Commonplace Links #2

Background to this experiment in link-sharing here.

Photo credit:  Elliot Engelmann

Photo credit: Elliot Engelmann

To start #2, think about Jedidiah Jenkins's question:

Are you ocean or mountains? Forest or desert? I am all of it.

Jenkins has a way of writing that quickly pierces the everydayness. Oregon to Patagonia has become one of my favorite blogs.

James Shelley writes about a piece of philosophy that very practically guides me every day in the essay "There are only two kinds of problems in the world":

There are two categories of problems:
Problems you can do something about.
Problems you can not do anything about.

I cannot tell you how essential this idea is. Simple, not easy.

TNC reflected on the internal liberal battle to renegotiate the possible. I loved this line:

But hope still lies in the imagined thing.

I'll round out #2 with a song from Kendrick Lamar: "How Much a Dollar Cost". Kendrick Lamar is one of my favorite artists and this track off his most recent album has stuck with me ever since I first heard it. It demonstrates how hip hop can be a device for powerful storytelling and always kicks me into a state of reflection. I'd suggest that you check out the RapGenius annotations on the song as they reveal a lot of the depth in the song.

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Commonplace Links #1

Background to this experiment in link-sharing here.

Photo credit:  Buzac Marius

Photo credit: Buzac Marius

To kick things off, James Shelley wrote a helpful essay on the nature of sharing. Channeling Cicero, Shelley writes:

Nothing that is truly beautiful can be left unshared with another. It is in sharing and co-experiencing that the beautiful becomes manifest. Nothing worth possessing is worth having to oneself alone. It is only by partaking and participating in life together that joys and sorrows of life make any sense at all.

This sentiment is one of many reasons that pushed me to share more of the things that I'm thinking about. If I can do the work of integrating something into the hierarchy of my personal knowledge and at the same time share the opportunity of insight with others, that's a worthwhile effort. With that said, the moment these laudable ends are no longer the focus of sharing is the moment I reevaluate what I'm doing.

As we grind the gears of the new year, I found this dense essay valuable. While I didn't agree with everything in the piece, the closing paragraph resonated with me:

Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.

Relatedly, this Wait But Why post is a heavy dose of perspective about how we spend our time:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

I believe that we should spend our time carefully. One immensely valuable source of thought on how we spend our time is a writer I've followed for many years, a professor named Cal Newport. His approach to academic work has been very helpful to my life as a student. Recently, he wrote about a commmitment to living what he calls a "deep life," one that involves three key pieces: 1) training your ability to focus, 2) building your schedule around pockets of employing that focus on important work, and 3) respecting your attention. Read the post for how these elements might take form.

Finally, I can't help but share this wonderful blog post from my mother, writing from Malawi. I read it almost as mindfulness poetry. The title itself, "It was a quiet day...full of noises" is pure music to me.

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pang'ono pang'ono

Sometimes, your world of ideas networks -- and you don't even realize it. There's a phrase that I kept coming across while I was in Malawi: pang'ono pang'ono. Slowly; little by little. So much of our development of our selves and and our ideas comes pang'ono pang'ono. Recently, what struck me was a slow cook of ideas centered around intellectual kindness.

I listened to an episode of OnBeing with Adam Gopnik. The interview was a rewarding one, especially towards the end. Within a few days of listening to episode, I then came across Maria Popova's article on his book Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. I've since added it to my now overwhelmingly long book list, but Popova's reading pointed out a key excerpt of Gopnik helpfully dissecting Darwin's rhetorical talent in the art of "sympathetic summary" on display in The Origin of Species:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin's tactic of "sympathetic summary" is the admirable next step in the approach of persuasion that I advocate for in my essay Looking Across the River. First, understand the nature of a disagreement. Then, address the most powerful thrusts of any counterargument.

Just a few weeks ago, I had jotted down a journal entry about kindness, lightly edited to as follows:

I've noticed my own evolving understanding of the different dimensions of kindness. There's the outward expressions of it; for example, the small moments of external caring where you can turn the present around for someone else. Perhaps because I trade on knowledge, I've also started to see the increasing importance of intellectual kindness. By intellectual, I mean the whole spectrum of intelligence, from abstract ideas to emotional understanding. From the ideas perspective, I have to do the work to properly be aware of what an idea really is, and what it is not. More important to the interpersonal realm, I have to have emotional intellectual charity and only assign to malice to what I know to really be malice.

I've worked and I am working very hard to improve my own practice of what I'm calling intellectual kindness. I don't think it's more or less important than those more outward expressions of kindness, but I think it's an often under-explored space of every-day living. Developing honest vocabulary and capacity for kindness is a worthy pursuit and will only make life richer and more authentic.

It wasn't until I read the BrainPickings article that I became aware of this small network of my own writing, Gopnik's book, the podcast episode, and my journal entry. The more I read and listen and actually grapple with what the various mediums generously leave me with, the more I see just how many hidden connections lie beneath like the roots of a forest of trees.

