Tuesday, December 26

Habit and schedule

To obtain virtue, Socrates thought that the cultivation of good habits was necessary. In The Art of Being, Erich Fromm writes about the need for concentration in habitual activities.

Before I can progress in this post, there is a fundamental question that must be asked. What are habits? The definition my philosophy professor of this past semester gave is a good one. Habits are those things we do again and again that have a cumulative effect and lead towards a single goal.

My problem lies in distinguishing between the daily practice of habits and scheduling. This, of course, requries further distinctions to be made between kinds of habits. You simply can't schedule habits of a moral, ethical nature, the ones that Socrates was speaking of. You cannot say, "I am going to spend this morning being honest and practice altruism in the afternoon." These should be taken into account and practiced in all of our interactions, every day. Ultimately, we should strive to develop virtues like justice and patience to the point that we no longer think of their practice but simply live them.

Lying in contrast to these habits of moral development are those of skill development, habits that are better aligned with Fromm's treatment of habits. Learning a new language or how to paint or whatever, those require our full attention and concentration. To some extent, we can integrate these into our daily lives in the same way as moral habits by trying to translate some phrases into our chosen language or practice motions that mimic those of a paintbrush. Still, these are the types of things that time must be devoted to specifically if one wants to make true progress in them. So, in order to acquire these skills, we schedule time to work on them.

Is it possible to overschedule in this regard? Of course. At the heart of this lies my dispute with any form of overscheduling, be it on vacation or in anyother aspect of one's life, or too much control over one's choices. To the extent that we remain committed to our schedules, we remove chaos from our lives, necessary for discovery and growth. If we remain in complete control of every aspect of our lives, we can never mature beyond ourselves. We are our limit. It's the same problem that news and blogs consumers run into these days. People immerse themselves in those that reinforce their own beliefs rather than challenging themselves with intelligent works of differing politics. Their beliefs are thusly never tested, and good ideas, often the result of synthesis, may never be found.

This all leads to a rather simple principle with regards to habits: flexibility. Rather than saying, "I will read this work in a foreign language from 3:30 to 4:00 today," you try instead to read a chapter sometime today while still being prepared to take advantage of alternative opportunities.

Friday, December 22

I write beyond this blog...

On the off-chance that someone reads this blog who doesn't personally know me, I am pleased to inform them that I do write and am published outside of this blog. Mostly, that is through various Gonzaga publications; the student newspaper and the jounals of opinion and art. If you lack access to hard copies of these, the following are links to pieces I have written.

My Charter submissions:
Cultural enlightenment 101: Education through travel
Happy Crossings
Archetypes of a political persuasion
The Smart One

The Gonzaga Bulletin submissions:
Actually I'm just going to provide a link to the website, The Gonzaga Bulletin. I wrote a fair number of editorials that can be found in the archives. My pieces are the ones preceded by the title 'Editorial:' rather than 'Letter to the editor:' Most of them deal with what the opinion pages should seek to be and are of a more general nature that is hopefully of interest to more people.

Reflection submission:
Unfortunately, these are not up yet. You'll just have to wait to see the brilliant fiction I write.

What is journalism all about?

I want to be a journalist. I'm not sure in what capacity (reporter most likely considering my recent experiences as Opinion editor) or in what medium (not TV) or, much less, publication (it is my hope that more time in the field will lend some guidance on these paths), but it's what I want to do.


There are practical considerations. It's a field one can actually get a job in and make a living on, and it's something I think I could enjoy doing. Not that these matter so much. I find it hard to believe I could not find these needs filled in any number of other occupations. In all truth, it probably wouldn't bother me to be a janitor or secretary if these were the only preconditions I looked to in a job.

No, my desire to professionally enter into journalism is based on what it's all about. Thomas Griffith called journalism "history on the run" in his essay The Pursuit of Journalism. I don't know who he is, except that he was an editor of Time and Nieman Fellow in 1943. In that same essay he referenced Matthew Arnold's quote, "Journalism is literature in a hurry." I respect Arnold as a poet, "Dover Beach" hangs in my dorm room. But I take a different view from both of these men.

Journalism, in its best form, is information, and information is a tool. With newspapers and magazines and the like, people are given what is necessary to make better decisions. They can choose to support or fight specific courses of action because of what they learned from the news. Money obscures the energies that go into production. In its way, journalism can disrupt that veil. That is what I want to do in my career. Whoo.

