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.

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.

Maximus

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

Maxims

I’ve just bought La Rochefoucauld’s ‘Maxims’ on Kindle.

What does Wikipedia have to say about maxims:

A maxim is a ground rule or subjective principle of action; in that sense, a maxim is a thought that can motivate individuals. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy as:

“Generally any simple and memorable rule or guide for living; for example, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. Tennyson speaks of ‘a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter’s heart’ (Locksley Hall), and maxims have generally been associated with a ‘folksy’ or ‘copy-book’ approach to morality.”

Oh dear not so positive… Still the rather wonderful Leonard Tancock begs to differ in the terrific intro to the Penguin Classics Edition.

Voltaire describes the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld as one of the works which contributed the most towards forming the taste of the French nation and giving it a feeling for aptness and precision.

This little book of reflections about human nature, perhaps the most penetrating and disconcerting ever written, appeared in its original form, in 1665, in the middle of the wonderful decade which saw the flowering of the genius of Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, Boileau, Bossuet, and a galaxy of masterpieces by artists in other forms, painting, sculpture, architecture; the age that is made alive for us by the incomparable letters of Mme de Sévigné, one of La Rochefoucauld’s closest friends.

Tancock explains the origin of ‘maximes’ as the famous literary salons of the time:

It would be difficult to overestimate the benefits conferred by the salons upon French literature, language, and even thought during the first half of the seventeenth century, whilst some of the greatest writers of the second half had been brought up in them.

In the linguistic field the constant influence of the salons of such ladies as Mme de Rambouillet and Mme de Sablé upon most of the great writers of the day gradually transformed the picturesque and over-rich legacy of the sixteenth century into the clearest and most elegant medium for conveying abstract thought known to the modern world, and in the fields of matter and taste these salons worked a comparable miracle.

They turned the manners and conversation of the barrack-room into discussion of moral, sentimental, psychological problems, observation of human behaviour and speculation upon its motives and aims, overt or hidden.

What did the habitués of the salons talk about?

Apart from the merely social and frivolous side of their activity, their object was to enjoy interesting and elegant conversation.

And Tancock sets out some maxims of his own for the art of conversation:

Now conversation means conversation, and not a series of monologues, nor impassioned argument. Therefore they avoided certain topics and cultivated others.

Two subjects lead sooner or later to hot tempers, shrill monologues, rudeness, boredom, and all kinds of social discomforts: one is religion and the other politics.

Moreover, apart from exhibitions of stupidity, prejudice, and intolerance, religious discussion usually ends in embarrassing personal allusions or indelicate self-revelation.

Politics is not only boring to all but fanatics, but highly dangerous in a society dominated by a tyrant and riddled with spies. In such a society these subjects are best left alone.

Neither does one converse about any specialized subject on which an enthusiastic crank can lecture in technical jargon meaningless to half the company.

And above all one avoids talking about oneself, not merely because social convention discourages the first person singular, but for the much more important reason that each human being is so wrapped up in himself that he cannot abide hearing about the self of any other.

A bore, somebody has said, is a fool who insists on telling you about himself when you want to tell him about yourself.

Maxims enabled elegant conversation without recourse to religion, politics, enthusiastic crankery or bores:

…pithy, proverb-like generalization about human conduct known as the sentence or maxime… the skill consists in expressing some thought about human motives or behaviour in a form combining the maximum of clarity and truth with the minimum of words arranged in the most striking and memorable order.

The concocting of these maxims was therefore a society game, and maxims were the product of communal efforts at pruning and arranging.

But returning to the slightly sour definition from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy; Tancock makes the case that maxims added up to more than their parts. Properly assembled they guide the life of the ‘honnête homme’:

Modern English-speaking people, tend to think of the seventeenth-century French as heroic supermen tempered by ‘reason’, ‘will-power’, ‘the middle way’, who lived in an age when all things were straightforward.

But in reality most thinking people at that time, as always, were profoundly disturbed and perplexed by the evils and contradictions, the grandeur and misery of the human condition.

Not only was it evident that men are neither heroes nor reasonable beings, but it was clear, as Descartes had pointed out, that much of man’s so-called moral and psychological nature is simply the product of his physical condition, of his humeurs, and, more humiliating still, that man’s physical condition may depend upon quite fortuitous things, devoid of any apparent sense or plan, such as the piece of grit which, according to Pascal, introduced itself into the ureter of Oliver Cromwell and reversed the trend of English history.

All this is the very opposite of what the text books call the reason and good sense of the classical period, and these misgivings are reflected in the Maxims, which show mankind tossed hither and thither by passions born of a deep-seated self-centredness, by all kinds of physical factors including fluctuating state of health, by sheer chance.

