Growing in courage

Courage is the virtue that relates to how we deal with pains, and with fears of pain.

Practicing doing thing that are painful or that frighten us, would seem to be the sensible way to grow in courage. And there’s something to that.

For myself, I think what I’ve found in the past (and I have to confess that I haven’t enacted this with any sort of consistency) is that what gives the most powerful boosts of courage, most quickly, is to think about pain. Hold what pain is in the mind’s eye, and look it straight on, without blinking.

When we don’t think directly about pain, but only “around” it, seeing it only in the periphery of the mind’s eye, we cannot help thinking it is worse than it really is. We know it is something we’re naturally averse toward, and that feels like all we need to know. All the more reason not to think about it directly.

But when we do think about it directly, we realize that pain isn’t really what we fear. There are much worse things than pain, and pain is a comparatively small price to pay for something we really desire. By thinking about pain without shying away from the thought of it, pain loses its power to frighten.

Such an exercise makes pain and fear fade into insignificance, for as long as the memory of the exercise is still fresh enough that it can be easily recalled. This clarifies for us in a marvellous way what sorts of things we should really have an aversion to, when we see with a sense of proper proportion.

The tricky thing about bravery, of course, is that it can be put either to good ends or to evil ones. People can feel so ashamed of being called cowardly that we can assume by implication that all bravery is as such a good thing. But being brave, aggressive, ruthless in the service of ignorance or selfishness or prejudice is not truly courage.

Courage is about being willing to do what we know is the right thing, even if fear holds us back from it, even if pain is the price of it. That’s a virtue worth striving for.

A Habit of Reading in Other Languages

A little more than a year ago, I began a new daily habit of reading in languages I wanted to learn. I was very ambitious, and very excited.

I decided to put myself way out of my depths. I was reading Homer and Aristotle in Greek, Horace in Latin, Hegel in German, Rousseau in French, and still others as well.

My plan was to read slowly, with some sort of dictionary. Slowly read the first page, and then reread it until it became easy, and then move on to the second page, and continue like this. In no time, I thought, I should be breezing through the languages.

It turns out, that was a poorly conceived project. I’m surprised I stuck with it as long as I did — nearly half a year! But it was a frustrating, largely fruitless endeavour the whole time.

However, within my bad idea was the seed of a good one. As that gruelling half a year was wrapping up, I didn’t abandon the habit. I just shifted it.

What if I put the same sort of effort into reading something that’s more like a graded reader? I’ve long been attracted to Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata; what if I read artificially instructive texts like that and slowly became proficient at more challenging texts in my target languages, rather than diving straight into the difficult stuff?

The major downside is that I wouldn’t be spending time immediately reading the authors that interest me, in the original languages. It felt pretty cool, in one way, to be doing that. The objection to that disappointment, though, is obvious: if I take the longer and slower path, I think I’m much more likely in the long run to be able to achieve and sustain a habit of that sort. I’ll get back to reading great books in their own languages! But there’s just a very important little detour I need to make first.

So now I’m reading through some graded readers, each at its own pace. It took me several tries to find a Greek one that I like, so I’m behind there, but the other languages have been coming along nicely. I need to be patient; my guess is that, at the pace I’m going, it’ll take at least a year or two before I can go back to reading real texts. But at the same time, I fond that amazing. In just a few years from now, maybe I’ll be comfortably reading difficult texts in foreign languages, at the cost of only a few minutes a day between now and then. It’s hard not to be excited.

Plan for a long life

You’d think that the smart way to life would be to anticipate a short life and an early end. Then, if you end up living longer than expected, it’s just the frosting on the cake.

I was listening recently to a story about a famous intellectual which seemed to assume the same. Ever since he was a little child, a relative recalled, he’d believe he was going to die an early death and would need to accomplish something important without delay.

I feel like something along those lines was implicitly what I was assuming for almost the first few decades of my life. Getting married, and even more so having children, were probably the factors that have been most important in changing the approach for me, to thinking more in terms of decades rather than years. I now wish I would have made the change long before.

It seems to me that living as if life will be short will bring many activities that are not wise for a long life. You’ll burn yourself out. You’ll focus on the short term benefits. You’ll be careless with friendships and health and career and more.

Living as if life will be long, on the other hand, seems more likely even in the short term to lead to positive outcomes. The sorts of good habits and smart investment of time and effort that come with a life lived in view of a long future, will really not seem foolish or blameworthy in a life cut short.

Living as if life will be short can be presented as a noble or realistic stance, but it is hard for it not to become an excuse for vice.

Living as if life will be long might seem presumptuous or even, in a sense, short-sighted, but it holds us accountable for today’s decisions in a way that is not relevant for the person who anticipates slipping away into eternity at a young age.

We have a choice, and although in my case the realization is of embarrassingly recent provenance, the better choice should really be pretty clear to see.

