Monday, March 12, 2007

Do you live like that’s true?

Over the past four months, the various Qube Books questions I have pondered, studied and written about have taken me on a personal journey. Starting with these questions, I have posed further questions to myself and to you. With your help, I have formulated the beginnings of answers and have asserted some things that I believe to be true. Particularly, in our discussion of the last question, I wrapped up the idea of success in the metaphor of growth; success being right or straight growth, which requires us to live in accordance with truth. So during this week, I’ve been wondering, “how successful am I?” In the course of this blog, I have called many things true; but do I live like these are true?

I rather quickly saw my own personal chasm—between my knowledge of the good and my embodying of it—widen and deepen, looming very large, indeed. And just at this point, I made a near fatal mistake. I embraced pessimism. The dictionary defines pessimism as: the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil. In other words, pessimism makes its home in the molten rock at the very bottom of the chasm; it does not acknowledge true good nor does it take any notice of me, clinging to the opposite canyon wall as I search and reach for virtue. My own small “descent into hell” found expression in an Email of Great Despair which I sent to my friend, who thankfully didn’t tolerate my rant and effectively shut me up. Ironically, frustration over my failure to live in accordance with truth had led me to further perjure myself by behaving as if evil were stronger than good or as if ugliness could trump beauty. I said my mistake was a near fatal one, but that is only because I have a very good friend. Pessimism, unchecked, is always fatal to thought and progress.

It is helpful to take a periodic moral inventory of ourselves; doing so can expose not only where our actions fail to reflect truth but where, perhaps we have misjudged something to be true and are unable to act in accordance with it because it contradicts the truth about us and our world. I can deny gravity until I'm blue in the face, but I will continue to set my water glass securely on the table. Or—more relevantly—I can profess pessimism concerning my actions but at the end of the day, I still kiss my sons and sing them a lullaby.

To be human is to be dignified as moral agents in this world. With this distinction, comes the responsibility to live as if we really are moral agents. On our drive to school a few mornings ago, my ten year old and I explored his breakfast table unkindness toward his brother. He said, “I don’t want to be mean to him, but it’s so much easier to do bad than it is to do good.” And in a way, it is. Life requires maintenance, in addition to advancement, if we are ever to hold or incarnate the truths we unearth. I think this is where habit training comes in; if we lay the tracks of habit, we ease our moral engine maintenance effort considerably.

In this sense, we can be “living successfully” in a way that is roughly consistent with our professed beliefs. But in another sense, there is no single moment in which we personify perfection or even success. We aren’t static beings. No matter how far we progress or how far we regress, we are always standing at the moment of reckoning; we are perpetually facing the chasm between ourselves and what is good and at any moment, any one of us may widen or narrow the gap.

Along these lines, I intend to conduct a little experiment over the next two weeks. I’m going to ask myself the double-sided question, “Do I live like that’s true?”, examining both my behavior and my assertions for short-comings. I’ll let you know what I come up with. Let me know what you think about this question and join in my experiment, if you dare.


de Silentio said...

I agree that we must reflect upon our decisions and actions to evaluate if they conform to our moral assertions. Following one’s whimsical ideas can often lead to overlooked harm, even if the harm is becoming a hypocrite.

You say, and rightfully so I may add, that “being human is to be dignified as moral agents in this world”. The problem I consistently see is that people don’t know how to act as moral agents. Sure, they are moral agents, but acting as if they are moral agents is another story. I see a moral agent as an entity that can potentially make moral decisions. On the other hand, I would define acting as a moral agent as one who can properly evaluate a situation according to a criteria (what the criteria is I cannot say), without a criteria, the evaluation becomes arbitrary and useless. For example, my son is a moral agent, but being only 10 months old, he cannot act as a moral agent. Again, some people I work with can act as moral agents, but they would rather act according to their immediate fancy.

The problem we now face is getting people to act as the moral agents they are. I don’t think I completely understand your habitual training, as I find habit can often work against a person. It is our habits that negate the necessity of evaluation and reflection. If I am to act out of a habit I set in place, especially if it is an intended habit that I see as good, why would I need to evaluate my habitual actions? Would not evaluating the habit potentially destroy the habit I built? Although, I may misunderstand you.

I applaud your evaluation of your behavior and assertions for short-comings. Although I have no problem with behavior towards short-comings, there are a lot of areas that I need to ask myself the questions “Do I live like that’s true?”

de Silentio said...

One more thing:

Before we ask the question "Do you live like thats true?" must we not ask the question "Ought you live like that's true?"

Rachael King said...

de silentio: Second question, first. Interesting. I was assuming this question could reveal faulty premises which we could then correct and try to live by. But how can I tell if the fault for my living out of line with an assertion lies with my will or with an invalid assertion? In the case of my insistence that there is no law of gravity... I can jump out of an airplane, but I'd better pack a parachute. In the case of my assertion of pessimism regarding doing good, it is much less clear. I need to find a higher principle than "things tend to decay" to guide me, because even though that statement is measurably true, I intuitively know there is value in cultivation. So sometimes the guiding principle is obvious and sometimes we need to hunt for it.

Can you think of a case in which something is true but we shouldn't align our lives with it?

Rachael King said...

d.s.: The criteria, it seems to me, would be over-arching or guiding moral principles, tailored judiciously to the situation.

I would define "moral agent" as one whose actions have moral significance to himself and to the world around him. Behaving as if we are moral agents requires us to give a damn that our actions are significant. This is where evaluation comes in.

Your 10-month-old son is not old enough to understand that he's a moral agent, except at a very basic level. He knows he can make Dad and Mom unhappy by throwing his food on the floor. At some level, even he can decide to throw or not to throw. But he doesn't yet understand that his decision should be guided by kindness or love or respect; only that he wants or doesn't want you to frown at him or take his food away. This is why we train children in good habits; because if we don't, bad ones will grow of themselves. If your son is used to throwing food whenever he feels like it, he probably won't still do it when he's grown, but he might be in the habit of disregarding other people's feelings.

My thinking about habits goes back two or three years. I wrote this in my journal:

I woke an hour early this morning thinking about habits. Habits of Doing become Habits of Being. I don't have good habits. I simply don't. I intend good. I sometimes choose good. I may happen upon good. I think about being good, and I hope that in the end everything comes out, well, good.

Some time earlier I had read parts of Charlotte Mason's Home schooling series. She writes,

One of the great functions of the educator is to secure that actions will be so regularly, purposefully and methodically sown that the child will reap the habits of the good life, in thinking and doing, with a minimum of conscious effort...Educate the child in right habits and the man's life will run in them, without the constant wear and tear of moral effort of decision.

Also from my journal,

I have few good habits, that I can think of , which means that I am at a severe disadvantage as regards doing good. Good acts that I can choose come with tremendous, often dissuading, "wear and tear of moral effort".

You said,

It is our habits that negate the necessity of evaluation and reflection.

This is true of good habits and bad ones. Am I not giving my sons a great gift if I train them in "the habit of attention" or "the habit of gratitude" (two of Ms. Mason's suggestions), rather than leaving them to battle distraction and self-pity at every turn?

Two years ago, I was probably over-looking many of my own good habits. But this only supports the theory that our lives run along the track of habits; the good habits I had were so automatic to me that I didn't notice them. Unfortunately, this can be true of unhelpful habits, too.

Which leads me to your question about evaluating habits: I would say we need to identify our 'habitual ways of being' and see if they are consistent with truth and goodness.If it holds up to scrutiny, why would the evaluation process destroy it?