Greetings from the Far Side of the Moon

It has been over two months since I have seen any massage clients. I have barely left the house: picking up a pizza once a week, taking walks in the nearby arroyo, practicing Tai Chi Chuan. Many are in the same boat. Others are forced to continue working at essential jobs, bravely bearing the risk that entails. There is no way for me to practice my profession of eleven years remotely. I do teach chess lessons online, which adds a little structure to my days. I talk to my adult children on the phone, keep up a little with some long-term clients. Living with my girlfriend, her daughter and our dogs means I am not too lonely. Life during the pandemic has been mostly relaxing and physically healing. Earlier this year I was complaining that my vigorous massage practice was taking a toll on my body and mental energy. I am actually grateful for the downtime. Somewhat.

Over the past few days I struggled with the decision of whether to resume my practice or wait another month. As of yesterday my state is allowing massage therapists to see clients as long as we conform to a set of COVID-safe procedures. In April the models were predicting that the first wave would have passed by now, but while the trends of the past few weeks have been good, the virus is still almost as prevalent in the community as it was at the peak. The models now predict that the tapering of cases we were supposed to see by May 18 will not occur until early July. With reopening taking place now (early June) combined with mass protests and social unrest, it seems quite possible we will see a resurgence within a few weeks. So I made the painful and costly decision to delay. I had to cancel about forty appointments yesterday, with personal emails sent to each client to explain my decision. They took it well, and most have already booked appointments for July and August.

So now begins what I hope will be the final thirty days of a three-and-a-half month hiatus. It has been excruciating. For a quarter of a century beginning in the 1980s I either worked in offices or as a professional accompanist. I loved my work, but I often found the culture of touch deprivation left me feeling like a vaporous spirit. Was the world real or only virtually real? I didn’t realize the degree to which I am tactile. I need physical touch to know that I really exist. Going to massage school and becoming a professional massage therapist gave me a “license to touch.” The structure of the profession and the ethical training I received has made it so that my daily immersion in a world of healing touch is safe and healthy. I have helped a lot of people. I enjoy the one-on-one conversations. Over the past eleven years I have gotten to know some clients very well: I’ve heard their life stories. I have accompanied them through births, deaths, illnesses, career changes, marriages and divorces. Most of all I know how their life experiences and challenges affect their bodies. It is an honor and a privilege to be an important part of their lives. Imagine what it has been like for me to be sequestered in a virtual house arrest for two-and-a-half months!

A Gentle Warning to the Reader

One thing that has really held me back in the writing of this blog is a concern, based on regretful experience, that if I just relax and be myself, talk about my life and my thoughts, it will be too much for some. So this is a general “trigger warning.” I am likely to talk about some life experiences that could reopen old wounds. I might shock people by revealing bitter truths in blunt language, reminding them of their own dark past or unhealed hurts. Others may find my self-revelations to be in bad tasted, or suspect me of exposing myself to get attention or to attract readers through morbid curiosity.

Let this post serve as notice: I don’t really want readers. Not yet. Maybe someday. Right now I am not very good at this. I hope I don’t accidentally make someone’s problems worse by saying the wrong thing. So, reader, please feel free to stop reading a post at any time should you feel that it is too much for you right now. Perhaps avoid this blog entirely if you feel fragile or are not up to it. This is a tough time for everyone. I need to write for my own sanity. I don’t know if anything I have to say at this point will be of value to anyone, now or later. Thank you for your forbearance.

Good Philosophy Is Good Karma

The Buddha talked about “the three poisons” which indulging in will lead to bad karma: greed, hatred, and ignorance. Fortunately, there are three antidotes that can ameliorate the effects of the poisons: generosity, compassion, and wisdom. Luckily, cultivating these antidotes is pretty straightforward and it is possible to do a little bit every day to better oneself. My work as a massage therapist grants me ample opportunity for the mindful practice of generosity and compassion, to which my clients often attest. But the other day I asked myself, “What is wisdom?” All of the Buddha’s teaching are recursive, operating in layers that constantly refer back to themselves. A first example? What I just laid out about the three poisons and the three antidotes is in itself a little packet of wisdom.

