Lessons from the Inca Trail about Wonder, Gratitude, and Nature

Searching for wonder in the reality of nature

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2018

Modern human beings are alienated from nature. We live in air-conditioned rooms. We relate to higher things through dry, ancient books. We rarely see the stars or feel the rain. We are rootless.

I have been thinking about our alienation from nature after trekking through the Andes of Peru. The trek ran over high mountain passes, where we endured freezing rain and cold, windy nights. We witnessed wild jungles and wandering llamas. And we celebrated the blessing of sunshine, which gave us warmth and the rainbow.

Our guide paused at the entrance to Machu Picchu to give an offering. He gathered three coca leaves into a shape that represents the mountains. He presented this gift to each of the four directions. He left the coca in a secret niche at the Sun Gate.

It made sense to give thanks to the mountains, to the elements and to the coca that made our journey possible. Coca tea helps fight altitude sickness. Its salutary effect is a kind of magic. There is also magic in the sun’s heat, the river’s song, and the rainbow’s glow.

fiala pix.jpg
Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Andrew Fiala Special to The Bee

Religion in its best and original sense comes from the sense of wonder before the power of nature. It reminds us that we belong to the earth. We cannot live without land, water, and sun. These elements combine in the plants and animals that nurture us.

Nature is not all ease and comfort. Forest fires are rampaging in this long hot summer. Snow, rain, and cold are dangerous and difficult. But when the rains come or the sun breaks through, we give thanks.

In aboriginal Andean religion, the earth is a spiritual being called Pachamama, the earth mother. The mountains themselves are spiritual beings called Apus. These are powerful and mercurial beings. They can be dangerous or benevolent. To modern ears, this sounds far-fetched. But many cultures speak of mountains as divinities with personalities.

We still name mountains and understand their personas. In Yosemite there is Half Dome and El Capitan. Their presence is palpable. We also recognize that mountains do things. Climbers and backpackers have a saying: “Mountains make their own weather.” Temperatures change quickly. The wind comes on strong. Fire, rain, and snow are sudden in their appearance.

Modern science explains the orographic effect. Mountains interact with moving air masses. Changes in elevation cause changes in temperature that cause precipitation and swirling winds. Mountain weather is easily explained by atmospheric science.

But scientific explanation does not touch the lived sense that mountains are powerful beings. It makes sense to say that the mountains are angry or friendly. Thunder and lightning are threatening. Forest fires are malicious. Floods are cruel. Gentle blue skies and cool mountain streams are gracious and hospitable.

Much of the magic of nature is local. The sun is wrathful in the desert. It is cheerful in the cold high places. The rain is gentle in the valleys. It is vicious at 13,000 feet.

Those who live and work on the land are in touch with the personality of their local geography. Their livelihood comes from Pachamama. Their well-being depends upon the benevolence of the Apus.

There are very few farmers and shepherds left. We are no longer connected to nature.; we no longer belong to her. We do not know where our water and food come from.

The benefit of civilization is obvious. We dam the rivers and control the fires. We farm on an industrial scale. We drive and fly, instead of walking. We live in comfort and safety.

But this benefit is not without its costs. We are uprooted and dislocated. We lose track of who we are and where we belong. We no longer experience wonder or gratitude in their original organic sense.

This is not to say that we could go back to a world of Apus and the Pachamama. The world has moved on. But it is important to remember what we have left behind. We fill our lives with imitations of reality, flickering on screens. Out there in the natural world, the fires and storms still rage. And it is still possible to experience wonder, fear, and joy in the presence of the real.

Lessons about Politics from The Fall of the Inca

Is Russian interference in election the latest example of history repeating itself?

Fresno Bee, July 22, 2018

 

The story of the fall of the Incan empire is a cautionary tale, teaching that great empires can be destroyed by a small group of unscrupulous actors. It is worth considering this as we reflect upon the Russian hack of the American election of 2016.

Americans are at one another’s throats. Some have accused the president of treason. Others are in denial. With a few technological tricks, the hackers have succeeded in destabilizing our democracy.

History is full of sneak attacks, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the attack on the Inca in 1532 by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro may be the most monumental.

Pizarro had only 180 men when he arranged to meet with the Inca emperor Atahualpa in the heart of Incan territory in the town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived with a small entourage, leaving his army of 80,000 men outside the town. He expected a diplomatic exchange. Pizarro’s men were concealed in the town, waiting in ambush.

