Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tape a Fight and Listen Together Later

My husband and I are musicians. Right now we’re preparing for a concert and every day we record our rehearsals. Yesterday we had a disagreement; the same one we’ve had a hundred times before. Except this time it was recorded. We could listen back.

When you’re having an argument and you’re deep inside your story and your position, it’s extremely hard to be objective about what you’ve said, and what the other person has said. Our minds distort reality to fit our preconceptions at the best of times, and when we’re angry it’s even worse. How often do arguments get to the point where you’re arguing about what the other person said during the argument?!

Comedian Dave Chapelle once did a funny skit about a couple who were always accompanied by a court stenographer who took down every word they said, even in bed, so they could always ask for the transcript to be read and find out exactly what insult had been lobbed their way.

And yesterday I found out how useful this is. While we were rehearsing, Arthur wanted me to take another approach with my rhythm guitar on a particular song (these are his compositions), and—as usual—he said, “try this,” I played one note, and he said, “no, no, not like that.” He had no idea that he was being impatient, and when I tried to tell him to give me a minute, he replied that I was just being stubborn and unyielding—as usual. But when we listened back it was obvious to Arthur that he had been impatient. And the next day when we were in a similar situation he was much more patient, explaining what he wanted and giving me a chance to figure out how to do it.

Everyone is now carrying audio recorders around with them in their smartphones. I suggest you try this: next time you and your partner get into that same old discussion that never gets solved (or you and your mother, or whoever you have those regular disputes with), whip out your phone and record it. Then wait until later, when tensions have calmed down, and listen to it together. Don’t focus on your individual cases and start the argument back up again; instead focus on how you’re approaching the conversation: Are you being dictatorial—it’s my way or else? Are you bringing in history that has nothing to do with the current situation? Are you whining, yelling, or crying? Are you misinterpreting and/or misrepresenting what the other person is saying? Listen to it as if you’re watching a TV show of another couple sharing their relationship.

A cautionary note from Arthur: recording can distort people’s behavior. If you know you’re recording and you act all sugary-sweet in order to make the other person look bad in comparison, that’s not what I’m suggesting. In addition, some people will get even angrier at the sight of a recorder, so it can be an incendiary tactic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World-Rejecting Religions

“I’m going to have the time of my life when my life is over,” goes a gospel song refrain. Another assures us: “I’m going to get carried away, when I get carried away.” This is the message of the Christianity I was raised with: life is a vale of tears, but if we’re good, when we die we’ll go to heaven, a place of never-ending enjoyment. In other words, this life is just preparation for the real life that begins when we die. We’re suffering sinners now but we’ll be celebrating saints when we get to heaven.
Because I was raised with this theology, maligning the physical seemed normal to me: truly spiritual people deny the flesh through ascetic living—eating minimally, being chaste, living in Spartan quarters, even scourging themselves.
As I learned about other religions it became clear that this denigration of life was present in them also. Islam promises such a wonderful heaven that believers are willing to blow themselves up to get there. Eastern religions talk about reincarnation and the wheel of life and death—the goal is to become enlightened enough to get off the wheel and never incarnate again.
But it wasn’t until I read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday that the problem with these philosophies crystallized in my mind. He called them “world-rejecting” philosophies, which
assert not only that there is an after-life, but that it’s even more important and long-lasting than this earthly life, and that the overriding goal of earthly life is to obtain salvation and prepare you for the afterlife.
Diamond says that not only is this sentiment strong in Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Buddhism, it’s even present in some secular philosophies such as Plato’s Divine Forms.
Diamond points out that these world-rejecting philosophies are a rather new development in human history. They arose when large-scale, stratified societies came into existence around the time agriculture was invented. He writes, 
If everybody around you is suffering as much as you are, then there is no unfairness to be explained, and no visible example of the good life to which to aspire. But the observation that some people have much more comfortable lives and can dominate you takes a lot of explaining and comforting, which religion offers.
Life was harder for early farmers than for hunter-gatherers: they worked longer hours, had worse nutrition, suffered more from infectious disease, and lived shorter lives (studies of human stature, which is a good indicator of nutrition, show that wherever agriculture took hold, average height dropped dramatically and took a long time to recover). These farmers were in definite need of comfort.
So religions developed which promised believers that their suffering would be redeemed after death, in a place where they would enjoy all the pleasures that the rich around them enjoyed—“in my father’s house are many mansions,” we’ll have “pie in the sky,” we’ll enjoy dozens of virgins, etc.
Recently I learned of a French philosopher, named Michel Onfray, who is an advocate of ethical hedonism—pleasuring yourself and others without harming anyone.
In his book Atheist Manifesto Onfray enumerates many problems caused by monotheistic religion. Rejection of the world is just one of those problems, and it includes:
hatred of life coupled with a passionate and unshakable obsession with death; hatred of the here and now, consistently undervalued in favor of a beyond, the only possible reservoir of sense, truth, certainty, and bliss; hatred of the corruptible body, disparaged in every aspect, while the soul—eternal, immortal, divine—is invested with all the higher qualities and all the virtues; and finally, hatred of women, condemnation of liberated sexuality and sex for pleasure. Religion sets up the Angel, a bodiless archetype, in preference to real women. Chastity is a virtue common to all three religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam].
Onfray envisions a
post-Christian morality in the West—a morality in which the body is not a punishment; the earth ceases to be a vale of tears; this life is no longer a tragedy; pleasure stops being a sin; women, a curse; intelligence, a sign of arrogance; physical pleasure, a passport to hell.
Onfray, being an atheist, thinks that we’ll have to reject religion in order to enjoy this new celebration of the physical. But recently I heard a nondenominational minister (Howard Hanger, of Jubilee Community Church in Asheville, NC) speak about embracing the physical as holy. He said:
Somewhere along our rocky religious road we have picked up the notion that physical delight is somehow wrong, or if not wrong, at least superfluous. We have been taught that serious prayer, somber meditation, solemn contemplation is more holy than a deep belly laugh, or a dance with your sweetie in the kitchen, or the taste of a chocolate cream pie. We have been trained to think of God as a stern and strict judge who is more concerned that we follow religious rules than enjoy the life that God has given… 
We teach and have been taught that physical pleasure on Earth will lead to physical misery in the afterlife. And we’ve also been taught that not having physical pleasure on Earth will send you to eternal physical pleasure when you die. What if we’ve gotten it all wrong?
The conclusion of his message was that “sex is the way that God planned for life to begin. Humans did not invent sex. Sex was created by God and is therefore a holy act. And it may well be that physical delight is a way of honoring our creator.”
This resonates with me. We don’t have to throw out the divine to experience pleasure in the flesh. We can have a world-affirming religion, one that celebrates life and the physical as an aspect of the spiritual. As Alan Watts said, “Matter is spirit named.” There is no difference. To love God you must love the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Glimmer of a Meritocracy

