Writing

Here’s to Eric Barker, who more than once has put me on a better track. His weekly writings are well worth signing up for here in my humble opinion.

He’s given me a handy reminder that apart from anything else, there are good mental health reasons for writing stuff down:

We ruminate endlessly but that just makes things worse. When you’re merely thinking about your problems, you hop, skip and jump all over the place, never resolving one issue before moving on to the next. Writing forces us to put a structure around life. To make sense of it.

And it’s not just about venting:

The effects were not due to simple catharsis or the venting of pent-up emotions. In fact, the people who just blew off steam by venting their feelings without any thoughtful analysis tended to fare worse…Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection merely adds to our distress…

Writing is about codifying and coming to a deeper understanding…

The authors asked students to write about their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Those who showed more deep-level thinking along with constructive problem solving were less depressed later and had fewer health care visits. Those students who merely expressed their emotions and described their anxiety had more health care visits…

A large number of good scientific studies conclude that the mere expression of emotion is usually not beneficial on its own. Rather, people typically must learn to recognize and identify their emotional reactions to events.

In effect:

Once you understand something, once you can find a place for it in the story of your life, that’s when you can put it behind you and move on.

And, that’s just one of the many reasons it seems to me (and to science) that regular writing is so important…

Here’s where the some of the science comes from:

More than thirty years ago there was a guy named Jamie, his marriage was in the toilet, and he was utterly depressed. Despite having big problems, he didn’t go to a therapist. (Which is ironic because Jamie was a graduate student in psychology, of all things.)

Instead he started writing. A lot. He wrote about his marriage, his career, his childhood. He basically covered every serious issue in his life and how he felt about it. And then something happened… He felt better. A lot better. And he realized how much his wife meant to him. They resolved their issues. Then he had a thought:

“Maybe writing might help anyone feel better about their struggles in life.

And being a psychology grad student, he did a study to test the theory… And he was right. Since that first paper was published in 1986 hundreds of other studies have shown the power of expressive writing to help people. In the thirty-plus years since, many students on the University of Texas at Austin campus have come up to Professor James Pennebaker and said:

“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”

James Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Pennebaker’s book is: “Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”

Cheerfulness

My New Year’s resolution is… cheerfulness.

A couple of years ago I cracked optimism. But so many people aren’t – even though it’s a learnable skill – that cheerfulness seems a better common denominator.

I’ll be trying my best to live up to the dictionary definition above.

So my resolution is:

To make it hard for others to be grumpy in the face of my hearty brand of cheerfulness!

What’s not to like?

Whatever else is going on in the world, this is my best contribution. Let the year of cheerfulness begin…

Hilaritas mentis

After a full (and indeed a fulfilling) schedule of festive feasts and gatherings; the final set piece hoves into view – the big one: New Year’s Eve…

Classically the ‘bridge too far’, I usually approach New Year’s Eve with a heavy heart and a bulging acid stomach. But not this year!

Perhaps in part thanks to Josef Pieper and St Thomas Aquinas.

Last night I finished ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’ and found myself reflecting on temperantia which Wikipedia has thus:

Temperance is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint. It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.

Temperantia, by Luca Giordano (Wikipedia)

But not for Josef Pieper, who offers a typically full blooded rebuttal of this ‘modern’ interpretation:

The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess.

He continues:

Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content.

Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.

Boom!

Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.

Which kinda makes sense. So what of the gustatory arts? St Augustine offers a very reasonable take:

It is a matter of indifference what or how much a man eats, provided the welfare of those with whom he is associated, his own welfare and the requirements of health be not disregarded; what matters is just one thing, namely, the ease and cheerfulness of heart with which he is able to renounce food if necessity or moral obligation require it.

To which Thomas Aquinas adds pithily.

To oppress one’s body by exaggerated fasting and vigils is like bringing stolen goods as a sacrificial offering.

And furthermore:

If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt;”

After all as Pieper points out, the Bible says:

“When you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks!” (Matt. 6, 16).

Because it transpires, the whole point of temperantia is to keep heart and soul happy and healthy – no more and no less. For as Pieper warns:

All discipline… bears in itself the constant danger of the loss of self-detachment, and of a change into self-righteousness, which draws from its ascetic “achievements” the profit of a solid self-admiration.

And we wouldn’t want that on New Year’s Eve, would we?

Instead, having eaten, drunk and been adequately merry (and stayed on the right side of 11 stone this Xmas) I’ll follow Pieper’s advice and crank out another evening of hilaritas mentis – namely: cheerfulness of heart.