Pizarro and the Death of the Inca by Luis Montero

A Dominican priest presented the Inca with a Bible, demanding that he convert. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the ground. Pizarro’s men emerged from their hiding places. Spanish gunpowder and steel overwhelmed the Inca forces.

Pizzaro captured Atahualpa and held him for ransom. A large ransom of gold and silver was paid. But Pizarro murdered Atahualpa anyway. The empire soon fell.

I am writing this from Cuzco, Peru. This beautiful mountain town was the capital of the Incan empire. Ancient walls still exist as a forlorn testament to Incan power. The Incan empire was one of the largest in human history. It extended along the spine of South America, from Ecuador to Chile. Today only ruins remain.

From the standpoint of the Inca, the Spanish were foreign terrorists. They arrived uninvited on the shores of America. They brought new diseases. They demanded conversion to a strange religion. They stole vast quantities of gold and silver. And in the battle of Cajamarca, they violated the norms of diplomacy by ambushing and capturing the king. They even violated the ransom agreement.

Lesson to be learned

The lesson here is that devious and ruthless violence can decapitate a naïve power. The Inca seemed to be so sure of their power that they did not take the Spanish threat seriously. That is why Atahualpa walked into the ambush. Atahualpa’s demise is a warning against hubris.

The Inca failed to believe that the Spanish would have the audacity and immorality to do what they did. Nor were the Inca prepared for the new weapons and technologies that the Spanish possessed. The Spanish took advantage of Incan complacency.

History shows that all empires fall. Through the conquest of the Americas, Spain created one of the largest empires on earth. But the Spanish empire eventually fell. So too did the British Empire. And the Soviet Union. No power lasts forever, especially if it is not vigilant.

About that Russian interference

This brings us back to Russian interference in the U.S. election. The American democratic system depends upon the integrity of the electoral system. If citizens do not trust this system, it will fail.

But a small, technologically advanced group of foreign agents effectively ambushed our democracy. We are more divided than ever. And the biggest threat is that some are still in denial about the threat to our democracy.

The violence and weapons are different in the present case than in the fall of the Inca. But the common threads are the audacity of the attack, the use of new technology, and the strategy of assailing the heart of the empire. In the Inca case, you capture the king. In the current case, you undermine citizens faith in the electoral system and the integrity of our leaders.

History never repeats itself exactly. But there are lessons to be learned. The Spanish played dirty in Peru. They were sneaky and merciless. They broke their promises. And they won.

The solution is vigilance and overcoming hubris. Atahualpa should not have trusted Pizarro. If he were less assured of his power, he might have avoided the ambush. If he had avoided the trap or taken effective countermeasures, Pizarro would have failed. And in Cuzco today the walls might still support Inca temples instead of the Catholic churches built upon them.

The World is Getting Smaller

We’re growing closer. For proof, check out World Cup rosters and McDonald’s in Peru

Fresno Bee, July 12, 2018

The world is more integrated than ever. Consider how far we have come. A hundred years ago Europe was at war, colonial power still existed, racism was legal, and women were not allowed to vote.

Progress is never guaranteed. There are danger signs, as trade wars develop and old alliances are threatened. But it is difficult to imagine a return to the bad old days of colonialism, militarism, and legal discrimination.

I’m writing this from Lima, Peru, where I am participating in the biannual congress of the International Society for Universal Dialogue. This conference includes scholars from a variety of countries, who come together to talk about the prospect for developing a more just and humane world.

This organization began at the end of the Cold War to bring scholars together from East and West. It has evolved to become a global conference that includes speakers from all continents, religions, genders, and races.

The World Cup has been playing in the background as we meet. Throughout the city of Lima, football fans congregate in small cafes and bars to watch the games. Peru lost its opportunity in the qualifying rounds. But World Cup fever predominates. Sport is a unifying force.

The semifinals were an all-European affair featuring Belgium, Croatia, England, and France. Europeans invented this game. But South America teams also excel, while Asia and Africa are catching up.

The French team includes a number of players with African heritage. Our small world is mixed and integrated in ways that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. Old-school ethnic nationalism has become absurd.

