Good and the never-ending search for Virtue

I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times that took me down that rabbit hole called alternately history and philosophy. The article “If It Was Good Enough for Socrates, It’s Good Enough for Sophomores written by Molly Worthen  addressed the use of the oral exam in higher education and referenced in doing so the Socratic method dating back to the times of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  I clicked a link entitled Socrates grilled Meno and rediscovered my ongoing examination of the word ‘good’ as in The Good Decision goes back two plus millennium and further to the era of Socrates and Plato.  Not only that, but the historic context in which Plato stages Socrates grilling Meno (402 BCE) mirrors our own political times in 2022.  The Athenian society was violently divided between the reigning oligarchic authoritarians and the resisting Athenian democracy.  The integrity of the Socratic method eventually cost Socrates his life as his sense of good fit neither the orthodoxy of the recovering democracy or the narrow cruelty of oligarchic factions.

I am frequently asked if I am trying to teach or define what is good in this world with this project and the answer is always emphatically; “no I am not.”  Good and virtue have always been, are now, and will always be generating wildly contradictory interpretations of their own meanings.  Moreover, the idea that one knows what human good is and that this ‘knowledge of good’ can be absolutely captured in ideology or dogma  has been the motivating source of most of the evil practiced on this beautiful planet of ours.  Our nation is currently perilously divided not by good verses evil, but  by good verses good. Plato’s Socrates in the Meno dialogue had to settle not for a definition of virtue and human goodness, but rather had to settle that virtue or good was “a kind of knowledge” while not being an explicit knowledge that could be transmitted through teaching.  Good was accessed not so much by direct learning but from a form of ‘recollection’.  This Socratic sense of things oddly enough seems to anticipate current studies and understandings of the brain and emergent human consciousness.  Our immediate conscious experience has been described neurologically as a waking dream in that the brain process non-consciously composes our our conscious experience at a 300 millisecond delay from sensory input.  What any of us consciously know about good comes to us as a nano-recollection.

So we Pause prior to acting out a decision to give our bodies time to recollect our Sense of Good and then proceed through the decision process recomposing this immediate Sense of Good to achieve integrity with the current circumstance.  That a thing seems good only has meaning in the real time living context and not so much in cognitive beliefs or formulas. Plato warns repeatedly about “intellectual laziness” which in our time might be interpreted as not doing due diligence in the composition of the good that guides our decisions.  The word sloth comes to mind when I peruse some contemporary public forums. I am grateful to Dr Molly Worthen for showing me the entrance to this rabbit hole leading to the wisdom of the ancients.  The struggle to express good and virtue, it turns out, has a beautiful and powerful history that will extend without ceasing into the future.

Good, winning, losing, and elections in real life

What do you do when an election looks more like real life than a sporting event? I enjoy watching sporting events and at the same time scratch my head about why sports feel so good at times . Maybe it is the binary of it all. Someone actually wins conclusively and for brief clean moments I feel filled with endorphins even though I am celebrating a winning game in which physically I had “no skin in”. The next day is back to work and by sundown the body has shed the euphoria and my troubles are still my troubles. This last election outcome took me and my body to a new place. I read and saw similar reactions across the board in media. Instead of the binary high, I felt a deep release way down inside of my body, and a sense of relief so palpable I was closer to tears than a victory dance. Why? I think I sensed rather than knew that people still cared and thought about caring. This hard to explain concept of the Sense of Good was strummed in me like a lovely guitar chord. If politics were a game, which it clearly isn’t, but if it were, I have more than skin in this game, I have my whole body in it. 

When you look at it closely, neither of the two parties particularly won or lost. Later of course the fingernail parings of the pollsters will probably be exploited as usual, but in fact the outcome message seemed to me more thoughtful and leaning towards cooperation and caring. Decisions were made by people in mass that came from a place deeper than a sporting event. Even so I feel ready to work again and help in what way I can to move the momentum of this culture a few more inches toward the collective sense of good. 

