Through Facebook, I was recently contacted by an old friend from high school (who was actually the first girl to go on a date with me). She is working on her Master’s in nursing and has an assignment which involves interviewing people about their views on religion and spirituality, for the purpose of thinking about approaches to holistically caring for patients. She asked if she could interview me and I said she could if I could blog the results. She agreed. Here is part 1 of our interview. Her questions and comments are in bold:
Do you think of yourself as religious or spiritual?
Well, I am neither religious in any institutional, theistic, or superstitious senses, nor spiritual in any superstitious, other-wordly, or particularly mystical sense. But I not only grew up religiously but was religious into my early adulthood and my rejection of faith-based thinking was out of adherence to principles that I got from my religion. And I have retained my spiritual intensity, my concern for truth, my adamant attitude that certain primary ethical values be universally respected, and my speculative, metaphysically interested side.
I’ve also retained the highly social and therapeutic, introspective, and self-critical psychologically focused attitudes that are nurtured in both church contexts in general and the modern evangelicalism I was raised in in particular. And there is most notably a zealous, “evangelizing” side to me that wants to work for the cause of people’s deconversions, that wants to help people reject authoritarian thinking and institutions and instead to reason for themselves. So, in some ways my views and goals have religious parallels. Instead of God, I want to promote Truth, and instead of faith, freethinking, and instead of seeing people as sinners in need of redemption, I see people as evolutionarily imprecisely evolved reasoners and ethical judgers who need to scrupulously train themselves in better habits of reason in order to make for greater knowledge, better ethics, and more just politics. And I am admittedly, in temperament, “religious” about advancing this paradigm shift. I do believe in reason’s power to “save” and am willing to sacrifice with religious intemperance to do it.
To whom do you turn when you need support? Or, is there a person or group of people who are really important to you?
I turn to close friends and to my parents. The only group I turn to is EVERYONE ON FACEBOOK.
Pretty big group, apparently you are not shy!
Right, I am comfortable broadcasting to the world. I only feel comfortable in two sorts of settings—
one on one and talking to large groups of people. One on one I can find that intersection between my personality and someone else’s where we both feel comfortable and relate to one another.
One on one I can understand.
And talking to groups, either my classes of students or my readers on my blog or the readers of my status updates, I feel very comfortable because I feel like an equal half of the equation, just like in a one on one conversation. Whereas, in small groups, the dynamic is not “me and you” or “me and the group”, there’s the 5 people and each of the 5 is 1/5, so I’m 1/5, and if I do not click with the group personality I will feel outnumbered, four to one.
If I get lucky and the whole group, including me, is on the same page, or if it’s a situation where my personality dominates the group, then I feel okay in the small group. But if there is a stronger personality than my own and that personality sets the group personality, or if it organically has a personality that is very different from my own, then I feel like I completely can’t express myself and close down. Once I was with two of my closest friends who I was used to interacting with primarily one on one or with other groups but never with just the two of them and me. We were together just the three of us for this rare occasion and their dynamic between them made me feel so excluded. They indulged a shared side of their personalities that felt so alien and antagonistic to me that I felt as incredibly lonely and rejected as I’ve ever felt. That night is a terrible memory.
What are sources of comfort and peace for you?
It’s a tough question to answer in general since there are many different sources of discomfort and unrest. So, to specify different circumstances: I rely on music enormously to express my feelings or to sustain me with pleasure during a long, hard day. I love small, temporary habits…
Like always eating at the same deli on Thursday nights while watching the same thing on the TV, listening to my i-pod, and reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog—that was one semester at about 4pm while I prepared to teach at 7. I love building in those little rituals.
My favorite was, for several semesters, coming home from the city, whether I had taught in Queens or New Jersey that day or just in Manhattan, I would travel back to the Bronx on the school van and every night I would listen to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. And they say they wrote it as “secular gospel music” and boy does it work for me on that score. It was this meditative stuff, I would always start with the title track and I love the thought—everything that happens will happen today. Somewhere someone is going through everything and experiencing everything that ever happens.
And every time I leave St. John’s I love playing this Decemberist song, “Yankee Bayonet”
and then the Neutral Milk Hotel’s album Aeroplane Over the Sea, and when I get stuck waiting for a subway that will be a long time I recharge with “Freebird”. So, these sorts of rituals—foods, music, patterns—they are remarkably psychologically pleasing.
But I hate rigidity and so I love that my schedule varies every semester in some ways and I can build new habits. As for comfort in a more existential sense—when dealing with the hardest times, I have a few people who I know will be entirely in my corner, like my mom or my dad or my friends Paul or Dan, people who will unflappably take my side and even think like my lawyer when I’m in trouble, who are just interested in me coming out okay above all else. We need people like that.
And beyond that, philosophically, I orient myself with the Stoics and with Nietzsche a lot. I focus on the reality of the limits of my control and prevent myself from wanting what it is irrational to want. I fight the urge to beat myself up and take frequent honest assessments of my life. What helps me most is to dwell on the power of small impacts. I really believe that when we do excellent things, we spread our power into the world through those things and they have effects which can be untraceable. I love just throwing myself out there and fighting for what I love and just wondering about, without ever possibly knowing, where it goes and what good it might do.
