What is a Life Well Lived?

Today is the first day I have felt the stirrings of a midlife crisis.

Today, December 16th 2011, I learned of the passing of Christopher Hitchens, journalist, polemicist, intellectual, part-time professor and prolific author. Hitchens was an avowed atheist, a one time socialist and a fairly harsh critic, so I am certain if we had ever met we would have had very little in common. However, he was such a brilliant writer, thinker and speaker that I could not help but be a fan of his work. I may have often disagreed with him, but I was pleased to have something intelligent to (albeit silently) argue against.

So why has the death of this world renown intellectual caused me to contemplate things existential? Because he achieved the pinnacle of success in the world I most wish to inhabit. He was a sought out lecturer and teacher and a prize winning essayist. He was on countless panel discussions, round tables and talk shows where he regularly displayed both an excessive lust for life and fierce intellect.

One of my favorite stories about him deals with the time he was set to join a panel discussion on technology and it's influence on future policy. The other panelists prepared remarks and rehearsed ahead of time in order to try to win the audience over to their positions. Hitchens showed up ten minutes before showtime, 5 drinks deep, and scribbled some notes on a napkin.

He outperformed them all. He was just that smart. And yet...

As I am always wont to see the more pessimistic side of things, his passing caused me to wonder, how long will it take before his name is just another in a long list of names in some nonfiction anthology? I'll be turning 40 this year, midlife, and I wonder if after another 40 years will someone who's star shone so brightly when alive be just another footnote? This prompted me to do a little research. I looked up people who had died in 1972, 40 years ago. Just as I feared, I could only identify a fraction of the people, who at the time of their death had rated a very public obituary.

Something like this makes you think. If people who achieve the utmost success in a chosen field can be forgotten in just a generation, what of me? The western way of defining ourselves through our work is flawed in some fundamental way if a life lived in pursuit of professional excellence leads to faded obscurity. This leads me inexorably to the ultimate question: What is a well-lived life?

Then, as usual, my wife put things in perspective. She told me how just this very day she had been thinking along similar lines, minus the existential angst of course. She had been playing with our kids and thinking how she'd probably forget this day in the not-too-distant future, but that it didn't matter. What mattered was the joy that she was experiencing at that moment. The reality of that moment in time gave meaning to her immediate existence.

So in the end, did all this melodrama I was putting myself through amount to the somewhat trite maxim that we should live in the present moment? Not quite.

The present moment is rarely present to us. We (or at least I) worry about the past, plan for the future, go over past insults and perceived grievances. We overfill our the plates of our lives to the point where we can't taste the individual flavors. I think in order to truly enjoy that present moment with a real peace of mind requires an adjustment of values so that they are in line with virtue. We must treat each other justly, face challenges with fortitude and prudence and always live in moderation. There is a reason Aristotle and others point to a life lived in accordance with virtue to be the best sort of life. If we do this we are free to enjoy that brief moment to its fullest, and that is a life well lived.

Prudent Career Advice from Ancient Greece

A quick scan of Amazon’s best seller list in the career development section reveals some well known titles.
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity
  • What Color is Your Parachute?
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
All of these books offer solid advice, and a man can get a lot of tips and tricks to become more successful in his job. In fact I am willing to guess more than a few readers own one or two of them. Here is a title you may not be a familiar with: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by Epictetus.

I can hear you now, Epic-who?

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher from the first century AD who was a proponent of the stoic branch of philosophy. Stoics believed that what happened to a man was less important than how that man reacted to the event. Therefore the most important teaching of stoicism was one of self-mastery. Epictetus became one of the most well known teachers of this way of life.

Born a slave, he never wrote anything down but simply taught those who wanted to learn to become better men, much like his more famous predecessor, Socrates. What we now know of Epictetus’ teachings is thanks to his pupil, Arrian, who wrote them down in his collection Discourses.

OK, so he was a great Greek philosopher. How does that help me be a better sales manager?  

Glad you asked.

Just about all of Epictetus’ teachings are in the form of short sayings that embody some profound idea. Many of these can be directly applied to your career, no matter what you do for a living. For the purpose of this article I have grouped some of the best (in my humble opinion anyway) into three categories. Prudent attitude, prudent words and prudent action.

Prudent Attitude

Without the correct attitude about your job, it really won’t matter how hard you work. Sure, you may have some success, but it will not be truly satisfying, or lasting. If you approach each day- each project- with the right attitude, the rest can fall into place so much easier.

