SATURDAY, APRIL 18, 2015
We gathered on a clear evening as the sun set over the Bay.
Rosé and red, bread and cheese, strawberries. A good feeling filled the room.
At 8:30 we made our way to the living room to begin our discussion.
1. A Meaningful Life
I launched us off by connecting the question of love to the broader question that our group has been grappling with: how to live a meaningful life without the certainties and received wisdom of religion.
With this in mind, I read aloud a quotation I had come across recently in a review of Life After Faith by Philip Kitcher:
“Each meaningful life is distinguished by a theme, a conception of the self and a concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue. That theme should be autonomously chosen by the person whose life it is.”
Albeit the language is clunky (a “concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue,” really?). But even so, this statement made me pause when I read it. I had to put the magazine down and ask myself:
So what is the “theme” of my life, then?
To my surprise, I found that my answer to this was clear and immediate: love.
As I confessed to the group, in recent years I have discovered that the theme of my life has become… trying to love better. The “concomitant identification” of my goals, therefore, is… that I want to be:
more emotionally available,
more fully present,
in all of my interactions with other people, whether they be family, friends or strangers.
In other words, I want to see each person I encounter as a whole person and not in merely an instrumental sense.
I hope to get better at this, day to day, year to year, until I die.
Yet, I admitted, I am troubled, too, by a nagging sense of the incoherence of this theme and the sheer impossibility of these goals!
For by pursuing any one kind of love to its limit – say if I aim for the altruistic, empathic love of Gandhi or Florence Nightingale – I will in fact limit my capacity for other kinds of love — for example, my availability to my family. There are unavoidable trade-offs between the various kinds of love.
So despite my yearning to “love better” and see everybody “as a whole,” despite my sense that this is my chosen theme at this point in my life, I don’t really have the foggiest how to pursue these things.
I ended on this somewhat downbeat note.
Yann spoke up to say, charitably, that he didn’t see any problem at all in my choice of theme!
He explained why this was so by way of contrast to his own. His choice of theme, he ventured, is a little different than mine: he wants, above all, to explore the “gray zones” in life — those places where you won’t find any easy answers, where you feel unsure and confused, where paradoxes abound.
Accordingly, Yann’s “concomitant identification” (I can’t help myself — it’s too tempting to use that clunker) — where was I? — yes, Yann’s concomitant identification of his goals is to seek out and navigate these gray zones. So he felt quite comfortable hearing about my troubled quest to “love better” because he recognized in it… a worthwhile gray zone to explore.
He urged me to embrace the unresolvable conflicts in love.
“Don’t get hung up on whether you really ever learn to ‘love better,’ Tom!” he counseled, “Just trying to love better is the important part; as soon as you do, you are already there!”
With characteristic fervor, Miriam resisted the whole notion of living a “meaningful life” in the first place. She couldn’t stand the quotation, and not only for its awkward phrasing.
“What’s all this talk of meaning?” she asked. “Just live!” she exclaimed. “Don’t worry about the meaning.”
When it comes to love, Miriam added, her understandings of it are very different from those expressed in my writing on Eros, Parental Love, Compassion, Commitment, and Reverence (See the last entry on Five Kinds of Love). If prompted, she would come up with an entirely different breakdown of the forms that love takes, she insisted.
For example, where I describe the love I feel for my children as a kind “intoxication” akin to that of romantic love, she feels nothing of the kind.
“I suppose I love my children,” she said — as the room burst out laughing. “But — no really, I’m serious! — I don’t experience it that way! I only surmise that I love them from the nervous feeling I get when one of them doesn’t return home at the expected time. In my daily interactions with them, sorry, but I’m not constantly thrumming with a sensation of love.”
Walden said that he thinks it is all far more simple than we are making it. The “theme” for Walden, if he had to say, would consist of some far more practical advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”
He noted that this imperative has very different ramifications, depending on whether you are talking to his spouse over the kitchen table or trying to merge lanes on the freeway. In both cases, however, it contains meaning enough to him. Try not to be an asshole, and the world opens up to you.
