Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The difference between seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort

A couple of weeks ago I read a great post on the Art of Manliness that I cannot find today. It's not unusual to find great posts there; AofM is my favourite site to visit. The subject of the post was about how enduring discomforts will make us better, stronger men. I think that's right.

Here is a trivial example: every morning I squeegee down the sides of the shower stall. It's not hard work. What makes me balk at it is the few moments of being cold and wet, especially coming after taking a hot shower, which I consider one of the great sensual pleasures. The funny thing is that it feels really good to have stuck it out and have done it. In fact, if I make the process more uncomfortable by not letting myself to towel down and put on a  dressing gown first, the feeling of reward is even greater. And, quite frankly, a man who can't or won't do his duties because he doesn't like being wet and cold is useless.

But thinking about it got me thinking about a seemingly contradictory message the great cultures of the past send us. Every great warrior culture has stressed the virtue of enduring discomfort while simultaneously insisting that it is a virtue to make rich use of leisure. I discussed this with the Lemon Girl on our run this morning and she pointed out that our grandparents also made a virtue of enduring discomfort but worked hard to create a world in which we would never have to endure the same discomforts they did.

Years ago, I was part of a team that was doing trail maintenance for the Canadian Ski Marathon. We were doing the work in the early winter but before any heavy snow had accumulated. At one point we were working on a stretch of trail that ran over some boggy land and I walked over a hidden pocket of water and the ice broke and I sank in up to my waist. We were miles out in the woods and there was no choice but to endure. I was also with a team of men, including my father, and I was about 17 years old. It wasn't just that we were miles out in the woods so there was no choice, I also didn't want to let my discomfort show. My project rapidly became not just to endure but to show I was a man; and I wasn't sure I would succeed at this for pain of walking and clearing brush with two frozen feet and then walking and working with them as the frozen feeling went away was intense. But just that shift from simply enduring the pain to enduring the pain for a reason was huge. And, no, I don't mind admitting that the reason was one of pride, nor do I think there is anything wrong with that.

Another trivial example: my work involves wearing a suit and tie, when it gets really hot, I keep my jacket and tie on as a matter of pride. I endure the discomfort in order to maintain a standard of dress I think is important. I don't care whether others think it important, nor do I wish to impose my standard on them, I do this because it is a value I have chose for myself and, sounding like my Godfather now, it isn't that difficult to endure the discomfort. Or, to put it another way, the only price I pay for keeping the jacket and tie on is a little discomfort.

There is a flip side to this and that is how much of our leisure time is used up simply avoiding discomfort. How much time do we spend on electronic media simply to not be bored or to be distracted from responsibilities that discomfort us. Our warrior ancestors would have a feast, gone hunting, had or a great drunken orgy, or competed in a wild day of sports and wee seek distraction. There is something pathetic in that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Let's talk about self medication

I'm still responding to Henry Rollins. Here is a thought he expresses in passing while discussing depression and suicide:
Everyone handles their emotional vicissitudes in their own ways. I am no doctor, but I think the brain is always looking for a sense of balance and normal function so the body can operate efficiently. Some people medicate accordingly, in an attempt to stay somewhat even. That pursuit can lead one down some dark paths. Someone who is an addict might not be an “addict” in the pejorative sense but merely trying to medicate and balance themselves.
Before going on there is some important background information  you should know and that is that there is a worrisome correlation between recreational drug use and some forms of mental illness, most notably schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome.

Okay, I know what you are thinking: correlation does not imply causation. That's true enough but a correlation like this invites further investigation just in case there is a causation. Correlation does not imply causation but mindlessly repeating "correlation does not imply causation" every time there is a worrisome correlation is a sure sign of a closed mind.

But the more troubling thing here is the way a counter-hypothesis with no more basis tends to become fact for some. The counter-hypothesis is that these people have already mental illnesses and they are simply using the recreational drugs to self medicate. And that might be the case. It's important to remember here that "might" is just another way of saying "might not". No one has a clue.

It's a little scary then to see the way "might" morphs into "probably is the case". Rollins is far from the only person to do this. Bona fide scientists who ought to know better do the same thing all the time. It is not unusual to see some go a step further and equivocate their way right to "definitely is the case". That's incredibly irresponsible given that recreational drugs might be causing these mental illnesses.

