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Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’

16 JUNE, 2014

How to Navigate the Murky Waters of Workplace Friendships: Wisdom from Adam Smith and Aristotle

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“Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure?”

“A condition of friendship, is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in his beautiful meditation on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love. “As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist.” This is why one of the greatest challenges to any friendship is the emergence of a power dynamic, especially when it is perceived by one or both parties as uneven or unfair. That’s precisely what British journalist and Church-of-England-priest-turned-atheist Mark Vernon explores in a chapter of The Meaning of Friendship (public library).

Vernon, who echoes Rilke’s memorable words and notes that “the value of asking about friendship lies in the asking, not necessarily in coming to any incontestable conclusions,” argues that one of the defining characteristics of friendship is its inherent ambiguity — unlike social institutions of belonging like marriage or the workplace, it doesn’t operate by clear social norms or contractually defined roles, it comes with “no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth.” In fact, it can’t even be automatically derived from within these other social contracts — a marriage, Vernon notes, may or may not foster true friendship, and even more so a workplace. He laments:

Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? … The corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

That ambiguity gets especially perilous, Vernon argues, at work, where our relationships with colleagues may take the guise of friendship but are ultimately shaped by other forces — forces that often have an implicit power dynamic. It’s a modern predicament especially poignant in our culture where “productivity often counts for more than perspicacity, the professional touch more than the personal touch, being praised more than being praiseworthy.” What this produces is an air of “pseudo-intimacy” between colleagues, whose relationships, at the very core, are premised on their usefulness to one another. That utilitarian basis, Vernon argues, is the “fundamental source of the ambiguity of many friendships at work”:

People’s utility at work extends way beyond just being a welcome distraction or even performing a role or a function. It goes to the heart of the working environment, underpinning why people are there at all. They work to do something, for a client, for a team, for a boss. And work is not without one key utility to the employee, namely, the paycheck. Ideally the work is rewarding, doubly so when there’s a sense of achieving something with friends. And if you receive what you believe you are due that generates friendly feeling too.

Vernon takes care to point out that people can and do feel authentic friendship toward each other at work — in fact, he points to Gallup research indicating that “a friendly working environment” leads to an increase in employee satisfaction by nearly 50% and people with good friends at work are twice as likely to feel like they’re well-compensated by the company. He dives deeper into the research:

Those 30% of people who report having a best friend at work gain in unexpected ways. They will have fewer accidents, engage more customers and work more productively. They also feel that what they are doing is well aligned with the company’s aims, in other words their work feels more purposeful. They are better at being innovative, and are more prepared to share ideas. Further, friends at work provide a sense of belonging: they make you feel that you are informed about what’s going on, that your opinions are being heard across the organization.

And yet shared activity within the framework of an organization is the glue that holds these friendships together. Vernon writes:

Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower.

Another phenomenon further illustrates this utilitarian nature of work friendships — the awkwardness that often ensues when two coworkers bump into each other in their off-work lives, say, at the grocery store or the park. Vernon breaks down what’s going on:

The reason for the discomfort is that stripping work relationships of their utility, and the environment in which the relationship makes sense, simultaneously removes their raison d’être. So outside work, people find it hard to know how to relate to one another… [They] become awkward because the framework within which they conduct the relationship is gone.

A large part of this has to do with the aforementioned ambiguity of friendship, or more specifically with our tendency to mistake friendliness, which can have a wide range of practical motivations, for friendship, which in its highest form is far less conditional and self-interested. And yet the difference between the two is one of degree, not kind — which makes the ambiguity all the more challenging to handle as it slides across the spectrum between these two poles. Vernon proposes a way of navigating the mire of ambiguity better, considering how we can not only cope with but even overcome the “powerful culture of instrumentality” the modern workplace cultivates:

We need a more subtle language to describe the conditions of friendship in these highly structured environments. It’s good to be able to draw distinctions between the ways in which we might profit from the friendliness of other people, on a scale from out-and-out exploitation, through mutual benefit, to an encounter we might come to count as providential. Unmoderated exploitation is never going to provide fertile grounds for friendship. But soft mutual benefit is not only bearable in work relationships but also actually common to all friendships. Indeed, even best friends are, in part, a good thing to have because of what they can do for you, for the function they can perform — from small kindnesses like feeding the cat, to being there to pick up the pieces when life falls apart. Some would say that the defining mark of a good friend is that they are always there for you and thus have a kind of unconditional utility… That sounds like a blessing. The difference between that and most relationships at work is that in the office people are friendly generally because of the mutual gain. You are liked first, not for who you are, but for what you give.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

