Post 13: John Gardner on a Meaningful Life

On January 5, 2015, David Brooks shared in The New York Times some negative observations on the way the term “meaningfulness” had become overused in contemporary society. Before doing so, however, he quoted John W. Gardner’s ideas on a meaningful life that represented the proper and even spiritual use of the term.

For readers who may not recall who John Gardener was, he was as portrayed in his New York Times obituary as “the personification of political reform and volunteerism in domestic society.” He served as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, the only Republican in his cabinet; and he launched the Medicare program after it was approved by Congress. He was named to panels and commissions by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Common Cause, which remains a political presence working in behalf of good government today.

Here is Brooks’ take on Gardner’s notion of a meaningful life.

Not long ago, a friend sent me a speech that the great civic leader John Gardner gave to the Stanford Alumni Association 61 years after he graduated from that college. The speech is chock-full of practical wisdom. I especially liked this passage:

“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character.

“You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.”

Gardner goes on in this wise way. And then, at the end, he goes into a peroration about leading a meaningful life. “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. … You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

Gardner puts “meaning” at the apogee of human existence. His speech reminded me how often we’ve heard that word over the past decades. As my Times colleague April Lawson puts it, “meaning” has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. It is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need. …

The first thing we mean is that life should be about more than material success. The person leading a meaningful life has found some way of serving others that leads to a feeling of significance.

Second, a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.

In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self.

Post 12: Is happiness possible without virtue? Aristotle says no.

Does Aristotle have anything to teach us today? Edith Hall and John Kaag say yes. Hall is a professor of classics at King’s College London. She is the author of the recently published Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, a Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute, and author of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are. (This echoes my desire to become what I might have been!) His review underscores the relevance of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics to today’s world. He reviewed the book in The New York Times Sunday Edition on January 27 of this year.

I was assigned Aristotle’s lengthy and somewhat turgid treatise on ethics while a student of the Great Book’s Program at Notre Dame and admit that I might have skimmed a bit, especially if it was a football weekend! Hall and Kaag provide a welcome summary and review of the value of “Aristotle’s Way.”

From the review:

Hall’s new book clears a rare middle way for her reader to pursue happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, usually translated as well-being or prosperity. This prosperity has nothing to do with the modern obsession with material success but rather “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” It sounds platitudinous enough, but it isn’t, thanks to Hall’s tight yet modest prose. “Aristotle’s Way” carefully charts the arc of a virtuous life that springs from youthful talent, grows by way of responsible decisions and self-reflection, finds expression in mature relationships, and comes to rest in joyful retirement and a quietly reverent death. Easier said than done, but Aristotle, Hall explains, is there to help.

Hall … is not the first contemporary theorist to claim that philosophy — particularly ancient Greek philosophy — can change, and even save, a life. Twenty-five years ago the French classicist Pierre Hadot argued that the Greeks never intended the love of wisdom to end up as the most arcane of intellectual disciplines. Instead, according to Hadot, “philosophy appears as a remedy for human worries, anguish and misery.” 

But Hall’s treatment of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” reveals that true virtue, the inner core of human happiness, is a matter of living in accord with “the ancient Greek proverb inscribed on the Delphic Temple, ‘nothing in excess.’” According to Aristotle, the first Western theorist to develop a moral system tethered to this principle, “character traits and emotions are almost all acceptable — indeed necessary to a healthy psyche — provided that they are present in the right amounts. He calls the right amount the ‘middle’ or ‘mean’ amount, the meson.” 

