Being Comfortable with Pain

I’ve been thinking about endurance recently, specifically in two areas of my life.  First, I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting since January of this year and I’ll be sharing some reflections on it soon.  By fasting each day, it requires a certain amount of endurance to push through on cognitively and physically demanding tasks while your body deals with the exertion in a fasted state.

Second, as the winter weather hits us, I have to endure colder temperatures while working at the bar.  I’ve managed to push myself over the last two years and use a sufficient number of clothing layers to eschew wearing a coat while on the door position.  I have the coat on hand, but I like the challenge of working without it and standing outdoors for long stretches of time exposed to the elements.

It might seem silly or pointless to put myself in these positions when I don’t have to – I make enough money so that I never need to worry about food scarcity or not owning enough proper clothing to protect myself.  On some level, it’s stupid machismo to willfully deprive myself in this way.  Yet, I like the challenge and the sense of satisfaction that I can achieve some level of control or mastery over myself and my situation.

While recently listening to Oprah’s book The Path Made Clear, I came across a really interesting way of framing this tendency I have.  The specific section runs from 4:53-5:52 of the clip below, where Oprah is chatting with Alanis Morissette about the yearning to seek out a time in the future where all your present problems are solved and you are finally happy.  They discuss that this forward-orientated hope for the future never manifests itself as peace; that money and fame doesn’t bring you happiness or contentment.  Instead, you are always chasing that future where you are free from whatever pain you feel in the present.

 

“One of the big lessons I’ve learned over the last little while has been that if I can be comfortable with pain, which is different than suffering, if I can be comfortable with pain, as just an indication, and it’s potentially a daily thing (in my case it often is) then there won’t be my living in the future all the time; that one day if and when I will be happy.

“And even if I’m not comfortable doing that, I’m very uncomfortable in pain – I hate it – we run from it with all kinds of addictive, fun things (temporarily fun things).  But at least knowing it’s a portal, and that on the other side is this great sense of peace that goes beyond this ego development.”

~Alanis Morissette (lightly edited for readability)

This sentiment spoke to me.  I have an affinity towards stoicism and the idea that one should re-frame their relationship with the external.  To me, I like knowing that I can endure, even when I don’t have to.  It becomes practice for those moments when I need to dig in deep to perform, because life isn’t always easy.  Through this practice, I can also appreciate my comforts all the more.  And, it also doesn’t need to run in opposition of my goal to remove discomfort from my life so long as I remember that I’m not entitled to a life of comfort and ease and instead have to intentionally earn it.

I acknowledge that I’m fortunate not to live with serious pain or suffering.  I have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t exchange it for machismo points.  I don’t think the point of life is to suffer, but instead my goal is to learn to suffer well when life brings me pain.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Kindness and Picking Fights Online

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Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

Recently, a lot of things circulating through social media and my podcast feeds have been enraging me.  I try to mitigate these things through a number of strategies – limiting my time on social media, intentionally targeting positive messages, not reading comments, not engaging, reminding myself that it is ok to disagree about things, etc.  The hardest things for me to let go are cases where my thought-processes seem to wildly diverge from others about the framing of the same set of facts.

Initially, I wanted this blog post to be my master rebuttal.  I wanted to lay out my case for why the conclusions others are drawing from this or that event are wrong and why.  I wanted to emphasize what the important, salient points are that we should keep in mind.

But I know in my heart that would be an exercise in futility.  A blog post is easy to skip; easy to ignore.  I won’t change hearts and minds by arguing against a strawman average of the viewpoints expressed in my network of known-people.  It would be antagonistic, hostile, and unproductive towards my goals.  In all likelihood, it would backfire and entrench or alienate friends.

Instead, I will offer a different approach that I want to continuously remind myself of.  When I feel compelled to dig in my heels for an argument, I should remind myself of the following.

First, remember what Aristotle (via Will Durant) tells us about virtue and excellence.  It doesn’t matter what others say or share/post online; we are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Second, turning to fiction, remember why The Doctor helps people.

“Winning; is that what you think it’s about?  I’m not trying to win.  I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone or ‘cause I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone.  It’s not because it’s fun.  God knows it’s not because it’s easy.  It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does.  I do what I do because it’s right!  Because it’s decent.  And above all, it’s kind.  It’s just that.  Just kind.”

Series 10, Episode 12: “The Doctor Falls”

Ultimately, it’s not about what I will say, or argue.  Arguing with other people doesn’t make me a decent person; picking fights online doesn’t put me on the high road.  If I want to bring about change in people I care about, it’s important to remember to be kind.  Always be kind and help people, because it’s the right thing to do.

I recognize that being kind doesn’t give a lot of direction and can seem cowardly when meeting the systems that do real harm to the vulnerable and oppressed.  In fact, espousing kindness can easily slip into inaction or forced neutrality.  It’s hard to be prescriptive in this case at a granular level.

However, if I start with the core values of kindness and action, that what is important is doing things that are kind to others, then you can use your values as a filter for determining what you will choose to do.

Instead of arguing online, I choose to try and lead by being kind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Role of Good Media (On Liberty)

While I didn’t dive too deeply into political philosophy while in school, I do muse on it from time to time.  I grant that my knowledge about political philosophy can be charitably labelled as “naive,” so please forgive some of the silliness I’m about to wade around in.

