Getting Insulted

Insults rate pretty high on the list of things that bother us.

I’d rather be insulted than lose a limb, certainly. But given the choice between receiving an insult and standing barefoot in the snow for ten minutes, I’d probably take the snow. Physical pain can very often be more bearable than dishonour and indignity.

The ability to receive insults with grace, then, is a rare but awe-inspiring quality.

It’s good, in a way, that insults rankle us as they do. That’s how we’re built. It’s not only sinful pride that motivates us in those moments of feeling stung — there’s an appropriate sort of human instinct that’s revealed by our fierce aversion to being insulted.

We might call it self-respect. We might call it dignity, or confidence. It could just as easily be characterized as aggression or insecurity, and all of those characterizations bring us closer to what it is.

We hate to be insulted because we love humanity.

When we cast insults, we don’t mean to bring down human nature, only some accidental defect or shortcoming we find in the particular human being before us.

But when we receive insults, it is hard to see them as anything else but a strike against our very self, and that self is worth defending because it is human, because we know that whatever it means to be human, it is something good and dignified. It is something worthy of respect, if anything in the world can be.

The irrational and insatiable rage that rises in us at the words of an insult is a magnificent champion of human nature. That force, channeled well, can bring untold goods and glories.

And yet, as I said, it’s also true that the ability to transcend that reaction is itself a marvel. How so?

Just as it is true that the person who gives insult does not mean to denigrate human nature, so also, that person is not benefited by the anger of the one insulted. The anger will always appear somehow disproportionate, unmerited, to the one giving insult, and so the two people will be drawn downward into an endless cycle of misunderstanding and offending.

How, then, can we take an insult well? I have some thoughts about this question, although I am far from having perfected the practice myself.

First, we can be grateful for the anger that springs up in us. It is a beautiful thing, in its way.

And secondly, we can accept that the insults we hear do tell us something true about ourselves. Maybe the truth is not precisely what the insulter thinks is true, but we do well to assume that if the people around us are seeing smoke, there is probably within us, somewhere, a fire.

The person who calls you a coward, with a sneer and a laugh, could be doing you a favour, if you receive it rightly.

It amounts to the same thing as when a trusted friend sits down with us and gently says that we might want to consider whether we ought to be bolder and more courageous in certain circumstances. Our enemies and our friends offer us the same help.

The difference is, it’s much easier to receive that help from our friends. It takes someone truly strong, and truly wise, to receive such help from the people who seem like enemies.

This is truly one of the most difficult teachings I’ve ever attempted to embrace, but whenever I get this even partly right, it is a great blessing.

It’s said that if you rebuke the wise, they will love you for it. Be like the wise. That is how to defeat an insult.

On Conspiracy Theories: A Proposal

I want to propose a right-wing conspiracy theory about right-wing conspiracy theories.

Let’s theorize that there exist left-wing operatives who seed ridiculous and uninformed conspiracy theories among right-wing online discourses. The operatives do this, of course, in order to make right-wing views seem easily discredited in the public eye.

Fortunately, their clumsy and uninspired efforts are usually all too easy for us to detect!

If we accept my proposal, then the implication would be that a really good right-wing conspiracy theorist is someone who constantly guards against all such ridiculous theories, and who will identify and denounce these theories wherever they make their obvious appearance.

I submit that this would be a worthwhile and socially advantageous conspiracy theory to encourage.

Prepare for the Worst

I think it’s a helpful practice to review periodically the things that could take our happiness away, and to give them some thought.

Epictetus distinguishes between the things that are outside our control and the things that are within our control. He notes that, whether you agree with it or not, most people in most moments of our lives are aiming to secure the sorts of things that are not truly within our control.

We want our bodies to remain (or become) mostly pain-free. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, but we can recognize that we aren’t fully in control of whether it is fulfilled or not.

We want our loved ones to be alive and healthy and living nearby and on good terms with us.

We want financial stability.

We want to be respected by the people we admire, and even by the people whom we ourselves don’t much respect.

We want to eat food that is tasty and filling and (perhaps?) healthy.

We want to be challenged just enough that we don’t get too bored.

We want to be entertained by people who are skilled in holding an audience’s attention and providing terror and delight.

I’m sure the list could be made much longer, and of course each point already listed could be divided into more specific sub-points for a given person.

My point, though, is that each of these things is outside our control.

No one plans to get sick or injured — there’s no way to protect ourselves and our loved ones absolutely.

