Category Archives: Alicia

In Trump’s World—But Not of It

The morning after the election, I sat down to work, and couldn’t concentrate. Like millions of Americans, I felt strangely ill.  Like fewer Americans, I processed my emotions via essay-writing.  It’s about why this particular election result hurts so stupidly much, and what we can do about it.

Why listen to me?  I’m a politics and history nerd, but no expert.  Mainly, I consider myself a bridge between the Ivy League and rural/small town America. To the former group, I’m too conservative. To the latter, too liberal.  (I’m guessing I’m a centrist Democrat.) I hope these reflections will help Democrats understand themselves and Republicans how to deal with us. To the latter, you will disagree with many premises, but I’m not trying to persuade you.  This post is reflective.  I’m describing what I think is our common dilemma.

For as long as I’ve known who Trump was, I thought he was a buffoon representing everything that was awful about America: wealth, trophy wives, bullying, reality television, loudness, entrepreneurship that feels like scams, sue-happy, uneducated, and self-important.  So, of course, this election result is an unreal-for-the-love-of-god-pinch-me nightmare, but what makes it special? I’m weirdly affected by this. After staying up until 3:30AM to find out Trump won, I could not fall asleep until 8:30AM. Why did I suddenly tear up in the shower this morning? Why do I go to bed each night thinking about it? Why do I care this much? I’ve never done this.

Let’s get some things out of the way: History nerds everywhere can cite a few reasons to not be too too upset. First, regarding the end of the world, be of good cheer. The Republic will stand. We’ve survived worse (e.g. Fascism, Andrew Johnson, the Civil War, the Cold War, etc.). Though the man is much, he is not totally incompetent. That much is obvious. Second, is this a step backwards? Of course! But I remain completely convinced that the arc of history is towards progress and big steps backwards are nothing new. For example, immediately following the Civil War, there were numerous African Americans elected to public office in the South before they disappeared for a century. Our setback yesterday is major and serious, but it is not a precious or unique snowflake. Third, by historical standards, our current problems are small. This is arguably one of the best times in our history to make a stupid presidential choice. Lastly, though shocked by the result of this election and my predictions being so wrong about it, I’m not shocked that we were shocked. Upsets are nothing new. Truman 1948, anyone?

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In 1948, FDR was dead, Truman was up for re-election, WWII was over, and the Democratic party, which had been in power for 16 years, was split three ways, with fringes on both ends mounting independent bids. Everyone thought that if the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, was cautious and made no mistakes, he would win for sure. The Chicago Tribune even printed their papers before full results were in. But everyone was wrong.

Let’s get the demographic determinism out the way too: I’m very white, very man, very heterosexual, and very safe all around. I have great health care through my employer. I have job security. I’m not afraid of being deported or otherwise being personally impacted in some specific way.

Let’s get the policy out of the way too: a great many people are posting that this election being tragic because of what it means for the environment, foreign policy, immigration, taxes, gender equality, you name it. But, painful as it may be, “this is (exactly) what democracy looks like.” Losing any election entails direct hits to policies and issues you care about. Nope! That’s not what makes this election result special.

So what is it? The diagnosis of my malaise, and I suspect of Democrats across the country, is much more simple, immediate, and personal. We are in a moral dilemma and don’t know how to move forward with integrity. We have two competing values. They put us in a bind. It’s new to us. It’s confusing. It’s what makes this especially hard.

On the one hand, we believe in respecting the will of the people. We believe in coming together. We believe that, in a democracy, sometimes you lose. We believe that we are Americans first and Democrats second. This drives me to embrace the winner on the other side. I’ve lived long enough to know that, in my own life, this drive is real and not lip service. For example, at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I (with Hillary) supported W. I figured he was President, he was in the best position to make this hard choice, and we should follow his lead. Though it ended up being the wrong choice, I don’t regret my inclination to be supportive. Knee-jerk antagonism towards our leaders is a failure of patriotism, regardless of who is in power. Even if we see the opposing winning candidate as having no experience, the wrong policies, little knowledge, poor wisdom, and a bad temperament, our civic duty remains clear: respect the people’s choice. Elections matter and they should alter our attitudes. This is what Trump said the first night, and what Clinton and Obama said the first morning.

But I’m not feeling it. Why? Because elections don’t and can’t change my sense of right and wrong. Morality stays the same. For example, calling people names is not OK with me, and never will be. Discriminating on the basis of religion is not OK with me, and never will be. Sexual assault is not OK with me, and never will be. Not being committed to the peaceful transfer of power unless you win is not OK with me, and never will be.