Too often the term both/and is used as a cheap and easy way to conflate opposing concepts without having to deal with obvious contradictions. The binary is described as an indulgence rather than a decision. We could say this has been a both/and message coming from the election rather than a binary. I would partially disagree. To me this has been an election that respected millions of binaries creating a new subjective reality that will influence the direction this nation, its cultures, and its citizens. Yes that subjective level contains fortunately mostly ‘both/and’ content, but the day comes when all levels of the gifts of the human species must be brought to bear and a binary called a vote executed. This system called democracy is indeed imperfect, but it is the best we have and there is work to be done. No, democracy is not a sporting event, but when it delivers it delivers a deeper pleasure than any sporting event ever could. 

Good, truth, Truth, error and election day

Some years ago I attended a lecture by a Buddhist writer named Stephen Batchelor who spoke on the critical difference between upper case ‘Truth’ and lower case ‘truth’.  My brutal summary of his elegant talk is that the lower case truth is the stuff of work, wisdom and discovery while the uppercase Truth trends toward the stuff of static history, conflict and war.  We are currently living in a time where we have two sides of a nation firmly convinced they each live in the rapturous shade of uppercase Truth. The complacency afforded through such certainty is sadly contradicted by the current immediacy of civll violence.  When we humans resort to violence, thinking errors are in charge and both sides need to deal with those errors. I see no other way out of the nation’s  current impasse than self examination and readjustment.  The errors in our thinking and responding lie deeper than the factual content of today’s issues.

Facts matter, but they alone in isolation do not constitute a truth.  Neither the atmosphere or the ocean temperature can separately express the truth of a particular storm because in isolation they are simply static information.  However in relationship they can become dynamic and through that dynamic, the hurricane emerges. The atmospheric energy and the ocean’s temperature form a relationship that delivers the destructive storm. In the course of the storm we can name the hurricane and that name freezes the facts of that hurricane into an uppercase Truth telling a fact based story about a singular relationship of pressure and temperature. What complicates matters is the relationship of these two forces will never exactly occur twice in the same way.  Naming and freezing the name with its facts in the upper case Truth allows you to record and describe the storm in detail. From that record you can possibly prepare against the damage of the next emergent weather generated truth. But naming can never completely or with finality capture emerging truth.

Our public policy divide has created its own storm system of conflicting forces that are gaining in strength. In our two party political system your upper case political ideologies can only point to what might happen.  The question after this election day is; “What can both parties learn from this election cycle’s declaration about the next emergent lowercase truth of American democracy?” My advice is if you find yourself feeling defeated and frustrated, then truly and courageously witness the consequences of the election outcome, name those consequences and learn from your errors. I am thinking in order to thrive, our response to life and public politics needs to be a direct response to the fluid emergent lowercase truth. The dynamics of todays political events need to be blended with acknowledgment of, rather than rigid compliance with the traditions of the uppercase Truths of yesterday. Remember everything in this universe that is named has a shelf-life and the uppercase can’t protect the name’s content from entropy. The shelf life on some of the strategies, theories, and beliefs that brought us to this point may be up. Let’s find the error in our ways and move on dealing with the emergent truth of this moment in history.

Good, Trauma and our Children’s future

Every act of violence has roots that tap into and are fed by history. The gardener recognizes the pattern. The wild weeds of violence are not discouraged easily by the scythe. The root remains, survives the winter, and sends up ten more stalks in the spring. The violence of slavery, the civil war, the world wars, the regional and global wars, take root and express themselves in our present day lives. Trauma to personal agency will seep into our soul’s stories and continue a journey into the future resonating in our children, grandchildren and on down the line. A person who studies and witnesses history with diligence probably could with effort find the path back to the source of every violent act to be published in tomorrow’s papers.

I was asked to speak to a hospital group of medical practitIoners on ‘inclusive community’ and I settled on two words to make a point regarding working with the generations. The term I used was ‘immigration grief’. I wanted to express the nature of a melancholy and sadness that followed my grandparents and parents that seemed very clearly related to the losses of immigration. I ended up having to make copies of that talk in response to requests from the audience. The idea that sadness and fear can travel through generations was only beginning to become popular at that time and for many of the people in the audience immigration grief was a new thought with resonance. Generational trauma is a broader term for the impact of cross generational loss. I think if we are honest we can see in our children the effects of stories our lives inherited. Sadly sometimes we unknowingly passed the pain on. From immigration grief to generational trauma I have developed an understanding that pain rolls down across time and generation. I newly recognize every day the radical courage of my parents in protecting our family from some of the inevitable injuries of the immigration experience as well as the trauma of World War II. The tenacious weeds in one’s garden of memories need to be treated at the root level. The violence of the scythe only delivers immediate feedback and a illusion of progress both in gardening and self care.

