Tag Archives: philosophy

I Did a Thing

I was a last-minute substitution to the 20 x 2 show last night in Chicago, where 20 of us took two minutes to answer the questions: What Are You Waiting For?

It was fun and the other performers were an interesting assortment of talent and ideas. A couple of them were even friends of mine! The front row of the audience was super-enthusiastic, too.

I am very glad to have been included.

I have my notes of where I went wrong (surprising how much peril lurks in 2:15–I ran slightly long), but mostly, I very much enjoyed the chance to do a thing of the sort I have not done since college. Not just to do my own little bit but also to mingle with others doing their bit and spend some time around the Let’s Put on a Show vibe that I enjoyed before law school.

I have a lovely circle of friends and a great social network here but–well, I have more thoughts to tweeze out here about a community of being and supporting versus a community of doing and facilitating. Thoughts I did not realize I was having. I am about to spend some time at the beach with not much to do, perhaps the thoughts will come together.

In the meantime, this is what I said in response to the 20×2 question: “What Are You Waiting For?”:


I am never relaxed.  Comfortable? Possibly. Confident? Where appropriate. Calm? As necessary. But I Never Not Ever Relax.

So you might guess that I’m waiting for the blow. Bracing for impact. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Catch. The Hitch. The Gotcha.

Except I’m not. I not waiting at all. For anything.

Because there is no need. There’s no next. No resolution. No finale. No Bang. No whisper.

Just each moment. Just each action. Each thought. And then the next. Then the next. The next and the next. And the none at all. So you might say that I’m waiting for nothing.

Which is not to say I’m waiting for death. Just that I’m not—so far as I know—waiting for anything.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not enlightenment. No carpe diem moment of zen. I put plenty of things off. And I have no more patience than your average middle-aged public interest attorney working in an unjust world.

But waiting? For what? For change? For justice? For the world to catch up with itself? I think not. I’ll wait for the elevator. I’ll wait for the toaster. (I’ll wait for the bus) But I’ve learned not to wait for humanity—I’m already anxious enough.

You see, change happens after you work for it your whole life. So you musn’t wait for it. To wait for it is to drive yourself mad. It torments your hope. Betrays your belief and hobbles you.

I don’t wait. And I never relax.

But in this I find belief in the value of each moment which follows each thought without ever actually displaying this Good we’re waiting for.

Just laying it down. In thin imperceptible layers of progress. Each of us. Each moment. One thought at a time.



From every mountainside, let freedom ring

You may have seen this going around: From an essay titled Is Patriotism a Virtue? by Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.

That last line–that is why I have been marching and protesting and calling the legislatures weekly since November. What I owe others, and what others owe to me, that is community, that is country, that is home. The measure of me and my life is what I do with those debts.

“. . . I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country.” Modern intersectionalists might describe the latter part of this sentence and the next as “privilege”–that we must view our individual lives within in the structure of the larger life of society. What benefits have we accrued from being born white or being born a citizen of a influential rich democracy? That’s the awareness you need to check your privilege. That’s also the awareness you need in order to do good.

In this tiny excerpt, MacIntyre is tying that awareness into the question of why we consider it a virtue to be patriotic and answering that the national context of our personal benefits commands us to nurture those benefits for the larger national community through acts of patriotism: informed voting, paying your taxes, respecting your national parks, war service.

I read it that way, anyway. It follows with a belief I’ve expressed here many times: that our primary duty as human beings is to share the excess we have with those that have less. Not because God commands it but because each human is part of every other human and we express that through society.

The desire to share with your society in that manner–and the ability to recognize your excess as well as apply it meaningfully–comes from a studied awareness of your community and your surroundings. Careful patriotism leads us to question both the goals and the methods of legislators and executive, dogcatchers and registrars. It brings us to examine the qualifications, desires and manner of the people who lead us. It commands us to protest and shout when those people and their character reflect badly upon ourselves and our shared story.

When those entrusted with enacting the narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country forsake what is owed to others, they have forsaken what is owed to me.

Happy Independence Day. May we create the nation worthy of a larger story.

Words have Meaning

I went to the Fourth Annual Forum on Drug Policy on Friday, which was quite interesting. One panelist was Peter Moinichen who works with persons in need of both mental health and substance use services. He told an anecdote that I am familiar with: persons needing assistance with managing or stopping substance use prefer to be referred to as “patients”, whereas persons with a mental health diagnosis who need assistance managing it prefer to be called “clients”. I had not, however, ever heard anyone make another point he was very firm in making.