These sorts of moral issues, you might say, our first-order concerns. Though I care enormously about experience, policy, knowledge, wisdom, and temperament, these are “just” second-order issues. I expect election results that go the other way to be painful on any or all of these points. What makes this election result so hard is that many of us have never dealt with first-order concerns before and don’t know how. I guess I didn’t think I’d ever have to. Unlike some other Dems maybe, I could have fairly easily united behind McCain, Romney, and clearly did for W. These people were obviously fundamentally decent human beings. I can’t stress this enough: McCain and Romney are good people.

But Trump is not. I’m sorry. I want to unite! But this is one those Martin Luther “here-I-stand-and-can-do-no-other” sort of things. I can’t both embrace the “let’s unite” instinct and also see myself as a good person. Many Democrats, myself included, have not been lying when saying for months that Trump is a different sort of Republican in our eyes. I think we used words like “temperament” and “unfit for office,” but what we have really meant is that our honest opinion is that he’s a deeply immoral human being and that we would be unable in good conscience to be supportive.

So, where does that leave us? Civil war? Obviously not. Nothing remotely that drastic. At the moment, three things are clear:

First, Trump won an open and free election. Violence is not justified at all. I went to a protest last night in Philadelphia and found myself disgusted and alienated by “not my president” chants. He is my president—for all of us. To reject this decision is to reject democracy. Like it or not, the Trump/Tea-Party/former-but-really-still-a-little-birther wing of the Republican Party is stunningly triumphant. They won fair and square. Seriously, I would personally enlist and fight in a war to defend this national choice. Trump is our legitimate President. That must be accepted and supported.

Secondly, we must not light the house on fire to burn Trump. After Obama won in 2008, Republicans did this to Obama. For example, Obamacare, very similar to plans proposed by Gingrich and implemented by Romney, was designed to work through and expand the private insurance industry. Of course, there was room for criticism—that’s necessary and helpful—but none for demonization, lies, “death panels,” etc. So, yes, let’s work with President Trump to get as much done as possible. We can’t help others less for the sake of soothing our own self-righteousness or gaining political advantage by denying Trump political victories. We must be bigger. I’m glad to see Warren and Sanders make statements to that effect.

Lastly, and I’ll get to details on how we might do this in a second, we absolutely must deny Trump any claim to moral leadership. He’s an immoral man and we have to say it, and keep saying, to our kids, outsiders, and each other. Why exactly? Many reasons.

The biggest one: we cannot allow morality to be redefined for the next generation. We must tell our kids that it’s not OK to be a bully. We must tell our less-than-large breasted daughters that they are beautiful. We must tell our sons it’s not OK to insult a woman’s looks (or anyone’s looks for that matter). We must tell our kids its not OK to lie to get ahead in life. We must tell our kids that apologizing is a sign of strength, not weakness. We must tell our kids that its not OK to view people that look different than you as worse than you. We can’t budge on this.

More practically, we must distance ourselves for the sake of stopping violence against Americans abroad. One of the things that annoys many Americans about Muslims is that they spend too little time and energy condemning fringe elements that call themselves Muslims who support terrorism. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect in both directions (Trumpism is definitionally not fringe; his immoral behavior is nothing in comparison to terrorists). Still, a broad point stands: without Muslims seeing Americans very active in condemning the immoral behavior of other Americans, they will assume they condone it to some degree. In particular, the Trump win represents a stunning recruiting opportunity for ISIS. This logic has not changed. His election confirms their suspicions that Americans are ignorant, loud, immoral, bullies, whose religion is fame, wealth, and worldly pleasures. The brief inter-culturalism of Barack Hussein Obama can be construed as an aberration. We must do whatever we can, therefore, to isolate Trump as a moral leader and any claim to representing American values. (In fact, Trump might make a speech to that effect and pacify a few people.)

And let’s not focus only on enemies. Canadians, Europeans, Mexicans and others are freaking out. Some of them Trump has openly insulted and threatened. In particular, we must tell the Mexican people that we are ashamed of Trumps comments and policies. We have to assure them that, despite losing this election, he doesn’t speak for all of us.

We must also tell the world that it’s not OK to lie about elections being rigged as a tactic for winning them, seek to jail political opponents (or give the impression that that is appropriate), or malign judges for personal expediency. That’s the strategy of 3rd world dictatorships and threatens to undermine peace and order.