That our mistakes can become time travelers is something everyone needs to consider. The current violence in schools, homes, the halls of legislature and congress will not conclude with us. My sense of things suggests I choose nonviolence because violent acts can’t help but escape our grasp of good and haunt the future lives of our children and grandchildren. The clash of personal agency does not respect the distinction of who was right and who was wrong. The children of the angels can suffer equally with the dark side from the consequences of yesterday’s violence.

The Good Leader and a Path Forward

The good leader lights the fire, but the fuel for the fire’s resilience resides in those being led. As we watch the poll numbers of various groups coming to their decisions for this next election, it is becoming clear that the poll patterns do not reflect the stereotypes that drive today’s overly simplistic public conversations. Groups deemed by one side as racist seem to at times be collecting a larger diversity of voters than their opponents and conversely groups who passionately feel they are non-racist and diverse find themselves trapped in their own uniform demographic. We need more than throwing lit matches at logs and hoping for ignition leading to change. We need the kindling of real connection.

Anymore the political season exhausts me. I care deeply because much of my life was invested in the politics of change for social justice in the living realm of disability. Political action and the resources that come from political action are matters of life and death for some people. In fact right now political action is a matter of life and death for our children, grandchildren and future generations. Currently more than ever due diligence’ is being asked of us adults as our ‘homework’ for a future just as we expect the children to do their homework for their futures. When have you last read a book that is not a diversion but rather a disciplined study of an issue that fairly addresses all sides? When have you last changed the channel? If you are a liberal, when was the last time you deliberately tried to see how and why caring and intelligent conservatives think and act the way they do? That same question can be put the the conservatives about liberals. I wrote earlier about extreme positions which I believe are neither liberal or conservative but rather trend towards rigidly dogmatic and ideological. The article of faith the gets me through the day residing above the pull of despair, bitterness and rage is that our society is composed largely or at least in a strong majority of caring people who diversely want to use their intelligence to provide for each other and the next generations. 

The Good Decision was developed initially for professionals whose work required them to make complex decisions and live with the consequences. The Good Decision Project is an extension of an unfolding understanding that elders, parents, and children all must do their homework and struggle to connect across the dark patches to create a future of mutual understanding. Elections exhaust me because so often I see people shooting out the lights rather than illuminating a mutual path forward. We are better than that.

Good and the minority position in democracy

In just a few weeks approximately slightly less than 50% of American voters will feel themselves in the political minority. In this age of unbridled, often undisciplined rage we need to take stock and be concerned. In a democracy, majority rule is another one of those inconvenient truths. You can’t ignore the possibility that you and your group may have to live as the political minority for periods of time. Fifty one is two more than forty nine and this simple math leaves no room for magical thinking. Excepting the Civil War and this last 2020 election, no one has tried to deny this inexorable logic of the Constitutional system. Hopefully for the future of our democracy we will begin to repair the damage and the political minority will concede to do the work every political minority has had to do in the course of the nation’s history. 

While I am a ‘long game’ positivist, in terms of the four to eight year stretch I tend to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for what may occur in the immediate. The Good Decision Project is in a way part of my self-management. In the short game however, the people I meet each day, the community activities I participate in, and the work I do comprise my basis of mental health and center of gravity. But in a working democracy, if in the political cycle you find yourself consigned to the political minority for a spell, the worst, least productive, most anti-democratic position one can take is to conclude that you and your group, the good and intelligent, have lost to them; the ignorant and evil. If you lose your majority, it is time for deep transparent radical form of internal honesty. You have lost the “hearts and minds” battle and that is all that counts for the long game. And for political effectiveness it is always the long journey/campaign for the hearts and minds that prevails.