Tuesday, December 12

Volunteering and charity

They're a big deal, volunteering and charity. The amount of time you unselfishly donate to others is a quantitative element that others often use to judge if you as 'good.' Besides that, material benefits have accrued alongside the less tangible identification of one as a good person. Charity work is really pushed at the high school level and participation in it opens up all manner of scholarships and gives your college applications a bit of a boost. Or not because it has become the standard. You want to win a Citizen of the Year award? I understand that coaching Little Leauge and the like does a fair bit towards endearing oneself to whatever committee makes those selections. For some businesses, philanthropy or the appearance of such has become a major component of their operations, Product (RED) being the current pre-eminent example.

This post isn't about the larger issue so much as its appearance in my life as of late though that would make for a decent post.

By accident of birth, I have never been in need of anything in my life. The essentials and necessities have all been taken care of for me. Life certainly isn't fair, but I can bloody well try to make it a little more so in some way. That's why I volunteer and try to do good.

At Gonzaga, I have given time to a local elementary school this past semester and, last fall, an organization which I prefer to call a homeless service center to a shelter because its sleeping program is minor and it mostly provides some necessities and opportunities to the homeless who take advantage of it. In the first case, I took care of some minor things like putting together papers for the students and helping them with their writing to the small extent you can when they're in first grade. In the latter case, I sat behind a counter and handed hygienic items out to those who asked for them. In either placement, my job could have done by most anyone. They were not what I am looking for.

No, I think the best example of what I'm looking for is a project I took part in towards the end of the semester. Operating under the name 'A Warm Welcome' the intent of the project was to provide student-made scarves to incoming Karen Burmese refugees. In ideal practical terms, for the amount of energy we devoted to making these scarves, we could have held jobs and devoted our earnings to the refugee placement service, World Relief, and done them far more good. In more practical terms, it's very hard to get college students to part with their money in this manner while they are more than willing to give of their time. Furthermore, though the quality of the scarves was largely of inferior quality to those which could be purchased commercially, these scarves were the first crocheting project for many students so they gained a new skill, and I hope that they demonstrated a greater sense of welcome to the refugees than simple purchases could.

That it was what I am looking for. Actions with both tangibly good results and strong meanings behind them as well. Time to start looking harder.

Tuesday, December 5

Looking for truth

Besides the plays assigned through Literature III and the notable exception of Fight Club, my fiction reading habits have as of late been reprehensible. For myself, the last work of fiction I can remember reading, at least for the first time since I did power through most of my old Animorphs over the June, July and August, was Dr. Zhivago back in the early summer. Since then, it's been nothing but news articles and essays covering economics, religion, sociology, psychology, politics and what not. On my desk, ready to be read now, are In Defense of Elitism, Crossing the Postmodern Divide and The Condition of Postmodernity, and they aren't metaphors.

In no small part, I'm sure this change in reading habits is affected by the collision of my tendency towards stinginess with my money and fear of trying something without a reccomendation. These works of philosophy are freely available at the university library, and if they aren't directly spoken of during some class, they do touch on topics we do discuss. In contrast, I often leave the local independent bookstore empty-handed because I'm afraid of wasting my money on some poor work of fiction that I have heard nothing of.

I do believe, however, that there is a large issue at play here, and that is this search for truth I speak of in the title. Philosophical works and those of the social sciences have pretensions of explaining and making intelligible the many aspects of the world we live in through logic or empirical evidence or whatever while fiction is largely understood as amusement. Saying that fiction cannot contain great truths or whatever is hugely wrong of course, and the legs of the social sciences are hardly the strongest. They find it very hard to explain everything or their various adherents even find it difficult to agree on most things.

The important questions come last here. Am I right or perhaps just arrogant? Is this right to pursue truth in such a way?

Monday, December 4

Screw social justice

Actually, that title is just for impact. In a certain, very specific sense, I do agree with it, but in the sense that I'm sure first came to the minds of most people, I'm totally against it. Good grief. I go to a university where taking a class with a social justice requirement is necessary for graduation and am active in a number of groups who hold the concept of social justice near and dear. Most importantly perhaps, my friends are very much for this concept as well, and that statement could be one of the best possible if I desired to alienate them.

Offering my definition of social justice would no doubt help clarify my position. It is the ideal of making a more just world be it through economics or diginty or whatever. Aiding in the development of clean drinking water and reliable sources of food in the Third World is social justice. So is taking a hammer to concept that other ethnicities and races and sexes are inferior and don't deserve the same rights and potential as others. Short of believing that it's up to these people to raise themselves up, wholly on their own, I can see no way of arguing with this position.