Finally, we we need to affirm our moral code to each other, to people within our country that are afraid, and anyone afraid or happy that there is a new standard for what is right and wrong. There’s not.

So how do we reject Trump as a moral leader? It’s starts by being moral ourselves and accepting the election results. But it must include some ongoing form of visible protest that the world can see everyday. What exactly? We #neverTrump people will continue to reflect on how to do this. As I’ve said, moderates like me are new to more extreme political action and need time to figure it out. However, a few ideas are emerging.

First, screw snarky tweets, angry Facebook posts, or being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive dicks to our friends and family for four years. We can do things more helpful to others and ourselves.

One thing we must do is draft a moderate declaration that condemns some of Trumps worse behaviors, articulates moral values, and gets 50 million signatures. That’s a start.

A second thing we can do, and this one excites me, is commit to a visible and non-violent four-year Trump protest. It’s purpose? Remind ourselves and each other of the simple point: we are in Trump’s world, but not of it.

donotconform

Paul wrote his most seminal, intentional, and structured epistle to the Romans, the most dominate (and some thought decadent) nation on earth. He gives an exhortation on how to live in their world.

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.  (1 John 2:16)

Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God.  (1 Peter 2:11-12)

For me, the Christian teaching “Be in the world, but not of it,” expresses exactly my belief that Trump is both legit Caesar and legit unethical, and I won’t conform.

So what do we do exactly for our four-year protest? Ideally, all of us would do the same thing. Wear black? Too sad. Arm bands?  Too fascist. We also want to draw attention, but not so much it defines life. It should be inexpensive, not time-consuming, and easy as possible to implement as we’ll have to do this a lot. What should we do?

One thing that spread after Brexit was wearing safety pins as a sign to refugees, minorities, and other groups afraid and facing increased rates of assault. The message was simple: you are safe with me. I’m surprised by how much I like this. It’s simple, beautiful, and inexpensive. I also love it’s not just anti-something. But there’s 2 small problems. First, it’s not as visible as we’d like: it would be impactful if we could see them everywhere on a busy street. Second, it takes work, even if it’s just a tiny thing. People would have to pin them to their shirts everyday, and I would just forget about them, wash them, and ruin my shirts. I’m ethical and all, but there are limits.

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The safety pin protest is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and it’s already picking up steam.

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This is a selfie of my wife she just put on Facebook. Her caption: I am a safe place. #safetypin #ally In the words of my dear friend, Brent Chamberlain, I wear this pin “to represent safety not just for the minorities with whom I feel solidarity, but also the majority whose too-often legitimate feelings of fear have led to this climate. No one is alone, not the steelworker in Ohio, nor the child of illegal immigrants in New York.”

I love it though. If that’s what we all decide to do, count me in! I’ll wear my ruined shirts with pride. However, I’m toying around with something else: pink socks–they always change the world. Seriously, I want to buy 25 pairs of bright pink socks and wear them for 1,460 days; from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021. I think this strikes that balance of visible but not too visible. I’d also actually do it (just put your other socks away). It’s a tad pricey, but it’s also not wasteful. I’d get four years of sock use! Anyway, I’m not ready to commit to it, but the point is “Do Something!” All of us in this ethical dilemma must express that we are both in Trumps world but not of it. If you are doing something else, I’d love to hear about it! Maybe we can all do your idea! For me, I picked pink partly because it’s distinctive, but mainly because I think women and girls are doubly hurt by this election, and it breaks my heart.

Finally, on the right or left, if you are distraught by this election, if you see productive public discourse as important, if you are depressed, if you feel the need to act right now but don’t know what could possibly do any good, there actually is something concrete you could do in the next five minutes.

Search for Common Ground is the largest dedicated peace-building non-profit in the world. They work in 49 countries on everything from high-level diplomacy to community engagement. One thing I love is that they set up discussion groups between individuals of opposing political and ethnic groups and mediate weekly discussions over 10 weeks that cover increasingly divisive topics. This shit changes lives. Unfortunately, they have virtually no grassroots presence in the United States. Why? Money. Yay! A solvable problem! Go donate $10. It will help America heal and help you feel better. It did for me. Also, I’ve got science: we know that supporting causes you care about contributes to mental health. Seriously, you’ll feel better.

My goal in this essay was to articulate what makes this election result especially upsetting for me and others, and what we might do about it. I wanted to close, however, with an apology to Republicans.