Still, Vernon is careful to point out, this doesn’t automatically eliminate the possibility of genuine friendship at work. If anything, a common project is a great centripetal force that brings people together around it, and sometimes friendships might and do blossom. And yet without the utility that set that centripetal force in motion in the first place, that outcome would not have happened. Vernon writes:

Work may be one of the best sources of friends, as well as one of the most desirable places to have one. The point is that these relationships are always, at least initially, influenced by the utility factor. The trick is to ensure any nascent friendship is not determined by it.

Aware of this fruitful ambiguity, many modern companies now deliberately fuel it by filling their offices with “locations for the forging of friendships” — gyms, cafés, pool tables, the LEGO “play room” at Google’s New York office. But the true test of a friendship’s motives, Vernon suggests, is not when things are going right but when they go wrong. An especially common Achilles heel of workplace friendships based on mutual benefit is the havoc that ensues when one party begins to feel that the benefit she is receiving doesn’t measure up to what was promised or feels entitled to. This bespeaks the fundamental folly — our tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship. Vernon writes:

If friendship is about knowing someone truly and being known by them, it is also about knowing which relationships are likely to foster good friendships; the relationships that contain the seeds of deeper friendship, as opposed to shallow, instrumental friendliness. It all depends on the attitude people have to their tasks and what they expect of others. And perhaps when genuine good feeling rises above the request for jolly camaraderie or devious influence, an admiration for character over professional achievement — a virtual spiral of regard — can blossom into friendship.

One of the trickiest workplace “friendships” is that between a boss and her employee, where there is an implicit imbalance of power, money, and status. Vernon turns to Aristotle, perhaps our civilization’s greatest philosopher of friendship, who divided such relationships into two parts — contractual, based on the terms of employment and the respective expectations regarding responsibility, time, and compensation, and goodwill, “the human bit of the working relationship, or the extent to which you’re prepared to gift your talents free of charge to the boss.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' by Ruth Krauss, 1960. Click image for more.

Vernon writes:

The first part being contractual is, by definition, impersonal. The second, goodwill, is where the potential for friendship lies. Unhappiness stems from the confusion of the two.

Confusion arises, Vernon argues, when it’s unclear whether a boss-figure makes a demand to the contractual part or a plea to the goodwill, for instance in asking her employee to work late on a project. This brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s timeless definition of a great leader whose “real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” Yet at the same time, it shines an uncomfortable light on contemporary startup culture, built to a large extent on the expectation — usually informal, unspoken, and unpaid — that people will work well into the night and on weekends, which even sprouted the term “startup hours.” All too frequently, the contractual and the goodwill parts of the relationship between the employee and the boss or founder bleed into one another, which over time can cause precisely the kind of resentment Vernon describes when one party feels unfairly compensated — whether it’s the designer toiling away for a year’s worth of 100-hour weeks without a tangible reward, or the founder feeling that the designer who goes home at 6pm on a Friday isn’t pulling his weight per the unspoken expectation.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

This already jumbled equation gets even more complicated, Vernon points out, when it comes to people doing fulfilling work or laboring at something that gratifies their sense of purpose, since we often assume that the work itself is, or should be, its own reward. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that “friendship can flow more freely between managers and subordinates because financial gain is not such a big issue.” Once again, Vernon turns to Aristotle to illustrate the hitch:

[Aristotle] tells the story of a lyre player at a party who was promised payment and more, the better he played. When dawn came, he asked for what he thought were his dues. However, his employer regarded himself as something of a connoisseur. After hearing such beautiful music he could not comprehend the demand for more cash: “Surely, the beauty of the playing is payment enough,” he reasoned. “Your playing is its own reward.” Unsurprisingly, the lyre player did not see it that way, and departed bitter and disappointed. The moral of the story is not that the lyre player did not enjoy making music: he may have taken more pleasure from it than anyone. Rather, it is that whilst the party-giver sought music the lyre player sought a living, and though the former received what he wanted in good measure, the lyre player did not. Work may include its own rewards but for the employee working for someone else it is still a means to an end.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