It was precisely because the French towards the middle of the seventeenth century were sickened by the iniquities of public life and frightened by these glimpses into the abyss of man’s private nature that they evolved a modus vivendi, the ideal of the honnête homme.

Since man cannot live unto himself, but must contrive to exist in the company of his fellow creatures, it follows that the ideal type of person is the one who can lead a sociable life with other men of all sorts and conditions, whose character, behaviour, and opinions give the least offence to others.

The seventeenth-century honnête homme is not unlike the gentleman as defined by Cardinal Newman: ‘one who never inflicts pain… his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home.’

This kind of natural gentleman never hurts or embarrasses others by asserting himself or deviating too markedly from the accepted norm of decent conduct, whether in the direction of virtue or of vice, for excessive, intransigent virtue can be as painful to others as wickedness, and as upsetting to the equilibrium of society.

The honnête homme is moderate and unobtrusive in all things, doing his exact share in society, nor more nor less. The man who insists on being different or outstanding, above all the man with a mission to ‘improve’ his fellow men, is either a villain or a fool, wicked or laughable.

But we must not conclude from certain remarks of those in Molière’s plays that the honnête homme was a negative creature, a non-committal yes-man intent on mere conformity and etiquette, for officiousness and bowings and scrapings can be a nuisance and an embarrassment, and therefore the very opposite of good manners.

Perfect manners come only from within, from real goodness, kindness, respect, and understanding.

What’s not to like in the honnête homme? I’m all for real goodness, kindness, respect, and understanding. ‘Perfect manners come only from within’ is not a bad maxim itself. One down; only another 600+ maxims to go.

Exocets

I texted the person I’m slowly turning into late last night:

“Phew wee – a really stretching week… grievances, gross misconduct, controversial and risky things to land before Xmas and much change being imposed.”

“I suspect like you at a similar stage – I am strangely both deeply affected and also somewhat distant in my reaction to all this – it matters and it affects me; but much of it is not my doing and not in my gift to change.”

“A dawning of a more realistic sense of personal responsibility and the limits thereof?”

Maybe so.

I also have fought off the desire to compete, undermine and fight back in the face of many provocations these last weeks. And this is a lesson well learned…

As I also admitted to my pal:

“One of the bigger lessons of recent years was that firing two Exocets into an adversary’s hull damaged me below the waterline more surely than it did them.”

It has been hard; but I’ve largely managed to let go of a week of days packed without pause with relentless interpersonal aggro.

As I sit here listening to happy tunes in the school carpark (having chosen to save my eldest from a cold walk home from dancing) I have refound my equilibrium, equanimity – and the all important inner peace.

It gets the blood up; but Exocets just aren’t worth firing.

The swift flight of a single sparrow

After a couple of weeks of solid change – new house, new office, new term, new school year – I wrote to my old philosophy tutor the other evening.

He has written extensively on the ‘Episodic Life’ – a view that life as a story (the ‘Narrative Life’) isn’t actually how some people experience events; and may actually be something of a self-limiting straitjacket.

I’ve certainly found that a bit of letting go (à la Buddhism) and a bit of consciously setting out to enjoy new ‘episodes’ in life has got me through the last hectic fortnight. In fact I’ve quite enjoyed it!

Here’s what I wrote:

“After much denial I’m coming to the view there’s a lot to be said for the ‘episodic’ life. If Heidegger is right (and I think he is) that we wander as a tiny candle flame briefly through a dark, largely empty and uninterested universe – then why wouldn’t you see what every day on Gaia brings, and let the universe serve you up the answers for what fun to have next.

I’m starting think there’s a spot of hubris in my previous attachment to the ‘narrative’ life. A lot happened before us, little we do really affects the myriad lives and physical processes around us and we’ll all be gone before you know it.

I still think Aristotle’s fundamentally right; happiness is a life well lived – but maybe a slightly more eclectic approach to the journey might save me the angst of Kierkegaard and the earnestness of Bentham and Mill.

Keep writing Galen – I’ll catch up with your beautiful mind one day!”

And here’s what he wrote back – it’s rather lovely:

Thanks John. Heidegger … sounds like the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors.

In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” 

Here’s an article on the ‘Episodic Life’:

https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story

Smorgasbord 

Bank Holiday view; spot the nuclear power station… oops.

Feeling a little jaded today after a late night and a long drive back from the Welsh borders – I’m not much looking forward to work tomorrow.

How fortunate to stumble across this rather super smorgasbord of eleven answers to the question: ‘how to live?’ by Carolyn Gregiore from the Huffington Post in 2013. It was rattling about in the inbox I’m slowly tidying.

Get a good night’s sleep is the only other advice that’s missing, I’ll make sure I will tonight.

Aristotle (at number one appropriately…) 

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” Aristotle wrote.