Reverse Willpower

I’ve been grateful to be able to keep up several great habits over several years, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to keep them up for several years more.

A friend of mine recently asked me if it takes willpower to do those habitual actions every day, and at first I just answered in the negative. Once you begin to think of yourself as just being the sort of person who does habit x every day, the need for willpower becomes minimal.

But then after a moment of reflection, I added in a thought that seems really helpful to me. I said that sometimes doing the habits almost seems like reverse willpower, in a way.

When I said that, I was thinking of those moments when it’s late in the evening, when I’m tired and distracted, and all I want to do is listen to an audiobook until I fall asleep, and yet I sit down and do the little bit of reading or writing or practice or whatever it is, that I didn’t get to during the day.

That might sound like incredible willpower, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way! Willpower doesn’t feel like it enters into it at all. My will is turned decisively toward dreamland, and I’m reluctant to do anything else.

But the habit drags me along, pulls me through the motions so I can check the daily box. There’s a part of me that fears losing the habit, and so my willpower gets forced into doing what I’m the moment it has no desire whatsoever to do.

I don’t know if that makes any sense from the outside, but for me, in the moment, it felt like a valuable encapsulation of something I don’t think about much but which probably helps me out more than I usually know.

Dream Power

Being able to dream about the future, and to be excited about the possibilities ahead, can be a powerful force for good in a person’s life.

I read once that thinking about the future makes you a better and more disciplined person in many ways, and that sociologists have measured and confirmed this. I actually used to schedule time daily for the purpose. I don’t do so anymore, but mainly because there’s no point.

I frequently find myself thinking about how excited I am for the future, and all I need to do at this point is give myself permission to enjoy thinking about what the coming years and decades hold.

I find this happens especially with my good habits. I used to dream about how cool it would be, how impressive I would look, if I learned a bunch of languages, for example. These days, for some reason (maturity perhaps? but not necessarily), I think less about how I will look, and more just about how useful it will be.

I can’t wait until I can read many of the philosophers that interest me in the languages in which they wrote. I can’t wait for my reading project to grow, to expand, to become more complex and more complete.

It is a long wait. It will take many years of diligent, lonesome toil.

But the wait becomes easy and even pleasant, precisely by virtue of the fact that I cannot wait for the destination.

Healthy eating a cause and an effect of a good mind

The workings of a mind are deeply affected by bodily circumstances. Intoxication from alcohol, or exhaustion from sleep deprivation, illustrate this fact clearly.

The food we consume is one of the main factors that affect our health. Eating poor food will make a powerful mind less sharp, and eating healthy food will give us our best shot at being our most brilliant self.

But it goes the other direction as well. I think that an unhealthy intake of food can also be a consequence of weaker mental powers. If we have the ability to eat more healthily, and we want the good things that would be produced by such eating, then it doesn’t make much sense to come up with rationalizations to justify eating in unhealthy ways.

So these two things seem to lead to a downward spiral. Unhealthy eating and weaker intelligence reinforce one another, feed into one another. Each drags the other further down.

There are a few easy things we can do that are specifically beneficial for our brains. Maximize fibre intake, to reduce chances of stroke. Keep blood cholesterol (especially LDL) low, mainly by reducing trans fats, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol, which seems to help with protecting against brain disease. Maximize antioxidants, especially by eating things like berries.

It just takes a moment to break the downward cycle. Just a single decision, and the descending spiral can be replace with an ascending one.

It’s worth giving it a little thought. The time and effort will be repaid a thousandfold.

Read books as you wish your favourite books were read

We all have books and authors that we despise, that make us roll our eyes or wrinkle the nose just at the thought of them.

We also all have authors and books we love, I hope it is safe to say.

How annoying is it when someone scoffs at a book or writer whom we love? There will always be someone, who will always be able to find reasons to criticize, reasons which it will never be fully and decisively possible to prove groundless.

And yet! And yet, those people are wrong, and are needlessly missing out on something great. The reasons they give for disagreeing miss the point, are conjured out of nothing in order to explain why they dislike a thing that they would find to be a delight, if they would only give it a proper chance and do a bit of work to understand it.

The person who loves a book sees it more truly than the person who hates it. There’s a level of understanding that’s possible that transcends the experience of loving a book, but it takes a lot of work and even it requires some sense of love for it, at least at the beginning.

I shouldn’t be annoyed at the people who hate the books I love, when I know that I hate books just as ignorantly and irrationally as they do. I just hate different books, for entirely different (equally bad) reasons. Those books that I hate I’ve never put in effort to understand, never really tried to see what truth might be found in them.

“Why would I bother wasting my time studying such a pile of trash?” That’s exactly what they are saying about my beloved books, too. And clearly, it assumes the very conclusion that it has not yet done the work to prove.