It’s worth pausing here and going on a slight tangent from Vernon’s writing to note that what is true of such employer-employee complications around meaningful work is also true in the larger artist-patron, or even artist-society, context — we, as a culture, often expect artists to work for free because they’re doing what they love, which somehow makes it less of a “real” job; they’re not allowed to ask for the same compensation as someone doing “real” work. (For a beautiful articulation of this unfortunate paradox, I recommend Amanda Palmer’s TED talk.) Somehow, we’re okay with business men and women making a ton of money helming companies that do little more than profit from people’s proclivity for buying carbonated sugar-water — not only are we okay but we put those CEOs on the covers of our magazines and list them among the Most Powerful People in the world. But we’re not okay commending artists and writers and other creators for making a ton of money by putting things into the world that enrich our souls. The lyre player of today may have changed her instrument, but she has hardly made progress since Aristotle’s time.

But back to Vernon’s narrative about the intersection of friendship and work — he cites his own experience of working for a friend, only to end up working without pay for a while once his friend’s company went into a “deep cash-flow crisis.” Cash-strapped himself, Vernon was unable to keep contributing for free, so he had to quit and find a paying job. The friendship never quite recovered from this perilous blurring of the contractual and the goodwill part. He cautions:

Work for your friend at your own peril.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

To prevent a similar fate for friendships that form at the workplace, he offers a sound strategy:

If friendliness is a feature of the office, as you might hope, you’re best either not to expect too much or quickly establish ways of deepening the friendship that have nothing to do with work whatsoever — perhaps by trying a drink together after work, or making an arrangement for the weekend. This will show the relationship up for what it is, so start small: if it is merely a work relationship then the attempt to form a deeper friendship with flounder; if it is truly a friendship, it will flourish. The philosophical principle is that friendships which depend upon doing something together also depend upon the mutual benefit that comes from that. If the benefit is cut for some reason then the relationship will be curtailed too. Such is the fragility of utility-based friendship.

If this sounds depressingly cautious, Vernon argues it’s not our fault — rather, it’s a toxic byproduct of consumer culture:

The underlying ideals of a commercially-minded society — in which utility, competition, profit and exchange are highly valued — shape a socio-economic climate that people’s friendships must contend with, too.

In many ways, Vernon argues, pioneering political economist Adam Smith — he of “invisible hand” fame — had one of the most lucid explanations of friendship in the history of philosophy, in large part because he was “that rare thing among modern philosophers as a thinker who takes friendship seriously.” In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith applied the basic cost-benefit model to such metaphysical concepts as sympathy, compassion, and platonic love. Vernon explains:

[Smith] interpreted the goal of wellbeing to mean a culture of flourishing cooperation. If that seems a mediocre thing to aspire to then that is not to say that the virtues of sociality are themselves mundane: if anything quite the opposite, since social cooperation requires individuals to act justly, beneficently and prudently. Moreover, when individuals act in this way, Smith argued, they should attract friends.

But social cooperation is bedeviled by the same inherent challenges as altruism — unlike happiness which, as Vernon puts it, “makes its own case as a goal in life,” cooperation doesn’t contain the inherent guarantee that people will want to aspire toward it. To solve this problem, Smith came up with a concept that he thought would motivate people — an imaginary figure he called the “impartial spectator,” which served much the same purpose Santa does in motivating little kids to be nice rather than naughty. Vernon outlines Smith’s idea:

An impartial spectator is a fictional presence that sees everything an individual does, not to pass judgment, but in order that the individual, believing that they are being watched, will act in the best way they can. If the idea of such an observer seems somewhat fanciful, its very shadowiness is part of Smith’s plan too. The point is that the impartial spectator will not satisfy the individual merely by praising them when they behave well; it is not an internalized father-figure. Rather, it operates more like a mirror to encourage the individual to see themselves as they truly are. That, surely, is a frightening thing to behold, quite enough to nudge anyone’s bad behavior in the direction of the good…

As Smith puts it, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” This, then, is what he believes will inspire individuals to act according to the values of social cooperation: they will seek to be praiseworthy, not merely praised. And in turn, because that praiseworthiness makes them lovely, they will find genuine friends, who are lovely too.

