Friday, August 31, 2018

 

Insights From Epictetus' Manual for LIving and Richard Bach's Illusions

For decades, I collected a large number of books--many more than I could read, though I did my best and read a lot of them. Recently, I have begun the process of pruning my book collection to a manageable size, reluctantly yet enthusiastically parting company with books that I realize I do not have the time and/or inclination to read. Yes, "reluctantly yet enthusiastically"--at some level I probably will always have a deep seated aversion to parting company with any book, yet I am enthusiastic about focusing my efforts on reading books as opposed to managing a book collection.

I have also made a determined effort to seek counsel, wisdom and comfort from brief yet meaningful books on days that I know will be challenging emotionally, mentally and/or physically (for example, long travel days involving my parenting time with my daughter Rachel). Last month, I read Epictetus’ Manual for Living on one such day (the specific edition is Sharon Lebell's "new interpretation" published by HarperCollins in 1994). Yesterday, I read Richard Bach’s Illusions. Both books have been in my collection for at least 20 years, yet I had never read either one before.

I wonder how my life would be different had I spent less time/effort buying books and more time/effort reading them, but that would have required me obtaining the realization that it is not possible to read EVERYTHING, which would have been a psychologically uncomfortable admission of defeat (or perceived defeat) that was inconceivable for me to make; only by reframing the issue more realistically (I can't read everything, so I better focus on reading that which is most significant/meaningful) was I able to achieve a more productive outlook. I do not completely regret my earlier mentality, as it is a worthy goal to try to gain as much knowledge as possible; I recall a reviewer noting that Norman Mailer's goal was to be the greatest novelist ever and, whether or not one believes that he achieved that distinction, it was a meaningful goal and he produced works of lasting value while pursuing that bold quest.

The Manual for Living contains several gems that resonate with me. Here are a few:

1) "Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not."

2) "From now on practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: 'You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.'" Epictetus then advises classifying the appearance as either something that one can control or something that one cannot control, and if one cannot control it then one should train oneself not to worry about it.

3) "Regardless of what others profess, they may not truly live by spiritual values. Be careful whom you associate with. It is human to imitate the habits of those with whom we interact. We inadvertently adopt their interests, their opinions, their values, and their habit of interpreting events. Though many people mean well, they can just the same have a deleterious influence on you because they are undisciplined about what is worthy and what isn't. Just because some people are nice to you doesn't mean you should spend time with them."

Three concepts from Illusions grabbed me:

1) "Like attracts like. Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright. Automatically, as we shine who we are, asking ourselves every minute is this what I really want to do, doing it only when we answer yes, automatically that turns away those who have nothing to learn from who we are and attracts those who do, and from whom we have to learn, as well."

2) "The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."

3) "Only a few people are interested in what you have to say, but that's all right. You don't tell the quality of a master by the size of his crowds..."

I will let the reader ponder five of those quotes without further commentary but I will expound on the second quote from Illusions. That quote suggests a multi-part inquiry: Do you believe that evil exists and, if so, do you believe that good ultimately triumphs over evil, either in this world or in some form of afterlife? Or, do you believe, as the quote suggests, that things which seem unjust to us are in fact part of a larger scheme of things in which injustice does not exist? My strong inclination is to believe that evil is real and that we have an individual and collective responsibility to combat evil as forcefully as possible. Regarding whether or not there is a larger picture/higher truth that we are not able to perceive from our current vantage point, I am unsure both if that is true and if it is relevant; I certainly want to believe that this is true but I also tend to incline toward the view that the Holocaust rendered some philosophies/viewpoints irrelevant, if not obscene and disrespectful to the memory of the innocent victims. I struggle to perceive a larger picture in which throwing live babies into crematoria is somehow equivalent to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. I understand conceptually the argument that the Holocaust was a failure of man, not God, but it is hard to reconcile the idea of a Being who is all-knowing/all-powerful with a Being who permits such horrors to occur.