Europeans and Americans still dominate the globe as a result of prior colonial power. Economic globalization often means domination by European and American corporations. Coca-Cola and Budweiser are World Cup sponsors. But so, too, are Qatar Airways and Hyundai.

This economic mixing is apparent in Peru. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

McDonald's_Surco,_Lima,_Peru
On Ethics columnist Andrew Fiala is attending a conference in Lima, Peru, where he notes an economic mixing. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

On the drive from the Lima airport, huge signs welcome Pope Francis who visited Peru in January. Francis is from Argentina, which is another sign of the times. He is the first Latin American pontiff.

When the Pope was in Peru he pointed out that there was much work to be done to build a just and humane world. There are slums in Lima and poverty in Peru. Political corruption is a problem. As is violence, racism and intolerance.

But we are making progress. And the way forward must include a continued commitment to those universal values that unite us. Science and scholarship are already global. Scholars are united around shared principles of reason and evidence.

After long decades of outright discrimination against women in the academy, women are now invited to the table. So too are scholars and scientists from the developing world. We can build upon that spirit of inclusion.

We can also build upon the values found in sport. These include ideas about fair play and sportsmanship. Athletic excellence is recognized as a value that transcends race, nationality and gender.

TRUMP NATO 11
President Donald Trump casts a shadow on a wall at a news conference following the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Trump strongly recommitted American support for the alliance on Thursday, declaring, “I believe in NATO.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times) DOUG MILLS NYT

Not everyone is happy with globalization. President Trump’s “America First” agenda points in a different direction. So too does the British “Brexit.”

But the American tariff war and the difficulty of pulling off a clean Brexit show us how integrated the world has become. It is not possible to build a wall, flood the moat, and pull up the bridges.

Our world is too interrelated to disentangle the forces of progress. The French soccer team is not going to purge itself of its African players. Women are not going to give up their place in the voting booth or in the academy. And Sushi is here to stay in Peru.

The political news is often grim. But tune in to the World Cup – or visit another country – and you’ll see a common and hopeful humanity. There are kind, generous and hard-working people everywhere. Most of us understand that the present is better than the past. We do not want to return to racism, sexism and militarism. And we understand that there is much work to be done to build a more just and equitable future.

 

Misogyny, Sexism, and Sex Abuse: Lessons from Machiavelli and Plato

From the White House to town square, men try to dominate without moral restraint

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2017

Sexual misconduct was not invented by the current generation. Before Al Franken and Matt Lauer there was Bill Cosby. In Greek myths the gods often raped young women. Plato wrote a book about the ethics of sex and love, called “The Symposium.”

Men have always desired the godlike power to take what they want with impunity. Male dominance ignores moral restraint. It wants power, pleasure and glory.

One spokesman of misogyny is Machiavelli. In an infamously sexist passage in “The Prince,” Machiavelli says that fortune is a woman. If you want to win fortune, you need to beat and abuse her, like you would batter a woman you want to control. Machiavelli teaches that glory comes to those who are audacious and violent.

The Machiavellian man brags about his prowess. He even boasts about what he has not done, manipulating truth in order to manufacture status. The Machiavellian also manipulates people. He grabs and gropes, swaggers and swears. When accused of misdeeds, he lies and dissembles.

We see numerous examples across the country of men getting caught with their pants down. Some have apologized. Others have resigned or been fired. But the hard-boiled Machiavellians continue to deny and denounce.

The most egregious examples come from the Oval Office. Recall Bill Clinton’s famous false denial, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Other men would have withdrawn in shame. But not Clinton, who shrugged off impeachment.

WE SEE NUMEROUS EXAMPLES ACROSS THE COUNTRY OF
MEN GETTING CAUGHT WITH THEIR PANTS DOWN.

Our current Machiavellian-in-chief bragged on tape about grabbing women’s crotches. President Trump has recently suggested that the voice on the tape was not really him, despite the protestations of his accomplice, Billy Bush.

For a Machiavellian, there is no fact that can’t be massaged to serve his purposes. The Machiavellian never flinches. He trades punch for punch. He mocks and belittles his enemies. He traffics in false and inflammatory material. He accuses others of stupidity, fakery and immorality. If he apologizes, his words are insincere. When he makes promises, he offers flattery without substance.

Unfortunately, the Machiavellian strategy pays off. It often works to be a jerk. It often seems that the more shameless one’s deceits, the more glory one attains.