Here’s to temperantia!

Keep on rollin’

Attracted by algorithms some while back, I bought myself this audiobook… it sounded like exactly what I was looking for:

I found it hard going if I’m honest. Listening at 1.25x speed helped.

But while the ‘optimisation problems’ of public parking turned out to be vaguely useful at work, my heart sank a bit the other Saturday when rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice served up the answer: ‘Audiobook’…

…Ho hum. But you have to trust the dice.

And sure enough ‘Algorithms to live by’ proved the point; the chapter on ‘Randomness’ validates a lot of what I’ve been trying recently:

Recent work in computer science has shown that there are cases where randomized algorithms can produce good approximate answers to difficult questions faster than all known deterministic algorithms.

One problem they help with is ‘Hill climbing’ and local maxima.

At any point in life – however much you’ve perfected it, the risk is it could still be better. Like a climber in the mist, you know you’re in a good place – but there might be an even better one you can’t see for the fog.

And randomness is the way to find out.

Try something a bit different and you can find out whether you’re at the top of a small hill of possibilities – or surveying the entire range from the highest vantage point.

The truth of life is: you never can know if you’re stuck in a local maximum. But the odd throw of the dice now has the full weight of computer science behind it!

Keep on rollin!

Mere Civility

sɪˈvɪlɪti [noun] – formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech: “I hope we can treat each other with civility and respect.” Courtesy, courteousness, politeness, mannerliness, graciousness, consideration, respect, urbanity, cordiality.

It’s autumn; the clocks have gone back and the nights are getting dark…. So it’s time to start rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice again – for audio accompaniment to cooking, cleaning up the kitchen and stacking the dishwasher.

On Tuesday the dice said listen to a Philosophy Bites podcast

So I did; and listened to a fascinating one with Teresa M. Bejan from Oxford University on the topic of civility:

It’s here

Looking for more, I found her book ‘Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration’

As the synopsis rightly says:

Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere.

In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical.

But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

This is exactly what I was talking about with a former colleague of mine, in a lovely walk in the autumn sunshine past the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ yesterday.

Surely the disfiguring scaffolding all over it, is a reminder of how much democracy and civility need bracing in this country – and many others – right now.

Back to ‘Mere Civility’… it turns out that:

Many of the pressing questions facing liberal democracies today – what the proper scope of liberty should be and how to handle partisanship and hate speech – closely recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration and the dangers posed by sectarianism, evangelical expression, and so-called “persecution of the tongue.”

Then as a now, thinkers appealed to civility as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement, but determining what civility requires can be complicated.  While some restraint on expression is surely necessary to make disagreement tolerable, accusations of “incivility” can easily become pretexts for persecution.

The issue with civility is it feels weak and insipid, if it appears to allow bad things to be said. But when institutions close ‘protest’ down, there’s an equal fear that ‘free speech’, the legitimate right to be angry and to demand change is being curtailed.

I’ve spent significant parts of the last few weeks – at my university – writing new policies and procedures which walk this tightrope.

In work, in politics and at home, I’m an advocate for civility – if you’re not even prepared to listen there’s not much hope of reasonable accommodation or collective progress.

But the suffragettes weren’t civil, Malcolm X wasn’t civil and some of the protesters we host at work aren’t either; but the things they were and are fighting for are good things.

Theresa Bejan argues for ‘mere civility‘ – the absolute bare minimum of it:

that allows for rude, rambunctious, honest debate without the disputants attempting to eject each other from society, 

That’s the baseline I’m defending at work; but I must say I’d like to see a bit more civility than we have.

As a middle-aged, middle-class white ‘family man’ that’s easy to say – all society’s norms are tuned to me. If I was a woman, black, gay or poor I might see things very differently.

Perhaps ‘mere civility’ is right – we shouldn’t seek to be too comfortable in a world full of inequality.

Happy Tracks II

Has anyone else in the entire world got a playlist with Tom Jones, Vic Reeves, The Bee Gees, Bass-O-Matic and The Skids in it?

I’d be surprised.

But that’s the joy of Spotify – it learns what you like.

Every Monday the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist serves up more songs like the ones I’ve ‘liked’ before, and the number and variety of my ‘Happy Tracks’ just gets bigger and bigger.

It has become a standing joke in the car with the kids; my Happy Tracks are frequently unlistenable to younger ears. But they get me toe tapping and steering wheel slapping.