My problem is with how I see this ideal pursued. Social justice is achieved by turning other countries and societies into the United States. A simple search on Google for ecological footprint ought to demonstrate the impossibility of that situation, (Maybe I should be a little less cavalier in that statement as Malthus was proved wrong.) but the greater problem, for me, lies in a different direction. Do other societies really want to be like the United States? Materially, we're doing very well for ourselves. We have indoor heating, cooling, plumbing, a veritable multitude of entertainment options, all manner of food choices, amazing transportation abilities, need I go on? Largely, our needs and wants are met and exceeded, but we aren't happy. Stress and obesity are epidemics of a sort that are hammering all members of American society. Blame it on marketers trying to cultivate a mindset that believes it will be satisfied once they make that next purchase or whatever. The problem remains. By and large, we are not content or happy people. Social justice will fail if it can make the American lifestyle attainable to every person on the planet (barring the current economic impossibility) but still leave them unhappy.

I do not dispute the necessity of improving the situations of people whose basic needs are not met. Yesterday a friend questioned why another friend would go outside in the sub-twenty weather in a T-shirt to meditate. He said it was to attempt and transcend the cold. She said his transcendence would be better served by putting on a jacket or coat or something. This whole debate and my own thoughts are worth a post in itself, but I'll let it stand here to say transcendence is fine for we who have the option to put on our jackets or go inside. Let's not force it on those who don't have options. That's what social justice should be seeking to accomplish, the meeting of needs and the creation of societies where all people are allowed to match their potential and are judged according to their merit.

The next step is breeding contentment with what we have, something we Westerners would do well to learn ourselves. I don't remember thinking of this until I saw City of God. Those people lived in a Brazilian slum. Their lives were led amongst squalor, but they were not miserable people. Frustrated and angry? Yeah but not whiny. My mom is fond of quoting some study that found the happiest group of people in the United States are old black women. Not my first I guess and I suspect not that of most people. Why is that? Because happiness is not dependent on possession. So much of our entertainment seems to me to be nothing more than a distraction. Hear some clever lines and see some flashy explosions or exotic landscapes and forget about whatever is really bothering us, more likely than not, that unscratchable itch being wanting more; power, prestige, money, stuff, whatever. That needs to be killed.

Before I end this post, something needs to be clarified. I do not believe that all discontent is bad. After all, it is what drives progress, and no person should be content with settling for less than their best or not fulfiling their potential. We simply must identify those areas where discontent is wasted.

Saturday, December 2

Reflections of a former Opinion editor

This semester I took on the role of Opinion editor for my university newspaper, and now it is finished. The last issue of the semester was published today, and there really is nothing left for me to take care of except to e-mail those who continue to submit and tell them that they will have to await for publication in the spring, a semester will definitely not be working as an editor for. As is my modus operandi, my choices and all their consequences warrant some reflection.

Like so many axioms, "Hindsight is 20/20" is wrong. Looking back now, I have no bleeding idea why I applied for the position of Opinion editor. There certainly is no dearth of good reasons for me to have applied for the position: It is required for my Journalism major and also appeared to be a good way to form relationships with new people with similar interests. Arrogance may have played a part as I decided to take on editing before the reporting and writing classes as they seemed less difficult to me. I also looked towards the Opinion pages specfically because I felt they had been so abused in previous semesters and could be so much better.

Whatever the cas, I ended up with the position. At various points, I may have said it was all right. Those were the times I had plenty of opinions on a variety of subjects and was even able to hold a few just in case a drought of pieces in the next week required a back-up plan. Most of the time though, I would have called it a learning experience in that I learned I never wanted to be an editor again. There was simply too much stress. I demand a certain level of quality in those things I participate in and have an influence over, and the constant running around and speaking with people to arrange for (hopefully) intelligent and thought-provoking opinion pieces and then desparately waiting for their pieces to come in was plenty of stress. Add on the frustration I feel towards myself when I have to constantly pester my friends for a letter whenever they say something that sound mildly contentious and even more frustration with the general student body for generally not caring to respond to any number of potential topics, preferring instead to focus on abortion and the Take Back the Night group, and mine was a world of hurt and dread come Wednesday and page layout. The last two issues proved especially difficult as a number of meetings were forced and egos had to be assuaged as people got personal in their letters and fought for their (perceived) rights to appear on the Opinion pages and not be edited.

Any of the individual elements I would have been fine with. Copy editing, though boring and something I need a great deal more practice in, is fine. Page layout is fun. Both together with kind of assigning stories to people who you have no leverage over or incentives to offer makes it very rough.

You've made it this far. Congratulations. Now let me explain my future plans. I care very much about journalism as a whole and The Bulletin specifically and want to see them reach the highest levels of quality that they can. In the forseeable future, my contribution towards that goal will be through writing and reporting. In the vaguest of manners, I can see myself taking on the position again, maybe even Chief Editor. Unfortunately, that would more than likely involve dropping one of my minors. We'll wait and see.

For now, my semester as Opinion editor remains a learning experience, like so much of my life and as it should be.