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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 MARCH, 2014

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

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“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”

In 1988, Bill Moyers produced a series of intelligent, inspiring, provocative conversations with a diverse set of cultural icons, ranging from Isaac Asimov to Noam Chomsky to Chinua Achebe. It was unlike any public discourse to have ever graced the national television airwaves before. The following year, the interviews were transcribed and collected in the magnificent tome Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library). But for all its evenness of brilliance, one conversation in the series stands out for its depth, dimension, intensity, and timelessness — that with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, one of the most remarkable and luminous minds of our time, who sat down to talk with Moyers shortly after the publication of enormously stimulating book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.

Martha Nussbaum

Moyers begins by framing Nussbaum’s singular approach to philosophy and, by extension, to the art of living:

MOYERS: The common perception of a philosopher is of a thinker of abstract thoughts. But stories and myths seem to be important to you as a philosopher.

NUSSBAUM: Very important, because I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and humanity. It has to listen to the ways that people talk about themselves and what matters to them. One very good way to do this is to listen to stories.

Reflecting on the timeless wisdom of the Greek myths and tragedies, particularly Euripides’s Hecuba, Nussbaum considers the essence of good personhood, which necessitates accepting the basic insecurity of existence and embracing uncertainty. She tells Moyers:

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability — and, by extension, our ability to trust others — may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:

Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”

You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can’t ask anything of it, and they can’t put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book.' Click image for details.

Things get significantly more complicated, however, when we find ourselves in binds that seem to call for tragedy by asking us to make impossible choices between multiple things we hold dear. Nussbaum illustrates this by pointing to Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, in which the king-protagonist has to choose between saving his army and saving his daughter. The same tragedy plays out on a smaller scale in everyday dilemmas, such as juggling your career with being a good parent. Most of the time, as Nussbaum puts it, the two “enrich each other and make the life of each of them better.” But sometimes, practical circumstances pose such insurmountable challenges like an important meeting and your child’s school play happening at the same time — one of these two priorities inevitably suffers, not because you are a bad parent or a bad leader, but because life just happens that way. Therein lies the human predicament — the more we aspire to live well, according to our commitments and priorities, the more we welcome such tragic choices. And yet the solution isn’t not to aspire. Nussbaum tells Moyers:

Tragedy happens only when you are trying to live well, because for a heedless person who doesn’t have deep commitments to others, Agamemnon’s conflict isn’t a tragedy…

Now the lesson certainly is not to try to maximize conflict or to romanticize struggle and suffering, but it’s rather that you should care about things in a way that makes it a possibility that tragedy will happen to you. If you hold your commitments lightly, in such a way that you can always divest yourself from one or the other of them if they conflict, then it doesn’t hurt you when things go badly. But you want people to live their lives with a deep seriousness of commitment: not to adjust their desires to the way the world actually goes, but rather to try to wrest from the world the good life that they desire. And sometimes that does lead them into tragedy.

Perhaps Alan Watts was right when he advised not to fight the world’s contradictions but to conceive of the universe as “a harmonious system of contained conflicts.”

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring many more conversations with luminaries spanning art, science, psychology, literature, the creative spirit, and just about every aspect of life. Complement this particular one with Nussbaum’s advice on living a full life.

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13 MARCH, 2014

March 13, 1964: What the Kitty Genovese Murder Teaches Us About Empathy, Apathy, and Our Human Predicament

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“How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

In the small hours of March 13, 1964, a young Italian-American woman in Queens got attacked, raped, and stabbed to death seventeen times over the course of half an hour outside her small apartment house on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack. No one did anything to stop it. No one called the police. No one seemed to care. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese became one of modern history’s most unsettling and confounding conundrums for generations of psychologists, sociologists, and ordinary people alike. How can we accept that thirty-eight ordinary middle-class citizens — people with good jobs and good families and good homes, people with beige carpets — could slide so far down on the scale from empathy to apathy as to allow for such brutality to happen right before their eyes? What does this say about the human spirit, and how can we make sense of it without losing faith in humanity?