I’m super angry with you, don’t get me wrong. Policy aside, you forced an immoral person on all of us. Really? Kasich would have killed you? I’m super pissed at you. However, however, however, I’m also painfully aware that, had the election gone differently, many of you, policy aside, would feel the same about Hillary.  I apologize for forcing you to decide between someone you found morally reprehensible and Donald Trump. It was wrong of us.  I’ve realized we shouldn’t want nominees with cross-party appeal for only electability reasons. We want them for wellbeing reasons. Good rule of thumb for future primaries: If my guy wins, will the other side hate their lives for four years? This time, it’s moderate Dems like me who feel ethically bound to purse new and radical things like four-year protests. Next time, it might be you. Moving forward, I hope to be more like we were in 2008 and 2012, and nominate people universally acknowledged as morally upright to champion our different views.  Lesson (painfully) learned.

In future posts, I hope to get into more details about the ramifications of this win, why it happened, and process what it might mean for the future. There’s a lot of reflecting to do! Also, I’m a guest blogger on Huffington Post now, so feel free to make suggestions about how to make this better and shorter for that venue.  Thanks!

Disclosure: I have a super big conflict of interest about Search. My wife works there and I will do whatever’s neccessary to get into her pants. Please note: she’s super talented and could work anywhere, but she chose Search because she believes in it. I also know the organization pretty well and I think it’s a good one (and I’m a serious non-profit snob). Seriously, go donate $10. You’ll feel better.

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4 Reasons Evolution is (a tad) Useless

My PhD program has started and I’m in this awesome social psych class; brilliant classmates, brilliant professor, and we are required to read shit-tons and bring questions for discussion.  It’s great, except we don’t have time to get to everyone’s questions, and some of my most interesting questions go unaddressed.  That won’t do.  Quick…to the blog-mobile!

Context: Basically, the piece was about why evolution is the bees knees.  Scholar-dudes Tooby & Cosmides (2005 I believe) argue that evolution can explain all psychological phenomena and should be the basis of psychological theory, even textbook layouts.  They see reason for optimism because, among other things, scholars have recently learned more about “ancestral environments,” which means how we lived hundreds of thousands of years ago (e.g. we grouped in bands of 20-100, there was a division of labor between sexes, etc).  Tooby & Cosmides outright state that the human mind is a computer with programming that we can identify as we disassemble the brain’s mechanisms and identify cognitive processes and how they evolved.

My question: do we really know our past well enough for evolution to be the springboard for psychological theory?  For five reasons, I’m weirdly skeptical (someone please set me straight).

First, and perhaps most obviously, evolution-based theories easily make contradictory predictions.

Second, hunter-gather societies today likely differ enormously from our more fecund ancestors (e.g. they inhabit extremely marginalized land).

Most of our ancestors likely lived in more fertile places, and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.

The great majority of our ancestors lived in more fertile places than the Kalahari Desert , and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.  Yet we seem to study indigenous Kalahari people and extrapolate.

Third, ancient culture, “a potentially potent selective force in biological evolution” (Kitiyama & Uskul, 2010, p. 12) is lost to us. Consider, would we know of Easter Islanders strange priorities without their conveniently enduring monuments? Indeed, every culture values weird and unpredictable things, especially in picking sex partners.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot the island.  Creating them apparently destroyed their habitat's eco-system, and eventually the human population.  We don't know the cultural values that led to this.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot Easter Island. Creating them apparently destroyed the local ecosystem, and eventually the human population. We don’t know the cultural values that led to this, but we know they did, only because their “weird” cultural values left its mark in stone.  Such anonymous values alter evolutionary history.

Fourth, humans, defined by flexibility, neuroplasticity, and prospection (imagining the future and acting in light of it), are omnivores who migrate, learn new things, and adjust to starkly different environments.  In this process, “computer programming” would have been erased and rewritten ad infinitum to the point that tracing a program back to its source seems hopeless.

Caveat: I don’t know the literature, I’m making shit up, and, quite likely, there are reasonable responses to all these points.  However, it seems to me that a little knowledge of ancestral environments is a dangerous thing.  If the mind is indeed a computer, it’s one designed by a million engineers who keep switching goals.  Perhaps it is more productive to study the mind “as is” while keeping an eye on evolutionary plausibility.  The nice thing about living humans is at least we can observe them directly.

I will let you know if we get to my question in class.  I hope someone sets me straight.

By the way, Alicia and I just celebrated six years of marriage!  She is my buddy…til death do us part.  