In several previous posts I began exploring the meaning of the word “philosophy,” and as you may recall it is from the Greek words for “love” and “wisdom.” Philosophy, when done right, is nothing more than the search for wisdom. And with a little logical slight of hand, we have our nugget for today: the diligent and honest practice of philosophy as the search for wisdom is, in fact, good karma.

Annual Dreary Rehash

Beginning in January 1985 a remarkable series of events occurred that eventually led to my becoming sober on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1985. I had scarcely drawn a sober breath since the preceding August, and by February was bouncing around in a haze acting from mostly unconscious motives, making a shambles of my life. The crazy, serendipitous events of that period will provide material for many future posts, but for now I will say that in my darkest moments rays of light were beginning to pierce the veil. By the time I got sober my memories of those last two months of my drinking were a jumble. Vivid images of people and places and of my own actions and words haunted me, but their connection to each other was incoherent. Of course, in working a program of recovery I had to do my best to make a thorough review for the purposes of self-evaluation and accountability. Nevertheless, every year for the past thirty-four years I find myself in a bit of a funk during this time of year as the memories resurface unbidden. Every year I make new connections between the events and have new insights into myself. I see more clearly the buried motives that fueled my actions. Each year I find myself able to forgive myself a little more, to understand the pain I was masking and running from, and to feel ever more grateful for the deliverance I received. And each year when the anniversary of my sobriety arrives accompanied by the emergence of Spring, I breathe a sigh of relief. Reliving those dark times is never pleasant, but I have no choice in it. The memories come as surely as the snows of Winter.

It Is Time

A few months ago a friend asked me if I had been blogging much lately. The answer was no. She said, “Why not?” I said that the times are perilous, and were I to write honestly about has been on my mind it might upset people. I then proceeded to rant for a while, to her bemusement.

A few weeks ago I heard an eighties tune playing on the radio, and for a few minutes I was viewing today through the eyes of my twenty-five-year-old self. I felt nostalgic for a time long gone, and suddenly realized that I am now that “old guy” who misses how the world used to be. Not that I don’t see and appreciate the countless ways in which things are better now. But I am aware that more of my lifespan lies in the past than in the future, and I think it is time to begin sharing from my direct experience so that my younger family and friends can benefit from a record of what I have lived and learned. That has always been the ultimate purpose of this blog.

Moving forward from here, I would like these posts to be less professorial and more personal. I am an “applied philosopher,” so my stories will either serve to illustrate philosophical principles and methods, or the philosophical methods will help make sense of the stories. My trepidation is lessened by the knowledge that my readers are few and, so far, friendly. So, here goes!

“Happiness” Is an Art

“Most people are about as happy as they choose to be,” said Abraham Lincoln. The word “happy” comes from the old Norse root “hap,” which just means “luck” or “chance.” To be happy, in the crudest sense, is simply to be having a string of good luck: things are going well. But in our time it seems to have a deeper, more metaphysical sense, indicating a generalized sense of wellbeing or contentment. Psychologists came to equate this with being “well-adjusted.” Most religions hold out the promise of happiness as an end state to be achieved by the virtuous, a reward.

How one quantifies this depends on the time frame in question: momentary versus ultimate happiness. While it is impossible to imagine happiness existing without some associated feelings of happiness, mere feelings are not enough for most people. Artificial sensations of joy, contentment, and release can be created by drugs, for example, but when the effects wear off a gnawing feeling of emptiness and remorse can ensue. While Mortimer J. Adler, in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, makes a reasonable argument for the notion that true happiness is arriving at one’s deathbed with a sense of satisfaction at a life well-lived, it is hard to imagine such a scenario without there having been many happy moments leading up to it.

For what I feel is the best treatment of this subject, I recommend the book The Art of Happinessby His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. This useful book shows how achieving happiness is a skill to be developed over a lifetime, with implications far beyond the individual.