“There is only one-way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
How many times have you stayed awake at night replaying the day’s events or looking forward to some anticipated occurrence? More often than not, there is nothing we can do about these things. This is what Epictetus is talking about. There are events we have control over and events that we don’t. Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.

By zeroing in on those things that are under “the power of our will,” we can accomplish a lot more. No needless energy is wasted running around in circles nipping at the heels of projects or situations where someone else is the main driver. Speaking of other people, we also need to pay attention to how other’s attitudes affect us.

"Other people's views and troubles can be contagious. Don't sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others." 
Here is my modern version of this quote: Beware the break room

It is so easy to join in with co-workers in the inevitable bitch-session that often takes place in the break room. And while everyone needs to vent once in a while, a steady diet of this attitude will eventually poison your own work ethic. This attitude can lead to you not taking responsibility for your (occasional of course) faults and instead blaming it on someone else. The pass-the-buck syndrome was born in a break room bull session.

Don't be anti-social, just be sure that those who you spend the most time with share your general outlook.  Don’t sabotage yourself.

Prudent Words

We have all heard some form of the maxim, What you think, you say. What you say, you do. Well, we are at that mid point. Cultivating the ability to say the right words, to speak well, will directly inform who we are and how we act in our careers.

"Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may
hear from others twice as much as we speak."
“First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.”
Epictetus points to the first step in speaking well here. In essence his advice is to speak less. No one likes a know-it-all, and we are all familiar with that particular person who just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut during meetings and planning sessions. (If you aren't, it is probably because you’re it. Note: Pay specific attention to this section!). In contrast, most organizations also have the quiet and thoughtful man. The one who doesn’t speak up often, but when he does, everyone listens.

The goal is to become the latter. By rushing in to speak up you do not allow your reason to fully digest what is going on, what the full parameters of the discussion entail. Therefore your comments are more opinion or repetition, not suggestion or evaluation.  A man needs to fully listen to what others are saying before he jumps into the fray.

Try this at your next meeting or informal business discussion. Say as little as possible; just listen. You’ll be surprised about what you may learn. Things like others’ true motivations, hidden agendas and possible leanings all become much more evident when you take a step back. Then when you do join in the discussion, your comments will be that much more targeted and useful.

Prudent Action

We have now reached the point where Epictetus has some advice for how we should act in our jobs and careers. His points here echo throughout history as advice given to all those who strive to do something great, and yet, the actual substance of his words is plainly simple. First, he explains how we should begin.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
Really? This is his profound advice?  Sounds like a Nike commercial, you say. 

Well, you’re right. The gist of this advice is to “just do it.” But just because we have heard it before doesn’t mean it is not valid. And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we really, consciously, decide what we want in our careers and then actually make a plan to achieve it. Do we take daily steps in that direction, no matter how small, but always forward in a clear direction? Or do more of us tend to drift, letting those around us dictate the direction of our professional lives.

If we unpack this simple advice we see many more eternal truths, not just about career development, but about life in general. Think for yourself. Take responsibility for your own actions. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. Decide, and then do.

However, even the best laid plans...well, you know, sometimes things just go wrong. Epictetus has some fatherly advice for us here as well.

“Difficulties are things that show what men are.”
"The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.”
You need fire and a heavy hammer to sharpen steel. A man’s character requires just as powerful a tool. Your fire and hammer are provided by the obstacles that you meet along the way. Rather than bemoan the fact that your boss has given you twice the work load, or cut your territory, or your co-worker has stolen credit for your latest project, pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Decide on a course of action that will rectify the situation and then act.

The tougher the problem, the more refinement your character can receive. You have all you need already inside you, but only if you truly apply all of the advice Epictetus has to offer. Prudent attitude. Prudent words. Prudent actions.
------------------------------------------------
SOURCES:
"Epictetus [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 18 July 2011. .
Long, A. A. Epictetus a Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002. Print.
Oates, Whitney J. The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers; the Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. New York: Modern Library, 1957. Print.

Lessons from My Father

My dad was a small business owner for almost 25 years. From the age of 9 through college I worked with him. This small retail establishment was in many ways my school. I didn't learn math or literature or science there. I learned people. There has never been a more valuable thing to understand if you want to be successful in this world. And I don't just mean financially, I mean making a real difference.

Unfortunately I forgot just about everything I learned.

******************************
Just about 10 years ago my oldest child was born. At that point my wife and I were not sure whether or not she wanted to go back to work, so we decided to start our own micro-business as a way of making some extra income.I had always been a writer, so we embarked on a resume writing adventure.

