Everything Has Two Handles

“Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot.” – Epictetus, The Enchiridion, (43)

I need to acknowledge that I appear to be going through an existential crisis after the General Election. For the past several years I’ve been trying harder to do what is right and true, and I felt like I was making some progress after years and years of hedonism. I wasn’t unconscious of the weight I was pushing against, but I held that people were capable of differentiating right from wrong and when brought to their senses, would generally choose what is right.

I may have been wrong. I need to find a way forward.

It is entirely possible and appears very likely that the President-elect will, in fact, overturn as many of President Obama’s Executive Orders as possible as he has said he would. It is that very likelihood that makes urging the President to issue more Executive Orders at this point a likely waste of time.

I cannot and/or will not spend the next four years – assuming I have them – in a snit over who occupies the White House. In my opinion, that is a fool’s game that will only assure my unhappiness for no good purpose. The issues are very real, but my capacity to respond to them is limited.

I am saddened that our nation has come to this. Those who love us will not choose to exploit our fears. Sadly there is a lot of that going on now, and it pains me that we appear to be unable to enjoy a holiday without looking over our shoulders for terrorists. Fear is becoming the new normal. In my opinion, this gives our enemies their victory; they cannot hope to defeat us head on, but we are playing their game by their rules.

At the end of the day, this guy somehow managed to win against all reason. My task is to find a handle by which I can carry my share of the load going forward. I will not respond to fear with fear, to hate with hate, and I have no intention of going on the warpath every time his administration does something with which I disagree. I think that’s likely to happen a lot.

I will cherish my family and friends, and do a little community service here and there. I am ashamed that I do not know if I can put Max into a kennel and deploy to a Red State for another disaster.


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A Word for SPC Clifford Ray Dudley and LCPL Dennis Ray Ashley

These two men have by now been laid to rest at the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery in Corpus Christi on November 10, 2016. Neither man had a next-of-kin or any known family so the community, via at least 2 local television stations (KZTV10  and KRIS6), invited members of the community to honor their passing.

I unapologetically talk shit about Texas, but that the local media would support such a community response for 2 former servicemen moved me. It’s hard for a lot of us to find our way after our military experiences, and this demonstration of support by the Corpus Christi community is noteworthy.

Fair winds and following seas to Clifford and to Dennis, and thank you, Corpus Christi.

Posted in Life, Military | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Our Perception of Reality

All across the world – where such things are permitted – there are demonstrations against the outcome of Tuesday’s election. It came to me that people appear to believe that throwing a hissy actually works, possibly because it has worked for them in the past. Then it came to me that the Greatest Generation went on to become the worst possible parents.

As I thought about this it came to me that Americans born during and soon after the Wilson administration would have lived in a somewhat Trump-esque world of haves and have-nots shortly to survive the Great Depression and then World War II. It was entirely natural that they would have tried mightily to protect their children from lives such as they might have experienced, but it left us weak. My generation, in turn, came to believe that it was not only possible but our entitlement to “have it all.”

There’s a big ongoing discussion on Stoic messaging about when it is appropriate to begin teaching children principles of Stoic philosophy. When is it appropriate to teach a child that, over a lifetime, wisdom and virtue are preferable to hedonistic pursuits? When they begin to walk? When they begin to speak? When their parents were born? I can only shake my head; I’ve already fucked that up and passed it on.

It’s about to get real.

For better or for worse, the process worked and the United States has elected a new President who has a Republican-led legislative branch and a Conservative judicial branch. The President-elect has said that it’s time now to heal our divisions and unite for the common cause despite the campaign just completed on his behalf and for his benefit, and despite the realization that he has never – not by word or deed or perhaps even thought – demonstrated any prior inclination to do so himself.

It’s a little late for hissy fits.

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My Post-Election Rant Regarding Political Engagement

“Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Joseph de Maistre , Correspondance diplomatique, 1811

We live in a democratic republic. People always respond to that by telling me that our government has morphed into something else, but whom do we “blame” for that? We live in a democratic republic.