We don’t control movements of the economy, or the fortunes of our employer and our market, or the laws (eg taxes) of our nation.

We can’t control when or whether people spread rumours about us, either true or false, turning perhaps the whole world, perhaps our closest friends, against us.

We can try to minimize the risks of some of those things occurring, but that just makes it all the more horrifying when it happens anyway.

The question, then, is whether there’s a kind of person who can be in chronic physical pain, financially helpless, alone, and hated by all, and still be happy.

In the history of philosophy, many smart minds have divided on this question. Some say yes, it is possible to be such a happy person, and others reply in the negative.

I believe it’s worthwhile to try to become such a person, even if we’re agnostic about the possibility of such a happy person existing.

Even if we fail to become that person, moving any distance in the direction of being that person will bring us incalculable benefits.

The time to begin is now — it will be much more difficult to rally the effort necessary to make the change once we’re already plunged into the worst.

And, here’s the thing: If we can become like the person who is happy in even the worst of circumstances, then the unavoidable consequence will be that right now, in a moment when most things are not at their worst point in our lives, being happy day after day should be not a terribly difficult thing.

Who could say no to that?

Study Rhetoric

The study of rhetoric is a valuable thing. It’s somewhere partway between poetry and philosophy, two other eminently worthwhile objects of study. But it is distinct from both of them, and merits consideration in itself.

Rhetoric used to be a standard part of the curriculum, over many centuries, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and well into modern times. In the past century or so, however, it has lost its place of honour.

Rhetoric is valuable to study even if you never use it to convince anybody of anything. It helps us think through our own ideas more clearly, and helps us listen to the ideas and argumentation of others in a way that is both more critically aware, and also more artfully appreciative, than we might otherwise be capable of.

Study rhetoric, even if you think you will never use it. Study rhetoric, and maybe someday you will use it.

You never know when you might have the need or the opportunity to speak up against an injustice or to honour something that is undervalued. The more potent our words in such a situation, the more likely we are to shape the world around us into something better and more beautiful.

The study of rhetoric is a useful thing, and it is a bridge by which we may learn to value other things that are just as valuable even if not always so obviously useful. Love of rhetoric may spark an interest in philosophy. It may help make our ears sharp to the ways of the poet. It may help us care about questions of virtue and honour.

Rhetoric should not be our sole passion, but there’s still an important place for it. It is a good supplement to many other worthwhile objects of study, and in the arenas where it is useful, it is very useful indeed.

Virtue and the Philosopher

There are two kinds of virtue. We might call them absorbed virtue and sought virtue. Both are good, and each is appropriate for a different kind of people. Between the two of them, all of humanity has the opportunity to grow in virtue.

The first of the two is the virtue of the “ladies and gentlemen” of a society — the honourable ones. When I call it “absorbed,” I don’t mean to suggest that it is acquired without effort (though it may sometimes be). I only mean that the moral landscape is something inherited and received from the society or community. They haven’t worked out for themselves the points of their moral compass, but have accepted it from those they trust. Some of those who have received it will try to be virtuous, and some will not — but even those who do not will consider themselves unvirtuous from within that same moral framework.

We all start there. We all start with a received morality, succeeding or failing at the level of absorbed virtue.

The second kind, sought virtue, is the virtue of the philosopher. This always grows out of the first kind. Sought virtue happens when people start to have questions about the moral tenets they received.

Perhaps they find a scenario where different moral imperatives come into conflict, and they find no way of adjudicating from within that moral orientation and so they see they must step outside to look back in.

Or perhaps they grow familiar with someone who doesn’t share their moral convictions, and over time their deep-seated confidence that “we are good and they are evil” (a confidence which, let’s remember, can be found among liberals and progressives today at least as readily as among conservatives and more right-wing groups). In growing truly respectful (and not merely tolerant) of another moral approach, the first loses the supremacy it needed, and so the person is set on the first step of the path toward sought virtue.

But sought virtue must be sought, and the seeking must not be entirely fruitless. If a person takes the first step of leaving behind absorbed virtue but then never goes beyond that, we are left with a pitiful and shrunken human being with nothing to strive toward. On rarer occasions, such a person might also become something truly heartless and dangerous. This is why the cry to break the chains of traditional morality is a dicey proposition, and why its success tends merely to leave us with a new traditional morality to replace the old one.

Sought virtue is what happens when someone takes the next step of asking, well then what is morally true, if not the things I grew up believing in? The answers might not appear straight away, but a faith that there are (or at least could be) answers to the question, along with the unflagging pursuit of such answers, are the marks of a philosopher’s virtue.

