Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

Skyboxification and Democracy

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“It’s no longer true that when it rains everyone gets wet. I call this skyboxification… Something similar has been happening in American life throughout American society throughout this last three decades. Against a background of rising inequality, putting a price on everything, commodifying every aspect of life, has the effect of driving people apart, leading the affluent and those of modest means to live increasingly separate lives… This isn’t good for democracy, it’s a corrosive effect, this relentless commodification and inequality, together are corrosive of the sense that we are all in this together. Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality. It does require that people from different social backgrounds, different walks of life, encounter one another in common spaces of everyday life. This is what teaches us to negotiate and abide our differences. This is how we come to care for the common good, to feel that we’re all in this together. So in this subtle but cumulative way, the relentless commodification of life, together with rising inequality, have undermined the social solidarity, the commonality, that democracy in the end requires. This is one of the dangers of the unquestioned embrace of market thinking and of market logic.”

–Michael Sandel via The Partially Examined Life #98

Photo by Andrew Thomas (via)

Amor fati: The anti-carpe diem

iheartartichokes

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Why I Am So Clever,” Ecce Homo (written 1888, published 1908)

Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not.

— Oliver Burkeman, “No Regrets? Why not?,” The Guardian (2015)

Leaving

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Note: I wrote this two weeks ago.

Leaving always puts me in a philosophical mood. By now I’ve lived in, and left, three cities in the past three years. In the days before I leave, I try to do and see everything and everyone. But it’s not enough to see everything once–I must see everything and everyone in all their possible aspects. My friends for kahvaltı. My friends for drinks on the Bosphorus. My friends for meze at a meyhane. The Bosphorus in the morning when it sparkles like a precious gem. The Bosphorus at dusk when it swallows the light and becomes iridescent. The Bosphorus at night when it’s a mass of rippling blackness. Galata Tower from its base in Karaköy, and from a distance across the water on the Fatih waterfront, and from a rooftop patio. The next door kitten when it’s awake and playful, and later when it’s curled up asleep with its mother.

Then the problem becomes prolonging that moment, that moment you know is finite but which has to satiate you for who knows how long. I’m on the ferry, transversing the water that divides East and West, while the sun sets. I’m arrayed with friends around a cafe table, friends who are about to scatter to different points on the globe, who knows when we will be reunited. I’m in the Hagia Sophia, communing with the light that filters through its profoundly sacred and beautiful space. How do I “make the most” of those moments, other than being there? Am I appreciating the moment enough? Will I miss an important aspect? Will I regret something?

It all becomes impossible and untenable, both in that moment and existentially. There isn’t time in life, much less in the one week before leaving, to see everything you love, in all its aspects, for a truly satisfying amount of time. That’s the human condition, and leaving reminds me of that.

Photo: my final visit to Hagia Sophia.

Cultivate your garden

josef breitenbach illuminated tree

“Je sais aussi,” dit Candide, “qu’il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”

Voltaire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide: Or, Optimism)

Candide is one of my favorite books of all time, and I just realized that the main characters, after suffering an endless array of ridiculous misfortunes, end up in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the novella. They seek out the help of a renowned, wise dervish who advises the philosopher Pangloss to give up his Leibnitzian quest to prove that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” (Those Sufi gurus are quite useful.) Later it’s a Turkish farmer and his family who advise the ragtag group to follow a simple life devoted to the development of their individual talents and ultimately inspires Candide to “cultivate their garden.”

It tickles me to realize that Turkey plays a pivotal role in my favorite philosophical novel, although it’s really not all that significant–in the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire was simply the closest non-European destination and thus the logical endpoint for a group of miserable exiles–and then of course we can’t make the historical mistake of equating the Turkish Republic with the Ottoman Empire.

Still, I like the idea that Candide, Cunegunde, Pangloss, and their whole group are, like me, somewhere not far outside of Istanbul, trying to cultivate their gardens.

Photo: Josef Breitenbach “Illuminated Tree” via Crashingly Beautiful

Power is not evil

“[L]et us take sexual or amorous relationships: to wield power over the other in a sort of openended strategic game where the situation may be reversed is not evil; it’s a part of love, of passion and sexual pleasure. And let us take, as another example … the pedagogical institution. I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them, and transmits knowledge and techniques.”

–Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, quoted here.

Power is not intrinsically evil: both love and pedagogy depend on power relations. The question becomes: how do we bring about a world where power is wielded transparently, with justice, and in pursuit of mutual human flourishing?

Thoughts inspired by this podcast. Image is Chagall.

From a letter

From a letter I wrote to a friend:

I hope we can stay in touch going forward– I think old friends are important in life. It’s so easy to believe that as time passes and as we experience seemingly epic and life-altering successes and setbacks and dramas, we are changing so much. Abandoning our principals, our passions, our personality. But the people who’ve known us forever see that we’re still essentially the same underneath all the superficial changes that time wreaks on us. I don’t know what identity is or believe that the “essence” of a person exists, but somehow, old friends help to elucidate it, or maybe bring it into being, and in a confusing mercurial world (or, in my confusing mercurial world) there is something anchoring about that.