Starting out I felt I needed to compete with others who had a much larger footprint in the marketplace. They had large staffs, I had me. They had huge advertising budgets, I had none. They did massive volume, and therefore charged relatively low prices. So, I did my best to be cheaper. I presented myself as a much larger company with multiple email addresses that in actuality all went back to me. I did my best to be one of the big boys in the field. Over the years it allowed my wife to stay home and home school our kids while still keeping a roof over our heads. But it has never really thrived.

Then I started thinking about the lessons I'd learned watching my father all those years ago. I asked myself: what made him successful? He had to compete against stores much larger, with bigger staffs, bigger advertising budgets and cheaper prices, yet he thrived

I realized what he did, and I failed to do, was build a business relationally based around just dealing with people. He didn't deal with customers so much as deal with friends. Some were old friends, some were new friends, some were one-day-only friends. But the point was he related to people on an individual basis. People were treated justly, fairly, and that made a difference. This was what he could do that other, larger, more multifaceted, businesses couldn't do. It is what made him stand out.

So over this past summer I changed my business model entirely. I stopped trying to pretend I was something I was not. I dropped the pretense that I was a bigger business than I was. I redesigned my website to make it perfectly clear I was a one man show. That I was a teacher who wrote resumes as a side business, and that I was damn good at what I did. My business emails became much more personal. I looked at my clients less as paying customers and more as people who needed my help. Payment would come, but that was secondary.

I also stopped trying to compete with bigger companies on price. I raised my rates- considerably. But I told people exactly what they were getting for their investment- me. Not a big-box style service, but a personal writer who would walk them through the process, make them more comfortable, and provide them with a product they would be proud to use.

And what did following my father's implied advice get me? The best two months I have ever had. More clients have of course meant more money, but something even more important has happened. I have started to really enjoy my work. And I have gotten emails like this one from my most recent client:
I think you hit a homerun! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this! You most definitely have a special gift! How you were able to transform my resume into something I would never have been able to do....is amazing! Don't be surprised if you get more business .... because I will definitely be recommending you to all my family and friends that are in need of professional resume builder. I will keep you posted on my career search. 
What makes this so impactful to me is this one line, I will keep you posted on my career search. This really means a lot to me because it means this client and I made an honest connection. Yes I provided a service for a fee, but I also connected relationally. That will probably lead to more business and that is great. But more important is the fact that it leads to a more fulfilling job. It took me almost 10 years, but I have finally implemented the business lessons my dad taught me about how to treat people justly.

If I haven't said it before, thanks Dad.

Review- The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood



As the recently released film Courageous shows, 21st century American men are going through something of an identity crisis. One need only look to the plethora of websites and books geared toward men to see this. Sites like The Art of Manliness and 1001 Rules for my Unborn Son provide both advice and an outlet for today's men searching for exactly what it means to be a man. 

Recent books like Raising a Modern Day Knight, and Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, make attempts at helping fathers raise sons that will grow into men. Into this arena steps one of today's foremost voices on values and virtues, William Bennett, with an excellent book, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.

Bennett is a curator of the museum of manhood.

Bennett does not simply talk about manhood today, he talks about the concept of manhood throughout recorded history. Stories, essays, historical vignettes, and contemporary profiles are his means to explore and explain what it means to be a man. In doing so he gives a fuller and richer picture of what being a man means and in turn, how best to become one. He does this by dividing the idea of manliness into six arenas of action:
  • Man in War
  • Man at Work
  • Man in Play, Competition, and Leisure
  • Man in the Polis
  • Man with Woman and Children
  • Man in Prayer and Reflection
In each chapter there are a series of readings from such varied sources as Pericles, St. Thomas Aquinas, President Kennedy & Iraq war veterans. Less of a book, what Bennett is actually doing is acting as a modern day curator of all the things that make one truly a man. 

Like Bennett's previous work, The Book of Virtues, this book is one to hold on to for the long term.

One of the strengths of a book like this is it's timelessness. It was not written to be read straight through, but to be used as a kind of a reference book. As a homeschooling parent of a young son I know this book will have a prominent place in my own library. The readings are short and will be food for rich discussion both now when my son is quite young, and later, when he is inevitably struggling to find his own way into adulthood.

One hopes that this museum of manhood is not one of ancient history, but one of things that were, that can be and will be again.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com a book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. 

