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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

I. Specimen Days
120. A Winter Day on the Sea-Beach

ONE bright December mid-day lately I spent down on the New Jersey sea-shore, reaching it by a little more than an hour’s railroad trip over the old Camden and Atlantic. I had started betimes, fortified by nice strong coffee and a good breakfast (cook’d by the hands I love, my dear sister Lou’s—how much better it makes the victuals taste, and then assimilate, strengthen you, perhaps make the whole day comfortable afterwards.) Five or six miles at the last, our track enter’d a broad region of salt grass meadows, intersected by lagoons, and cut up everywhere by watery runs. The sedgy perfume, delightful to my nostrils, reminded me of “the mash” and south bay of my native island. I could have journey’d contentedly till night through these flat and odorous sea-prairies. From half-past 11 till 2 I was nearly all the time along the beach, or in sight of the ocean, listening to its hoarse murmur, and inhaling the bracing and welcome breezes. First, a rapid five-mile drive over the hard sand—our carriage wheels hardly made dents in it. Then after dinner (as there were nearly two hours to spare) I walk’d off in another direction, (hardly met or saw a person,) and taking possession of what appear’d to have been the reception-room of an old bathhouse range, had a broad expanse of view all to myself—quaint, refreshing, unimpeded—a dry area of sedge and Indian grass immediately before and around me—space, simple, unornamented space. Distant vessels, and the far-off, just visible trailing smoke of an inward bound steamer; more plainly, ships, brigs, schooners, in sight, most of them with every sail set to the firm and steady wind.

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless—such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance—so indescribably comforting, even this winter day—grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual—striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music, I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)
(from bartleby.com)

The truth is I have never been much of a beach bum, which is to say that my favorite time to visit the ocean is when there’s nobody else there. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Also, I prefer dawn and dusk at the ocean to mid-day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy chucking a frisbee as well as anyone, and have done my share of bodysurfing and sand-castle-building. I think there must be some sort of psychological imprinting that gets done early in life that goes on to govern ones relationship with nature. Certainly my time around water was with company, but mostly just immediate and some extended family.

All of which is sort of apropos of nothing. The language here is great. I love the “just visible trailing smoke of an inward bound steamer,” and the starkness of “an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance” is a really interesting redefinition of a winter beachscape in contrast to Whitman’s daily world, and in contrast to the Dickensian winter landscape dominated by the comings and goings of people and their myriad connections and complications.

“Space, simple, unornamented space” is a really interesting thing–the late, great, DFW (who I owe a work of remembrance, one of these days) commented on space as respite in “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All” and noted that city-folk like to get away from it all, while people who inhabit “space” pretty regularly like to come together in order to experience the spice of life. Whitman’s appreciation for the quiet beach seems to support this notion.

In my case, I think I just like solitude; it’s hard to say. I think solitude is both desirable and dangerous for me, in that it is something I find enjoyable, but which makes me progressively less interested in human interaction. Solitude with beauty attached (as opposed to ornamentation) is even more appealing.

Sorry for the lack of an entry attached to yesterday’s post. I hope you liked. I may comment on it sooner or later, but a lot of what I have to say will come up again later this season. Happy Advent!

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Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

was a lot of fun. it’s always nice when the girls are having a good time and I don’t have to be bending over to pick them up or debating whether I should be intervening. Junebug’s still a little easier to deal with, physically, because she’s immobile, but V is definitely becoming willful–and it’s amazing,  because it’s expressed as a boundless curiosity and she’s a happy kid, upbeat and excited about things–but it’s still havoc on the lower back to chase, lift, re-aim, repeat.

All of which is totally the opposite tone from that which I meant to strike. I laid out a beach towel in the outfield at our local playground/rec center and put some cheerios out and Juniper sat in the grass and I lay back and watched the sky and Violet orbited like a spirograph, and they both thought that my lying down was just the funniest thing either of them had ever seen. Violet decided to tackle me repeatedly; I put my hat on Junebug and she spent five elated minutes trying to take it off again. Antics ensued…

Later in the day Violet saw real live ducks and that, as they say, was the cat’s pajamas.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to find  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.