I am among those who have voted for a “third-party” candidate for President. Neither time was in a close election, but both ended with the greater of two evils winning the election , in my opinion. If I only pay attention for as little time as possible every four years during a Presidential election cycle, I am as much a part of the problem as everyone else who says they don’t bother to vote because their vote doesn’t matter. They’re right. America was never intended to run from the top down.

America was founded as 13 independent states in a loose confederation. Within 10 years it was determined that we stood a better chance of surviving and flourishing as united states, but even then the framers of our Constitution were careful to cede only just enough power to the federal government as necessary to suit the purpose. Then we got careless – perhaps reckless.

The story of America is that we came with a vision, we built what we needed to build, and then we moved on leaving it to others to maintain what we’d built. The thing is that those others we leave to maintain our way of life, for the most part, have no skin in the game; for them, it’s business and business is all about profit.

How did we wind up having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to become President of the United States? I’ve thought a lot about that question this year and concluded that it’s our own fault. We say that we love America, but we leave it to others to maintain America for us.

Some of us have become enamored of “reality television.” There’s little if any story line to keep track of, just hours of mindless entertainment to take our mind off our “troubles,” Voila! Donald Trump becomes the Republican candidate for President.

Some of us hold onto the illusion that professional politicians – unlike professionals in any other business in the world – serve each of us, and only us, equally without prejudice, and move up in government based solely upon their contributions to the well-being of their constituents. That’s how everyone except Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump become candidates for President.

Maintenance requires commitment and work. If I don’t maintain my car it won’t last 250,000 miles. Don’t get me started on my four divorces. If someone – anyone – tells me that they are committed to a career in public service and only want what’s best for me I’m going to ask questions; and I have learned that it is better to start asking those questions before their constituencies soar into the tens of thousands.

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Thoughts on Where Our Heads Are At

One of the things that I encounter throughout the day now is the near-constant chatter about polls and what they all mean. Of course, this is entirely self-inflicted – if I stopped listening for actual news, I wouldn’t be exposed to all of the extraneous noise – but listening for news is a lot of what I do for the Red Cross.

There is one poll that matters – only one – and that’s the election. All of the rest is, in my opinion, just fortune tellers trying to read portents and omens, and it wastes bandwidth.

One question that does come to mind when I’m not successful in dismissing it is whether or not all of this chatter creates its own weather, so to speak, as fires sometimes do. Does all the speculation about what Hillary Clinton e-mails might be on Anthony Wiener’s electronic media in itself reinforce the effect intended by Clinton’s opposition? Then I scold myself because I have absolutely no control over how politics is covered in the media; and, since there’s little or no identifiable useful information in any of it in the first place, I need to put it out of my mind and get back to work.

Someone – I want to give them credit but didn’t catch who said it aloud – reminded me of Juvenal’s comment on “bread and circuses”:

…Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.  Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81

We expend so much of our time on Earth and our wealth to no discernable purpose whatever. I suspect it has always been so because who wouldn’t prefer play to work, but when there’s work to be done who is to do it.

Who sets out with no expectation or at least some hope that they’ll be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor someday. And then what’s the harm if we can do so with a bit more fruit from a bit less labor. I get that. We can’t all get away with that over the long term.

I have a lot of work to do, and I do sometimes wonder if it’s to any worthwhile purpose at this point. If I ever do develop any meaningful philosophical insights, what will that do for mankind? I suspect not much, The effort does keep me out of the honky tonks and bars, and my mind active, so there’s that.

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Thoughts on Entitlement

Day before yesterday, Sunday, a friend I know to be kind and generous reposted the screed about how it makes no sense that we provide assistance to “others” while “our own” have unmet needs, and it hurt my heart. I never like to see that come around, but that it was posted by her was hard for me to accept.

Speaking for myself, I had no active role in choosing to be born a white male in the most prosperous political subdivision of the time built on the bones of an indigenous population and slaves. I was born in Moline while others were being born in Aleppo, Al-Fallujah, Kosovo, Somalia, etc. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I had a chance. I had a good foster home, a free public education, survived my 20 years in the service, made a few dumb-ass choices, and still have made it to within spitting distance of my 70th birthday. What right could I possible claim to withhold a share of my good fortune?