But it's even crazier than that. Imagine you discover a friend of yours is taking some drug on their own initiative and, when you ask what is going on they told you they were self-medicating for their cancer? Or heart disease? Or Ebola? That would be crazy. Any serious disease, requires serious medical attention not self medication! To know you suffer from depression and to take recreational drugs to deal with it is crazy.

And this is where the whole argument that depression is a serious disease and therefore we should treat it as a mitigating factor when someone suffering from it commits suicide starts to make the Queen of Hearts look calmly rational by comparison. For as stupid as self-medication for a serious disease is,  self-medication with recreational drugs is right off the charts.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Henry Rollins' manliness fail

Last week, Henry Rollins wrote a good piece countering some of the over-the-top response to Robin Williams' suicide. It's still a good piece.

Then he turned around and apologized for having written it. Why? Because people's feelings were hurt.
For the last 9+ hours, I have been answering letters from people from all over the world. The anger is off the scale and in my opinion, well placed. 
The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt.
For starters, no, the article did not cause any hurt. People who get "hurt" because others expressed opinions they don't like are called bullies. Or assholes. Or morons. Or little fascists who use consensus terrorism to manipulate others. Or whatever term feels best after, "Oh just get over yourself you stupid ...". They most emphatically are not victims and they are not hurt.

Get this straight, no one has the right to be hurt because you have an opinion they don't like. No one.

Second point, a man, if he is to be a man, does not hold back on expressing his opinions in order to mollify others.

And note that Rollins' apology is not actually an apology. He doesn't regret believing what he believes, he regrets that his saying it "hurt" a lot of people. 

Pathetic.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Being a man

The video I linked the other day got a telling response on Facebook from someone who calls himself "Star Man Aquarius"
The bottom message of this video isn't entirely clear. Men around the world exist in various ways. There are archetypical masculine men, and there are archetypical feminine men. But all of them are MEN, and every man in this planet behaves differently from the other. 
The problem I notice in the content of this discourse is that authentic behavior (with its weak and strong sides) is dismissed in front of mythical and archetypical behavior.
If my grandfather was abusive against men and women, and this is my family's core belief, I certainly would be avoiding evolution by just imitating my grandfather until I get to act just as he did, rejecting and approving the same ideas and ways of living like he did; never questioning or simply evolving such ideas, or habits, etc. 
Mmm... I'm sorry but this is just not entirely convincing. (To find the original, log onto face book and find the Art of Manliness page. and scroll down until you find the video.)
I don't post this to mock. Amongst other things, English is obviously not SMA's first language. It also takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to call yourself "Star Man Aquarius" and I admire that, although I'd never use a handle like that myself. That said, the most stunning thing about this argument is it's weakness. Not a logical weakness. There is little logic there because there doesn't need to be. SMA sets a very low bar for himself. The argument he advances is really an excuse for remaining weak.

In the first paragraph he says that there are archetypal masculine and archetypal effeminate role models but that all men are men. Well, yes, if your standard for being a man is having an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. If you think men should actually be good at being men, however, SMA has nothing to offer you.

Now, consider the word archetypal. If you you check the video, Brett MacKay doesn't talk about archetypes. He talks about becoming the sort of man you want to be. The man you want to be! There is no archetype in that. Now what I suspect SMA sees that Mackay clearly has a particular model of manhood in mind and SMA is not big on machismo. Elsewhere he writes:
You can see this nice moustached guy talking to us about manliness in a very elegant way, and you can see him carrying an axe, too. He talks about «the circle of men», personal heroes, politicians, philosophers and also modern psychologists. All these very «successful» men -in the public eye.- 
But he isn't talking about the «other ones». The little ones. The uncourageous ones. The ones that aren't heroes, that are sensitive, sentimental, etc. And we haven't got yet to the homoparental stuff (these are men too!), gay issues, etc, etc.
Again, English is obviously not SMA's first language and we see that he clearly misses the playful irony implied by the axe. But he is also pushing weakness; he is the sort of man that Nietzsche deplored.

I mean, if you really want to be like Liberace, then go ahead and be like Liberace. SMA's problem is that he wants society to help him become what he already is. He thinks society should love the little ones (I think he means "weak" when he says "little"), the uncourageous ones, the non-heroic ones, the sensitive ones and the sentimental ones. And society doesn't. It just doesn't and no one is going to make SMA king of the world any time soon. And why should it make him anything given that he is so little interested in making anything of himself.