Reframing one's perspective is a useful exercise in many aspects of life, but much like the laws of physics collapse at a singularity, many philosophies/perspectives that have great utility nevertheless seem inadequate when applied to the Holocaust (and the same could be said of other evils, though the dimensions, scale and intent of the Holocaust are unprecedented).

In the Star Wars universe, Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker that truth depends on your point of view. Obi-Wan had told Luke that Darth Vader betrayed and killed Luke's father Anakin, when of course what had happened was that Anakin had become Darth Vader. When Luke learned the truth and confronted Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan replied that when Anakin became Darth Vader the good man that he had been no longer existed and therefore from a "certain point of view" what Obi-Wan had said was true.

Luke tended to think in terms of absolutes. When he used the Force to perceive that his friends were in danger, he cut short his training and essentially challenged Vader and Vader's forces all by himself, defying the advice of both Obi-Wan and Yoda, who believed that from the larger perspective the highest priority was that Luke complete his Jedi training, even if Luke's friends might be killed. Luke answered simply that he could help them and that after he helped them he would return to complete his training. Is Luke a hero, is he reckless or is he both? How you answer that question depends on whether you believe that the potential death of Luke's friends is an unjust tragedy or simply part of a bigger picture.

In the end, as Yoda later pointed out, Luke's friends rescued themselves and had to rescue Luke as well, which to Yoda's way of thinking rendered Luke's mission foolhardy. Yoda's perception is that Luke should have followed his training path and let events happen as they would, while Luke felt that he had the power and the responsibility to fight evil with all of his might.

During the Holocaust, the Bielski Partisans battled the Nazis with guerilla warfare while also rescuing thousands of civilians and sheltering them from the death camps. One faction of the Bielski Partisans leadership deemed the civilians who were too young, too old or too infirm to fight as "useless eaters" but the prevailing consensus was that rescuing the helpless gave meaning to the Bielski Partisans' efforts. What would it matter if they blew up a few more supply bridges at the cost of letting their children and elderly relatives perish?

Luke Skywalker thought like a Bielski Partisan; do your best to rescue anyone who you might be able to save and don't just focus on your own training/efforts/path.

Yoda (and Richard Bach) may be right conceptually but as a human being who is pained by the injustice and suffering that I perceive (however illusory it may supposedly turn out to be from some larger perspective), I identify with Luke and the Bielski Partisans.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

 

Charles Krauthammer Was an Independent Thinker in an Age of Blind Partisanship

We live in an era of blind partisanship, when it is expected that a person must strictly adhere to a given party line or else be ostracized: you are either to the right or to the left and woe to the person who dares to be an independent thinker.

Charles Krauthammer, who passed away on June 21 at the age of 68, defied the norm and did not conform to partisan politics: he criticized President Barack Obama for--among other things--his Mideast policy, but he also called President Trump a "moral disgrace" for not immediately condemning the racist, white supremacist rally at Charlottesville.

Krauthammer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, wrote commentaries that defy simple labels, as Adam Bernstein noted in Krauthammer's Washington Post obituary:
He initially defined himself as a liberal Cold Warrior, a Democrat who embraced anti-communist as well as New Deal and Great Society programs that aided the most vulnerable. His support for the robust use of American military power gradually left him alienated from the Democratic Party, however, and he found ideological succor in neoconservatism, identifying with writer Irving Kristol's definition of its adherents as onetime liberals who have been "mugged by reality."
There are many examples of Krauthammer's crisp writing and his distinct perspective. In a September 25, 2006 column titled Everyone's Jewish, Krauthammer started with a light-hearted tone but then made some serious points:
Krauthammer's Law: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise. I've had a fairly good run with this one. First, it turns out that John Kerry--windsurfing, French-speaking, Beacon Hill aristocrat--had two Jewish grandparents. Then Hillary Clinton--methodical Methodist--unearths a Jewish stepgrandfather in time for her run as New York senator...

For all its tongue-in-cheek irony, Krauthammer's Law works because when I say "everyone," I don't mean everyone you know personally. Depending on the history and ethnicity of your neighborhood and social circles, there may be no one you know who is Jewish. But if "everyone" means anyone that you've heard of in public life, the law works for two reasons. Ever since the Jews were allowed out of the ghetto and into European society at the dawning of the Enlightenment, they have peopled the arts and sciences, politics, and history in astonishing disproportion to their numbers.