Language Games on the Playground

All of us probably mastered the creation and development of language games by the time we were ten years old thanks to our vast experiences on the playground at recess, or passing time in the back seat of the car on family vacations. When children engage in creative group play, role-playing “cops and robbers” or “playing house”, they are not only trying on adult behaviors to imagine how they would feel, they are learning how to negotiate evolving rule sets as an imaginary consensus “reality” is being collaboratively constructed.

It is easy to forget that the same process is continuing throughout our lives, and much of what we take for “reality” today didn’t even have words to describe it a century ago. A century from now, if there are people, their reality will be described in words that haven’t been invented yet, because the concepts don’t yet exist. This is not just because of technological developments (“If someone were to hand Leonardo da Vinci a garage door opener how would he make sense of it?”) but also many social ones. Decades ago gender roles were a “presupposed value” that can no longer be assumed in current discussions. “Privacy” is certainly different today than even thirty years ago, with different assumptions necessary. Do you even read the “updated privacy policy” notices you receive via email? I read one all the way through the other day and found that the policies, while reasonable, included many possibilities and issues that might never have occurred to me.

If you are old like me (I’m fifty-six) you might be taking for granted certain aspects of the “social contracts” in our society which have been evolving into a new reality right under your feet. Your relationship with your employer. Your rights over your property (including intellectual). Did you know you can be arrested for carrying too much cash?

The Wisdom Prayer

Before I continue describing the power dynamics at play in the formation and evolution of language games, let’s take a break and just play one. Without any meta-analysis of the language game I am playing here (“sharing experiences of recovery”) I will just “make a move.”

My father joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1963, when I was two years old. We frequently recited the famous “Serenity Prayer” at the dinner table as I was growing up. Later, when I was twenty-three, I had the “honor” of following his footsteps on a path to recovery of my own. While supplicatory prayer to a deity is no longer part of my daily spiritual routine, I must have said the Serenity Prayer countless times in the first decades of my sobriety. Its most common (short) form is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For understanding the nuances it helps to see a slightly longer version (also by Niebuhr) which reads:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I have decided that calling it “The Serenity Prayer” is a big mistake: it gives the impression that “serenity” is the main thing being asked for when in fact the crucial element is wisdom. When I know for a fact that something cannot be changed, it is easy to accept it. Likewise, when I am certain that my effort to change something will be rewarded with success, I jump right in without even considering the need for “courage.” But real agony sets in when I just don’t know whether I must accept something or I should work to change it.

And some of the worst suffering in my life has been when I was absolutely certain I couldn’t change something so I prayed and prayed for the serenity to accept it, to no avail. Meditation, formal rituals of surrender, “moving on” to other concerns: nothing worked. I always found myself back in the familiar anguished state of bewilderment, frustration, and despair. When one day it dawned on me that I might be wrong, I found the biggest obstacle to changing my view was the amount of energy I had invested in explaining to myself why I had no choice in the matter. For example, I had dropped out of college in 1983, about two thirds of the way through a B.S. in chemistry. I had long since moved on and made a decent career as an I.T. guy. I was working way more than forty hours per week; I had kids and a mortgage. Surely it was too late for the self-indulgence of going back to college? But the negative effects on my self-esteem took a toll over the years. Even I got tired of hearing my excuses and negative storytelling about how I had missed my chance. Knowing the difference between something that can be changed and something that can’t is wisdom, and it is what I needed.

The same thing applies to situations where I fought for years to change something, unwilling to accept that it was simply never going to happen. Serenity is great. Courage is great. But only wisdom can make the difference that ends suffering.

Internal Combustion versus Conflagration

I ended my previous post by calling language games “the internal combustion engines of society.” Nature abounds with naked power struggles: tectonic plates bumping and jostling, atmospheric forces colliding to create weather, species competing for an ecological niche, predator/prey relationships. The ability to control and make use of fire was a key turning point in human evolution. Fire is dangerous when out of control, but when contained in a wood stove or an internal combustion engine it provides useful energy to power our economic activities. Similarly for language games: power imbalances are harnessed to move society forward.