But in a way it gets to the heart of the matter. It’s about time. We don’t have the time (at least not right now, not all at once) to study all these fields, all these perspectives, all of these different traditions, to the point where we can understand them from the inside and see their inner logic. That limitation is just a reality, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. But for some reason we get so defensive, and we try to push our own shortcomings onto those books and authors that really haven’t done anything to earn our animosity.

We should just admit that we haven’t yet had time to study a thing well enough to speak intelligently about it. We should do that with the vast majority of subjects, and we should do it impartially, without any malice. And for whatever book or author we are currently lucky enough to be enjoying, we should do our best to understand it from the top down and from the bottom up, and to find as much intellectual joy in it as it’s possible to have, before we move on to the next item on our list to work on.

Discovering friendships

It’s interesting to experience the way friendships form, develop, strengthen, and dissolve, and occasionally recover, over time.

We might form a friendship quickly, at the intersection of compatible personalities, shared views, and time spent in proximity.

Many such friendships will turn out not to be deep enough to survive the passage of years, as people move from one city to another for family or education or career.

Even those deeper friendships that do survive the rolling on of time, though, will likely be exposed to serious stresses as situations change. It seems to me that new sides of a friend will often be revealed in the course of minor intellectual disagreements, most often, in my experience, of an ideological sort.

Those are the moments that can begin to reveal a person’s depths, and show who they really are. Seeing how people respond in such moments will offer a far more fulsome sense of their character.

I’ve been shocked in the past by how many people (ideologically to the left of me and to the right of me alike), whom I’ve considered dear friends, have rapidly decided in a conversation that if I won’t agree wholeheartedly with some one or another of their views, then they don’t care to preserve the friendship. Such an approach to friendship is not natural to me, I suspect, although perhaps something like it was more characteristic of me in my teenage years and early twenties.

Often those who at first appear the most delightful and virtuous of friends reveal another, more dismaying side in harder seasons of friendship. It’s always a surprise, and frequently painful.

It’s too easy to fixate on that part of the story, though. The disappointments have two upsides. One is that, very rarely, and always very slowly, a new friendship can grow up in place of the old. Cautiously, fearfully, it can sometimes be possible to rediscover what brought about a friendship in the first place, though I don’t know if it will normally be able to return to its original strength when there is a memory of the pain that has been intentionally inflicted in the past.

But the other miracle that happens is the real treasure: One’s truly virtuous friends rise to the surface, as time passes. It might not always be the person we’d expect. A disagreement arises, and the person is willing to respect the other person rather than digging in on ideology, and a new era of friendship and admiration is born. Such friendships, rare beyond all explanation, become as precious and beautiful in the friends’ eyes as silver and diamonds, even if, often, it would be awkward to recognize this gratitude out loud.

Habits become easy

The other day, I had some language reading I needed to get done, and the day busily slipped away, leaving no time for study.

Evening arrived, and I was lying in bed, deeply tired. In the last ten minutes before I tried to fall asleep, I read a paragraph of Greek, half a page of Latin, and a page of French. (I’m pretty sure those were the languages I had planned to read that day.)

It probably took ten or fifteen minutes to complete it, and the next day I picked up my reading and continued in my languages schedule for that day.

It was a bit dreary to do that reading when all I wanted to do was close my eyes. And it was especially annoying when the last word in the Greek paragraph couldn’t seem to make sense no matter how I looked at it.

But it wasn’t overwhelming. It wasn’t paralyzing. It wasn’t brutal. It was just an annoying point on my checklist for the day that I needed to get done.

What makes that so marvellous to me is the knowledge that if I keep on doing those bits of reading every day, then it won’t take long (years, maybe, but not decades) to be reading comfortably in those languages.

These habits were hard in the beginning. It was particularly difficult when I hadn’t yet settled on resources that would work well for me. It took a lot of fruitless searching and experimentation before I found the system I now have in place.

But once the hard work of establishing a good habit is done, it’s not so hard. It’s just a daily little annoyance that will someday yield dividends.

School and expectations

It’s amazing how little it’s really possible to learn over the course of a semester.

A person doing a PhD takes a tiny fragment of a field and devotes years to learning about it.

A person who takes a semester-long class, by contrast, tackles an entire subfield, or even (in introductory classes) a whole field, and tries to get a sense of it.

No matter how much time we have in the day, and no matter how hard we work at it, there’s only so much that can be accomplished in four months. And it’s a very rare person indeed who has the leisure to take a single class in a semester and has no other responsibilities to worry about, let alone the discipline to stay focused within such lengths of time.

It’s a hard thing for me to remember. It’s strange to work so hard at a class and then leave it with only at best a most basic grasp of its subject matter.

There’s a part of me that such classes only make sense in the bigger context of a life devoted to continuous, endless private study.