There are 13 million Jews in the world, one-fifth of 1 percent of the world's population. Yet 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, a staggering hundredfold surplus of renown and genius. This is similarly true for a myriad of other "everyones"--the household names in music, literature, mathematics, physics, finance, industry, design, comedy, film and, as the doors opened, even politics.

But it is not just Jewish excellence at work here. There is a dark side to these past centuries of Jewish emancipation and achievement--an unrelenting history of persecution. The result is the other more somber and poignant reason for the Jewishness of public figures being discovered late and with surprise: concealment. 
In a January 29, 2015 column titled Do We Really Mean "Never Again"?, Krauthammer noted the "bitter irony" that in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it was obvious that anti-Semitism was alive and well in Europe. Krauthammer lamented that the real issues were (1) Jew-hatred is the norm, not exception, throughout European history and (2) while it took Hitler and his followers years to massacre six million Jews, the state of Israel and her more than six million Jews face the dire prospect of annihilation by just one nuclear weapon:
The rise of European anti-Semitism is, in reality, just a return to the norm. For a millennium, virulent Jew-hatred--persecution, expulsions, massacres--was the norm in Europe until the shame of the Holocaust created a temporary anomaly wherein anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable.

The hiatus is over. Jew-hatred is back, recapitulating the past with impressive zeal. Italians protesting Gaza handed out leaflets calling for a boycott of Jewish merchants. As in the 1930s. A widely popular French comedian has introduced a variant of the Nazi salute. In Berlin, Gaza brought out a mob chanting, "Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone!" Berlin, mind you.

European anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, however. It's a European problem, a stain, a disease of which Europe is congenitally unable to rid itself.

From the Jewish point of view, European anti-Semitism is a sideshow. The story of European Jewry is over. It died at Auschwitz. Europe's place as the center and fulcrum of the Jewish world has been inherited by Israel. Not only is it the first independent Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years. It is, also for the first time in 2,000 years, the largest Jewish community on the planet.

The threat to the Jewish future lies not in Europe but in the Muslim Middle East, today the heart of global anti-Semitism, a veritable factory of anti-Jewish literature, films, blood libels and calls for violence, indeed for another genocide.

The founding charter of Hamas calls not just for the eradication of Israel but for the killing of Jews everywhere. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah welcomes Jewish emigration to Israel-because it makes the killing easier: "If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide." And, of course, Iran openly declares as its sacred mission the annihilation of Israel...

Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as a moderate, once characterized tiny Israel as a one-bomb country. He acknowledged Israel’s deterrent capacity but noted the asymmetry: "Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world." Result? Israel eradicated, Islam vindicated. So much for deterrence.

And even if deterrence worked with Tehran, that's not where the story ends. Iran's very acquisition of nukes would set off a nuclear arms race with half a dozen Muslim countries from Turkey to Egypt to the Gulf states--in the most unstable part of the world. A place where you wake up in the morning to find a pro-American Yemeni government overthrown by rebels whose slogan is "God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jews. Power to Islam."

The idea that some kind of six-sided deterrence would work in this roiling cauldron of instability the way it did in the frozen bipolarity of the Cold War is simply ridiculous.

The Iranian bomb is a national security issue, an alliance issue and a regional Middle East issue. But it is also a uniquely Jewish issue because of Israel's situation as the only state on earth overtly threatened with extinction, facing a potential nuclear power overtly threatening that extinction.

On the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz, mourning dead Jews is easy. And, forgive me, cheap. Want to truly honor the dead? Show solidarity with the living--Israel and its 6 million Jews. Make "never again" more than an empty phrase. It took Nazi Germany seven years to kill 6 million Jews. It would take a nuclear Iran one day.
Krauthammer deftly wove together the history of European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism in that column, like a boxer nimbly throwing jabs that hit the target--but he also concluded with a knockout punch that hammered home the main point and that knockout punch bears repeating for anyone who does not understand what is at stake for Israel vis a vis Iran: "It took Nazi Germany seven years to kill 6 million Jews. It would take a nuclear Iran one day."