And don't get fooled by the gay issues red herring here. Gay men are perfectly capable of being strong, courageous, unemotional and laconic as heterosexual men are. SMA is pushing gay stereotypes while pretending to be sensitive to gay issues.

But I relate because I would have agreed with him when I was younger. I was everything that he was and I had learned how to be helpless. It took me the entire 1980s to turn it around.

Notice these lines from the third paragraph:
If my grandfather was abusive against men and women, and this is my family's core belief, I certainly would be avoiding evolution by just imitating my grandfather until I get to act just as he did, rejecting and approving the same ideas and ways of living like he did; never questioning or simply evolving such ideas, or habits, etc.
That's a wacky argument because nowhere does MacKay say to blindly imitate the values that predominate in your family. He advises finding men who typify the man you want to be and imitating them. If your grandfather was an asshole, pick someone else!

Now that is obvious which suggests to me that SMA's problem is not that he can't figure out a way out of his trap but that he won't. There are thousands of male role models to follow, what SMA lacks is the courage to pick a type and follow it.

Now, you may be thinking (and SMA himself might say, if he were here) that MacKay's ideal man is pretty typical in the set of virtues he embodies. Well, the first thing I'd say is that you're just wrong if you think that. How many men like that are there? Not many. On the other hand, if the question is, "How many pasty-faced, physically weak, metrosexuals are there out there who think of themselves as individuals even though there are a dime a dozen? Well, there are a lot of them.

And I think the question you'd want to ask yourself if you are one of these men is, Do you really like and admire men who are just like you? Maybe you do but do yourself the favour of asking yourself honestly. There is solid evidence out here that effeminate men rate other effeminate men as lacking something. If that is your problem, there are two ways to solve it. 1) You can stop being effeminate yourself or 2) you can start evaluating other effeminate men more positively. What you can't do is keep on doing what you are. You need to pick a lane and drive in it.

For some good advice on the topic, go here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Worth sharing





I'm not going to comment on this there is nothing there that I would say differently. I remember figuring this out for myself around the time I turned thirty. The idea had been gelling for a few years before that—I could see that as I looked back and saw how I'd begun to change my life in a better direction—but it took me an awful long time. I wish there had been something like this around when I was a young man.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Catholicism and individualism

At church last week it struck me that we are now in the throes of something disturbing. I was watching a procession out of church and the people in the pews were faced with what ought to be a simple challenge: to stay standing in their places until the procession has reached the back of the church. Very few, probably less than five percent of the congregation, managed it.

But here is the thing: if you asked those people what they thought of individualism, they would unhesitatingly condemn it. And yet, we struggle to quell our pride long enough to allow God's priest to leave the church.

And it's not just that. Everywhere, Catholics rebel against anything that threatens their physical and psychological comfort.

Well, that's unfair to Catholics as everybody does it. And that is the problem. There is something relentlessly conformist about this rebellion.

Every once in a while, I'll see someone reject some conventional view. For example, an animal lover I know had some dealings with the humane society a while ago in which a humane society staffer bullied a child. It was an eye-opening experience in which she suddenly saw that there was a disturbing, power-seeking element to this organization and the people who worked for it. But she only held the view for a short while and quickly reversed her tracks and went back to expressing the conventional terms of praise that were expected of her. The thought of being an outsider, of losing her cool-kid status, was too much for her.

And that is what is most disturbing about the morality I see Catholics exercise these days. It is driven by a fear of standing out.

Here is a pretty standard Catholic rejection of "individualism".
Church teaching is infused with a personalist, communitarian worldview. Each person has intrinsic dignity and worth, since we are all made in the image of God. We realize our full potential as human persons within communities -- from the family to the office to the neighborhood to the global community.
What strikes me about it is the casual non-sequitir. In no way does it follow from each person having intrinsic dignity and worth that we realize our full potential as human persons within communities. It's also too often the case that families, offices and neighbourhoods stifle people's development. 