I watched The Best Years of Our Lives recently. This is a great film set a year after World War II, about three men returning home to the same “heartland” town and readjusting to life after military service. At the beginning of the film they flew home together in a military transport plane and all you knew about them was their military ranks. As they were dropped off at their homes, in order of rank, much was revealed: the sailor lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood, the Army sergeant lived in a swank downtown apartment building, and the Air Force captain was from the slum. The sergeant had deferred to the captain while they were in uniform, but out of it he was a wealthy banker, while the captain had worked as a soda jerk before the war. What was communicated eloquently was that in the military during wartime, character and competence was rewarded with less regard to class status than in the civilian world. What you learned in war was that a man’s ability was not linked to his position in society.
One of the themes of the film is the transition from the relative meritocracy of the military back to the ruthless world of capitalism where the main consideration is your money or your training. Being a good, capable man is not enough. The captain ended up back in the same drugstore, working as a soda jerk. The banker was put in charge of making G.I. loans, and when an ex-soldier applied for a loan, the banker approved it even though the man had no collateral. He later had to defend the decision to his boss, saying in the war he learned how to read a man’s character and he knew he could tell a good risk, a man who would pay his debts.
I found myself wondering how much this experience of meritocracy, created by the war bringing men of all classes together, led to what economists call the Great Compression. This was the period from the 1950s through the 1970s when income inequality was at its lowest in the United States. When CEOs of companies didn’t expect to be paid hundreds of times their employees’ salaries. When taxes were much higher than today and wealthy people paid them. When unions were thriving.
French economist Gabriel Zucman has been researching tax evasion around the world. In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “True Cost of Hidden Money,” he’s quoted as saying that it was not socially acceptable to evade taxes in the years after WWII:
“There’s a profound shift in attitudes that happened in the 1980s,” Mr. Zucman says. “In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, taxes were much higher, yet it was not considered normal to try to aggressively minimize your tax bill and even to evade taxes.”
This idea that social norms have shifted is also in Tom Toles’ blog post today:
'TOO MUCH!' that’s what we’re missing. We are living in a social environment in which the idea of ‘too much’ has all but vanished. Why is wealth distribution skewing so uncontrollably? Because those few who are blessed, or cursed, by finding themselves in the top 1% simply cannot stop themselves. Because there is no such upper bound as ‘too much.’ Whatever they have cannot possibly be enough, because somebody else has more, or might tomorrow. If they had a thought, or a feeling, or noticed that there was a social norm called ‘too much,’ things would be different. We have far too little ‘too much.’
There was once a glimmer of a chance at the U.S. becoming a classless meritocracy, but I think we’ve lost the chance.

Update: I just watched a documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt, and learned that three of FDR's sons couldn't attend his funeral because they were serving in the military during WWII.  One was a pilot who flew combat missions, another was a lieutenant in the Navy, and the oldest was an officer in the Marines. Can you imagine that today--a President's child not only serving in the military but going into combat?