Thursday, February 26, 2015


I remember that one of my enduring beliefs or assumptions growing up was that nothing would ever change.  Time seemed to move at a glacial pace, particularly during school.

Now, it seems like the whole thing could fall apart at any moment, and I more or less assume that close friends are going to move away, divorce, or die without much warning.

Of course this is partly just a function of aging.  As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that the ground beneath our feet is far from solid.  This is quite a revelation for those who grow up with a lot of comforts and safety, conditions that temporarily obscure, without actually delivering us from, the tenuous and contingent nature of life.

The biggest enemy we seem to face, though, is not the fluidity of life.  In fact facing up to the fluidity and vulnerability of our circumstances often reduces one's restlessness and dissatisfaction, can help us to take seriously the finite days and relationships that remain to us.  And as a species we have lived all but a millisecond of our collective history with the knowledge and awareness that we are not masters of our ships.  Hence we are well adapted to be at least reasonably at peace with uncertainty--that is, unless we actually insist on believing in our culture's promise that the purpose of life in fact is, as a member of Spinal Tap puts it, "to have a good time, all the time."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Haidt on Liberals Versus Conservatives

Like many people, I had heard snatches of Jonathan Haidt on NPR.  Then I decided to listen to his TED Talk.  Then I decided to buy his popular book, The Righteous Mind.

Perhaps the entire key to Haidt's thesis can be encapsulated in the graphic to the right.  Haidt argues that of six sacred values, liberals put a great deal of emphasis on two and largely neglect three.  The six legs under the conservative stool, so to speak, tend to be of more equal diameter; they care much more about loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity than liberals do, but they also value caring and liberty (though they often express these moral values differently from liberals).

Not only that, but research indicates that conservatives are less likely to misjudge liberals than vice versa.  In fact I often notice this among my friends and family.  Conservatives tend to view liberals as misguided and naive--though there are certainly many radio talk-show hosts who go far beyond that characterization.  Liberals often view conservatives as selfish, even evil.

Haidt suggests that we would understand each other much better if we saw each other as having different moral priorities rather than assuming or asserting that the other side is simply without morals.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Midlife Crises and Opportunities

The image to the right captures the popular image of midlife crises, at least for men.  We hit a "certain age," figure out that life is threatening to pass us by, that we are running out of time, and then try to recapture our youth by buying a motorcycle or sports car, pondering turning in our wife for a younger model, or taking up sky-diving.  That sort of thing.

A recent article in the Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch, though, suggests that the quality of life for many people actually improves after fifty.  Why is this?  As my own wife would put it, a lot of this has to do with "knowing your limitations."

 Rauch point out that by the time we hit our forties, it has become clear that we are going to fall short of reaching many of our hopes and dreams.  In fact adulthood up to that point could be described as a process of disillusion as it becomes more and more clear that life is not going to be as enchanting as we had hoped, that we are not going to become a professional athlete, fabulously wealthy or famous, or even rise to the top of our field.

At some point, Rauch argues, most of us come to realize that our expectations of life were unreasonable, and we ratchet our expectations down to more realistic levels.  We come to realize that our anger and resentment over what we don't have is in fact a bigger problem than what we don't have.  We realize that if we instead focus on what we can do, in fact there's a lot of exciting options out there that don't entail dating people half or age or taking up high-risk sports.  This process can also be understood simply as "wisdom," including the capacity to accept paradox and ambiguity while prizing relationships more than possessions and status.

Friday, February 6, 2015

In Praise of Portland City United

The photograph to the right is from last summer.  It captures something of the beauty of Peter's club team, Portland City United.  The guys just won a tournament, in a game in which the opposing team's coach seemed on the verge of a heart attack, but our guys aren't too wound up about it.  A couple of older boys who had just graduated from high school guest played, and we were missing some of our better players.  Everyone adjusted and worked well together and supported each other.

When our athletes are just starting out, they and their parents imagine great futures for them, playing in the English Premier League, or MLS, or at least going to a big college program.  As the years go by, the realization gradually sinks in, as one young man who during elementary school was most always the best player on the field, put it, "it's really hard" to succeed once you get to high school.  Part of standing out is positioning yourself to get on the "best" club team while at the same time garnering the optimal position or amount of playing time or exposure to college coaches.  I have noticed that most of the parents at the clubs who take themselves very seriously seem to have a chronic sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness.

