The privilege of thinking abstractly and the obligation to pay it forward

I’ve often remarked here that one of my favorite writers is Charles D. Hayes, author of wonderful books that integrate themes of adult learning, practical philosophy, and life’s second half. Currently I’m slowly savoring his 2003 novel, Portals in a Northern Sky, a unique work that I can best describe as a multi-character philosophical journey, with a sci-fi, time-crossing element to it. It’s also an ode to Charles’s adopted home of Alaska.

In Portals, philosopher and bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez engages Bob Thornton, an ex-Wall Street trader, in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of life. Here’s a snippet from Ruben that caught my eye:

There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who live a concrete existence and those who live in abstraction. The difference is surprisingly simple, and, of course, it’s a matter of degree because all of us require some of both. The people who live in the concrete world lack basic wealth and spend most of their time in a perpetual struggle for survival. Abstraction is a luxury engaged in by people whose fundamental material needs are no longer important issues. What’s misunderstood by those who profess to know how people should be educated is that to be truly educated a person must be able to reside in both worlds at all.

The Sanchez-Thornton dialogues are just one ongoing storyline in the novel. You’ll encounter many other interesting characters and ideas.

Boiled down Maslow?

Ruben Sanchez’s words sound like a boiled down take on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In a classic Psychological Review article published in 1943, Maslow grouped human needs into the following categories, organizing them as a hierarchy: At the base are “physiological needs” such as food, clothing, and shelter, that are central to our survival. Next are “safety needs” such as personal health, security, and financial security. The “love needs” for close human relationships comprise a third layer, and “esteem needs” for belonging in society, make for a fourth. Finally, “self-actualization,” the full realization of one’s potential, stands atop the hierarchy.

Paying it forward

Whether we’re looking at human development through the eyes of philosopher Hayes or psychologist Maslow, I submit that those of us whose basic survival needs are met have a moral obligation to pay it forward in some meaningful way. This includes helping others meet their survival needs and playing some tangible part in making the world a more decent, humane place.

I realize that not all readers are in such a privileged position. (For example, a good number originally find this blog because they are enduring horrible situations at work that are threatening their health and livelihoods.) However, those who enjoy the luxury of living largely in the world of abstraction — engaging ideas, meaningful initiatives and actions, and the meaning of life — have many opportunities to change our world for the better. Whether one believes in fate, random luck, or something in between (another theme running through Portals in a Northern Sky), such an advantage should not be squandered.

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Related post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013, rev. 2017)

Thinking big thoughts about our lives and our work

(image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

Folks, I’ve collected 18 past articles from this blog that invite us to think about big picture aspects of our lives and our work. You’ll find some overlap between them — at least I’m pretty consistent! — but I hope you’ll find this useful for self-reflection, taking stock, planning, and dreaming.

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between (2016) — “I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….”

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016) — Home-brewed philosopher and writer Charles D. Hayes is one of my favorite contemporary thinkers. . . . Yesterday he published a blog piece, “Life’s Purpose: Ripples,” that I’d like to share with you. Here’s a snippet: ‘If you ask people how they would like to be remembered, you will likely be met with silence, often with a look of bewilderment. Legacy is not something that most people give a lot of conscious thought to apart from material bequests. Psychologically though, at a deep subconscious level, how and for what we will be remembered is far important than many of us realize. For some of us this becomes clear as time passes.’

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016) — “For years, I’ve been promoting immersive avocations and hobbies as potential keys to a fulfilling life. They may include artistic and creative endeavors, outdoor and sporting activities, caring for animals, political and social causes, side gig businesses, intellectual projects, lifelong learning, community and faith-based service, or enjoyable pastimes. In unusual instances, that avocation or hobby could transform into a decent paying, full-time gig. But even if it doesn’t, it can fill a gap in one’s life left by the intersection of work and personal obligations. Such activities may be enormously fulfilling and meaningful.”

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your body of work (2015) — “…[m]y current interest in this topic has been piqued by a recent book, Pamela Slim’s Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013). . . . Having spent some time with it, I’d suggest that it also can help us think about our lives more holistically, starting with her definition of ‘body of work’: ‘Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.'”