I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home dad/full-time grad student for the last five months or so, now, which really mostly means I’m not getting as far ahead on my dissertation as I’d like. That said, thanks to Violet’s near-constant demands for entertainment and my interest in saving my lower back by sitting as much as possible and letting her go unheld as often and long as she’s willing, I can now play guitar–badly, but I can decisively call it playing guitar now, not just whatever it was I did when I held a guitar and interfaced over the last near-decade. I now know all the basic chords and can string them together at will and have memorized a bunch of songs, many of which include at least one drop of the f-bomb. This is complicated.

Many of my favorite songs feature the f-bomb, and at their best, they feature it just the once (the exception that proves the rule: “F$%# and Run” by Liz Phair) , but it serves an essential purpose–it’s either the part of the song where the decrescendo ends and you need to imply that the meaning is still emphatic, even if the sound is not loud, or it’s the part of the song where the crescendo has occurred and the words contain too much denotative meaning to express the necessary, and so only expletives can get the job done, and when one is grasping for an expletive, anything worth doing is worth doing right: hence, f-bomb. (example of the first: “1330 Oak 1995” by Kind of Like Spitting. example of the second: can’t think of it right now–feel free to come up with one of your own and holler if you like)

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I got a mailer on the introduction of FF Meta Serif, which is a font for those out there not into design. It’s exciting because I liked FF Meta a lot, but mostly because now I’m pretty much an economist/dad and I like that I get mail when new fonts are invented.

This isn’t a paid promotion or plug–hell, I bought FF Meta with expenses paid, so I don’t know that I’d pay for it; plus, I’ve never used it. Still, if you want to see what looks like a nice, fat, readable font, go for it: http://www.fontshop.com/features/newsletters/nov2007_a/

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Now, for what I intended originally to write about. Cheryl and Violet and I have become members at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and it’s been a really great experience so far, a few months into attending. I have an elaborate religious life-story, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s been uniformly positive, and still I’m an atheist. Going to/joining what is, effectively, a church, definitely seemed like a complicated idea–one I bristled against at first when Cheryl said she thought we should try it out.

I comprehended my hesitation a little better during today’s service. There’s a quiet period in the service, an “Invitation to Meditation” is what I believe they call it. As the meditation closes, the minister names those people who are having milestones or hardships so that we may keep then in thoughts/prayers as we see fit. After he says names, everyone is invited to say their own names, out loud or silently. It’s a beautiful ritual, the effect of which is at least to give everyone there a moment in the week to think about the people in their lives and try to figure out if anyone is experienced abnormally great joy or sorrow. I don’t believe in any metaphysical powers of prayer, but I still find I really like it.

Not to mention the “sanctioned” or what-have-you stating of names/events made by the minister, which often involves requests for cards/flowers/visitors/donations/condolences in the case of people in the hospital or grieving and merely information in the case of landmarks.

The rationale of it notwithstanding: today the Rev mentioned a member whose name I had never heard and don’t remember. She had, evidently, after a long and difficult process, successfully brought her adopted 18-month-old daughter home from Nepal.

I’ve been really callous, internally, at least, about international adoption (I have begun/continued to default on really callous, internally, I’ve begun to notice–which is one of the reasons why I sort of need to be part of a spiritually nourishing and challenging congregation) and sort of miserably failed at viewing it as a personal milestone, and seen it more as sort of a weird upper-class white affectation.

It dawned on me today that the brief reference Rev. David was making was a really watershed moment in someone’s life. She had sought out and successfully taken responsibility for a new person. A new person in her life.

A new person! A new person. A real, live, life. A new life. Someone different than everyone else–not even just everyone else you know, but EVERYONE else, ever.

I don’t know–for many people, this may be far less complicated than it is for me. I have spent a lot of spare brain cycles justifying decisions to strip people away, to reduce interpersonal connections. These were people who had other people; I am (or at least have been historically) almost universally unnecessary in the lives of others. This isn’t just a fear of commitment–I’m fine with commitment, which is sort of a well-delineated and totally enforceable contract, the optimal length and terms of which are totally solvable.

To some extent, it has been a question of the best way to climb that mountain.

(That mountain, here, is how to be good–which is sort of the central question of my life, I think.)

When being good is a destination, even if it is a destination in only the most abstract sense, it becomes simple, sometimes, to see other people as hindrances. It’s like trying to go to the movies in large groups. It’s difficult, verging on pointless, at times. It’s just better to all go by yourselves.

This is sort of the dominant meme of personal existence in a lot of our culture, I think, and it’s certainly something I’ve imbibed. The explosion of the nuclear family is in part, a result of this and a cause of this. Growing up, I definitely was urged to move out and move on, as my father had done before me and his before him. The suburban American dream involved perfect labor mobility, a lack of emotional and personal attachment to a place and people and a culture and a tradition.