On the whole, I tend towards the idea that the protection of liberty is good, even at the cost of bad actors.  I think the State should limit as few liberties as they can to ensure social cohesion and social protection.  This will come with a few hard to manage examples where people’s liberties can come into conflict (e.g. the right to free speech and the right for people to not give platforms to people they disagree with).

I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive exploration here.  I just want to comment on why good media is important for moral education.

Last week, I was rolling around with an idea I was tentatively calling “dynamic homeostatic liberty.”  I don’t know if this concept has been expressed by anyone else, but the term refers to the idea that the rights respected by the State are dynamically recognized and abide by the principle of homeostasis according to the social and economic conditions at play at any given time.  During times of war or disaster, rights are constricted to maximize good while also achieving some sort of political aim (think curfews and forced redistribution of material goods, for example).  There would have to be some mechanism that says the State owes more responsibility of care to the people in proportion to the amount the State restricts the freedoms of its people.  And this would also recognize that when the strife is over, liberties are relaxed and the State removes itself from meddling in people’s lives.

This is a fantasy, of course, because it assumes the government would always keep the best interests of the people in mind and not lead to tyranny.  It also assumes people would freely give up their rights for better protection and better outcomes.

I was wondering how well a system like this would work, then I watched the season 4 episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Drumhead.”  The episode covers a situation aboard the Enterprise which leads to a series of conspiratorial speculations about members of the crew.  A set of minor accusations ends up leading to wild allegations and a full-blown future version of a witch hunt.

The voice of reason on the ship is Captain Picard, who pauses throughout the ordeal to question whether things are spinning out of control, and people are letting their passions and righteousness get the best of them.

Watching the two speeches above made me realize how silly my idea of “dynamic homeostatic liberty” is.  The truth is, there is no way to ensure that the restriction of liberties would be in the best interests of the people who need their liberties protected the most.  The powerful have a tendency to allow themselves to be corrupted by their righteous fury and perceived moral authority.  It was a fantastic example of why we need good media that makes us think and reflect.

Good media helps to elevate us and educate us morally.  It helps us to empathize, and see ourselves from outside our perspectives and lived experiences.

I often think about what kind of media I will want to promote to my children.  I think about what stories I want to tell them to give them a good, moral education.  I think Star Trek will definitely be on that list.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

Honesty and Trust

The weekend after the last wedding experience I wrote about, I was fortunate to attend a second wedding.  Much like my last post on the topic, I want to reflect a bit on something the officiant said during the ceremony.

Warning: philosophical thoughts ahead!

Midway through the service, the officiant was offering some words of advice and wisdom for the couple.  He was discussing values that make for a strong, lasting relationship, and he commented that honesty is an important value to hold.  However, he speculated that beyond honesty, trust is something worth considering as a higher value.

His message was a little tongue in cheek, alluding to the impossible questions a partner is faced with, such as “does this make me look x,” but he also meant it in a more sincere way.  He was driving home the idea that the partnership can’t rely on honesty and transparency alone, but it also requires both partners to recognize the union of their lives, and that they must trust their partner in the journey.

While I won’t say I fully endorse the idea that trust must always be placed above honesty, it nevertheless gave me food for thought.  I mulled over what trust means to me in a relationship, and whether you can have deserved trust paired with deliberate dishonesty.  I donned my philosopher’s cap and thought about it.

For instance, (hearkening back to Kantian ethics), should we always tell the truth?  Certainly, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m never (maliciously) deceived, but I can imagine cases where deception can be useful.  If my partner deceives me in order to seek to surprise me in a way that would bring me pleasure, then I think that kind of dishonesty can be permissible (Christmas and surprise birthday parties hinge on this being permissible).  Setting aside considerations about the differences between deception and omission, so long as the deception is for the benefit of the deceived, and that revealing  the nature of the deception results in increased happiness, then I think in most instances this can be thought of as a good thing.  On the other hand, deception that is used to maximize the pleasure of one person while building harm at the expense of the other person (especially if the deception is revealed) is likely to be uniformly wrong in all cases.  Feel free to check my thinking in the comments down below.

The implication I realized during the ceremony is that it is possible to knowingly be deceived by your partner and be fine with it if you trust your partner explicitly.  That is to say, if my partner chooses to be dishonest with me (or, to a lesser degree, if my partner is not fully transparent with me), and I suspect them to be as much, then the only instance where I would be fine with this is if fully trust my partner.

This is not to say that I think this gives license to one’s partner to be deliberately deceitful if a full trusting relationship is present.  I still believe that honesty and transparency ought to be the norm in a relationship; that the relationship is built upon its foundation.

But, if my partner judges that deceiving me is in my best interest (however temporary that might be) and it is indeed in my best interest, then full trust is the only way that it could be managed.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of resolution to the deception.  I don’t think a state of perpetual deception or ignorance is possible while being in a person’s best overall interest – the two run contrary in my mind.

Then, if it is the case that the thought of my partner deceiving me causes me discomfort or some other negative associative feeling, then it cannot be said that I fully trust them (or, that honesty and transparency are not things I care about – but how would a relationship work in that case…?).  A breach of trust and a breach of honesty would both transgress the relationship.

It’s an odd sort of thought experiment to run, especially during a wedding.  I had a lot of fun at that wedding, and I’m glad to have gotten some interesting philosophical thoughts to mull over while I celebrated more friends starting a new chapter in their lives.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan