Thursday, May 31


I'm surprised this post has been so long in coming as it has its origins in a colloquium discussion on the Quakers just after spring break.

As nearly as I can remember, the progression went like this. In the Quaker service my friends attended, there was an extended period of quiet prayer, maybe 20 minutes long, broken only if someone felt the spririt move them to say something. There might have been a specific name for this, but I have since forgotten. To give us all a sense of it, the class as a whole was invited to participate in this. No one quaked or felt compelled by the spirit to say anything during our foray into Quaker prayer. After sometime it was ended, and we were asked to share our experiences and thoughts on it.

I eventually raised my hand and questioned what exactly we meant by quiet and silence. True silence, in that there is nothing to be heard, is an awfully artificial quality. In nature there is always animal life or wind to play upon the ears. And people frequently complain of the constant din of city life. The only way I know of to find it is through a purely human initiated sound-proof chamber.

I left my question at that, and a few people offered their suggestions. The only one I remember involved a person saying that they felt at peace in nature, even if there wasn't complete silence.

I've had some time since that presentation and would now like to offer my own answer to it. What I believe we are truly searching for when we say we are looking for silence, short of a retreat to that sound-proof chamber, is better described as stillness, being aware of and acknowledging all that audible information and accepting it. It doesn't shock us or distract us. It is simply there, alongside us, not to be resisted or understood as an irritation because we cannot control it. In this way, stillness can be found anywhere. Absorption into a forest or on the shores of some lake is not an atypical occurrence as one falls into their respective rhythms. Similarly, one can eventually fall into the pulse of the city as well. A friend of mine once told me a story about his younger brother. Their family had moved from a major city to the outskirts of my small town. That first night, the brother woke his parents and complaining that the crickets were too loud. I find it difficult to imagine that the crickets were truly louder than passing traffic, but their rhythm was different from what he was used to. Thus his personal stillness was broken. Some settings, though, are certainly more conducive to stillness. A piped truck can pass by one's home and disrupt any calm, and if one is in a state of fear because of an unfamiliar location, every sound indicates a possible threat and prevents any possibility for becoming still.

Saturday, May 19


All we can ever expect of perfection, not being able to improve something in anyway, in our own lives is a but a fleeting moment, if that. (I think that may be paraphrased from the novel Fight Club, but I digress because I can go on about Fight Club for a long bleeding time.) The most skilled and talented among us may be fortunate enough to experience more than a few such moments. Perfection in anything, moral action, creative works, athletic activites, whatever, is nigh impossible because it depends upon more than that which is within our ability to control. For a painting to be perfect the paint must be just right, and short of making one's own paints, there is very little one can do to guarantee this short of becoming intimately familiar with a specific type and producer. For a violin performance to be perfect, not only must the instrument and performer be at their best but the acoustics of the auditorium must be perfectly suited as well, and those are not odds I like.

We cannot guarantee perfection, no matter our own efforts. What then should our relationship be to it?

I say we continue to strive for it. We acknowledge its veritable impossibility but continue on because we can never attain it without trying. The moment striving ends, the opportunity for perfection is absolutely out of our reach. Because of this ultimate goal, we will fail again and again. We just learn the best we can from these mistakes and try again. Besides, the result is of secondary importance. It's in the process and means where true value lies.

In counter, perfectionists, those who put the most effort into finding perfection, are disdained. In my experience, many of these criticisms are directed against those who are fastidious in their homework habits and small work duties. At these times, such criticisms are warranted. In their pursuit of perfection on such small things, they waste time on items of little consequence, directing their attention away from greater matters like morality and artistic creation.

But what about those who pour their beings into charity organizations and enter politics to aid the downtrodden? Schindler broke down at the end of his movie because he could have saved more by selling his car and cuff links and whatever else he still had. Is it appropriate to direct criticisms of perfectionism against them as well? I say yes but must first define perfection beyond 'not being able to improve something in anyway.' Perfection is not found in a single element but a system. One can spend all of their time perfecting their individual skill with a paint brush or violin, but they must still have experiences outside of their craft as sources. They must still maintain their health to perform at the utmost of their abilities. Perfection, when it is found, is found through many practices, not merely some clearly identifiable, central thing like skill with a paint brush in painting.

To return to perfection in matters of social justice, at least my earlier examples were quantitative and could be said that one completed some assignment perfectly. Perfection in such matters is still dependent, even more so than artistic and creative endeavors, upon the choices of others, whether its people aiding in the improvement of their own situation or others choosing to act evilly. As such, failures of perfection here are even more common. One can still do everything in their own power and fail miserably. Thus, before they even begin to work towards that goal of perfect justice and goodness, they must come to grips with their inevitable failure lest they breakdown and entirely forsake the project.

