Victims and Victimizers, Part 2

The other day I was discussing with a friend some of the ideas in my “victim and victimizer” post from a few weeks back, and I found myself articulating something a little bit differently than I have in the past.

“It’s not possible to be a virtuous victimizer,” I said. The person acting unjustly cannot at the same time and in the same way be just, clearly. I’ve said this sort of thing in the past, but not quite in this way. I do like the phrasing of it.

Then I said the obvious followup: “It is, however, possible to be a virtuous victim.”

After saying this, I paused and reflected. This led me to a further step that I don’t normally go on to say.

“And by being a virtuous victim, in a way, a person ceases to be a victim.”

I don’t know why this thought seemed so striking to me. Maybe to some it won’t seem surprising or strange at all, and of course it shouldn’t be. Perhaps what made it feel different was partly that I felt like like I was saying it from experience, not solely from something I had studied.

It is common in these sorts of discussions for someone to express a concern about acting like, or being, or appearing to be, a doormat. No one wants to be a doormat.

But this time I knew in my bones, in my lived experience, the difference between being a doormat and being a virtuous victim.

When we speak of a doormat, we mean someone who is too weak or cowardly to be assertive. We are speaking of people who cannot stand up for themselves.

There may be a superficial resemblance, but in fact this is profoundly different from the Platonic teaching that it is better to be treated unjustly than to act unjustly.

The person who has the power to strike back but does not, isn’t someone weak.

You can justifiably shout at people who mistreat you, can have it out with them, cut them down to size, report them, spread stories about them. When you instead take a breath in the midst of your anger, and exercise great self control, and leave them to suffer the great punishment of simply being themselves — when that happens, you do not feel weak. You feel incredibly strong.

And the strength you feel isn’t simply the strength of a fighter, of a warrior. It feels like the strength of a judge, a good monarch, a kind lord.

When an ally asks you why you did not make the aggressors pay for their actions in any of the myriad ways available to you, and your immediate and sincere reply is that although it would have been satisfying, it wouldn’t have made anything better — when that happens, you don’t look like a doormat. You look fearsome. Your reputation for deliberate gentleness might inspire a wonder about what would happen if someone ever truly did inspire you to wrath.

I’m not saying that punishment is never the best course of action. Of course it can be, for many reasons. I will say that in my experience most of the times we want to deal out punishment it is actually better not to. However, on occasion you might judge that for the sake of the victimizer or of future victims you have a responsibility to take some sort of action. Probably that action will involve reporting it, unless you are a police officer or an employer or the parent.

Even still, when you choose to pursue punitive action because you think it will lead to the best outcome, and not merely because you are feeling stung and your ego demands recompense, you will know without doubt that it is something entirely different. It looks somewhat different to an external observer, but what is much more important is that it feels absolutely, starkly, completely different to you from the inside. You aren’t needy and desperate and beggared in your vengeance. You are whole and strong and generous in your decision to act justly.

That’s why I said, and why it felt so true to say, that a virtuous victim becomes almost no victim at all.

Read Kindly, Right?

The best way to read anything is with generosity, charity, awe, affection.

Some pieces of writing make that more difficult than others.

There are indeed times when it might be polemically necessitated that a text not be treated so kindly.

And there are times when, simply because of weakness of character, we cannot read as we ought.

Still, I think it is absolutely true that this is the best way of reading a text, and also that there is no text which cannot be read in this way, if we are willing to invest sufficient effort and cleverness into the attempt.

Perhaps you disagree with me and think there are texts which simply cannot be redeemed from their defects, and I’m okay with that. I’d probably recommend not wasting time on those texts when you think you’ve come across examples of them.

In practice, that’s how I act as well. Some texts just aren’t worth the time, and can be justifiably avoided. However, in principle, I cannot help but affirm that it’s worthwhile to seek to live as if every text conceals unimaginable treasures. Sometimes, in my experience, the most unappealing texts are the very ones that can draw out the most ingenious and insightful interpretations from us.