Of course there must be a natural limit – I’m up to 504 songs now in less than a year – and growing steadily. Plus we know that learning algorithms drive ads, monetisation and ‘fake news’.

My original Happy Tracks were assembled by me – now a computer does it. That can’t be all good.

But sometimes you just have to know when you’re beat. Months ago I bought a book on computer science and algorithms to see if I could do exactly this: train an algorithm to serve up my taste in music, art and writing… And then I realised that’s exactly what search engines and social media firms are doing… doh!

Still you can’t be too happy. And Happy Tracks simply puts me in a better mood every time I put my headphones on.

So here’s to artificial intelligence – and stupidity – because Spotify is smart enough to come up with enough duds to kid me I still have superior taste!

Cookin’ up a storm!

The first autumnal day of the year – rain tippling down. What to do..?

Showtime!

A fridge and freezer full of forgotten and forlorn ingredients; and no major jobs or responsibilities to see to…

The result?

    A mighty fine ham n cheese omelette for breakfast
    Spicy mustard seed prawns for lunch
    Aubergine curry in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch
    A half decent Bolognaise on the table for the family
    And a failed Indian cooled carrot salad in the bin… still, learned from my mistake!

Happy days – I haven’t had a day in the kitchen since we moved house.

There’s no better way to spend a rainy Sunday than cookin’ up a storm!

Avoiding behaviour

Time to own up…

I’m in denial.

I really don’t like the idea of turning 50; even though I’ve convinced myself it’s only the attention I don’t fancy.

I’m a better man than I was turning 40; more skilled, knowledgeable, kinder and more resilient and optimistic. But my job and professional life are much worse.

Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned these last few years, it’s this: positivity and action beat carping and ruminating.

The universe is on your side if you keep fighting the good fight.

It’s all good – once next week’s out of the way…

Pieper on Prudence

Josef Pieper turns out to be my kind of ethicist: straightforward, practical and direct.

What he sets out on ‘prudence’ (aka Thomas Aquinas’s prudentia or ‘practical wisdom’) chimes entirely with what I think ‘good’ looks like in working life.

Here’s what Pieper has to say:

The first prerequisite for the perfection of “prudence” is providentia, foresight.

By this is meant the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal.

But foresight is often something you ‘feel’ and can be hard to explain to young idealists, literal-minded folk and powerful ideologues.

A reasonable sense of what will work (and won’t) is like a sixth sense. It’s not about ease or difficulty; it’s a ‘felt sense’ of a workable path through.

As Pieper points out:

At this point the element of uncertainty and risk in every moral decision comes to light.

In the decisions of which by their very nature prudence is concerned; with things concrete, contingent, and future (singularia, contingentia, futura) there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion.

Then he quotes Thomas Aquinas.

“Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur.”

The certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.

As Pieper rightly says:

A profound statement, this!

He goes on:

Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty.

If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness.

The combination of a ‘felt sense’, the difficulty of unpacking the many factors and years of experience which underpin it – and the inevitable risk it may not turn out to be right – is what prudentia feels like, I believe.

So what to do? Pieper concludes:

The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.

And, after all, as a man of faith Pieper suggests hope springs eternal:

The decisions of prudence receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources:

  • from the experience of life as it has been lived;
  • from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation;
  • and from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him.

In sum, Pieper makes a strong case for: thought, listening to your instincts and to others, timely action, accepting anxiety – and the ‘daring and humble’ hopefulness of pursuing genuine goals.

Prudentia is not a bad guide for working and family life.

A funny old game…

It’s a funny old game; the game of life… After a two months of feverish activity I find myself:

1) in a very promising and already rather nice new family home;

2) through the worst of some work travails;

3) a full stone lighter than at the end of May and the trimmest I’ve been since schooldays;

4) two days into a relaxing and rather lovely family holiday in Holland;

5) Downloading a dead German Catholic philosopher’s ‘Four Cardinal Virtues’.

It all goes to show that philo sophos (philosophy’s enduring charms) can be driven into abeyance by the busyness of life; but they are what I come back to when I am at rest.

Josef Pieper came to my attention via Wednesday’s (1st August) chapter of the Daily Stoic. As life progresses and reasonableness seems the only lasting solution to anything, I liked this Pieper quote:

“he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”

The wisdom of the ages in that one.

What better than a German Catholic on a Dutch beach holiday – surely Thomas Aquinas would have approved.