Moinichen was very firm that characterizing a person’s relationship with substance use or misuse as “substance abuse” impedes treatment. He called the term “violent” and “derogatory”, as well as nonsensical.

I had never really thought about it, honestly but it’s not an accurate term because no-one does harm to the substance. More to the point, it casts the person as an aggressor, as someone to be sanctioned or shunned, as a criminal. It’s not only detrimental in a clinical setting, but it’s counter-productive to criminal justice drug policy reform. It’s difficult to get support for treatment alternatives to incarceration, or for decriminalization, or even sentence parity when your terminology lumps drug users in with people who beat their spouses or molest children.

“Framing the debate” can be a dangerous distraction. People can get too bogged down in how to talk about things and never approach real action. Sure, it happens; I’ve been in those meetings; I’ve walked away from those activists.

Nonetheless, words matter if only because choice of words–or a question about our choice of words–can reveal another perspective and cause us to consider a hidden impact.


More Research Required, not first-hand, one hopes.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the quantifying of suffering. Mostly about why you shouldn’t do it. Everyone’s worst day is, in fact, their worst day, regardless of whether it’s better than your best day and regardless of both the cumulative and individual pain in the world.

Yet, we recoil from a person who treats the loss of her iPod with the same despair as one who has lost her job or lost her spouse. It feels seems correct to tell the former than her suffering matters less.

Some level of quantifying suffering appears rational.

The thinking of all four [metaphysicists] occupied itself with suffering. Kierkegaard regarded it as the beginning of all spiritual insight; Dostoevsky saw it as the key to understanding others; Nietzsche felt it was an obstacle to be overcome; only Kafka let it be a cruel and senseless fact.–William Hubben, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka

I’ve read all the above. While all focus on the value of suffering, none really examine systems for valuing suffering. Nietzsche definitely believed that some people, some emotions, some experiences were inherently better than others, but I don’t recall much explanations for the systems which legitimize the valuations.

Utilitarians, of course, go on at great lengths about maximizing happiness, in addition to maximizing the good; so I suppose there’s some necessary ordering of value in their works. I must admit, I never enjoyed the utilitarians, so I’ve forgotten most of what I learned about them.

It’s time to find some new resources, re-read some old ones, and organize my own thinking on how, why and when it’s appropriate or useful to quantify suffering and whether comparing pain can serve a moral end.

Back from being busy to comment on being a Have.

Even if now is not the time to be thrilled about how your infamous $39,000 backpack sold out, as Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in today’s Salon, obviously, the Olsen twins, their successful fashion line and—apparently—quite adept business sense are not villains in the current economy . Williams is right that the rich will always be with us and times are not equally hard on everyone. I disagree with Williams, however, that “wealth does not equal social obligation”, even as I agree with her that you can spend “thousands on your purses and still be a decent, generous person.”

Fundamentally, I believe that any surplus you have: wealth, time, intelligence, skill, tomatoes in your garden imposes a social obligation of generosity upon you. I do not believe government has the authority to mandate your generosity, nor do I believe the social obligation extends to the entirety of your surplus. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that society only works when each of us accepts some responsibility for the needs of people with less.

It is not solely about wealth, either, even if wealth or conspicuous consumption is the easiest target when you try to encourage charity. Why shouldn’t we chide a person who buys a purse which costs the average American’s entire year’s pay when children in the U.S go hungry every day? Actually, I can’t come with a good reason why we shouldn’t chide that person, but I do recognize that the social obligation of generosity or charity is not confined to the easy targets and neither should our opprobrium be.

I’ll take an easy target for me: law firms. Law firms are businesses, who need to be concerned about gaining, keeping and serving paying clients , so that they can employ lawyers, paralegals, clerks, and other staff. So they can be profitable businesses. Yes, of course. But a lawyer has an obligation of charity, based upon his or her surplus of skill, which requires that the lawyer donate pro bono hours to the community. Law firms, in my experience, actively place barriers between their laws and staff which prevent all but a few attorneys at elite firms, handling really exciting matters, from performing pro bono work on a regular basis. We should not allow businesses to force a choice between keeping your job or donating your professional skills to your community.

We should not expect only the very rich to donate to food banks, to arts organizations, to anything that serves a social good. We should not measure charity and generosity only in the amount of money one can throw at a problem. As long as each of us lives within society, each of us is required to give to it from whatever personal abundance you have.