Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Political Life vs. Living Well

Take a break from bitter politics – go fishing

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2016

After two weeks of political conventions we need a break from hype, hyperbole and hyperventilation. We need to go fishing. Catch our breath. And clear our heads.

Here’s some of what we witnessed in the past two weeks.

At the Republican convention, delegates chanted “lock her up,” when Hillary Clinton was mentioned. One Donald Trump supporter, Al Baldasaro, called for Clinton to be shot for treason.

Trump’s convention speech prompted pundits to call him a fascist and a dictator. If the rhetoric is true, this leaves us with a choice between a Caesar and a criminal.

On the one hand, we have a billionaire who takes pride in firing people claiming that he understands the plight of the middle class. On the other hand, we have the wealthy wife of a former president claiming the same thing.


Bernie Sanders concluded his campaign claiming that Clinton would “end the movement toward oligarchy.” Sanders’ supporters walked out. An apparent anti-Sanders conspiracy in Democratic headquarters confirmed the suspicions of those who think the system is corrupt. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, resigned as a result of the damaging email dump.

Democratic Party operatives, including President Barack Obama, suggested that Russia was behind the email leak. They insinuated that Trump is too cozy with Russia, since he benefited from the leak.

Trump responded by calling on Russia to find the missing emails from Clinton’s private server. The Clinton campaign replied by saying, “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”

Each side has basically accused the other of treason, duplicity, stupidity and criminality.

Can it get any worse?

This is all disheartening. But it is not surprising. Politics has always been a repugnant business.

Within the lifetimes of our two candidates we have witnessed anti-communist witch-hunts, political assassinations, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, Clintonian philandering and lying, Bushian incompetence and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors.

image1History discloses a political world that stinks to high heaven. That’s why the world’s religious and philosophical traditions have often taught us to avoid it.

Socrates thought politics damaged the soul. Jesus advised his followers to render unto Caesar only what belongs to Caesar. He suggested that his kingdom was not of this world. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed by political authorities.

The Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece advised us to avoid politics entirely. True happiness, they argued, is found in good health and in the private company of good friends. Christians often retreated behind cloistered walls seeking peace and communion with God.


A related idea comes from China. When asked to take a job with the emperor, the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu said no. Political life ends in unhappiness and death. He said he would rather go fishing.

How nice it would be simply to go fishing with the Taoist sages. But if good people go fishing, fishy people will take over and destroy our fishing holes.

We might like to be left alone. But injustice and stupidity have a nasty way of spreading. The philosopher’s garden, the monk’s monastery, and the Taoist’s mountain retreat are still connected to the political world. No one can withdraw completely.

Politics is a necessary evil. We avoid it at our peril.

The political world is a bit like our bodily functions. We must occasional get our hands dirty with this messy business. Justice requires us to wade into political swamps. But we should not be surprised by how bad the whole thing smells.

Nor should we view political life as an end in itself. There are higher and more lasting goods to be found elsewhere.

The challenge is to make the best of a putrid situation – to keep our heads clear despite the hot and fetid air.

Critical thinking skills help. Suspend judgment until you get all the facts. Control your emotions. Keep the larger sweep of history in mind. Remember that there are no utopias and no morally perfect politicians.

We also benefit from taking a break from breathing hot air. Go fishing. Recharge your critical batteries. Clear your head. This is going to be a nasty and noxious political season.

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Death and Dead Bodies

Deep questions about life and death and dead bodies

Fresno Bee, June 12, 2015

  • Medal of Honor ceremony, Fresno Public Administrator’s Office case are examples
  • We are appalled by corpse abuse, yet philosophers argue that dead people can’t really be harmed
  • The dead would want us to love life and stop worrying about them
medal of honorIn Bakersfield, the cops are being sued because an officer “tickled” the feet of a corpse, saying he “loved playing with dead bodies.” In Oklahoma, a woman slashed and dismembered her enemy’s body while it lay in a casket in a funeral home. And in Fresno, employees of the Public Administrator’s Office allegedly stole property from dead people’s estates.

Some believe that the dead haunt us when disrespected. Ghosts may speak from the grave to condemn such actions. However, if there is an afterlife, I hope that the dead have more elevated concerns. I doubt that the dead really worry about their mortal remains.

Those who mock or mar dead bodies do have a malicious intent. Such deeds are wrong because they harm grieving loved ones left behind. But these are also oddly “victimless” crimes, since the dead cannot be harmed.