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015) — “Brooks’s moral bucket list is comprised of the ‘experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.’ They include a shift toward humility, confronting self-defeat and our own weaknesses, accepting ‘redemptive assistance from outside,’ experiencing and giving ‘energizing love’ with others, finding our callings, and embracing a sense of conscience.

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014) — “If you’re looking to get beyond the hurly-burly of holiday consumerism, here are three books that will put you in a more thoughtful and reflective frame of mind. I’ve recommended them before, and I’m happy to do so again.”

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014) — Until recently, I regarded Wayne Dyer as an inspirational speaker who is frequently trotted out by PBS during its fundraising drives to give an extended talk on personal growth, interspersed with program hosts pitching for contributions. . . . But I started looking at his work much more closely after viewing “The Shift — Ambition to Meaning” (2009), a full-length movie with Dyer and an ensemble of actors including Michael Marasco, Portia de Rossi, Michael DeLuise, Shannon Sturges, Ethan Lipton, and others.

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “In Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), psychiatrist Carl Jung asked, ‘Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?’ He answered: ‘No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.'”

Transitions and inner callings (2014) — “A lot of people who find their way to this blog are in transitional stages of their work lives, often because of bad experiences at a current or previous job. Some are contemplating a change of employers or even vocations. What’s next? Concrete stuff like finances and living expenses obviously come into play, and the practical challenges of paying the bills may compete with attempts to engage in big picture thinking about one’s life. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid looking inward, in some cases digging deep to turn a setback into an opportunity to consider and create options. For those in this position, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful.”

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014) — This week, the Huffington Post has been running a terrific five-day series, “50 over 50,” profiling 50 individuals who significantly changed their lives after reaching age 50 and beyond. In partnership with the TODAY Show, they’re looking at how people have reinvented themselves later in their lives, often after experiencing major challenges. . . . Here are links to the five main stories posted this week….”

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013) — “As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide us toward good transitions (2012) — “As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition. In several instances I’ve borrowed from previous blog posts mentioning the books. If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.”

What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one? (2012) — “What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life? . . . I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. . . . Judging from The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and may cause discomfort, as he was not one to pull punches.”

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?) (2011) — “What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world? This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts . . . , Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010). . . . Guillebeau poses two simple questions: ‘What do you really want to get out of life?’ ‘What can you offer the world that no one else can?’ . . . In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009) . . .. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future.”

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life” (2011) — “Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something? As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having ‘lived a balanced life’?”

Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is ‘a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.’ If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined ‘The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)’ . . . Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.

On happiness: If you’re going to spend, buy experiences, not stuff (2010) — “If you’re going to treat yourself to a little present, your happiness quotient is more likely to go up if you drop your money on a nice trip instead of a shiny new computer. Research on the ‘buy experiences’ vs. ‘buy stuff’ debate clearly sides with the former. “

Pursuing Creative Dreams at Midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true.  I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this.”

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

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How can professors harness their research and analysis to have a positive influence on public policy and law reform?

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett provides answers to that question in her excellent book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World. (NYU Press, New York: 2015). Lee Badgett is an economics professor and former director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass-Amherst, as well as a distinguished scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute. She is a nationally recognized authority on the economic dynamics of sexual orientation.

Recently Lee spoke at Suffolk University as part of a faculty workshop series that I’m co-hosting, “From Public Policy Scholarship to Public Policy Impact.” Her terrific talk centered on how faculty can create scholarship-to-impact pathways for their work. Drawing from her book, she recommended “three pillars or practices” that should inform how academicians approach this task:

First, professors should have a “big picture view of the work that they do,” which fosters an understanding of “where their work fits into the [policy] decision making process.”

Second, professors should build networks and relationships for sharing their work beyond academe.

Third, professors should “learn to communicate well with lots of other audiences,” fashioning a “jargon-free message” that “taps into people’s values.”

Lee’s talk was just the tip of the iceberg. For any professor, independent scholar, student, or publicly-minded intellectual who wants valuable advice and guidance on how to use their scholarship to influence public opinion and public policy, this book is an important starting place.