Illustration by Giuliano Cucco from 'Winston and George' by John Miller, an illustrated ode to an unlikely friendship. Click image for more.

So what does this have to do with the question of friendship at the workplace? Much of the conundrum stems precisely from this notion of praiseworthiness and the ambiguity — yet more ambiguity — of defining that. In commercial societies, which Vernon points out are pluralistic, multiple standards exist to evaluate the same behavior — what one person may consider the admirable ambition of a Type-A go-getter another might judge as the reckless bulldozing of anything and anyone in the way to a goal. When morality is a relative matter, deciding what is praiseworthy becomes tricky. It gets even more complicated:

A more practical problem stems for the need Smith has for praiseworthiness to itself be thought praiseworthy. If commercial culture is confused about that too — compromising it in favor of utility, profit, exchange and so on — then his theory collapses. The shadowy observer dissipates, as it were, in the harsh winds of what people might call the real world — the realpolitik of commercial activity. People then inevitably return to seeking praise for its own sake…

It seems … that this is what happens at work. The determining instrumentality of the workplace means that praiseworthiness is typically secondary to delivery. At work people are praised for the things they do, and chastised for the things that they fail to do: remuneration comes to those who impact the bottom line; people act out of utility — their “role.” Even intangible qualities that might be thought praiseworthy, like entrepreneurialism or simple human pleasantness, must indirectly prove their worth in terms of profitability to be valued. Employment is not like school where people are rewarded for trying hard regardless of what they achieve…

If a commercial society, of which the workplace is a microcosm, is one in which praiseworthiness is in fact a marginal concern, it seems that friendship will in turn struggle: people will on the whole be merely friendly with each other, rarely truly friends in the sense of loving someone with no thought of gain.

Our cult of productivity, Vernon argues — as I have lamented previously — is a particularly potent culprit in prioritizing utilitarian outcomes over human ones. He writes:

The huge emphasis on productivity in the modern economy … is nothing if not self-interest with a vengeance.

What emerges is a bleak picture of the despotism commercial society exerts on friendship, especially as workplaces continue to demand more of our time under the guise of letting us do “cool work” that is its own reward. (Tom Sawyer’s famous fence-painting scheme comes to mind.) And the more we immerse ourselves in work, the less we avail ourselves to the gifts of friendship because, as Vernon eloquently notes, “apart from the adverse effects of time constraints, good friendships depend too on individuals nurturing a range of interests.”

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Where this leaves us may be uncomfortable, but it’s also a reminder that we’re invariably a product of the choices we make and the priorities we set. Reflecting on where we are 250 years after Smith, Vernon writes:

The specter of utility still haunts the workplace today. Whilst the poles may have shifted, there is little reason to think that the challenge posed by it is any less strong. Perhaps it is stronger because it is more subtle: if social cooperation in commercial society has mutated into social productivity under capitalism, our work culture is at least as indifferent toward friendship as it ever was. [It's] a problem that has a tangible impact on us all, living as we do in a culture that assesses much more than just our productivity via cost-benefit analysis. Deeper friendships may form yet, but perhaps in spite of, not because of, commercialism.

The Meaning of Friendship (public library) is a fantastic read in its entirety, exploring such facets of human connection as friends and lovers, the politics of friendship, online friendships, and more. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan’s indispensable treatise on friendship, Love Undetectable, then revisit Aristotle’s timeless wisdom and some thoughts on the subject from Francis Bacon.

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23 APRIL, 2014

Love Undetectable: Andrew Sullivan on Why Friendship Is a Greater Gift Than Romantic Love

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Reflections on the cornerstone of our flourishing.

“A principal fruit of friendship,” Francis Bacon observed, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” Thoreau would “sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities.” St. Augustine described friendship as “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.” But what exactly is friendship — what defines its singular hallmark? Shortly after his dear friend Patrick’s death, Andrew Sullivan — one of the deepest thinkers and most enchanting writers of our time — was gripped with grief so all-consuming that it led him to examine the nature of friendship itself, a bond so special that its forceful breakage could induce pain of such unbearable proportions. In the altogether fantastic 1998 volume Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (public library), he considers the inner workings of friendship and argues that its gift is far greater than that of romantic love, despite our cultural bias for the latter.

