The Highest Good

“There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

-Albert Einstein

I recently met someone who is striving to further the idea of the technological singularity. He used an interesting metaphor to describe his work. He asserted that, given three wishes from a genie, the best possible first wish would be to wish for more wishes. Striving to eliminate disease, aging, and death, he said, was a bit like “wishing for more wishes” from life.

It was a clever way to describe the hope some hold for technology’s seemingly unchecked advance against death. But something about the metaphor did not seem right to me. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the best first wish would not actually be to wish for more wishes, but to wish instead to know the summum bonum — the highest possible good — for the use of the remaining wishes.

The next wish might, indeed, be for more wishes, or for the strength to carry through on that final summum bonum wish — or for something else entirely. Because I have not actually been granted this first wish to know that highest good, I can not know what would come next. But I do know that unchecked individual omnipotence, in the form of endless wishes, would alter not only the consciousness, but quite possibly the physiology of the wisher. In the face of limitless opportunity, the brain chemistry could change — causing one to become paralyzed by choice, go mad with power, or drop dead from a heart attack.
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Beyond Hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

-Emily Dickinson

Try courage instead

This Thanksgiving, I was keenly aware of my gratitude for an absent member of our family. Had he lived, our son would have been four years old. I am truly thankful for his brief presence in our lives, which activated my paternal instincts, and gave me a deeper respect for my own forefathers. The three days I spent with him in the hospital, and the subsequent years I have spent coming to terms with his short life, taught me something important about how to live my own life. My wife put it succinctly one morning: “You don’t need hope if you have courage.”

We admire saints and martyrs (including the secular ones) not because they hoped for success in their own lives, but because they faced the circumstances of their lives with a sense of higher purpose, and great courage. And while they often had visions of a better future, they were prepared to act courageously whether or not they would ever see these visions realized in their lifetime. Likewise, our American ancestors, whom we honor by feasting at Thanksgiving, may have hoped for a better future for their children. But it was their daily application of courage that I admire most.

I was talking with a friend recently about how perilous it may have been for our current president to have run his election campaign on a message of hope. Continue reading…

Why They Are Called ‘The Humanities’

“Then what are we fighting for?”

-Attributed to Winston Churchill, in response to a suggestion that arts education be cut to fund the war effort.

There has been a furor over recent cuts in humanities education at the university level in America. Most of the counter-arguments for keeping the humanities alive play out the “transferable skills” angle. My wife, a piano teacher, knows these arguments all too well — that learning to play an instrument accelerates childhood brain development, and that music actually teaches certain kinds of mathematical reasoning (such as fractions).  Likewise, with literature, English departments often underscore the importance of “soft skills” like communication.

But in the end, this line of thinking only lends strength to the argument to, for example, replace courses in Shakespeare with more practical courses in business and technical writing. It is also not difficult to imagine games designed by psychologists to more effectively deliver specific, developmental results than learning to playing Bach partitas ever will. Clearly, the argument that the humanities can deliver practical, bottom-line results is problematic. Why, then, are they so critical in difficult times?
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The Blessings of Complicated Grief

“No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees; / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

-William Wordsworth, “Lucy”

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth and death of a poet-friend’s son. Today we finished packing baby items originally bought for our own son, James, to pass along to our nephew-to-be in Australia. No life is simple. But while most Americans are firing up their grills or caravanning to the beach to enjoy the easy pleasures of a three-day weekend, I find myself sifting through a tangle of thoughts and feelings that seem, well, complex.

The clinical term for a sometimes-debilitating sadness that persists long after the moment of loss is “complicated grief.” The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide online says that “the disorder is more likely to occur after a death that is traumatic — premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected,” and the Mayo Clinic website cites “risk factors” such as “being unprepared for the death,” and “in the case of a child’s death, the number of remaining children.”

Loss is never simple. However, if I were to try to define a corollary to this condition, called “simple grief,” an illustrative example would be the death of a grandparent who had been sick for some time, and who had lived a long and happy life. Such a loss fits the framework of most cultural beliefs about the natural and acceptable cycles of life and death. The death of a child, or suicide of a loved one, however, do not.

And so, the complication, for me, became existential. Without the agreed-upon societal mythos about life and death to guide me toward resolution, I have had to come to terms with, and make meaning from, this experience anew. A lifetime of spiritual studies taught me that any situation, no matter how intense, could be used to learn and grow. Losing our son, and not being able to have another child, tested this belief intensely.
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Jekyll and Hyde and Publishing

“The self that writes may need to be a delicate and protected creature, but the self that submits to magazines ought to be as tough as a rhino’s butt.”

-Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Organization is one thing. Discipline is another. The discipline of getting up early before work to write poems has saved my life. However, if I want anyone other than my lovely wife to encounter these poems, I have to submit them to journals and contests. It is far more enticing to just write another poem. Or goof off on Facebook. Or stick needles in my eyes. In short, I’m still working on the sufficient thickness of rhino hide, strategically located and cultivated, to make this a dispassionate process.
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Generativity and Letting Go

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

-Joseph Campbell

Recently, we began the process of giving away baby items bought or given to us for our son, James. Since he never came home from the hospital, they remain unused. Several months ago, we moved them out of the shed, into a closet at my parents’ house. But the time has come for another step. We are beginning to pass these items on to friends and family who are becoming parents. We have been unable to have another child, and are not in a position to adopt. And so, in the same gesture of giving that celebrates the new parenthood of people we care about, we also acknowledge it is unlikely that we will raise a child of our own. Neither of us ever thought it would be this way.

Since our young neighbors moved in across the street with their infant and toddler, I have been unable bring myself to exchange more than a passing smile or wave on this otherwise friendly block in our quaint small town. More than two lanes of quiet asphalt stretch between us. As much as I realize, rationally, that I sometimes idealize the hard work of child-rearing, it is tempting still to wish for a different life. And yet, over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to face down some of the deepest questions about my life, and how I must make meaning in it anew.

Perhaps a branch of my family tree will end with my name on it. But I have not lost the chance to influence my world for the better. Sharing my love of poetry is one way. As I slowly wake from the long dream of grieving, I am sure I will find others. For now, we are taking small steps toward the next crossroads — one bag of diapers, one box of clothes, one bassinet at a time.