Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preliminary thoughts about character, national and individual

It is natural that the recent disaster in Japan should turn our thoughts toward the possibility that our own homes might be vulnerable to similar upheavals. We vainly attempt to calculate the most likely disaster scenario, imagine for a few seconds what heroic actions we might take, what route we might use to escape, what neighbor we might rescue along the way (or not). And in a few days, most of us will have successfully buried these anxious-omnipotent fantasies, reassuring ourselves that we're exceptional or that technology will save us or that there's nothing we can do anyway.  Denial, grandiosity, fatalism.

But it is worthwhile considering the hard truth that there is no place on earth that can guarantee our safety from some form of disaster—earthquake or flood, drought or famine, hurricane or tropical storm—and it's only going to get worse. Not just because we're now subject to socio-economic catastrophes with global reach (financial meltdowns, endless wars, dwindling resources) or the ravages of human greed on a grand scale (corporate pollution, misinformation promulgated for political or commercial gain). As Bill McKibben argues in Eaarth, we have created a planet that is increasingly inhospitable to life, a planet profoundly changed from the one many of us were born on. Sometimes human society itself seems inhospitable to life: abuses of power, abuses of privilege, abuses of one another....all of which are usually intimately related to the afore-mentioned financial meltdowns, wars, dwindling resources. And, while I’m delineating kinds of suffering, I might as well mention illness, which afflicts us as individuals yet can have profound consequences for people around us (and which also can result from natural disasters as well as acts of evil).

Seneca summed it up: "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears." 

But if denial and grandiosity aren't viable options, neither is fatalism.

I’ve argued in this blog recently that we have to address problems at the level of scale at which they occur: our global environmental crisis, for example, requires coordinated responses among countries and corporations and not just individuals using less plastic. But there are, of course, appropriate responses that can take place only at the individual level. If you find yourself injured, for example: 1) you could deny it (a frequent response—at a public hospital we frequently see patients who’ve let a tumor get so large it becomes much harder to deal with, though that’s usually for lack of money rather than pushing the problem away from consciousness); 2) you could "push through the pain" (and likely injure yourself further); 3) you could collapse into a helpless heap and make everyone else around you cater to your needs; or 4) you could learn what you can about the injury and the circumstances leading to it and tend to the injured part until it heals, being particularly careful in the future to not make the same mistake.

I’m thinking response #4 reflects the healthiest approach, the one most likely to prevent further problems. But it requires knowing how to recognize an injury, having had a prior experience of being cared for and healing (thus knowing what it is to take care of the body), having a certain amout of hope and creativity in utilizing available resources, and a lot of patience, determination, and capacity for self-reflection. In a word: character.

One of the striking things about reports coming from Japan is that they regularly mention how calm and cooperative the displaced have been. The New York Times today reported:
Many Japanese have endured the privations with a similar mood of quiet stoicism, and the strong sense of community that still prevails in these northern rural areas. Even the hardest-hit areas have remained orderly and friendly, and crimes like looting are largely unheard of.
Without making too many generalizations about different cultures, I think many could agree that such communitarianism is comparatively weak in the U.S.  We live with a surfeit of information but a lack of integrity; all we seem to talk about is how to make more information available to more people (internet for everyone!), while few explore ways to enable individuals to make good use of that information. Analytic skills and understanding how to participate in a civil conversation can be shockingly absent even among professional groups.

We are, I believe, suffering the consequences of two powerful ideas combined into a distinctive political ethos: the central tenet of liberalism, which prioritizes process over substance (see Stanley Fish's provocative essay in the Times about this), and a central tenet of capitalism, which values competition.

We now habitually confuse means and ends, and our conceptions of goodness have grown dangerously thin. All that matters is winning the game, whatever the game happens to be at the moment. Is the game SAT scores? Let's teach to the test. Is the game about getting a degree? Let's plagiarize and cheat our way through school. Is the game winning an election? Let's lie about our opponent and stir up fear. Is the game about being popular? Let's talk about bipartisanship and hope no one has the audacity to remind us of the actual problems that aren't even up for discussion. Better yet, let's talk about "winning the future" and “out-educating the world” and hope no one asks what that even means.

I submit that a host of our ills reflect bad character, and that our contemporary process-oriented, competitive ethos has eroded certain conditions essential to human flourishing.  Over the course of future posts, I want to explore the notion that ethical behavior begins with attaining mastery of a practice, trade, or art—playing the piano, laying bricks, cutting hair, tending bar, raising chickens, designing gardens. I believe that through these ordinary social practices, which put us repeatedly and directly in touch with the effects of our actions, we develop a range of virtues that are necessary for our own happiness, the success of our relationships, and the health of the earth: humility, attentiveness,  self-discipline, circumspection, perseverance, sensitivity, taste, patience, perspective, connectedness... virtues that cannot arise either from the top-down application of abstract moral principles or from the practice of white-collar jobs whose express purpose is to manipulate people or money.

To be continued...


  1. Your beautiful description of the value in crafstmanship reminds me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi... Perhaps an association provoked by your previous post?

  2. Thank you, Anonymous, for the thoughtful comment. I actually hadn't thought about wabi-sabi, but you are quite right.

    I think I associate this sense of respect for the intrinsic value of things more with another Japanese tradition, shintoism. I can remember feeling strongly when I was very young that each tree, each stuffed animal, each book had feelings and should be treated with gentleness and respect. Perhaps children are naturally inclined to feel this way; somehow I still do, deep inside.

    But somewhere along the line, the dominant values of our society persuade us that everything can be reduced to a price, that everything can be valued instrumentally. Soon, everything—animals, relationships, resources, work—becomes only a means to an end. It is only a short step from here toward callousness and then cruelty.