Perhaps the tide is turning on this. But progress will be slow. This problem has been with us for thousands of years.

Plato understood that sex and politics were often at odds with morality. Good men are often destroyed by evil liars. And shameless gropers often keep what they grab.

The Platonic man does not fit well in the world of male dominance. He is reflective and retiring, modest and private. He does not boast. He is not willing to sacrifice his integrity to achieve victory. He is conscious of his own failures. His primary concerns are truth, justice and virtue.

LET’S TEACH OUR SONS TO BE
BETTER MEN THAN THE MACHIAVELLIANS CURRENTLY ON DISPLAY.

The Platonic man sees no value in taking what is not freely given. He values honesty, friendship and love. He won’t pander. He won’t lie or spread false rumors. He thinks that glory without goodness is not worth the price.

The Platonic man does not view sex and power as ends in themselves to be obtained by any means necessary. Indeed, Plato suggested that lust for sex and power often lead us astray. He taught that sex without restraint is rapacious and that power without justice is tyranny.

The Platonic ideal is constantly at war with the Machiavellian urge. Education and constant effort are needed to develop men of character, who are caring, truthful, just and wise. Young men must be taught to keep their pants zipped.

While we might forgive the immature mischief of an adolescent, we cannot ignore the immoral machinations of mature men. The worst aspect of the Machiavellian man is that he makes groping and glory-seeking a way of life. He models depravity and makes it appear to be good. The tragic fact of political life is that so many Machiavellians have so much power.

The solution is moral education and the empowerment of women. Listen to women’s complaints. And condemn male dominance and misogyny. The point is easy to make today as the rogue’s gallery of gropers continues to grow. Let’s teach our sons to be better men than the Machiavellians currently on display.

http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article188839694.html

War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”

DISAGREEMENT IS AS DEEP AS CHRISTMAS ITSELF.

Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.

WE SHOULD VIEW OUR PRESENT DISAGREEMENTS
AS A SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF OUR SECULAR SYSTEM.

There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

Tax Cuts and The Class Divide

Is our economy naughty or nice when workers face hard toil and wealthy ease into riches?

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2017

The class divide in our country becomes apparent this time of year. The affluent celebrate with a binge of buying. The working class is busy stocking shelves, running cash registers and waiting tables, thankful for the overtime. The homeless suffer on the margins, begging for handouts on the side of the road.

These disparities are worth considering as the country considers tax reform. The details are yet to be determined. But most agree that tax reform will make rich people richer.

Ironically, not all rich people think that this is a good idea. A group of 400 wealthy people – including Steven Rockefeller and George Soros – recently signed an open letter to Congress arguing against tax cuts for the wealthy

This letter singles out efforts to eliminate or reduce the estate tax as an example of unneeded reform. The estate tax helps to redistribute private wealth, taking it from wealthy families and using it for public projects. The estate tax is only an issue for the richest Americans. According to the Washington Post only about 5,000 families are affected by the estate tax.

The working class does not possess enough wealth for it to pay this tax. The median net worth of American families is about $80,000. The estate tax only affects couples with more than $11 million in assets.

Those disparate numbers indicate the inequalities that exist in our economy. One recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies claims that the three richest Americans own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population. And the combined wealth of the top 400 people on the Forbes list of richest people is more than the bottom 64 percent combined.

The Christmas season seems an especially bad time to consider exacerbating wealth disparities. Scrooge and Grinch remind us of the dangers of greed and the need for charity. The Christian gospels teach that we have a special obligation to care for the poor, to give to those who beg, and to avoid the worship of wealth.

Of course, the critique of wealth is counter-cultural. We live in a casino culture. We all seem to hope that somehow we will strike it rich. We don’t view wealth as a sin. Instead we hope it will trickle down. And we are not worried about fitting the camel of wealth through the eye of the moral needle.

One significant social problem is that wealth disparities tend to become magnified. Unbridled capitalism tends to concentrate wealth. Those with the most money earn the most money.

And much of what the wealthy earn requires little actual work. The capitalist puts his money to work for him. A fortunate few inherit their wealth and live off the fruits of their parent’s labor. The rest of us work and save. Many are one paycheck or one medical emergency away from homelessness.

This reward structure seems upside down. We might think that those who work the hardest should earn the most. We might also suppose that those who do the most essential or dangerous work should be paid the most.