That, and its many complicated dimensions, is what A. M. Rosenthal, who would go on to become the most controversial executive editor The New York Times has ever had, explores in the slim but tremendously impactful book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (public library). Rosenthal himself was responsible for bringing public attention to Genovese’s story in an era when the Times gave any murder in Queens no more than four paragraphs, a time when the invisible “relationship of color and geography to crime news” permeated the media. But Rosenthal, having just been appointed Metropolitan Editor of the Times after years at the paper’s foreign bureaus in India, Poland, and Japan, took it upon himself to get to know the men — for in that era, they were only men — who ran the city, from the Mayor to the bankers to the playwrights. One of them was Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner — a man “who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity,” a man who goes to the same restaurant for lunch, always sits with his back to the wall (an old police habit), and “orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.” (Yes, besides being a formidable journalist, Rosenthal, who died in 2006, was also an enchanting storyteller.)

Catherine Genovese

Over one such lunch near City Hall, hours after the murder had been reported, Commissioner Murphy shared with Rosenthal his preoccupation with this chilling case in which thirty-eight neighbors had failed to help a dying 28-year-old woman. Rosenthal first thought the details were an exaggeration, but the Commissioner wistfully assured him, “Yes, thirty-eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.” There and then, Rosenthal knew it would be an important story — not only for its newsworthiness in crime reporting, but also for the broader philosophical questions it raises about our human predicament. He was right — the Times ran the story the next day, and it was immediately picked up by other mass media. The case soon became “a stunning example of apathy — other people’s apathy.” But behind that veneer of otherness hide some of the darkest potentialities of our own selves.

Rosenthal captures the murder’s enduring haunt:

The Kitty Genovese story, the Genovese case, has become both a quick, puffy cliché for apathy and cowardice about the suffering of others, and an intellectual and religious puzzlement: what does it mean to me? To me, you, we.

That is the power of the Genovese matter. It talks to us not about her, a subject that was barely of fleeting interest to us, but about ourselves, a subject never out of our minds.

Catherine Genovese

Rosenthal wrote the book shortly after the murder and it was originally published at the end of 1964, partly as a reporter’s account of the precise details of the case, and partly as a philosopher’s meditation on the elements of human nature and social dynamics that made this brutality possible. In 1995, it was reprinted with a new introduction by Rosenthal, who had spent thirty-five years contemplating the case — thirty-five years during which social psychologists had come up with the influential theory of pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect in trying to explain what happened. But for Rosenthal, the case, with its question of why thirty-eight witnesses refused to help, was still a microcosm of the choices we all make, every day, in how we relate to the world. He writes in the 1995 introduction:

As I was writing Thirty-Eight Witnesses, I felt the question should be reworded so: would I ever refuse again?

I knew most of us had refused in the past, so often that we had become unaware of what we were doing.

I have walked past lepers and beggars scores of times in Asia. Any help from me, the merest, would have been of importance to them. They were terribly sick; I saw their sores. If they were professional beggars, as I told myself, did that salve their sores or straighten the limbs of the twisted children they held up, rented or not?

[…]

But the mystery for all of us about the Genovese case was how could it have happened that thirty-eight people, thirty-eight, heard the screams and did nothing. Two or three, all right, maybe even a half dozen — it could happen. But everybody, all thirty-eight of them?

I was trying hard to be candid with myself, but not hard enough. Now and for some years I have realized that I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street.

Who was walking with me on that street in Calcutta or New Delhi and not stopping to give help? Not thirty-eight people, but hundreds at any one moment, thousands in an hour.

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores?

It is a poignant question, and a prescient one, as we face a growing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in the world today. For all those fighting global poverty, how many do nothing? And when one of the most fundamental human rights — the right to love — is being denied to a great many fellow human beings, how many raise their voices? How many perch out of our proverbial windows and look on as the tragedy of the “other” unfolds?