Worshiping at the Altar of Progress

I study nuclear science
I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they're only getting better
I'm doing all right, getting good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades,
I gotta wear shades - Timbuk 3 (1989)

The idea that tomorrow will be better than today is nothing new. In fact, an unfailing faith in the infallibility of the future is practically encoded in modern man’s DNA. In Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford he talked about not being held back by dogma. He of course was simply rewording the too often used refrain to “think outside the box.” However, his statement is ironic as he in fact is a key proponent of another dogma.

We tend to believe, consciously or not, that history has been a steady march of progress, leading inevitably towards... well... us. Next year will bring newer, better and faster into our lives, and we will all be the better for it. Or will we?

As much as we like to think that all of our technological prowess makes us the pinnacle of human achievement, how much of modern convenience actually improves our collective lives? The recent death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs places all of this in a unique light. We have the opportunity to look objectively at one aspect of our progress-obsessed culture to determine whether it is really all that, progressive. By this I mean are we progressing towards anything? And if so, is it a desirable end?

So, how has Apple changed the world? Or at least how has Apple changed the way we live and work in the world?

If we imagine a world in which we never had iPhones, iPods or even the iMac, what have we lost? Clearly there is a high degree of entertainment value to these devices. We will have lost high quality portable music. Communication will be different. Cell phones as we know them -mini computers- will be gone. Much of the ease of personal computing may be quite different without Apple’s inspiration. I enjoy these aspect of Steve Jobs’ legacy as much as the next person, but I hardly think these qualify as world-changing items.

Now, if Steve Jobs’ didn’t in fact change the world, he was certainly one of the modern prophets of the future. Mark Vernon, college professor, former Anglican priest and philosopher, had this to say about our deification of all things Apple.

I wonder whether the high adulation, even sanctification, is at least in part because we live in an age that worships the future, and he was instrumental in achieving what has actually become a relatively rare feat: delivering a vision of the future into our hands.

I think there is something to this. It is not so much that Apple, or any tech company for that matter, does anything that we can point to as truly paradigm shifting, it is that they help us keep the faith in Progress. But again, what is the end game? What exactly are we striving for?

Do we want technology to create for us more leisure time? If so, technology has utterly failed us. Then modern family works longer and harder than it did 60 years ago. In fact, I remember reading a study that claimed a hunter-gatherer only really “worked” about 20 hours per week. So if all this progress isn’t making life easier then it must at least be making us smarter, right?

Not necessarily. In Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he recounts the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates and how common men and women - farmers, millers, tradesmen - sat for literally hours listening to rhetorically-styled speeches and rebuttals on detailed political matters. Here is just a sampling of what these everymen listened to with interest:

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Lincoln’s comments on slavery include a single sentence with 77 words, multiple clauses and various stresses. Nowadays, we are treated to presidential debates with 30 second responses that are filled with overplayed talking points. And yet the populace pays little attention to them. This is but one example of our culture’s literary deficiencies.   

So if technology doesn’t give us more free time and it doesn’t make us smarter, what is the point? Here is where the virtue of Prudence comes into the picture. Technological progress in and of itself is neither positive or negative, neither good or evil. However, each so-called advance requires a trade off. Whether we deem the trade off prudent or not decides whether or not the progress will be adopted.

The problem is that prudence no longer plays its vital role. We accept all progress dogmatically - for progress’ sake. The cost for this blind faith however is real, and we lose by ignoring this fact. Some examples:

Music, historically, has been a communal experience, one that brings people together to experience some collective cathartic moment. Psalms, hymns, chants, chamber music all share this aspect. Now more often than not music, in the form of headphones, is exclusionary. True, we can now take the joys and escapism offered by music wherever we go, but by and large the communal aspect is lost. It is a trade off.

Learning about a new topic used to require a certain amount of work. A trip to the library, deciding on a few books, reading, note taking, synthesizing this into some kind of understandable personal paradigm. Now we Google it, or stop by Wikipedia. Yes, we have vastly more information at our finger tips than anyone in all of human history. But we are losing the skills of synthesis in the process. There is that trade off again.

Personally, I do not use a cell phone. (OK, mea culpa.  I own a TracFone that gets turned on twice a year when my wife and I are in separate locations, or for emergency purposes.) I see the benefit of texting, instant phone communication and having the Internet at your fingertips. But I also see the cost in terms of interpersonal relationships, communication and observation. For me the trade off isn’t worth it.

The point in all of this isn’t whether or not any particular technology is good or bad. It isn’t whether Steve Jobs should be looked at as a hero or villain. I certainly am not advocating that we all go back and become hunter-gatherers living off the land. What I am saying is that a dogmatic faith in Progress, in the idea that the future will always be better, is a fallacy based not on logic or reason, but misplaced hope.

