Saturday, March 29, 2014

Further thoughts on meaning

Someone recently told me that watching the new Cosmos made them feel small and pointless, like "specks of dust." This got me to thinking a bit more about meaning. I've addressed the question of meaning briefly in my recent "Why I'm an athiest, redux" post, in which I said
I think this was the very first objection I ever got to atheism: "But if there's no god, then what's the meaning of life?" I have to say, I was honestly confused (I was young). My response was "Who says there has to be a meaning?" The question was, and is, a genuine one. We may want there to be a meaning to our life, one that some force greater than ourselves recognizes, but I see no reason to think that the universe is obliged to grant our desire. It genuinely puzzles me that anyone thinks that just because we want a particular thing, it therefore must exist. 
Meaning, if it exists, is something that we provide to our lives. It's not something that is assigned to us from on high, but rather something that we must find or choose for ourselves. I suspect that the "meaning of life" will always be somewhat individual and subjective. One person may find meaning in being a father who raises ethical children, while another finds it in philanthropy, and so on, and so forth. But even if we cannot find something to give our lives meaning on our own, or with the help of other people, that does nothing to prove the existence of a god or gods, or any sort of afterlife.
In the grand scale of the Universe, we really are, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, insignificant specks of carbon dust, in size, time that we're around, and impact. The Universe does not appear to give two shits about us, and I can think of no reason why it should (especially as it doesn't appear to be, you know, sentient or conscious). But I confess, I've never felt small, pointless, meaningless, or any other synonym when confronted with the grandeur of the Universe.

When I've contemplated the immensity of the Universe, I've felt awe, wonder, amazement, and fascination, but I don't recall ever feeling small or pointless. I don't know why. It's possible that I just don't actually grasp the enormity of the Universe. It's also possible that I do (as much as one can), and just am not bothered by it in any way.

We are human beings. We can only live our lives on the  scale of humanity. While we can learn a great deal about the wider, larger Universe, we don't live that scale. This, however, does not mean that we are meaningless. In fact, meaning doesn't even matter at any scale except the scale at which sentient, conscious beings live.

Meaning is something that can only be granted, or appreciated, by sentient, conscious beings. It cannot be granted by an indifferent universe. Living one's life only matters to the those who actually live life, after all. And at the moment, the only beings we know of that are living, sentient, conscious beings are those living right here on Earth. Us. It thus makes no sense to even ask about meaning, unless we are asking what meaning we can find to our lives.

So, there is no grand meaning of life bestowed on us from some outside force/being/whatever that somehow makes our lives not tiny and pointless in the larger scheme of things. I reject that standard. What about personal meaning, something we pick for ourselves? Is such meaning real? Or is any sense of meaning merely a psychological band-aid meant to give us comfort in the face of fear and loneliness, as that same friend suggested? I realize that for some, that psychological comfort may indeed be what they are focused on, and thus it would be easy to conclude that that's all meaning is. But I don't believe that's all it really is. I think there actually is objective meaning, even if that meaning isn't exactly the same in practice for all of us.

When we look at what our nature is, we exist as our various functions or abilities--our powers, as it were. To be good, is to be effective in our functions. So, in one sense, the purpose of living is to grow in our powers, to empower ourselves, and others, to the best that we can (the fuller argument for this assertion is given in my post here, and the links by Dan Fincke at the bottom of that post). Or in other words, one way of looking at the meaning of life is to say that the meaning is to strive to be the best we can be, i.e., the most effective that we can be. That's an objective fact.

But I think there's room for a more personal touch as well. None of us can truly be the best in all of our powers. Inevitably, when we focus on developing one or more of our abilities, some other ability will fall short. That too, is an objective fact. So individual meaning's will vary. A teacher may find meaning in enriching and helping to grow the minds of his or her students. A doctor may find meaning in aiding patients to be healthy, and in minimizing suffering. A parent could find meaning in striving to be the best parent they can be, and in helping their young one(s) grow to be the best that they can be. Some people may find meaning in striving as leaders, and helping their team, whatever that team may be. Pro athletes might find meaning in inspiring others. Being the best friend you can be would be another way to find meaning in life.

