ritual.

Growing up in a relatively strict, but by no means dogmatic, religious household, I was raised to follow and respect various rituals. We attended church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening, as well as Wednesday night. There were youth groups and youth retreats and summer jobs at youth camps.

In addition, there was the ritual of school – lessons and tests and homework and after-school activities, five or six days a week.

When I joined the Air Force, almost a year out of high school, the rituals shifted but became more prevalent. Inspections and marching and even more classroom time, followed by active duty assignments that required pre- and post-activites, as well as active participation during.

As I entered my 30’s, I begun to shun anything that smacked of ‘ritual.’ I became, almost overnight, a student of the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants school of living life. I was still punctual for appointments, still a dutiful employee that would show up early and leave late, still a doting husband and father (to varying degrees, depending on which ex-wife or child you ask). But making plans was something I had no taste for, no interest in.

I became very much a go-with-the-flow partner and friend, always happy to be along for the ride, but rarely engaged in making plans myself.

Don’t get me wrong; nobody would consider me a “free spirit” or anything like that. I like to have a plan in place, and follow it as closely as possible. I just dreaded the work of having to come up with a plan myself. I much preferred having others do that dirty work for me.

However, now that I am well into my 50’s, I am learning to appreciate, and even love, more structure. Over the last couple of years, the importance of (secular) rituals has begun to resonate with me again.

It’s been said that in order for a ritual to truly take hold, you have to repeat it for anywhere from three weeks to two months, depending on which scientific study you’re reading. The best illustration I’ve seen of this is from the author Sarah Bakewell, who compares the process of learning a new habit to digging ditches in your brain that allows the thoughts and habits to flow freely and without effort, as rain water drains from a field into a river.

Some have been easier than others. At the insistence of both my son and my girlfriend, I have quit drinking coffee and switched to black tea in the mornings. I’ve noticed no ill effects from the switch, and my stomach seems to appreciate the loss of the acidic quality of the dark French roast that I so loved.

More complicated is my relationship with the meditation practice I began nearly a year ago. That continues to grow in fits and spurts; I’ll go a week or two with my daily practice, then slack off for a few days until I realize that I’ve become tense again and need to realign my perspective.

As the weather has begun to warm, my current favorite (begun at the end of last week, and by no means a ritual yet) is to spend an hour on the back porch first thing in the morning, listening to the birds, completing my daily Duolingo lessons, and reading. I find it to be very calming for me personally, and both the language learning and book reading feed my intellectual needs quite nicely.

Rituals, it turns out, are not such a bad thing after all. They are just another tool to help me navigate the daily grind.

knowing

I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in
I think
     and know that I am thinking
I hear
     and know that I am hearing
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I taste
     and know that I am tasting
I listen
     and know that I am listening
I feel
     and know that I am feeling
I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in

I eat
     and know that I am eating
I touch
     and know that I am touching
I drink
     and know that I am drinking
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in
I am distracted
     and know that I am distracted
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I begin again
     and know that I am beginning again

moth.

try as I might
it floods, unabated
not enough fingers
too many holes

if consumes and subsumes
my every waking thought
how can I stop it?
why would I want that?

and I've no-one to blame
it is my fault alone
I've constructed this dam
in the lowest of plains

I am a foolish architect
for building such a structure
using the best of materials
in the worst of locations

leaving it unguarded against
the vandals and thieves
who would breach its walls
destroy what they could

and those untrustworthy souls
to whom I gave the key
only to tear the place down
I guess those are on me

I'd gladly accept my fate,
my part of the blame
if only I could find respite
if only I could find peace

try as I might, though
I cannot give up
I'm the idiot moth
to your bright, burning flame

and while I have few regrets
I have earned every scar
each lesson I cherish
but this one, above all:

I should not have bothered
with building this structure,
this dam to encompass
my damn heart.

winter comes too quickly.