I said, “But aren’t you setting the threshold for love pretty low, Walden?”
“No,” he answered. “It’s quite a challenge, really.” (Though he pulls it off very well, I would observe.)
Our dear friend Yann, ever the analytical engine, took this opportunity to break the group’s conversation down into three levels of love, which he suggested might together build a… magnificent palace of love.
- Don’t be an asshole.
- Try to be empathetic to others.
- Make a conscious choice (“autonomously chosen”) to frame or thematize your life in terms of your commitments and concomitant goals (ha! I got it in), which are a form of love.
Ken insisted, however, that this #3, at least as expressed in the quotation I read at the beginning of the meeting, pointed to an unfounded value-judgment that he could not condone.
To Ken, a meaningful life does not require that it be consciously, “autonomously chosen.” After all, he pointed out, plenty of people around the world go through their days in a moment-to-moment or spontaneous way without consciously framing their theme and their goals. Are their lives less meaningful? He would doubt it.
(Ken didn’t mention it, but I think that implicit in this question is a devastating socio-economic critique of all this talk of “meaning.” Many people in the world simply have to work too hard just to survive, and therefore don’t have time for this kind of language of conscious choices. Though I’m not sure that is true. Many of them do make conscious choices — to their neighbors, to defending their country, to providing resources to their families. They may not talk about it, but they do live it.)
If I remember correctly, Yann still stood his ground.
Based on personal experience, he told us, he believes that, regardless of the question of its rarity or not, this effort at making conscious choices does add to the depth of person’s experience.
For example, he told the group, he personally reveres the natural world. He thinks often of the fragility of our blue spinning planet, in a dark and vast universe. Therefore, in his career choices Yann has strived to position himself in a field in which he gets to protect and defend the Earth and its environment. And he has found that by consciously dedicating himself to protecting its environment — an act of love — he finds more meaning in his work and life.
I supported Yann in this with still another example of the rewards of making a conscious choice, based on my experience… I mentioned to the group how I have, to my horror, witnessed wedding vows in which the bride and groom vow to be true to each other “so long as it brings each of us joy” – or some such contingent agreement. I say “to my horror” because, to my mind, the power of the traditional wedding ceremony is that it frames the choice as one for that is precisely not contingent, i.e. one that will last forever. “To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” goes the traditional vows. The couple speaks them aloud, before their community, and so, I think, deepens the meaning of their relationship. When I married Renée (at Millerton Point on Tomales Bay) I guess you might say I took this to heart. At a certain point in the ceremony I leaned back and shouted at the top of my voice that I wanted the gulls, the grebes, the leopard sharks, the egrets, the coyotes, the foxes, hell, the rock cod, all the living creatures — and of course all the friends and family present — to know that “Renée Cole is my woman, and I am her man!”
This vow has been important to me. I was and am 100% in.
In view of these kinds of experiences in life, I agree with Yann that there is more to love than just the effort not to be an asshole. Not that this is not important! (Yann hilariously commented that while he may be strong on #3, the thematizing part, he is very weak on #1; he acts like an asshole on a regular basis. So although the above ground design of his palace of love is spectacular, the foundation needs a little work…)
2. But Is Love Enough?
The Beatles famously said it’s… all we need. Nothing you can say that can’t be sung. Etc.
In his lovely song, “I Threw It All Away,” Dylan announces:
“Love is all you need.
It makes the world go round.
Love and only love…
It can’t be denied!
No matter what you think about it.
You just won’t be able to live without it.
Take a tip from one who’s tried.”
If you have never heard this song, here it is:
“Yet how do you propose to go about it, Tom, if you want to do more than not be an asshole?” Walden asked.
“What would it mean, in practical terms, to have love as the primary goal of your life?”
“Good question,” I said.
Would I walk around Berkeley, barefoot, tending to anybody and everybody we meet, giving out hugs and back massages and, I don’t know, candied orange peel? Cold cash?