Krauthammer used words to entertain, to enlighten and to inspire. His allegiance was to independent thought, not a particular ideology or political party. That kind of voice is rare, always needed, and will be particularly missed in our era.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

 

Seeing Light in the Darkest Times

November 9 was the 79th anniversary of the beginning of Kristallnacht (German for "Night of Crystal" but usually translated in this context as "Night of the Broken Glass"), a two day state-sanctioned pogrom in Nazi Germany, German-occupied Austria and German-occupied Sudetenland during which over 260 synagogues were burned to the ground, nearly 100 Jews were killed and as many as 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. Nazi Germany then imposed a one billion Reichsmark fine (equivalent to $400 million in U.S. dollars at the time) on the Jewish community to make sure that the Jewish people--not German-owned insurance companies--paid the economic price for all of the destroyed Jewish properties/businesses.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras' family experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht firsthand; his grandfather--who was 14 years old at the time--saw Jewish stores being looted, Jewish books being burned in bonfires in the street and signs declaring "Kill the Jews." Stras' great-grandfather was sent to Dachau, the Nazis' first concentration camp. Stras recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about his family's experiences during Kristallnacht specifically and the Holocaust in general. Stras noted that four years ago, for the first time, he spoke publicly about what happened to his family during the Holocaust and how his grandfather narrowly survived Auschwitz. Stras explained that his grandfather never lost his faith in humanity:

My grandfather had the uncommon gift of being able to see the light of human generosity in the midst of near-total darkness...
Only after years researching their stories and reflecting on their lives do I understand the message my grandparents had tried to impart--one of hope and gratitude, not bitterness or pity. As my grandfather said in a memorial service speech in 1979, we remember those who "lost their freedom, the freedom of us and the freedom of mankind." He emphasized that "we, the survivors, have to let the world know that we will never again allow another Holocaust" and told the audience that "you, and you alone, have the responsibility to speak up for our fallen relatives and friends."
My grandparents always said they were the lucky ones, and that they were left on earth to speak for those who had perished. Their guidepost was humanity, not indulgence in their own sorrow and suffering.
The human capacity to do evil and inflict suffering is terrifying and tragic but the human capacity to endure, survive and retain compassion/hope despite suffering is inspirational.

Here is a link to the entire article (subscription required): My Grandparents Saw Light, Even After the Dark of Kristallnacht

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

 

Perfectionism, Despair and Meaning

The October 16, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal contains a book review by Emily Esfahani Smith entitled "Redefining a Well-Lived Life." Smith offers her take on Iddo Landau's Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Landau, a philosophy professor at Haifa University in Israel, seeks to understand why the rates for suicide, depression and alienation have been rising for quite some time. Smith notes that much research on this subject has concluded that despair is the primary reason that so many people decide that their lives are meaningless and she adds that Landau concludes that the issue is not so much that people's lives lack meaning but rather--in Smith's words--that people "have distorted ideas about what a meaningful life actually is."

Landau ticks off several arguments that are commonly made to prove that life is meaningless: (1) Nothing that we do individually matters because we are tiny specks in a vast universe; (2) We will be forgotten soon after we die; (3) Everything that we do and everything that we value will ultimately decay or be destroyed.

Landau asserts that the crucial flaw in each of these arguments is the idea that the only valuable life is a perfect one: "According to this presupposition, meaningful lives must include some perfection or excellence or some rare and difficult achievements." Smith powerfully amplifies this point: "Does the life of a child with Down syndrome have less value than the life of a healthy child? Is a retail clerk leading a less meaningful life than, say, Elon Musk? A perfectionist would have to say yes and yes. But Mr. Landau wisely points out that it's cruel to hold ourselves or others to this standard for meaning, because it neglects life's inherent worth."