Sullivan writes:

For me, friendship has always been the most accessible of relationships — certainly far more so than romantic love. Friendship, I learned, provided a buffer in the interplay of emotions, a distance that made the risk of intimacy bearable, a space that allowed the other person to remain safely another person.

He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” And yet, he concedes, the cultural silence around friendship also reflects an inherent truth about the nature of the bond itself:

You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.

Reflecting on the tragedy of loss that prompted his meditation, Sullivan adds:

A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

In that consideration, Sullivan turns to Aristotle, who is perhaps philosophy’s greatest patron saint of friendship. In Aristotle’s day, the Ancient Greek notion of phila cast a wide net to capture the many dimensions of friendship. Sullivan writes:

In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.

[…]

Friendship, for Aristotle, seems to be the cornerstone of human society and flourishing, an integral part of happiness, and bound up inextricably with the notion of virtue.

For Aristotle, the defining feature of friendship was the trifecta of reciprocity, equality, and the physical sharing of life. Sullivan tackles the first element:

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.

Perhaps more challenging to grasp is the condition of sharing in one another’s physical life. Why should two friends be required to have regular physical and verbal contact? Sullivan writes:

It has been said that a person’s religion is best defined not by what he says he believes but simply by what he actually does. Equally, it could be said that one’s friends are simply those people with whom one spends one’s life. Period. Anything else is a form of rationalization.

What’s interesting to consider, however, is that at the time of Sullivan’s writing — and certainly in Aristotle’s time millennia earlier — the physical and the real overlapped far more congruously than they do today, in the age of digital sociality. Consider, for example, the friendship between two people who live apart and rarely spend physical time together, but are constantly and intimately connected via email, Facebook, Skype, text-messaging, and other digital extensions of physical presence. Is that relationship any less real, even though it isn’t rooted in physicality? Perhaps the criterion of “people with whom one spends one’s life” is better reframed as “people on whom one spends one’s emotional energies.”

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

Still, for both Aristotle and Sullivan, as well as the centuries of thinkers in between, the most important criterion for friendship is that of “equality between the parties.” Sullivan explains:

This may seem a banal point on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more significant it seems. It is linked to reciprocity. Because each human being is equal in his capacity to assent or not to assent to a relationship, each is, in some sense, radically equal in the capacity for friendship. Even in relationships in which one person vastly outweighs the other in money, or wit, or good looks, or social power, the inferior party can quit the friendship of his own accord and reduce it to its essential elements. A friendship is thus ultimately defined by the desire of each person to be in it. And it is successful insofar as that desire is equal between the two parties.

[…]

Friendship… is almost a central symbol of human autonomy, and the most accessible example of that autonomy in practice.

This notion of autonomy is what takes us to Sullivan’s most central point — the supremacy of friendship over romantic love, or Aristotle’s notion of eros, despite our culture’s compulsive fetishism of the latter:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence.

[…]

We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

Still, Sullivan concedes, the allure of romantic love isn’t hard to grasp. It has been described as a unique experience that makes “the boundaries between you and not-you relax and become more permeable,” a “fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” Sullivan adds to history’s most moving definitions of love:

It can eclipse every other emotion and transport us to levels of bliss and communion we have never felt before. It is intoxicating, but, unlike most other forms of intoxication, it appears to have meaning and depth. We believe, for a moment, that we have found our soulmate, that we are reunited with another half of ourselves that finally gives meaning to everything in our lives. And because we are with that person, more often than not gazing into his or her eyes, it is easy and indeed necessary to abandon perspective. In fact, it almost seems a crime against love to retain any sort of perspective.

Eros, Sullivan points out, blinds us to even such universal concerns as time and death — why else would lovers promise one another eternal love and swear that they couldn’t live without each other? More than that, they even “insist upon it, because to trap it in time would be to impair the inherently unbounded nature of the experience” and “because anything else implies that love is just one competing good among others.” But this quality of eros comes with a dark side:

Love is a supremely jealous thing. It brooks no rival and obliterates every distraction. It seems to transport the human being — who is almost defined by time and morality — beyond the realm of both age and death. Which is why it is both so irresistible and so delusory.

It is from behind that shadow that friendship shines its superior light. Sullivan writes:

Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?