I admitted, as I did at the outset of the meeting, that I wasn’t at all sure how to answer that.
Despite having “to love better” as my chosen theme, I am not at all sure how to enact it.
I mean, it’s plainly not enough to walk around giving out good vibes. We have all met those people who are — what shall we call them? — I’ll say… mad huggers. Those people who take every opportunity to gaze into your eyes soulfully and talk about how beautiful it is, this moment we are sharing, together; who offer massages and soothing words where other people offer only a tight smile and a wave.
Aren’t they practicing love?
Why, then, are they often so irritating?
What is the relationship between loving better… and using your discretion?
Between loving better, loving more authentically… and holding onto your capacity for critical judgment?
Interestingly, it only gets more complicated the more you follow the thread of love.
Gray zones indeed.
Florence read a passage from a book (I didn’t catch the writer’s name — Florence?), in which the “art of loving” is set alongside the “art of working,” the “art of playing,” “the art of dying,” all kinds of other themes in life. For Florence, love – though important – is only one of the many interests we pursue in our varied lives.
This started us talking more broadly about all the different values we may have, aside from love.
Somehow Larry Ellison came up, as the antithesis of someone dedicated to being loving. (We acknowledged that this may be totally unfair — a cruel cartoon version of a much more complicated man. Sorry Larry, but it was useful to the discussion to make you the bete noire of the moment). For Larry Ellison, former CEO of Oracle, apparently, work is of supreme importance.
These goals may be in conflict with the pursuit of love, but they are legitimate values too, are they not?
Renée made a valiant effort to distinguish between the money-driven achievements of Larry Ellison and someone like Steve Jobs, who looked at work as a creative act with the aim of improving people’s lives. But, even if we go with Steve, the point still stood. Why should we emphasize love, and only love, over all the other competing aspects of our lives? Florence and others were adamant that love is most decisively not all we need.
“So you want to put love in a box. Tie it up with a nice ribbon,” I said despairingly to Florence. “Give it a place on the shelf alongside the other aspects of life, be they money or power or a good wine. Well, I reject that! I want to say that love is of a different nature. That it trumps these other concerns. I’m with the Beatles and Dylan here: I think that, on the deepest level, all we need is love (well, and bread and water — hey, we are veering back to Epicurus!).
“And I say this not as a piece of dogma, but based on experience. Don’t we find that our most rewarding and rich experiences come from love and connection to other people? If so, then why can’t we non-supernaturalists assert a goddamned priority to love?”
Nadine countered that love comes in many forms. Pablo Picasso may have treated the women in his life roughly at times; indeed he may have even acted like an asshole. But he created stunning paintings and sculptures that in their own way were acts of love. Why should we insist that he conform to one restrictive idea of how to love?
I held my ground. “But I do want to say to Larry Ellison, or Pablo Picasso, that they are missing out. I want to say, calmly, even to Picasso, ‘Hey, man, um… I have an idea for you. Maybe try painting a little less… and loving more? We get it: you are very, very good at that. You find great satisfaction in putting paint on a canvas and ordering the world that way. Many people in the world appreciate your talent. Nothing wrong with it. Yet, you know what Pablo?, you may find a little more harmony in your days by turning your attention to the people in your life, to your friends. By trying to be more kind and consistent to the people who love you. Take your kid on a walk to the local park. Talk to her. Listen to her.”
I can’t resist linking to this song by the Modern Lovers here… Consider it a light diversion.
3. Can the Secular Outlook Ever Be Morally Prescriptive?
My advice to Picasso of course prompted a storm of derision (I had broken the unspoken taboo that prevents secular individuals from making moral judgments). That’s ridiculous! was the general consensus. People are all different! Who are you to judge!
“Tom, it’s a village!” cried Renée, “Some are the healers and the lovers. Others are the messengers. Some are the architects. Even others are the warriors. You can’t ask them all to subscribe to the same creed of love. Even though, yes, love is important to everybody.”