In The Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination, I quoted David Holzel's take on perfectionism/trying to always do the right thing: "If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal." Perfectionism sounds noble but it can have pernicious effects on the mind and soul, because perfection is not attainable--and the fact that perfection is unttainable can easily transform a noble pursuit into a race toward oblivion.

I have always admired perfectionists and I have always strived for perfection but perfectionism seems to be a trap that leads not to excellence but to suffering. How does one ramp down the pursuit of perfection without sacrificing the competitive edge/edginess that seems to be necessary to achieve greatness? One point of view is that the world is not bifurcated into successes/failures but rather learners/nonlearners and that the value of new experiences is not defined by always winning but rather by always learning. For several years I have tried to embrace and embody this approach but it is not easy to tame the fires of perfectionism after they have been lit and after they have swelled to massive proportions. Kobe Bryant once declared that he was "not with" the idea of it is OK to fall short of your goals as long as you tried your best. I admire and identify with Bryant's determination and relentlessness but I wonder if this way of thinking is healthy.

My Mom has always emphasized to me that success is not defined by material goods or accomplishments but rather by service to others. During times when the vicissitudes of life have buffeted my mind and soul, she consistently told me that the path to healing involved focusing less on myself/my goals and more on helping others.

I see the wisdom in this way of reframing one's thinking but it is not so easy to rewire one's brain.

Smith's book review offers a simple conclusion that could have been written by my Mom: "Holding your child's hand, volunteering in your community, doing your job, appreciating the beauty around you--these are the wellsprings of meaning all of us can tap."

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

 

Prince's Versatility and Influence

Prince's untimely death is still difficult to accept for those who appreciate his rare genius and who mourn for the loss of the great music he never had the opportunity to create because his life was cut short. Prince's combination of productivity, creativity, ingenuity and high-level multi-instrument proficiency may never be seen again.

Rob Sheffield recently wrote an insightful tribute to Prince and the enduring influence of his 1999 album. Sheffield notes that many artists from diverse genres influenced Prince but he took music to another level:
But as any of these artists probably would have conceded, Prince topped them all, creating his own kind of nonstop erotic cabaret. Instead of just overdubbing instruments to replicate a live band, he built the tracks around a colossal synth pulse, which made 1999 one of the decade's most influential productions. "Little Red Corvette" became such a massive pop hit, it's easy to overlook how radical it sounded at the time. All through the song, you can hear the machines puff and hiss, as if Prince's engines are overheating, with his studio as a Frankenstein lab full of sparks flying everywhere. It's sleek on the surface, but the rhythm track keeps sputtering and threatening to blow up. It's the sonic equivalent of George Lucas' breakthrough in the original Star Wars movie--he figured out that the way to make droids look real was to make them dusty and dented, as if they'd gotten banged around on the job.
Joe Levy's May 4, 2016 remembrance of Prince takes an even broader view: "As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince's career--almost all of the 1980s--when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us."

Levy observes that the divorce of Prince's parents when Prince was around eight years old had a lasting influence on the budding music superstar: "...his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. 'What if everybody around me split?' he said to Rolling Stone in 1990. 'Then I'd be left with only me, and I'd have to fend for me. That's why I have to protect me.'"

Prince's ability to play multiple instruments was largely the result of intensive self-education. After Warner Brothers signed him to his first recording deal in 1977 when Prince was 19 years old, the label intended for Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White to produce Prince's first album but Prince immediately shut down that plan: "Nobody is producing my album," Prince declared, and then he proceeded to prove that he was more than capable of handling those duties. Levy reports that Lenny Waronker, Warners' A&R chief at the time, was suitably impressed. Waronker recalled, "He put down a guitar track and got it right. Then he put down the drums--wow. You could just tell--the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him."

Prince then embarked on a staggering outburst of musical creativity, as recounted by Levy:
Prince began work on his fifth album, 1999, in early 1982. He was 23 years old and entering a golden period: For the next three years, it seemed like every waking moment yielded a song, and every song was a hit. He now had three groups: his own band, the Revolution; the Time; and a trio of women in lingerie he called Vanity 6. Before long, he would also be creating music for percussionist Sheila E. He was ceaseless, sometimes working for three days straight without sleep. "Do I have to eat?" he mused in Rolling Stone in 1985. "I wish I didn't have to eat."