I finished Hall’s book largely convinced but equally worried: Was this the sort of message that could reach the readership that needed it most? Could a virtuous happiness trump greed and cynicism? Maybe. Aristotle was the first to observe that philosophy, and particularly ethics, has a deep public relations problem. Those most in need of ethical training are probably the least likely to spend $27 on a moral guidebook. There is, however, hope. “Aristotle’s Way” is blazed by a counterfactual that Hall and Aristotle routinely employ: Is a life of vice a truly happy one? The answer is firm yet compassionate: “No.” As Hall explains, Aristotle, who lived “at close quarters with the tyrannical Macedonian royal family, the ruthless Phillip II and his scheming wives, concubines and lieutenants, all jockeying for position at court, seems to have meticulously observed the misery of immoral people. … These miserable reprobates, who can’t stand to be alone with themselves, can’t fully experience their own joys and sorrows, as there is a civil war in their souls.” Perhaps this is precisely the moment to consider the impossibility of happiness without virtue.

In case anyone is asking, Nicomachus is Aristotle’s son.

Post 11: Arthur Brooks on the Culture of Contempt

Here is the wonderful statement I promised you by Arthur Brooks, a selection from his recently-published book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save the Country from the Culture of Contempt. It speaks for itself but echoes something that I read from the book of Proverbs recently, which says “A gentle answer quiets anger, but a harsh one stirs it up” (Proverbs 15:1).

This excerpt appeared in the Sunday New York Times on March 3, 2019.

…Political differences are ripping our country apart, swamping my big, fancy policy ideas. Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

A 2014 article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “motive attribution asymmetry” — the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate — suggests an answer. The researchers found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred — and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

People often say that our problem in America today is incivility or intolerance. This is incorrect. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

The sources of motive attribution asymmetry are easy to identify: divisive politicians, screaming heads on television, hateful columnists, angry campus activists and seemingly everything on the contempt machines of social media. This “outrage industrial complex” works by catering to just one ideological side, creating a species of addiction by feeding our desire to believe that we are completely right and that the other side is made up of knaves and fools. It strokes our own biases while affirming our worst assumptions about those who disagree with us.

…What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers — the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. Unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, you are being used.

Next, each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible — no one has ever been hated into agreement, after all — so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.

Finally, we should see the contempt around us as what it truly is: an opportunity, not a threat. If you are on social media, on a college campus or in any place other than a cave by yourself, you will be treated with contempt very soon. This is a chance to change at least one heart — yours. Respond with warm heartedness and good humor. You are guaranteed to be happier. If that also affects the contemptuous person (or bystanders), it will be to the good.

It is easy to feel helpless in the current political environment, but I believe that is unwarranted. While we might not like the current weather, together we can change the climate to reward leaders — and be the leaders — who uplift and unite, not denigrate and divide. Watch: The weather will start to improve, and that will make America greater. I am dedicating the rest of my professional life to this task.

Post 10: Work as the Epicenter of a Good Life

Allow me to introduce my readers to one of my intellectual heroes – Arthur C. Brooks. Brooks is currently the President of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. This summer he will join the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as a faculty member, a career journey that gives you an idea of just how balanced his views are. While Brooks has published 11 books, two of which have appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers list, he did not start his career as an author or public policy analyst. The first dozen years of his adult career were spent as a musician, including as associate principal French hornist for the City Orchestra of Barcelona!

From time to time, Brooks publishes op-ed pieces in The New York Times. I rush to read them and place some of the more thoughtful passages in my journal. Next week I will quote from his most recent book, one that many of you may have seen him promoting on the networks recently. It is about the present state of political dialogue in our country, but it doesn’t violate my rule against blogging about politics. How could any book entitled Love Your Enemies do that?

As we approach May 1, the day the majority of countries in the world honor workers, and as my Church celebrates the feast of St. Joseph the worker, I want to share a quote from an opinion piece Brooks wrote in the Times on June 14, 2014 on the value of work (with apologies to my retired friends!).

From The New York Times Online Edition, June 13, 2014:

RECENTLY, my 14-year-old son, Carlos, accompanied me on a trip to give a speech alongside a group of politicians. In the large holding room backstage, the speakers milled about, making small talk before our speeches. Working as my assistant, Carlos handed me a bottle of root beer, which, unbeknown to me, he had been shaking. (Behold the mysteries of the 14-year-old mind.) Upon opening it, I sprayed a copious amount onto a distinguished member of Congress.