Seven Unpractical Reasons to Start Gardening

Let me continue my list from last week, this time moving on to the less practical reasons for why someone might want to start gardening. I know it’s a week before Christmas and this probably seems like a weird time to be talking about gardens — but as I have learned all too well, if you don’t start thinking about your garden until the spring, then you’re already late!

1. Gardening puts you more deeply in touch with the natural world and its cyclical changes. Obviously we’re all aware of the passage of the seasons as we make the switch from mowing lawns to shovelling snow and back again. Gardening forces us to be aware of the different moments of the changing seasons in a way that is deeply unfamiliar to us. Get reacquainted with sister earth, our home.

2. Gardening puts you more in touch with the great majority of the people who have lived during the course of human history. The overwhelming multitude of people have had to eat food they grew themselves — often even the warriors! The Spartan soldiers were exceptional among the Greeks for not being mainly farmers. In Rome, the separation of the warriors from their agricultural work, as they began coming home from war to find their farms sold to greedy, wealthy men, spelled the beginning of great troubles for the republic. To learn gardening is to try on the dirty shoes of our numberless, faceless ancestors who had to scrape a life from the soil. Maybe we’ll learn a bit of humility as well!

3. Gardening puts you in touch with the sources of your existence. In the modern world, we are so distanced from that natural reality that underlies all of human existence. Our food seems to grow up overnight in the supermarket, and all we have to do to cultivate and harvest it is to earn ourselves a paycheque. What a bizarre and abstract system. Of course we all intellectually understand where food comes from, but, even if we continue getting most of our food from the grocery store, I think there’s still value in having a more direct connection to the source of our physical sustenance.

4. We can do some small part for the environment. You may have heard (though you may not have, since it’s a great secret) that plant foods make far less of an impact on our planet’s deteriorating health than animal products. However, there’s also no comparison between a tomato grown in your own backyard as opposed to a tomato that’s been shipped from half a continent away. You’ll also leave the soil on your property much healthier than you found it, if you’re doing things right.

5. Gardening begins to move our mental centre-of-gravity out of the indoors. We weren’t made to spend our time in a box. Everything today is drywall and concrete and flat surfaces and paint and lamps and screens. The human soul needs to get outside and stretch, and breathe. Gardening isn’t the only way to do that, but it helps.

6. Gardening gives you practice in encouraging what is beautiful. Often, gardening entails some initial ugliness. If you’ve ever tried composting you’ll have some sense of what I mean. But in your mind the goal is continually something that is deeply and naturally beautiful, and your interest is in drawing that beauty out of the initial ugliness, slowly, gently, persuasively. That describes so much of what a good life should be all about, in terms of how we relate to ourselves and to others and to the world around us. How can such an exercise not be beneficial, and even necessary, to the person who loves virtue?

7. The least practical reason, but the one that calls out to me most enticingly, is Eden. For many centuries, almost everyone in the Western world believed that humans were originally created to be gardeners, planting and tending in paradise. Even those today who no longer believe the Bible has truths to tell will be unable to escape the fact that this is their cultural inheritance, and it will shape them in countless ways that are usually invisible to them and everyone around them. For me, the thought of gardening is the thought of living out one’s destiny. It stands in for the fulfillment and perfection of the human person. By prioritizing gardening, I communicate to myself in a profound way that I am committed to living the good life and fulfilling my potential. That’s satisfying.

If You Had One Wish

When I was a child I heard, as you probably did as well, that a wish made upon seeing the first star of the evening might just be granted.

I didn’t believe it, not really. But still, the thought of it was a powerful thing. I couldn’t just ignore the suggestion that this might be a possibility. How could I not at least try?

It seemed clear that in case the wish ever came true, I wanted to make sure that I would have wished for the right thing. If I were to wish for a giant bowl of candy and I got my wish, then I’d wonder what might have happened if I’d wished for something better. Well then, what to wish for?

There was an obvious contender for first place in this little mental contest. A girl in my class, who was beautiful, graceful, and pure. I wanted her to like me back. But after some soul-searching, my childish mind concluded that even this wasn’t a good enough wish. There were too many things that could go wrong. And so, with a bit of pain, I dismissed that thought.