In the religious realm there is a concept called purgatory. This idea dates back as far as the 12th century and has been refined, rejected, reformed, and redefined variously as a state where good souls go for expiation and purification. Most recent renditions refer to it as an intermediate state of being that in some way includes internal suffering leading to redress and atonement. Through the political lens, the loss of an election is the loss of much agency in the public realm. Unfortunately the loss of agency, personal or otherwise, at any level of human existence is painful. Most likely the loss of an election contradicts your Sense of Good, so the suffering is also often existential. Purgatory in the realm of politics is that space of personal as well as collective suffering following a loss. The danger of our time is people will seek to relieve suffering through violently imposing their failure on the public realm rather than do the work of a minority seeking majority. Whatever you call the space of the minority, it demands the social courage and discipline to turn in to yourself and to the community to discover what went wrong with the your approach to the body politic. Curiosity for children is almost pure tone learning and play, and for adults while curiosity remains to be about learning, its practice also requires at times the courage to discover and respond to the painful truth of error.

Democracy is a historic value structure that while not a religion, acknowledges the imperfection of individual humans and transforms the collective impulses of community into a public realm of shared authority. Democracy chooses the electorate’s authority over the authority of any individual . Whatever happens next month, the only lesson to be learned for both the prevailing party and the minority party is there is serious work to be done. Anything less than serious, intelligent, informed, courageous work could be a precursor to a national tragedy.

A deeply radical journey down from the extremes

The most radical act we may have to offer is a deep form of transparency with ourselves and others.  Extremism only requires a capacity to acquire an ideology or a creed and the motivation suspend internal integrity to act in the extreme. A profoundly radical act demands you be true to your sense of good with an integrity true to your body as well as your mind. Upon a closer reading the world’s major religions tend to teach radical forms of love, caring, cooperation, and community.

A Catholic priest once instructed me that the word radical was related to the radish in that the root of the plant grows downward toward center rather than investing the fruit of its labor out on the far branches. Later I learned the Buddhists instruct to the middle path and meditation not as a lessons in compromise or centrist politics, but rather again, to move our attention to our own centers and down inward. The conflation of radical and extreme is a terrible error in the orientation of the human being. Bring to mind a sailboat without a keel. Such a boat is vulnerable to the wind and erratic in direction. The weight and depth of the keel allows for the stability of the vessel in turbulence. So it is with our human orientation, navigation, and steering. For this project The Good Decision requires we go down to center and center-weigh our lives with a Sense-of-Good.

In this political system and era I have this advice. Make politics a third stage conversation with people whose views you don’t know or who don’t know you. Talk to people first about the people they were directly influenced by and who for them represented good in their formative years. In the second stage converse with them about local community and the good things they are seeing going on in their direct relationships in those communities. Finally, maybe after two coffee sessions, venture carefully into the third state and share how the good of individuals and community members surfaced in the first two stages of relationship could be translated into elements of public policy in a democracy; in short politics.

As I have said in previous posts, without the insulation of relationship, and a little history, the conversations of politics of our times tend to be toxic in tone and content. You have the right to defer political conversational come-ons in relationships that are in the first stages if depth. We all probably have relationships that could be deeply supportive and nurturing but for the politics. You can save those friendship by deferring political discussion in exchange for the time needed to achieve a ‘friendship keel’. Our salvation lies as individuals, communities, and nations in these radical friendships built more on the weight and depth of relationship than the length and breadth of extreme ideology. We live in an age where extreme positions pose too often as radical positions. The radical insight being offered here for your consideration is the spectrum from right to left wings politics is useless, dangerous and unstable unless that spectrum is fed by the radical experience of being a human being. As for the purposes of The Good Decision, pause on and decide well.

Good, Evil, Safety and Mental Health

I have avoided as much as possible using the word evil throughout this blog because I find, like the word ‘good’, it has been loaded in terms of meaning with so much baggage.  I decided early to focus on good because I think the word good despite its own baggage is where we all start, and hopefully where we can end.  That said, in my profession I have encountered people and events that bring the word ‘evil’ to mind.  I might add not only to mind but to body because certain people and actions evoke a distinct physical response of subtle aversion.  Like genuine good can only be experienced through both body and mind in concert, the complete absence of good has an almost commensurate negative mind/body reaction.  In my experience, the complete absence of a Sense of  Good in the operation of a person produces the phenomenon we call  ‘evil’.  