We are not atomic; we are not built thusly. And people have expectations of us, they place constraints on us, on our hearts, even through no wish or fault of their own. These are the ties that bind, and they sometimes constrict.

More often in my life, if I choose to be honest with myself, people know me better than I know myself. They know my best self, at least, and when I have guests, my house gets clean, and when I cook for other people, I make everything more delicious (the trick is that extra stick or two of butter), and when people disagree with me, I either figure out why I’m right, or find out I’m wrong and then I can be right forreal, forreal.

A new person. I know better now what that means, because I have one of them. In fact, I have lots–not just Violet but new friends, fellow members of the congregation. I was going to say “So often,” but the truth is “Always…” Always, the other people sitting in the service are total ciphers, and not only do I neither know nor care, but I can hardly fathom that they have lives outside those walls, that things happen, that they lie awake at night hoping that they outlive their children, hoping that they get to see all of it, then when they face their own personal end, that it be sweet and not bitter, and that the version of themselves they get to know therein is someone with honor and honesty and decency.

I never really saw other people as keys to that before today–I must have known on some level, because I’ve spent much of my life attaching and detaching–I mean, I am living a full and healthy life (much of which has been rigged in my favor, I’ll admit). I still think of conversation as an unpleasant necessity sometimes, and I think I’ll embrace it more, now.

I’m glad to be necessary, to feel like I have to–like it’s a moral imperative to– sacrifice some of my maximization just to help out, that maybe that’s maxing something else–a better function (by maximizing of course, I really mean blindly staggering generally northward, metaphysically, but the modeling thereof is similar, WLOG, I argue).

A new person. It’s a whole new life opening up ahead of you, every time you engage. And I think I thought it stood as good a chance of being bad as good. I was almost certainly wrong. New people are almost always a boon, a gift; even to brush up against people briefly and tangentially is to live a richer life. As I say that, a part of me I’ve known for a long time rebels, but the evidence is against him, and I don’t know that the argument of experience is enough to quash the force of identity–but it’s definitely a conflict worth embracing.

and your mother, fuhgeddaboutit. Some nights, the bear eats you.

Not much you can do about it.

I’m salvaging a never-posted post from before the summer:

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You’re kicking around in there now and I’m going to DC in less than a month. It’s going to be a long summer away from you and your mom, but it’s all good news–it means I’ll get to be back for the rest of everything, and that we’ll get to live wherever we want someday, I hope.

There’s been a lot of sad stuff going on in the broader world. In the news today, there’s the Virginia Tech shooting, continuing bad news from Iraq, problems in the Department of Justice, the French seem to be drifting creepily rightward. Nonetheless, life is good, on the whole, and especially for us, so let us mourn for others and rejoice and be grateful for ourselves, shall we?

I’m not sure what all I’ve told you so far–it’s hard to remember, exactly, and I’m too lazy to go back and read. You should have faith in people. Kurt Vonnegut died last week, and I keep coming back to that in my head. You’ll probably read all his books, I’m guessing, considering the fact that we have them around. His essays are really my favorite parts. He put little faith in people in the aggregate and a lot of faith in people individually. Probably wise, although, I think he gives us as a whole too little credit.

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Sorry, wandered off there to format data, which is probably good.
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I was thinking about my dad yesterday–his hands used to seem so …fatherly, I guess.

The Mets have the best record in baseball 14 games into the season. I just found pretty robust results that indicate that a 1% increase in the number of skilled immigrants to an area leads to a 2.5% increase in population in that area,
while a similar increase in the number of family preference immigrants leads to a 1.7% increase, both at 5 years out. At zero years out, they both are correlated with a 1.9% increase in population.

It’s exciting. Life is exciting. I hope you feel the same way.

People are kind, generally, and life is exciting. There’s so much to learn. You get to hear Cat Stevens for the first time, and that’s amazing. The same thing with The Promise Ring. You’re going to know the words to Dismemberment Plan songs without trying, the same way I did with James Taylor. You’re going to get to form an opinion about political parties and abstract expressionism. You’re going to go to your first baseball game and learn how to draw and memorize all the lines to your favorite movie.
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That’s all I wrote then, incidentally. It was a sad year, in a lot of ways. Not for us–these are high times in the Treacy-Lenda/Delaney family. Still, the roaring 90s are gone and the 00s, into which you were born, will probably be remembered as a pretty rough decade.