There are two corollaries to this idea:

1. What is anchoring can also be stifling and constricting, but in society as Gesellschaft it’s the stability and anchorage we lack and want and seek.

2. When we lose a friend, we lose a piece of our identity. That is why breakups and separations of all kinds are so difficult.

For more on friendship, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Also this Yale philosophy course (from way before EdX was trendy) has some thought-provoking digressions into the philosophy of identity.

Uncertainty

It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself. … No twists, no turns or hairpin beds obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. –Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

…İrfan realized that he, too, like Endymion, was terrified of perceiving his own fate. One’s fate should always remain a secret. No mortal is strong enough to know exactly what life holds, when an accident will occur, or in what guise death will arrive. –Zülfü Livaneli, Bliss (Türkçesi: Mutluluk)

What will I do after leaving college? Where will I be? How will my relationship and friendships stand when we have all graduated to the next stages of our lives? What does adulthood hold for me? Once in a while, I admit, the uncertainty of it all tears me apart. However, these passages from two different novels I have recently read–one by an Indian writer, and one by a Turkish musician-turned-novelist–reminded me that certainty is a double-edged sword.

We all need the certainty that we will be secure from violence and that our basic needs will be met. Nobody wants to or should feel uncertain that they will have sufficient food, water, shelter, access to healthcare, political rights–in short, the lower tiers in the hierarchy of needs. This is not the kind of uncertainty I will be referring to.

For a satisfying and flourishing life, it seems we need the uncertainty that comes from having an abundance of options. I could be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a writer; I could get married to be polyamorous; I could live in Mequon, USA, or Istanbul, Turkey in a house or an apartment or a camper-van–my choices are only limited by the amount of planning, research, and work I am willing to put in to make my choices a reality. The uncertainty that many college graduates and almost-grads like me experience is a reflection of this freedom of choice. How do we choose from among our many options? What if we make the wrong choice? How do we know if we have made the right one? Who should we follow, if anyone?

Getting wrapped up in our indecision, it is easy to forget that such freedom of choice is a scarce blessing. Ammu, a character from Roy’s novel, is a female divorcee trying to make her way in Indian society; and Livaneli’s Meryem is a 15-year-old girl, victim of sexual predation, and subsequently a target of communal exile and attempted murder. It is all too clear, too certain what life holds for these two women. Society has already made their choices for them.

For us, our multitudinous life choices lay open for us to choose and pursue, creating a deep sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty can be traumatic–society-as-gesellschaft brings with it a sense of impermanence,  alienation, and imbalance because no one can tell us what is right and correct apart from ourselves. Making one’s own decisions is harder than letting someone else tell us what to do, but easier is not necessarily better.

In Mutluluk, İrfan becomes dissatisfied with his predictable lifestyle, but because he possesses a freedom of choice not accorded to the aforementioned women, he is able to change his life radically–leaving behind his prestigious Istanbul professorship and dull social life to buy a boat and set out to sea, as he had always dreamed. The process of making the change is stressful, traumatic, and hard for İrfan, but the result is literally a dream-come-true.

Uncertainty at first feels like an evil, but it derives from something good: abundant opportunity and freedom of choice. Too much certainty is the real evil.

Of course, I am reading my own concerns into these stories. What in fact underlies both of the above quotes is Death in the phenomenological and literal senses. Why does too much safety and certainty–having too keen a knowledge of “what life holds”–feel like a small death? Conversely, why do we need an element of spontaneity, insecurity, and even danger to feel truly alive? As Adam Gopnick puts it, “It takes more than full bellies to make fulfilled lives. Without enough to eat, life is nasty; with merely enough to eat, it feels empty. The escape from not-enough can highlight the emptiness of only-enough.”

Ultimately, why is it so important that we not know when and how we are going to die? These are questions I leave for the story-tellers to answer.

Identity

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I think about identity a lot. Although thinking about it is especially hard to avoid at the end of the year with all the advertisements proclaiming “New Year, New You,” there is a year-round, never-ending American rhetoric about being yourself, expressing yourself, finding yourself–all without any explanatory force. What is the self? What is the source or where is the seat of my identity? Who am I? Am I the same person I was last year, five years, ten years ago? Am I a product determined by my environment or are there parts of me that are inborn and unchangeable?

These are typical formulations of questions about identity. They ask for a philosophical, psychological, biological, and/or neurological answer. But I have also begun to think about a more anthropological variation of the question. Do we become different people in different places?

When I first came to Turkey in 2007 I was shocked that people looked at me as an American. On my most recent stint there I was surprised when my new friends perceived me as a Christian. Before going abroad I had never actively thought of myself as an American, and my relationship with Christianity has never been as straightforward as my abroad friends assumed. On the other hand, nobody had any idea that I had any interest or talent in art, yet in the US my artistic interests seemed to define me.

In different places, it seems that different parts of our identity become salient. Do you agree?

PS: This Open Yale course on “Death” covers some of the basic problems and classic thought experiments on the philosophy of identity. The RadioLab podcast about “Memory and Forgetting” adds complexity to the question (specifically, the idea that our memories are not static).

The masked philosopher

Excerpt from a 1980 interview in Le Monde entitled “The Masked Philosopher”:

It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible. I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be a sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

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