Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude. 

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.

Assisted Suicide, Living, and Dying Well

Assisted suicide and the ethics of living and dying well

Fresno Bee, June 25, 2016

  • Assisted suicide law prompts legal challenge
  • Suicide points toward important religious and philosophical disagreement
  • The meaning of life includes thinking about dying well

Ethical New Year’s Resolutions

Have a Philosophical New Year

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2014

As the calendar turns, it is natural to take stock of our lives. Reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions is a philosophical activity. The ancient philosophers also made lists and resolutions as part of the effort to live mindfully.

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

The key to a philosophical life is to try to see things as they actually are. We are often deceived by idealism, ideology and emotion. Our hopes lead us astray. Our fears disempower us. And our fantasies confuse us. The solution is to get in touch with reality.

Consider diet — a typical focus of New Year’s resolutions. We fantasize about food and drink, as if a cocktail or a bag of chips has the magic power to produce happiness. A philosophical diet focuses on the reality of eating and drinking. These are merely biological functions, not fantastic cures for spiritual poverty.

Or consider what we learn from typical year-end lists. These lists show us, as they do every year, that human beings are mortal and imperfect. Some people died. Others were born. Heroes inspired us. But violence and war continue to exist.

For every genius, there are a hundred fools — for every murderer, a hundred lovers. Human nature is neither perfectible nor unredeemable. Optimists don’t like to hear the bad news. Pessimists are unable to see the good. But the truth is in the middle.

We live in a changing world. Our characters are not fixed. We make progress and improve. We backslide and degenerate. Life is a project to be lived. That’s why resolutions are useful: they remind us of who we want to be.

It’s a shame that we waste our resolutions on trivial stuff such as losing weight or making money. It would be better to resolve to be more caring, more intelligent, more courageous, more just and more mindful.

Here are a few reminders and resolutions distilled from the teachings of the ancient philosophers. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it. Do nothing inconsiderately. Remember that no evil lasts forever, including pain. Understand that nothing is entirely in your own control, even your own emotions. Acknowledge that everyone, including you, eventually dies. Bear in mind that you have no power over what other people say or do. Understand that human beings share much in common. And see that we all benefit from compassion and justice.

The ancient philosophers emphasized taking active steps to improve life. Those who wait for the world to change may wait forever. The Roman philosopher Seneca once explained that the problem is not that life is too short but that we waste too much of it. Life is long enough and rich enough, if you make a constant effort to live it well.

Of course, not everything works out for the best. Sometimes tragedy occurs. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we cannot give up because of tragedy or fret over our mistakes. Strength, courage, resilience and tenacity are required at all times.

The key is to accept the things we cannot change and focus our effort on the things we can improve. Another Roman philosopher, Epictetus, said that we should stop wishing that things would happen as we want them to happen and learn to accept the world as it does happen. This is a useful strategy, when things don’t go right. But resigning yourself to fate does not mean giving up on the effort to live as well as you can in the life that fate has given you.

The world won’t change until you make it change. And you won’t become better until you put forth the effort. Wisdom, courage, and intelligence are needed to negotiate a world in which every noble and beautiful thing will eventually fade. Enjoy the good things while they last. Grit your teeth through the bad times. And keep yourself open to opportunities for improvement.

The philosophical approach is demanding. There are no quick fixes or super-human saviors here. This is your life, the philosophers teach, your one and only chance to live well. Each new year — each new moment — is a chance to excel. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/12/26/4301690_take-a-chance-with-this-years.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

The naughty and nice of gift giving

Fresno Bee

November 29, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html

Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you’ll smile and say thank you. It’s the thought that counts. You can’t blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don’t usually think that it’s only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that’s not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It’s not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness’ sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn’t tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she’s being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn’t give you the air rifle, since after all, “you might put your eye out.” It’s wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That’s why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You’ve got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that’s the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html#storylink=cpy