Notwithstanding this embarrassing moment, Carlos is ordinarily a great wingman. And traveling together gives me the opportunity to do one of my most important jobs: demonstrating to my children that work is the epicenter of a good life.

All the wisdom of the sages reinforces this truth. As the Buddha lay dying after a 45-year career seeking and teaching the way to true consciousness, it is believed that his last words were “appamadena sampadetha,” which means “Strive diligently,” or, “Work consciously.” Our labor should be an agreeable path to spiritual enlightenment.

The data confirm that hard work is correlated with well-being. The University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics polls thousands of American families, and its 2009 results show that people who feel good about themselves work more than those who don’t. It asks how often the respondents felt so sad that nothing could cheer them up. My analysis of the study showed that people who felt that way “none of the time” worked 10 percent more hours per week than those who felt that way “most of the time.” …. This doesn’t prove that extra work hours chase away sadness, but it weakens any argument that the cure for the blues is a French workweek.

So vocation is crucial to leading a satisfying life. Who teaches this truth to children? Many traditions emphasize the role of fathers. Jesus defended himself to the Pharisees for working on the Sabbath by saying, “my Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” And the Talmud instructs us, “For a man not to teach his son a trade or profession is equivalent to teaching him to steal.” ….

Some will always … [argue] that Americans are foolish for forgoing such Continental luxuries as mandatory vacations and the “perfect cup of coffee” and working harder instead. I’ve heard it a thousand times from my Spanish in-laws: We live to work, while they work to live. Woe unto us, American workaholic rubes!

But leisure and chronic idleness are very different phenomena. Spain’s roughly 25 percent unemployment rate (for both women and men) doesn’t sound much like “living” to me. Its 54 percent unemployment rate for young adults doesn’t sound that great to Carlos, either.

Perhaps Dr. Brooks is explaining why it is such a joy for me to come to work every morning at Benchmarks.

Post 9: Speech Acts Can Bring Hope and Meaning

With the celebration of Passover and the solemn feast of Easter this week, I looked in my journal for something that would offer us hope and meaning.  I found it in the writings of Sister Chris Koellhoffer, an Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sister. It was in an article that appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Journey, an IHM publication.

I was taught by the IHM sisters from Kindergarten through 8th grade. Their “Mother House” is located in my home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania where this congregation of 320 sisters operates Marywood University and reaches out to the rest of the country and the world through a variety of educational programs and other good works.

Sister Koellhoffer is a poet, spiritual writer, counselor, educator, and TV producer who operates a “mobile spiritual ministry.” She blogs at “Mining the Now.”  She offers us a reflection on how words or speech acts can lead to action and to change.

What is the power of a single word? Can it truly make a difference? Can it summon, heal, invite, affirm, change, forgive, bless? Can it ultimately propel us into action?

In The Art of Powerful Questions, the authors relate a time when the director of Hewlett-Packard Labs wondered what was underneath the description of his department as “the best industrial research laboratory in the world.” The director charged a key staff member with coordinating the effort to explore that designation. The core question was shared with all HP Lab employees around the world, with global networks considering, “What does it mean to be the best industrial research lab in the world?”

One day an HP Lab engineer, who had been reflecting on the designation, “That question is okay, but what would really energize me and get me up in the morning would be asking, ‘What does it mean to be the best industrial research lab for the world?’”

Changing that single preposition, from in the world to for the world, is an example of what Mark Strobel names a “speech act”. In Loose-Leaf Lectionary, he writes about the type of words which philosophers call “speech acts”, noting that a speech act is a single word or phrase that carries the power to effect change in the existing state of affairs. A speech act happens in a circumstance where someone says something and the mere fact of saying it actually makes things happen.