If you are going to place your faith anywhere, might I suggest something a bit more timeless and eternal than your smart phone.

Josef Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Readers of my previous writing project may recognize this essay- it is about one of my favorite philosophical books. As I have recently shut down my old site I am in the process of migrating a few essays that seem to fit A Certain Quality of Life. If you have read this before, I apologize, if you have not, I hope you find it useful.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German Catholic philosopher, who helped popularize Neo-Thomistic philosophy in the twentieth century. His writings are rooted in the works of Thomas Aquinas as well as Aristotle and Plato. Pieper sought to explain and defend the wisdom tradition of the West and his short and powerful Leisure, the Basis of Culture was one of his most notable works.

Pieper's Definition of Leisure
Pieper attempts to reintroduce the modern reader to the still important Platonic understanding of the value of philosophical work, and the sagacity of the Thomistic understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. He does this through two complimentary essays, Leisure and The Philosophical Work. Read together, these works explain that in order for man to reach his full potential, he needs to look beyond the world of servile, or useful, work and include philosophical work, or liberal arts, into his everyday life.

In 1952, when this book was first published the idea that one either lives to work, or works to live was teetering close to “work” being the point of existence. Nearly 60 years later, if we haven't fallen off that precipice entirely, we are surely hanging on by our fingernails. What Pieper posits is that mankind is becoming a slave to the idea that only work that is hard, or servile in the social sense, is to be valued.


Leisure's Importance in the 21st Century
We, in the early twenty first century, are losing our ability to do true philosophical work that is more contemplative, or receptive, in nature. The worship of progress for progress' sake, the praise of mindless know-how, and education as training, not knowledge-seeking, all point to our drift toward the slave society where we are all defined as our function towards the common society as a whole.

Western culture has an outlook of the world as total work; of work-for-work's sake. We seem to have internalized the protestant work ethic to such an extent that we threaten to lose our souls, in both a cultural and personal sense. Pieper claims that while we all must live in the work-a-day world we also need space in our lives to contemplate the infinite.

The idea of leisure is the antidote to our work-for-work's-sake lives. Since man is made for union with God, human work is not separate from this end. Today, the work of man is an end in itself. Pieper shows how this is a reorientation from the classical world view which viewed both useful work and philosophical work as vitally important to the full development of man.

According to Pieper the one way for man to regain the original western tradition begun by Plato and continued by the Medieval masters is to re-marry philosophy to theology. He believes that it is through religious sacrifice in its truest sense that we can realize the kind of philosophical work that is not readily useful in the work-a-day world, but that is eminently useful for our cultural and spiritual survival.


 "Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with divine worship."

Doing Virtuous Business by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

Capital. It is a loaded word. It most commonly refers to monetary resources, but more and more we hear about the term social capital in regards to business. How much clout does a given professional or organization have in terms of its connections within and between social networks. Malloch brings in a third dimension to the concept of capital: Spiritual Capital.

Doing Virtuous Business explains how the most successful businesses tend to have a grounding in spiritual principles. This leads to both financial reward as well as societal betterment.  Malloch is a devout Christian, and his ideas around spiritual capital are strongly influence by Christian principles. The four cardinal virtues play an important role in his analysis. However, his points are valid beyond any religious dimension.

The book is written in a fairly scholarly fashion and as such is not one that can be easily skimmed. His many references to such esteemed thinkers as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas require a fair degree of thought and “unpacking.” However, the reward is well worth the effort, as Malloch shows how strongly held principles can lead to even stronger organizations.

While this book is quite spiritual in nature it is also a strong apologetic for capitalism in an age where the very foundations of capitalism seem to be shaking. He shows how it is not “big business” that is the enemy of social justice. We simply need business to be better informed by virtuous principles.

Doing Virtuous Business uses real world examples from such well known institutions as Wal-Mart, IBM, Chicken-Fill-A  and Habitat for Humanity, to show how companies that operate according to the virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence (what Malloch terms “Practical Wisdom”) and Moderation have outperformed their competitors. Overall, the book is an excellent read for those in leadership roles within any size organization. The foundational value of creating spiritual capital is beneficial to all.



Check out this interesting book at Thomas Nelson Publishing. Disclosure of Material Connection: I  received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Supposedly, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. 

I certainly hope so.