Before addressing mental illness or mental health I want to emphasize evil and violence are not companion words. Evil can be expressed through the most banal of terminology and behavior. Once a person has forgotten or perhaps never learned ‘good’ they are ready to go through life almost conflict free in terms of relationships. Consequently they can present amiably, and express themselves with extraordinary reasonableness. These people can be experienced as thoughtful and well met until they aren’t. Life for a person you might call evil is simply someone whose decision process has devolved to a pure, strategy of personal interests. Usually, only when personal interests are frustrated comes the moment when the facade drops, and hurt and violence emerge. The internet and social media often finds themselves sailing perilously close and occasionally over the line as entities absent of conscience or conflict of interest. But that is another discussion

The New York Times brought up the controversial and difficult discussion in an article this week addressing the association of of violence, mental illness, and racial hate crimes.  The Deadly Collision of Racism and Mental Illness is written by Eyal Press and published on October 4 2022. One of the questions he addresses is how do we talk about this without reinforcing the negative stereotypes that cling the the term mental illness? I want to expand this discussion launching from another concern brought up in this article. To quote Eyal Press; “Another danger is that mental illness may be invoked to deflect attention from the rhetoric and ideas that inspire acts of violent extremism“.

There seems no argument that much of that rhetoric and many of those ideas find their expression the the darker toxic corners of the cyber universe and we are not talking exclusively about the “dark web”. I would like to talk about the vulnerable mind for a moment here. You can talk about mental health or mental illness, but the mind can become dangerously vulnerable to aggressive influences when the cognitive processes are attacked by illness. Just as we see the internet working on the vulnerable developing minds of pre-adolescents to tragic ends, we are now seeing all ages succumbing to forms of manipulation arising from strategic presentations of information designed specifically for self-promotion. The fact that a stable interdependent democracy such as ours could be on the brink of civil war brings the point home. There is a broad frame of information designed not for the truth but purely for personal gain that has resulted in a frightening trend of discussion anticipating violence and civil war in our country and generation. That some people with mental illness should be caught up in this larger form of manipulation and bias should not be surprising. As the author of the article points out, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrator of such violence. Watching the storming of the US Capital on January 6, I was struck by the sheer naivety, casual cruelty and utter fecklessness of the invaders. These are not symptoms of mental illness. The actions were for the most part, illegal, poorly thought out, and immoral. The whole event appears to have been the expressed symptoms of an age that has embraced the lie and absence of due diligence of the mind as acceptable preparation for making personal and public decisions. 

Mental Illness makes a person vulnerable to some influences that neither they nor anyone else can control. The issue in this discussion is not so much crime and punishment as it is crime and safety; safety for the public and the individual with the illness. Finding suitable punishment for a person whose due diligence in decisions is blocked or seriously altered by neurological issues is an unresolvable moral discussion. The ‘eye for an eye‘ form of justice doesn’t work in the medical context, but from what ever perspective you take it from, justice in the form of retribution cannot work when the eyes are not comparable. Having established the presence of an illness, the matter of punishment has to be set aside in exchange for a discussion of safety for everyone involved. You will be surprised to see how the lines and parameters of the discussion change radically when safety rather than retribution forms the focus of problem solving. The strategic manipulation of facts to create self-serving simulacrums of reality lie at the center of today’s broken world, not mental illness. I propose you consider adding ‘the critical periods of safety’ to your core Sense of Good. Infants, children, elderly and people with disabilities will thank you. 

Good and the Reinforcement of Hope

I am reworking aspects of the website for the Good Decision Project starting with the homepage. While “The Conversation” or blog dimension of the site has shown signs of life, the website has been underwhelming in terms of response and following. Following the publishing of Introducing a better way to make decisions for ourselves and democracy in The Fulcrum I had to conclude I wanted to offer more on the website. 

With democracy at risk in this country I am deliberately concentrating on activities devoted to recruiting people to work on healing divisions in the public/political dimension. A working assumption is power in this country is a 4 to 5 percent matter in the current two party system. The independent voters and thinkers will shift the majority one way or the other. My second assumption is if more people did the due diligence for deciding their vote, and allowed their personal/community/religious values regarding ‘good’ to truly play a role in their vote decision, this country would choose to remain a democracy and the necessary power would align behind that position.