By the end of 1985, he had made 15 albums in seven years--seven under his own name; three by the Time; two from Sheila E., and one each from Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and the Family. Those albums generated 13 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Minneapolis sound--that synth-driven blend of funk, pop and rock which Prince pioneered--was everywhere, especially after Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Prince had fired from the Time, began producing a string of hits for artists like the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx and Janet Jackson. Then there were the Prince songs that became huge hits for Chaka Khan ("I Feel for You," 1984), Sheena Easton ("Sugar Walls," 1984), and the Bangles ("Manic Monday," 1986).
Prince had gone after all this, but on his own terms. No one would have predicted that he'd break through with singles about the End Times or a sexually voracious woman, or that he could increase the power of his burgeoning fame by refusing to do interviews. Yet that's exactly what happened with 1999.
Prince's career peaked in 1984, when he became the only artist other than the Beatles to simultaneously have the number one album, number one single and number one movie in the United States. That feat is obviously a tall order to match commercially or artistically but Prince remained relevant as a song writer, musician and live performer until the day he died, inspiring a wide array of artists to push the boundaries of their creativity.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

 

Mental Toughness

What is mental toughness? There is no simple answer and indeed there is not even just one answer. Pondering this question sent my mind racing in many directions, but one recurring thought/memory is Michael Jordan's "What is Love?" commercial. Jordan concluded, "Love is playing every game as if it's your last." Jordan never took games or even plays off, because he knew that there might be someone in the stands who had never seen him play and he wanted that person to see him at his very best.

To me, that video is a powerful testament to the intense devotion required to become the greatest practitioner of your craft (whether or not you believe Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever is not the point; he displayed the focus and the traits that are essential to challenge for that number one spot). Watching that video still evokes strong feelings in me--but my Mom was unmoved the first time she saw it. "That's not what love is," she declared. She says that love is about human relationships--about caring so much about another person that you sacrifice to make that person happy, to make that person's life better. My Mom felt that the commercial was about winning a game and winning a game is not what defines love to her.

Both perspectives are valid. Jordan's video is a testament to one kind of love but my Mom is correct that there are other kinds of love as well: parent-child, husband-wife, sibling-sibling. The Jordan commercial does not deny other kinds of love or minimize the importance of human relationships; it speaks to the power of love to inspire a person to achieve greatness.

So, what is love? Love means different things in different contexts.

What is mental toughness? Mental toughness is not defined/proven by fame or glory. I recently heard a broadcaster extolling the mental toughness that Emmitt Smith once displayed when he led the Dallas Cowboys to victory despite having a separated shoulder--and there is no doubt that this took great mental toughness. But is Smith tougher than my Grandma Ida, who fought cancer for almost five years and who never lost her optimism and her zest for life even as the cancer drained the life out of her body?

Mental toughness is doing what has to be done--doing the right thing, the life-affirming thing--no matter the odds.

Life can be bitterly cruel. It is easy to complain or to give up but perhaps it is helpful to understand that life is not only about "winning" but also about personal growth. Alexander Solzhenitsyn survived being imprisoned--buried alive might be a more accurate description--in what he later called the Gulag Archipelago but he did not curse his fate or those who oppressed him. Instead, he said, "Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul."

Mental toughness is facing down a totalitarian regime bent on destroying individuality and individuals. Solzhenitsyn did this and his writings lay bare the horrors of living under Communist rule and the flaws inherent in building a society around the Communist philosophy. Later, Natan Sharansky was arrested by the Soviet government, convicted on trumped up charges of being a spy and sentenced to 13 years in prison, including solitary confinement and hard labor; the Communist regime literally and figuratively sought to bury Sharansky alive in a hole so deep that he would be mentally, psychologically and physically destroyed. Instead, after he was sentenced he defiantly declared, "To the court I have nothing to say--to my wife and the Jewish people I say 'Next Year in Jerusalem.'"