Grammie and Grampie — my Grammie and Grampie, my maternal grandparents, your paternal (patrimaternal? matripaternal?) great-grandparents got to meet you this weekend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political matters, but we always have fun when we hang out. I think it’s a matter of consumer sovereignty. Grampie seems to maintain the seemingly inconsistent beliefs that people are capable of making good decisions, yet persist in regularly making bad ones. I generally think the reason they make bad decisions is that they’re just intrinsically bad at making decisions. There’s probably more to it than that, but it’s striking sometimes how so subtle a difference plays itself out in political, moral, and ethical views.

It should be a good week. We have rain! Probably not enough to make a dent in what’s apparently a drought of biblical proportions. Nonetheless, I’ll remember this week as The Week we Got Rain. Let’s hope it lasts.

Your mom and I have already started shifting things to accommodate your presence. We’re eating more consciously, sleeping less, paying less attention to the pets, sitting around a lot more, paying more attention to laundry. I splurged for organic milk yesterday. There’s no debt just yet–mortgage and car loan aside–but I have a feeling my grad student stipend won’t cover everything for the next few years. Frugal or not, it’s hard to compromise on stuff for you, kid. Hopefully, lifetime income means we won’t have to.

I heard today that the War in Iraq has cost more than any other war except WWII. That’s a heck of a cost to incur with no perceivable benefit. I wish everyone still hated war. That doesn’t feel like a political view. It feels like hating famine or plague. Who the hell wouldn’t hate war?

It’s been a rough decade: hurricanes, droughts, drugs in baseball, 9/11, the War in Iraq, Virginia Tech, the Bush presidency and Guantanamo Bay, xenophobia, boy bands, rising income inequality. Scientology. The War on Drugs rolls on. There are reasons to hope: the first woman president, maybe, and gay marriage isn’t proving to be a very big deal after all.

I’m feeling stronger about it all. I don’t just want the world to be better, I want it to be better for you, and better to you. I want people to signal before changing lanes and not to tailgate because I’VE GOT A F**KING BABY IN THE CAR. A ball of potential, a life actually worth living. I want you to have to work for it, but having worked for it, I want you to be able to get it. I have faith that you will, and that ten, twenty years from now, the world will be on the upswing, or at least your part of it will be.

Sexism was offensive before, and now it’s personal. Trust me kid; I’ve just met you and already I know: anything they can do, you can do better.

Hey kid,

Hope life is treating you well today. You were there when mom went back to sleep this morning and when we cleaned out the car. Tonight, you’re coming along when we go bowling with Uncle Rick and Aunt Becky and Dziadzi et al.

I had a terrible thought the other night. It wasn’t even a dream–it was before I fell asleep. I was picturing myself going down a set of stairs and I was carrying you and I stumbled and fell and I tried to protect you and I couldn’t, and you were hurt, you weren’t moving, and it was the most devastating thought I’ve ever had.  I started crying to myself right there in bed, and your mom was already asleep, and I didn’t want to wake her up and I didn’t even want to tell her about it–and I haven’t, but she’ll probably read this–because what’s the sense in putting that fear into her mind as well.

There is a point, though, and it’s an important lesson to take. I don’t know if it’ll feel good or bad to know this; I understand some people are made afraid, but it felt empowering for me when I found out about it. I am afraid just like you are. We, your mother and I, your parents, are pretty much just like you. And you’re just like us. I have only the vaguest idea what I’m doing most of the time, and I forget things, a lot. I forget to eat. Sometimes, I forget what time I have to be places, and I think I know, but I might be wrong, and I get really anxious and try to get there early, and the whole thing is just really nervous-making. I don’t know what’s wrong with our car. The “check engine” light is on again, and that might be expensive or it might be nothing, and it’s frustrating to have the car and no way to figure it out. Which isn’t entirely true. I could figure it out. It would just take weeks and weeks and mean that the car had to be non-functional for a long time while I learned basic mechanical engineering the hard way, and with one car, that’s not a feasible option. So, for all intents and purposes, I have no way to figure out what’s wrong with it.