With equal poignancy, Rosenthal questions how we hide behind physical space and use distance as a currency of apathy — an observation all the more prescient in our day and age of military drones, where the combination of new technology and basic human psychology makes soldiers deadlier at a distance as they find it easier to kill someone far away than to shoot them at close range. Rosenthal’s closing words land like poison darts at our darkest, most self-conscious fears about what it means to be — or to fail at being — a good human:

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times — how far?

Thirty-Eight Witnesses is a remarkable read in its entirety — undeniably difficult, but undeniably important. Complement it with the equally disquieting Stanford Prison Experiment, then see psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of good and evil in all of us.

Thanks, Andrew

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11 MARCH, 2014

A Short Guide to a Happy Life: Anna Quindlen on Work, Joy, and How to Live Rather Than Exist

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“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

The commencement address is a special kind of modern communication art, and its greatest masterpieces tend to either become a book — take, for instance, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life — or have originated from a book, such as Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life. One of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, however, has an unusual story that flies in the face of both traditional trajectories.

In 2000, Villanova University invited Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, journalist, and New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen to deliver the annual commencement address. But once the announcement was made, a group of conservative students staged a protest against Quindlen’s strong liberal views. The commencement was cancelled. “I don’t think you should have to walk through demonstrators to get to your college commencement,” Quindlen lamented. Rather than retreat, however, she emailed the undelivered commencement address to a Villanova graduate student who had expressed disappointment at the situation. Years before the social web as we know it today, the speech spread like wildfire across the internet. A few months later, Quindlen expanded it into the short and lovely book A Short Guide to a Happy Life (public library).

Anna Quindlen (artwork based on a photograph by Grant M. Haller)

Quindlen begins:

I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field… I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.

And know it she does:

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

Quindlen considers the question of the self and what makes us who we are, what makes us worthy of being. And while the great Annie Dillard may have cautioned to not “ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible,” it seems impossible to address the question of what makes a meaningful life without addressing the human soul, which Quindlen does beautifully:

There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.

People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”

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

Even those trying to find their purpose, even those engaged in fulfilling work, and even those of us lucky enough to have no separation between “life” and “work,” can get consumed by our modern cult of productivity. Quindlen’s words come as a vital reminder of what matters, what counts, what the true aliveness of life is:

You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.

Here, Annie Dillard, who so memorably expounded the power of presence over productivity in the making of a rich life, would have agreed. For Quindlen, however, an even richer life than that of simply being present is one of being present with a palpable generosity of spirit towards the world:

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

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

Quindlen, who had a jarring confrontation with the mortality paradox early in life — at nineteen, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer and spent her sophomore year of college administering morphine while her peers partied — considers the Alan Wattsian idea that putting at rest our resistance to the inevitability of death liberates us to be more alive. (Sarah Lewis put this beautifully when she observed, “When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.”) Quindlen reflects on the tragedy that split her life into a “before” and an “after”:

It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking.

[…]

“Before” and “after” for me was not just before my mother’s illness and after her death. It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.

And I went back to school and I looked around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren’t sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I knew that I had undergone a sea change. Because I was never again going to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.

Watercolor by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

“We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” philosopher Roman Krznaric wrote in his fantastic manifesto for finding meaningful work, but Quindlen reminds us that the luxury of seeking fulfillment rather than mere survival came at a price — and yet how easily we take it for granted:

It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have more time than ever before to remember it. The men and women of generations past had to work long, long hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home, too, with two bosses, the one who paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn’t. . . . Our jobs take too much out of us and don’t pay enough.

She continues:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.

[…]

This is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

Photograph by Myron Davis for 'The Meaning of Life.' Click image for more.

How, then, are we to fully inhabit the miracle of our existence, that cosmic accident by the grace of which we ended up alive, here, now? Quindlen offers a gateway to presence:

Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

A Short Guide to a Happy Life is the kind of read that stays with you for a long time, the sort you revisit again and again when the ground beneath your feet shakes and you reach for a reminder of the solid center. Complement it with more fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Joss Whedon, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jacqueline Novogratz, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos

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