Finally I settled on what I wanted, and throughout my childhood, every time I was alone outside, looking at the sky, and I saw a lonesome star, I asked for the same thing:

Happiness. A contented life. 

I’m actually pretty proud of my younger self, looking back at that decision. Indeed, I might wish that my adolescence and young adulthood could have been as insightful as my childhood!

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was an infantile Aristotelian.

And it just struck me today how similar that is to my hopes for my children, now that I am older and have little ones of my own. I always say that all I want for them is happiness and a desire to be virtuous. If they have that, even if they have nothing else, I will rejoice for them.

This focus on happiness has led me down some unconventional roads over the course of my life, but it has done well by me.

I’ve learned that happiness is almost always attainable, so long as you are able to make your happiness contingent upon the right things. And even with few resources, it is possible to design your life in ways that make it as easy as possible for a person to be happy and full of gratitude.

But first you have to want it, and know you want it. You have to know that if you only had one wish to make for yourself that had a chance of coming true, you’d spend your wish on the right thing.

Seven Practical Reasons to Start Gardening

I’m really nothing special at gardening. Last summer was the first time I ever really tried it, and although some things survived all the way to the end of the summer, even still, little critters destroyed much of the produce before I could harvest it.

But I told myself from the outset that the first year was about getting experience, making mistakes, and growing in confidence. I intended last year to be more a foundation for my future years of gardening, than an actual successful year in itself. In that sense then, it was actually a tremendous success!

I’m even fine to have a couple more summers characterized by mistakes and failures rather than by successes, if that is what it takes for me to grow into being a capable gardener. I know my goal, but I also don’t feel the need to be in any particular rush. I just want every garden I plant to be better than the previous ones I planted, for these first few years.

When I was planning out this reflection, I made a quick list of why I am so determined to become adept at gardening. It was astonishing to me how many reasons I could come up with, quickly, at the drop of a hat. So below I will just try to move through the first part of the list as briefly as I can. I’ll post the other reasons soon in a future post.

1. You might as well use the space. Whether you rent or own, whether you have a giant yard or just a window sill, you’re paying for that space. If you’re not using it, or if it’s just “storage” where you’ve been stacking things you don’t use, then you’re wasting it.

2. Once you’re good at it there can be a sense of security. Covid has reminded us how fragile our modern world really is. If the virus had been a bit more contagious, or a bit more fatal, our lives could have been so much more severely affected. My city has been buried in snow for a month already, and I can still walk around the corner and buy mandarin oranges and bananas and mangoes and pineapples anytime I like. Those aren’t locally grown! If borders had been truly closed off, or if the grocery stores had been left abandoned, this pandemic could have been ten thousand times worse. In that situation, if it ever arises, the people who can garden will be vastly better off than those who can’t.

3. It can be convenient. At the beginning, nothing feels less convenient than gardening, but once you’re in a rhythm, I can see the many ways it can be convenient. For instance, every week my wife and I buy a single bunch of cilantro and one of parsley, because we have some recipes we like that call for these fresh herbs. Even if each only costs a few dollars, that’s money that adds up, that could easily be avoided if we had a little herb garden. What’s more, the herbs have died before we can use all of them, so we have to buy more a week or two later, and the ones we bought previously end up in the compost. If they were growing and alive, rather than decomposing slowly in the fridge, I feel like that would help us out as well!

4. It can support your health. The healthiest foods on the planet are whole plant foods. That’s what you grow in a garden! And I’m told that plants grown in good soil, rather than mass produced on monoculture farms, are even more healthy than their store-bought siblings.

5. It can save you money. We all spend a big portion of our family’s money on groceries. For this past year, with my first attempt at a garden, I did not start my plants from seedlings, and admittedly, buying the baby plants isn’t cheap (although it’s still pretty reasonable compared to grocery shopping). However, if you start from the seeds, which is not that arduous a task when you know what you’re doing, then you can save a lot of money on food as a gardener.