From this point of view, there is something shameful about living off an inherited estate. From this perspective, farmworkers, teachers and police should earn generous rewards. But the reality is that the working class struggles to make a living, while the fortunate few enjoy financial security.

Shoppers crowd into JCPenney on Thanksgiving afternoon in the quest for Black Friday deals. The holiday shopping season brings forth the income disparities that exist in America, says Bee ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. He notes that the working class need special deals to afford higher-end goods; the rich can buy whenever they choose. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

The holiday shopping frenzy reminds us how divided our economy is. The wealthy don’t fight the crowds for a Black Friday deal. They buy what they want when they want it. It is the members of the working class who need a bargain. Teachers and farmworkers elbow each other aside to get a door-buster deal, while the wealthy roll their eyes.

None of this really makes any sense. In a humane world, the homeless would be housed. In a moral economy, hard-working people wouldn’t need to work overtime to afford Christmas gifts and rich people wouldn’t simply live off inherited wealth.

The dream of a fair and decent world may seem too much to hope for. But this is, after all, a season of hope. It is also a great time to ask whether our economy is naughty or nice.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article186350658.html

Gratitude and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving opens our hearts and minds to others – which is badly needed today

Fresno Bee, November 17, 2017

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed that a Thursday in November should be set aside for giving thanks. Washington’s proclamation echoed the deistic religion of his day. He acknowledged the “providence of Almighty God.” And he gave thanks to the “great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Washington said we should be thankful for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” He also gave thanks for good government that protects religion, while promoting science and “useful knowledge.”

There are some puzzles here. Science and religion often seem to be at odds these days. But Washington’s generation thought that science helped to glorify God and improve religion. Indeed, a sense of the complexity of the universe can stimulate humility, wonder and gratitude.

Washington thanks God’s providence for the blessings of liberty. But surely Washington himself had some hand in protecting religious liberty. Are liberty, science, and prosperity gifts of God, or are they the result of human effort and ingenuity?

Some may want to avoid this kind of inquiry at the Thanksgiving table. But these sort of question helps us understand who to thank and what to thank them for.

It is easy to recite a formulaic prayer or repeat a ritual of thanksgiving. It is harder – and more rewarding – to think when giving thanks. Genuine gratitude requires understanding. Thankfulness is linked to thoughtfulness. And indeed, thinking can lead to thanking.

When we count our blessings, we become reflective. That is why it is useful to list the things you are grateful for, why you appreciate these gifts, and who you thank for them. Gratitude puts us in a contemplative mood. It opens the mind as well as the heart.

Thoughtful thankfulness is sorely needed these days. We are easily distracted and quickly outraged. Many prefer anger over empathy. Resentment often overshadows affirmation. Greed makes us unappreciative. And gluttony leaves us hungry and ungrateful.

The solution is thankful thinking. We often fail to notice that good things are simple, plentiful, and easily obtained. Gratitude reminds us to savor the goods of life. It also reminds that there are others nearby whose cups are empty.

Thanksgiving thus teaches profound ethical lessons. Giving thanks opens us toward the other. It acknowledges our vulnerability and dependency.

To give thanks is to admit that good things come from outside the self and are not in our control. To give thanks is to admit that you are not alone in the world or self-sufficient. Others have helped you along the way. Once you acknowledge your own dependency, you discover compassion for vulnerable others who need your help.

These ethical lessons do not depend upon any specific religious belief. Our Thanksgiving holiday has obvious religious roots. Before George Washington, the Puritans offered Christian prayers of thanksgiving. But thanksgiving and compassion are much older than that.

Ancient cultures celebrated harvest festivals this time of year. Our Thanksgiving iconography reflects this in the cornucopia. The ancient “horn of plenty” was a Greek and Roman fertility symbol and a sign of good fortune.

It seems natural for human beings to count their blessings and give thanks this time of year. As winter sets in and the harvest is completed, it is natural to acknowledge that health and prosperity are fragile gifts. And this leads us to have compassion for those who are less fortunate.

Some thank God. Others toast friends and family. Some thank their ancestors. Others simply thank the earth.

However thanks is given, there is a psychological benefit to counting your blessings. Gratitude helps overcome resentment. It reduces anger and anxiety. Thankfulness helps us become humble, hopeful and happy.

