been blindingly obvious.  I see the flashing lights and colors, and hear the trumpets from heaven heralding the sacred value of each interaction I have had, and I feel melted down by God's love.

Monday, August 27, 2012

On Experiencing the Same Old Place in a Wholly New Way

Last week was New Faculty Orientation, and yesterday the first-year students moved in and they are now going through New Student Orientation.  Meanwhile, the remaining students are starting to return as well.  It is very strange watching things start up without me!  I was surprisingly blue about this last week, but now I am starting to enjoy it:  both the sense of freedom I have, and the new way I am perceiving things.

What is the new way I am perceiving things?  Not distracted by having to prepare for classes myself, I look at the new students and the campus with new eyes.  I feel I can relax and see more.  I do not feel as guarded, because I do not have to play a judgmental role this year.  I feel able to open my heart more fully to the love I feel, and I am really glad about this!  The one part of academic life I do not like is that judgmental role I am forced to take, and so that is the main part of my normal work that I am most glad to be relieved of this year.

And so, for example, I see the new first-year students in a new way.  This year I am not thinking, "Will that person be in my class?  If so, what will that person be like in class?"  I like all of my students, but the power dynamic of the classroom inevitably strains some relationships in ways that those relationships might  not be strained without that dynamic.  And so, realizing that none of these first-year students will be in any of my classes this year, since I am not teaching any classes, I look at them from a different perspective.  Sure I will have some of them in classes in the future, but not yet -- not in this first year of theirs, when it is all so new to them.  So in an uncomplicated way, I can just enjoy their excitement as they start.  I pass by in the periphery of their new lives here.  They do not know who I am and barely notice me.  But I smile at them, wishing them well, hoping for each that they find their way without too much trauma.

I am also more open to the physical beauty of the campus and the surrounding area, as I think about how it looks from the eyes of the new students and their parents.  And I am struck by the warmth of everyone here as they greet the newcomers with such obvious joy and excitement at the start of the new year.

Some people have been puzzled that I am taking a full-year sabbatical without having made arrangements to be away for the year.  Last week I started to wonder if maybe I should have left; it is too strange and hard to watch things start without me, and too tempting to be drawn into things that I should ignore!  But today I begin to see the wisdom of my decision.  I need to see this campus from a different perspective, and learn to relate to it in a new way.  There is something important about this, and I sense that it is going to have a more profound effect on me (and maybe then the campus too when I "return") than I originally thought.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Turning Over the Reins and Getting Enough Sleep

My second sabbatical begins.  This time, I am taking a full-year sabbatical.  (Last time, I just took one semester.)

Initially, I thought sabbatical began with the end of the previous school year.  But now, as I watch my campus begin to stir back to life in preparation for the start of a new academic year, I realize that the summer is the summer -- its own special season -- and it is only really now that my sabbatical, proper, begins.  It is only now that my life noticably changes -- that I find myself not doing things that normally I would be doing now, like finalizing syllabi, and participating in start-of-the-year events.  It is only now that it truly registers with my colleagues that I am not "with them" as they transition from summer into the start of a new semester.  They tease me with a pretended pretend-jealousy that I know is actually real, because I have felt it myself!  Real, but not malicious.  I am genuinely happy for my colleagues on sabbatical, and I know they are happy for me, but at the same time, they do wish they could be on sabbatical too.

Through the summer I have been working on my writing projects, but also relaxing more than usual, and playing lots of music.  I play with a community orchestra, and we have had a series of outdoor concerts, the most recent of which was last night.  We played as the sun set behind us.  This is the first concert of the season where it got dark enough before the end of the concert that we needed little lights on our music stands.  We turned them on for the last couple of pieces that we played.  It was also the first concert where it cooled off enough through the evening that my flute needed a little extra attention after long rests to coax it back into playing.  On the really hot days, the instruments stay warmed up and are immediately responsive!  We have two more concerts and a recording session before our season concludes.

This week I have had a series of meetings with colleagues to make sure that things will run smoothly during the year in my absence.  I am actually being replaced by one-and-a-half people, believe it or not.  One person is filling in for my philosophy teaching, and another person is devoting half of her work time to teaching my peace courses and coordinating our peace studies program.  Today I had my official meeting with that person to hand over information about our peace studies program, and so I finally feel free to immerse myself fully in my sabbatical now.

What is amazing to me is that since I have let myself slow down a bit and catch up with myself this summer, I feel well-rested and better organized again.