And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.

In fact, this difference in pace of development is what lends friendship its emotional gravitas. Sullivan continues the contrast:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.

(In some instances, as Stendhal famously argued in his 1822 treatise on the role of “crystallization” in love, knowledge can be the mortal enemy of love, squeezing the hope-giving fantasy out of a reality that comes up short.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

Besides the difference in pace, Sullivan also points to a difference in intensity of investment, which translates into a difference in stability:

Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.

One interesting consequence of that dynamic — of the difference between eros and phila — unfolds in the realm of lifelong union, which Sullivan captures beautifully:

The most successful marriages, where the original spark of eros has slowly lit a flame of phila that sustains the union when other more compelling passions have long since died away. Indeed, one of the least celebrated but most important achievements of the increasingly successful battle for women’s equality is that it has properly expanded the universe of friendship for both men and women and made marriage more of a setting for friendship than for love. This is no mean accomplishment.

He contrasts C.S Lewis’s model of love as two people facing one another enraptured by the other’s gaze with the stance of friendship:

The classic stance of two friends is side by side, looking ahead in the same direction. The two stances are not complementary; they are opposed. And although it is conceivable to unite them, it is quite a hazardous enterprise. When a friendship becomes a love, of course, the moment may be partially liberating. But it is liberating precisely because one is leaving the distance and discipline that friendship demands for the union and abandon that love promises.

(For a gripping manifestation of the shift from one to the other, see Sartre’s letter to Simone de Beauvoir on “the pleasure… of turning abruptly from friendship to love.”)

It is precisely in how each bond addresses the question of control that the most important difference between the two is found:

Love is about control and loss of control. In love, we give ourselves up to each other. We lose control or, rather, we cede control to another, trusting in a way we would never otherwise trust, letting the other person hold the deepest part of our being in their hands, with the capacity to hurt it mortally. This cession of control is a deeply terrifying thing, which is why we crave it and are drawn to it like moths to the flame, and why we have to trust it unconditionally. In love, so many hazardous uncertainties in life are resolved: the constant negotiation with other souls, the fear and distrust that lie behind almost every interaction, the petty loneliness that we learned to live with as soon as we grew apart from our mother’s breast. We lose all this in the arms of another. We come home at last to a primal security, made manifest by each other’s nakedness…

And with that loss of control comes mutual power, the power to calm, the power to redeem, and the power to hurt.

Friendship, by contrast, offers a wholly different and diametrically opposed paradigm:

A condition of friendship is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another. And one is drawn to it not by need but by choice. If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy. As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist. But until a lover seeks to possess his beloved, the love has hardly begun. Where love is all about the juggling of the power to hurt, friendship is about creating a space where power ceases to exist. There is a cost to this, of course. Friends will never provide what lovers provide: the ultimate resort, that safe space of repose, that relaxation of the bedsheets. But they provide something more reliable, and certainly less painful. They provide an acknowledgement not of the child within but of the adult without; they allow for an honesty which doesn’t threaten pain and criticism which doesn’t imply rejection. They promise not the bliss of the womb but the bracing adventure of the world. They do not solve loneliness, yet they mitigate it.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Nowhere does this glorious dimensionality of friendship blossom more beautifully than in a letter that Patrick wrote Andrew shortly after the two, gripped with equal trepidation, shared with each other the same devastating news that they had both been diagnosed with HIV:

With all that’s happened to us — together and apart — I’m inclined to think that somehow we were chosen to know each other, to help sustain each other, and to teach each other about the mysteries of loving, living, dying. After the initial crush of your news, when I had been prepared not to receive but to give a report on my HIV status to you, I found myself strangely grown more attached and connected to you, even protective of you, and I felt an effusion of love and tenderness that, for the first time since I met you, was not constrained by considerations of others, of anything or anyone another than you, and me, and our feelings for one another. Somehow I was able to love you wholly, and this gave me great strength to face the greatest fears I have known. How is it that such news can clear an immediate path between us, sweep away the debris and the impediments…?

Andrew never found out how the letter continued, since Patrick never mailed it. This first page was found among his possessions a year after his death.

Love Undetectable is an absolutely sublime read in its entirety — the kind that plays more strings of your soul than you knew you had.