These are all ways that people can grow in their own personal power, and in the empowerment of others. There are many, many others. There's no reason a person couldn't have more than one, as well. And it's entirely possible, and even likely, that an individual's personal meaning will change as life circumstances change, as goals change, and as we grow. One's personal meaning in life need not be a static thing. In fact, it would not surprise me if a static personal meaning would be a sure way to stall out in life, and stop growing.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On suicide

I recently had a little bit of a scare. I was getting ready for work one Saturday morning, in a piss poor mood, when I thought of suicide. I wanted to take all of my prescription sleeping pills, go to sleep, and never wake up. I didn't do it, and I didn't even reach for the bottle. But I was nonetheless serious, very serious. I've had thoughts of suicide over the years that weren't serious, that amounted to a "what would I do IF I were suicidal?" and I went through a long period years ago where I actually was suicidal, and made two abortive attempts (chickened out on one after writing the note, and didn't take enough pills on the other, probably in part because I hadn't been able to say goodbye to anyone). Point is, I can tell when a suicidal thought and desire of mine is serious, and when it's not.

This was serious.

The full impact of what I had thought, and it's implications, didn't start to hit me for several hours. At first I didn't even realize the biggest part: I wasn't scared. I had very calmly had a serious desire to kill myself, along with a plan, without any fear. Always before I'd been at least somewhat agitated by fear when thinking of suicide seriously, but not this time. Not this time.

It wasn't hard to pinpoint a likely cause for the thought. I had recently had to stop taking Lunesta for a sleep aid because of financial concerns. At or near the beginning of the year our insurance stops covering as much for prescriptions and other things while it forces us to meet our deductible (our rather high deductible). As a result, the last time I tried renewing the Lunesta, I was being charged $336 out of pocket (there's no generic version). A phone call to insurance yielded no change. I had to turn it down, as I couldn't afford that. Thus it was that the next time I saw my psychiatrist (not long after, I only had to deal with a few days of poor sleep) we switched my sleeping aid prescription to Ambien (generic version, yay). Way, way cheaper. Only about $10 out of pocket.

I started with the Ambien on a Wednesday night, and had my mood decline until I had my suicidal thought on the following Saturday. The information inserts that come with such medications always warn you that if you experiencing new or worsening depression, or suicidal thoughts, you should contact your doctor. I didn't stop taking it immediately though, because that can also have adverse effects. So, I called Monday morning, and was advised that I could and should discontinue the Ambien. Instead, they put me on a prescription for seroquel. I'd tried that one before for sleep, and it wasn't as good as could be, so the dose was doubled this time.

I do wish I could afford the Lunesta, as the seroquel still doesn't help as much with the sleep as I'd like. But it does help, and I'm not suicidal. So it's a good thing.

Coincidentally, when I was in Barnes and Noble this past Friday, I spotted a book called "Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It," by Jennifer Michael Hecht. From the Amazon description:

Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a search for history’s most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act, arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness. 
From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and such twentieth-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our “secular age” in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide. By examining how people in other times have found powerful reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, she makes a persuasive intellectual and moral case against suicide.
I read a little bit while I was there, and figured that it seemed interesting. She objects to the idea that people have a right to suicide (though I noticed she might not be against assisted suicide when dealing with a terminal illness), and I'd kinda like to see what she has to say in defense of her position. Could be useful if medication or depression ever brings suicidal thoughts to my mind again. Maybe I'll take some time and examine the question in my own mind, and see if I can come up with an ethical stance prohibiting suicide (or maybe I'll end up agreeing with other philosophers that there is an individual right to kill oneself; one shouldn't start out with a preconceived conclusion).