Sharansky, a master level chess player, played chess games against himself to maintain his sanity when he was in solitary confinement. After nine years, the Soviets finally set him free in an exchange of prisoners in Berlin. Sharansky's Soviet tormentors ordered him to walk straight across a bridge, but instead Sharansky defiantly marched to freedom in zig zag fashion. Sharansky later recalled what his Communist captors had first told him when he arrived in prison: "This is the end of the Zionist movement and you will never get out alive." Instead, the Berlin Wall fell just a few years after Sharansky zig zagged his way to freedom in that city and, as Sharansky said with justifiable pride, "There is no KGB, there is no communism and more than a million former Soviet Jews are free and in Israel. It is a very triumphant feeling."

Mental toughness is maintaining sanity despite having a brain that is wired so differently than other people's brains that one is perceived to be--and may feel like--an alien. Alexander Grothendieck has been called the greatest mathematician of the 20th century but he spent his last years in seclusion, unwilling or unable to function in society the way that people are expected to function.

"My first impression was that he had been transported from an advanced alien civilization in order to speed up our intellectual evolution," Marvin Jay Greenberg, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said about meeting Grothendieck during Grothendieck's prime.

According to Kaja Perina (in an article published in the July/August 2017 issue of Psychology Today), "Thinking styles lie on a continuum. On one end is mechanistic, rule-based thinking, which is epitomized in minds that gravitate to math, science, engineering, and tech-heavy skill-sets. Mechanistic cognition is bottom-up, concerned with the laws of nature and with objects as they exist in the world, and stands in contrast to mentalistic thinking. Mentalistic cognition exists to decode and engage with the minds of others, both interpersonally and in terms of larger social forces. It is more holistic (top-down) and humanistic, concerned, broadly speaking, with people, not with things. This mind-set makes loose, sometimes self-referential inferences about reality. If  'hypermentalistic,' too much meaning will be ascribed to events: All coincidences are meaningful and all events are interconnected."

Perina argues that, in this view of thinking styles, autism is an extreme form of mechanistic thinking, while extreme mentalistic thinking is typified by "psychotic disorders, characterized by false beliefs in the sentience of inanimate objects and delusions about the self and others."

In other words, the racing thoughts and the ability to see/make unusual mental connections that made Grothendieck a mathematical genius also pushed him to the brink of insanity (at least in terms of how insanity is defined by the majority of people who consider themselves sane and who run the world on a day to day basis).

Being a genius might sound like fun in theory but living day to day in this world as a genius is a major challenge. Frank Herbert's depiction of Alia in Dune--and how her pre-birth exposure to all of the collective wisdom of her ancestors made her both powerful and an "abomination"--is a very apt metaphor for the struggle a genius faces in controlling/managing the thoughts/wisdom/visions that bless (or afflict) at all hours of day and night.

You may think that Grothendieck was weak because he withdrew from society--but I think that he actually showed a kind of mental toughness that most people will never understand or appreciate. He made immense contributions to society while battling against the way that his mind functioned. It could be argued that World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer faced a similar inner struggle and that Fischer also made immense contributions to the art and science of chess before he too found it necessary to seclude himself from the world.

What is mental toughness? Sometimes, just surviving day to day requires tremendous mental toughness, depending on the internal and external circumstances that a person faces.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Mountaintop Speech

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we remember what an eloquent and powerful orator he was. His speeches tingle the spine, elevate one's thoughts and touch one's heart. While "I Have a Dream" is probably his most famous speech, Dr. King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech--delivered the day before he was assassinated--synthesized history, prophecy and a call to action in a striking manner. Dr. King's passionate belief in the power of non-violence to effect social change gave him the faith and courage to state that his people would reach the Promised Land even if his life were cut short.

Dr. King declared that if he had been blessed with the choice of living at any time in recorded history he would have chosen this very moment:


Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Dr. King concluded with this breathtaking testament of his faith and courage:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!


And so I'm happy, tonight.


I'm not worried about anything.


I'm not fearing any man!


Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

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