And I've noticed over the years that many of the sons of such parents either quit the game or talk about how much they would like to.  It's too much pressures, hundreds of boys competing for one slot--or perhaps none on all.

What I've loved about Peter's four years at PCU is that his coaches and the club have put more emphasis on loving the game and supporting each other.  I suspect that the great majority of the young men pictured above will be playing soccer ten, twenty, even forty years from now, and will be fine teammates, too, on and off the pitch.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Chimamanda Adichie and The Danger of a Single Story

One of the most inspiring TED Talks I've run across, and was happy to place on our Yo Ghana! website, is Chimamanda Adichie's inspiring "The Danger of a Single Story."

Adichie has been for the past few years the most prominent African writer in the U.S.  Half a Yellow Sun has already been made into a film, and Americanah is about to be.

Like her novels, "The Danger of a Single Story" is a testament to the diversity of the human experience and our need to get to know each other personally rather than through stereotypes.  She of course addresses American stereotypes of Africa.  But she also addresses her own blind spots, discovered when she visited Mexico and the home of her family's houseboy, for example.

Speaking of houseboys, one of the most powerful parts of Half a Yellow Sun comes when the white British journalist decides that Biafra's story is best told not by himself, but by a houseboy.  The first mistake we people of privilege make is to assume that our story is the only story.  The second, often made shortly after discovering that other people have their own stories, is to presume to tell it for them.

The world is blessed to have such a superb story teller to listen to and learn from in Chimamanda Adichie.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Humility and Education, Part II

A key point in my intellectual and academic development arrived many years ago, several years removed from graduate school.  I was, as they say, "burned out."  I still remember how depressed I felt in the summer of 1980 as I spent day after day on the 4th floor of PLC at the University of Oregon, reading 1,000 pages or more of books that I believed I needed to master to be a decent historian.  I had no plan opening the books, other than to learn everything in them.  I took no notes.  And of course I remember very little of their content.  I do remember how much I hated the whole thing.  But I believed that such discipline was necessary to master my subjects, my fields.  A scholar should be master of her or his subjects.
Some years later, the blessed day arrived when it occurred to me that knowledge is like an ocean.  It's so large that it might as well be infinite, and every little droplet or bit or ecosystem is connected to countless other complicated systems.  But every little piece of it is also endlessly fascinating.  The closer you look, the more you realize that. It's a pleasure to dip into it, even if--or maybe because--you constantly run up against limitations of intellect and time.

Learning undertaken with a deeper appreciation of the immensity of the subject and my own (human and personal) limitations has been much more enjoyable.  When mastery is out of the question, the mind is free to explore, secure in the knowledge that one's knowledge is always incomplete and subject to revision.  I believe that this approach also helps with my teaching, as I can sincerely assure my students that I may or may know much more about a subject than they do, but that both of us really know very little and are both in the same boat, so to speak.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Humility and Education

Our American Identities cluster had a fine meeting the other day.
 The half dozen or so people who teach the cluster's sophomore inquiry classes are trying to discern what we have in common in our teaching approaches.

One of our faculty explained that the key requirement of her class is for students to identify what they hold sacred.  She is using the term, I should hasten to add, in the secular sense.  All of us have certain beliefs or assumptions that we hold sacred, and it drives us nuts when others do not share these assumptions.  For my friend, Carrie, it's the sacredness of being there for your family, immediate and extended (that, and having the salt and pepper shakers properly aligned with each other, at home or camping, doesn't matter).  For many Libertarians, like my wild Uncle John, it's the concept of self reliance and shrinking government.

Problem is, when we bump up against people with other assumptions, we tend to keep repeating our beliefs rather than examining them and other people's more closely, let alone considering that our sacred beliefs are bound to be incomplete, that they should be, in a very real sense, contingent and open to revision, even as they guide us.

Reinhold Niebuhr years ago pointed out that devout Christians should be particularly sensitive to the limitations of the human mind, that every Christian should rest assured that some of her or his dearest beliefs and assumptions about God are bound to be wrong--we just don't know which ones.

Humility, then, is a great virtue in intellectual and religious life, alike.  But we do not seem to be predisposed to it.