The American version of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and lack of affordable health care are problems to be sure, and you know how I feel about this country’s lack of care for its military veterans; but, in this country, they are due to a lack of will. So is our failure to do what we can for those in need around the world. We are still very much the same people who sent the MS St. Louis and her passengers back to Germany in 1939.

What does it mean to say that we are “proud to be an American” or to “make America great again”? I see no greatness in this.

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Thoughts on Nature from the Stoic Perspective

Today is a bit of a toughie for me. The Stoic idea of nature is a bit of a challenge for me to grasp, and I’m going to lunch this afternoon with a friend and that very much goes to my personal nature.

Stoics are said to consider nature on three planes: our inner nature which includes our capacity for reason, the nature of society and our relationship with mankind, and the nature of our external or physical environment as a whole. I am suspicious of the latter two because they are not things over which we have control other than in our attitude.

We are Earthlings in what is arguably an infinite Universe. Climate change is arguably a thing. All that’s left then is how and where we live within our environment. Our capacity to control the nature of society and our relationship with mankind is impossibly speculative, but I see no evidence that they’re likely to listen to you now if they weren’t listening to you before. All that’s left then is how I am to relate to nature. Am I to live in harmony with my environment? Am I to painfully stand out like a boil on the ass of my environment? (Sorry; I get a little political.)

Someone I cared about kicked me to the curb not too long ago because I didn’t take up every cause that she cared deeply about. I do what I feel that I can do, and I give what I can give freely. I love dogs, for instance, more freely than I do people, but if I were to shelter homeless dogs before seeking shelter myself I’d never get indoors again.

In my view, if a thing is not given freely it isn’t a gift. There’s nothing wrong with duties and obligations, but we should call things what they are and not what we wish them to be. I sent a donation to Bernie Sanders campaign, but if you know me you know that hell would freeze and fall off before I participated in a phone bank.

For some time now I’ve been taking a moment before hitting “Send” to consider whether it would fulfill a need rather than a want, and if it was the right thing to do. It’s become pretty much of a habit now, and I’m happy with it. I’m also less likely to say “yes” to every volunteer opportunity that gets sent to me which has caused me a little angst but feels right to me.

Again, I don’t know whether or not I’m a “true” Stoic or something else according to the wonks at Stoicon, but I do recognize a capacity for reason and a level of discernment and conscience within myself. If I continue to respect and honor that in my behavior and commit to trying to do a better job every day as the fates allow, I think I’m in pretty good shape.

It’s been an interesting week, but don’t get used to daily posts here. That isn’t happening.

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Thoughts on Resilience

Stoicism teaches that instead of thinking about the bad luck that has befallen us, we might better reflect on our capacity to survive and recover from it. Again, I think I got a head start on this with an ingrained attitude that “this, too, shall pass.”

Someone recently wrote to me that, although she was thankful for her home and her health, she had nothing in front of her to move toward, that she was just breathing. Perhaps we sometimes set the bar too high for ourselves. There are millions of people who would move heaven and earth for health and a place to call home.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” If I were to attempt to come up with a summary for resilience it would have to do with regarding any untenable situation from the perspective of moving forward past it. I don’t know if that even makes sense, but I don’t see giving up as a viable option.

When I assess an area’s resilience to recover from a disaster there are things we traditionally look at such as the population’s education, competence in English, income earners per household, adults per household with children. It occurs to me that none of those criteria are deal breakers. A disadvantaged condition may delay community recovery but recovery remains possible if there’s the will.

A friend of mine was and still is stuck in a job that pays her bills but gives her no joy. She has an unrealized dream to become a pastry chef  but every time the subject comes up in conversation it has consisted of reasons why she can’t do it. She’s right. There will always be a thousand reasons why something might not work, and if that’s our focus no way forward is likely to ever be found.

Stoicism teaches us to differentiate between elements over which we have a level of control and elements that are not ours to control, and to concentrate our efforts on those aspects of our lives that are ours to control. As in the Serenity Prayer, there are things we cannot change but plenty of things that we can change, and one of the most important of those is our capacity to change. There’s a word for that; I think it’s resilience.