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

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Related articles

On this general topic, I’m happy to share two of my law review articles:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, 2016) — This piece recounts experiences and offers lessons and advice from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general. Alas, I was unaware of Lee Badgett’s book when my article went into production, but you’ll find plenty of complementary advice between our two publications.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — This article offers a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggests four points toward creating a more publicly-engaged practice for scholarly work.

Related blog post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

New Year’s Resolution: Becoming more trauma-informed

      

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At the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in December, I gave a short presentation titled “My New Year’s Resolution: Becoming a Trauma-Informed Human Being,” expanding on commentary here concerning the importance of becoming knowledgeable about the dynamics and effects of psychological trauma. I identified at least three roles that, for me, necessitate this course of learning:

  • Vocational/avocational – Understanding psychological trauma as a scholar, teacher, practitioner, advocate, and activist concerning workplace bullying and human dignity in general;
  • Friends/family/acquaintances — Being a better source of support to those close to me who have experienced psychological trauma; and,
  • Citizen and human being — Understanding how psychological trauma impacts millions of people around the world.

I also suggested several books that are helpful for anyone who wants to learn about psychological trauma and related issues. I’ll be spending time with each of them and others during the coming year:

  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014);
  • Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terrorism (2015 ed.);
  • David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2015);
  • Christina Robb, This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006); and,
  • Evelin Lindner, Emotion and Conflict: How Human Rights Can Dignify Emotion and Help Us Wage Good Conflict (2009).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is perhaps the most severe manifestation of psychological trauma. For those who would like to read an informative piece about the history of PTSD, as it developed largely in the context of psychological trauma experienced by soldiers exposed to combat, this 2015 Vanity Fair piece by Sebastian Junger, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” is very informative.

Is it time to attend September University?

As a tumultuous 2016 comes to a close, I find myself looking to the work of Charles D. Hayes, a retired, largely self-educated writer and moral philosopher whose books and essays on living our lives are singularly wise, humane, and insightful, especially for those in the second half of their journeys.

In September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life (2010), he offers a unique mix of philosophy, values, homespun wisdom, deep reflection, and full throated embrace of lifelong learning, all designed to encourage readers to enrich our lives and make genuine contributions to the world around us. For those who are trying to define their work lives, it helps to provide a context for thinking how our labor contributes to our own fulfillment and to the greater good. His Preface, which you may access online, explains the idea of September University:

September University, in concept, is a metaphor for intellectual maturity and represents an ambitious quest on behalf of future generations. September University, the book, is a call to action, a social forecast, and above all a passionate argument that a bright future depends upon the experiential wisdom of aging citizens. The exploration you’re about to begin has the potential to transform your worldview, heighten your aspirations, and elicit reflections about your personal legacy and the spiritual meaning to be derived from the last season of life.

If you want a sense of where Charles is coming from as a writer and thinker, this passage from the Preface offers a clear look:

Many people experience lives today steeped in such seething mediocrity that the beast-ridden savannah of our ancient past seems inviting by comparison. Whereas life may have once been “nasty, brutish, and short,” these days it can be confused, pointless, and headed toward a disaster that most people don’t have time enough to recognize is coming. Never before has reading the signs of the times been more essential, and never has it been so imperative that the concept of wisdom be a holistic notion favoring humanity over the special interest of some excessively needy individual, group, corporation, or nation-state.

Charles is no ivory tower kind of guy. His vocational history includes, among other things, service in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Dallas police department, as well as decades spent working in the oil industry in Alaska. I’ve been reading his books for years, and during the past year I’ve enjoyed conversing with him on Facebook. His voice is real.

I praised this book when it first appeared in 2010, and I believe its lessons are needed now more than ever. Though written especially for those of middle age and beyond, September University will resonate with anyone who is eager to move past the superficial trappings of contemporary life. 

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I’ve discussed Charles’s writing in previous blog posts, including:

…on the ripple effects of our lives (2016)

…on”mainstream indifference” (2015)

…on wisdom at fifty-something (2014)

…on the lessons of nostalgia (2011)

Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

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