a beautiful jet-lagged day
with a snowy forecast
     on the horizon
     that will not dampen
          these feelings of joy

it's been far too long
we've been too far apart
     my soul craves yours
     as yours does mine
          winter comes too quickly

temporary displacement of
my everyday life is what
     my soul craves
     as does yours
          the days ending ubruptly

the smiles and giggles
the conversations in whispers
     of subjects so unbecoming
     those of our maturity
          but I value this above all

I see my future self
          in you
do you see your younger self
          in me?
are we each other,
     out of place,
          out of time?
               can we dream of
               what the other has?

is this how it is now?
will we always be reaching,
     me into your future,
     you into my past?
          is that even an issue?

for I have other minutia to attend to
other itches to scratch
     for me,
     for now,
          this is enough.
     

Another Day by Debbie Vandenberg

A good friend of mine, Debbie Vandenberg, shared with me this beautiful poem she wrote this morning as she was enjoying the sunrise from her porch, and has given me her permission to share it with you...
Another Day

Sunset gently waking me
Kissing away the night before
Wiping sadness out of my eyes
Then teasing me
To play some more

I take a sip
    hot
    strong
    creamy
I can taste the opportunity
In the warmth
Cup to my mouth
Toying with me
As I hold it in my hands
To make the best of this day
That is all it knows
And this, too, I understand
My clothes hit the floor
I need to be ready in an hour
So the shower takes me in
Washed away
Every ounce of sorrow
Then like a mad man
I let the water go cold
As the shower
Boldly reminds me
It is up to me to decide
Hold on, or let go

My chair wants to be one with me
It is the softest
Space I have
So I bring my legs up from the floor
And relax every muscle that I have
My breath I begin to watch
Breathing in, then I release
A sweet sense of joy surrounds me
My chair shows me how to find peace

It is time now for the mirror
Without the above
I could not face
In there I see lines of wisdom
And eyes that have seen
What it is to find grace

Now I am walking out the door
The world is mine to
Explore
I thank the
     sun
     shower
     chair
     mirror
For waking me,
Cleaning me,
Holding me,
And letting me see the truth
Now I have the power
To face another day.

-Debbie Vandenberg, October 2021
©2021 Debbie Vandenberg 

August 2021 Update

Got a lot going on, but not much of interest. You know how it goes – work, dealing with the dog days of summer, worrying about the surge in COVID cases. It’s time-consuming, both physically and mentally.

One thing I have started doing is Joshua Fields Millburn’s and Ryan Nicodemus’ 30-Day Challenge. The idea behind this particular game is that, starting on the first of the month, you rid yourself of one material possession. On the 2nd, you get rid of two things. On the 3rd, three. And so on.

Today is August 10th, and so far I’ve gotten rid of:

1st – donated one bag of men’s clothes to Goodwill.

One bag of men’s clothes

2nd – threw out two old boxes of X-mas decorations.

3rd – donated three books to the library.

4th – donated four pair of gently used shoes to Goodwil.

5th – threw out five boxes of miscellaneous crap from the garage.

6th – donated six books to two different Little Libraries in my neighborhood.

Six books to Little Libraries

7th – seven old computer cables that I’ve been hoarding for no reason.

8th – eight old phone cases for phones that will never be used again.

9th – nine old phone and laptop boxes that I could never bear to part with previously.

Nine old boxes (smaller ones inside the bigger ones)

10th – ten ball caps that I will never wear again.

Ten hats that will never see the top of my head again

All of this has made a very small dent in the sheer volume of stuff that I have, but every step is a step forward.

Learn more about the 30-Day Challenge/Game by clicking here.

And as always, thanks for reading.

-Steve

The Heart of Theseus

Modern literature and pop culture is rife with references to broken hearts. From Whitney Houston to Shinedown, from Nora Ephron to Rupi Kaur, from New Girl to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, you can’t turn around without bumping into someone who has survived a broken heart, is surviving one now, or is about to suffer through the debilitation of having their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on.