The philosopher’s virtue is not necessary for every person. Most people feel no need to move beyond the conventional morality they have received, most of the time, and that’s okay. Those who do experience a moral crisis will usually eventually resolve that crisis from within the moral framework they started in, or possibly another one that is closely related.

For those who get tired of that first way of thinking about morality, though, it can be a relief to discover that there is a second way.

Slowly Growing Virtues

Aristotle famously taught that virtue was a sort of middle point between the extremes of vice. I’ve been wondering lately whether those in our own time who caution against “perfectionism” might have an interesting point to teach us about the pursuit of virtue.

Is it possible to pursue virtue too quickly? Is it possible that the pursuit of virtue must itself move at a pace that is in a middle point between excessive speed and excessive slowness?

In one sense, you cannot grow virtuous too quickly. However quickly a person can become virtuous is a good speed for becoming virtuous.

The challenge, though, is in determining just how quickly that might be.

Throughout history, those who sought virtue have cautioned about the tricks that our thoughts can play on us. Plato himself remarked how, just as our eyes are constantly misrepresenting the world to us in various ways, so our understanding is likewise constantly warped by a variety of factors, resulting in foolish and unjust actions.

One possible metaphor for the pursuit of virtue is the crafting of lenses. In becoming more virtuous, a part of what we are doing is “bespectacling our brains” so that we can correct the distortions that constantly beset our thoughts. We have to find one flaw after another in our thinking and find a way to counter it, and then not forget what we have learned, again and again.

And that takes time.

Well, not always. Some corrections are quick to make. Often our greatest vices can by small changes be improved very quickly, once we are ready to take action. 

Once the obvious flaws are made right, though, the multitude of smaller self-deceptions must be addressed, and this process cannot be hurried.

If you try to move too quickly, if you start thinking like a perfectionist, then the process will likely lead to frustration, discouragement, even despair and defeat. Those who are most pessimistic about the attainment of virtue can be the ones who have tried hardest and still met with failure.

So part of the pursuit of virtue is the cultivation of patience. Becoming virtuous requires persistence, consistency. Count the cost. Enter into the journey being ready to go for the long haul.

If you can be patient in chasing virtue, then you will catch it. Just don’t give up. Make progress as you’re able, and celebrate every step forward with gratitude.

The Uses and Misuses of Peacetime

I wrote recently about the uses one can make of one’s own suffering. Read in isolation, that piece might be taken to mean that in tumultuous and painful seasons of life we can grow better or worse, and that at other times we will not. But that’s not precisely correct.

I do not think that the time between tribulations will necessarily be a time of stagnation. It certainly can be, but it won’t always.

When life is rolling along as usual, with nothing particularly noteworthy intruding into our days, we might stagnate, but we might just as easily find ourselves worsening. We might slip slowly deeper and deeper into our vices, finding that the little evils that used to nourish us are growing easier and weaker and need to be embraced in larger or uglier quantities to give satisfaction.

You might on occasion grow unintentionally better. This might happen if a friend or family member confronts us and insists on a change and we decide to make it, even if the motivation has more to do with the relationship than the actual improvement.

Or we can treat our peacetime as a time for training. We can grow in virtue and wisdom and skill, by working constantly at the areas that need improvement, gently overcoming the protests that arise within the reluctant parts of us.

You might be in the middle of a life crisis of some sort right now, but it seems more likely to me that now is a time between crises. If so, how are you using that time? Are you using it intentionally and systematically to become more and more the person you’ve always wanted to be?

If not, start today. Start with one thing. Attempt something that will bring you closer to that person. And if you fail today, try again tomorrow.

The Use and Misuse of Painful Experiences

What is the meaning of suffering? It’s a big question, of course, but I want to focus on one aspect of a possible answer here, for a moment. I want to focus on the way that pain affects a person’s moral development.

Everyone has been hurt and ill-treated at some time. The only question is who that hurt made them into. The question is, in other words, whether the hurt corrupted them, or helped make them grow.

We’ve all met people who have deep character flaws that can be attributed, at least in part, to the awful experiences they passed through earlier in their lives. We’ve also seen the opposite.

Think of that profoundly compassionate person you know, who has felt the pain you are feeling, and worse, and who wants to help you. Think of that incredibly strong person you know who was determined never to feel weak again after what happened.

Pain is sometimes bad and sometimes good. It’s too simple when someone wants to try and make pain out to be just one or the other.

