Friday, October 31, 2014

On the Titanic and Tolstoy

I've heard this before somewhere, but I can't find it to give due credit:  Coping with climate change is like coping with being a passenger on the Titanic.

Some won't notice anything's amiss until they're well into the water.

Some will notice it's going down and decide we should continue playing until the bitter end.

Some will continue to insist it's unsinkable.  Technology, leadership, something will swoop in to save the day.  We mustn't worry ourselves too much.

Some will spend their energy insisting it's not their fault, so it's not their problem.  They'll sit stubbornly still in their belief that they shouldn't have to do anything to change the situation even as they feel the ship shift.

But others will get to work, and try to get as many people on the lifeboats as possible and abandon the luxury ship they're on for a better chance at survival in a smaller vessel.  It doesn't matter whose fault it is that it's sinking (past focus), nor that one day it might be fixable (future focus), but that right now people are in danger of great suffering.

And, although not a perfect fit, it reminded me of Tolstoy's choices of responses to the horrors of facing a meaningless death:

1. We can live a life of abject ignorance.  This is the lowest choice for the cowards and the weak.  These are the climate deniers.

2. We can recognize the hopelessness of the situation, but enjoy Earthly pleasures while we're here.  These are the many I met on various dating sites I've since abandoned, whose primary interests are travelling and working out.  It's Kierkegaard's aesthetic life.

3. We can recognize the meaninglessness of life, but cling to it anyway - afraid to die, but not living authentically either with a self-righteous focus on duty-driven ethical choices.  It's a fearful attitude, but more honest than the first two.  This is where Tolstoy claimed to be in A Confession, before his final epiphany and conversion.

4. We can recognize the futility of it all and commit suicide.  Tolstoy saw this as a noble option.  If it's all for nought, then it's weak to drag it out until it's taken from us as if we have no free will, no choice in the situation.

5. We can put our hands in a faith of some sort - and recognize that it's all larger than ourselves.  This is where Tolstoy ends up at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilych.  We give life meaning through a life spent living compassionately with others and for others, fearless of the end, fully in the present.

We have to keep working towards preventing the suffering of billions.  Luckily, if working and helping others, and enjoying others is pleasurable, then it's easy to do.  And living compassionately, Tolstoy makes clear, means pitying the people focused on things and appearances and social standing.  I don't like the connotation of "pitying," but he ends up with a great love for people whom he formerly hated for their choices and attitude.  I believe it's a position that looks at what we can do for others rather than one that sees only how others affect us.  But it's a struggle for me to get there when the action of so many need to change in order for this all to work.  The actions of so many affect our own survival.  As Diamond notes the "impossibility of convincing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world," it's clear we're on a Titanic, and we can only do what we can while we slowly sink into the sea.   It's not for us to fix it, but for us to try with ever an attitude of compassion while we work.

Something like that.

On Luxuries and Necessities

"If we keep doing what we are now doing, we are screwed. This we know now."  - David Roberts

It's going up to 42 today!  That's really hot.  So far my house is a reasonable 28.  I don't have A/C.   I open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside; otherwise, I keep them closed.  I keep all the lights off almost all the time, and I avoid cooking.  These three things really help.  

When we were kids and we whined for an air conditioner, my dad insisted that it was his duty as a good father to ensure we were raised to tolerate the temperature extremes of our part of the world so we could learn to adapt to them.  If we were raised with air conditioning, his theory went, we'd grow up intolerant of the heat and then, he assured us, we'd be no good to anybody.  We were allowed to have heat in the winter however (20 max) because even strong healthy people die of the cold, but if you're healthy and fit, you should be able to tolerate whatever heat waves Southern Ontario can deliver.

On an Impressive Stupidity

I don't have a background in English literature, yet I just spent a semester teaching it - poorly.  And it struck me why I love philosophy and hated English.  During my semester I had many instances of doubt in my understanding of certain texts, and I didn't hesitate to ask colleagues for help.  The palm-to-forehead reactions at my ignorance was a set-back. It was insisted that either I DO understand it - surely I must by this point- but somehow I just don't recognize that understanding, or I should ignore this line of questioning completely and focus on the issues in the plot-line.  And I realized that if in studying English I suggest that I don't really grasp the symbolism or the connections in a simpler Shakespearian comedy, it's embarrassing, but if in studying philosophy I'm not entirely solid on Sartre's phenomenology, it's a much more impressive stupidity.  And because of that, I think, we're more free to discuss it at length and really get to the bottom of some understanding of it allowing for the possibility that we might not entirely understand - or I might not.