 

From our recent Ireland trip, Alicia kicked butt.  This is at the end of a grueling 9-hour hike.  We just turned the last bend in the ridge and could see the town we were staying in.  That's joy : )

From our recent hiking trip in Ireland trip…this is at the end of a grueling 9-hour, 19 mile hike. We just turned the last bend in the ridge and for the first time could see the town we were staying in.  Alicia rocked it.


An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.


Is my WIFE Good, and Does it Matter?

My wife pisses me off. She has made me feel stupid hundreds of times. She has this strange ability to make me cry those uber-pathetic hiccup sobs that just make me look like an idiot.

And she brings me joy. I adore her. She makes me smile and laugh more than anyone else. She loves me, expresses her affection effusively, and helps me engage in activities that make me feel alive. In fact, she brings me more joy than arguably all my other relationships combined.

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Why am I talking about this?

In my last post, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” I mentioned my opinion that the world is, in fact, good, and believing so can potentially lead to a better life. Since then, a number of blog readers, such as Eddie the Erudite, have written me with questions like, “what about sin?” and “what about suffering in the world?” and, my favorite, “what about immense suckiness?” Good questions!

Eddie, “The world is good” is one example of a type of judgement I call a “universal assessment” (UA), which are overall judgements we make about the universe. Example? My friend Dan Black is writing a dissertation on 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Two days ago he told me about an assertion made by a music critic in 1987 while comparing Liszt to Wagner. “For Liszt,” the critic said, “the ‘reality’ is the divine vision; for Wagner the ‘reality’ is a cruel world.” (P. Merrick) This difference in their assessment of the world played out in the emotional valence of their musical compositions.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

My idea is simple: our universal assessments like “the world is cruel” matter in a variety ways—even musical expression. In order to answer Eddie’s question, however, I must dive a little deeper into what UAs are exactly.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Universal assessments are not simply any belief one has about the universe. A few nights ago, I got out my logic textbook from college (logic class is sexy), and remembered that one can mean at least three different things when making a statement like the “the world is good.”

Option 1: I might be saying that the entire universe is characterized by goodness (and thus nothing is bad). This is the potential meaning Eddie the Erudite found concerning. The assertion can be represented by the category statement, “All X is Y.” In fact, since we are talking about the universe, the class of “X” consists of everything that exists—you, me, the box fan that is keeping me cool as I type this, and everything else. Thus we can simplify the category statement to “All is Y” or “All is good.”

Option 2: The second meaning of “the world is good” might be that there is some unknown measure of goodness in the world. This can be represented by the category statement, “Some is Y.” This means nearly nothing. In logic, “some” can mean hardly anything or almost everything.

Option 3: If one asserts “the universe is good” they might mean something like, “Most is Y.” This is closer.

When I say, “the world is good” I want to assert that the world’s moral valence, its gist, its core, its essence, its balance, its je ne sais quoi, is good. In doing so, we have to weigh all the world’s shittiness…

  • 1.6 billion people lack a safe and healthy place to sleep at night (Habitat for Humanity Intl).
  • 870 million people in the world do not get enough food to eat.
  • The 2009 USA Reinvestment Act spent 831 billion dollars by printing money and taking out loans.
  • The West Wing has been off the air for 7 years!

…against all the world’s awesomeness.

  • 5.5 billion people slept last night in a safe and healthy place (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • 6.2 billion people get plenty of food to eat (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • For every dollar spent in the 2009 Reinvestment Act, there are nearly 100,000 trees. Seriously, according to NASA there are about 400 billion adult trees in the world. At about 200,000 leaves per tree, that is 80 thousand quadrillion leaves (real word—I looked it up—it goes billion, trillion, then quadrillion). I love leaves. They are beautiful. Each one would be mounted in places of honor if they weren’t so damn abundant.
  • I have all seven seasons of The West Wing on my computer!

These stats barely scratch the surface of what is relevant to a universal assessment, but it’s clear enough that there is vast goodness and badness in the universe. Thus asserting the existence of some goodness or some badness (option 2) in the universe is boring because it’s obviously true, and asserting that existence is 100% good or 100% bad (option 1) is boring because it’s obviously false. The interesting question instead is which side wins (option 3). What side is bigger, more weighty, or more numerous?

our earth from the moon

our earth from the moon

Sidestepping the metaphors of size, kilograms, or quantity, at the heart of a universal assessment is some sort of balance point. There is a threshold which must be achieved before a given aspect of an object becomes characteristic of that object. In forming UAs, therefore, we treat existence as a single thing and assess its defining qualities.

