Sunday, July 31, 2016

The measure of a life

"Some lives are better than others," I say, trying to get my students to think about the ancient philosophical question, "How shall we live?" I normally get a mixed response. In an age when we popularly value "the uniqueness of every individual," and "equality," that some lives might be better than others seems counter intuitive. So we have a discussion. The life of a first grade teacher—someone who has devoted her life to caring for little children—is better than the life of a child abuser—someone who has brought untold pain and suffering to children—I suggest. My students, in the end, tend to agree. Though it still leaves some with nagging doubts. Who are we to judge someone else (though we frequently do, and sometimes necessarily so)? How do we know that our version of "better than" is the right version? It's a long and complex task to peel away the layers and complexities of how we make moral judgments.
In a short blog, let me boil it down to values—in philosophy the subject is called axiology. Values come and go, and at different times some values have a higher priority than others, but most cultures and traditions have a set of core values shared in common. Values evolve too. I think we get better at values, building on what has gone before. Our value of equality, for instance, is far more developed today than, say, three hundred years ago,
A good life, at any particular time, is a life that lives and demonstrates the values we hold most dear.
The first grade teacher demonstrates the values we hold about the importance of young lives and their education. The child abuser tramples on our values of respect, bodily integrity, and not causing harm. So, according to our values, the school teacher lives a better life. Other things being equal, our traditions tell us that to live a better life is more valuable than living a worse life.
Jesus told a story to demonstrate that a life a greed is a worse life. A rich man produced so much that he had to pull down his barns to build bigger ones to store all his stuff. The rich man told himself, "Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry." But God said to the rich man that this very night his life would be demanded of him and what then would happen to all his stuff?
Like many of these ancient stories it's designed to make us pause and think. I don't count myself rich (though I know I am by many global standards), but with my various pension schemes I'm hoping that in retirement I might be able to "relax, eat, drink and be merry." But who knows. And that's the point of the story. A better life would not be about hoarding stuff for the future, but a life serving the common good, spreading some love and peace ... or something like that.
It's probably my age, but I religiously watched both the Republican and Democratic national Conventions. (Apparently, it's what the over 55s do, according to an article I read in the Washington Post.) Both conventions finished late each night, and now I am tired. But I learned a lot about the possible future directions of the USA (and for good or ill the rest of the world). Some of it made me laugh, some made me angry, some made me proud to be an American citizen, and some not, some brought me to tears.
I was most deeply moved by the short speech of Mr. Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier, Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, saving the lives of his comrades. It was a courageous speech, filled with emotion. Mrs. Ghazala Khan stood silently with her husband, clearly still distraught over the death of her son. She later spoke of how difficult it was to maintain composure with the picture of their son behind them.
Toward the end of his speech, speaking about sacrifice for the greater good, Mr. Khan addressed directly Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. "You have sacrificed nothing and no one."
Behind Mr. Khan's remarks is the value that a life of sacrifice for others is a better life than a life of self-serving.
I have pondered Mr. Khan's words much over the last few days. Though I have been a pacifist for thirty years, and think we go to war far too often and far too quickly, I have always admired those who serve in the military and put their lives at risk. Though Mr. Khan's words were addressed to Mr. Trump, I took them for myself. What have I sacrificed for the good of others? How would my life match up against Captain Khan's?
"How shall we live?" asked the ancient philosophers. An answer we come back to again and again, is that a life lived in service of others is a good life. Are some lives are better than others? I think so.
Today, I honor Mr. and Mrs. Khan, their son Captain Kahn, and the sacrifice that they have made for the common good.
+Ab. Andy

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Steady the Buffs!

Recently, I have been longing for a period of relief in the news. That is, news absent from major events and catastrophes that shake the world. This time of the year is, after all, the "silly season," "the slow news season," when traditionally there is nothing to report and newspapers scratch around for some minor tidbit to inflate into a story. Not so this year. It's not quite the case, but feels like the case, that each day has some horror, disaster, or event that threatens world peace. In the week just passed we witnessed the murder of scores of people in Nice and the attempted military coup in Turkey, with hundreds more killed. A joyful celebration turned into a bloodbath; a democratic and wannabe European nation shaken to its core. Both events were brought to us, courtesy of social media, in real time. As Guardian columnist Emily Bell said today, "We the audience, nearly all who click, are walked through the trail of mangled and broken  bodies on the promenade in Nice, before the ambulances arrive." Following both events commentators, pundits and politicians vie with each other to present solutions—often leaning toward, and giving credence to the far right. For me, it's all too reminiscent of the 1930s—economic strain, violence, nationalism, scape-goating the Other, a call for a strong leader who will fix things, and the seeming inevitable rise of fascism. I want dearly to be proved wrong. I hope that we have learned something from the twentieth century, and avoid repeating its disastrous mistakes.
Perhaps, the best thing to do is take a step backward for a needed breather. "Steady the Buffs!" comes to mind, a phrase made popular by Rudyard Kipling in his story "Soldier's Three." It means, more or less, "stay calm, don't panic, don't rush to act rashly." It derives from the British Army Royal East Kent Regiment, nicknamed "The Buffs" because of the buff, off-yellow, facing to their early uniforms. "Steady the Buffs" was a phase used, apparently, by Lieutenant John Cotter in Malta on the parade ground in 1858. It entered popular parlance, though I daresay it's one of those whimsical phrases that will soon pass from the language.
We need something like "steady the Buffs" right now as we face the changes and challenges that amplify the fragility of life, and make us more fearful than we were yesterday.
Ignorance is bliss, so they say, and we might be better off left in the dark. If we didn't know about Nice, or Turkey, or Baghdad, or ISIS, or the rise of fascism, we might sleep better. Writing in my beautiful garden, in the sunshine of a seemingly endless summer (NY is in drought), all of that seems far away, somehow unreal. But that is not the world in which we live. We can't put the paste of 24/7 news, streaming media, and instant notifications back in the tube. It's out there, and we are part of it. The world has never been more interconnected. Murders in Nice affect people in upstate NY. A coup in Turkey threatens the world economy.
An event happens. We want to respond, we need to act, we must do something, anything at all to make us feel better.
"Steady the Buffs!"
In the Daodejing the sage tells us, "The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many are left to be done." Wu wei—action though non action. Don't rush in. Don't do something just for the sake of action. Wait. Be still. Know with the Sufis that "this too shall pass."
"Steady the Buffs!"
+Ab Andy