As a culture and people we have demonstrated in America a kind of stratified capacity kindness and generosity. We have also historically shown we have the capacity to transform racism and prejudice into pluralism and inclusion although that work is far from completed. I believe we simply seem to have allowed the political/public narrative to be hijacked by our ‘worst angels’. The task of moving from stratified goodness to integrity in goodness need only engage 4 to 5 percent more of our silent majority at the public level. The Good Decision may seem naive in its focus on good, but instead of naivety I want to claim the word ‘hopeful’ for this project. I think the future of democracy is connected to the commitment of a few more good people to the integrity of their vote. We are a nation divided but this isn’t the first time we have faced civil strife and in the end we have always rallied. The Sense of Democracy is hinged on, as President Lincoln declared in his first inaugural address, our ‘better angels.

I am including with the home page of the website examples of people recruiting the good energy of our culture. These links to good works are called Boxes of Hope. The more I delve into this kind of activism the more impressed I am at the scope of the silent swell of positive activism in in this country. The Good Decision as a process remains as I have been saying, a project more than a product. I will continue to work on its presentation and usefulness to the reader. Hope motivates. I mine the news for hope because I dislike bitterness and despair in myself. My activist motivation seems to rise to hopeful energy where ever I find it. I am guessing that there is another five to ten percent out there who respond the same way. That small number may just tip the balance.

Good, Cooperation, and Shared Sacrifice

I have recently found the general political landscape in such chaotic shape as we lurch and sway toward the November elections that I was recently pleasantly surprised to encounter a piece news that might even suggest hope.  The New York Times ran an article on an effort to conserve and distribute water in the Yakima River Basin. Living as I do watching the water in the Colorado River systems being contested and negotiated, this project cheered me considerably.

The article is called Climate Change is Ravaging the Colorado River. There’s a Model to avert the Worst by Henry  Fountain.   New York Times, September 5, 2022.   In some of the struggles arising from this drought I am reminded of two young children fighting over time at a straw in a single soft drink container. As children their conflict makes some sense because children are necessarily coming to first terms with desire and limits.  Their squabbling is neither good or bad, but rather part of a larger learning process.  In the end when the soft drink container is empty, the children discover a harder truth about limits and the straw loses its attraction as the container draws empty.  Scale up a bit and you have any large river system delivering alpha water from the high mountains. In a drought, the water source over time simply loses its capacity for the robust delivery of fresh water from the mountains and higher plains. The ‘straws’ we insert into the source river downstream begin to suck air.  The difference from the children’s squabble is with these water sources mature adults should be using their adult minds to make good decisions given due diligence and the changing information that diligence brings.  Once again the truth of the situation has rough edges and is harder than the consoling fictions that delay genuine action.

To quote Mr Fountain in his Times article: Tired of spending more time in courtrooms than at conference tables, and faced with studies showing the situation would only get worse, they hashed out a plan to manage the Yakima River and its tributaries for the next 30 years to ensure a stable supply of water. Protracted and protracting legal battles are tools for the very wealthy and are usually used to extend systems of privilege that serve, not surprisingly, mostly themselves.  The break in this self serving cycle of conflict came to the Yakima Basin when Ron Van Gundy, manager of the Roza irrigation district initiated a contact with Phil Rigdon, director of the Yakima Nation natural resources division and they decided to talk.  This simple invitation initiated by Mr Grundy was generously reciprocated and from  that  impetus a growing coalition of stakeholders eventually put together the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.   This Plan provides a blue print for the future for water resources in this increasingly stressful time of drought.

“But those who are intimately familiar with the Yakima plan say the plan’s fundamental principle, of shared sacrifice and cooperation among groups that were often adversaries, can apply anywhere”.  I am thinking in that simple sentence from Mr Fountain’s article lies two critical principles for us to integrate into our understanding of good. ‘Shared sacrifice’ and “cooperation” could point the way to restoring our environment, economy, and national politics. Were we to enter any enterprise or project with those two attributes firmly embedded in our overall Sense of Good, what a different world we could inhabit. Meanwhile I am encouraged by and grateful to the wise people of the Yakima River Basin and Yakima Nation who had the courage to try a different path. There is hope.