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14 APRIL, 2014

How to Cultivate Practical Wisdom in Our Everyday Lives and Why It Matters in Our Individual and Collective Happiness

By:

The psychology of how we use frames, categories, and storytelling to make sense of the world.

“It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being,” Isaac Asimov told Bill Moyers in their magnificent 1988 conversation on science and religion. And yet ours is a culture that frequently turns to rigid external rules — be they of religion or of legislature or of social conduct — as a substitute for the inner moral compass that a truly “decent human being” uses to steer behavior. So what can we do, as a society and as individual humans aspiring to be good, to cultivate that deeper sense of right and wrong, with all its contextual fuzziness and situational fluidity? That’s precisely what celebrated psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the influential The Paradox of Choice, and political scientist Kenneth Sharpe explore in Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (public library) — a fascinating and necessary exploration of how to nurture and reclaim the essential moral skill at the heart of character traits like courage, compassion, loyalty, fairness, generosity, and empathy, inspired by the timeless teachings of Aristotle’s philosophy yet grounded in invaluable insights from contemporary psychology.

Schwartz and Sharpe write:

[Aristotle] thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices — like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry—and that making the right choices demanded wisdom. To take the example of anger, the central question for Aristotle was not whether anger was good or bad, or the abstract question about what the nature of the “good” in fact was. It was the particular and concrete issue of what to do in a particular circumstance: who to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose. The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical. It depended on our ability to perceive the situation, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate about what was appropriate in these circumstances, and to act.

[…]

Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession — from banking to social work — has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it. So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her practice. But it takes wisdom — practical wisdom — to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.

External rules, while helpful in other regards, can’t instill in us true telos. Echoing Asimov’s concern, Schwartz and Sharpe consider how this concept helps define a good person and what it necessitates:

People who are practically wise understand the telos of being a friend or a parent or a doctor and are motivated to pursue this aim. A wise practitioner wants to do the right thing not because of some monetary reward or punishment but because it is what being a good teacher or a good doctor demands. But aiming at the right thing is not sufficient. That’s why we say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Translating our aims into action demands expertise.

In an insight that Daniel Pink would later come to echo in exploring the science of what actually motivates us, the authors point out that the rules and incentives used by many of our cultural institutions to foster efficiency and accountability are no substitute for telos and, in fact, often erode rather than nurture it. More than a pragmatic tool of social progress, however, telos is a centerpiece of our well-being as individuals:

We need to appreciate that cultivating wisdom is not only good for society but is, as Aristotle thought, a key to our own happiness. Wisdom isn’t just something we “ought” to have. It’s something we want to have to flourish.

At the heart of practical wisdom is the ability to contemplate our choices and discern the best course of action in the context of a particular set of circumstances, and in order to do that, we rely on framing the situation, telling good and relevant stories about it, using metaphorical thinking to make sense of it, and enlisting empathy — the ability to imagine another’s thoughts and feelings — to grasp the full dimensions of the situation.

That latter emotional capacity is actually an enormously important aspect of practical wisdom and yet, Schwartz and Sharpe point out, most social and institutional regulations are based on rational rules — in fact, they often tend to be about removing emotion from the decision-making process. (That’s precisely what Susan Sontag lamented in condemning how the intellect vs. intuition polarization limits us and what Ray Bradbury bemoaned in asserting that the intellect should serve rather than dominate emotion.) While emotions do have the capacity to blind us and blur our sound judgment, they argue for the power of properly trained and modulated emotion by citing Aristotle himself:

We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.

Perhaps most importantly, practical wisdom requires a degree of self-awareness and self-reflection, affirming the notion that it’s more important to understand than to be right — something not always easy in a culture dominated by the illusion of the separate ego:

Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked or not and why… Such self-reflection is not always so easy when … we feel we’ve been wronged. And it’s also difficult when we’ve been wrong — thoughtless, careless, too self-interested. Being able to criticize our own certainties is often a painful struggle, demanding some courage as we try to stand back and impartially judge ourselves and our own responsibility.

Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.

One enormous cultural impediment we’re constantly facing is the mistaken belief — and its misguided implementation — that rules can substitute for wisdom. They cannot, the authors remind us again and again — the wise person is one who is able to understand the rules and apply them selectively, perceptively, and insightfully according to the specific contextual demands of a situation. They return to Aristotle:

For Aristotle, knowing how to bend the rule to fit the circumstance was exactly what practical wisdom was all about.