The argument I cite above is just lazy, sloppy thinking. Like the person whose pride prevents him from standing still for sixty seconds while the priest processes out of the sanctuary, it's a way of dodging an argument rather than confronting it and it's driven by an ugly pride.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Willoughby was sincere

If we wish to make something of sincerity as a virtue we must have a way to evaluate it. I won't say "measure it" because that suggests something like science. But there is something to be said for wanting to measure it for we don't just wonder if someone is sincere, we also wonder how sincere they are. The implied claim is that someone could be sincere but not sincere enough; that being sincere is not like pregnancy in that one either is or is not but rather that there are degrees of sincerity just as there are degrees of courage.

Someone might be courageous enough to kill spiders but be at a complete loss when dealing with bats. I'm not suggesting that there is a unit of courage but we all understand that some people might be brave enough for some circumstances but not for others.

Courage can also be learned and trained for: if you practice facing small things bravely, you will prepare yourself for facing the big ones.

It doesn't seem to me that you can discuss sincerity in  those terms. I think to talk about sincerity as being more or less strong is nonsensical. I fact, I'd argue that sincerity has nothing to do with strength at all—you can be the very worst sort of moral weakling and be sincere.

I don't mean to say that sincerity is nothing. I don't think it is terribly useful for building or evaluating character.

Is he or isn't he?

"Is he sincere," seems a natural enough question. Bill says he will love Janice to the end of time and she wonders if he is sincere. But is it really? If Janice really has to ask, then she obviously has little knowledge of his character. If she knew Bill to be a good, caring and responsible person, she wouldn't be asking the question because she would not only know him not to make such a statement carelessly, she would also have some notion of his ability to carry through on his promises.

For someone can make promises, both explicitly and implicitly, and be absolutely sincere in making them and yet fail miserably in keeping them. This is where John Willoughby comes into the picture for his love for Marianne Dashwood is sincere. This is not a matter of interpretation but a plot point. When Willoughby shows up while Marianne is sick late in the novel, the whole point of the conversation he has with Elinor is to bring this fact into clear light; Austen wanted to make it clear to the reader that there was no room whatsoever to doubt Willoughby's sincerity. For Marianne, it is some comfort to learn that her judgment of his sincerity was not wrong. But, having acknowledged that, we are left with another problem for if he was (and is) sincere in his love and yet behaved the way he did, what good is sincerity?

The early American pragmatists were brought face to face with this problem by the civil war when it turned out that some of those who held sincere anti-slavery views were cowards in action while some others who cared little for the plight of the slaves distinguished themselves by fighting very bravely.

Children of alcoholic parents often have the uselessness of sincerity driven home in particularly brutal fashion. Their alcoholic mother or father will make declarations and promises that are absolutely sincere and then fail to come through with heartbreaking regularity.

For Austen, the virtue that really mattered was constancy. Constancy isn't enough by itself: a constant racist is not a virtuous man or woman after all. But constancy, unlike, sincerity, can real work in a moral life.


By the way ...

A fascinating thing about Willoughby as a character in a novel is that he has failed as a man before the story even begins. Nothing he could do could make him a worthy husband for Marianne because he has already poisoned things by having sex with the 15-year-old Eliza. He'd be a better man, if he would accept his Aunt's conditions and do right by Eliza after having gotten her pregnant but he would still be less than a whole man because he no longer loves Eliza after having met Marianne.

I knew a guy who was much like Willoughby in university. Dave was very successful with women. He wasn't a pick-up artist, by which I mean he didn't run up great numbers of conquests. But he was always with a beautiful sexual partner and there were always other women vying for the chance to replace whoever his partner of the moment was.

After graduation, he got a job at the Bamboo Club in Toronto and carried on in his ways. I hadn't known him terribly well at university and had assumed that Dave was a cynical man who cleverly exploited women's emotions to have sex with them. I got to know him in those later days, however, and found that he was anything cynical: he was sincerely loved by the women who fell in with him and he sincerely loved every woman he ever was involved with.

Ultimately, though, the women all gave up on him. They didn't hate him . One of the most trying things for those of us who wished we had a quarter of Dave's attractiveness for women was that they spoke of him admiringly but regretfully even after the break up. They still seemed to wish that their relationships might be rekindled and actually work out the second time. He had everything they wanted for love but not what it took to make a marriage.

Dave, like Willoughby, was immensely attractive as a sincere lover but not much of a man in the final analysis and "constancy;" is a good word to describe what was missing in him. . I recently finished the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen and reached the same conclusion about him.