And yet, this imagery has never rung true with me. The most glaringly silly example that I can think of is Padme dying of a “broken heart” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and I’m not the only one who thought this was silly, albeit for different reasons.

The imagery of a broken heart carries with it the idea that something inside of you is broken and in need of fixing, when the opposite is actually true. When someone betrays you or acts in such a way that is contrary to what you were expecting, it is not an indication of some short-coming within yourself. It is in indicator of something missing within them.

Setting aside the fact that your (emotional) heart is located in your head and not your chest, I prefer to think of the heart – that part of you that feels and cares and loves – as an ever-evolving entity that is constantly changing and growing. It is not stagnant; it learns new things, forgets old pains, overcomes previous prejudices, perseveres onward.

When I was young, my mother and step-father tended to punish my sloppy ways by yelling at me or threatening me with a beating with one of my orange Hot Wheels tracks, but occasionally they’d get fed up with trying to correct my behavior, so they’d gather up all of the comic books I’d left lying around and throw them in the burn barrel. My ten-year-old self was traumatized by this betrayal, but it didn’t break my heart. It was an experience I internalized.

When my first marriage ended, I truly felt broken. Not in the “oh-how-will-I-go-on?” sense, but more in the “what’s-wrong-with-me?” sense. I felt I had failed in one of the most basic tasks in life, making a home with a partner. How could I possibly be successful in any other endeavor if I couldn’t do this one simple thing properly? However, I was still able to fully function on a day-to-day basis, so obviously I wasn’t that broken.

Over time, I have come to realize that the heart doesn’t truly break. It takes on more experience, letting old situations go in favor of new ones. My heart is not the same today as it was when I was ten, or thirty. And yet, it’s the exact same heart I’ve always had. How is that even possible?

When something is broken, it doesn’t work any longer. Well, that’s not entirely true – even a broken clock is correct twice a day. But for all intents and purposes, a broken clock is useless for anything more than decorating the wall in the guest bathroom.

The heart, I’ve found, is more resilient than that. With apologies to both John Mayer and Celine Dion, rather than being broken and in need of repair, the heart goes on, continuing to feel and care and love despite all indications to the opposite. And with each new joyous experience, an older, more painful experience is expunged, until one day you feel whole again, and capable of once again giving your heart to someone. Your same old heart, though experience and attrition, has become something new.

That’s been my experience, anyway.

A Deontologist, a Consequentialist, and a Virtue Ethicist Walk Into a Bar…

One of my philosophy professors asked an interesting question today, and after giving it some amount of thought, I think I have an answer.

His question was this: Who do you think would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

First, a quick recap:

  1. Deontology – simply put, these are the rules guys (and gals). Deontologists purport that there are certain universal moral truths that should guide our behavior and how we interact with others.
  2. Consequentialism – when considering whether an action is right or moral, we have to consider the outcome(s) of our actions, both intended and unintended. All actions have consequences.
  3. Virtue Ethics – good and bad, right and wrong, ethical and unethical – these are determined largely by one’s character. Moral people engage in moral thoughts and activities, so it is incumbent upon each of us to be the best person we can possibly be.

Each of these schools of thought have their advantages and disadvantages, and when taken in concert, create a bit of circular logic.

Aristotle believed that since each person’s thoughts and actions were under their own control, an individual could learn to be a good (or better) person. However, the issue with this line of thinking is two-fold.

First, if the individual is left to decide what is moral, then it is in fact his or her cultural and environment that is coloring their decision. In an often-used example, 200 years ago it was viewed as morally acceptable to own slaves. So, by extension, it was possible to own slaves and still be considered a moral, upstanding individual. Obviously this is wrong, but I can only say “obviously” because our culture has changed to the degree that we now understand (but don’t yet fully embrace, apparently) the inherent worth of each individual, regardless of race (or gender or sexual orientation).

Second, we are using the term to define itself, i.e. “A moral act is one that a moral person would engage in.” This is akin to saying, “The sky is blue because it is blue.” We are not defining anything here, really.