The ancient Greek philosopher came up with one of the most famous definitions of happiness, eudaimonia, or human flourishing. By this theory of self-actualization, personal well-being and happiness are the highest goals that we can strive for.

Martin Heidegger

For German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, a good life could was not possible unless you were living authentically, directing your life on your own terms, rather than following the blueprints set by others.

“Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, who we are might be predetermined, but the path we follow is always of our own choosing,” sais Heidegger. “We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sarte may have been most famous for saying “Hell is other people,” but the French existentialist thinker also had some keen insights on happiness and the meaning of human existence. Freedom, he said, was the highest goal we could aspire to.

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you,” said Sartre.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

To Emerson, the early American Transcendentalist thinker, taking each day in stride — as unburdened as possible by worries about the past and future — was the best route to a life well-lived.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can,” said Emerson. “Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Albert Camus

For French existential philosopher and novelist, over-thinking and over-analyzing can make us miss the moment.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of,” said Camus. “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Epicurus

“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends,” said the Hellenic philosopher Epicurus.

The Athenian philosopher believed that friendship, more than anything else, contributed to the development of a healthy and fulfilling life. He lived this notion in his own life, creating a school called “The Garden,” where he and his followers studied philosophy together in a close-knit community.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche may have been a nihilist, but he still believed that there was one thing that truly made life worth living: The creation and enjoyment of art. Nietzsche was particularly fond of music, and loved to go see the operas of his German contemporary Richard Wagner (As he wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”)

He also said, “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

William James

American psychologist and philosopher William James coined the term “will to believe” to refer to way that we are able to choose our attitudes and beliefs — and in doing so, change our lives.

“Be not afraid of life,” James wrote. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir — the longtime partner of Jean-Paul Sartre — believed that caring for others was what gave life meaning.

“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, and compassion,” she wrote.

Thomas Merton

American Catholic thinker and mystic Thomas Merton believed that we could all find happiness — if only we looked to our inner wisdom.

“We have what we seek,” said Merton. “It is there all the time, and if we slow down and be still, it will make itself known to us.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

For the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, cultivating the intellect was essential to the good life. He once said that all you need in life is a garden and a library, and many times waxed poetic about his love of reading.

“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out,” said Cicero. “The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.”

Confrontation and Compassion

Compassion came up a number of times this week – on Tuesday in the context of confrontation; and yesterday as a way to run an entire organisation. Of course the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would argue (in the book I’m reading below) that compassion is what we should use to run the entire world.

Back to confrontation through – a colleague of mine was arguing for a ‘public hanging’ to show that the behaviour of some people will no longer be tolerated. I said I felt not; I was accused of appeasement. 

That stung a bit, but my considered counter was: when I’ve ‘gone to war’ with people at work all manner of ills have followed – for me, them and everyone around us. 

So I offered what The Book of Joy suggests instead:

“There is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing. Sometimes people misunderstand and think forgiveness means you accept or approve of wrongdoing. No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction.” The Dalai Lama was speaking emphatically, striking on hand against the other. “The actor and the action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Towards the actor, or the person, however you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies – not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. 

This is easier to say than do – both ways. I sometimes find it hard to respond quickly to a ‘wrong’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ without drawing on anger; and once the incident has passed, it feels like I’ve missed the moment and the best thing is probably to move on. But the Dalai Lama invites me to do better: 

“We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer. So it’s out of a sense of concern for their own long term well-being that we stop their wrongdoing… We do not let anger and negative feelings develop, but we strongly oppose their actions.”

Desmond Tutu sets out the personal benefit of forgiveness, which I buy completely and have experienced fully in recent years: 

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and feelings. We become our own liberator.”

The Dalai Lama picks up: 

“So it is totally wrong,” he said emphatically, cutting his hand sharply through the air, “to say that practice of tolerance and practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness. Totally wrong. Hundred percent wrong. Thousand percent wrong. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.”

The Archbishop adds with a laugh: 

“Those who say forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.”

Forgiveness I have largely cracked. Responding to ‘wrongs’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ but without hot or cold anger… that is a work in progress.

Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

The Emperor’s Questions 


I think I increasingly knew this; but sometimes you need someone to express it clearly for you. Thich Nhat Hahn quoting Tolstoy does the job: 

“One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

  1. What is the best time to do each thing? 
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. 

Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice. 

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord. One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.”

It took a life and death experience with a hermit (here) to reveal the answer to the emperor, which Tolstoy says quite simply is this: 

“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. 

The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you.

The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

As Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say: 

“Tolstoy’s story is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. 

We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world-but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. 

If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? 

If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help one another, whom can we love and help? 

Are we working for other humans, or are we just working for the name of an organization?”

As I’m increasingly finding – here, now and by paying attention to the person in front of me is where kindness, a feeling of connectedness and a happy life is found.