“But if it is so important, and you acknowledge that, why can’t we non-supernaturalists ever prescribe it for others?” I asked. I explained that this is one of the things that I admire in religious traditions: their courage in distinguishing right from wrong, and their boldly stated prescriptions for the good life. The ancient fables and in-group mentalities and general silliness that come along with religions make them prohibitive to me (and worse, dangerous in my opinion). Yet I don’t want humanity to lose the capacity for a collective moral language. And I fear that the secular world is losing just that.
We can pursue intellectual questions all we want. We can discuss Epicurus and the Scientific Revolution, and it is all interesting and provocative. But can we not then take it a step further and say: How about all of us trying to love more, to love better, in the next week!
Can’t we do what churches and temples and mosques and New Age gatherings the world over do every day: ask ourselves to be better people?
If we can’t say that love is at the core of experience — and should be valued over, say, bungee-jumping, or late-night meetings focusing on innovative financial investing strategies, or wacky self-expression in the form of Burning Man campsites — then this group is no more than an idle intellectual salon. And maybe that’s what it is, but I want it to be more! I want us to venture into the gray zone of asking those questions traditionally reserved for religion:
What is good?
What is bad?
What brings us into harmony with the world around us?
What takes us further away into confusion?
Lucy spoke up to say that such talk is, ironically, becoming all too familiar in business settings. Corporations, having consumed all forms of subversion , tamed rock n’ roll and punk and softened the idea of anarchy itself into cute little dress-up games, are now launching a new imperial venture: they are moving in on love.
Facebook has an internal slogan, Lucy informed us: “Ship love.”
As in: ship out the product of love to the consumer.
Google, of course, has: Don’t be Evil.
(I mentioned the Obama campaign’s slogan, “people-centered, data-driven,” which I had liked.)
Capitalism, run amuck, freed of the shackles of religious disapprobation, is merging the free-for-all of our acquisitive, consumerist society with the traditional language of love and morality.
“Yep. Love is a currency,” said Nadine, shaking her head.
We all agreed that this was an icky development.
I mean, Nike can tell me to “Just Do It,” fine, but I don’t want them to tell me what to do, thank you very much. If we non-supernaturalists, we secularists, don’t push ourselves into this uncomfortable “gray zone” of morality, then the ground being given up by religion will be occupied by profit-seeking corporations!
This is what I am talking about. There is a vacuum of sensible moral talk in the world, and it is filled by the worst kind of passionate intensity (You can’t help but think of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming.)
I turned back to Walden. “Don’t be an asshole is the fall-back position of every culture, every civilization! It is simply the Golden Rule, stated negatively. Of course we don’t want to be assholes, Walden. But then neither does anybody who wants to play a socially acceptable role alongside others, anywhere in the world. There has got to be more than that.”
Gerry spoke up to say that he used to think that peace and harmony and love were morally prescriptive. He thought that everything was leading to an awakening. But then the world took a different turn, starting in the 80s. Now he isn’t so sure. He is aware of choosing to live in Berkeley among people who share his outlook, but he is less encouraged to try to persuade others to follow along. He had the look of a jaded idealist, like a Russian liberal democrat in the late summer of 1917. Once we believed… but now we know better.
Setenay remarked that much of these differences are cultural. In Turkey, for example, children are devoted for life to their parents. They would never criticize them to a friend or resist visiting during holidays. When she first moved to the United States, it shocked her to hear people talk of becoming “bored” with their parents!
I heard all this. And I acknowledged that is undeniable that there are many different forms and manifestations of love, emphasized in different ways in different cultures. Yet, I told the group, I still do believe that there is an undercurrent that is consistent through every culture, and in every person (except for psychopaths and the sorts of “malignant narcissists” Walden talked about). There is a human longing to connect in a complicated and ongoing way with other humans, to share affection and even bear the burden of one another’s suffering. I suspect that this can be brought out but must be fought for, defended, encouraged, in a moral language. Much in the way that parents try to shape their children’s outlook.
Call me crazy.