Similar puzzles arise when we praise or honor the dead. PresidentObama recently awarded posthumous Medals of Honor to two long dead soldiers who fought in World War I. Obama explained, “It is never too late to say thank you.” How nice. But also — how weird. Can soldiers from previous centuries receive our gratitude?

I discussed these issues with James Stacey Taylor, a professor at the College of New Jersey who is an expert on the philosophy of death. Taylor maintains that a corpse is merely an object. It can’t really be harmed.


Taylor understands that grieving is often focused on the dead body. The living gain closure from knowing that a loved one’s body is safely disposed. The living can also take comfort in honors given to the dead. But Taylor doesn’t believe that any of this can make any difference to the dead person.

Taylor agrees with the ancient Epicureans, who argued that your dead body is no longer “you.” It’s a mistake, for example, to imagine that when your body is buried, you will be aware of the clay pressing down upon you. It won’t matter to you whether your body is torn apart by wild beasts, or burnt on a pyre. You won’t know the difference.

Understanding this can liberate you from fears about death. It can also make it easier to see the value of signing up for organ donation. When I’m done with my body I won’t need it anymore. Let someone else benefit from it, if they can.

We are often confused about the value of the body. Some want to claim that all we are is our bodies. But a person is more than a body. Persons are characters. They have stories, plans, values and ideas. My personality extends into the projects and ideas that make up my life. My personality is constituted by those I love: they are part of me and I am the result of them.

When I die, I hope that some of my projects will be completed and that my loved ones will flourish. My least concern is what will become of my corpse.

Our treatment of the dead is symbolic of our other values. When we award posthumous medals and treat dead bodies with care, this symbolizes how deeply we value human persons. That’s why crimes against the dead are so disturbing. We suspect a character flaw in the hearts of those who steal from the dead or desecrate corpses. Those who abuse the dead are cruel, callous and cold-hearted. But to think that the dead can actually be harmed by actions done to their mortal remains is to be too attached to the idea that we are ever simply a body.

We honor the dead by completing their projects and cherishing the grieving people they love. These values, ideas and persons are much more important than the corpse that is left behind.

I imagine that if we could ask them, the dead would tell us to celebrate life and stop worrying about death. They would want us to focus our moral concern on the living, not the dead. After all, the dead can no longer be harmed or benefited. If the dead could speak, I imagine they would say that death arrives too early, and that we should love life and nurture the living, before it is too late.
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The Ethics of Death

Don’t avoid the big questions about death

Fresno Bee, February 20, 2015

Death prompts serious reflection. If death is a dreamless sleep, there is no reason to fear it, since “you” won’t know you are dead. But if death opens the door to another life, where God metes out justice, evildoers ought to fear death and good people should look forward to it.the-death-of-casagemas-1901-1.jpg!Blog

These issues are the focus of a new book, “The Ethics of Death.” The book provides an interesting dialogue between Lloyd Steffen, a scholar of religion, and Dennis Cooley, a humanist philosopher. I am on a panel with the authors this weekend at a conference in Southern California, discussing the meaning of death.

This big question has deep roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was annihilation. He thought this was a liberating idea, since it cured the anxiety created by religious stories of reward and punishment. Don’t worry about being dead, Epicurus advised, because your own death will literally be nothing to you. Epicurus and his followers ignored religion and focused on living long and living well.

The early Christians argued directly against the Epicureans and their indifference about death. Augustine argued, for example, that the Epicureans vainly pursued merely fleeting satisfactions. Augustine thought that real happiness is only found in eternal blessedness after death.

Epicurean affirmation of mortal finitude may help us savor the pleasures of life. If the Epicureans are right, ethics becomes a matter of prudence: clean living helps us prosper in this life. But Christians and others who long for eternal life will argue that the joys of this life are shallow and worthless. If we believe in an afterlife, ethical action takes on infinite weight.

A variety of concrete moral implications flow from this dispute. For example, if death means annihilation, then the death penalty is not much of a punishment, since once the criminal is dead he is no longer being punished. A harsher punishment might keep the bad guy alive in order to cause him to suffer as long as possible. On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, then execution speeds the criminal on to final judgment.

Or consider suicide and euthanasia. If death is nonexistence, then death could provide relief in the face of terrible suffering. But those who believe in an afterlife tend to think that suicide is immoral because our lives are not entirely our own to dispose of.

Despite the import of these issues, we often ignore them. Perhaps they are too difficult to think about. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t grow younger and you can’t avoid death.

Phillip Levine, Fresno’s beloved and recently departed poet laureate, once lamented the fact that it takes a very long time to believe the simplest facts of life: “that certain losses are final, death is one, childhood another.”