Thursday, May 17

Should I follow my head or my heart?

Another piece that wasn't originally written for "Spice of Life." This one was written in response to the above prompt for the Great American Think-Off. It's a trash question, one that can hardly be answered in 500 words or less and enraging to a philosophy minor, but hey, there was a chance at a $500 reward. Unfortunately, that reward was not mine. I still like this essay though. Enjoy.

REO Speedwagon asked that question in Hi Infidelity. Ilsa faced it at the end of Casablanca, and strands of the question can be found in The Odyssey when Odysseus attempts to reconcile his cunning and impulsiveness. Now the Great American Think-Off poses a close variant of it. It is fair to call it an enduring question, albeit a poorly framed one. The heart is a muscle and the mover of the circulatory system. Except for the potent combination of an increased pulse and the release of adrenaline that forces the mind into a ‘flight or fight’ response, the heart really offers no guidance in decision making. It is more appropriate to ask whether we should base our decisions upon reason or instinct, the former being the capacity to use logic and contemplate the distant consequences of a choice and the latter being an impulse to act firmly grounded in the present. Head, the center of thought, is reason, and heart, that organ to which we attribute those ideas not arrived at through logic, is instinct. These paired terms can be used interchangeably for the remainder of this essay.

Things exist for a reason. Reason and instinct are no different. Both are means of survival. Instinct, present in all forms of animal life, provides instantaneous decisions that increase the odds of survival in cases of immediate danger. There is no time for reason when one is pursued by a dangerous animal, so it is instinct that keeps one alive. For humans, whose physical capabilities are less than those of most animals, reason allowed for the creation of tools and other methods to overcome their physical deficiencies, thus increasing survival rates. An unarmed human stands little chance to defeat a buffalo, but working in tandem with others armed with weapons, humans can defeat the animal and enjoy all the benefits it provides.

Likewise, both instinct and reason have times and places where they are more useful. Instinct’s ability to provide one with a rapid response is critical in situations where time is of the essence while reason is necessary when one has adequate time and is attempting to find a solution that works in all situations and not just the present moment. In situations like sports and battle where time to react is measured in increments smaller than a second, decisions based on instinct are the only way to go. However, instinct will provide little help in finding a solution to a scientific problem because it only considers the present moment and cannot consider the full possibilities and limitations of different circumstances. In long-term projects reason dominates.

Clearly, both reason and instinct have their places in life and to give one such heavy preference that the other is completely excluded would be a grave mistake. As depicted in popular media, humans have a strong aversion to being reduced to a computer or animal, the respective epitomes of dominance by reason and instinct. But, as is the case of many dualities, granting greater weight to one is appropriate. Aristotle in his formulation of the Golden Mean, an idea that continues to inform our practice of virtue today, admitted that courage is not found square in the middle of foolhardiness and cowardice but more on the side of foolhardiness.

Thus I give priority to reason. Between it and instinct, reason is the only one that can take advantage of the benefits of each. Should the situation demand it, reason can recognize the instinctive choice, abdicate decision-making to it and take control again when the situation has changed. In contrast, should preference be given to instinct in the decision-making process, reason will not have the opportunity to surface and its advantages will never be known because instinct is instantaneous and offers no time for the reflection required for reasoned choices.

Furthermore, reason can form positive instincts, but instinct can never make reason sharper. For example, many aspects of the martial arts are antithetical to a natural, instinctive response; one steps into an attack rather than flees, attacks are carefully restrained to prevent a powerful counter. One fails in the martial arts not only if they trust completely to their natural instincts but also because they are too slow if they attempt to reason through every move. Through practices constructed and guided by reason, however, poor instincts can be replaced with superior ones. Thus instinct retains its usefulness through the use of reason.

Tuesday, May 15

Charter submissions

So, finals are over, and all those friends whom I will not see for the next few months have left, so I am not trying to spend as much time as possible with them anymore. Expect more frequent posts now, as long as the ideas keep coming.

Actually, this post is a bit of a cop out. I have a good idea fermenting and want to give it some more time to mature and not simply be blathering. Thus I offer links to already published work. Enjoy my submissions to the two lastest issues of Charter: Gonzaga University's premier journal of scholarship and opinion, Language and Machines. A bit more thought and time went into these pieces than my typical post, but should you have access to Gonzaga, hopefully you would have already picked up your own issues, which include a number of other fine essays and some wonderful graphic design.