What is the word that propels huge waves of migration, leading people to overcrowd flimsy, inflatable boats and set out on an unforgiving sea? What inspires the bold heart that causes desperate refugees to walk hundreds of miles on bloody and blistered feet, carrying infants and children and leaving behind all that is familiar? What is the word that impels people to risk everything and radically alter the course of their lives? Go? Flee? Safety? Freedom? Hope?

What of the visionaries and artists who see beyond us and whose speech act sets in motion the possibility of an alternate way, one that shatters or stretches our worldview? What brand of courage impels them to utter the initial word that catalyzes a vision? Galileo insisting Earth is not the center of the universe; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin naming the sacredness of matter infused with the Divine presence; Henri Matisse describing the bold heart of the artist in claiming, “Creativity takes courage”; Dante Alighieri summarizing art’s inherent power to change worldviews when he insisted, “Beauty awakens the soul to act.”

In acknowledging the often hidden but intrepid spirit that releases a speech act on the world, the writer Anna Quindlen observes, “Acts of bravery don’t always take place on battle fields. They can take place in your heart, when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and yes, your soul by listening to its clean, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.”



Post 7: A few laughs with a Pope, a player, and a putter…

Let’s have a few laughs. First, however, I must share with my readers that all the stories below come from obituaries in The New York Times. I am an avid reader of obituaries (much more on this later) not due to some Irish moroseness (Bostonians refer to the obituary section of the paper as the Irish sports pages!) but because of an interest in people’s lives, including sometimes the humor that can be found there; and I have a great appreciation for those who write good ones. Here are three examples:

The Pope: from an obituary of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete by Paul Vitello, The New York Times, November 4, 2014.

Monsignor Albacete (pronounced ahl-bah-SET-ay) occupied many positions in the church, both official and unofficial. He was a theology professor, a college president and an adviser to bishops and cardinals. He was a confidant of two popes, an emissary to American literary circles and a frequent guest on the Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose public television programs, where he offered a Catholic insider’s perspective on events like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the church sexual abuse scandals. …

In his funeral homily at St. Mary’s Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Monsignor Albacete had often celebrated Mass, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and a longtime friend, told a story about Monsignor Albacete and his friendship with the future John Paul II. A prolific letter-writer, Archbishop Wojiyla followed up their initial encounter in Washington with letters describing and recommending books he was reading. The young priest was not much of a correspondent, though, and greeted the letters with an “oh boy, this guy again” shrug.

Returning to Washington in 1979 as pope, Cardinal O’Malley said, John Paul II greeted Father Albacete in a receiving line, fixing him with a look roughly equivalent to a grab of the lapels and saying, “Lorenzo, maybe now you will answer my letters?”

The Player: facts from an obituary of Ralph Kiner by Bruce Weber in The New York Times, February 6, 2014, and a quote from a Times Appraisal by Richard Sandomir on the same day.

Ralph Kiner was one of the greatest sluggers in the history of major league baseball. He is perhaps equally famous as the beloved broadcaster of New York Mets baseball games for some 50 years. Kiner was known for his malapropisms, one of the more famous being “if Casey Stengel were alive today, he would be rolling in his grave!” Once when told to announce that American Cyanamid was sponsoring a given moment in a ball game, he credited “American Cyanide” instead!

In his Appraisal, Sandomir related this story from Tim McCarver, who was Kiner’s TV partner for many years.

He (McCarver) and Kiner were calling a Mets game in Philadelphia. Walking through the press box were Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, Christopher Guest.

“They’re huge Phillies fans, and they came in and were introduced to us,” McCarver said. “But Ralph wants a moment with her because he had once dated her mother, Janet Leigh. So he sheepishly approaches her and says, ‘Jamie Lee, my name’s Ralph Kiner, and you were just introduced to us and I wanted to tell you that I used to date your mother.’ And she throws her arms around his neck and says, ‘Daddy!’ 

The Putter: from an obituary of sportswriter Dan Jenkins in The New York Times, March 9, 2019 by Bruce Weber.