Ken mentioned that he is not so concerned about encouraging his children’s experiences of romantic love or Eros, since that will come naturally. He is more concerned, as a father, with encouraging their capacity for empathy.
But why not encourage, persuade, cajole grown-ups in this direction, too? We are not talking about compulsion, here. We are talking about standing for love.
Is that going too far?
The feeling I got from the group was that it was. Leave us alone. Don’t moralize.
I ended by arguing that if the world’s main ethic is “don’t be an asshole” it will soon devolve into everyone for herself. A blue spinning orb of people who are vaguely polite and disconnected and restless.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that seem to be where we are headed?
But let me end on a high note.
At one point Manon spoke to how she manages her day care in Berkeley with an emphasis on humane values, love, compassion, understanding. She said that this causes some conflicts with other administrators, who sometimes accuse her of being too “soft.” But she believes that it is okay to lose some opportunities, or even profit, in the name of love. This was inspiring to hear.
4. Where We Are Now
As it got late, people began to leave, as the discussion still ambled along. Usually we have a clear moment when we end the meeting, but this one sort of disintegrated — into a happy buzz of people talking in clusters, gathering their bags, waving a friendly goodbye at the door.
So I didn’t get to talk about the plan going forward.
My sense, though, is that we should pause. We have had wonderful conversations, every one of them. I have found them very valuable and inspiring. I hope you have too. But May is a busy end-of-school year time, and I think we should hold off on meeting.
Let’s pick this up in the fall!
In the meantime, please continue to share with our group, by email or on theoldnewway.com, any reading you are doing or experiences you are having along these lines of meaning and non-supernaturalism and love and the scientific method and all the rest.
If you send me a post, or a poem, or a reading suggestion, I will put it up on the blog.
Thank you everybody!
A few more thoughts from the discussion in the meeting on April 16:
As a tangential connection to the reading we did, “Escape from Spiderhead,” I thought you might appreciate this link to a critque of George Saunders’ commencement address where he advocates just being kind:
This critique of Saunders, written by a younger person, noted that the commencement address was mostly lauded/endorsed by parents (i.e., old people), and that young people found that kind of advice useless. For example, How does being kind help one get ahead in the world or at work? (E.g., nice guys finish last, and so forth, I guess.)
I agree that I may be setting the bar low by just looking to myself for ways I can be a kinder person (which, by the way I would not label as a “utopia,” as you did in your blog). However, have you noticed that your desire to create something on an organizational level more than just the golden rule is how a lot of cults get started? I have concerns when you talk about having some non-religious equivelant to a church where people have to sit and be good or whatever. That is why I was provocatively arguing in very non-erudite language that maybe it is enough to just go through life not being an asshole, in all of its many permutations and layers of complexity. (Not being in an asshole to one’s spouse means something different than not being an asshole in the greater world.) I realize that you have no intention of starting a cult, but I am admittedly unclear about what it is you are really advocating for the group.
I admit that I am fascinated by both organized religion and by cults. I never tire of reading books about Scientology and the like, for instance. While I am willing as an atheist to sit in a church to enjoy choral music, read Dante, or listen to Van Morrison or Johnny Cash sing about Jesus, and experience them in my limited fashion (limited in a religious person’s opinion), I certainly am not interrested in joining some fomalized group of devotion, whatever one calls it. I guess that is why I am content to set — in your view — the bar so low or have such low expectations, and try to just worry about myself being a kinder person: let the person merge in ahead of me in traffic, say thank you for my coffee at Peets, try to be as accurate and complete as I can when I diagnose pathology cases at work even though I never meet the patient in person, treat my wife and children with love and respect, and so forth. Interestingly, even though the focus is on myself, I think this is not a narcissistic ideal, since being kinder — being truly kind and not just making displays of kindness — always puts the other person’s interest (or perception of that interest) in the foreground.