So, in response to Eddie the Erudite: yes, sin, suffering and ugliness are huge. But just because they are huge, does not mean they are defining. Of course it is difficult to assess a data set that is so… large.

But we do it. We do it all the time. And it matters.

I met my wife 10 years ago the very first day of college. We were close for a year and a half, dated for three and a half years, and have now been married for almost five years! This decade has created a vast army of pros — the gross tonnage of awesomeness that I see in Alicia — and a monster force of opposing cons — all the shit-tastic things she does that piss me off. In other words, my wife is a large data set. Some is good, some is bad, but what is more defining? Is my wife good? Is she worthwhile? Do I like her?

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

Yes. I do. Thank God! The good radically outweighs the bad. In fact, the good outweighs the bad to such an enormous extent, that I am not afraid that the bad might outweigh the good any time soon. My wife is good. Whew!

And it matters. I have no data to support this, except a violently strong feeling in my gut that reaches from my jaw to my tailbone: my “wife assessment” has an enormous effect on my relationship to her. If I imagine, even for a second, a world in which I thought my wife was an ass, I quickly see relationship dynamics slipping into aggression, resignation, and divorce.

And just kidding! Psychologists actually do have data, lots of it, to support the notion that overall beliefs about one’s significant other affects one’s relationship. In one study, thinking your partner was “perfect” correlated with relationship health and longevity (Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M., 2002). In another study (Showers, C. J., & Limke, A, 2006), researchers found that beliefs about a partner are related to breaking-up. And lots of work indicates that one’s overall disposition towards something affects one’s interactions with it — we make “school assessments,” “church assessments,” “friend assessments,” “job assessments,” etc., and they matter.

But I am especially excited about the comparison of “spouse assessments” for understanding UAs because: 1) Spouses are crazy personal. 2) They create an unfathomably large data set. 3) One has no idea how to “count” good and bad aspects. 4) Yet we make overall assessments of spouses all the time because we know its absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship. My own “spouse assessment,” my gut feeling about whether Alicia is in fact good or not, affects my life, and ultimately whether or not I choose to stay married. Likewise, perhaps my universal assessment affects my life, whether or not I choose to stay alive in it, and even add life to it.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. — Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus

While our own existence is thrust upon us without our consent, we can choose whether or not to pass this existence on to our possible offspring. Presumably, this choice will reflect our judgment as to the worthwhileness of existence.  — James Pawelski (my friend, professor, & thesis advisor)

Beyond suicide and procreation, perhaps my UAs also affect how I get busy living.  Will I suffer through life like a depressed spouse in an abusive relationship (world), or is there another option? Can I be head over heels in love with the universe and thankful for this gift of life? (I got chills when I wrote this.)  Is it possible to be passionately, meaningfully, and levelheadedly in love with life like I am, or try to be, with my wife? I am not sure.

We’ll see…

IMG_3872


From Alicia, With Cardamom

I am commandeering Jeremy’s blog today for a truly noble and upright purpose:

Sri Lankan Rice Pudding

Why rice pudding, you ask?  Well, when all you eat is rice every day for every meal, you will get around to it eventually.  By Sri Lankan, I in no way claim to know anything about making actual, traditional Sri Lankan food.  But trying to make rice pudding in Sri Lanka requires a fair bit of thinking around the typical lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and heavy cream routine.  Instead, all the ingredients are very local.  The result: best damn rice pudding I’ve ever tasted.  Enjoy.

Ingredients

3/4 cup rice (cup measurements are eyeballed using a drinking glass…)

4 cups milk

2-3 eggs (some recipes call for only yolks, in which case you’ll need more)

Some vanilla extract (no measuring spoons on hand…)

1-2 cups sugar/honey/kitul syrup (depending on your sweet tooth)

Zest of one lime (little, like a key lime)

Some whole cloves

Some whole cardamom pods

1 400ml (~14oz) can of heavy coconut milk (is there any other kind??  Actually, here they use it so much they have “light” coconut milk too 😀 )

1/2 cup sultanas/raisins (optional)

Directions

Mix the milk, rice, cardamom, cloves, and lime zest.  Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees (I’m working on a celsius oven, so, you know, take the times and heat with a grain of salt… or sugar).  Take out of the oven.  Mix up the eggs and add them, coconut milk, sweetener, vanilla extract, and raisins, if using, to the dish.  Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees, take it out and stir it a bit, so the rice doesn’t fall to the bottom of the custard. You should also take out the chunky spices at this time.  Bake 30 more minutes at 350 or until it’s the consistency you would like and/or has a nice, golden skin.