And I try to really understand that people are who they are and not change them and not vilify them or imagine their motives are as bad as their actions. I’m a pretty quick forgiver if someone sincerely apologizes. I have no years old grudges. (Okay, maybe one.) And I am pretty good about not letting ignorant, false opinions define my conception of myself. I am pretty vigorous about judging myself by the truth as much as I can. I can’t take a compliment I don’t deserve without squirming, I take constructive, legitimate criticism very gratefully and conscientiously, and I am pretty good at not letting the voices of the ignorant who don’t know what they’re talking about echo in my head. There are just a couple insecurities and weaknesses on these scores and those can slay me for weeks. But otherwise, I’m really good. I’m as comfortable as anyone could reasonably be expected, for example, with being constantly disagreed with as part of the life of a philosopher. That rolls off my back. I’m good at being wrong and (eventually) changing my mind when I have to. I only get sensitive if I feel like I’ve somehow failed my students. That will eat at me and eat at me.
One of Nietzsche’s deepest resonances with me is his denunciation of regret. He describes the will as tortured and imprisoned by its inability to change past. He thinks that it is the “It was”—the past which cannot be undone—which drives us crazy as beings who find ourselves as powerful through our ability to will. The inability to will the past to be different is this massive, existential realization of the limits of our power and of ourselves. And, of course, the past features many things we do not like which threaten to gnaw at us.
And so Nietzsche’s solution to this is to embrace what he calls “the eternal recurrence of the same”. This is the thought that the universe might recur precisely as it has (and presently does) an infinite number of times through all eternity. Whether or not this idea is plausible, Nietzsche argues that the highest affirmation of life, and of our own lives in particular, that we can have is the attitude in which we want nothing more fervently than the eternal recurrence of our lives exactly as they are and have been. To will the eternal recurrence of the same universe in all its totality is to affirm reality in the greatest possible way. To will the eternal recurrence of your own life is to affirm your life as the most valuable and desirable thing for you and, therein, to affirm yourself as much as possible. You are nothing but your life you have lived, and which you still live, and to resent your life is to alienate you from yourself. To regret what you have done or what has happened to you is to wish that you, as you are, were not.
And for me this is precisely why I have never been able to regret anything. I really can never fantasize about some alternative scenario for very long at all. I can hope for an awesome turn-around in a situation in the future, but I cannot get very far in dreaming up particulars that would be different in my life because it would be wishing my own non-existence to me. It all feels wrong.
I wish I had your discipline. I regret very little, but there is a couple i can’t seem to let go.
I can’t even write fiction because I can’t change the facts of my life. Every idiosyncratic particular of the world fits in the way it really happened in my mind and has to go like that.
And the other side of the eternal recurrence is living every moment with the tremendous weight of thinking, “What if I were to live this life for eternity would I want this choice I’m about to make?” And that existentialist sort of pressure on every moment, weighs on me all the time.
Some of this sounds like what my Buddhist friend believes.
When I look at the past and my limitations and other people’s, I am a Stoic, I feel it irrational to wish that I or it or they were different when they cannot be. And yet, even though, abstractly, I am a determinist, I embrace Sartre and Heidegger in feeling the openness of life and the radical possibility to create myself with my choices and the pressure to do so with death looming possibly quite faster than I can accomplish all I want to. I have great anxiety not about dying but about dying young. I am convinced that if I live to 83, I will make it, I will be proud of what I leave behind in the form of work and in the people affected and the causes advanced. But I would be bummed if I had to die younger.
So how do you counter the weight?
How do I counter which weight?
Existentialist sort of pressure on every moment, weighs on me all the time…
I teach and I write and I feel accomplished. I love the expression in sports that players just “leave it all out on the field” and don’t worry about the results. You just live and work as intensely as you can and, when absorbed in the meaningful work, there is no anxiety, no fear, no pressure in those moments, just complete immersion in what I’m “meant” to do and I regret nothing while doing that. When I’m not writing, I feel miserable, I feel anxiety, I feel behind, I feel like I’m accomplishing nothing, so the way to deal with the existential crisis for me is to act and act and act, create value every chance you can and feel good about that. If I didn’t feel like my life was creating and spreading value well, I couldn’t imagine what the point would be.
What gives your life purpose & meaning?
Purpose comes from our characteristic tendencies. We are what we do, we excel in doing what we characteristically do excellently.
You make an impact by teaching.
So, yeah, by teaching I fulfill myself, I realize my inherent nature in teaching and it’s intrinsically satisfying. And in philosophizing. When I am doing philosophy, I am fulfilling me. But I could also be more than I am now and so there are parts of me I worry may be or may have been fulfilled and I’m too content with just this. But if I could really excel at these things and can have my greatest ultimate impact in creating value this way, then the sacrifice is justifiable. It’s all about the fulfillment of your excellences from an internal perspective and your spreading power and value beyond yourself from an external perspective. And that gives meaning and context to your life as it plays a role in the larger story of the increase or decrease of value, and greater, richer, more complex kinds of value, in the universe.
What brings hope into your life?
I think I have hope because I was so damned loved as a kid, honestly. I think it makes it hard for me not to be an optimist when my primary experiences as a child were all love. It makes you, however naively, assume the world’s going to love you or that the default of life is good. Hope just springs from within in this way.
Now, I’m a total realist and even a pessimist about some things. I don’t count on any doors just flying open for me and I don’t assume even that hard work will get me to the top. I’m aware I might not reach the top or even the tenure track job I had devoted so many years aiming for. But I still just have an innate, unquenchable confidence that I will find my way some place I belong, even if it will be like nothing I imagine right now. And in the cosmic sense—I get hope from the progress of history, I feel so excited to be a part of the story of history—to be part of a people, a discussion, a human narrative stretching for centuries. I think humanity is advancing—however much every two steps forward is followed by one step back. I am excited about contributing to the cause of progress in whatever little ways I can from where I am. It does reinforce my hope.