6. It’s delicious. I once lived in a tiny little town, a village really, and I was walking down a street and saw a friend coming the other direction. “John!” he called. He was holding something out as he approached me. As he came closer I saw that it was bulbous and dirty. “It’s a carrot from my garden! Have it.” And then he continued on his way as I stood there on the street, confused. Can you eat a dirty vegetable? And even if you can, why would you? I shrugged, tried to rub some of the clumps of soil off of it, and took a bite. It was an explosion of flavour. I was astonished. I had never known that carrots could taste like that. I have no idea what crimes are committed against the carrots in the grocery store to make them taste so bland by comparison.

7. It’s a free and enjoyable way to spend some time. Now, maybe if Covid had actually shut down the economy and the slugs were eating my family’s only source of food, it would have been less fun. But if you just want to get better as a gardener and you don’t mind a certain amount of failure, it’s a nice way to spend some time on a summer day. It beats trying to find something to watch on Netflix.

Capitalism’s Undoing

I’m interested in thinking about capitalism. It has shaped our world so profoundly, and it provokes strong feelings. Libertarians love it. Socialists claim to hate it, but in practice they often just mean that they wish the state would be a more prominent actor within an otherwise identical market.

Marxists claim that capitalism is not a permanent state of affairs, but so much of their argumentation is impenetrably jargon-laden that it can be hard to enter into conversation with their thinking.

For my part, I concede to the libertarians that capitalism is a powerful force in the world, and that it has brought about many great goods that we would not otherwise have had.

However, my sympathies lie more closely aligned with the socialists, emphasizing the many evils capitalism brings into the world, even though my political views could only be called socialist by extravagantly broadening the definition of that term.

Yet, discussion of the moral status of capitalism can be a discussion for another day. Today I want to think, with the Marxists, about the claim that something will come after our current capitalistic situation.

You don’t need to be a dialectical materialist to think this is an interesting claim, and I believe it is worthwhile to see if there’s a way to affirm the same prediction that the Marxists make (that is, that capitalism will be superseded) without seeking to be faithful to the Marxist line of reasoning.

It seems undeniable to me that, although it is impossible to make any political predictions with absolute certainty, capitalism cannot be a permanent state of affairs.

For one thing, I do not see there being any particular contingent political or economic arrangement that can reasonably be proclaimed permanent, even if there are Hegelians and Neo-Hegelians who try very arduously to do just that. (And I think they make fascinating, compelling arguments! But nothing that can come close to convincing me on this point.)

Even if there were some state of human affairs that could become permanent, it is ludicrous to think that something as dynamic and violently unpredictable as capitalism could be it.

Let me give two more specific examples.

In my experience, when you speak to your average free market warriors, defenders of capitalism’s honour, their hatred for socialism is only matched by their ability to forgive capitalism all its historical drawbacks and failures, and in a great many cases this is done by trying to distinguish very sharply between real capitalism and crony capitalism.

“Crony capitalism” is a phrase which, to the libertarian, is approximately equivalent to “ego te absolvo.” It lets capitalism off of every hook.

To me, this is like saying that gluttony is not a bad thing but obesity is. If crony capitalism is the predictable and almost unavoidable outcome of capitalism left to its own devices, then how does that protect capitalism from blame?

Apparently the libertarian thinks that businesses should have an overriding desire to increase profits, but should altruistically fail to cozy up to the government with precisely that aim, when the opportunity exists.

Or that politicians should put the accumulation of wealth on a pedestal, for the nation and its citizens, but should be above reproach when they encounter chances to enrich themselves, or their families, or their campaign’s finances.

In the competitive world of capitalism, the people and corporations that forgo such opportunities will lose out to their less scrupulous competitors. You can put into place whatever systems you like to try to counteract it, but those systems will all be run by corruptible human beings, and will themselves last only so long.

The person who embraces capitalism cannot, if consistent, reject crony capitalism. If crony capitalism is a corruption of capitalism, then capitalism is self-corrupting.

But let’s take a rosier view. Suppose that we can somehow outrun the corruption, and capitalism keeps doing what capitalism does. Technology gets better and better, work gets more and more streamlined, until before you know it, everything that had previously been done by human workers can be handled easily by computers and robotic machinery. This is a foreseeable outcome, brought about through the very effectiveness of capitalism that its defenders love to boast. What then?