Baseball players go for weeks without a hit, sometimes, and they don’t know what they’re doing wrong, or how to fix it. Writers get blocked and can’t write for days, months–sometimes years–and hope and pray that it’ll come back.  You probably will have a lot of questions some day and you’re lucky because so do I. I had questions when I was a kid and I wanted answers, I wasn’t just trying to be annoying, so I know what it’s like. You should know now, though, that a lot of the answers, nobody has. In some cases this is due to the brevity of the history of human existence. In a lot of cases, though, there are questions to which there doesn’t even exist an answer. I like this about life. A lot of people hate it, but I think you’ll like it too.

I like to think of these questions as the free parameters of the system–they allow you to fit the model. Life is not identified–it’s one big singular matrix. Little pockets of it are identified, but you have to abstract out everything else to get any results.

The reason I think you’ll like this is the same reason that I think you’ll have a lot of questions, and the same reason I was happy to find out that you’re Grandma and Grandpa have no real idea what they’re doing. It puts you on a level playing field with everybody, throughout the course of history. It means that Answers may vary. Dziadzi is on an airplane in North Carolina right now, on his way here, and I was thinking about that today, about hanging out with your mom’s family and how odd it is that I feel like I can fit right in. At the same time, every once in a while, my internal frame of reference changes and I’m seventeen again and the fact that I’m here, in this place, with these people, is incredibly surreal.

Most of the time, though, my internal life is in perfect sync with my surroundings. This isn’t true for everyone, and it may not even be a good thing–it can be hard to maintain a sense of self as a result, and in the extreme, I think it can lead to dissociative problems. Nonetheless, it comes in handy when life gets stressful, and I hope you get some of it as well.

I used to be afraid of things a lot as a child. My dad used to read really scary stories to Luke and me, and watch horror movies with us, and for years and years, we slept with all the lights on in our bedroom. Lit up like daytime, I’m serious, until I was twelve or so. Between twelve and twenty-four, I steadily and systematically decreased my fears of everything, really. From monsters to snakes and sharks to girls to heights and new foods and speaking in public to failure to measure up to the standards set by my siblings or to measure up to my own standards; I faced each one intentionally and consciously and did what I had to to get past it. It felt really good. Once your mom and I moved to Atlanta, I started to get afraid again, a little bit. It’s gotten worse in the meantime, and I think what I feel now must be the most conservatizing force. I have things I love, now. I love you, and I love your mother, and I love our family and our pets and my life, the way it is. I don’t want things to be broken, or ruined.

I don’t fear all change, which is good, but I can see where that fear comes from now in a way I never could before.

I don’t know what’s wrong with the car; that much is true. I do have a pretty good idea of how to be a dad, I think. I have a lot of experience being around and taking care of little kids, and I never really grew up very much. I was telling your mom the other day how much I look forward to teaching you to play video games. It’s gonna be awesome. You’re gonna beat me in multiplayer Halo 2 one day and I’ll have to hang up my spurs. Finally I’ll have somebody to play 2-player Secret of Mana with. I’ve waited 14 long years for that. 🙂 Hey, it’s either we play video games or you mow the lawn (hehehe).

Anyway, I hope it doesn’t scare you too much to know that I’m just making it up as I go along. You get better, I guess, at making stuff up as you do it more often, and eventually you start to tailor it to be funny or poignant or wise-seeming or pragmatic. It scares me a little bit to know that I can’t keep you safe, not perfectly. I’ll do the best I can, though, kid. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life–except to keep you free, I guess. I love you.

Can’t wait to see you on Friday, kiddo.

Love,
Dad

Oh, p.s. kiddo, baseball season starts tomorrow. Let’s go Mets! It’s gonna be a good season, and hey, maybe you’ll get to witness your first Mets World Series win mere weeks after your grand entrance. Keep your tiny little fetal fingers crossed!

p.p.s. I will not indoctrinate you into anything, if I can help it, except for Mets fandom, for which you may have to forgive me.

Pickle, my apologies. I have friends who’ve promised me that they’ll lead you astray so that you don’t inherit my vitriol. You’ll probably hear me vent about this stuff occasionally, but I really only want everyone to get along, to behave like we can all be civil, to talk about this stuff with love in our hearts, humility, and a shared goal of making the best life for everyone and believing what we should.

EDIT:

I had a post here earlier, about my atheism and about the ability of animals to reason. They’re all good thoughts, just not ones that I feel the need to share. It’s all just too contentious, and there’s no real point, as far as I can tell, because I’m railing against a silent wall. As a result, I’m cutting it. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll re-post it at some point.