Gratitude is also socially useful. It feels good to be thanked. And it feels good to thank others. Gratitude celebrates common values. Expressions of thanks help build and reinforce relationships.

Gratitude also breaks down egoistic pride. Open-hearted kindness develops when we acknowledge the fragility of our own good fortune. Our well-being depends upon others. The farmers grow the food we eat. A vast social network gets that food to table. The feast is more delicious when eaten with good company. And the world is better when prosperity is shared.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article185130393.html

Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Bad news bumming you out?
Turn off the TV, go out and make some good news

Fresno Bee, November 10 2017

Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.

Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.

An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.

One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.

There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.

BE NOT AFRAID OF LIFE. BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS WORTH LIVING,
AND YOUR BELIEF WILL HELP CREATE THE FACT.
Willam James

This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.

Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”

This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.

Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.

Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.

Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE IS TO LIVE IT, TO TASTE EXPERIENCE TO THE UTMOST, TO REACH OUT EAGERLY AND WITHOUT FEAR FOR NEW AND RICHER EXPERIENCE. YOU CAN DO THAT ONLY IF YOU HAVE CURIOSITY, AND AN UNQUENCHABLE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.

Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.

Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.

A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.

Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article183938506.html

Sexism and Making Love

Real men love women as human beings, not as objects to grope or grab

Fresno Bee, November 3, 2017

Every day there is a new allegation about the lewd behavior of lascivious men. The sorry state of male sexuality is shameful. Real men do not force themselves on women.

These sexual predators give masculinity a bad name. Men need to stand up and repudiate the behavior of these creeps. It is embarrassing and pathetic to imagine grown men running around with their pants down and their tongues hanging out.

Adult men control their sexuality and channel it in morally appropriate ways. We do not behave like naughty children. We keep our hands to ourselves.

In our sexist culture, we need to further empower women. But it is men who need to stop being selfish pigs. We need to teach our sons and brothers to treat women better. We need to celebrate the joy of genuine lovemaking. And we need to understand why predatory sexuality is shameful and subhuman.

REAL MEN DO NOT FORCE THEMSELVES ON WOMEN

Real men love women as persons—not only our sexual partners but also our mothers, sisters and daughters. We value their happiness. We do not view them as pieces of meat to be conquered and consumed, grabbed and groped.

Some might prefer to avoid discussing this. Some adults even want to avoid teaching children the basics of reproductive health. But misogyny is connected to our avoidance of frank discussions of healthy human sexuality. Sexual ethics – and ethics in general – requires honesty and transparency.

The first rule of good sex is that consent is required. We each have a basic right to our own bodily integrity. “No means no” is an obvious rule. And it is “yes” that ought to stimulate desire. A shared “yes” is the ultimate turn-on. Good sex aims at mutual desire and satisfaction.

But our sexist culture warps this. Porn teach men to view women’s bodies as mere objects of male gratification. Masturbation requires no one other than you to consent. But real sex requires consent. And that requires communication and care.

SEXUAL PREDATORS FAIL TO COMPREHEND THE MORAL REALITY OF THE HUMAN PERSONS THEY ABUSE.

A further problem is that sexual predators appear to experience “no” as a turn-on. Instead of a shared experience of mutual pleasure and vulnerability, predatory sexuality treats the other person’s body as a mere tool to be used and discarded.

Sexual predators fail to comprehend the moral reality of the human persons they abuse. This reflects a serious character flaw. It is reasonable to suspect that grabbers and gropers will be rude and obnoxious in other relationships as well.

Sexual predation is as much about power as it is about sex. The predator enjoys manipulating the weak and vulnerable. But this is subhuman. The alpha dog humps the other dogs into submission as a display of power. This has nothing to do with making love or with genuinely human relations.

All animals copulate. But only human beings make love. Human beings are more than our bodies and our reproductive organs. Making love is a spiritual act. It is about shared enjoyment and reciprocal desire. Like conversation and dance, lovemaking is a give and take that enlightens, surprises and inspires. It is much more than bodies rubbing against each other. It is also a mingling of souls.

Sexual relations are – or ought to be – fully human relations. Good human relationships are respectful, kind, generous, honest and loving. They involve reciprocity and trust. This should be true in sex and in the rest of human affairs.

TO LEARN TO MAKE LOVE IS TO LEARN TO BE A BETTER PERSON.