Before I sign off on this post, let me just reiterate to the concerned out there: I'm not suicidal. This was an aberration apparently brought on by a new medication (or possibly it's interaction with other medications), and I got better after stopping that medication. I write about it here as part of my commitment to talking about mental illness openly and honestly, in an effort to de-stigmatize it, and to hopefully help people realize that an illness of the brain is no less an illness than that of any other part of the body.

Also, I'm grateful to my wife for helping me through this. All of this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I'm a Feminist

I identify as a secular humanist. I also identify as a feminist. Some people however, think that if you identify as a humanist, there's no need for the label of feminist. I'd like to try explaining why I still identify as a feminist, and think it's still a valuable label.

As I understand it, at it's core feminism is about equality. Equality of pay, of representation, of rights. Yes, all these things. But it's also about equality of respect, of dignity. It's not just about the law, but about attitude and culture. No matter what the letter of the law is, without a change of attitude and culture the law simply won't have the force that it should.

Think of speed limits. Most states in the USA have speed limits in place, but I'm willing to bet that if you live in one of those states, you know someone -probably multiple someones- who speeds, at least a little, on a regular basis. It may even be you (I'm guilty as well). This happens because there isn't an attitude, a culture, that really respects those speed limits. Instead, people try to get away with what they can, even just five miles over the limit. We treat them as an inconvenience. I've even seen cops doing this in their cop cars, with no lights flashing. If we wanted to see a majority of people obeying the speed limit laws, we would need to engage in a project to change the attitudes of people toward speed limits, to change how our culture implicitly views speed limits.

By analogy, such a project is what the feminism movement seems to be about. It is a movement who's aim it is to change the attitude that our culture displays toward women (and all other genders), so that we don't just explicitly show a respect for women's equality (which I take as a given) through our written laws, but so that we also implicitly show respect for the equality and dignity of women, such as through the words we choose when speaking to or about women, or the actions we choose. We're trying to change the unconscious attitudes, not just the conscious ones.

But nothing I've said so far is incompatible with humanism, secular or otherwise. Secular humanism also promotes the dignity and equality of women, and all other people, implicitly and explicitly. So why bother with the feminism label? Isn't it redundant? Doesn't it seem to give preference to one gender over another?

Well, I think the reason I still embrace the term feminism is similar to why I embrace the term atheist, even though one could claim (and some do) that the term "secular humanism" includes within it the concept of atheism. I identify as an atheist because I see the strength and power, and the privileges that brings, being held by the theists out there, and most importantly, the harms this causes.

Identifying as atheist (besides being accurate) is a way to stand in opposition to theist power, to say "your way is not the only way, or even the best way." It allows me to implicitly challenge theistic ways of thinking and believing, simply by stating plainly that I exist with a word that most people know and understand. Because face it, not everyone knows the term "humanist," or what it implies. In other words, identifying as an atheist lets me put an emphasis on a part of my identity that I think needs to be emphasized in our rather religious culture.

Identifying as a feminist is similar. We still live in a highly patriarchal world. While it's certainly true that patriarchal culture can and does stereotype and police men in harmful ways, the brunt of the harm seems directed toward women. By a large margin. We see it in things like less pay for equal work, stereotyping girls and women as being bad at math (which young girls pick up on, internalize, and turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy), having so many of our insults refer to the feminine gender ("cried like a girl," cunt, bitch, pussy, etc), greater rates of domestic abuse and sexual assault directed toward women, and so on.

By identifying as a feminist, I emphasize my opposition to all of that. If there were a specific term for identifying as anti-racist, I'd identify as that as well. It's a focusing term. Humanism is a broad term in what it supports and what it opposes, and this is good, but that very broadness can cause focus to be lost on important issues that are of immediate concern, issues that need that focus if we're ever to solve the underlying problems involved.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why I'm Polyamorous

Have I ever explained my reasoning for being polyamorous? At least, on this blog? It doesn't look like I have after a look back at some of my old post titles, so why don't I go ahead and do that now.

There are different paths that I could take to addressing this question. There's the intellectual, philosophical path, and there's the more emotional path. Actually, why not just address them both? Sometimes they blend together anyway.