I’d rather take a deep breath and say that I care deeply about goodness and I don’t care if you have religion or don’t: I want for you what you want for yourself. I mean that to you, Pickle, but I mean that to everyone else, too. May we all make it home safely.

So. It would appear that people get unhappier around my age and then get happier when they get to retire. More interestingly, Americans seem to be unhappier now than “ever before” defined very loosely. Check it:

The midlife happiness crisis. – By Joel Waldfogel – Slate Magazine

Why are we less happy now than we used to be? Do we know how to be happy?

My hypothesis: Increased opportunity leads to greater chances for failure. Past generations have outstripped any dream they could have had for themselves–explosive economic growth has meant that lives their parents couldn’t have imagined, lives they, as children, couldn’t have imagined, became suddenly possible.

Anecdotal evidence: my grandfather was the oldest of eleven, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Worked three jobs, owned a house and saved enough money to put all five of his kids through college, despite the fact that he died at 55. In a world where life used to mean the same fate as your parents and theirs before them, for a brief period, a lot of people in each generation (5 in my dad’s family alone, not counting my grandfather, who didn’t have 11 kids) outstripped the previous generation.

My dad had a lot of opportunity. He went to Cornell, got a degree in Chemical Engineering. If he and my mom weren’t living in Shanghai, though, their life would be very similar to that of the previous generation. Owning a big house is not that qualitatively different from owning a small house, really–not for two people. All the entertainment in the world can’t provide the same overriding sense of significance and accomplishment, real, deep-seated utility and subjective well-being measurements as expanding your family’s capacity.

So economic pioneers feel really good; that’s my theory. It feels good to cross particular lines, to go from not quite having enough to having enough. There’s a huge utility jump from being unsure you’ll be able to grant your kids the freedom to live as they want to being sure you will.

For a lot of people, those lines are still there, but as a society, we no longer feel ourselves crossing that boundary. The birth of the middle class was a social welfare windfall. If we want to be happy now, we have to work for it.

Religion probably has something to do with it; it’s similar to the opportunity thing. With no opportunity, no one feels like a failure. With opportunity, lots of people do. With religion as a fundamental force in life, people can let things go, acknowledge that there’s not much they can do to change the order of things–God’s will be done. But in the falling-off of religion as an institution and the adoption of religion as life philosophy, people take responsibility for the things they shouldn’t, for the error terms in life. People feel like they are responsible for their outcomes, good or ill.

I don’t think it’s true. I’m not sure that what I’m positing is actually happening, although I think it is. I think people have turned economics into religion, but have ignored the uncertainty. This is the whole point behind “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” in my view. If outcomes are y, and effort is x and characteristics are z, we can model outcomes like this: y = a + bx + cz + e. All you can control is your x. A is determined by society at large, z is nature and nurture, and e is sheer random chance. You can’t take credit or blame for y. You can only take credit or blame for x. And that’s not something anyone else can observe, really. Some of it, they can, but only you really know if you did what you could.

And if you do what you can, then for some people, society screws  you. For other, society gives you a leg up. For some people, your genetics screw you; for others, it’s a boon. The error term screws everybody sometimes. For other people, it’s the only reason they’re hanging on. You don’t have to believe in God to “give it up to God.” You just have to admit you’re powerless. I think it makes everybody happier to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the error term.

A problem arises because y is positively correlated with x, and all we get to see is y, and so if we need to hold people responsible for their actions, all we can really hold them responsible for is their outcomes.

Additionally, a problem arises if we’re relying on other people to let us know whether our level of x is sufficient or not. That kind of external measurement is not going to give us a very good estimate of the effectiveness of our level of x. The error term is probably correlated with our level of z and our level of a. So those with preternatural talent or beauty are often congratulated as though they’d expended a lot of effort, while those who try hard and fail are soundly dismissed.

In truth, x and z are probably codetermined, and so we might not be able to assume the two are even separable. This has serious implications for our approach to moral and ethical responsibility in a metaphysical sense, but I think a good justice system should be invariant to metaphysical changes in responsibility–founded on a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist structure. Only you and God know your intentions, and I don’t believe in God, and so I’d support measures to be taken based on what we observe and what we expect, rather than what we think we know.

Happiness is having a good metric of one’s own worth, and a good metric for the extent to which things are out of our control.

Any ideas on experiments or data sets that would help me look at this stuff more is greatly appreciated.