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-meaning, hard-headed libertarian. He was talking about how much he hated socialism and communism and most of all, Marx and Marxism. When we got around to taking about what he loved so much about capitalism, he described a world like the one I just spoke of, where capitalism has brought about a situation in which work had become obsolete, so that everyone could basically spend their time as they liked — hunting in the morning, we might say, and fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism in the evening.

When I told him that Marx too thought that capitalism was an important step on the way to the classless, utopian society, he thought this was very funny and he counted it as a sort of triumph.

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “You see? Even Marx himself can’t deny how great capitalism is!”

I believe he still considers himself to have scored quite a strong point against those risible Marxists.

Capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, perhaps even more obviously than did those previous social arrangements which have nonetheless passed away.

The goal should not be the preservation of capitalism. The goal should be a just and flourishing society, and one which might be able to weather the progression into whatever it is that might come next.

Thoughts on Home-owning

My wife and I have owned our house for the past couple years. Obviously, that’s far from affording me any sort of expert status, but it’s something I had already spent several years thinking about before we purchased, so I wanted to share some reflections.

Basically, I think home ownership is a good thing.

Of course, I need to clarify that I don’t think it’s the best choice for every person at every moment. If your education or career is at a stage where you will need to be able to move in the very near future, or if you aren’t confident you will be consistently able to make mortgage payments, then you probably still have some work to do before you buy.

But even for those who aren’t ready yet, I think it’s something to work toward.

There are all the typical financial reasons, and those are true, and wonderful. Rather than saying goodbye to your money every month as it goes to a landlord, you are paying down a loan and building equity. You’re wealthier with every passing month.

And paying down a mortgage is also, as they say, an enforced savings plan. The equity you’ve built in your house is much more difficult to access than the money in your savings account or probably even in your retirement accounts, so it’s much easier to leave it there and let it grow, rather than diminishing it prematurely or unwisely, as we’d otherwise be tempted to do.

But the things that make me most excited about home owning aren’t financial. They are actually, so to speak, spiritual.

Owning a home is ennobling. It imparts an invisible dignity.

As a renter, you are constantly trying to stay in your landlord’s good graces, even when they treat you badly, because you know you might need a good reference from them, and there are certainly some unvirtuous landlords out there who do not deserve the deference they command.

And the whole time, you’re living in a house owned by someone else. When you hammer something into the wall, you’re hammering it into their wall. If something breaks and needs to be repaired, it’s their broken item, and they’re in charge of paying to have it fixed.

I’m overstating a bit, of course. This isn’t what life is like every day for a renter, and there are some good and upright landlords who can be a pleasure to work with.

But if there ever is a conflict, or a possibility of a conflict, the renter is reminded of the imbalance in the relationship, and over time I do believe that can have a negative effect.

Home ownership is an escape from that state of affairs, and if that’s all it were, that would be plenty.

But I think there’s something more, as well. I believe that there’s a part of the human soul that flourishes when it has something to call its own.

Last summer, I went for daily walks around my neighbourhood with my son in his stroller. As time passed, I found myself looking at lawns, and porches, and gardens, and fences and hedges, around the different houses that we passed.

I’ve done a lot of walking outdoors in my life, and I’ve never paid attention to those sorts of things.

What had changed? I have a house of my own now. I have no idea how long we’ll be here, whether a job opportunity might force us to sell the house sooner than we’d intended to. But while we’re here, I want to be proud of this place. I know absolutely nothing about making a house beautiful, but I want to learn.

Deep in my heart, I know I want to make this property a little garden of Eden for myself and my family. I want this to be a place of peace and enjoyment and leisure and beauty. Since it’s my house, I don’t need to ask anyone for permission, and even if it takes me half a decade to figure out the skills I need to make it happen, I have the time, and I intend to learn those things.

I believe that’s a good state for a person to be in. And that’s the real reason why I feel that owning a home is a great good.