Dan Jenkins died at the age of 91 just a few weeks ago. He was the author of the sports novel Semi Tough that was made into a movie of the same name. Weber credited Jenkins with “enlivening the pages of Sports Illustrated with a Southern wiseacre erudition and an earthy sense of humor.” Weber offered a wonderful example of that below, quoting an article that Jenkins wrote early in his career that earned him a full-time job at Sports Illustrated.

The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting the way an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow…. He knows he has used straight shafts, curved shafts, shiny shafts, dull shafts, glass shafts, oak shafts and Great Uncle Clyde’s World War I saber, which he found in the attic. Attached to these shafts have been putter heads made of large lumps of lead (‘weight makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) and slivers of aluminum (‘lightness makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) as well as every other substance harder than a marshmallow. He knows he has tried 41 different stances, inspired by everyone from the club pro to Fred Astaire in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ and as many different strokes. Still, he knows he is helplessly trapped. He can’t putt, and he never will, and the only thing left for him to do is bury his head in the dirt and live the rest of his life like a radish.

Post 6: The NCR and the best part of your life

When I started this blog, I informed my readers that it would not be about politics and that now and then they would read something religious, given my formation in Catholic schools and at Notre Dame. However, just as there will be no political opinions expressed, neither will there be any attempt to proselytize.

Since both last and this week’s posts quote writings from the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), I thought I should provide a little background about a publication that has played such an important role in my adult spiritual life.

NCR was launched in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. I remember my excitement upon reading early issues, and I have subscribed ever since. Independent and progressive, NCR is a well-deserved thorn in the side of the institutional church. It was one of the first publications (of any kind) to cover the pedophilia crisis. It published the secret report of the Papal Birth Control Commission which was at odds with the Church’s final ruling on the subject. Based in Kansas City, the bishop of Kansas City once called for it to remove the word “Catholic” from its masthead. NCR refused and continues to cover issues related to women, race, poverty, peace, and sexuality in an objective, journalistic way “in the service of the Church.”

I should probably be considered a rather non-conforming reader of NCR. I don’t always agree with columns of my good friend Colman McCarthy. I have limited tolerance for most forms of “liberation theology,” and I caste a skeptical eye toward “feminist theology.” What I treasure most in the writings that appear in the NCR are the reviews of books and movies and the articles that deal with the spiritual life, especially the columns it prints in its Soul Seeing section.

One other benefit of NCR is that it exposes us to thoughtful writings of good people who labor in schools and parishes throughout the country. Today’s excerpt is a contribution by Peg Ekerdt. Ms. Ekerdt has served as a pastoral associate in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. After 30 years of active ministry, she is “exploring what it means to be rather than to do.” She does all of us who still go to church a great service – she prepares homilies for priests to use when they are too busy to prepare them themselves! She writes that just about anytime can be considered the best part of your life.

From National Catholic Reporter, November 22-December 5, 2013

Some time ago I heard a trio of women who call themselves Red Molly sing a song written by Susan Werner. This is the first verse of the song “May I Suggest”:

May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life
May I suggest
This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright
Just turn your head
And you’ll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life.

The first verse catches the theme that unfolds throughout. It is a message of mindfulness and of gratitude. No matter what is happening in our lives, this is the best part of life.

I have used this song on retreat with our eighth-grade students. I have seen it sung as a couple promised their lives to one another. And I have read an online tribute in which a woman wrote that she first heard the song as her husband was losing his battle with cancer: “It didn’t seem possible that it could be the best part of my life. But I was lucky to have had him in my life and luckier still to have been there for and with him until the end. Every day can be the best part of your life. If you look for it.”

Be vigilant, the Advent Scriptures tell us. Prepare the way of the Lord. Conduct yourselves in ways pleasing to God. Share what you have. And live in the midst of busyness, and whatever else, as if this is the best part of your life.