One of the most remarkable discoveries I have made is what a difference it makes to get enough sleep!  I have let myself sleep as long as I need to each morning.  It is not until now that I have grasped how sleep-deprived I must have been.  It is a revelation to me that you can awaken feeling well-rested, and have lots of energy throughout the day.  I highly recommend getting enough sleep!  It can make a profound difference to your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More on Students and God

Looking back, I see that nearly every year that I have taught "Modern Philosophy," I have written about students' struggles with how much the modern philosophers (1600s-1700s) talk about God.  Here is one example of a previous posting on this.

This year we kept having a certain debate in class.  A few students got annoyed with philosophers who, in their view, evoked God to explain what cannot be explained.  They wrote this off as a cheap trick, a cop out, with no intellectual merit.

I argued against this point every time it came up, and in every way I could think of.  I pointed out that the philosophers constructed arguments for their views.  We examined these arguments in depth.  I then asked the students, "if you disagree with the conclusion, then can you point out where the argument goes wrong?"  Sometimes we found that the arguments were deductively valid.  "So, if you disagree with the conclusion, since there is nothing wrong with the philosopher's reasoning, it must be that you disagree with one or more premises.  Which one(s)?"

Other times, when we discussed the great explanatory power of the concept of God as grounding the orderliness of the universe, again, the "cop out" complaint would emerge, and so I would ask the offended student, "can you explain this any better?"  They would vaguely say, "well, science answers these questions now!"  When I pressed them to say more, they would claim, "I am not a scientist, and so I do not know -- but I am sure science can explain all of this now!"

Then I would give them my best account of science's answers, and they would be amazed and impressed at how much I knew (I specialized in philosophy of science).  We talked about cosmogeny, Newton's laws, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution.  But then I would ask, "Do these scientific theories really provide fully satisfactory answers to our deeper questions?"

A central question we kept coming back to concerned the emerging view of this time period of "matter."  Many students now take for granted that physical materialism can explain everything.  But it cannot explain life, or consciousness.  The Modern philosophers realized that, and puzzled over it.  Many alternative theories were formed:  that all matter is infused with life and consciousness; that there is some mysterious connection between matter and spirit; or that matter is not even real.  But those views ended up fading from Western thought in favor of a theory of matter understood as itself dead and inert.  Thus arose the philosophical problem of how life and consciousness can emerge from something that does not in itself contain these properties.  "Why not give priority instead to conscious life as the most real 'substance' in the universe?" I would ask the class.  "There is a certain elegant simplicity to that approach!  It renders those other questions moot.  And, is this not a more honest approach?  If we look honestly at our lives, don't we care more about thoughts, ideas, consciousness, than about material objects in and of themselves?"

"But that is anthropomorphizing!" my students would protest.

"So, out of humility, we give ontological priority to a conception of matter as lifeless and inert -- we infuse it with the power to purposelessly, thoughtlessly, even accidentally, create life and consciousness and purpose?  And this has somehow worked well for us?!  We regard this view as rationally superior to giving life, consciousness, love, purpose, and goodness, ontological priority?  It is more rational to regard the latter as woefully misguided superstition?  Show me that rational proof, then!"

It was an exciting semester!

I thought our discussions were great. 

Then I read their final papers.  Several students dismissed the "God cop-out" without even deigning to try to argue for their views in this respect.

I feel really depressed about this.

While it is true that I want to give my students the freedom to believe what they want to believe, what depresses me is that, after all that, they did not at least pick up on two important facts:  (1) I am not going to automatically agree with them that believing in God is a cop out, and especially (2): they must argue for what they believe!

If even wonderful, thoughtful philosophy students such as these cannot get over strongly entrenched biases after a whole semester of intense discussions, what hope do I reasonably have that on my sabbatical I can at last write the book that will heal the science and religion divide in Western thought?

Yet, that remains my audacious hope!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy May!

Another semester is drawing to a close.  I just submitted final grades, and am in that strange state of being that one is in just after submitting grades.  It is a mixture of intense anxiety and looming enormous relief.  The anxiety is because you know this matters very much to the students, and you hope you were fair, and you worry that some will be upset and will write angry or painful notes.  The looming enormous relief wants to break through, but for a while that anxiety is pretty intense.

But I am especially happy to be finished now, because I am on sabbatical next year!  And, in fact, I am in my library carrel right now, about to resume work on one of my writing projects!

Meanwhile, this heron family has been keeping me company through all of the end of semester busyness.