One of the ways around this line of thinking is to impose certain qualifications, such as “lying is always wrong, unless it lessens someone’s pain.” However, as we do this, we move further and further away from character in an infinite regress of “except for this” and “not counting that.” We begin to dilute the original meaning behind virtue ethics, reducing it to a series of best-case scenarios that become increasingly difficult to keep track of.

This is where deontology enters the picture. By having a hard-and-fast set of rules to guide human behavior, we make value judgements concerning morality much easier to deal with. Or do we?

We again run into the problem of having to qualify each moral judgement with some sort of disclaimer. “You should never break a promise” is a moral way to act, but what if you promised your buddy that you’d golf with him, and then one of your kids is in an automobile accident. Do you skip golf to care for your injured child? Deontologically speaking, you couldn’t – you’d made a promise to go golfing, and to break that promise would be morally unacceptable.

This leads to another issue – namely, where do you draw the line when devising your qualifications to all of these moral behaviors? Do we make exceptions for family only? Close friends? Co-workers? People who are less fortunate than yourself? And on top of that, who exactly is responsible for making these qualifications? Is it the individual? That won’t work – we’d have different standards for each individual, thus defeating the original purpose of having a set of set-in-stone rules in the first place.

And this brings us to utilitarianism, and the idea that moral acts can only be judged moral based on their outcomes. Consequentialism deals with this aspect specifically – what are the consequences of my actions, how do they affect not only me but those around me?

The issue with this line of reasoning is that you very quickly run into situations where immoral acts can lead to moral outcomes. The infamous Trolley Problem is the most famous example of this – is it okay to take the life of one individual to save five others? What if you personally know the one person? Is it then right to sacrifice the five individuals on the other track to save the one person you know?

Recent years have witnessed a return to a form of Aristotle’s original value ethics as the predominant method of determining good versus bad, but in all truthfulness this just leads us back to the top of the circle, ready to start the cycle anew.

So, back to the question at hand – who would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

I know which horse I’m putting MY money on – what are your thoughts?

Acta non Verba

One of the coolest things about immersing myself in some subject with which I already have some passing familiarity is being able to see how my views have shifted over the years. Streaming all four seasons of The Good Place recently has led to a reignited interest in philosophy in general. Since it’s been a hot minute since I’ve given philosophy any real thought or consideration, I decided to start from the beginning. And by that, I mean literally the beginning of philosophical thought, with Thales and the other pre-Socratic philosophers, of which I knew very little.

Another cool feature of this is that, as each new idea is presented and explained and demonstrated as a step forward in the evolution of philosophical thinking, I find myself going through the usual three stages of learning something new:

  1. Oh, that’s cool! I never thought of that!
  2. Oh, this is actually bullshit. Why did I think that made sense?
  3. Oh, this new bit of information is cool! I never thought of that! (see step #1)

With the study of philosophy, this constant cycle is significantly heightened. What makes sense one minute is revealed to be limited and not very insightful in light of subsequent thoughts, findings, and techniques. I’ve spent the last week reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching YouTube videos that (more or less) follow the development of philosophical thoughts and ideas from roughly 650 BCE up through today.

I’m quickly finding that the philosophers I relate to most closely are the ones who took action. Whether it is Thales laying the groundwork for future philosophical thought, or Pythagoras starting a new cult to prove that math is the language of the kosmos, or Plato utilizing the Socratic method of constant, insightful questioning to arrive at a conclusion, or Karl Popper questioning the scientific methods of Freud (pseudo-science) in comparison to Einstein (actual science), the philosophers that resonate with me are the ones who not only thought of something, but also did something about it.

Acta non verba – action, not words.

I mentioned in my previous post all of the changes I’ve attempted to make in 2020. While nullius in verba has become the defining principle of my life now, coming in close second is acta non verba. I have wasted so much time waiting for something to drop into my lap – financial success, new jobs with better pay, new passions – and I have largely been lucky in the sense that I’ve lived a bit of a charmed life compared to most.