When uncontrolled, the power imbalances among people can be quite brutal. Feudalism, slavery, predatory capitalism, organized crime, despotic regimes, and wars are examples where the only check on power is the existence of a rival power. The modern liberal state exists in part for the purpose of checking the abuses of power through the collective action of “the people” through constitutions, legislatures, laws, regulations, courts, and law enforcement institutions. Within each of these are language games that allow for constrained power struggles between agents: court cases, free-market competition, sports, and, of course, political competition in elections. The societal forces that enclose and structure these games prevent the conflagration that would result from a lawless, Hobbesian war of all against all, while the power struggles fought within the confines of the “rules of the game” lead to progress: new laws, new products, new ideas, new knowledge, and the carrying out of justice.

Power Context

Another crucial factor in the structure of language games is what I call the “power context.” As stated in earlier posts, language games are more than mere linguistic constructs: they involve people, and take as ‘givens’ many facts and values. The ‘play’ TrafficStopincludes activities and things in the real world. Every example of a language game I have presented also includes a power context: an unstated but inescapable configuration of relative powers of the participants. Sometimes the players are equal, but often not. To ignore the power context of a language game would be as absurd as doing astrophysics without considering gravitational fields.

Revisiting some of my earlier examples with this in mind:

  • In the operating room, the surgeon is giving commands, the assistant is responding to the commands, and the patient lies helpless on the table.
  • The police officer, with the full backing of the government, has power over the citizen in the traffic stop. The citizen has certain rights but would do well not to try to turn the tables by, say, reaching for a weapon.
  • At a wedding, the minister has been vested by the state with the power to perform the ceremony. The couple to be married stand as equals while the guests, except for one opportunity to voice an objection, are expected to tacitly lend their support.
  • In a chess tournament the individual players are considered equal and must comply with the instructions of the tournament director. The tournament itself may be conducted under the auspices of a chess federation. Participation is voluntary.
  • In a university chemistry research lab there is likely a hierarchy (professor and grad students, say). The game is played under the umbrella of not only the university, but also the chemistry profession and the greater scientific community. From another angle, the whole enterprise might be seen as an attempt to acquire the power over nature that scientific knowledge might impart.
  • In the farmers’ market the buyer and seller have different powers: the seller knows the “real story” of the produce, but the buyer has the money and free choice to walk away. A balance is presumably reached at the moment a deal is agreed to.
  • At the bank the internal auditor has great power over the manager being audited, although it could be the case that a rookie auditor is going up against a veteran senior manager. Presumably both are under the authority of a board of directors, while the banking industry is under the regulation of the government.
  • In a job interview the power context could vary: perhaps the job seeker is in dire financial straits and feels marginally qualified amongst a large number of applicants. In that case the power is with the interviewing manager. On the other hand, the position might be crucial to the operation of the company, may require a specialized skill set, and this candidate uniquely qualified. Depending on the length of the vacancy and the urgency of making the hire, the power may lie squarely with the candidate.
  • At the gym with a personal trainer, the client may feel subservient to the trainer — especially if the client is a beginner and out of shape while the trainer is super fit and experienced. On the other hand, the client is the one with the money and the trainer may be in the early stages of building their business, so it could be the opposite. Take a moment to consider a variety of factors and possibilities. Also, the power balance can certainly change over time.
  • Even in the example of the chapter in the chess book there are implicit power factors: the authority and reputation of the writer (grandmaster? coach? theoretician?), whether they utilized computer chess engines to analyze the variations, the strength of the examples from master practice, the willingness of the public to buy the book, the efforts of the publisher to sell it, the prospect of increased chess strength for the reader, etc.

Many language games exist for the explicit purpose of addressing and resolving power struggles, for example: court cases, business negotiations, philosophical arguments, politics, and, of course, chess matches and sporting events. But apart from the power struggles harnessed within language games (the internal combustion engines of society!), without the structuring of the games themselves by contextual power gradients outside of them they would have no sense or function at all.