The sexual predator fails to understand this. He takes what is not freely given. He dominates instead of communicating. And he violates trust instead of cultivating it.

Bad sex is one-sided. It is needy, selfish and narcissistic. It approaches sex as something to be done to a body and not as something to be shared with a person. But sex without reciprocity is merely masturbation, a lonely act devoid of human connection.

To learn to make love is to learn to be a better person. Lovemaking teaches us about intimacy, tenderness and care. Those lessons serve us through the whole of life.

The grabby goats of American culture have failed to learn these lessons. They are an embarrassment to masculinity. Real men do not abuse women. We love them. And we understand that making love is a spiritual practice that is degraded by shameless predatory behavior.

When is enough enough?

Drawing a line in the sand isn’t as easy as it sounds

Fresno Bee, October 27, 2017

When do you throw down the gauntlet or throw in the towel? Sen. Jeff Flake did both things at once this week. He announced his retirement from the Senate and declared that his conscience impelled him to speak out against the “spell” of Trumpism.

The Arizona Republican explained, “Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

Trumpers will scoff at this. And Democrats will howl that this is too little, too late. But we can all relate to Flake’s moment of truth.

Flake said there comes a time when you simply must say “enough!” He warned, “silence can equal complicity.” Martin Luther suggested something similar at the start of the Protestant Reformation, as I discussed in this column last week. Martin Luther King Jr. also criticized complicity and complacency. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King condemned the “appalling silence” of so-called “good people.”

Of course there are risks to breaking silence. Lives will be disrupted. Relationships can be lost. And there is always room for doubt.

But justice requires action. A legal maxim holds that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Grave injustices must be denounced as soon as possible. Unless bystanders speak up, there will be more victims. And unless courageous souls blow the whistle, there will only be a shameful and appalling silence.

It is inspiring to see someone transcend the constraints of business-as-usual and declare themselves a free person. Most people have contemplated singing along with that old country song, “Take this job and shove it.” We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power. We dream of throwing caution to the wind and saying what we actually believe.

But most of the time, we stick to well-worn ruts, afraid to upset the apple cart. We do a bit of math, adding up mortgage payments and retirement savings. Our confidence wanes. Then we sit down and shut up.

It is not that we lack courage, we tell ourselves. It is that we understand that freedom isn’t free. It is actually more expensive than we can afford. Freedom creates risk and uncertainty. It is usually more prudent to stick it out and soldier on. We take what the boss doles out because, well, that’s what it means to work for a living.

So we rationalize our conformism. Those who speak up get punished. And at any rate, we tell ourselves, quitting, protesting or going on strike usually changes nothing. When people resign in a huff, their places are easily filled by sycophants and suck-ups eager to compromise their principles. When people go out on strike, the scabs are waiting in the wings.

MOST OF US WILL NEVER FACE THE MOMENTOUS CHOICES OF SOMEONE LIKE SENATOR FLAKE. BUT EVERY NOW AND THEN WE CONFRONT A MOMENT OF TRUTH. YOU CAN DUCK AND KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN. OR YOU CAN DRAW A LINE IN THE SAND, BLOW THE WHISTLE, AND TELL THE BOSS TO SHOVE IT. THE CHOICE IS YOURS.

And yet, it is bracing to witness someone like Flake declare himself to be a free man. He said he is done with political calculation and that he will only be guided “by the dictates of conscience.” This implies that others are less courageous.

But conscientious refusal is not easy. The powers-that-be will threaten and manipulate. Retaliation happens. Whistleblowers often end up miserable. We must weigh costs and benefits.

But we should ask whether we can live with ourselves in the long run. Will our children be proud of who we are and what we stood for?

The existentialist philosophers said we are condemned to be free. To be human is to be forced to choose your existence. To be free is to be confronted with the anxiety of choice. With each anguished decision, you pick a destiny and choose your fate.

Our choices are declarations of identity and affirmations of value. Senator Flake explained this, giving us a lesson in moral psychology this week. He said, “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves.”

He is right. Our choices declare who we are. What are you willing to risk? And what are you willing to stand for?

Most of us will never face the momentous choices of someone like Senator Flake. But every now and then we confront a moment of truth. You can duck and keep your head down. Or you can draw a line in the sand, blow the whistle, and tell the boss to shove it. The choice is yours.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article181115001.html