One step forward...
The purpose of this writing project is to chart my own personal journey in trying to live a life according to the classical virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Moderation. My ultimate hope is that others will be motivated to do the same. Since beginning this project I have come to appreciate how paying attention to these virtues can be a real source of strength in my daily life. But the road is not an easy one. If I am going to do this properly I am going to need to be brutally honest in chronicling not just my successes, but also my failures. 


Two steps back...

Today I willingly kicked Fortitude & Justice to the curb. I knew there was something I should do today, but I just didn't want to. It was something I was uncomfortable with, even though it was clearly "the right thing to do." I am not the most outgoing guy and today's opportunity would have required me to go out of my comfort zone. I let my discomfort rule over my sense of both Justice and Fortitude. And now I feel lousy. I think in retrospect my guilt feels worse than the discomfort would have had I gone through with today's chore. I suppose that is something to remember. But right now it doesn't help all that much.

I remember reading somewhere that once you start eating better, that when you cheat, and eat junk it tends to make you feel worse than it did before you were eating healthy. I think the same principle applies here. Before I started seriously evaluating my daily activities in light of the classical virtues I doubt whether today's missed opportunity would have left much of an impression on my psyche. 

Progress? In a way, I guess it is. But I'll tell you one thing. Next time I feel anxiety pushing me away from a task I know I should do, I will work harder to push it aside. One step forward...

Star Wars Virtue


I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don't want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher "covers" the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.



Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character's fatal flaw. Let's use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn't it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
 
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
 
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero's journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Fallacy of the Emergency Fund

When it comes to giving until it hurts, most people have a very low threshold of pain. I understand this saying  firsthand. Finances have been a topic of discussion around my home this summer for a variety of reasons, some good, some not so good. But whenever man evaluates his money, his true self seems to come through. And my true self could use some work.


We have all heard the advice: you should have "x" number of months expenses set aside in case of an emergency. Just how many months depends on who you listen to, but the net effect is the same. Experts tell you to keep thousands of dollars in the bank,  just in case.

While I have always struggled to follow this advice, I bought the premise. After all, it makes sense. If the roof suddenly starts to leak, or the water heater blows, it would be nice to have money already saved up for this. But let's be honest with ourselves, if we can afford to keep 4 months worth of salary sitting in the bank, we can probably figure out how to pay for a new muffler on the car if disaster strikes.

The virtue of Justice requires us to be good stewards of our money.

While intellectually this makes sense to me, I have always struggled to really make this part of my financial life. What exactly does being a good steward mean? I give money to church, support a couple charities I believe in. Does that mean I am being just with my money, or does stewardship require more?

Here is where that emergency fund comes into play. What exactly is an emergency? And does the emergency have to affect me directly in order for me to spring to action?  As a freelance writer who depends on a laptop for part of my income, a suddenly dead computer would fall into the category of emergency. Or does it?

One way or another I would get it fixed or replaced. I might have to finance it, or carry some debt on the credit card, but my family would eat every day and we'd have comfortable beds to sleep in each night. Not to mention cable TV, cell phones, a reliable car, health care and of course each other.

So if replacing a $1,000. computer isn't really an emergency what is? Short of an utter disaster, which  is what we have insurance for, I have a hard time thinking of an honest-to-goodness emergency. However, if I expand my sphere of influence a bit I can find them everywhere.

The recent crisis in Africa springs immediately to mind. My wife came across a news report of a mother literally waiting for her son to die in her arms at the same time we were bemoaning the fact that our dream budget needed to be amended for the last 4 months of the year. She likes to call these moment like these a "God Smack." In this instance, I have to agree with her.  

Kids dying in their parents arms is an emergency. My really wanting a new car is not.

I am a big fan of author and theologian C.S. Lewis. He speaks of our need to follow the virtue of justice when it comes to charity with better eloquence  than I can.
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.
This, I think, is what being a just steward with your money means. This is hard. Here is where the rubber meets the road. If I am truly going to try and live my life according to the classical virtues then I need to do it not only when it is easy and feels good. But I also must push through and do it when it is hard and feels, well, not necessarily bad, but, uncomfortable.


So in the end we reworked that family budget and cut out some more fat. Our bills will get paid. But in the process we also found a way to more than double our charitable giving. No surprise where that first check went.

“All you have shall some day be given: Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.” — Kahlil Gibran

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800's. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.

Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father's side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it's mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.

I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.

The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn't, they likely wouldn't survive.

Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it -  at least materially- pretty quickly.

Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man's natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800's. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.

Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn't have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.