On Excuses for Not Having Sex

I wanted to chime in on a facebook discussion about that list (a man made a spreadsheet of his wife's excuses for refusing sex), but it wasn't started by an official FB friend, so I couldn't comment on it.  I'm not sure the etiquette on this, so I'll just keep everyone anonymous.  Here's the opener attached to a link that suggests women never owe men sex:

This analogy seems to suggest that, like a game of badminton in which nobody actually hits the ball is not actually a game of badminton, marriage in which nobody has sex isn't actually a marriage.  That's an archaic notion of marriage, and even in more religious times the union needed to be consummated only once to be validated.  Today, sex isn't necessary to prove a marriage is valid or invalid - even in religious circles.  I know more than one Catholic who's had a marriage annulled even though there were children produced.  Having sex doesn't make a marriage and not having sex doesn't unmake one.

And this is a progression to be celebrated.  There was a time when raping a woman was enough to legally make her your wife.  Now, here at least, it's illegal.  We've come to a place in which whatever people want to do sexually between consenting adults is accepted.  It's their own business.  But one choice that's less accepted is the choice to abstain while in a relationship.  It's curious how all or nothing we are about that.

The original poster continues:

Let's look closer at "a de facto exchange of fidelity for participation."

There's nothing in marriage vows suggesting sex is a necessary part of the union, but we can skip that type of argument and look at what the culture actually believes about marriage.  I think he's right that many people accept this type of agreement - at first.  But things come up.  Kids happen and people get tired or bored or sick of playing a game that they don't enjoy as much as their partner does.  Maybe they never actually "win the game," so to speak because their partner wins too fast every time.  Whatever the reason, I think in the first blush of matrimony there may be an assumption made that sex is a significant part of the marriage, and too many people unwisely don't discuss the what if's around this assumption.  But later on, it seems some people acknowledge and often accept a waning of interest.  The mutual understanding shifts over the course of time.

I'm not a marriage advocate largely because I don't think we can actively promise to love another until we die (as explained in this), but I also think it's too much to ask to promise we'll be the same kind of person and want the same kinds of things for decades into the future.  We are beings constantly in flux, yet some marriages expect consistency.  It's wonderful when people grow and change together, accommodating changes as they arise and working through them, but sometimes the changes are too great to be accommodated.  That's just life; it's nobody's fault.

Furthermore, because many people believe it to be true, that marriage is an exchange of fidelity for participation, doesn't make it right.  Just because it is that way for many people, doesn't mean it ought to be that way.  As we evolve to recognize individual rights, we have a moral duty to respect that we all have a right to do what we want with our bodies.  If a partner wants to have sex, it has to come as a  request, not an expectation.  That spreadsheet-man's wife's reasons for saying "no" to sex are seen as "excuses" implies that he believes sex is her duty, a chore, and she's trying to weasel out of her responsibility to him like a kid explaining why she can't clean the bathroom right this minute.  But it's not a duty for her to perform while she lies back and thinks of England.  Sex is an act to be freely shared between partners.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Ideally marriage is about caring for another without expectation.  It's about loving another person, which is not self-seeking and keeps no record of wrongs.  It's a public gesture that makes a commitment to care about the well being of another.  Publicly humiliating a partner by posting "excuses" online shows a profound lack of care and respect.  

I agree with the writer that the couple needs to "dispel a mutual illusion."  They clearly need to have a conversation, and spreadsheet-man has approached his personal problem in, I think, one of the worst ways possible.  No matter the initial intent of their marriage, that's changed, and they're not coping well with that reality.  It's a very real and serious problem for people when they're mismatched sexually, I agree, because they've promised not to go elsewhere.  It's not like if one person wants to see a movie, and the other declines, and the desirer can call a friend.  But that's not enough to suggest the solution is the assumption of participation.  Almost any two given people will have different desires at different times, and there are myriad ways to cope with that reality besides "Participate when I want it or we're over!".

Most importantly, a mismatch must be seen as just that.  There's no right amount of sex to have, so someone agreeing to it three times a month must be accepted as much as someone wanting it several times a day or never at all.  It just is what it is.  A mismatch is a problem for both the person not getting as much as they desire, and for the person denying the request, but it's only a problem at all if people hold sex in their relationship as more important than care, respect, and love.  If you care enough, you can become attuned to one another's needs.  It might mean not asking even if you're feeling it, and it might, for some people so inclined, mean doing things you're not really into right now.  Love isn't about giving everything of ourselves to another person, though, or solving all their problems ourselves, it's about caring about their issues enough to be there while they find their own way.  

On a Four-Hour Workday

Stephen Elliott-Buckley echoes Bertrand Russell's idea of the 4-hour workday.  Russell in brief:
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men [and women] will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.
And many of us could do it easily but for our unbridled desire for more stuff.  It's an easy fix for many problems if those who need less money simply worked fewer hours and freed up a job for someone else who needs it to survive.  If all the teachers who are living comfortably worked part-time, we'd be able to hire a bunch of new recruits and get some fresh ideas in the system.