Pain and hardship can affect us in ways that are beyond our conscious control, often seeding future disordered behaviour and thinking without our consent.

Pain can also, however, be used by the one suffering it. We can guide our experience of pain to some extent, or at least our interpretation of the experience, in order to help it shape us into the people we want to become. It is very difficult to do so, but given the way a painful experience can give shape and direction to our entire lives and selves, it is vitally important that we attempt it.

We will pass through painful times. Those times will affect who we’re becoming, in big ways. The only question is whether or not we’ll try to influence the direction in which we’re being shaped.

We always have a choice in those moments, so long as we’re able to recognize that we have a choice.

In Defence of New Year’s Resolutions

There’s a sentiment that’s common today even (or perhaps especially) among intelligent and thoughtful people, which says that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time.

The better version of this assessment points out that there’s nothing necessarily special about New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s day. If you have a bad habit to expunge, or a good habit that you dream of starting on, don’t wait! Don’t sit around until January 1. If you still have resolutions to make by January first then it means you’ve been doing something wrong all year. I’m sympathetic to this articulation, though I reject it.

The lesser version implies a sort of vicious fatalism. You are who you are. Do you really think you can change yourself this time when you’ve failed so often before? How many friends do you have who have actually managed to change themselves when they said they would? Can’t you just be okay with yourself and find contentment without beating yourself up and trying to be someone you’re not?

I’m sympathetic to this second view as well, actually. I’ve been there. But in the end my life has managed to prove to me that it is not the truth, or at least not the whole truth. Change is possible, though difficult. I hope your own life has proven, or will prove, the same thing to you.

But let’s go back to the first group. These are the people who say, can’t you see that there’s nothing really special about New Year’s?

In the end, I think this account has a decisive flaw to it, although I should start by recognizing what’s true about it.

Here’s what it gets right: If you sit around in February or June talking about what your resolutions are going to be next January, then you should probably stop talking and just try making the change.

However, I’ve never actually met that kind of a person.

Maybe there are people in the second week of December who are enjoying a last gasp of their bad habits before they reform themselves. But for most of the year, January 1 isn’t honestly a factor keeping people from pursuing their dreams, and to suggest otherwise is just misleading.

But that’s not my biggest problem with the view. The biggest problem is that its central premise is precisely incorrect.

“There’s nothing special about January 1.”

If you have to keep trying to convince others (and yourself) that something is unimportant, and if your audience just keeps forgetting the lesson, then it seems likely that you could be very wrong.

January 1 is important because people treat it like it’s important. The very fact that people feel a need to say it’s not important is actually a sign of just how important it is.

So what’s the point? The point is that January 1 is important, and it is a valuable opportunity. Don’t waste it. Don’t miss it. Don’t be embarrassed of it. A good resolution can change a life.

Apparently a huge number of resolutions are abandoned by the end of January, and that’s valuable for us to recognize, but please — don’t let that discourage you from trying. If you told an experienced sales team that most people wouldn’t buy a given product, I’m guessing they’d laugh and say, well then we’ll just need to keep on talking to more people until we get a yes!

If your resolutions fail this year, you can always try again, and maybe that will be the one that changes your life! Maybe the failures you make this month could even teach you the lessons you need to learn in order to be successful at last the next time you try. But if you give up now, you certainly won’t succeed.

Maybe the majority of resolutions get abandoned, but there is a minority that succeed. I made a resolution five years ago to lose some weight, and I started a diet a week later, and over the last five years I have lost (and kept off) over a hundred pounds. It’s been a long and slow process, with many twists and turns, but the most important moment, the beginning, might never have happened without January 1 to inspire me to take the first step.

One last thought. Setting good goals for yourself is itself a good habit. Making a New Year’s resolution isn’t just something that leads to virtuous actions. It is itself a virtuous action.

It’s true that we don’t only want to set good goals for ourselves once a year. But once a year better than never!

If, for several years, an annual goal is all you can handle setting for your personal life, then be glad for that! And stick with it. Maybe eventually your goal-setting habit will stretch itself out and start to grow its way into the rest of the calendar.

A good habit has to start somewhere. It might as well be today. If you put off making a resolution because you’re afraid of seeming silly or credulous or something, you’re helping no one, and the person you’re hurting most is yourself.

Make a resolution for this year. Maybe choose something small that you won’t be afraid to attempt. Maybe choose something big, if you feel like you’d be inspired by a challenge. Pick something that could change your life if it becomes an established habit in your life, and then give it your best shot! Good luck.