How much more happier would I be, then, if I’d actually expended more than just the minimal effort required to reach my goals – if the fruits of my labor were a direct result of the effort I’d put into a task or activity? This is the true nature of the experiment I’m engaged in now. I seek to answer the question: what if I actually took control of my life and went after the things I desire, rather than just sit back and hope they will drop into my lap somehow?

It may very well be that I’m setting myself up for misery, or disappointment, or a fate worse than death – third marriage, anyone? But I don’t believe that to be the case. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that in the long run, I’ll meet with more success than failure. And isn’t that really what we all desire? To be successful more often than we fail?

If the ultimate goal of life is to be happy while minimizing (or eliminating) the sadness and dissatisfaction of others, then how much sweeter would that taste if it was by my own design rather than the luck of the draw, or fate? That may come across as a bit selfish, but that certainly is not my intent. I say it in this sense: How much more satisfying is it to be the master of one’s own fate, rather than leaving it to chance or the gods or God (or whatever your particular belief system happens to be)?

So, these are the questions I seek to answer, and I will be doing it via concrete action instead of mere rhetoric – acta non verba.

Nullius in Verba

I got my fourth tattoo today from Niah and the fine folks at Black Gold Tattoo here in Tulsa, OK. It had been a number of years since I have gotten any new ink, and today seemed like just as good a day as any. It is my brother’s birthday as well, and he is a tattoo nut, so this is in part for him as well.

The reactions have run the gamut from “Wow, cool!” to “But why?”. To those on the lower, disapproving end of the spectrum, I played it off as just something I wanted to do, or simply replied, “Why not?”

But the truth is that this phrase is the most important thing I have learned thus far in 2020, which is saying a lot. So far this year, I have had to learn to live on my own again, I have taught myself ukulele, I have tried to learn Python, I have begun studying philosophy again. Yet all of these things pale in comparison to the effect these three simple Latin words have had on my life in 2020.

Nullius in verba is Latin for “on the word of no-one.” More loosely translated, it is taken to mean “think (or do) for yourself.”

I have spent much of my life doing was I was told to do, believing what I was told to believe. From my religious upbringing, through my military service, through my varied jobs in the private sector, and through two failed marriages, I have always tried to do what I thought the other party felt was right.

Perhaps I paint with too-broad strokes here – it is not like I was a robot following orders. I have had my fun, and made my share of stupid mistakes that were 100% my idea alone. However, there were definitely times where I felt like an automaton, and this characterization is probably pretty accurate more, often than not.

This year, one of my (many) foci has been to attempt to figure out where I belong, where I fit in to the grand scheme of things. Everything else – ukulele, coding, philosophy, etc. – has been window dressing for the real search, the search for personal meaning and validation.

What these three simple words remind me of is this: there is no better judge of things than myself.

Does this mean I completely dismiss the words of subject matter experts and authority figures? Absolutely not.

What it DOES mean is that everything that is meaningful is also independently verifiable. Am I going to run my own lab tests to ensure the eventual COVID-19 vaccination works? Of course not. But will I pay more attention to who it is that is telling me that it works? Absolutely.

Am I going to vote for someone simply because they are a registered Democrat, or against someone because they are a registered Republican? Nope, not anymore. I have taken the time to actually delve into what each individual candidate stands for, what each individual ballot measure means and what the pass/fail ramifications are.

Closer to home: am I going to stop forcing my will on others because it is what I think is best for them? Can I accept that others know what is in their best interest, just like I have some idea of what is in my best interest? Hopefully.

And these are just a few of a million little things that bears closer scrutiny, starting with myself. It will be the ultimate introspective exercise. Socrates (via Plato) once indicated that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and this is precisely what he meant. I’ve wasted so much of my life believing one thing and disbelieving another, simply because it was easier to follow the crowd instead of expending a little extra time and effort to do the research myself.

On the word of no-one; think for yourself.