In another poem Levine said, “no one believes that to die is beautiful.” Levine suggested that in death we might join the waters of the world, flowing into every crack and crevice. Perhaps something beautiful happens when we give up the ghost and join the flow of nature. A poet’s ear may be needed to hear this.

Reflection on death naturally gives way to poetry. In his last days, Socrates wrote poetry and composed hymns. But he also philosophized until his final moments, talking with his friends and speculating about the afterlife.

Music, poetry, religion, and philosophy are expressions of the depth of the human spirit. Consciousness transforms brute experience into meaning. Awareness of death gives urgency to the soul’s need to express itself. We sing and talk and write because we want to leave a fluttering trace of ourselves in the void. If we never died, would we bother to think or talk at all?

To be conscious is to be surrounded by darkness. We do not recall the nothingness before life. Nor can we see beyond the shadows of death. The great religious and philosophical dialogue is an attempt to shed some light on this surrounding gloom.

Death gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, we each have but one lifetime to pray, argue, and sing, while the light still shines. At stake in this discussion is simply everything.

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Epicurean and Christian views of living well

What is the recipe for living well?

September 20, 2013

The recipe for a long healthy life is deceptively simple: eat well, exercise and learn to relax. The scientific consensus about this is clear. A recent study from University of California, San Francisco showed that diet, exercise and stress management can “extend life,” as one recent headline put it.

While the data are encouraging, this is really old news. Similar ideas can be found in many of the world’s ancient traditions, which emphasize moderation, exercise and self-control. One important source is Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught the wisdom of a quiet life of moderate pleasure.

Our concern with healthy living and longevity is deeply Epicurean. The term “epicurean” is often connected to the idea of gourmet taste. But Epicurus does not advocate fancy dining. Over-indulgence is a problem. The solution is moderation and simple living.

But are we prepared to embrace the rest of the Epicurean philosophy? His ideas are summarized in four basic ideas that provide a formula for tranquility and happiness. Don’t fear the gods. Don’t worry about death. Remember that good is easy to obtain. And believe that suffering can be endured.

Epicurus downplays religion. He maintains that the gods have better things to do than to afflict or reward us. He also thinks that death is the end of consciousness. When you’re dead, you won’t know it. So there is no reason to fear death.

Instead, we should focus on healthy living. The key is to understand the nature of pleasure and our own desires. We should also remember that terrible things usually don’t last forever. That bit of insight can help us avoid anguish and despair.

The Epicureans thought that proper understanding of the world helped to alleviate anxiety. They were among the first to argue that the world is made up of atoms and that the universe was governed by natural causes. They wanted to remedy the pernicious idea that mysterious powers were at work in earthquakes, storms, and disease.

Epicureans reject idealism. They are not interested in radical schemes for changing the world. They don’t speculate about the afterlife or the end of time. Instead they focus on practical experience, which teaches that moderation and self-control create mental and physical health.

For the Epicurean, the best life is a private life, spent philosophizing in the company of good friends. Ethics, for the Epicureans, is focused on intimate relationships of reciprocal obligation and mutual care.

The Epicureans do not see the need to worry about distant horrors — wars and plagues and disasters — that do not affect us directly. And they warn against getting involved in politics. Ambition and struggles for power cause heartbreak and suffering.

Critics argue that Epicureanism is immoral and irreligious. The Epicureans give up eternal goods in exchange for mortal happiness that will vanish with death. Some claim that Epicureans are small-minded egoists who ignore the need to save the world.

For many centuries, the Christians opposed the Epicureans. The Apostle Paul encountered Epicurean philosophers in Athens in the first century. They seem to have mocked his idea of the resurrection of the dead. This set the stage for further Christian antagonism. Augustine — the fourth century theologian — explains that he was almost convinced that Epicurus was right. But Augustine rejected Epicureanism because he believed what Epicurus did not: that after death, the soul continues to live.

This dispute reminds us that our ideas about living well depend upon what we think about the deepest questions. Religious people might argue that while health and longevity are good, they are not the highest good. Some will even argue that our obsession with health, exercise and longevity are a kind of idolatrous worship of the body.

If there is another life, then physical health and longevity are not the most important thing. But if this is the only life we’ve got, then Epicurus is right: live modestly, eat well and enjoy your friends.

The doctors know what we should do to live a long healthy life. But they can’t tell us what counts as living well. It’s the philosophers and theologians who provide food for thought and mental exercises that help us think about the meaning of life.

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