My old fart’s advice to the young person who wrote the critique in the Christian Science Monitor against Saunders: “Walk away. That is, if you are living a life or working at a job where one gets ahead by being an asshole, then change jobs, change careers.” I think this ties into my reference to “Snakes in Suits,” and to the discussion the other evening about Larry Ellison, who clearly is very successful, although I don’t really know anything about him, so I am just depending on the group’s negative portrayal of him. This is why I proposed the not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek defintion of a “successful life” as trying to minimize the number of people — ideally reduce the number to zero — who will say when I am dead: “I am glad that son of a bitch is dead.” If I could accomplish that, I think that would be good enough.
I think that there is something that stops short of a cult (which implies to me a personality driven authority structure), but that is more than individual kindness. I am looking for a coherent and applicable moral outlook, one that can be used to persuade people to change their lives (and so the world).
There is a collective part of a strong moral view — a sense of the world and how we want it to work/look — which I think your low-threshold approach misses. But certainly the emphasis on kindness is the right place to start! As Yann joked, that’s hard enough and many, perhaps more inclined to forward-leaning moral outlooks than you, fail on this first step where you succeed.
There were two Chilean cognitive biologists who coined the term “autopoiesis” to explain how cells maintain their self and at the same time interact with the environment. The concept was applied by a German thinker named Niklas Luhmann to the problem of communication, but his scope was much more universal, and he sought to encompass the whole human world within a unified “systems theory.” Since you are interested in a moral framework embodied in the physical world (e.g. human biology), you might find that it is a good thing to look at. His short book on ecological systems is a real nice introduction to his theories, since it applies his theory to the concrete problem of why social systems cannot adequately handle ecological disasters, so it is an easy way into his philosphy with clear examples. Some of his other books are quite hard to get a handle on without serious slow, dedicated reading. Here is the wikipedia page on him:
I would not want to just fill in the vacuum left over from religion with another construct that has somekind of hierarchical organization with people in charge of other people or rules that people have to follow like a new set of ten commandments. Cults generally start with a personality — someone with an alternative vision that speaks to people, but they only survive when a political structure takes over, whether in the form of a new leader with a practical bent, or a formalized body of leadership. Lawrence Wright’s books are very interesting on that front. I don’t think you should see your group as a failure if it never graduates to some overarching coherent belief system. Personally, I am sceptical of those types of claims, and I find it is enough to have active engaging conversations to keep me from too much mental and moral lethargy.
You got my wheels turning. I had not realized that Luhmann’s magnum opus, Theory of Society, was published in English, so I just ordered both volumes. I think the short Ecological Communication book I read is possibly out of print. I was exposed to him through his visits to Stanford while I was there. Wikipedia says he is big in Japan. This is possibly due at least in part to my late Japanese friend from Graduate school who was obsessed with his ideas.
From the decriptio to V.1:
This first volume of Niklas Luhmann’s two-part final work was initially published in German in 1997. The culmination of his thirty-year theoretical project to reconceptualize sociology, it offers a comprehensive description of modern society on a scale not attempted since Talcott Parsons. Beginning with an account of the fluidity of meaning and the accordingly high improbability of successful communication, Luhmann analyzes a range of communicative media, including language, writing, the printing press, and electronic media as well as “success media,” such as money, power, truth, and love, all of which structure this fluidity and make communication possible. An investigation into the ways in which social systems produce and reproduce themselves, the book asks what gives rise to functionally differentiated social systems, how they evolve, and how social movements, organizations, and patterns of interaction emerge. The advent of the computer and its networks, which trigger potentially far-reaching processes of restructuring, receive particular attention. A concluding chapter on the semantics of modern society’s self-description bids farewell to the outdated theoretical approaches of “old Europe,” that is, to ontological, holistic, ethical, and critical interpretations of society, and argues that concepts such as “the nation,” “the subject,” and “postmodernity” are vastly overrated. In their stead, “society”—long considered a suspicious term by sociologists, one open to all kinds of reification—is defined in purely operational terms. It is the always uncertain answer to the question of what comes next in all areas of communication.
This book is advertised as a good introduction to Luhmann:
Let me know if you get hooked!