[…]

Anybody who has raised a child, sustained a friendship or marriage, supervised others in the workplace, or worked to serve others knows the limits of rules and principles. We can’t live without them, but not a day goes by when we don’t have to bend one, or make an exception, or balance them when they conflict. We’re always solving the ethical puzzles or quandaries that are embedded in our practices because most of our choices involve interpreting rules, or balancing clashing principles or aims, or choosing between better and worse. We’re always trying to find the right balance.

How, then, do we cultivate those essential skills that help us find the right balance? It turns out we’re “born to be wise” — not “hardwired,” Schwartz and Sharpe are careful to point out, but endowed with the innate capacity to develop moral skill that wise judgment necessitates, much like we are born with the innate capacity to master language with the proper nurturing.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words.' Click image for more.

We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy. Take, for instance, the category of fruits, which tend to have a “graded membership” in the category — for instance, we perceive an apple as more “fruity” than a persimmon (Schwartz and Sharpe point to experiments in which people consistently list “apple” as a better example of the fruit category than a persimmon), let alone a tomato, which is biologically a fruit yet culturally a vegetable. What’s more, the fuzziness of our categories fluctuates with our experience — if we moved to a country where persimmons were a national staple far more common than apples, the “fruitiness” of each would slide up or down to the respective end of the spectrum. That innate ability to organize ordinary things into categories and experience the “fuzziness” of nuance, it turns out, translates into a parallel moral skill of discerning more important concepts like fairness and truth with an equal sensitivity to context. In other words, categories are essential to our capacity for wise judgment.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words.' Click image for more.

That capacity is what psychologists call “framing.” The authors extol the aptness of the frequently misunderstood term:

“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.

[…]

“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.

Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

Because no frame is neutral, each makes us aware of and sensitive to a different aspect or context of our choices, affecting our judgment in different ways — the social-science equivalent of Einstein’s theory of relativity, perhaps. To illustrate this in practical terms, consider the options for supporting Brain Pickings. If you happen to live in a refugee camp in Chad, where you entire weekly food budget is $1.23, a donation of even just (“just”) $3 a month is an unthinkable amount. (That’s also why Brain Pickings has always been free); but if you happen to live in a place where you drink several $6 lattes a week, then $7 or $10 a month seems more than reasonable if you find intellectual value, creative inspiration, and spiritual stimulation here. The choice, once again, is modulated by the contextual “frame” of both the price and the value.

Schwartz and Sharpe encapsulate the end result of this phenomenon in terms at once poetic and practical:

We might wish to see things “as they really are,” but there is no way that things “really are,” at least not in the complex and chaotic social world we inhabit.

Our third, and arguably most important, sensemaking mechanism is storytelling. “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her superb meditation on how we tell stories to save ourselves. Our inner storytelling is what keeps us sane. Because “narrative truth” rather than “historical truth” shapes our lives, redirecting our behavior and undertaking any effort of psychological change requires revising that inner storytelling. Schwartz and Sharpe put it elegantly, doubly so for citing Joan Didion (who knows a thing or two about telling stories):

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said novelist and essayist Joan Didion. What she meant was that we understand our own lives as stories, as narratives, with narrative “arcs.” Where we are in our own life story provides the context within which we evaluate relationships and experiences and make decisions. Job offers, illnesses, disagreements with friends or family — each of these will mean something different to us at different points in our lives. We can’t understand ourselves as frozen in time. Self-understanding is a narrative construction.

(On that note, see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe’s mind-bending contemplation of how, if we change so much, we know who we really are.)

Schwartz and Sharpe summarize the interplay of these three tools of wisdom:

The world is gray. Natural categories enable us to see gray. Judgments are almost always relative. Frames help us see relations. And isolated events or episodes occur in the context of ongoing lives being lived. Narratives enable us to appreciate lives as lived and make sense of the episode before us.

Practical Wisdom, which goes on to explore the importance of cultivating telos in everything from our personal happiness to building better social institutions, is an excellent and enormously enriching read in its entirety. Complement it with Schwartz’s TED talk, one of the genre’s finest:

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

Thanks, Tina

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