Intellectually, I look at it this way: multiple close friends, of the sort you might call family, are possible. Indeed not only possible, they seem somewhat common. True, many people will only ever have a couple of such close friends, but the point isn't exactly how many they have. The point is simply that it can be more than one, and more than one at a time. And friendship that is so close one might call the friend family most definitely involves love.

Now, romance also involves love, and having experienced both romantic love and friend/family love, I recognize that there are differences between the two (otherwise, there would be no sense in separating the two linguistically or socially). The tendency in romance (though not the rule) for sex to be involved, for instance. Or the tendency for an increased intimacy frequently not present with even the closest of friends. But there are also important similarities, and I think one of those similarities is the ability of people to experience such love with more than one person. We see this in serial monogamy, in which people will often be "in love" with more than one person, just one after another. This doesn't happen just in dating, but also in marriages that end in divorce (they generally start out with love, at least in mainstream American culture), as well as when widows and widowers remarry.

The love that's experienced in these relationships often involves people that are very different from each other in temperament, beliefs, and other personality traits, yet the love of previous relationships is not invalidated simply by the fact of new love growing. This is especially noteworthy in the case of remarried widows and widowers who love their new spouse dearly, and just as much even as their previous spouse, yet still love their previous spouse simultaneously. Thus, they love, romantically, two people at once.

I contend, as do others, that what is possible in serial monogamy, i.e. loving multiple people romantically, is also possible simultaneously. Empirically, I can also confirm that I have indeed been in love romantically with more than one person at a time.

So that's the basic philosophical path to why I'm polyamorous. On the more emotional path, I have, as I said, experienced romantic love toward multiple people simultaneously in the past. Having experienced that, one has to wonder what would be wrong with exploring those emotions, so long as they are explored openly and honestly (agreeing to monogamy and then cheating is not what I'm talking about here). So, I do. I don't get into a relationship without first being open about my polyamory. If that's not acceptable to the other person, then no hard feelings, but I won't get into that sort of relationship with them.

Currently, I only have my wife. But she has another partner that lives with us. Which makes this the part where people are probably wondering how we handle jealousy. Well, honestly, I haven't experienced any jealousy in regards to their relationship. When I see them together, being a couple, it doesn't spark any sense of possessiveness toward her, or fear that I will lose her. Instead, I find myself enjoying it when I see them together (I'm not involved in their sex life, by the way, so that's not what I'm talking about here). If they're being especially cute, I get amused.

This isn't to say that I've never experienced jealousy in my life. I have. But at some point I realized that at the root of that jealousy, when I looked at it, were two things: possessiveness, and fear of losing someone. Well, people aren't possessions. I have no right to feel possessive of another person. I do not own them, and they don't own me. As for the fear . . .

Confidence removes the fear. I've seen the evidence that my wife loves me. It's there every day in the way she looks at me, the way she supports me, the fun we have, and her continued commitment to our relationship. Next to all that (and more), the words "I love you" are completely secondary and superfluous. I hope that I provide a similar level of evidence of my own love for her. In other words, I'm completely confident that she isn't going to leave me, and that she's happy being with me.

If I were to experience jealousy, that would mean there is something wrong with our relationship. It could be that for whatever reason I'm simply not acknowledging fully the evidence of love and commitment that she gives me, in which case the problem's with me. Or maybe I'm sensing something. For example, is she pulling away, or am I pulling away from her? If so, then it's time to figure out why. But at the same time, I need to remember that if I love her, I want her to be happy. I want her to have positive relationships, including romantic ones, even if they aren't with me.

That's the key to it all, I think. Understanding that love means wanting the other to be happy and fulfilled, with or without one's self involved. I alone cannot fulfill every need or desire that another person might have, and I don't expect any one person to fulfill my every need or desire. Thus, it only makes sense to allow for a polyamorous form of relationship. In fact, "allow" is the wrong word. "Embrace" is a more accurate word.

I embrace polyamory as a fuller expression of love for another.