Tag Archives: Habitat for Humanity

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…

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Good News!

We are not PREGNANT!  (In addition to enjoying my capitalization decisions, I would like to take a moment to note that whenever a young married couple has good news that has nothing to do with procreation, it can be, for many, disappointing good news.  My good news, alas, is of this type.)

First, I got a job at Habitat for Humanity International, and I am about to finish my first week.  I’m the new CEO.  Seriously, they were all very impressed with my community organizing skills and lightning-quick reflexes. Or, I’m working in the office of the CEO as a Strategic Planning Intern (fortunately it’s a paid position) tasked with, you guessed it, working on their new 5-year strategic plan.  But I do love my endearingly ambiguous plaque.

I am very excited about the job and the people I am working with.  I enjoy how intelligent everyone is, how fast-paced everything is, the enormous amount of talent and experience at the table, and the incredible responsibility; it’s great.  It can also be overwhelming.  Pray for me.  I sometimes sense I am drinking water from a fire hose.  Habitat is a huge and complex organization.  But I seem to have found some footing today, and I think that, in addition to learning a lot and making great connections, I might have one or two things to contribute.  Also, attempting to drink from a fire hose sounds like something I would try.  : )

Secondly, two weeks before I got the Habitat job, I signed a traditional contract with a prominent literary agent.  I am very excited about that as well.  He has been in the business a long time, knows what he is doing, and I trust him.  He is going to be able to open some doors for me, and he has already helped me sharpen my proposal.

Thanks for all those who have been so supportive over the past year.  We really appreciate it.  Though I expect to stay busy, I hope to keep posting on a weekly basis (maybe Wednesday mornings?), but we will see if that happens.  This blog is a good outlet for my vast nerdlike tendencies.  A post of epic proportions has been brewing in the recesses of my mind which connects Malcolm Gladwell, Guns Germs and Steel, and Michelle Bachman.  We’ll see what comes of that!

In other news: Alicia is really loving her classes; she is swamped with different development projects, and she and I just celebrated 3 years of marriage!  Also, we will be in Buffalo Oct. 20th to 23rd.


Personal Update

(This is what I was talking about but it is too soon in the election cycle.  But yeah, when I saw it I laughed out loud.  1 point for the Democrats.)

Due to the hectic nature of my life at the moment.  I will be hardly posting at all until the end of June when my temp job at Habitat for Humanity Intl. ends.  I’m doing that for 32+ hours a week while keeping my 3 main part-time jobs: personal training four days a week, teaching some guitar lessons, and my church job.  Its been strange being this busy and yet not that stressed.  All of my jobs I can pretty much leave at work.  But, it also means I have no time for blogging.  Rest assured, I am still listening to audiobooks.  Since we talked last I have finished a book on Ayn Rand, I listend to Huckleberry Finn (or the beginning of it), a lecture series on something that I forget at the moment, a book on corporate leadership that someone gave me at Habitat, and I am currently listening to The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.  So thoughts are coming, but there is no outlet.  So I’ll be back up and running come July, that is if I don’t explode before then.

Also, I need to address something I said in one of the subway interviews that seemed very sexist, but I guess I’ll have to do that later.

Also, Alicia is going to Rwanda in 2 weeks.  She’ll be gone 10 weeks!  On monday though a friend is coming to live with me for the summer.  For those who don’t know, he’s a buddy from Taiwan.

Also, the presentation at the National Trust Conference in October is for sure happening.  So I’ll see some of you in Buffalo then I hope.  We will be presenting on a theory of urban development and decline at the block level.