Clearly, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to wrestle with ideas and what should be the etiquette for working out our disagreements. So much is at stake in the way we answer questions that arise in these contexts. I'm getting better at flexing my muscles of intellectual kindness, looking across the river in earnest and doing my best to sympathetically summarize. That's not to say that it's by any means easy. Pride and ego weakens those muscles, as the openness required to flex them exposes you to the risk of being wrong. I advance and stumble, slowly. Pang'ono pang'ono.

Lincoln, reader

I'm slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which illuminates the sharp mind of Abraham Lincoln.

Early on, Goodwin explores Lincoln the reader, a cemented identity far before he came a lawyer and then a fabled American president:

Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past. Relatives and neighbors recalled that he scoured the countryside for books and read every volume “he could lay his hands on."

Lincoln found true power in text, I think. His mind was one domain of his life in which he could control regardless of his unprivileged circumstance. Goodwin writes a few pages later:

What Lincoln lacked in preparation and guidance, he made up for with his daunting concentration, phenomenal memory, acute reasoning faculties, and interpretive penetration. Though untutored in the sciences and the classics, he was able to read and reread his books until he understood them fully. “Get the books, and read and study them,” he told a law student seeking advice in 1855. It did not matter, he continued, whether the reading be done in a small town or a large city, by oneself or in the company of others. “The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. . . . Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing."

At the time, "law school" meant apprenticing under a practicing lawyer. Lincoln just read the books. As I go through "rigors" of law school in the modern era, it's worth taking a moment and truly absorbing just how devoted Lincoln was before his rise to prominence. The advice Lincoln gave the law student -- "Get the books, and read and study them," -- is probably a good recipe for more than just law school (the full letter can be found here). I'm inspired by passionate readers and slowly, I'm awakening that part of my own identity and little tidbits like these add fuel to that fire to read carefully, widely, and well.

This is Water

I've read and/or listened (full; animated excerpts) to this commencement speech from David Foster Wallace many times in the last few years. I read it again recently and the capital-T Truth of it all hit me like a brick, as it always does. Maria Popova often calls the commencement speech the "secular sermon of our time", and this Sunday I soaked up the words of the preacher.

In the beginning, DFW states clearly the hard mental work of the every-day:

This is not a matter of virtue -- it's a matter of choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

On the value of a liberal arts education, DFW points to the power of choice:

But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that the mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it.

DFW closes with some simple yet powerful truths that are especially important for me to keep close to my chest as I wade through law school (with all its trappings of prestige):

It is about the value of real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

Personally, I've found that meditation is the best way to remind myself, "This is water." Regardless, we all need to find our way to some sort of awareness.

The Act of Killing

I recently watched the documentary The Act of Killing. The premise of the film is somewhat confusing, but it is about the people involved with the killings in Indonesia from 1965-66 as a result of an anti-communist purge. The documentary follows a few individuals reenacting their roles in the killings in a bizarre fashion.

In many ways, what the viewer witnesses in the film is indescribable. As the director Joshua Oppenheimer reflected, "It’s as though I’m in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, but the Nazis are still in power." The perpetrators of the killings are open, honest, and at times even outright boastful about their past.

As the film progresses, you witness one of the main characters, Anwar, painfully wrestle with his past. At the beginning of the film, you see him gleefully discuss how exactly he killed people on the roof of a building. We find out that despite this apparent pride in his role in the killings, he has frequent nightmares about the people he killed. Later in the film, Anwar plays a victim in one scene and refuses to go on, distraught and unable to continue acting. At the close of the film, Anwar revisits the same roof and retches.

Watching The Act of Killing is a challenging experience. In a recent conversation with Sam Harris, Oppenheimer hits right at the core of that experience at around the 42 minute mark:

Recognizing that virtually every act of evil in our history has been perpetrated by human beings like us, it's uncomfortable because it means that we might, if we lived in other situations, do the same thing. If we grew up in any of these perpetrators' families in 1950s Indonesia, come 1965, we might make the same decision. We would hope that we wouldn't, but most of us are very lucky never to have to find that out. And that's uncomfortable.

Oppenheimer continues, digging a little deeper:

But if you overcome that, you quickly realize that recognizing that every perpetrator is human with very few exceptions and shares the same human morality is the only hopeful response because if there's just monsters among us then we either have to surrender ourselves to this kind of thing happening again and again and again in a kind of despair, or we have to isolate the monsters and somehow neutralize them. And then, how do we stop ourselves from becoming the monsters?

Answering his own question:

Whereas if we can build societies in which we foster the widest possible empathy and where we also foster doubt, where we teach children to doubt what authority tells them so that it's more difficult to incite people to join groups that would betray their individual morality, then we ought to be able to build societies where this kind of unimaginable violence truly becomes unimaginable, where it becomes impossible.

This recognition that Oppenheimer speaks of takes far more courage than simply categorizing the people who carry out these despicable acts as the other and the epitome of absolute evil. It's only when we sit with the uncomfortableness that it could've been us given another circumstance that we truly equip ourselves with the tools to engage with this kind of violence.

The Act of Killing (trailer; Theatrical and Director's Cuts available on Netflix) is worth your time and attention.

Being Human is a Process

What does it mean to be human? John Powell answers:

I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It's not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love.

This idea is important. Just like any skill, being human benefits from an ongoing education. The school? Life itself.

The whole conversation is wonderful. Listen (or read) here.