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Thoughts on Relationships

This is going to be kind of a cheat because I have no intention of leaving my apartment today. Any work on relationships today will be theoretical, involve people knocking on my door, or via e-mail.

Stoicism, as we commonly think of it is actually “small s” stoicism as it’s been picked up in the vernacular. Stoicism teaches  we are naturally inclined to care for other people and to become involved in their communities. Musonius Rufus wrote that “a virtuous person displays love for his fellow human beings as well as goodness, justice, kindness, and concern for his neighbor.” That’s all well and good but I was a foster kid from my 7th birthday until my 14th after which I was essentially an emancipated minor so that’s a developmental need. The military taught me about teams and teammates, etc., but in my experience, that’s not as large an umbrella as you might think mostly involving dealing with external threats.

This background has actually worked for me since I retired because whatever I  do now  is done without expectation of anything in return. Many people with whom I volunteer are disappointed that so much of the grunt work goes unnoticed, and I do recognize that and make an effort to commend folks whatever their contributions are. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do meaningful work that gets me out of bed, out of the apartment, and that I enjoy.

As I read for today, it actually looks like I might be in pretty good shape – so to speak. Another advantage of my history is that I’ve had the opportunity to interact with people all over the Pacific and Indian Ocean basin and generally I see more similarities than differences among us. As I’ve worked across the U.S. since leaving the Navy I still see more similarities than differences among us. As the Stoics – and the Dalai Lama for that matter – point out, we all want to be happy and we all want to be well. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to base our happiness on our accretions while others are content when their survival needs are met, but we all want to be happy.

Spoiler alert! We do have differences! The question then is what is the impact of those differences on us? On me? I have friends who are vegan, others who are vegetarian, and others and me who are carnivores. I do not judge others based on their diet. I have friends who are heterosexual, friends who are homosexual, and at least one friend who is transsexual. I do not judge others based on their gender identity or sexual preferences with respect to consenting adults.

I am having an issue with a couple of friends who will not be voting as I will next month, and that pains me, but we’ve had that conversation and they believe that they are correct and will vote their conscience as I will. I’m not at equanimity yet, but that’s on me and not on them.

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Stoic Thoughts on Virtue

Folks who knew me back in the day might have a problem picturing me trying to be virtuous, but Stoic philosophy teaches that the only thing with real value is what they call “virtue” or excellence of character. Oh, I’m still a long, long way from excellence of character.

The core virtues of Stoicism are mastery of our desires, mastery over our fears, kindness and fairness in our relationships, and wisdom in our moral and practical choices. Virtue, in Stoic terms, refers to fulfilling the potential within ourselves to perfect our own nature to be good. It includes not only living in our own skins in accord with our own nature as rational human beings but also concordant with the rest of mankind and Nature. I feel like I do okay without a lot of creature comforts, but I have a lot of work to do learning to deal with difficult people with good grace, patience, and equanimity.

Much of my impatience with schools of philosophy has less to do with their practices than with their pedagogy. Whether it was my little philosophical hodgepodge or my version of zen practice or my take on Stoic philosophy I’ve had a pretty consistent goal throughout. At the beginning of each day, I remind myself to try to do better. I feel that although that is neither specific nor easily measurable, it is achievable, relevant, and time-bound Things seem to get more complicated and further into the weeds when one tries to conform to a particular discipline.

It is now Thursday of Stoic Week and the philosophy majors, graduate students, and Ph.D.s are deep into their seminars back in New York. The discussion boards are filling with whether it as Zeno of Citium or Chrysippus who said something back around 300 BCE and what they meant by it. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed anyway just trying to get through to whatever’s on the other side as best I can, and when we get into these academic discussions of minutiae my eyes tend to glaze over.

I do have it on pretty good authority that Marcus Aurelius in about 160 AD wrote: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” He also wrote: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” When someone writes that something seems more Epicurean than Stoic I feel comfortable paying it no mind. I’m sure that it seems right to them and it makes no difference to me.

So far I feel like I’ve made a little progress today. Tomorrow I’ll try to do a little better.


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